24 July 2014

To Tweak, Or Not To Tweak...

By Brian Thornton

...that is the question!
With apologies to THIS guy!


If you've ever written anything from a novel to a laundry list, you know the conundrum: leave well enough alone, or go back and "improve" your work.

I will admit up front that I am by nature a relentless reviser. I tweak, and edit, and add and cut and am constantly looking to make my prose smoother, better, more concise. It can get exhausting!

So how interesting is it that, as I close in on the third and final draft of a book project that I began plotting seven (yes, that's right, SEVEN years ago!), I have begun a new regime–born in large part of necessity–that includes minimal revision.

In other words, I'm gonna finish this sucker and then go back and fix what needs fixing.

Now I've heard it all from a variety of quarters on this subject: that's the common sense thing to do! Why haven't you done it all along? What sort of sick-o perfectionist can't leave well enough alone? How do you ever expect to publish anything with that self-defeating attitude?

My response: I am the author of nine published books, the co-author of several more–with all but one of them still in print. I've also got half-a-dozen short stories (every last one sold for actual money to actual venues that actually pay) completed and out there in the world as well.

How come this book project is different?

I have some thoughts on that. (Obviously, otherwise this would be a very short blog entry.)

All of my previously published book-length prose is non-fiction. For those of you not in the know, that does make a difference. From the time I sold my first book in 2004 until I sold my latest two in 2011, publishers would cut a contract for a nonfiction book based on an outline and a writing sample.

Not so with fiction. That sucker needs to be pretty close to completed before you see a nickel for it.

And that's the thing: this new book project is a novel.

I have no idea if these rules still apply to nonfiction. Like I said, the last two books I sold were in here). That's a lifetime ago in publishing, the way things go these days.
My Most Recent Sale
2011 (one was a nonfiction work and the other was an anthology of crime stories that can be found

And while I have enjoyed my forays into nonfiction, and am proud of what I've produced, this book, my novel is still different.

It's far and away the most creative thing I've attempted (at least artistically). I am far more invested in it than I was in my nonfiction.

So why haven't I finished it yet?

Well, for the first few years after I conceived it, I had a choice: work on the novel or work on something that would pay me that very year.

No contest- my nonfiction got the bulk of my writing time/attention/energy.

Then in 2009 I got exceedingly lucky and met my future wife. We married in 2010, bought a house in 2011 and had a child in 2012. All great things, and the money from my last three books helped fund all of the above, to say nothing of a terrific honeymoon touring the UK.

Now with my regular full-time job, my mortgage, my marriage and my toddler, I find time far more at a premium than I did in my days as an apartment-dwelling bachelor. This, more than anything else, has dictated my letting go of my obsession with trying to "perfect" my work.

Which is not to say that I don't revise my work anymore. I do plenty of it on the fly, and schedule a full run through the book once the draft is finished. I just can't afford to keep grinding and grinding on any one part of it anymore.

Ace Frehley, getting better.
For me, it's like Ace Frehley, lead guitarist of KISS said of his early days playing in that band: "We toured all the time. We weren't very good when we started out, but you play three hundred dates a year, and you're gonna get better."

So I have the benefit of experience. There really is no substitute for it. It helps me trust myself to get it right more efficiently than with my first "mistake" novel (that one will never see the light of day- in my metaphorical desk drawer it lies, and there it shall remain!)

So how do I manage to accomplish both? Make good progress while also ensuring that the things that need fixing later do actually get fixed?

Two things: first, I keep a writing journal–one that deals specifically with the challenges I'm facing on any given day (it's hand-written in a series of Moleskine journals. Hey, works for me!). I also use a tactic that my friend and colleague (really a terrific writer, this guy!) Michael Jacobs introduced to me: when there's a spot that I know will need fixing later, but I need to move on: I type [TK] in and around it.

This makes these places in the work that need a revisit later, once the draft is completed, easy to find. A word search on a document that runs in length anywhere from 60-100k words can be a challenge, unless you recall exactly which words you're looking for.

[TK] occurs almost nowhere in the English language as part of a word (and definitely nowhere else than where I place it as a marker with those brackets included). This makes it easy to find as part of a quick word search.

And there you have it. The answer to the question contained within the title of this blog post is: "Yes to both."

Just so long as it gets done!

23 July 2014

Chuck Greaves' THE LAST HEIR

David Edgerley Gates


THE LAST HEIR is the third in Chuck Greaves' series of legal thrillers that began with HUSH MONEY and GREEN-EYED LADY. The hero of the books, Jack MacTaggart, is of course a lawyer, but he's neither a bottom-feeder - a skip-tracer or an ambulance-chaser - nor is he Atticus Finch. He's not above mischief, on the one hand, and his ethics can be relative, shall we say, but he sometimes disappoints his clients when he turns out to have more principles than they expect him to. He's a stand-up guy in a tilting world.

THE LAST HEIR is, at least on the surface, about a power struggle in a California wine-making family. (Think, say, the Mondavi clan.) The aging pere, Philippe, has three kids, two boys and a girl. The older son has disappeared and been declared legally dead. The next in line drowns in a wine vat. And the daughter can't inherit, because her dad, a stiff and unyielding control freak, won't leave the estate to a woman, no matter how capable she is. There's a fair amount of bad blood, and complications set in.

The interesting thing to me, about this third MacTaggart book, is that it takes something of a right-angled turn from the first two mysteries. HUSH MONEY is about an insurance scam, and GREEN-EYED LADY is about a politician who gets caught with his pants around his ankles, but in both cases there's more to it than meets the eye. The thing is that in both books there's a large cast of shifty characters, any one of them with a motive to stab someone else in the back, but in THE LAST HEIR the suspect pool is very shallow - three to five at best - which makes it a closed system, in a way like one of those English country house mysteries, where it's either the least likely, or the most obvious suspect winds up being the next victim. The other tricky sleight, or reversal of expectations, the author pulls off, is that the crime doesn't appear to have a motive. Nobody profits by it. In point of fact, the other way around. The scheme, for lack of a better word, results in a net loss for everybody, which suggests none of them cooked it up in the first place.

Greaves winds the spring, and sets up the contradictions, and then at the end, when he shakes the tree, an enormously satisfying solution falls at your feet. And there's no cheating, no deus ex machina, no hidden secret held back until the final revelation. It's a terrific example of how character drives plot, even in a puzzle story.

Speaking of, MacTaggart is wonderful company. Jack's basically a wise-ass, and half the fun is listening to his voice. He's something of an unreliable narrator, not in the sense that he keeps anything from you, but that he's as much in the dark as you are. Which is another instance of how skillfully Greaves deploys the pieces on his chess board. You're not entirely sure the bishop always moves on the diagonal or whether the knight can jump an intervening pawn. In other words, MacTaggart begins to recognize not the pattern of a plot, per se, but the dynamics of inner history, family grievances, personal loss, the template of sorrow. One of the things about Jack himself that seems very true, to me, and true to life, is that he internalizes these other griefs. He lets them inhabit him.

He's also snort-coffee-out-your-nose funny - which, when you think about it, is quite possibly a defense mechanism, and a very sly way of revealing Jack's own character.  Here he is on meeting the local eminence grise.
     "There's a unique odor - an oleaginous mingling of dust and wood polish, incense and candle wax - that's instantly familiar to anyone, anywhere, who was raised in the Catholic faith. I'm thinking they must manufacture it in the basement of the Vatican and ship it out to the various dioceses in fifty-gallon drums. If they were smart, they'd bottle the stuff and sell it as a perfume, or maybe as an aftershave.
     "They could call it Guilt. They'd make a fortune."

There's a confidence, and an engagement, in the writing. Jack is both sympathetic, and the kind of guy who holds you at arm's length. You might say the same of the author. Chuck Greaves invites you in, he makes you comfortable in his invented world, you feel you're in good hands, and then he sandbags you. THE LAST HEIR fools you not because of its artifice, but because it's genuine. The characters who people the story aren't generic conventions.

This is a guy who gives good weight. It didn't surprise me to learn he'd been a trial lawyer, in a previous life. It did surprise me to learn he gave up his practice and left L.A. and moved to the boondocks and started a vineyard of his own, growing grapes.

Like being a mystery writer. Stony soil, but it pays off.

[I should explain, in the interest of full disclosure, that Chuck Greaves and I know each other personally, and even did an event together, at Collected Works bookstore in Santa Fe, back in the late spring, where we essentially spent an hour trying to crack each other up, like Bob and Ray, or Lucy and Ethel. Chuck is hugely personable, and tells very funny stories, many of the NSFW, but I hasten to assure you this has nothing to do with my giving his book a strong review. On the other hand, I do expect a case of wine one of these days, from his vineyard, Stark Raven.]

http://www.davidedgerleygates.com/


22 July 2014

Search And Seizure

by David Dean

A few months ago I had the honor of presenting at the annual Pennwriters conference in Lancaster, PA.  As some of you may remember, I had definite qualms about whether I was up to this task as it lay outside my comfort zone.  In the event, nothing was thrown at me, and those that had not actually fallen asleep, said they found my talk very soothing.  So I counted my class on short story writing an unqualified success.

The attendance at my next scheduled effort, a presentation on police procedures and crime fiction, was much better attended.  The organizers had apparently spread the rumor that this event would feature an open bar.  They failed to specify that it was a coffee bar.  Still, the attendees remained, perhaps thinking that the "real" bar would be thrown open as soon as I finished talking.  In order to hasten that moment, several of the more enterprising began asking questions almost as soon as I was introduced, thinking no doubt that the quicker they talked me through this, the better.  These had probably attended my earlier lecture.

Their questioning revolved largely around a central theme--what the police can...and can not do...legally.  In other words, police power.  This is an issue which police officers themselves wrestle with on a daily basis.  If we rely on crime fiction (especially the Hollywood style of fiction) to inform us, then we would conclude that there are no meaningful limits or controls on law enforcement officers.  If the featured officer is a good guy, then he is justified in doing almost anything to achieve justice--and he does.  But benignly, of course.  When the opposite is true, the bad officer is characterized as an out-of-control criminal in uniform, and suddenly rules matter once more.

But what are the rules?  It's a big subject as my fellow SleuthSayers who have been involved in law enforcement, or criminal law, know.  Still, one good place to begin is with the issue of search and seizure.  And for that, we must turn to the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. 

In essence, this is the guarantor that our homes, persons, and property will be protected from unreasonable searches and/or  seizures.  For a search or seizure to be considered reasonable normally requires a search warrant.  Getting a search warrant, as R.T. Lawton knows I'm sure, is seldom something that can be accomplished quickly or easily.  It usually involves a good deal of investigation, followed by a written affidavit describing in detail the officer's probable cause for the search and its necessity.  Additionally it must carefully describe the premises to be searched, and as exactly as possible, the object of the search.  It then goes through several layers of review by prosecutors before it, and the investigating officer, must appear before a judge.  That same officer is often responsible for preparing the actual warrant, as well, which is the document that the affidavit supports.  Then the judge will give it the thumbs up, or no, and it isn't always a slam dunk.  Sometimes he will demand info that he feels is essential to the warrant but is not currently included.  Then it's back to the drawing board.  All of this can take hours, days, weeks, and even months to accomplish the goal of entering someone's home to legally search it.  This is most often the work of detectives and investigators. 

The uniform, or plainclothes street officer, works in a very different environment and often finds himself operating within the happening-right-now-and-what-are-you-gonna-do-about-it world.  Decision-making gets telescoped into minutes or seconds, and there are no judges or lawyers working the night shift or responding to calls with the officer.

Because of this the courts have recognized that there must be exceptions to the warrant requirement.  On the face of it the idea may sound shocking.  But if some exceptions weren't carved out, an officer in hot pursuit of a murder suspect would have to wait outside the front door if he failed to catch up to him before he got inside.  That would be unsatisfactory in the extreme, and also boring. 
Warrant?  I don't need no stinkin' warrant.

So here they are--the exceptions to the search warrant requirement:

1. Search Incident to Lawful Arrest: Kind of a no-brainer, I think.  When a person gets arrested the officer is allowed to search both his person and the area within his reach, or "wingspan".  Of course you need probable cause to make the arrest, which can be defined as more than reasonable suspicion but less than the evidence required for a conviction.  That shines a light on it, doesn't it?  P.S.  Since this was written the Supreme Court has ruled that cell phones recovered in such situations are excluded from this exception and require a search warrant.  I need time to digest this one before commenting.

2. Plain View Exception: No warrant is required if the officer can see evidence in plain view (narcotics, for example) and  he is legitimately in a position to do so.  For example: He responds to a home to administer CPR to an unconscious victim, and sees on the nearby coffee table a mirror with a mound of white powder and a razor blade on it.  Plain view would probably not apply to that same officer using a pair of binoculars from a block away to see the same thing.  

3. Consent: Suspects can, and sometimes do, give their consent to enter and search their property.  The person giving the consent must be reasonably believed by the officer to have the authority to do so.  Here, in New Jersey, Consent to Search forms are used to document the transaction.  It helps to repudiate later claims that the consent was not freely given.  As for blood stains found on such documents, these are easily explained away as the result of paper cuts.  The suspects are also advised that they do not have to give consent and may stop the search at any time.  And yes, they do sometime give consent even though they are in possession of something naughty.  My theory is that they think cops are slow-witted and can never, ever figure out where they have so cleverly hidden the contraband.  Sadly for them, it is most often not the cop who is slow-witted.

4. Stop and Frisk: A police officer may stop and frisk a person if he has reasonable suspicion that he may be armed and dangerous.  This is more than mere suspicion, but less than the level required for probable cause.  That's illuminating, isn't it?  It is worth noting that a frisk is a pat-down of outer clothing for the officer's safety.  He could progress to an actual and more thorough search of the suspect if he encounters what he believes to be a weapon during the pat-down.  Kind of a "plain feel" exception.  Though the person has not been arrested, he has been "seized," hence the need for the exception.

5. Automobile Exception: This actually applies to any vehicle, including boats.  If the officer has probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains evidence of a crime, contraband, etc...he may conduct a search for the item he believes may be present, but only in the areas where such an item could be hidden.  E.g. He can't look in the glove compartment for a robbery suspect; though he may search there if he is looking for a gun used in a crime.  This exception is allowed because of the highly mobile nature of vehicles.  If the car were parked in a driveway without an operator, a warrant would be needed. 

6. Emergencies and Hot Pursuit: If evidence is in danger of being removed or destroyed the officer can utilize this exception.  This is also the one that covers the fleeing suspect I mentioned earlier; allowing the officer to continue his pursuit onto and into private property without a warrant.  Even if the property is that of a third party.  Here's one for you: If during the apprehension of this fleeing suspect inside a very surprised John Q. Bystander's house, you see that John Q. is building a bomb, you can go ahead and arrest him, too, under the Plain View exception.  Then both men can be searched Incidental to Lawful Arrest.  What fun you're having!

The exercise of any of these exceptions often lead to a probable cause hearing after the fact.  This is the defense attorney's opportunity to have thrown out any evidence that the officer discovered as a result of the search.  The officer's interpretation of the search warrant exception utilized, as well as his understanding of the events leading up to it will be called into question.  This is not only a matter of checks and balances, but quite likely the suspect's best chance of beating the charge.  If the judge rules that the officer misused the exception, or otherwise overstepped the constitutional boundaries of the Fourth Amendment, the evidence will be thrown out and his case most likely dismissed.  The fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine states that evidence illegally obtained is tainted and cannot be used in court against the defendant.

Well, that's enough for today.  I'll see you all back in your seats in three weeks.  Until then--Bar's open!

Next Time--WHY WON'T ANYONE TALK TO ME? or A FEW WORDS ON MIRANDA AND SUCH LIKE.      



     


        

21 July 2014

My Scarlet K

Early one morning (in the 1880s) a large pool of blood was found near Fifth and Congress Avenue giving the impression to passers-by that some dark and dreadful tragedy had been enacted there but nothing was ever learned concerning it. (Compiled from:Austin History Center Records.)

by Jan Grape

    I looked at myself in the women’s locker room mirror, surprised to see I didn’t look any different. Yes, my hair looked windblown and my eyes somewhat bloodshot and fatigue lines radiated from each corner, but that was all. Totally normal. I didn’t know what I expected. A gray streak, maybe, suddenly appearing in my hair? A scarlet K on my forehead? The mirror’s reflection didn’t show anything unusual, but I whispered, “I am a killer.”

    I’d never killed anyone before and I hope I never will again.

    The victim? A young male. In death, he looked no more than eighteen, but I now learned he was twenty-five. I remember how his black hair swept back from his thin face and how his black eye stared in that glassy way of the dead. That tragedy left one reality quite strong– that pool of blood is forever etched in my mind.

    Pure and simple self-defense? Yes, indeed. And in a way, you could say I have a license to kill. I’m a police officer for the Austin Police Department. The shoot was perfectly legal by anyone’s standards.

    I didn’t know who he was when I shot him. How could I? He was only a shadowy figure in the darkness. I saw him force a female officer he’d already wounded to walk ahead of him, her hand dripped her life force. He had used her for a shield. The guy had asked for it, hadn’t he?

    In the last few minutes of his life before I arrived on the scene and before taking this officer hostage, he had shot another policeman, a man named Lopez, one of the new young ones.

    When I confronted the suspect I had identified myself as a police officer. I’d asked him to give it up, but he shoved the policewoman to the floor and fired at me. That was when I shot him.

    Only afterwards when it was over did I find out he was Jesse Garcia– a felony suspect– wanted for eight long months because of an earlier shooting. Wanted for shooting yet another APD officer.

    For the past eight months, that other officer lay in a coma in a nursing home with little hope of recovery while his shooter, Jesse Garcia, was hiding in Mexico. I could picture Garcia drinking tequila and chasing girls.

    That other officer? Formerly a Special Missions officer. Formerly handsome, witty, intelligent, funny, gentle. Formerly a loving husband. Byron Barrow, my husband.

    Physical evidence proved without a doubt that Garcia, a known gang-banger, had fired the gun that wounded Byron, but Garcia took off the morning the arrest warrant had been issued. Ran to Mexico.

    “Zoe?” Lynda Haynes, a civilian working desk duty at headquarters, stuck her head inside the rest room door. “Are you okay, Zoey?”

    I hate being called Zoey because my name is pronounced Zoe like Joe. But Lynda’s tone was gentle, and I knew she only meant it in an endearing way. She wore a heavy perfume that wafted ahead, filling my nostrils and causing my stomach to churn in rebellion. I barely managed to keep it in control. She came inside, stood next to the sink, and stared at my reflection briefly before looking at me.

    Was she also searching for a scarlet K?

    “You been throwing up?” She asked.

    She wasn’t accusing in any way, her only concern was how I felt, how I was dealing with the aftermath– nothing more.

    “I don’t think there’s anything left down there.”

    “Yeah. I figured.”  She reached and patted my forearm. “Rob Morton wanted me to check on you.”

    “Tell him I’ll be out in a few minutes.”

    “If it makes you feel any better, Zoe. That puke got what he deserved.” Her lips stretched into a brief smile before she turned and walked out.

    Turning on the cold water faucet, I pulled a handful of paper towels from the dispenser and wet them. I held the cool wadded towels against my eyes, then re-wet them and wiped my mouth. I found a comb in my shoulder bag, ran it through my hair, put a dab of color on my lips, and looked in the mirror once more. “That’s a little better, Zoe.”

    Do I have regrets? Yes– and no. I’ll never forget that bloody horror and the knowledge that I took the life of another human being, but I’ll also never forget that I got the scumbag who nearly destroyed my life eight long months ago.



Comments please… especially about the little historical note at the beginning.

See y’all next time.

20 July 2014

Impossible Things Before Breakfast, 3

by Leigh Lundin

Okay, you get drunk. It happens. So drunk, you pass out. That can happen, too. When you wake up, you have no memory of the previous night, not even of a rough crowd and prostitutes… That might happen too. And you’re charged with homicide.

Wh-h-at?

Yup, murder of a wealthy and important man, killed during a home invasion and robbery. It can happen, especially in 1930s and 40s detective noir novels, but not so much these days, right?

Recap

In our first installment, the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass claims, “Sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” We described a seemingly impossible case where a supposed murderess was killed weeks before she was believed to have killed another woman.

In our second article, we visited the case of a female serial killer who appeared to outwit police. She wasn’t what she seemed.

Today, again thanks to a reader, we look at a current case, that of a drunk who passed out only to awake to accusations he’d murdered a man.

The Scene

15km south of San Jose in the heart of Silicon Valley and adjacent to Los Gatos, California, lies the wealthy bedroom community of Monte Sereno. There Raveesh ‘Ravi’ Kumra, entrepreneur and one-time-winery owner lived and died.

Police arrested a number of suspects including a couple of prostitutes and a businessman named Lukis Anderson. Mr. Anderson had no memory of murdering anyone, let alone a man he didn’t know in Monte Sereno. That was unsurprising: Anderson’s blood alcohol exceeded five times the legal limit. But he had a good alibi: At the estimated time of the murder, Anderson was comatose, insensibly blacked out in a hospital.

DNA
State of the State

But criminalist Tahnee Mehmet Nelson felt certain Anderson had committed the murder and she found DNA on the victim's body to prove it. And prosecutor Kevin Smith believed her.

Unfortunately, Mrs. Nelson has baggage of her own– she’d been at the center of bungled DNA testing and a subsequent cover-up. And Santa Clara County also bears a tarnished reputation that resulted in an earlier wrongful prosecution. Far from being an independent department, the crime lab is run by and beholden to the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s office.

The Unsinkable Molly O'Neal


But Public Defender Molly O'Neal dug into the case and proved to her own satisfaction that Anderson couldn’t have been in two places at once– unconscious in a hospital and miles away elsewhere murdering a man he’d never met.

Prosecutors don’t like to give up. District Attorney Kevin Smith kept Anderson in jail four months, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Finally, he and ADA Scott Tsui dropped charges against Anderson, although their office continues investigating.

So what happened? Molly O'Neal believes the fault might not lie with the lab, despite their recalcitrance, but with the paramedics. She suggests the same paramedics who brought in Lukis Anderson might also have handled the murder victim after failing to properly clean up, thereby contaminating the crime scene.

So…

If only DNA evidence was considered, it would have convincingly put Mr. Anderson in the dock and likely in prison. But thanks to a dedicated public defender,  Molly O'Neal brought justice to the court system, proving her client innocent.

19 July 2014

I Am Not a "sexy porn gerl" and other Twitter Mishaps

by Melodie Campbell

Okay, I admit it.  I'm a literary slut.

My mentor, the late novelist Michael Crawley, called me that because I write in several genres (mystery, time travel, fantasy.)  Sometimes all at once in the same book.  This girl gets around.

But these days - like everyone else - my publishers are turning me into a social media whore. (Whoops, did I say that on prime time? <blush>)

"Frolic on Facebook!" they say.  "Tattle on Twitter!" they insist.  "Get out there!"

I'm out there, all right.  I'm so far out there, I may need mouth to mouth and a slug of scotch to crawl my way back.  (Yes, what follows is the absolute truth.)

The Inciting Incident:

It started with the Berlin Brothel.  Lord knows why a brothel in Berlin decided to follow me on Twitter.  I don’t live in Berlin.  I’ve never worked in a brothel.  Don’t think I’ve even typed the word ‘brothel’ before now.  I certainly haven’t said it out loud.

Then some wag from Crime Writers of Canada said: “Maybe they’ve read your first book Rowena Through the Wall.  That’s it!  You have a following in Germany. The girls who work there have to do something in their downtime.”

Let me do a cyberspace blush here.  Okay, my first book is a little hot.  “Hot and hilarious” as one industry reviewer put it.  But it’s not x-rated.  It’s not even R, according to my daughter.  (Husband has yet to read it. We’ve hidden it well.)

Then friend Alison said: “It’s a brothel!  Maybe your latest crime comedy, The Goddaughter’s Revenge, is required reading by the owners.”

But back to Berlin. I didn’t follow them back. Somehow, that didn’t matter. The word was out.

‘Amateurvids’ announced they were following me.  Good, I thought.  I like nature films.  Take it from me, this outfit doesn’t film bunnies in the wild.  Well, maybe a certain type of wild bunny.

I didn’t follow them back.

Then ‘Dick Amateur’ showed up, wanting to connect. Author friend Gloria read a few of his posts and said: “You at least deserve a Pro.”

So I didn’t follow him back.

Next, I got “Swingersconnect” following me.  Swingers?  I get sick on a tire hanging from a tree.

I didn’t follow them back.

‘Thepornfiles’ were next in line.  I didn’t peek.

Then two days ago, an outfit specializing in ‘male penis enhancement’ turned up. Now, I ask you.  Do I look like a male in my profile photo?  Is Melodie a male name?  And not to be pedantic, but isn’t ‘male’ in front of the p-word a bit redundant?  Is there any other kind?

Which brings me to the tweet in my twitter-box today:  “Hey sexy porn gerl!” (Yes, that’s girl with an e.)  Let me state categorically that I am not now and have never been a “sexy porn gerl” (with an ‘e’ or any other vowel.)

You wouldn’t want me to be.  No one would.  For one thing, I can’t see two feet in front of me without glasses.  Things that used to be perky now swing south. And my back hurts if I bend over to pick up a grape. 

So I’m not following them back.

Melodie Campbell is an infant Sleuthsayer and this is her second column.  She writes comedies, including The Goddaughter mob caper series and the notorious Rowena Through the Wall S&S series.  (That was Sword and Sorcery, not S&M.  For the record.)

18 July 2014

Black Market Money

by R.T. Lawton

Somewhere not too far from where you are right now, there is a person scheming on a way to make some money. It's human nature to desire an increase in our financial status so we can acquire items that we want in life or think we need. To make this money, most people go out and find a legal job, but there are always those who look to make the easy dollar, the quick buck, regardless of the legality involved. Times of war make for several opportunities.

Summer of '67

The large aircraft finally rolled to a stop. This was it, the Central Highlands. When the door opened, all passengers filed out onto the tarmac. Dressed in rumpled khaki's and low quarters, with all our allowed worldly goods in O.D. duffel bags slung over our shoulders, we lined up for the arriving green buses. Our first indication that we were now in a world different from the one we'd left behind came as the buses quickly emptied out those soldiers going back home on the same plane we'd just arrived on. Those guys in jungle fatigues, with red mud splashed up to their knees, ran joyfully screaming and hollering toward their "freedom bird." Looked like a bad omen to us new guys.

Our second indication came as other in-country soldiers, with time left before rotation back to "the World," walked down our lines quietly offering to exchange MPC (Military Pay Certificates) for good old American greenbacks. They would even pay a little over a dollar in exchange. Some arrivals went for it, some didn't. When we later arrived at the REPO Depot in Pleiku, one of the first things that happened was all U.S. currency was officially converted to equivalent MPC, all brightly colored paper bills much like monopoly money.

Here's how the system worked from then on. Come payday, every soldier reported to his military paymaster (usually a Lieutenant or a Captain), saluted, signed a pay voucher and received about fifty dollars in MPC. The rest of his paycheck got deposited in his bank account back in the States. The military didn't want any soldier to have a lot of money in-country and the also didn't want him to have American dollars, so they gave him MPC which was only good at the PX and other military stores in Vietnam at the time. If he went to the local village, he was first supposed to exchange his MPC for Vietnamese Piasters (so named as a carryover from Vietnam's days as a French colony, whereas the Vietnamese DONG was usually the denomination word printed on the bill itself). Officially, the conversion rate was one U.S. dollar to one MPC dollar and one MPC dollar for about 113 Piasters (or Dong). The Saigon Black Market exchange rate in July 1967 was 157 Dong to one U.S. dollar. A year later in June 1968, it was 180 Dong to a dollar. The entire system made for a lucrative black market in money.

Vietnamese gladly accepted MPC because they would then use it later to purchase goods from the local PX. They couldn't buy anything there directly, but it was easy to make a straw purchase through a sympathetic G.I., and there were plenty of those around. "Third Nationals" had to be careful though about how much MPC they accumulated at any one time because every year or so, the military called in all of the current issue of MPC and exchanged those bills for a new issue. No advance notice was given of the one-day conversion, but Vietnamese citizens weren't allowed to do an official conversion anyway because they weren't supposed to have MPC. Most Vietnamese caught short holding the old issue would offer to pay a commission to a sympathetic G.I. to induce him to exchange their MPC for them. After conversion day, the old bills were only good for starting fires. However, any G.I. making a large exchange came to the attention of military authorities, which meant the CID (army's equivalent to the civilian FBI) would be looking into his affairs.

The locals also gladly took U.S. dollars in payment, if they could get it, because there was no sudden call-in on those bills, plus American dollars were more secure than their own Piasters/Dong. American currency in their hands often made its way up to the Vietnamese politicians and high brass who then deposited this money into personal Swiss or other foreign bank accounts. Other American bills made their way to the Viet Cong who used this currency to purchase medical and other supplies for their own war effort. Sometimes paying it to corrupt G.I.'s who diverted our military supplies.

This should give you a good idea how money itself could become a black market item, which then led to a clandestine market in money orders. Any G.I. making extra money through gambling in the barracks, becoming an entrepreneur in the underground market, or whatever illicit activity he schemed up, soon had a currency problem. Holding large amounts of MPC was no good because those bills only had value in-country. Back in the States, they were worthless. Piasters were a little shaky and not readily convertible out of the country without drawing undue attention, unless you were a legitimate business company. But, as long as a guy was careful, he could use MPC to purchase money orders at the military post office and mail them back home to the States. Trouble was, to stay out of the lime light, he had to find a lot of friends, acquaintances and/or willing G.I.'s, not also in the same trade, to make these purchases for him so his name didn't keep showing up. And, those straw-purchased money orders then had to be spread out to friends, relatives, acquaintances and/or willing G.I.'s on the receiving end to avoid suspicion from the same name always popping up as a receiver. Of course, if you could bribe the money order guy in the military post office that solved part of your problem.

Two weeks from now, more Black Market.