A New Life in Seattle

A New Life in Seattle
August, 2018

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Alcatraz Correction: The First Person-Plus

Have you written an I or a S/He book?  And which do you prefer to read?

Some time ago, Gore Vidal predicted that more and more novels would be written in the first person.  Why?  Because writers, mistakenly, believe that this p.o.v. is easier to write--requiring less description and talent for prose.  And because, as readers, we enjoy the warm, instant connection.  Now, Vidal was a bit of a Sly Boots, for some of his own best work was told in the first person, providing him the benefits he'd had such fun condemning.  And, despite his pedophila, Lolita's Humbert Humbert wins us over while turning our stomachs because of his witty and engaging tone.

But the first person p.o.v. isn't nearly as easy to write as a gifted writer may make it appear.  Because we're spared--or should be spared--many pages of purple prose settings (When you keep a diary or a log, do you wax over-poetic about the great McCotter trees, grown from seed imported from Southern Caledonia in 1668 by Esmerelda Squanchez?), we need swift suggestions of setting...and superbly tended interior landscaping.  Above all, we need both a writer and a hero with an interesting mind.  This can't be faked.  Take enough time to compare as little as five pages by a couch-bound geek from Podunk with those by a well-traveled, adventuresome soul wielding a pen that was warmed up in hell.  And in that light you'll feel the difference in your blood and bones.  First person genre masters:  John D. Macdonald, Raymond Chandler, James Lee Burke, Robert B Parker, Brad Strickland/Ken McKea...

Some favor the third person limited, with alternating p.o.v.'s, because of its obvious advantage:  Readers can see what the hero cannot:  the beast lying in wait on the door's other side...In novel after novel, James Patterson shifts back and forth between two p.o.v.'s: that of his latest sicko and endangered hero.  The formula works.

And yet I wondered for decades:  How could I keep the intimacy of the classic first-person narrative and respect its built-in limits...while milking the suspense of the mixed p.o.v.?  I repeat:  first-person all the way, told by just one narrator--but raiding the great benefits of the mixed p.o.v.

THE ALCATRAZ CORRECTION brings something new to the table:

The First Person-Plus.

And the difference, I think, will surprise and delight.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Brad Strickland Q&A: The Doc is In & Smokin' Hot!

Q: How does it feel to be an 'overnight success' as a new mystery writer...after publishing 70 novels in the past 25 years?

It’s been a long road. When I first thought about being a writer, I went immediately for the mystery field. At sixteen, I wrote my first short story, “The Third Grave,” and almost immediately sold it to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. That was also the last time I sold to them! I got busy with college, with starting a teaching career, and so on and drifted away from writing for years. And then when I came back, I wrote fantasy and sf, and other things came along, too. So if I’m an overnight success, I must have overslept.

Q: You wrote a lot of fantasy and science fiction, and also before you got back to the mystery field, you published in many other genres, correct?

Yes. Years after that first story, influenced by friends who were in the sf and fantasy field, I wrote and sold short stories to sf/fantasy magazines. That led to Richard Curtis, the agent, contacting me to ask if I could write an sf novel.

You never say “no.” So I said sure, I’m working on one right now. He asked me to send it to him when I finished, and six months later I did. He sold that one (To Stand Beneath the Sun) and that got me started as a novelist. Since then I’ve written science fiction, fantasy, horror, historicals, and tons of YA books.

Q: Is there an advantage for a writer to work in so many different fields? Is that something you might advise younger writers to try?

Actually, it may have been my worst mistake. Richard Curtis always said that if I do ONE damn thing I might make a name for myself, but I tended to write the story that came to mind, so I wrote fantasy, horror, sf, a mystery, you name it. The result was that I landed firmly in the midlist and stuck there! And when John Bellairs died and his son Frank asked me to finish up some books in his father’s series, that cemented me as a YA writer for a long time.

Q: And you also wrote for that TV dog that liked to dress up in costumes.

Sure, Wishbone the Jack Russell terrier. Those were fun to write, but my gosh, they wanted a ton of them. Eventually I co-wrote a good many Wishbone books with Thomas E. Fuller, with whom I worked on radio scripts for the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company, and also with Barbara.

Through it all I still loved mysteries. When I was in college I corresponded regularly with Fred Dannay, half of the Ellery Queen writing team—a wonderful, encouraging guy—and also with Ken Millar, who wrote as Ross MacDonald. Our letters were often about the art and craft of mystery writing, and without being formal teachers, they gave me a great deal of instruction in the form.

Q: Tell us how you came back to the mystery field after all those other books.

Before Jim Dallas, I launched another collaboration, this one with my daughter Amy, a theater person—we created “Bailey Macdonald” (see the homage?) as a pen name for YA mysteries that call in a historical character—as a youth—to act as detective. The first of those was Wicked Will, in which a twelve-year-old Will Shakespeare solves a murder; the second, The Secret of the Sealed Room (I had a better title, but the publisher didn’t like it) does something similar with a teen-aged Ben Franklin. We have plans for one with a young Sam Clemens, but for some reason my daughter got married recently, so that one’s on hold! But before starting those, Thomas Fuller and I planned and even wrote in the adult mystery field. We had come up with the germ of Jim Dallas back around 2000.

Q: You'd intended a series of novels inspired by Travis McGee, right?

Yes, Tom and I had already published one mystery, a kind of romantic cozy, called The Ghost Finds a Body, very much in the classic amateur-sleuth mold. It was set in Florida, a place both Tom and I liked a lot. While we were working on a completely different project—an ARTC radio production—we were taking a break and Tom said, “Dammit, I want to read a new Travis McGee!”

I pointed out that, John D. MacDonald having died a few years earlier, that was not likely to happen. But Tom asked, “What if we wrote a tribute novel, one that isn’t a McGee but is in the same mold?” I was willing if he was, and he came up with the germ of the idea (I won’t spoil it), the odd fact that would make the mystery possible.

Q: How did you two collaborate? How’d you divide the work on the Jim Dallas book?

With Atlanta Bones, I suggested “Dallas” as the name for the character, since it is pretty widely known that MacDonald’s original name for his beach-bum adventurer was Dallas McGee. Unfortunately, his proposal landed on his editor’s desk on November 22, 1963. “Dallas” was, at that historical moment, a bad choice. But today the curse is off it. Originally our man was just going to be Dallas, no other name (like MacDonald’s Meyer), but that got to be awkward, so one day Tom said, “He’s Jim,” and that was that.

Tom and I met and plotted out the novel pretty thoroughly, about fifteen double-spaced pages or so, and we laid out the kind of research we’d need to do. We took a run at writing a few chapters, six as I recall, three by me and three by Tom—we did alternate chapters. To distinguish these from Travis, we decided they’d be third-person. That didn’t work, and we decided that we’d need to go first-person instead. But at that moment we sold two YA series and got really busy working on them, so we tabled the novel. That’s where matters rested when Tom died of a sudden heart attack in November, 2002.

Q: I understand that your pen name, Ken McKea wasn’t meant to conceal your identities. True?

Not at all. By this time in our careers, we were identified as a YA team, and so we decided we’d do the Dallas novel under a pen name—not to hide our identities, but to brand them as PG-13! Tom suggested a “Mac” name to reference both McGee and MacDonald, and our first thought was McKee, but that seemed too heavy-handed and obvious. Then McKay. I came up with Ken as a tip of the hat to the OTHER MacDonald, Ken Millar. Trouble was, we discovered a whole host of Ken McKays. So we thought we’d spell it weird: McKea (pronounced McKay).

Q: Were you tempted to abort the novel with Tom’s death?

Oh, yes. Tom died intestate, so there were legal issues as well as the shock of losing a close friend. However, the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company began work in 2010 on recording The Dancer in the Dark, a Lovecraftian horror tale that Tom had written as a two-and-a-half-hour radio serial, and I was cast in it.

That reminded me that Tom had a very rough draft of a novel version of the story that we had planned to work on together. I dug that out, completed it, and published it as an ebook. That in turn led me to look at the groundwork we’d laid for Atlanta Bones, and I still liked the idea, so I began from scratch to write the novel from the outline plans.

Q: Once you'd decided to go on, was there any change in your thinking about the nature of the series? As I went on from the first book to the second, I found myself thinking: Here's a tribute that knows when to go its own way.

The first idea was a one-off homage. I think we put maybe too much backstory in Atlanta Bones because of that. But, doggone it, I grew to like the character so much that I figured there must be more stories to tell.

There’s a lot of Tom and me in the characters, you know. Physically, Sam Lyons is a lot like Tom—tall and bulky. He wears my Hawaiian shirts, though. The byplay is a lot like discussions Tom and I would have.

Detour for a story: Tom and I were on the way to a meeting of our writers’ group one Sunday. It was in Atlanta, south of our homes, but since I lived farther north than Tom, usually I’d stop by his house and pick him up and we’d drive down together.

This Sunday we had to pull over. Coming toward us in the other lane was a police car with a flashing light; behind it was a hearse. Behind that was one car. That was the entire procession. I said to Tom, “Nothing in the world looks sadder than a clown’s funeral.”

He didn’t react. Then, an hour later, in the middle of the meeting, Tom suddenly roared with laughter and yelled, “Because they’re all in the same car!” Everyone thought he’d lost his mind.

That kind of joking around shows up in the books and it always reminds me of talking with Tom.

Okay, physically Jim Dallas is . . . not me. Not Tom, either. Kind of an ideal man of action, but damaged both physically and psychically.

Anyway, with the two strong characters as a grounding, I thought there were many more stories to tell. Before I had finished Atlanta Bones, I had come up with two more ideas, and with a little ingenuity I found a title pattern. MacDonald’s McGee was color-coded: The Deep Blue Goodbye, A Purple Place for Dying, Cinnamon Skin, and so on. Instead of that, I decided that each book would have an alphabetical title: Atlanta Bones, Cuban Dagger, Eden Feint, Glades Heist….so I could do thirteen books, until I get to Washington Xray and the Y-Z one, which I know but which I’m saving. I can see a character arc for Jim now and I think it’s sustainable.

Q: What does Jim Dallas bring to the table that's new and refreshing and different?

I see him as a man struggling with despair. He is not by nature pessimistic. He has a great sense of humor and a real interest in life. But life has damaged him and has made him bitter and cynical in ways he’s aware of and doesn’t like. He’s solving his own mystery, in a way, through the books, trying to find his way back to a point of balance and evenness in his own life.

Jim’s obsession—and he is compulsive—can be taken off his own problems by the intricate details of the cases he discovers and works on, but that’s at best temporary, leaving him antsy and disturbed between cases. Sam Lyons senses his potential for violence and destruction, but also senses that he is salvageable, and so he does what a friend can to help Jim deal with the explosive matters in his own past and his own psyche.

So I think the new element here is actually a very old one: the detective ultimately detecting himself. Oedipus the King is a detective story in which the detective is simultaneously the murderer he is pursuing, without realizing it. That can be incredibly powerful. That’s what I’m driving at right now in the series.

Q: Had you always planned on doing this as a limited, thirteen-part series? An inspired idea, by the way—the doubled-up alphabetized titles: Atlanta Bones, Cuban Dagger, Eden Feint...!

Well, you never know! You launch out on a series, maybe people hate it, and it dies. But I do see a clear character arc for the thirteen books. After that…I don’t know. Maybe, depending on how Y-Z turns out, there could be further adventures. At the moment, I’m concentrating on lucky thirteen, though!

Q: A fair number of writers, including myself, have switched from traditional to ebook publishing. You're one of the handful who work on both sides. Though you've been with the same agent for decades, he can't handle all your work...and has turned down a few precious projects, I think. You've written them, regardless. What have we here? A commercial, genre writer who writes what he will, from the heart?

The market is dismal at the moment. Traditional publishers don’t know how to deal with ebooks, but they need to learn, and damn fast. Really, what’s the point of bringing out a hardcover priced at $28.00, a paperback version priced at $7.99, and an ebook priced at…$14.00? That deters readers.

The midlist author is right now persona non grata as far as most traditional houses go. They want guaranteed best-selling writers, so we have pop stars getting six-million-dollar book deals, while talented writers can’t break in. That’s a shame, and it’s no wonder that writers are turning to independent publishing.

As for me, I want to write what I’d like to read. That’s why I never settled on a genre—an idea comes up and I want to follow it down the rabbit hole, and whether the hole leads to sf, fantasy, historicals, or mysteries, I want to go along on the trip.

And like all writers, I want readers, people to go with me.

Q: How goes life in EbookLandia? Have you succeeded in learning everything you need to know but hoped you'd never have to ask?

Getting there, not there yet. I’ve become pretty good at formatting for ebooks, and I design my own covers. The costs are minimal—you really have to have an ISBN, and they’re $125.00 each if you buy them one at a time, and you really need to register your own copyright, which is a further $35.00. Earning that back is a big milestone! Fortunately, ebooks have a higher royalty rate than paper books, and that helps get you to the break-even point (which, by the way, I passed fairly quickly with both the Dallas novels now out). I’m not getting rich, but I like to see the sales mount up. They provide some validation—“Somebody actually is willing to pay to read my story.”

I’m already getting emails asking why the books aren’t in paper. The answer is that no publisher apparently wants them. It’s barely possible that will change as the series goes on, but if it does, I intend to hang onto the ebook rights because I enjoy the process of controlling the book so much.

Which is not to say that I don’t need editors. Fortunately my wife Barbara has a good eye for a syntactical faux pas or a plot hole, and the members of my writers’ group backstop me on story logic and character and so on. Honestly I think at this stage the ebooks are as well-edited as most of my paper books have been.

But I am still learning. Actually, that’s a good thing. I can honestly say that I have learned something new with every story, every book I have ever written, and that keeps the process lively for me.

Q: What handicaps do you have to fight to succeed as an indie writer?

There’s the kneejerk response, of course: “If it was any good, it would be in hardcover.” I think that prejudice will fade over time. Right now ebook sales are outstripping traditional book sales.

On the other hand, there’s a lot of drek out there! It’s hard to carve a niche in a field where the really bad stuff, the stuff that doesn’t cut it on any level, outnumbers the good so decisively. That’s always true, though—Sturgeon’s Law in science fiction is “Ninety percent of everything is crap.” So you have to learn to trust the readers to find you and to make up their minds. If they like you, it would be nice if they’d tell five other people to buy the book!

With self-publishing in the traditional sense, distribution is the big problem. With ebooks, it’s publicity, letting people know the story is there and that it’s worth reading.

Q: What company would you like your work to keep on discriminating readers' shelves?

As a mystery writer, I’d love to see my stuff up there with all my idols: Ellery Queen, Rex Stout, Ross MacDonald, John D. MacDonald. They are the ones I began to read before I was even a teen-ager and the ones whose stories linger in the mind. And there are writers in other fields who touch on mysteries now and then that I’d be honored to keep company with: Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and my long-time favorite writer, Robert Louis Stevenson. Among the ladies, Connie Willis, Dorothy Sayers, and Sue Grafton—who like me was inspired by Ken Millar to become a writer. And of course as you know I like your character Boss MacTavin, a hardboiled guy in a whole nother way from Dallas, but a hell of an interesting figure!

Q: What books can we expect from you besides more Jim Dallas thrillers?

My next paper book is a biography of Eddie Carroll, the most well-known actor that no one’s ever heard of. He was the voice of Disney’s Jiminy Cricket for 37 years. Wonderful guy with wonderful stories, and his widow Carolyn and I have co-written his bio. That one’s coming out early next year and is in the editing stage now.

One of these days, Sam Clemens, Detective. And Tom and I had a steampunk novel underway, The Empress of Time, that I think has real potential. A publisher has expressed interest in my writing another show-business biography. And—well, that’s probably enough to be getting on with!

Q: You've worn a lot of hats, Brad, and worn them very well: Professor (full title—where), son, husband, father, author of horror/sci-fi/fantasy/nonfiction/mystery...Which hats remain for you to wear—and which do you most yearn to wear?

Professor of English at the University of North Georgia (formerly Gainesville State College)

I’d like to be a grandpa one of these days! And I’ve always wanted to be…a lumberjack!

No, actually I love the sea and ships and boats, and though I don’t want the aggravation and expense of actually owning one, I’d really like to learn how to sail a sailboat one of these days.

Q: Do you close the bathroom door when you're home alone?

I do, because I hate peeing on my dog’s head. And it’s hard to avoid because he wants to look in there and see what’s happening.

Q: What's one thing about you that drives people nuts?

Barbara says I lie a lot—not maliciously, but I’ll start telling a story and if she doesn’t seem to be paying attention, I’ll keep embroidering it until it breaks down of its own weight. My kids say I shouldn’t sing in the car because my voice can cause sterility.

Q: Do you have any strength as a writer that some consider weakness? When Ovid's friends listed three lines of his work that they felt were too 'clever' to keep, those were the same three lines he swore he'd die before he changed. And Byron's friends begged him to abandon his work on Don Juan.

Some readers think I over-analyze now and again and explain things in too much detail—but I’ve learned that unless I do put some effort into it people tend to misread the story and get the wrong idea! So I suppose it’s a case of trying to balance clarity and leaving room for the readers’ imaginations.

Q: Has your adult fiction benefited from your efforts in YA?

Just the practice of storytelling helps, of course. In YA I’ve fortunately had a great deal of freedom. When I did the Wishbone adaptation of Treasure Island, I told the editor, Kevin Ryan, that every young-reader adaptation I’d ever seen soft-pedaled the story by omitting the onstage deaths of both good and bad guys, and I told him that in my version them what died in the original would similar die in the Wishbone version, by the Powers! And he let me do that. After all, pirates are not nice people. The line editor said that young readers wouldn’t understand Trelawney’s line, “Hawkins, I put prodigious faith in you!” but he let me keep “prodigious” in. I think kids get it—from context if from nothing else—and so both in style and substance I treasured the freedom I have had in writing for a younger audience. Traditional YA mysteries don’t kill anyone—but in my YA murder mysteries, murders are real, and kids help to solve them.

Q: Are you the guy who sits at the end of the bar secretively taking notes...or the wild party animal who jumps right into the action and hopes to remember it later?

More the quiet guy. At parties I talk with friends and strangers and don’t drink much. One thing I have to do with the Jim Dallas tales is to get connoisseurs to tell me what beers, wines, and liquors he would buy. Dallas didn’t start out as a man devoted to high living, but one way he copes is to make his existence as pleasant as possible, so he tends to seek out good beverages and good food. He’s not saving up for the future, so his simple life is spiced by a bit of indulgence (which he pays for with a rigorous exercise routine).

Me, a beer is usually all I want, just one. Not fussy about it. I actually have more fun watching, listening, and mentally filing things away than by trying to be a party animal. You get the seeds of stories by people watching. The fun is seeing what they grow into.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Alcatraz Correction: Show Us the Money!

 It's a simple matter--or is it:  We almost never see the crusading paladin of any book or TV show collecting the green for their work.  I used the word paladin deliberately--because years ago I'd had Paladin, from Have Gun Will Travel, in mind when I began the first Boss MacTavin novel, Southern Scotch, and began to brood on the notion of a series.  I'd come up with an original spin, I believed, for my character and series:  Pete MacTavin, a disgraced athlete, comes back after a terrible beating as a rich and quirky Southern Scot, head of Boss Corrections.  Like Paladin, he has a favorite color--but Confederate gray and not black.  Like Paladin, he quotes from the classics--but almost exclusively Lord Byron.  Like Paladin, he dresses well when he isn't on the job, but he's by no means a dandy.

Bear with me for this paragraph.  Already I'd gone farther than past homages to Richard Boone's creation in setting El Bosso apart.  From Robert B Parker's Spenser to the Equalizer, we have heroes who quote the classics while helping poor souls in trouble.  The Equalizer dressed in black for action. (Note: Paladin was referred to, in one episode, as 'our equalizer'.) And Michael Madsen's Mr. Chapel often wore dark suits and dark shirts--based, I might add, in the Boone Paladin Motel.  But squeamishness about money afflicts the whole damned pack.  Nobody gets paid, not in our sight at least.  Though Spenser may refer to fat checks from big business stakeouts, he's too noble to collect from his clients, it seems.  The Equalizer was paid only once in the series--a small amount which he gave to charity.

For me, the matter was settled when I returned to the source, ordering several seasons of Have Gun on DVD.  Paladin decides, every now and then, to do pro bono work,  Rarely, he adjusts his steep (for the day) fee of $1,000:  in one memorable case, a barber sends him a check for $86, all he has to spare--and Paladin can't help but wonder how any man could think that 86 dollars could buy him.  Sometimes he takes his fee in trade:  a custom-tailored suit a year, for life, or two cases of very fine wine.  Still, he is a businessman who's determined to grow in both wealth and power.  And, for the most part, he gets paid. ...or else.  Paladin blows up a building in one show when the client tries to stiff him.  In another show, he raises his fee from a thousand to ten grand when a would-be client haggles).

My thinking changed after watching these shows.  While Boss MacTavin remained his own man, he grew in both his commitment to performing classic, enduring Corrections--and to being damned well paid.  Three pro bono cases a year, no more.  His fee is steep, but based on what a client can afford.  Occasional payment in trade.

Give Boss a try.  You may find the difference refreshing.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Alcatraz Correction: Countdown

The manuscript has been to Jo Harrison for formatting.  Though I'd love to rush it online, I'll resist.  And I'll hold back for two reasons:
1)  In the formatting process, things...happen.  Little glitches arise that are tricky to spot for the writer who's proofed a text two-dozen times...but are sure to hit readers like sand in their eyes.  Needed:  a line-by-line proofing, as if for the very first time.  I should have the ms. back from Jo early this week and will take till the weekend to proof it.
2)  Through the week of the 21st, I'll prepare Amazon copy, spread the word on various forums...and prepare for a huge event including not only this book but my other three on Kindle.

Stay tuned.  Further details here and on FB.  Join me soon in cracking the riddle of The Rock.

Expected launch date:  Oct. 28.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Coming Attractions

Stay tuned for two big Q&As:
1) Brad Strickland, now writing as Ken McKea, will talk about his hot new Jim Dallas thrillers and tell us how he's succeeded in working both sides of the publishing fence: traditional and ebook.  Brad's been with the same agent for some 25 years but writes what he pleases, regardless of whether his agent can market that work.  This Q&A will appear later this month to coincide with the launch of Eden Feint, the third Jim Dallas title.
2) Claude Bouchard will break new ground in 'Claude Bouchard Unchained'...the Q&A that goes where other interviewers haven't dared.  The contents are Top Secret but the Q&A will be well worth your wait.  Date:  the first week in November.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Alcatraz Correction: Opening Pages

by Reb MacRath

R.I.P., Lew Miles: An Appreciation
by Nick Mercurio, S. F. Chronicle
January 8, 20__

    The music died a week ago in a small shed on Fisherman's Wharf, New Year's Eve. San Francisco's favorite son, Lew Miles, was tortured to death at age 73 by a maniac armed with a hole punch and drill. Cops remain clueless as to the identity of the sadistic killer.
    Maybe it's best to not know any more. The man the city came to know as Mr. San Francisco will be far better remembered as the hip PI of his memoir, Miles Style.
    Lew Miles took the town by storm when he arrived from Wyoming in 1968 with an inherited 200 grand. This short, two-fisted dynamo had the most of the three Cs: charisma, charm and chutzpah. Or, as Herb Caen said after their meeting, 'Damon Runyon meets James Bond'. Lew Miles Investigations hit the ground running the following year.
    In less than a decade the business had become so lucrative, that Lew expanded his small staff and focused on running his empire. Plus, on keeping his name in the papers and doing well-paid TV spots for Rolex and Anchor Steam Beer. Kids loved to chant his trademark lines: 'You know the drill' for Anchor Steam and 'A man knows the time or he doesn't' for the world's most famous watch.
    Lew 's long-time office manager, Val Sparks, has been confirmed as sole heir of Lew's substantial estate. Miss Sparks, 51, had been in Seattle the night Lew was killed and has remained in seclusion, refusing to speak to the press.
    Global Investigations may succeed in its efforts to buy LMI. They may even keep the name.
    But the music died on New Year's Eve, in a small shed on Fisherman's Wharf. And we all know the drill, as we now know the time.
    Ciao, Mr. San Francisco.

Murder on the Marina
by Nick Mercurio, S. F. Chronicle
January 13, 20__

    The Lew Miles tragedy has taken a more shocking turn. At 2:00 A.M. today, police received an anonymous call directing them to Miles' Marina address.
    Val Sparks, 51, Miles' manager and heir, was found beaten nearly to death. Further details on her condition and on the attack will be released later today. But the Chronicle has verified that nothing of value was taken despite the general impression of a burglary gone wrong.
    (Continued on page 2)



    It should have rained non-stop today. Glum thunder should have rumbled in a Robert Mitchum sky that promised far worse before long. I should have seen tree branches whipping. Heard the plash of drops on stone, sprung shutters whapbapbapping. But the gods had decided to turn on the sun and set it in a Spielberg sky with a thumbs-up sign from Disney. Hello to San Francisco, where the party never stops. Where you're sure your sweet ride with the lady called Luck won't end in a primeval forest with the dark and the fog coming at you.
    In the lobby of Saint Mary's I stood at the windows and gazed through smoked glass. We can't stop our clients from dying, I knew. But they shouldn't get murdered before we begin.
    And the ambiance here further darkened my mood. Rich ladies like my late client, Val Sparks, don't die in Stephen King horror hotels. St. Mary's pulls out all the stops for its terminal Beautiful People. I hadn't seen Val's ICU, but what could it have said that the lobby did not? Instead of the usual yellows and greens, I saw hip beiges, whites and tans, a few mellow splashes of yellow and gold. The air smelled rich with roses and the calm assurance that what went round would come around in the best care that money could buy. The freshly buffed marble floor glowed with self esteem.
    I sank into a chrome and leather chair worth my annual budget for scotch and cigars. As I sat there feeling sorry for both myself and Val, I shuffled through my hand of cards. Five 4x6-ers, college ruled. Each card contained a single fact with room beneath for further notes.
    Card one: 11/20. Initial application.
    Val applies online to have her lover Corrected for lying about his age. He's just stated that he's in his eighties, though she'd understood he was seventy-three.
    Form rejection. Not worth leaving Portland to slap some old man on the wrist. Plus, her rambling application exceeded my limit of 100 words.
    Card two: 11/28. Back again.
    Val reapplies, providing lover's name: Lew Miles, legendary S.F. dick. Says something weird is going on, with Lew sending her to Seattle.
    Form rejection: no reapplications.
    Card three: 12/31. WTF?
    Lew is found murdered on Fisherman's Wharf. A random killing, per the cops, with no motives and no leads.
    Card four: 1/10. Val's third application.
    Something's hidden in Lew's house, what or where she cannot say. Offers 50K if I help her find it. Pass.
    She counter-offers 100K. I agree to the job, pending payment. 1/12: Money's transferred to GC account.
    Card five: 1/13. Val's been killed.
    I learned she'd just died at Saint Mary's when I showed at her office this morning to meet. A home burglary gone bad, it seemed.
    Not much to go on. But more than I’d wanted to share with the cops who met me here at the front desk the minute I asked about Val. So I gave them the sanitized version that could fit on the back of a stamp. I didn't think it relevant to say I'd already been paid, as I always am, up front. Nor did I think it prudent to mention Lew Miles’ name.
    I’d met the great man only once, the year before I set up shop. Though he’d given me some free advice, it had nothing to do with his murder: Have a business card that lowers jaws—and put your lawyer's name on back.
    I gave the cops the business card Lew Miles had inspired. Along with it, I gave the name of my hotel. And they knew from my tone and expression that I had no immediate plans to leave town. So I sat a while longer imagining the gray rain that wasn't while I shuffled through my index cards and searched for the connection. A posh Bronx accent broke the spell.
    “Are you Boss MacTavin, honey?”
    I looked up, not far, to see a smartly dressed gamin of sixty or so who’d come up on my blind side.
    “I'm Boss,” I said. “And you?”
    “Estelle McIntyre. Please.” Estelle gestured to my chair, then took the one beside it.
    I smiled and waited patiently. For no one listens to the old, despite the great stories they all have to tell. Estelle looked once, then twice, at me and seized her opportunity.
    “Well, I had your description, and you do stand out. Six-one, extremely thin—though I’d disagree that you’re skinny. Slat-hard would be more like it. Black patch on your left eye. Right eye, the palest shade of gray. Spiky blond hair streaked with silver. Thick mustache, reminding one of the young Burt Reynolds.”
    “Still, how in the world would you know all of that?” I doubted she'd been to my site, Southern Scotch, or needed a Boss-type Correction. Along with the usual girlie delights, her handbag surely held brass knucks and an Armani stun gun.
    A young man I'd never seen before described you to a T, I mean right down to that rascally brogue mixed with a light Southern drawl. A cross between the Butler boys—you know, Gerard and Rhett? He gave me this to give to you.”
    She handed me an envelope that had been folded a couple of times and apparently stowed in a pocket. The folding looked so crisp and neat I thought of origami.
    I left the envelope unopened. “Can you tell me anything about this young pup?”
    “Maybe.” She batted her lashes.
    I laughed. “I admire your style, young lady, but I'm a wee bit strapped for cash.”
    “Like hell you are. I can tell at a glance that you’re loaded. But it’s not for me, for heaven’s sake. I modeled myself on my Aunt Esther, whose golden words to me were these: Marry for money, divorce for love—of a lot more money. That woman adored getting married, I swear. The gowns, the gifts, the bands—the gifts! But terribly, invariably, the honeymoon always...began. Back to the salt mines on white satin sheets. Anyway, where was I? Oh! I’m doing nicely, thanks.” Proud sniff.
    “I'm confused about how I can help.”
    It’s like this. We’re selling raffle tickets to help set up a bowling league. And I'm behind the quota all of us girls have to sell. The tickets are five bucks apiece. The raffle's in just two more days.”
    I arched an eyebrow, wondering why I felt so content to be stung. “How far are you behind?”
    “Five to steer clear of a write-up, all I really hope for. Heck, I haven't a chance for the best-seller's prize.”
    “Ohhh?” I asked her. “And why's that?”
    “Take a look at those two tootsies at the front desk. Super Glutes and Big Bazoom? I'd need a hundred to whup either one. Not that I need the prize, of course, a thirty-inch flat screen TV. Still, since I’m paying blood for cable, it'd be cool to watch it on plasma. Oh, well.”
    “I'll buy a hundred and sixty, my swivel-hipped, sassy young raptor.”
    She whooped. Then, while I peeled off eight hundreds from the ten I like to carry, she gave me what I'd asked for. “The stranger was in his mid-twenties. Not much taller than I am, let's say five-foot-five. Wiry build. Curly hair. Dressed in black from head to toe.” The last hundred went deftly into her bag.
    “Anything else?” I asked.
    She touched her lip. “He had an air about him, Boss, that I don't know how to describe. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a walk more, well, let’s say...low down? He looked like he'd be right at home with those little guys in black pajamas on the Kung Fu channel. What do they call those dudes—Nancies?”
    I brushed her chin with my right glove. “If I were five years younger...Here.” I handed her one of the three special cards I store in a pocket inside of my belt. Three cards I give out once a year. They're exactly like my business card except for the two words 'Pro Bono' on back, replacing the name of my lawyer. My cell phone number's underneath, along with a special code to put the caller through...until the expiration date. The freebies are intended to save me from the Dark Side; the limit, from the poor house. “You'll get to use this card just once, so choose your moment carefully.”
    “Oh, I'm always extra-careful, Boss, to live completely carefree.”
    She gave my hand a playful swat, then left to get my tickets.
    I watched her go, admiring the sass that she'd managed to keep for so long. I spied but barely registered the stitch on the back of one stocking, a fray of leather on one shoe. I honored the image she tried to project: of a silver-tongued, gold-minded vixen without a care in the world.
    Then I tore the envelope's right side and snatched a yellow scrap within. Meticulous handwriting filled nearly half.
    Your dead client may still be your client. Tonight at 10. Lew's mansion. Come alone and unarmed or you'll leave empty-handed. If you can stop me from kicking your ass, I'll show you something really cool. You got the guts to earn your fee? Or is your name still Pete McGregor, at heart? I'll be in the bedroom waiting to see which man shows up.
    I heard Estelle call out behind me, but I kept going with a wave. I'd have been a fool not to feel edgy. I didn't fear a smackdown, as the writer seemed to think; I feared his knowing who I’d been and what had gone down in Atlanta.
    Six years ago there, as McGregor, I'd been in the wrong place at the wrong time one night. A flamed-out Scottish track star who loved the Deep South, which did not love him back. That night three thugs took me for somebody else, then gave me a beating that still makes me cringe.
    Meanwhile, I had a few hours to kill. So I did what any sane man soon to tackle a Nancy would do.


    I soaked in a claw-footed porcelain tub, large enough for my legs to stretch out at full length. The waterline came to my nipples. Any hotter, and I would have boiled alive. Herbs and balms from Chinatown, blended in precisely so, worked their magic with the steam.
    The prime top floor suite at the King Richard Hotel belongs to me three months a year: all March, June and November. My arrangement also includes two annual EVs: Emergency Visits of up to a week at a minute’s notice. For my business with Val I’d cashed in one EV, compelling a poobah to move down the hall with a free magnum of Dom Perignon. I may stay for a month or a weekend during the three months assigned. Regardless, I pay for each month like a guest, never mind the fact I co-own the hotel. And the various attendants receive the same tips as if I'd come each day. This largesse comes back around in wondrous little ways. Maids change the linens each day without fail. Even the ashtrays, though empty, get changed. A fresh mint is laid on the pillow and replaced with a new one come morning. I could roam the earth without finding smiles half as genuine as those I get when I show. The palatial suite itself holds prized antiques from other rooms I’d agreed to renovate. And it had amused me, I have to confess, to come to the city like this on my terms while Lew the legend rested these days mainly on his laurels. And on residuals for TV spots for Anchor Steam and Rolex.
    My KR business partner had shown a deft hand with the face lift. And putting him in charge of this proved one of my wiser decisions. Wiser still: preserving this spot from the wreckers. I’d had the TV and sound system antiqued so that they looked like what-are-thoses from the 19th Century. Mark Twain would have thought the phone had flown in from the future.
    Still, nothing pleased me like the tub I soaked in, preparing for battle—except the company of my half-Chinese, half-Fili lover. Mai Lin scrubbed my back while I studied the cards on the tray she’d affixed to the side of the tub. She’d added a sixth card a moment ago:
    Receipt of note and challenge.
    I'd considered that myself. Her notes underneath it astonished me, though. How did he know I'd already been paid? Why did my payment concern him? And did he want to beat me or want me to win so he could show me something?
    “You're very astute,” I admitted.
    I repeated the word and then spelled it for her. “It means you're keenly perceptive.”
    “So why did you not say that?”
    I watched her through the fragrant steam. “Because keenly perceptive takes two words and we should never use two words when one word will do.”
    “I see.”
    “Of course you do. And why?”
    She giggled. “Because I am astute. Slang, please?”
    I taught her two words whenever we met, as I had since she came from Manila the year she turned eighteen. I'd arranged for her sponsor, along with a job and a gratis suite at the KR. I owed her that and a lot more. Five years ago, I'd hobbled out of Piedmont Hospital with enough insurance loot to live in great pain without working. The AMA wanted to bleed me for years, but the Scot in me cried for alternative care. So I boarded a plane for Manila, in search of Fili healers. I found them—and found Mai Lin, whose own healing powers were greater.
    She'd settled in quite nicely here. And her proper English was coming along, though it still sounded bookish. Or, more precisely, DVDish. This would change, inevitably, as she hung out with American boys her own age.
    On the other hand, enter The Dragon Tattoo. Her obsession with Stieg Larsson’s books had grown into a mania. I could think of worse obsessions, true, and had read all three books twice myself. But I couldn’t see how a dead translated Swede could help with American slang. Oh well, at any rate, Mai Lin had gotten no piercings or tats. She rode the Kawasaki 250R I’d bought her last year for her birthday at almost illegal slow speeds. And she hadn’t taken to wearing her hair like a punk goddess. Yet.
    How about ‘cool beans’?” I suggested.
    Been there, done that.”
    Okay. ‘Hold it down’?”
    She shook her head. “I’ve...nailed that. Wait...” Through the steam I took in her expression in the gilded mirror across from the tub. I saw her smile, but not with her eyes, fine almond slits that had narrowed. “I forget what I wanted to ask you.”
    Suddenly she dropped the brush and rubbed at her eyes with a sleeve. And even through the heavy steam, even with my one gray eye, I spied something on her arm where the sleeve had risen. As she moved to the left, though, my view was obscured.
    I reached out a dripping arm and she took my hand. Gently then I tugged her back to her place beside the tub. “Come around, dear, I can't see you.”
    “You're angry with me, aren't you?”
    “Angry, darling girl? For what?”
    She came around and sat down on the floor beside me, her head barely reaching the side of the tub.
    I did not release her hand. “I need to look at that arm, dear.”
    “No, please.” She tried gently to tug free.
    “What's rule number one, Mai Lin?”
    “Whatever we need...we shall ask for.”
    “And two?”
    “Whatever we can do, we shall do.”
    “Good girl. I need you to look at me while I look at your arm.”
    “Can you not do that for me?”
    “Then you shall do it for me, as I've done all I can for you.”
    “Oh, Boss—”
    “Look at me, my dear. At me.” When I had her attention, I raised the kimono sleeve gently, my gorge and anger rising. From three inches above her right wrist to her elbow the tawny skin had purpled where it was not rubbed raw. As if a pair of massive hands had gripped her either in fun or in fury, then twisted, twisted back and forth. Done that to a willowy girl who barely stood five-one.
I rolled the sleeve back down. “Has anybody looked at this?”
    She shook her head vehemently.
    “You call the cops?”
    Henry Chin, her American father and my hotel partner, was the oldest school Chinese. He loved her enough to adopt her, bestowing his own surname when she arrived. Aye, he loved her like a daughter—but loved his family honor more. We’d have a talk tomorrow, one that he wouldn't forget. Meantime, my hour was coming. I stroked Mai Lin’s chin with one finger.
    “Rule number three?”
    “That's right. Once in this life and once only, whatever I tell you to do you must do, as long as it's in your best interest. This is. So tonight, when you leave, you must go to your room and I'll send my physician to see you. His business with you is between you and him.”
    “Rule three sucks,” she grumbled.
    “And yet you gave your word.”
    “I did. As you gave yours: rule number four.”
    “Oh, dear.”
    “We shall never deny one another...”
    “...what brings us mutual pleasure. But I can't before a fight.”
    Mai Lin helped me from the tub and then proceeded to dry me.
    “Rule number four, Boss, applies to your cards. My request is reasonable.”
    “But I don't need a...card assistant. And this may be a dangerous case.”
    “We shall never deny one another...?”
    “Aha! But how does your pleasure in learning—oh, my.”
    She'd stepped around and pressed herself against me in the back. Cupcake breasts with cherry nipples pressing through the silk. And now she took me in one hand, not wantonly but intimately, as if the pleasure I felt was her own.
    Byron might have been thinking of her when he wrote: 'She walks in beauty, like the night/Of cloudless climes and starry skies;/And all that's best of dark and bright/Meet in her aspect and her eyes...' But not even Byron could have come close to the sweetness of her voice:
    “It will please you to know that I'll use what I learn to—how do you say it, get down on someone?”
    I removed her hand and spun her around. “Get back at. You want revenge?”
    “Correction.” Her brown eyes met mine and gave nothing away.
    “But you refuse my help?”
    “I want you to help me to help my own self. Teach me how to use the cards and...Keep It Simple, Stupid.”
    “You're not to do a goddamned thing until we talk about it.”
    “Yes, Boss. Okey-dokey.”
    I couldn't quite read her expression. It seemed to be somewhere between scared-and-scarred, a condition I knew as well as the young Rod Stewart. But I had to trust someone and chose to trust her.
    “We'll meet again tomorrow night, if I survive this evening. By then—I don't care if it takes you all night—you're to have five index cards. Three, if you can do it. Problem, complications, possible corrections. Dig?”
    For the first time tonight Mai Lin flashed a real smile. “Yes, I do. My Big Bad Boss.”
    “Well, let's boogie on now. I've got to get dressed.”
    And yet she hesitated. There seemed to be a question she needed to ask and yet couldn't. It stung me to the quick to see her hesitate like that.
    “Rule number five, dear, is still in effect. Just as it always will be.” If you ever need money, just take it. Don’t ask.
    She touched my arm, insisting, “Everything is peachy-keen.”
    We dressed almost like strangers. The silence hurt as I geared up in the grays she'd laid out on the bed: tee, jeans and leather jacket. The last has a small Rebel flag on each sleeve, small enough that you’d have to look twice to make out. You could look all you liked without noting that the B of my belt's buckle is set in a snap-away circular blade. Finally, I donned the dove gray boots with crimson piping. I thought I cut a dashing figure, anything but threatening.
    And I enjoy maintaining my blendable physique. Though I train hard, it's not for show but rather to make sure the muscles I need will be there when I happen to need them.
    While I fiddled with my boots, Mai Lin approached the billfold I'd left atop the dresser. Stood before it as if she'd been sentenced to hell. Then took what she needed and stopped at the door to murmur our private goodbye:
    “Hey, boy,” she said.
    “Hey, girl.” I smiled, trying to keep the concern off my mug.
    Once she’d gone, I checked and found she’d taken every hundred. Though I had plenty more to replace those, the size of her need surprised me. What the hell kind of trouble had my lovely companion got into? And how could I help without breaking my word?


    I’d never seen a haunted house as lovely or graceful as Lew’s. And I’d seen several in my day. It ruled the block containing the Marina's most fabulous homes, though tonight it sat shrouded in darkness.
    In a block of Spanish-style mansions with red-tiled roofs and pastel-colored stones, Lew's home honored its neighbors while trumping them all. Across the stucco wall in front, chrome panels gleamed in the moonlight. More chrome and splashes of primary colors partied on the traditional roof. Even the home’s asymmetrical shape stood apart while blending, Franklin Lloyd Wright on a wild Spanish high.
I'd parked my Hertz two blocks away and brought along a canvas bag packed with some things I might need: lock picks, an alarm-silencing gizmo and rope if needed to help scale the fence. As it happened, I had no need of such toys. Though the Marina bustled, the side streets were as quiet as holes in the hills. I met no pedestrians. And none of the few cars that passed even slowed.
    No, I wouldn't need my tools. Beside the coded gate that blocked the pebbled drive I found a pedestrian entrance. This had a combination lock my host had left undone for me. I slipped through it, already knowing I’d find the front door unlocked too.
     Not just unlocked, a few inches ajar. Stepping into the fridge of a foyer, I closed the massive slab of oak. On the door’s back, I spied a yellow Post-It. I knew the handwriting just fine.
    No need for games. Bedroom’s upstairs.
    I set the bag down. Thought a second. Then slipped off my jacket. Whatever would happen would happen. But luck often favors the bold and prepared. So I did what I could as I cat-footed up the carpeted, circular stairway: I did the walking exercise. I'd learned this in Manila from a wizened martial artist who taught mano mano.
    For three months I did nothing but heal and stretch...and climb the walls, wanting to learn how to fight. I'd walk around his matted room for hours at a time. And he'd respond as he saw fit. If he spied swagger or slump in my step, he'd whale upon me mercilessly wherever I hadn't been broken. But rarely, when I walked just right, he'd place one gnarled hand at the base of my spine and urge me to straighten my backbone some more. When I'd learned how to walk, then he taught me to fight.
    At the third landing, I smelled the incense above. Sandalwood, one of my favorites. And now the moonlight that spilled through a skylight gently illumined the way. I steadied my breathing until I arrived sooner than I cared to.
    He sat lotused, under the skylight, on an oval Oriental rug centered in a sea of pine. His pale skin took me by surprise; close to alabaster. Though I couldn’t make out his eyes' color, I felt the heat in his frank glance. The tight curls atop his head might have been amber or auburn. He looked dangerously cute. And the small pale hands upon his knees did not invite a handshake. I raised my left leg, then the right, removing the pointy-toed gray-crimson boots. I kept my white socks on to cover the scars a man gets when crucified.
    He got up. Correction: He glided onto his delicate feet. He knew how to stand too. This might not go well, though I had half a foot on him, plus far longer arms and legs.
    He stretched his arms while he circled his neck. “Remember what the note said, Boss?”
    I stood there and waited and straightened my spine, giving him nothing to go on.
    “I've learned which man showed up,” he said. With that he walked straight up to me, stopping just out of my kick range. “You've stopped me. And I'll keep my word. But—call me irresponsible—I've simply got to know.”
    He contorted, whirled and sprang into a high spinning kick that could have knocked my head off.
He never got the chance, though, to pull the kick as planned. I may spar with a friend but he wasn't a friend and we needed to get something straight. So I went down in a lickety split, my thighs flush with the gleaming pine, my skull safely under the blur of his foot. As I split, I shot my hands up. The right hand caught him by the crotch; the left, by the neck of his sweater. My body jerked and down he went. Now I showed him what gloved hands could do, hands that had been crucified and couldn't clench completely. The blizzard of slaps left him gasping. I stopped.
    “You understand?” I asked him.
    “Never fight with a man who's been nailed to a desk and lived to tell about it.”
    “Master!” he cried.
    “Oh, shut up. Now that we've settled this rubbish, let's sit like girlie men and talk.”