Showing posts with label R.T. Lawton. Show all posts
Showing posts with label R.T. Lawton. Show all posts

24 November 2019

2 or more persons...



There are times when law enforcement can't get some of the people operating in the criminal world. These people may be elevated in the  hierarchy, insulating themselves by using underlings to do the dirty work, thus appearing to keep their own hands clean. Or, they might be fringe players who contribute goods or services to other criminals, which then allow the crimes of these lawbreakers to go forward. Under these types of circumstances is where the smart investigator looks to the conspiracy laws.

The general conspiracy law is found in 18 U.S. Code 371. Conspiracy to commit offense or to defraud the United States. If two or more persons conspire either to commit any offense against the United States, or to defraud the United States, or any agency thereof in any manner or for any purpose, and one or more of such persons do any act to effect the object of the conspiracy, each shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.

From there, some specific conspiracy laws can be found for specific crimes. For instance, illegal drugs/controlled substances come under 21 U.S. Code 846. Attempt and conspiracy. Any person who attempts or conspires to commit any offense defined in this sub-chapter shall be subject to the same penalties as those prescribed for the offense, the commission of which was the object of the attempt or conspiracy.

So now, let's construct a simple drug conspiracy case.

Let's say that Jorge and Billy Bob are sitting in Nogales, Sonora, having a few tequilas and bemoaning the fact they're driving broken down pickups instead of Ferrari's. As a possible way out of their lowly financial predicament, Jorge mentions that he has a cousin in the cocaina business. Maybe if he asked nicely, this cousin would front him a kilo of high grade coke. If so, would Billy Bob be able to transport the kilo across the border to Nogales, Arizona, cut it with milk sugar so they then had two kilos of 40% cocaine and sell it to distributors that Billy Bob knew on the U.S. side? Billy Bob replies, "Hell, yeah." And so it begins.  There's no crime yet, but it is rapidly heading that way.

We now have two or more persons in agreement, or conspiring to transport and distribute cocaine in violation of 21 U.S. Code 841, Distribution of a Controlled Substance. Next, we need an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy.

Jorge goes to his cousin in the local cartel and gets a kilo fronted to him. He then waits for Billy Bob to return from the U.S. side of the border. Jorge just committed an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy and is about to commit more.

Billy Bob has gone to his buddy Larry in Nogales, Arizona, and asked to borrow his fishing boat which has a concealed hiding place built into the fiberglass wall. Larry's not so sure, but finally agrees after Billy Bob explains about the fronted kilo and offers to pay Larry a thousand dollars for the loan of the boat and trailer to smuggle the coke across the border. Larry helps Billy Bob hook up the the boat and trailer to Billy Bob's pickup. Larry has now joined the conspiracy and both have committed overt acts.

Billy Bob drives down to Sonora, meets with Jorge and they hide the coke in the concealed space and fill the empty air space leftover with coffee grounds because they had heard that keeps drug dogs from sniffing it out. More overt acts. Billy Bob heads north and catches a lax search at Customs. He continues home, where he calls an associate to bring over some milk sugar to cut the coke. Agreeing on a price, the associate delivers the milk sugar and leaves. The associate has now joined the conspiracy, plus committed an overt act.

Billy Bob cuts the coke and fronts a half key each to three different friends. A week later, these three friends pay Billy Bob the agreed upon price because they have sold enough to acquire some cash. Billy Bob goes over to Larry's house and pays him the thousand dollars. He then drives south, meets Jorge in a bar and pays what he owes him. A whole bunch of overt acts, plus violations of other federal statutes. Our conspiracy to distribute cocaine is well under way.

Okay, so how do we build the case and prove it in a court of law?

One method would be the use of a Title III, also known as a wire tap. Let's say a reliable informant was sitting at the table when Jorge and Billy Bob had their initial discussion and he then relayed that information to us. We used the info to get a Title III warrant, set up a house with recorders and a tap on Billy Bob's phone, and started listening in on calls. A surveillance team sets up on Billy Bob's house. The first calls we get are the three friends saying they sold their product and are coming over to pay Billy Bob for the coke he fronted them. Surveillance verifies they showed up. Billy Bob calls his associate and says he's coming over to pay for the milk sugar he cut the coke with. Surveillance verifies he went to the associates house. Billy Bob then calls Larry and says he's coming over to pay him the thousand dollars for using Larry's boat with the concealed hiding place to smuggle the cocaine. Surveillance follows Billy over to Larry's house and back. Billy then calls Jorge to say he's coming down to the bar to pay for that kilo of fronted cocaine. Surveillance verifies the trip south and the meeting.

Or, maybe we insert an agent into the group as a buyer and he gets to meet other conspirators and witnesses some overt acts. Plus, if one of the conspirators flips, then they could all be toast. That's one of the reasons we make deals for a lesser sentence.


In any case, we go to grand jury with recordings and surveillance, or witness testimony and surveillance. We also have phone records to back up testimony. (NOTE: Use of a communications facility is both a separate crime and an overt act.) Border crossing records, financial records and sales receipts, if you can find them,for the milk sugar, also back up testimony. With your normal undercover buy, you usually only get the dealer who sold you the drugs. In our conspiracy case here, we got seven clearly involved defendants. And, if Jorge flips, then we start working on his cousin and the cartel.

I think you can see how the conspiracy laws allow us to cast a wider net and catch more fish. I would like to think that the conspiracy laws keep criminals awake at night, but most of them don't think that far. That's why we call it dope. They have to be right every time. We only have to be right once.


29 September 2019

KDP Paperback Decisions


by R.T. Lawton

Warning. Today's offering may give you a headache. It covers number of pages, font and font size, cost of printing, cost per page, book size, pricing and royalties to be received when you convert an e-book to a KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) paperback, or even just going straight to KDP paperback.

Naturally, if you can get your manuscript printed by a traditional publisher, then good for you and your book. That option just might keep you from eating Advil by the handful like M & M's. Traditional publishing will do all your book formatting, printing and distribution work. You may have to handle your own publicity, but then, unless you are with one of the big houses, we are getting there anyway. And, with an advance (assuming you get one) plus with traditional distribution, you may get paid more money. I've heard more money is generally a good thing for writers.

If you don't go traditional, then you will have to figure out a way to publish your book on your own. Create Space used to be one option for your manuscript to get printed in paperback form, however Create Space doesn't exist anymore. Amazon gobbled it up. KDP took the software it wanted and developed its own method of getting the job done. So, assuming you are going the KDP paperback route, allow me to make you aware of some of the decisions you will have to make.

Size Matters

Bigger is not necessarily better. There is a balancing act to consider. The number of pages in your book is determined by the number of words in your manuscript, the font used, the size of the font, the size of the book itself and how much fluff you put in  it. As examples, we will use the six e-books I've converted so far. Each paperback is in Garamond font with a 13 size. It is easy to read and is an accepted font. Change the font type or size and you will have more or less pages. All my books are 5.5" x 8.5", which is an acceptable size. Change the book size and you will have more or less pages.

Why does the number of pages matter? Because when KDP starts calculating their share versus your share of the profits, they deduct a base amount for printing, plus a small amount for each page in your book, plus their royalty. So, in my 162 page paperback with a selling price of $8.99, the total printing cost is $2.80, my royalty is $2.60 if Amazon sells it and $.80 if another distributor sells it. My 210 page paperback at the same selling price of $8.99 has a total printing cost of $3.35, the royalty is $2.02 with an expanded royalty of $.23 if sold by another distributor.

Price

You can set your own price, however KDP will tell you the minimum price you can set on your book. When you run the figures on their calculator for this minimum price, you may find your royalty is no more than a penny and your expanded royalty is in the hole, meaning no other distributor will sell your book. But then, you are going to set a high enough price to make a decent royalty, yet not so high that no one will buy your book. Right? The KDP calculator lets you enter your figures and in return, it provides you with what the costs and royalties will be.

Fluff

Every book has what I call fluff in it. Usually, fluff is not reading material, but it is necessary to the book. Examples are the Table of Contents, the copyright page, the Bibliography, the About the Author page, a list of other books by the author and however many blank pages are needed to get certain pages to fall on the right side of the book. You may or may not also have an introduction, pages of quotes from reviewers, an acknowledgement page, etc.

My books have six unnumbered pages in the front, followed by the numbered pages with story on them. Since 9 is my brand and all my books (save one) have 9 in the title, each book has 9 stories in it. Now, because some of my stories have a smaller word count in them, which makes for a smaller book, I will then throw in a 10th story in that series and call it a free Bonus Story. Also, to advertise another of my paperbacks, at the end of most of these books, I will add up to five pages of a story from a different book. Naturally, these five pages end on a cliff-hanger with an inducement for the reader to buy that next book in order to finish the story. You should know though that all these pages up the cost of printing.

Author Copies

Remember that $2.80 printing cost and that $3.35 printing cost? That is roughly my price to obtain author copies. Interestingly enough, when I do order author copies, I can get up to 999 at a time. Why draw the line at 999? I have no idea. Maybe because Amazon is switching away from Fedex and UPS to their own delivery system called Amazon Prime (I've seen their trucks) and therefore they are afraid of hurting their deliverymen's backs? Personally, I wouldn't know what to do with that many copies of my books.
NOTE: Author copies do not qualify for Amazon Prime free shipping.

Covers

I won't go into covers except to say that KDP's free Cover Creator software does have some nice generic designs where the author adds his own title and back cover blurbs. But, for my purposes, I use the art work my buddy does.


Let us know if you try KDP paperbacks and how well that process works for you.

25 August 2019

My Small Business Plan


by R.T. Lawton


I'm not getting rich from my writing sales, so I'm grateful I don't have to rely on writing for my main income, otherwise my office would be a cardboard box in some alley with a long extension cord running up to someone's outside electrical outlet. You know, for a coffee pot and a computer.  In any case, regardless how you look at your writing, it's probably best in the long run if you have a business plan. For one thing, you want to keep track of your income and expenses (lots of expenses) so as to avoid paying too much to the tax man. Seems he always has one hand in your pocket.

So, having said that, here's the accounts receivable part of My Small Business Plan. It's got to be a small plan, you see, because I only write short stories, which don't pay much over any one year period, and the occasional cowboy poem, which doesn't pay at all. The important thing is, I have a plan and I'm finally using that Business Degree which Uncle Sam paid for after I responded to that nice letter draft he sent me way back in 1966.

Mine is a three-part plan

Part 1 - Short Stories
     I write short stories for paying markets. First submissions go to the higher paying publications. In case of a rejection, I work my submissions down the payment ladder until the story sells or goes into inventory. All of this is common sense and most writers already know this part. Moving on.

Part 2 - Reprints & Other Secondary Markets

   I was surprised one day to read about a market call from a company named Great Jones Street for reprints. This was a startup venture to put short stories on cell phones where readers paid a subscription to read the stories. I sold them seven reprints for $500 while they were collecting a base inventory. Ultimately, they got on the wrong side of the ledger and went out of business.
     In a different situation, Otto Penzler paid me $250 to use one of my reprints in one of his many anthologies. Since then, I've seen other markets for reprints. It's like found money.

     Another good use of short stories, whether they were previously published or not, is putting them into e-collections. So, after I had a list of previously published stories, plus an inventory of unpublished short stories, I started looking at Amazon for Kindle and Smashwords for other e-readers. Both of them are free to setup your e-books, all you need is to figure out how to format e-books. It is a different setup for each of the two companies, but due to advances in software, it is now easier than it used to be. Fortunately for me, I had a Huey pilot friend who made the mistake of saying, "I can figure that out." And he did. In 2011, we turned some of my short stories into four e-collections: 9 Historical Mysteries, 9 Twin Brothers Bail Bond Mysteries, 9 Chronicles of Crime and 9 Deadly Tales. Kindle paid royalties by EFT and Smashwords paid via PayPal. Then in 2018, we added two more e-collections: 9 Holiday Burglars Mysteries and 31 Mini-Mysteries. These last two led to Part 3.

Part 3 - Paperbacks
     Kindle Direct Publishing recently acquired Create Space, which published paperback books. It was while uploading one of my last two e-books that I was faced with a new situation at the end of the upload. The Kindle software inquired if I wanted to also publish my e-book as a paperback. What the heck, one more form in which to offer potential buyers a choice to spend money on my books? I immediately checked yes only to discover that I needed my cover in a different format for this option. After all, an e-book only needs a front cover, while a paperback needs a front cover, a spine and a rear cover.

I went back to my Huey pilot friend. He is now figuring out the requirements for a paperback and we are working on the final details. The paperback has a fixed charge, plus a very small charge for every page, none of which the author pays upfront. It's all covered by the buyer when he purchases the book. First, you need to decide what size of book you want and the size of font you prefer. Those two items and the length of your manuscript will determine how many pages your book will have. Then, KDP has a program where you enter the number of pages your book will have and the program will tell you the minimum price you have to put on your book, which is also the cost to KDP for printing your book. Naturally, you want to make a profit, so you also enter the price you want to charge and the program will tell you your royalty profit. Simple, huh?

Well, we'll see. Seems there's a bleed factor on the cover when it comes to cover size. My friend says he's got it figured out, and while he did teach me how to fly OH-6 and OH-58 observation helicopters, I think this cover and formatting thing is over my head. It's nice to have friends.

QUICK UPDATE: A week and a half ago, the 1st paperback went live. We are now working on the conversion of the other five from e-book to paperback.

You've now heard about My Small Business Plan. Do you have your own plan? Feel free to share. Or are you still working on one? We'd like to hear about that too.

28 July 2019

Finding Your Niche


by R.T. Lawton

When I was chief judge for the Edgars Best Novel Award a few years back, I started to notice how many niche books were out there in the mystery genre. Our panel of judges read approximately 410 novels for that one year, so I would say that makes a fairly good sample of what was selling to publishing houses at the time. Some of those books I'll call craft books because they used knitting, quilting or some other craft as a background for the mystery story to be set in.

Cooking was another setting some authors used. These novels usually contained a recipe or more to enhance the cooking part of the mystery. And there were wine specialty backgrounds, presumably for wine connoisseurs who liked their mysteries consumed with wine. Evidently, for some, there is nothing like selecting the right wine to pair with the latest suspect. Plus, there are mysteries set in pet backgrounds with dogs or cats or birds, and of course horses for those equestrians among us in the mystery reading audience. In the past, I've even seen bird watcher series where deceased humans pile up as birds get watched.

As I recall, none of the niche books scored high enough  with our panel of judges to make it into the Nominee Round, HOWEVER, upon looking at the list of prior books written by some of those authors contending for that year's Edgar, some of those lists ran to ten or twelve published books. I don't know how much money these niche authors were making, but they had found a background category with a large enough readership, that some houses considered those niches profitable enough to keep on publishing in them.

So, where am I going with this thread? Here's my thoughts. If you want to be a published writer and really think you have the writing and marketing skills to produce the next Great American Mystery Novel and sell it to one of the big traditional publishing houses, then go for it. See if you can reach out and grab the gold ring on your turn around on the carousel.

BUT, if for some reason, you don't make the big time--after all, the top of that pyramid is rather small and not a lot of authors will fit up there--and, you still want to be published, then you may want to find yourself a niche of some kind that no one else is currently using. Most of the craft, cooking and pet backgrounds are already taken, so unless you've got a new twist on those categories, I'd suggest finding your own niche in a different category. Find something fresh, something mind-catching, something where a jaded agent or editor can raise their hands and say, "Eureka, an author with a story we can sell!"

Now the hard part. You do realize you are on your own to find your special niche? Personally, I would recommend brainstorming sessions with other writers and possibly some with non-writers who are big readers. Rum and Coke has been known to lubricate the creative process of brainstorming, each to his or her own. And, remember that no idea is totally wrong, it may just need tweaking to make it acceptable. Some ideas may take more tweaking than others.

Here's some of my niche examples. When looking at the historical mystery market in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine,  I found short stories set in ancient Greece, ancient Rome, medieval England, old China, old Japan and the Old West. All well taken by other authors. So, I researched other historical backgrounds with inherent conflict already in place; locations no one else was currently using. One of my series became the Armenian, set in 1850's Chechnya where the Russians had designs on moving into India and Afghanistan.  The Tsars in Moscow fronted off the Cossacks as border guards to fight the Muslim Chechens.  The Cossacks disliked the Russian troops quartered in their homes, while at the same time had much in common with the Chechen culture and standards, the people they were fighting. Over 150 years later, they are still fighting in Chechnya, so every time that area makes the news, I get free advertising. My Shan Army series set in the Golden Triangle with opium warlord rivalries during the time of the Vietnam War became another historical niche, as did my 1660's Paris Underworld series involving an orphan, incompetent pickpocket during the reign of Louis the Fourteenth, the Sun King.

Dave Zeltserman found a new short story niche by creating a new type of private detective sidekick, a miniature processor, named Archie, with the artificial intelligence capabilities of seeing and hearing. The human detective wears Archie as a stickpin on his clothes and uses him to gather clues in his cases. Naturally, since Archie has AI abilities, he tries to guess the solutions to various crimes in competition with his owner's decision as to who did it and why. For all the data available and the processing abilities Archie has, he is usually a mental step or two behind his human counterpart.

Chris Muessig found a couple of niches in AHMM and EQMM. One with his pro wrestling series and secondly with his Jake Miller during World War I series. I am a fan of Jake's journey from training camps on the East Coast to the ship taking troops across the Atlantic to the killing fields of France. There is always a great mystery involved.

Barb Nickless, a novelist, found her niche with her creation of a protagonist working as a railroad detective. When she needed access to a real-life railroad detective in order to do research for her series, I introduced her to one. It must have worked out, because she now has book four under contract. Her Ambush, book 3 is a great read.

All those examples noted above were niches other authors weren't currently using. And, they worked out quite well.

How about you? Any thoughts on the subject? Any niche that is working for you?

Don't be shy. We all love to hear about what worked, and...even what didn't work. As for me, my EZ Money Pawn Shoppe series, my Bookie series,  my 1900's Perfume River series and my 1900's Boer War series failed to make the cut. I'm still looking around for a new niche that piques my interest.


30 June 2019

My Writing World as I See It


by R.T. Lawton

A few weeks ago, Michael Bracken wrote a blog piece, "With Malice Aforethought," which discussed writer motivation, motivation in general, short stories versus novels, not shooting the horse you rode in on, dopamine rush, and risky behavior. Love it. At the end of his article, Michael expressed an interest in the how's and why's of writer motivation and the hope that research will come up with some of the answers. Several of our fellow Sleuth Sayer bloggers then responded with their own personal experiences.

So, here's another view on those topics. Naturally, one subject's story is an anecdote, and it takes lots of data or anecdotes from several subject's to put together a research project. Towards that end, here's some more anecdotes, plus a few thoughts on the topic.

From Kindergarten to Senior year in high school, I went to eleven different schools. Yeah, we moved a lot. Other than immediate family, the main constant in my life was taking refuge in books. Oddly enough, a parallel existed there, because the world in the book being read changed with every new book I started, just like my world changed with every move to a new place. All that starting over may have resulted in my short attention span when it came to writing, thus my leaning towards a short story career. Hey, it could happen that way.

Massive reading eventually led to the inclination to write my own stories. Especially when I would read a not-so-good-story, and then tell myself that I could do a better job. Sad to say, the latter part of that declaration did not happen right away, else I'd have better stats now.

This issue of AHMM contains "The Horse,"
8th in my Armenian series set in Chechnya.
People make plans and yet life has a habit of getting in the way. Sure enough, Uncle Sam decided he couldn't quite pull it off alone, so he sent me a nice letter requesting my assistance with his SE Asian program. I gave him two years, nine months and twenty-nine days, to include my one year in-country working on his program. In return, he graciously paid the rest of my college fees and tuition.

Guess now we get to the dopamine and risky behavior part that Michael mentioned. As Ernest Hemingway once said, "In order to write about life first you must live it." Since dopamine and adrenaline are first cousins, I ventured out to live life after finishing college. Twenty-five years on the street working risky people made good fodder for stories. All I had to do was learn how to write these stories down. I'd already tried a creative writing course in college. Couldn't relate to it. Seems I wasn't cut out to be a literary author. Time to reboot.

At the end of most working days, vice cops and federal agents, in the 70's through the 90's, had the habit of stopping at some neighborhood bar to wind down, let off the tension. Inevitably, stories would be told around the table about that night's happenings, or even favorite stories from past raids, arrests, surveillance or undercover incidents. The best stories got the most laughs. That's when I found I was a  storyteller. Time to think commercial market. Just needed to learn how to put words on paper in the proper format. Seems that, for me, is an ongoing process with occasional speed bumps.

I finally found my niche in the mystery genre, writing short stories about the criminals, cons and scams I'd run into on the streets. In my writing world, achieving the big-time market, after small press magazines and ten-dollar payments, started when Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine's writer's guidelines on their web page said they were looking for stories set in an exotic location. Conveniently, I had one set in the Golden Triangle of SE Asia. Cathleen Jordan, the editor of AHMM at that time, bought my story and I got one foot in the door. After that, it was put everything I could think of into a story and don't hold back on material. So far, it's been a good run.

my spurs
To date, I've sold 44 short stories to AHMM, with an acceptance rate of 72.13%. On the other hand, my acceptance rate at their sister magazine, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, can never get any lower than it is right now. HUH ! But, if I had a third hand, so I could once again say "on the other hand,"  I'd say that anthologies have become a sometimes lucrative market.

Since my numbers for published novels is zero, I, much like Michael, am not going to shoot the short story horse I rode in on. Me  and that particular horse are currently on very good terms. I've even taken off my spurs after all those years in the saddle and retired them to my writing desk. The horse knows they're off my boots, but he can see them still there in case they become necessary again.

I know I won't live long enough to catch up with Ed Hoch's record of 450-some short stories in EQMM, and his 60+ short stories in AHMM, but I will hopefully continue to plug along, until my vision fails.

In the meantime, fare thee well and keep on writing.

R.T. out.


26 May 2019

When Life Gives You Limoncello


by R.T. Lawton

Let's say you just finished your short story or novel. Your creation is complete. It's been a long, hard journey getting to this point, but now you find yourself with a feeling of contentment, exhilaration. You want to celebrate while this good feeling lasts, and rightly so. But what to use to mark this short celebration?

A beer? Yes, beers are good, but no, that's a common every day drink. Champagne? Not really. Cheap champagne isn't that good and the good stuff is pricey. Besides, you've only completed your creation, you haven't sold it yet. A cocktail? Well, that's more like being on vacation or for some serious drinking. Actually, what you need is something different, something special and something within your budget.

The small glasses that Limoncello is normally served in
I've got just the thing. You know that old saying, "When life gives you Limoncello, you must've done something special." Okay, it's not an old saying yet, but if enough people get behind it, then it will become one. So now, I'm going to teach you how to make your own Limoncello. The same stuff they serve on cruise ships when it's Italian Night. This way, this same fine liqueur will be handy when you do something special, like finish your short story or novel.

The glass I serve me in




Assemble the following:

8-10 ~ large lemons
1 ~ 750 ml of vodka (we use Tito's for its smoothness)
7 ~ cups of whole milk
1 ~ cup of Half & Half
4  & 1/2 ~ cups of sugar
1 ~ vanilla bean
cheesecloth
a few 12-16 ounce glass bottles (empty wine bottles work too)

Limoncello in an EZ Cap bottle for a gift
Naturally, we helped our friends consume half of their gift
Ready, Begin:

1. Zest the lemons. For you guys who aren't familiar with the term, it means fine grate the outside of the lemons. Now, combine the grated peelings and the vodka in a large glass container, cover (or use a lid), and store in a cool, dark place for ten days to infuse the vodka with a lemon flavor. [NOTE: the remaining body of the lemons can be used to make lemon juice or some tasty lemon meringue pies.]
2. After ten days are up, strain the liquid through the cheesecloth into a large glass, ceramic or stainless steel bowl.
3. In a large pot, combine and warm the milk, the 1/2 & 1/2, the sugar and the vanilla bean over medium heat, stirring frequently until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and let cool to room temp. Take out the vanilla bean, wash it and save the bean for another use. Strain the mixture through cheesecloth into the bowl containing the vodka infusion. Stir the two liquids together.
4. Funnel into whatever bottles you have, leaving enough room for the liquid to expand. Store in the freezer.
5. About an hour before consumption, remove one bottle from the freezer, so the contents can return to liquid form. Pour into small glasses and enjoy. Any leftover Limoncello may now be stored in the refrigerator or back in the freezer. Depending upon how often you tip the bottle, or how many friends you share with, know that the shelf life is approximately six months on any remaining Limoncello.

There you have it. Have a good celebration. Then get back to work. You still have to market that splendid creation you just finished writing.

PS ~ Limoncello in EZ Cap bottles also makes nice gifts for close friends.

28 April 2019

Left Coast Traveler


by R.T. Lawton


A Steely Dan anthology, available June 24, 2019
Old Saying: Getting there is half the fun.

Visiting places like Canada and Mexico used to be so simple. You merely went. To get back, you might have to show a driver's license or a birth certificate and declare what you bought or otherwise acquired in that country, but life was easy. Sure, going to Europe was all passport and customs officials, but that was another continent, another world away, and to be expected.

And then came the Left Coast Crime Conference being held at the end of last March in the nice Canadian port city of Vancouver. Since Canada considers itself to be our trading partner ( as opposed to being some third world country like several islands in the Caribbean), they prefer that we southern cousins spend Canadian currency when we make purchases in their country. After all, we don't accept their money in our country. Fair is fair. Plus, there is a fee to exchange money if it's not that particular country's currency. So, we went to Wells Fargo Bank in advance of our trip and acquired $200 Canadian. Fortunately, most of our expenses could go on our credit card, one which charged no fee for the conversion.

Author book signing for Steely Dan anthology at LCCC
Continuing. The last time we renewed our passports, we forked over the extra $35 each to also get the credit card sized passport which is allegedly valid for Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean islands. We were quickly all packed and ready. Then we found we could not use our home computer to print out our airline tickets. Since our flight was designated as an International flight, we had to show a passport to get our tickets. Okay, so we drove to the airport on the morning of our trip to acquire the tickets and catch our plane.

Law Enforcement Panel at Left Coast Crime Conference
Whoops, the credit card sized passports did not work in the ticket kiosk. They only take the paper booklet passports, which we were just paranoid enough to have with us anyway. Got tickets. Flew to Denver to change planes for the second leg of the journey. In Denver, had to show tickets AND passports in order to board the aircraft. Landed in Vancouver. Beautiful and very modern airport, but had a long walk high in the air to an area where we found machines that read our passports, asked a series of questions and took our photos. The machine then printed out a receipt with our photo on it which we gave to the non-uniform man guarding that area. (NOTE: if you are wearing a hat or glasses, those items must come off for your photo, and again for the man guarding that exit.) We proceeded through a long roped-off maze and descended to the ground transportation exits.

The harbour (their spelling) three blocks from conference hotel
For those of you who have taken a taxi from La Guardia Airport to mid-Manhattan in New York, you already know your life is not your own.. Those drivers all consume quarts of Red Bull and train on dirt tracks somewhere in the Appalachians. Our driver in Vancouver had evidently won several trophies on that same dirt track. We paid him in Canadian dollars, along with a hefty tip, glad to have arrived unscathed. Turned out, it was a $31 Canadian flat fee from airport to our hotel. As the proverb says: Time is Money. I assume that our driver was merely trying to maximize his ratio of dollars per minute. During our running conversation darting through the streets, I also learned he is the one who is teaching his teenage children how to drive so they can get their drivers licenses. I expect there will soon be more racing trophies on the family mantel.

One end of the sea plane docks
The LCC Conference was excellent, many good panels, great people to converse with, much good info acquired, lots of laughs, fine food, nice beer, discovered several local bakeries for pastries and morning coffee, walked down to the harbor sea wall, watched sea planes take off and land, saw the steam clock operate in Gas Town, and had a very great time.

Sunday morning, we caught a cab to the airport. Did better at the ticket kiosk, got tickets and found we were TSA Pre-Approved. Yay! Finally managed to find where they had located the security lines. Could not find the TSA Pre-Approved line. Turns out that TSA Pre-Approved doesn't mean anything in Canada. Nice security man put us in a line anyway which used the metal detector arch, instead of the giant x-ray after which they always want to pat me down for some reason. Can't be my good looks. Got dressed again and walked a long maze to a different passport reading machine area. Inserted passports, answered questions for the machine, took my hat off and it took my photo. Presented my photo receipt and passport to a uniformed guard at the area exit. Told my wife later that I thought the guard had a U.S. Customs badge on his uniform. Turned out, we had gone through U.S. Customs while still in Canada. Walked another long maze to the departure gate. Had to show ticket AND passport to board the aircraft.

Made it home.

Now what do I do with the $20 in Canadian bills, the Toonies, the Loonies and the other coins we didn't spend?

Guess we'll just have to go back to Canada for another writers conference.

31 March 2019

The Grapes of Writing


by R.T. Lawton

There are those, none of whom you fine people know, that would kindly suggest I am a slow learner. That's because it has been fifty years since I took my first creative writing class and yet I have only managed an approximate average of not quite three published short stories per year during those five decades. And due to the multiple rejections in the early stages of my writing infancy, I had to greatly increase the editorial acceptances in my older age to even remotely approach said average. I think this falls under the category of There is Yet Hope For Those Writers Just Beginning.
photo by Dragonflyir in wikipedia

And no, I will not discuss the dismal grade I received in that creative writing course. Suffice it to say that due to sleight-of-mind and the ability to take quick advantage of a developing situation, that particular grade does not appear anywhere on my university transcript. Perhaps it was those surreptitious talents that subsequently led me to a twenty-five year career on the streets as an undercover agent for a certain federal law enforcement group. In any case, said low grade which I received for the class should now give even more hope to beginning writers for their own future success in the field of writing. I.E., if even I can do it, then they surely can.

As for grapes and writing, the analogy goes like this. There are those of us who pick the grapes off the vine (or get them from the grocery store, depending upon where you get your inspiration), wash them, cook them and end up with a tasty homemade jam. We'll call this the John Floyd method of writing. It's done in one day, it's easy to keep your focus on the end product and it's something that almost everybody enjoys as is proven by our esteemed colleague's more than one thousand published short stories, plus some books.

Okay, at this point, we'll skip the fact that John sometimes writes the end of his story before he starts the beginning. We'll skip this because it doesn't fit the tasty grape jam analogy. And for those of you you out there who are overly obsessed with details and have to know if these particular grapes are red, purple, black, green, Concord, or even seedless, just lighten up. Have a cold one and consider all these aspects of the grape to be genres and sub-genres within the analogy.

Moving on.

Now, other people, myself for example, will take those same grapes, wash them, squeeze them and put them in a vat with a quantity of sugar, yeast and water and let the mixture ferment for a while. That's because I have a different vision for the grape. Occasionally, I look in on the process and check the specific gravity, but I'm generally in no hurry. Many, many days later, I filter and bottle my product to age. Fortunately, this ongoing procedure allows me to keep a mature glassful at my elbow while working on my computer, which greatly aids in my development of obscure analogies. We'll call this the R.T. Lawton method of writing. It takes longer, doesn't appeal to everyone (depending upon your personal taste), fits my particular frame of mind, pleases my taste buds and keeps the muse satisfied and talkative. Yet, it too ends up a marketable product.

At this point, someone is sure to say, "Yeah, but don't let it set too long, because it will turn to vinegar." And you know, that someone is right. Regardless of which product you're making, you really should take it off the shelf and try it in the market place to let other people savor the flavor of your creation.

So, whether you are a fast writer or a slow writer, the next time you see a bunch of grapes, you know exactly what to do. Proceed immediately to the kitchen and make yourself some peanut butter and tasty grape jam sandwiches and/or pour yourself a glass of your favorite wine. Then hurry directly to your computer and start writing down those story ideas before they grow old and mildew. And, very importantly, remember to enjoy yourself.

You'll have to excuse me now. It appears that my glass is more than half empty and I'm thinking about a refill.

Ahhhh! I wonder if The Grapes of Wrath was written by one of these methods?

24 February 2019

Remembering Miami 1980


by R.T. Lawton

The Chinese have a saying that runs along the lines of "May you live in exciting times." For a guy who was 12 years out of Vietnam and had joined federal law enforcement, for the adrenaline, 2-1/2 years after the SE Asian tour, Miami became a very exciting time.

It was late summer of 1980 and Miami was pretty much an open city. Castro had emptied his prisons and mental hospitals of those who could get someone to pick them up in boats at the Port of Mariel. Other Cuban citizens bribed their way out to join the flotilla headed to Florida. These people soon became known as the Marielitos. Some of the ones who made it to Miami ended up being held in the Orange Bowl stadium, but with the beginning of football season, they were moved to Liberty City, a tent city under an I-95 overpass inside Miami. (Think Scarface with Al Pacino as a rising drug lord in Miami.) The noise under the overpass from constant traffic was relentless and overwhelming. Plus, tent city residents had trouble finding a sponsor to get them out of the place, and those that did had trouble getting jobs because they didn't speak English. Faced with depression and a bleak future, some of them would do almost anything to survive. Like the song says, it's the lure of easy money.

Meanwhile, the go-fast boats were coming in with their loads from the Bahama banks, the Cocaine Cowboys were in full swing moving their product, mother ships were coming up from Colombia, airplanes were dropping their loads in the Florida swamps where drug crews waited to retrieve the illicit cargo, and dealers were taking grocery sacks of U.S. currency to local banks after their sales. In the beginning, dealers merely weighed their money until they got their own counting machines. If a van carrying a couple hundred pounds of marijuana got in a wreck on the Interstate, the driver and shotgun rider simply walked away and disappeared into the populace. Drug dealers were shot by rival organizations who left the drugs and cash behind to show it was just business, a territory thing, not a drug rip-off. After a while, all that left-behind money with no one to claim it became a temptation to some of the responding homicide cops. Some of that money got split up and disappeared. Later, some of the left-behind drugs also got split up and sold instead of going into evidence. Nobody was going to claim ownership of the drugs anyway was the theory. When the time came there wasn't enough drug homicides to respond to, some of the dirty cops created their own. Honest cops weren't sure who to trust. One of the honest cops came over to us and later testified to what he knew.

With all that drug money to spend, Miami underwent a building boom. Money talked and some got richer. Others got dead.

The Miami Regional Director sent one of his agent groups south on an interdiction program to the Caribbean. To replace his lost manpower, he drew from other offices for a "special." I went down to Miami on a "special" op, along with agents from Minneapolis, the Arizona border, the Texas border, New Orleans, and other offices. We took over the duties of those guys gone off to the Caribbean program. Our new group worked with the U.S. Coast Guard on the northbound mother ships laden with tons of pot. Some nights, we found ourselves off the Miami coast with Customs, hunting in wolf packs to catch the go-fast boats coming in from the Bahama banks. We ran our own go-fast boats seized from previous smugglers. We conducted surveillance on clandestine landing strips in the Keys. We escorted tons of seized pot up to the incinerators in Orlando just to get rid of the massive inventory in evidence. It's a heady time, just keep your automatic handy. Bullet proof vests weren't in vogue yet.

We ate our suppers in Cuban restaurants and did our laundry down in Miami's Calle Ocho, the Cuban district, hoping no one recognized us from some of our excursions in the city or out on the water. There's a Latin rhythm on the streets and Mambo clubs at night, with Cuban beauties escorted by macho males in high Cuban-heeled shoes. It's a style, a culture, a living on the edge. Easy money and quickly spent. Miami Vice isn't far off.

Eventually, someone in the main office got the bright idea to "sell" some of the massive pot inventory in a sting operation. A few hundred pounds (after the court case is done) was transferred to a rental truck parked inside a rented storage unit. Marijuana brokers who are unaware they are dealing with undercover agents, go out and solicited buyers for our product. The broker and the buyer show up at the storage unit, money changed hands, the pot load was taken and they leave. The broker goes his own way. He isn't bothered yet because we need him to bring in more buyers, but a few miles from the site, the latest buyers are stopped and arrested. Samples are taken from each pot bale for evidence in court and the remainder is driven back to the storage unit to be "sold" again. Naturally, the buying money is seized for court and forfeiture. The recent buyers? They're going away for a long vacation in the grey bar hotel.

Then comes the alleged time when an unmarked police car pulls up to the storage unit and two men get out. One shows a badge, identifies himself as a plain clothes cop to the undercover agents and then draws his gun. The other guy checks out the rental truck and prepares to drive away with the pot. The cop with the badge is getting ready to kill the undercover agents until they identify themselves. Then it becomes chaos and paranoia. Badge guy beats feet for his unmarked cop car, but is quickly surrounded. The other guy tries to drive off in the rental truck. Surveillance agents descend on the scene en masse. One agent allegedly steps up on the rental truck's foot board on the passenger side and empties his .45 into the rental truck driver. He then steps down and the truck crashes into a tree. That's the end of the "sale" program.

Like the Chinese said, "May you live in exciting times." Yeah, I think I did. Hard to imagine all that was almost four decades ago, and yet some scenes and faces are as vivid as if they were just last week.

So raise your glasses to those who were there in a time gone by.

A toast to the old days now faded into history.

Exciting times.

27 January 2019

On the Subject of Murder


by R.T. Lawton

You've seen the large print headlines of your local newspaper. You've heard the news from your television commentators. Someone, or even several people, were murdered. Maybe the victim was shot down in the street. Or maybe multiple bodies were found in a house. Police are investigating. If you're lucky, these murders didn't happen to anyone you know. But, if you live in a large city, these type of local headlines seem to occur with a growing frequency. And, regardless of where you live, it appears that people are going crazy.

How the hell did we get to this point?

According to Dr. David Buss (author of The Murderer Next Door), an evolutionary psychologist, who examined over 400,000 FBI files of murderers, "the vast majority of murders are committed by people, who until the day they kill, seem pretty normal." Now that's a scary thought. The world was so much more tidy on my end when I could consider psychological misfits and stone cold street criminals as the prime candidates for being the guys that kill. So now, I have to watch out for Uncle Benny who takes umbrage at me kidding him for still wearing a bow tie after all these years? And what about Neighbor Jim who thinks my grandkids took a shortcut across the corner of his lawn? Am I destined to be doomed by Joe Everyman? What is pushing that normal everyday person over the edge and converting him into a killer?

I'm glad you asked. Conveniently for us, Dr. Buss, besides examining those 429,729 homicide files in the FBI system, also conducted a fantasy homicide study with 5,000 subjects, 175 of which were actual murderers. (Guess for these latter few, it wasn't just a fantasy.) Out of this total group, 91% of the men and 84% of the women had had at least one homicidal fantasy. These were vivid fantasies, often going into great detail. That's a lot of people thinking about murder and how to do it. No wonder bodies keep piling up in novels, and the mystery genre is doing so well.

Fortunately, most of the study participants got their homicide fantasies worked out in other ways to resolve whatever the original problem was. What seemed to separate the non-killers from the killers? Fear of being caught and sent to prison was a common response. However, when asked if they could commit the murder without being caught, most men thought the chances of them going forward would increase about fourfold. So, it appears that if you have caused someone to suffer mentally and/or socially and are still alive to read today's post, you may owe your life to the cost/benefit ratio of committing murder these days. Perhaps, television shows like CSI, where the investigators identify the criminals within an hour by forensic science, have had a positive influence to help keep down the murder statistics to some degree.

In the doctor's fantasy study, public humiliation was the leading factor for especially violent and detailed fantasies when disposing of the tormentor. Now, think of the teen bullied at school, or the guy who lost his job and blames his boss or coworkers. You've already seen those headlines. Seems like a certain amount of social cost and psychological pain to a person's pride and reputation can make for that person taking a bent towards revenge, where the next step may be a giant one called murder.

Under the right circumstances, it appears that most people are willing to kill. And, it's not all for pride and reputation. You've probably heard lots of people say that they would kill to protect their children or themselves from being killed. How about you? How far would you go to protect family and/or yourself? Depending upon the laws in your state, the act of killing another person under certain circumstances may not make you a murderer, but the act itself does make you a killer.

So now, let's go one step further. Have you had your own homicidal fantasies towards someone who has seriously tormented you? If so, then I hope those thoughts worked as some kind of therapy for you, and you could then put those fantasies out of your mind and get on with your life before doing something stupid.

Dr. Buss thinks we can maybe design environments that prevent the stimulation of those feelings which lead to murder. I don't know exactly what the doctor has in mind, but us showing a little kindness to those we cross paths with just might help some with the daily grind of living that we all get caught up in. A few kind words, a compliment here and there, a helping hand. See if we can make this a better world without so many dark headlines. Maybe we can save a few lives and not even know it.

Of course, authors can still murder people, as long as they only do it in books.

31 December 2018

The World Revolved and We Resolved


Happy New Year!  To celebrate the occasion some of the regular mob here decided to offer a resolution for you to ponder.  Feel free to contribute your own in the comments.

It has been an interesting year  at SleuthSayers and we hope it has been one for you as well.  We wish you a prosperous and criminous 2019.

Steve Hockensmith. My new year's resolution is to write the kind of book that I would really enjoy reading but which will also have a decent chance of finding an enthusiastic publisher...which might be the equivalent of resolving to lose 30 pounds by only eating your favorite pizza.

Eve Fisher. Mine is to break my addiction to distracting myself on the internet.  


John M. Floyd.  
1. Read more new authors.
2. Write more in different genres.  
3. Let my manuscripts “cool off” longer before sending them in. 
4. Read more classics.
5. Search out some new markets. 
6. Cut back on semicolons.
7. Go to more conferences.
8. Go to more writers’ meetings.  
9. Get a Twitter account.
10. Try submitting to a contest now and then.  This one’s low on my list—I avoid contests like I avoid blue cheese—but I probably should give it a try. (Contests, not blue cheese.)   

Paul D. Marks. I resolve to watch fewer murder shows on Discovery ID and murder more people on paper.

Barb Goffman.  My new year's resolution is to finish all my projects early. Anyone who knows me is likely rolling with laughter now because finishing on time is usually a push for me. Heck I'm often writing my SleuthSayers column right before the deadline, and I'm probably sending in this resolution later than desired too. But at least I'm consistent!

Janice Law. I resolve to start reading a lot of books- and only finish the good ones.

Stephen Ross.  My New Year resolution is to FINALLY finish a science fiction short story I started two years ago, but have yet to think of a decent ending!

Steve Liskow.  I love short stories but find them very difficult to write. I've resolved that I will write and submit four new short stories in 2019.  My other resolution is to lose 15 pounds. That will be tricky since I don't know an English bookie...

Art Taylor. My resolutions are pretty regular—by which I mean not just ordinary but recurrent; for example, I’m redoubling my resolution to write first and to finish projects—keeping on track with some stories and a novel currently in the works. I fell short on my big reading resolution of 2018 (reading aloud the complete Continental Op stories—still working on it!) but I did keep up with reading a list of novels, stories, and essays set in boarding schools (related to my novel-in-progress) and that’s a resolution that’s continuing into 2019 as well, with several books recently added to the list, including The Night of the Twelfth by Michael Gilbert and A Question of Proof by Nicholas Blake. I know these might seem more like “things to do” than “resolutions” but that’s how I plan, I guess! For a real resolution, how about this one? Be nicer to our cats. (They’re demanding.) 

Robert Lopresti.  Back in 2012 I won the Black Orchid Novella Award for a story about a beat poet named Delgardo, set in October 1958.  I am currently editing his next adventure, which takes place in November 1958.  In 2019 I want to write "Christmas Dinner," which will be set in... oh, you guessed.

Melodie Campbell. This fall, we found out my husband has widespread cancer.  He isn't yet retirement age, so this has been a shocking plot twist.  In the book of our lives together, we have entered a new chapter.

That metaphor has become my new resolution, in that it is a new way of looking at life in all its beauty and sorrow.  I am a writer.  I have come to view my life as a book.  There are many chapters...growing up, meeting one's mate, raising children, seeing them fly the nest.  Even the different careers I've tried have become chapters in this continuing book.  Some chapters are wonderful, like the last five years of my life.  We don't want them to end.  Others are more difficult, but even those will lead to new chapters, hopefully brighter ones. 
May your book be filled with many chapters, and the comforting knowledge that many more are to come.

Leigh Lundin.  Each year my resolution is to make no resolutions.  A logical fallacy probably is involved.

R.T. Lawton.  I tend not to make New Year’s resolutions anymore. Why? So as to not disappoint myself. At my age, there are fewer things I feel driven to change, and for those circumstances I do feel driven about, I make that decision and attempt regardless of the time of year.

For instance, there is the ongoing weight concern, but I hate dieting or restricting myself from temptation. Other than working out, my idea of a dieting program these days is not using Coke in my evening cocktails. Instead, I’ll merely sip the Jack Daniels or Vanilla Crown Royal straight or on the rocks. Not many calories in ice. On the days I gain a pound (weigh-ins every morning), I can usually guess why. On the days I lose weight, I have no idea why. My best weight loss (usually five pounds at a crack), mostly comes from some health problem I did not anticipate and which involved minimal eating for a few days. Naturally, I’m eating well these days, so we’re back to the temptation thing.

As for any writing and getting published resolutions, that’s a constantly renewable action, however, I can only control the writing and submitting part. The getting published part is up to other people and beyond my control, except for e-publishing.

For those of you making New Year’s resolutions, I wish you much success and hope you meet your goal. And, to spur you on with your commitment, let me know in June how well you did.

Have a great New Year!

30 December 2018

Stealing Christmas?


by R.T. Lawton

     T'was the night before Christmas, and all through the casa,
     not a creature is stirring, Caramba, que pasa?
     The stockings are hanging, con mucho cuidado,
     in hopes that St. Nick will feel obligado.
                   *          *          *
     But Santa esta at the corner saloon,
     muy borrachito since mid-afternoon.
     ............


Whoops wrong version. I use to hear the above poem on the radio at Christmas time when I was a kid in New Mexico. Guess it was so different that parts of it stuck with me. Allegedly, that version of the poem was written by Robie, Anita and Juan LNU (Last Name Unknown) in 1930 for a Spanish class at Indiana University. I rediscovered it recently through the power of the internet and found that several versions of it have been recorded by various Latin musicians.

Of course, you probably know the English version rather than the Spanglish one. And this brings us to the original Christmas Eve poem. "Twas the Night before Christnas," originally known as "Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas," first published in 1823 in a New York newspaper. At the time, the author for the English version was that infamous guy known as Anonymous. Seems that in those days, "great gentlemen" considered it beneath themselves to publish in newspapers, so they used the byline of Anonymous.

Within two decades after first publication, the English version had been reprinted several times and received great popularity with the American public. At this point in its rising popularity, two different camps stepped forward to claim authorship. There are facts to to support both claimants, so you can take your pick.

If you find yourself as more of a traditional person and being resistant to change, then you will probably go with the original claimant, Clement Clarke Moore, a bible professor of German extraction. If you are a fan of technological advances, then you will probably go with Major Henry Livingston Jr., a gentleman poet of Dutch extraction. Both were New Yorkers and Livingston was distantly related to Moore's wife.

No original document of the poem has surfaced, and Moore later explained that he was too embarrassed at the time to acknowledge what he considered to be a trifle. Supposedly, a friend of his was the one who submitted the poem to the newspaper. In 1844, at the request of his family, Moore finally took credit as the author, however, it is alleged that before he took the credit, he first wrote to the newspaper to inquire if anyone there knew who the original author was. By that time, those who knew the real name of the author were dead.

When the poem was first published, two of Santa's reindeer were named as "Dunder" (Thunder) and "Blixem" (Lightning), which is Dutch. Years later, when Moore hand wrote some copies of the poem, he named the same reindeer as "Donder" and "Blitzen," which is German. Moore spoke German, but not Dutch. Livingston spoke Dutch.

The Livingston family claimed that Major Livingston wrote the poem, but they had no physical proof to their claim. In recent years, the family sought the help of Don Foster, an English professor at Vassar University. He is also a scholar of authorial attribution. Foster made comparisons between the Christmas poem and Moore's body of works, beliefs and personality. He also made comparisons between the poem and Livingston's body of works, beliefs and personality. The end result was that Forster said Livingston was the author. Critics claimed that a bible man such as Moore would never make such a false claim. Foster countered with an incident of Moore hand-writing in the front of a sheep farming manual that he had translated this book from French into English, however, a small copyright in the back of the book gave that credit to someone else.

Then, in 2016, Emeritus Professor of English at the University of New Auckland McDonald P. Jackson published a book in which he analyzed the opposing arguments. Jackson used modern computational stylistics and statistical analysis of phonemes. His conclusion was that Livingston wrote the Christmas poem.

So, in short, there you are. You can dig deeper into the various arguments, comparisons and what facts do exist, or you can just choose a side and enjoy the poem regardless. The original claimants and their witnesses are all deceased, so we can't polygraph any of them now to see who is telling the truth. Bottom line: Somebody tried to steal Christmas, but which claimant is the original author and which is the Grinch?

Happy Holidays to you and yours!

That's another thing. One claimant said Happy Christmas instead of Merry Christmas.

Just make sure your works get a copyright, even those you may consider to be a trifle. Who knew?


25 November 2018

Hey, I'm Writing Here


by R.T. Lawton


So, here I am writing at my computer on a Friday morning somewhere around 10:45, minding my own business, preparing my next blog article in advance so as to stay ahead of the game. For some reason, I glance out the study window. Across the street, but not parked at the curb, sets a black Jeep Cherokee, pointing in the wrong direction for that side of our cul de sac. The driver is leaning forward in his seat like he's reading the dashboard or looking at something on the floor. He stays in that position for a while, but his head moves occasionally, so I'm pretty sure it isn't a problem where I'll have to out and give him CPR. I go back to writing.

About five minutes later, I glance out the study window again to check on the vehicle. It hasn't moved, but the driver is now standing on the rear bumper. On the roof of his Jeep, he has positioned an orange Home Depot bucket, a reddish one-gallon plastic jug and a length of rubber hose. One end of the hose is in the bucket and the other end disappears over the driver's side of the vehicle. Obviously, the poor guy has run out of gas.

Since my vision has declined to the point where the state no longer allows me to drive at night, I call my wife into the study and ask her if it's anyone we know. She replies in the negative, watches for a few seconds and then goes upstairs and starts taking pictures. Unfortunately, her cell phone camera focuses on the screen mesh in the storm window. She then goes out the back of our house and shoots off a few more from the corner of our garage. I need to get that woman one of them long range lenses.

I pick up the binoculars to see what the guy is doing now. He keeps pulling up on a cloth to cover his lower face. I tell you, something ain't right here.

Two neighbor women who frequently walk together for exercise, pass by the guy and barely notice him and his actions.

Well, you can take the cop out of the street, but you can't necessarily take the street out of the cop. I abandon my writing, put on my hat, lace up my tennie-runners and exit the rear of my house to walk around to the street. Wished I'd a had a baseball bat to carry along, but I'd given both bats to my grandsons years ago when they got interested in baseball. Could have taken my 9mm, but I'm not law enforcement anymore. Civilians get in trouble for shooting other people, even shooting criminals if it's a non life threatening situation. This appears to be a misdemeanor, which is a non capital crime. Oh sure, we have the Make-My-Day-Law, but the guy isn't in my house, so no free shots here. I'm better off, at this point, not carrying a firearm. Still, the bat would have been a good idea because the guy is in his twenties, slender, about 5'10" and healthy. Me, I've managed to put more than seven decades behind me, but while my mind still thinks it's got it, my body is not so sure. It's like having the brains of a fighting rooster with the body of a..... Never mind, form your own picture.

By now, the guy is sitting on the curb beside my neighbor's red Jeep. The guy's head is almost inside the red Jeep's rear wheel well. His head comes out when he hears my approach.

I lead off.

"Does Frede know you're siphoning gas out of his Jeep?"

The guy remains unruffled and calm.

"Yep."

Well, hell, that slowed me down. I expected a shouting confrontation or to have the guy make a dash for freedom. Nothing.

Next question.

"How do you know Fred?"

"From school."

Now he's got me because Fred is a college professor and I've had at least one other weird run-in with some of Fred's strange associates. Something about an early morning encounter a few years ago when a young woman crawled underneath this same red Jeep and staying there while her male companion tried to get her out. And, no, she wasn't a transmission mechanic. People sure are entertaining.

One way to find out what's going on this time. I head up the sidewalk to Fred's house. At this point, the guy immediately jumps up, runs to his car and drives away. Me being armed with only pen and paper, I jot down his license plate number and go ring Fred's doorbell. Fred comes out in his stockinged feet.

The gas thief has punctured the gas refill hose above the fuel tank with a knife, stuck one end of the hose into the line and down into the gas tank. By sucking on the other end of the hose, he got the fuel moving and then stuck that end in the bucket. The gas was still siphoning out of the red Jeep when Fred got down on his hands and knees to look into the wheel well.

Amazingly enough, a uniform cop shows up to take statements and make a report. I transfer the photos my wife took over to the cop's cell phone. Unfortunately, there are no photos of the thief's face, but then he kept the lower half covered anyway. Turns out the license plate comes back to a green Jeep Cherokee, not a black one. Probably a stolen plate.

All this happened in broad daylight in a nice residential area. Pretty bold for a thief.

I tell my wife we may need to start up a mini-neighborhood watch, just for our cul de sac. She agrees, but then she probably wants to be in charge of the photography department.

I also tell my two grandsons that I want my bats back. I'm not going out there un-weaponed again. Hell, I'm over seventy and have more writing to do.

Damn distractions.

                                                           *     *      *      *

On a side note, the Best American Mystery Stories 2018 put my name in their list of Other Distinguished Mystery Stories of 2017 for "Black Friday" AHMM Nov/Dec 2017. According to John Floyd's record keeping, that's my third time on their list. Now, if I could only edge over into the Top Twenty category.

28 October 2018

The Rashomon Effect


by R.T. Lawton

In 1922, a short story titled "In a Grove" by Ryunosuke Akutagawa was published in the January edition of the Japanese monthly, Shincho. This short story tells a tale about the rape of a samurai's wife and the subsequent murder of that samurai from the point of view of several different characters, and with contradictory information from one character to the next.

Twenty-eight years later, movie director Akira, Kurosawa (famous director of The Seven Samurai) used Akutagawa's short story as the basis to make his 1950 film, Rashomon. Similar to the short story, Rashomon is a tale told by four witnesses to a rape and murder: the bandit, the samurai's wife, the murdered samurai who tells his part through a medium, and a woodcutter who appears to have no bias in his telling. All of the witnesses seem to agree on some facts, but disagree on others. These disagreements on the same incident though, may be subjective, self-serving or due to the ego of that witness. Because of the contradictions in the stories of each witness, the actors in this film asked the director which version was the truth. Kurosawa replied that his film was meant to explore multiple realities rather than just one truth.

Then along comes Martin Ritt, who remakes the Japanese Rashomon into a 1964 American western titled The Outrage. Paul Newman is cast in the role of the bandit Juan Carrasco, William Shatner as a disillusioned preacher, Howard Da Silva as an unsuccessful prospector, Edward G. Robinson as a cynical conman. and Paul Fix as an old Indian shaman. Laurence Harvey plays an aristocratic Southerner married to Nina, who is played by Claire Bloom. At the bandit's trial, Juan (Paul Newman) claims he killed the husband (the Southerner) in a duel. The wife claims she stabbed her husband to death because he blamed her for encouraging the bandit, which led to the rape, while the dead husband (through the old Indian shaman) claimed he committed suicide as the manner of his death. The prospector has a fourth version for the trial.

In later years, television and movies used The Rashomon Effect to reveal "the truth" in the final version of some of their stories, which put a neat and tidy ending on those Hollywood's stories. However, in real life, a Rashomon effect is more like what cops deal with on the street whenever an incident happens, especially one that involves the emotions or prejudices of the witnesses. By the time interviews start with an incident involving law enforcement, the recollection of the events and timeline, descriptions of perpetrators and vehicles, types of guns or if there actually were any guns and/or the type and color of clothing worn by alleged suspects can vary quite a bit.

For our purposes as writers, The Rashomon Effect may be defined as a story told by several witnesses or alleged witnesses to the same incident. Each story as told by a separate witness and from their Point of View, will have some of the facts straight, but their story may also be colored or influenced by their personal biases, opinions, or even flavored to benefit themselves or others. Each witness story will contradict some of the alleged facts in the stories of other witnesses. The final version may be "the truth." Or not.

Curiosity led me to research The Roshomon Effect. And now that I have, I'm intrigued enough with the process to attempt a short story using that method. I already have the main characters and a skeleton plot mapped out. Now, I merely need to write my six-part story and see if all the contradictory parts fit.

But then, it's always something, isn't it?

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And now for a little Blatant Self-Promotion:

The November/December 2018 issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine has my story, "Vet's Day," 11th in my Holiday Burglars series. As with many of the titles in this series, I like putting double meanings into the title. In this episode, Beaumont finds himself compelled to do a favor for his old Army First Sergeant who once had Beaumont running an off-the-books NCO Club in a Muslim country in exchange for an early out from the military. Due to a lack of personal funds, Beaumont figures the only way he can complete the favor now asked by his old sergeant is for him to commit a strange burglary. And, in order to talk his partner Yarnell into going along with him on this job, Beaumont must agree to something that Yarnell wants in return.

NOTE: Fellow SleuthSayers Michael Bracken and Rob Lopresti also have short stories in this issue.

Catch ya later.

30 September 2018

Just Another Day at the Office


by R.T. Lawton

Okay, I was going to write something about Bouchercon for this Sunday's blog, but not too long after I got back from St. Petersburg, there was a curious letter in my stack of mail. The letter was addressed to me at my home and had a return address from the Colorado Springs Police Department. First off, they never write to me about anything, and second, if it's not a request for help of some kind or a speaking engagement, then it can't be something good.

My wife opened the letter and told me I might be in trouble. I grabbed the letter and started reading. It seemed that I was hereby being notified that in accordance with the Revised Municipal Code of the City of Colorado Springs and the Colorado Motor Vehicle Laws that the following vehicle has been impounded:

     Vehicle:    1990 WHI JEEP WRANGLER          Lic. Plate:   CO960YCR
     VIN:         2J4FY29T7LJ516354                         Impound #  3259-18
     Reason:    RECOVERED STOLEN               
     Date:         09/17/2018          J Strachan  1778

The storage fee was $30 a day and if the vehicle was not claimed, then it would be sold at auction on 01/14/2019. Also, I could not claim the car after 4 PM because they close the office at that time.

WOW!

This was a lot to think about, mainly because I had never owned a Jeep Wrangler of any year or color, much less an old 1990 white one. And, to my knowledge, I had never owned or licensed any vehicle which had been subsequently stolen. Was this a scam letter? If so, how were they hoping to get the money? Had I missed something? Or was this a new type of sting operation run by the police to see if someone would try to get a vehicle on the cheap by making a false claim and bonding out the car? And most importantly, why was my name and address tied to a stolen vehicle?

Time to do some sleuthing.

I called the telephone number for the police impound lot. Not the number on the letter. I knew better than to do that, thus I called the number on their internet website. Turned out to be the same number. So much for being cautious. After a long taped recitation of my choices as to which button to push in order to speak with the party I needed, I finally got put on hold until a real person came on the line. I explained the situation and that I had never owned this Jeep, nor did I know anything about it.

The impound lot employee was polite and sounded helpful. He plugged the impound number into his computer and started checking.

HIM: "So when you took the license plates off..."
ME:   "No, no, I never owned the vehicle. I don't have anything to do with it."
HIM: "Okay. Well, the new owner picked it up today."
ME:  "That's good, but how did my name and address get associated with the stolen Jeep?"
HIM: "Just a minute, I'll check the file."  LONG PAUSE  "The DMV said that's who the VIN came back to."
HE & I in CHORUS:  "Have a good day."

Next step, drive to the DMV and wait in line. Twenty-four people in the vehicle registration line ahead of me. My ticket number in the queue is 654. Drivers license people and other problems get different group numbers than the 600 series. I settle in. Just before I fall out of the chair asleep, the loud speaker announces my number.

At Desk #3 (there are well over twenty numbered desks surrounding our cattle pen), I hand my letter from the impound lot to the nice lady and explain my problem. She also takes my driver's license for proper identification and then consults her computer. After much careful looking, she assures me the VIN on the stolen Jeep in my letter is not registered to me.

"Then how," I inquire, "did the police department get my name?"

"Well," she says, "the name on the VIN is very close to your name."

It appears that I got caught in the scatter gun approach to legal notification. And that was all the information I could gather. I never did find out the owner's name, nor whether he was the new owner or the old owner, nor the complete circumstances of the stolen Jeep. You know, like who stole it to begin with and how was it recovered?

It's tough not being in law enforcement anymore, a position where people would give you the rest of the story.

Now, it's just another day at the writing office.

What next?