Showing posts with label crime. Show all posts
Showing posts with label crime. Show all posts

17 January 2021

The Bank Job


bank vault

In the waning days of my stint at Data Corp, a bank-owned subsidiary in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, security auditors visited the company. These stern-faced men and women differed from bank and financial auditors. They studied physical facilities, detectors, alarms, and personnel. They reminded employees that banking is serious business.

Thus it came to pass, they paid particular attention to me, rogue hired-gun, expert in multiple languages and knowledgeable in the intricate arts of operating systems and the mysterious software void. I had delved deep into the labyrinth of the sacred OS and lo, I not only survived the puzzles of the Minotaur, but my reputation grew, a mark of my shadowy powers and the peril I represented.

Sandman, Matt… how different could we be? Birds of a feather, cut from the same cloth, tarred with the same brush. The auditors were determined to unmask… Danger Man.

Caught between the security professionals and Data Corp’s need to keep me around, the company assigned their top programmer to watch me, to make certain no Harry Potter magical enchantment passed my fingertips to the detriment of the Eastern Seaboard banking community. My transition from legendary hero to potentially a bad, bad boy had the spectacular effect of enhancing my dark reputation amongst the fair sex of the Shenandoah Valley. That’s a story improper for a scholarly work such as this.

“It’s nothing personal,” said the vice president.

“It seems personal,” I said. After the fiascos with Sandman and then Matt, I felt peeved, petulant and perhaps a little petty, those p-offed adjectives. Later, I would become better known for guarding my tongue, but I childishly couldn’t resist showing off. “The auditors are looking in the wrong place. They shouldn’t be suspicious of talent, but of simple vulnerabilities. I bet I can have money out of the bank and on your desk in 24 hours.”

“I don’t believe in gambling.”

“Neither do I. I prefer certainties. Wanna wager?”

“You’re serious?” He sighed. “We have to tell them.” He started to beep the chief auditor but stopped himself. Cogs visibly turned in his head. On the off chance I was right, why reveal weaknesses to the auditors? “How?” he asked.

“The obvious everyone overlooks.”

“It’s obvious you’re presumptuous.” He didn’t say it unkindly. The vice president leaned forward on the edge of his chair, hands braced on his desk. I could see his mind churning, thinking over the computer rooms, an entire floor of programmers’ offices, the banking terminals scattered around the counties. “It doesn’t mean you can’t be right.”

Neither of us believed in gambling, but for different reasons. The VP was a pious man. He said, “I don’t bet, but I will pay you five bucks if you can pull it off.”

I said, “Fair enough. One thing though– keep things as they are– no extra security just because of this, okay?”

He muttered under his breath. If he hadn’t been a religious man, it would probably have sounded something like, “arrogant sodding bastard.”

 A Draft In The House

A few hours remained before my self-imposed night shift, so I visited the banking center off the lobby. I bought a money order to pay my phone bill, watching every move the teller made. Afterwards, I went back to my rooms to sleep a few hours.

The vice president fibbed about not stacking the deck against me. That evening for the first time, a guard searched my flight case as I entered the computer facility. The VP also ordered the data vault closed, a concrete and steel room with a blast-proof door. If I needed a data cartridge, I’d have to ask Nagle, the watchdog programmer they’d hung around my neck, to fetch it.

Like a personal albatross, he watched every move, my every keystroke. As I rolled my chair between consoles, he followed, straining to see if I attempted anything unusual. I simply did my job, asking him to give me breathing space as I studied program code.

We ordered Chinese food. Nagle consumed his with coffee rather than tea, striving to stay alert. I asked what his instructions were and he said he’d been directed to keep a special eye on me. “They think you’re up to something.”

green-bar, fanfold paper
green-bar, fanfold paper

“I am. I’ve got to debug this by morning.”

From time to time I pulled ‘green-bar’ stacks of paper off the big high-speed printers. I had a well-known propensity for leafing through paper listings, giving my eyes a rest from luminescent computer screens. Nagle had wearied from working all day, but occasional requests for tapes or discs kept him awake.

Taking great precautions but overlooking a small, seemingly insignificant but crucial details is only human. Long ago, I’d remarked upon one of these details to the computer room operators who’d forgotten by the next morning. They had stuffed a box of Christmas Club checks on a panel of the control unit next to the printer, handy if they had to make a quick check run. Nothing sinister about printers, right?

I asked Nagle to fetch a data cartridge from the vault as I gathered a listing from the printer, I simply tore off a sheet of three checks and slipped it among the pages of my printout.

An hour after midnight, I dragged manuals and listings into what tellers called the ‘back room’, and spread them out on work tables. To enter the computer room, operators and officials had to pass through a couple of electronically locked anterooms into the data center.

It was also possible to pass from the lobby into the customer area of the banking center where lexan barriers protected the teller area. Behind the glass, trusted employees could pass through the back room to the computer room itself– and vice versa. The computer room contained a photo lab at the back, which the security auditors didn’t like since it gave non-computer people access to the servers.

MICR cheque imprinter
MICR check imprinter

The back room was of special interest to me because it contained a small machine I needed, a MICR imprinter, a shoebox-size device with a simple keyboard used to encode the special magnetic ink numbers along the bottom of a check.

During the day, the back room was used by clerks to spread out reports and by tellers to imprint deposit slips and checks as needed. During the evening, operations bundled and unbundled stacks of checks and imprinted the occasional ‘carrier’, a glassine envelope for damaged checks. By night, I used the same room when I needed an expanded work area. Nagle stopped paying attention to me when I left the main room because the tellers’ back room contained no computers.

I’d never used the imprinter before, but I’d watched the operators. My plan was to key in the account number the bank used to pay me and that’s when I discovered the bank had made my task easier– and an easier crime for anyone else to carry out. When I filched the checks, my famed 007 powers of observation had been running low because I hadn’t inspected them closely. Rather than print individual account numbers on Christmas Club checks, the bank used one general account thoughtfully pre-printed on the checks along with the routing and serial numbers. The check numbers linked a given check to a customer. I didn’t need the MICR imprinter after all.

cheque numbers

I discovered something else. Next to the MICR machine were open boxes of bank drafts and money orders accessible not only to tellers, but any person who strolled in from the computer room. They were sequentially numbered and I had no idea if anyone took note of the number in the mornings. I took samples out of the middle.

Back in the computer room, Nagle was nodding off. He headed for the coffee machine.

Green-bar program listings from large computers were printed on continuous ‘tractor-feed’ fan-fold paper stock that were packed and stacked in a zig-zag fashion. The printer prints one accordion-pleated side only– the back is almost never used and, when fastened in a binder, the back is never seen. In other words, a page was actually two sheets back-to-back attached at the leading edge and bound at the back. It formed a pocket, perfect for nefarious smuggling.

Visit Bob Lemke's
vintage cheques

Cue Mission Impossible theme.

Uncapping a glue stick, I dabbed the drafts and the Christmas Club checks and tucked them within the multi-fold pages. James Bond had nothing on me.

Binder in hand, I told Nagle, “I’m going upstairs for an hour. I’ll be back.” He gratefully closed his eyes in the operations office. The security guard, mystified by the runes of technology, only cursorily glanced at the listings.

I needed time and privacy to duplicate the same type of printing on the draft and the Christmas Club check. From the tractor feed paper and proximity to the printer, it was easy to deduce the Christmas Club checks were printed on the high speed impact printer, a device the size of a roll-top desk capable of churning out hundreds of pages in seconds. I needed to duplicate its distinctive type face, so on one page of the program I had been working in, I’d printed a sample: my name, ‘FIVE AND ***’, and $5.00. All I needed was a way to emulate the printer’s font.

Beating the Draft

The bank draft presented a different problem. The name on the draft I purchased in the afternoon was printed using a monospace sans-serif font, and it wasn’t similar to any I could find on the PCs commonly used in the office. I was surprised– They had almost everything.

I expanded my search. Nothing. I didn’t have access to Illustrator or Photoshop. I couldn’t log onto the Adobe site for a matching font, and it didn’t seem sensible to pay them more than I was going to collect.

But wait; I was overthinking. The vice president expected me to engineer a hi-tech crime, but I’d gone lo-tech. Where had I seen an IBM Selectric? Chase’s secretary’s desk. The office kept a couple of typewriter balls in a junk drawer. I picked the most computerish style and dropped the font ball into the typewriter.

I tweaked the positioning and ran a test copy on plain paper. When I held it up to the light in front of the blank draft, it looked close. I adjusted the margins until I was satisfied and printed one of the drafts made out to me with several zeros in the amount. I repeated the process with one of the Christmas Club checks made out for five dollars.

Leaving the draft in my desk, I set the Christmas Club checks aside. No sense taking them back into the computer center.

I wrapped up early for which Nagle was grateful. The guard glanced in my briefcase. Seeing no wads of bills or bullion, he let us go.


After sleeping until noon, I drove through a branch drive-thru and cashed the $5 Christmas Club check. Back at the office, the security guards perked up. They gave my briefcase a thorough going over. Finding nothing incriminating, they let me pass.

When I casually strolled toward the vice president’s office, he glanced up and waved me in. “Any luck? You’ve just a couple of hours left.”

“Oh, yes. Here’s a bank draft made out to me, all legitimate looking. I didn’t cash it so I wouldn’t screw up the bank’s accounting.”

His lips thinned when he saw the number of zeroes. Pinching it between two fingers, he looked it over carefully with narrowed eyes. He set it aside as if I had handed him a used tissue. “You said you could get money out which I took to be cash.”

I pulled $5 from my pocket and put it on his desk.

“You’re conceding?” he asked.

“No.”

“What’s special about this?”

I put the receipt on top of it. “It’s from the bank’s Christmas Club account.”

Never before had I witnessed a ‘basilisk stare’. For a moment, I worried I’d crossed the line. However, he prided himself being a fair and rational man, and he went from personal offence to realizing I could help plug a hole or two the auditors hadn’t yet spotted.

“How much?”

“How much what?”

He sighed. “How much is this going to cost me?”

“Lunch.” I reconsidered, thinking about his tightwad reputation. “A good lunch.”

In fairness, he made it a very good lunch.

Loose Ends

Management instructed their tellers to lock away the blank drafts at night. The Christmas Club checks they moved into the vault as they should have from the beginning.

Nagle told me he’d been yelled at, but the shouting was only half-hearted. The vice president had merely instructed him to ensure their in-house Robin Hood didn’t attempt a Mission Impossible hi-tech transfer. Instead I had come in under their radar with an old-school lo-tech crime, which made it worse. They found it sobering, but they took comfort the security auditors hadn’t detected the gaffe and the price of one lunch was right.

15 October 2020

Why I Don't Read or Write True Crime, Part Three


This is Part Three of a three-part series. For Part One, click here. For Part Two, click here

I have a jack-in-the-box in my desk, at work (for those of you who don't remember, I teach middle school history). It's not a traditional jack-in-the-box. It's an Iron Maiden (the British metal band, not the torture implement) jack-in-the-box, and it's got Eddie, Iron Maiden's ghoulish mascot, as the jack-in-the-box. It's still in the box.

This particular jack-in-the-box was a gift from a former student. And the kid who gave it to me was one-of-a-kind. As a seventh-grader he'd gotten himself into a remarkable amount of trouble, and by the time I got him as an eighth-grader his parents had tossed out all of his black clothes, his guy-liner, every piece of studded black leather, all of the things that he had worn or used to drive them crazy before the final time he'd gotten himself kicked out of school. When I met him, he dressed like a preppy, because his parents picked out his clothes and insisted he shut the door on the black leather and the emo music.

So when I mentioned that I had first seen Iron Maiden in concert as a high school senior in 1982, he decided I was alright. One thing I've learned in all of my years of teaching is that people can connect over the smallest of things. British metal band Iron Maiden was my point of connection with this young man.

His family moved out of state at the end of the year, and right before he left, he gave me the aforementioned jack-in-the-box. I was really touched by the gesture, and by how happy his family was with how much better this very intelligent young man was doing in school. So when his parents sent me a Facebook friend request before they left so we could stay in touch, I was happy to agree to it.

Three years later he killed himself. Over a girl.

I had another student once who robbed a guy in a parking lot drug deal after the guy (who was his dealer) showed him the big bag of money he had made from selling pot. So my former pulled a pistol, took the money, and jumped into a waiting car (driven by another former student of mine). The robbed dealer gave chase on foot. The robber used his gun and shot out the window as they drove off. He killed the the guy.

Both he and the driver are still in jail.


Just a few years ago I had a student who had been diagnosed with O.D.D ("Oppositional Defiant Disorder"). He spent his days at my school acting out, cussing out teachers, and doing no work. Once again I got lucky. I knew who Tupac Shakur was, and had seen him in concert when he was just starting out (how that came about is a long story in itself.). This kid loved Tupac.

So we got along. 

But I wasn't very successful at convincing him to cut other people (students, staff, you know, everyone) any slack. So he was always in trouble. It was shame too, because he was a big, funny, goofy kid. A talented athlete, too. He played basketball on a really good AAU team. He just had no common sense and a get-out-of-consequences-free (for the moment) card.

He went off to high school and I wondered whether he was going to be able to stay out of jail. 

He wasn't. 

He's been busted several times in the intervening years for a string of burglaries, and recently tried to rob a convenience store late one night. The clerk he tried to rob was armed and the two exchanged gunfire. Both were hit. And my former student ran off. He has since turned himself in to police.

These are real stories. This is literally "True Crime." I find it in no way entertaining. There's a human cost here that is painful to recall. And for me there's no escaping it.

And that's why I neither read nor write True Crime.

22 August 2020

The Case for Award Juries (why checklists are not enough)


I was once on a jury for a major award with the late, great Ed Hoch.  We did the usual thing; each of us read the entries and came back with a longlist of 10 and a shortlist of 5, and then met by phone and email to discuss our choices.

I was shocked to find that my number one story - the one I thought was a shoe-in for the award - was not even on Ed's top five list.  (It was on his top ten.)

When I stated my dismay about this story not making his shortlist, Ed said two words.

"Convince me."

And so I did.  I pointed out the brilliance of the setting - a near perfect depiction of a famous train - The Canadian - racing through the Rocky Mountains.  You could feel the train moving, hear the squeal of wheels on track.  I pointed out that the plot was unique.  No, it didn't have car crashes like the typical thrillers that win. This was a locked door mystery - one of those clever, quiet stories that led to a smiler at the end.  I had never read that plot before, and neither had he, he admitted.

"You've convinced me," he said.  And it went on our top five list.

A similar thing happened when my book, The Goddaughter's Revenge, won two major awards in 2014.  After the Arthur Ellis ceremony, one of the jury members told me that there was some discussion about whether a caper with no gravitas should be considered for the top spot, even if "deliciously unique."  But one of the jurors pointed out there was indeed a darkly deeper theme in the book:  You are supposed to love and support your family, but what if your family is this one?  How far do you go, and no farther?

It's true that Gina Gallo, a mob goddaughter, struggles with this in every book.  She won't cross a line.  But what is that line?

After jury discussion, it was a unanimous decision.  The book won the award.

We can argue that a book shouldn't need to be serious to win awards.  There are numerous subgenres of crime writing, and surely heists can be written as well and be as entertaining as noir thrillers.  If not, why do we even bother to let them enter?

However, my point is this.  In both cases, jury discussion was necessary for these two stories to reach the podium.  If we went strictly by a checklist point system, with no discussion by juries, we risk the chance that some excellent stories would be lost to consideration.

Ed Hoch reminded me that jury discussion is valuable.  In discussing the merits of a story with others, we see things we may not have seen before.  This is a huge reason why we discuss stories in schools and universities.  Why have profs like me, in classrooms leading discussions, if sending everyone my lecture notes would accomplish the same thing?  Discussion is where the magic happens.

I would say the same for award juries.  Just like in a classroom, discussion adds richness to our comprehension.  Our appreciation of an entry can increase ten-fold by listening to what other jurors find in a story that we might have missed.

Checklists alone can never do that.

Melodie Campbell writes seriously funny capers that have won some awards.  She didn't even steal them.  Available at all the usual suspects.    www.melodiecampbell.com





04 August 2020

I Write Therefore I Am


Walking the dogs. Buster above.
 Pepper (left) and Buster below.
Sometimes—often—I get tired of the writing grind. A lot of blood, sweat, tears and toil for very little reward, or so it seems. I’ll complain to my wife that I want to quit. I’ll think about doing just that. But then I think about what I would do with all that extra time. Garden? Watch TV? Read? Do hobbies? Spend even more time walking the dog.

Who would I be? My whole identity is wrapped up in being a writer and has been almost my whole adult life. I don’t think I’d recognize myself anymore if I wasn’t writing. One hears about people who retire and have these great expectations of playing golf all the time or doing whatever their fancy is and then getting bored awfully damn quick. But also losing their identity because so much of it was wrapped up in their work.

Writing is more than a job. It’s a calling. I’ve sacrificed a lot over the years to work at being a writer, so obviously it was something that was worth making sacrifices for.

And I like the process of creating something out of nothing, yet it’s too late for me to be a molecular physicist, if that’s the right terminology. Writing fiction is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle (something I don’t have the patience for). But like a jigsaw puzzle in writing you have to find all the right pieces and put them in all the right places or it just doesn’t fit.

I write, therefore I am. With my assistant, Curley.

Red Smith famously said: "There's nothing to writing.  All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein."  Even when you open a vein for the Red Cross and donate blood they give you juice and cookies.



Most people don't have an appreciation for what we go through as writers.  The hours spent alone, no one to talk to over the water cooler (though that's changed somewhat with the internet, which is a surrogate water cooler).  The opening of our veins to get to the good stuff.

Like I said, it’s a calling. And it called me very young. When I was a kid I used to set up my army men on the bedroom floor.  But often, instead of moving them around pretending they were on a real battlefield I would pretend that they were on a movie set. I was lucky enough to have one little plastic figure of a cameraman and I'd even set up my TinkerToys in such a way to mimic Klieg lights. I'd move the men around the floor, putting words in their mouths, the good guys and the bad. Making sounds of gunfire and other sound effects. That, coupled with having been born in Hollywood, literally, made me want to do something in the movies. So today when I write something I figure I'm just doing on paper what I used to do on the floor of my room, moving around letters and sentences the way I used to move "armies" across the floor. And it really all amounts to the same thing. On the other hand, I am really still playing with (and collecting) toy soldiers. See pic.

Still playing with toy soldiers.

And, when I started out as a writer I had romantic notions of what being a writer meant. Images of Hemingway sipping absinthe on the Left Bank. And though Hollywood ain't no left bank it did have Joe Allen's at the time, so I went there for drinks. Or I'd sip some whiskey while writing in my little office. But I found that if I drank while writing—or trying to write—I didn't want to write. I wanted to play. So those romantic visions of the drinking writer (at least while writing) vanished quickly as did the bottle. I also thought writers should hang out at bars and dives and soak up atmosphere or thrown beer. My first adventure out was to a well-known sleazy eatery. I sat at the counter listening for tidbits of dialogue, insights into lives. What I got was a shirt full of beer when two guys playing pool a few feet away got into a fight. Free beer, who could ask for more?  If a cop had stopped me on the way home my shirt-alcohol level would surely have been over the legal limit.  Would they have arrested me or just my shirt?
Cafétafel met absint by Vincent Van Gogh
So, though it can get tedious, though the rewards might not always come, I don’t think I could or would ever give up on writing. Ultimately, we write because we have to. We open those veins because we have no choice. And anything’s better than sitting around watching TV all day, even that vein opening.

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

"I hate saying a book transcends the genre and I honestly usually don't like books that do. This one however does and might win some awards because of it."
                                                                          —Jochem Vandersteen, Sons of Spade
                           



Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website  www.PaulDMarks.com

27 June 2020

What Went Wrong – (and pass the Scotch)


My friend and colleague John Floyd has inspired me many times, but this time for a singularly bizarre post:  Things that go wrong in the life of an author.

WHAT WENT WRONG:  The Publisher Version

1.  The publication that never was.  John, you mentioned in your recent post Strange but True, that you have received acceptance letters from publishers who then realized they sent them to the wrong person.  I can do you one better (if you really want to call it that.)

This year, I received a very public congratulations from the Ontario Library Association for being a finalist for their YA award.  I was thrilled!  It was my first YA crime book, after 16 adult ones, and they don't usually give awards to crime books.  I basked in glory and excitement for about five minutes until I realized the title of the book they mentioned was not the book I had written.  There ensued a very public retraction.  Everywhere.  And apology.  I am not sure there is anything more embarrassing than receiving a very public apology for an honour snatched back from you.

2.  It isn't often a publisher buys ads for your book and we all celebrate when they do.  The publisher of Rowena and the Dark Lord was out to create gold.  The first book in the series was a bestseller.  So they decided to throw money at book 2, advertising it at more than two dozen places.  And throw money, they did.  Throw it away, that is.  Unfortunately, the ad company misspelled the title of the book in all the ads.  ROWENA AND THE DARK LARD might be popular in cooking circles, but it didn't make a splash with the epic fantasy audience to which it was targeted.

3.  Back in the mid 90s, I was making it, or so I thought.  Had some stories with STAR magazine.  Broke into Hitchcock.  And later, big time, with Moxie magazine.  Remember Moxie?  Up there with Good Housekeeping and Cosmo? No, perhaps you don't.  I was really pleased when they offered me a 50% kill fee of $750.  Not that I wanted to collect it, but it was a status symbol back then to get offered kill fees in your short story contract.  Unfortunately, if you story is killed because the magazine goes under, ain't nothing left for a kill fee.  Big time becomes no time.

WHAT WENT WRONG:  The Event Version

1.  It's always tough when you are shortlisted for a prize and you don't win.  It's even tougher when you are actually at the gala event, and all your friends are waiting for you to be named the winner.  Tougher still, when you are shortlisted in TWO categories, and you don't win either.

But that doesn't touch the case when you are the actual Emcee for the event, you've just finished doing an opening stand-up routine to great applause, you have media there and a full house, you are shortlisted in two categories, and you don't win a sausage.  And still have to run the rest of the event from the stage.

This is why they invented scotch.

WHAT WENT WRONG:  The Agent Version

1.  No fewer than THREE big production companies have approached my agent about optioning The Goddaughter series for TV.  This has gone on for four years, and included hours of negotiating.  "Really excited - back to you on Friday!" said the last one.  That was last summer.  I'm still waiting to see any money.

2.  My first agent was a respected older gent from New York.  Sort of a father figure, very classy.  Like some - okay many - agents, he wasn't the best at getting back to us in a timely manner, particularly by email.  We kind of got used to it.  So it was with some shock that I got a phone call from another author, who had discovered that the reason we hadn't heard back from J is because he had died two months before.  Nobody had gotten around to telling us.

I have a really good agent now. She's still alive, which I've found is a huge advantage in an agent.

Here's the book that was shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award last year, along with that short story that also didn't win (pass the scotch):



Remember the A-Team?  We're not them.  
But if you've been the victim of a scam, give us a call.  
We deal in justice, not the law.  We're the B-Team.
At all the usual suspects including....

03 May 2020

20 to Go


The Rule of Four (novel)
Experts suggest the COVID-19 coronavirus took root in the US sooner than believed, possibly as early as January. Personally, I believe it infected state and federal executive branches much, much earlier.

I’ve been astonished to learn of deep-seated efforts to fire Dr Anthony Fauci. Thus explaineth the lovely Haboob:
Far left and right conspiracy theorists reach remarkably similar conclusions. Both insist Dr Fauci masterminded a Clinton Foundation-funded Deep State effort to develop a virus fabricated in a Wuhan lab. Their profit motive was to make lots of money selling the world a co-developed vaccine, but the virus got away from the Chinese. Parting from the left’s hypothesis, the ultra-right maintains that the greatest intellect the White House has ever known leapt into action, averting an Obama-driven disaster in which tens of victims might have perished were it not for this great man who saved the planet. Or something like that.
We don’t do politics or low crimes and misdemeanors, just death and destruction. It takes great writing to top the tales coming out of national and state capitals. Gathered here are twenty exquisite murder mysteries, some new, some classics, some unusual, many recommended by others (thanks Sharon), most lengthy for that immersive read.

As viruses simmer in the summer cauldron, enjoy reading in a cool arbor bower.

The Cartel Don Winslow
Cult X Fuminori Nakamura
The Eighth Girl Maxine Mei-Fung Chung
The Historian Elizabeth Kostova
The Honourable Schoolboy John le Carré
L.A. Confidential James Ellroy
The Last Tourist Olen Steinhauer
The Luminaries Eleanor Catton
The Man Who Loved Dogs Leonardo Paduro
The Name of the Rose Umberto Eco
Natchez Burning Greg Isles
The Rule of Four Caldwell & Thomason
The Secret History Donna Tartt
Shantaram Gregory David Roberts
Six Four Hideo Yokoyama
Three Hours in Paris Cara Black
What’s Left of Me is Yours Stephanie Scott
The Witch Elm Tana French
2666 Roberto Bolaño
and the novel that started it all…
A Study in Scarlet Arthur Conan Doyle

What are your favorites?

05 February 2020

Shot By Your Partner


Rob Lopresti and cat
Let's talk about Machine of Death, a concept I mentioned back in October (and will review below).  I wrote two short stories for the sequel book and both were rejected. I lamented here that the concept was so specific I would never be able to get the stories published.

And Leigh asked: “Why not put them up at SleuthSayers?”

Why not indeed?

The idea began in a cartoon by Ryan North. Imagine a machine: you put a drop of your blood in it and out pop a card telling you how you will die. It is always right.

But like oracles in thousands of years of stories, it can be misleading and ambiguous. Old age could mean a nonagenarian collapses at the wheel of his car tomorrow and runs you over. Mary could refer to your beloved wife, or a hurricane.

North edited a book with David Malki! (yes,the exclamation point is part of his name) and Matthew Bennardo. It was so successful that they announced there would be a sequel and invited submissions.

I sent in two and, as you guessed, they were both rejected. Below you will find the one that is crime-related. Specifically I wondered: How would homicide investigations operate in the world of the Machine?

I hope you enjoy it.


Shot by Your Partner

“It’s the oldest question,” said Staney. “Did Adam fall, or was he pushed?”

"The dude’s name was Arthur, not Adam,” said Merritt. “Arthur Duplessis.”

“That was a metaphor. I was waxing philosophical.”

“You better watch that waxing. Hey! There’s your cause of death. Overwaxing.”

“Uh, listen,” said the coroner’s tech. He was standing at the bottom of the staircase, examining the corpse that was the reason for the gathering. “It’s not official yet, but the cause of death is a broken neck.”

“Wasn’t talking to you, sonny,” said Merritt. “My partner, Detective First Class Staney here, refuses to tell me what the death-box predicted for him.”

"None of your business.”

“You see what he’s like. But he promised that if I ever guessed correctly he would admit it.”

“I don’t remember saying that.”

“But I do. Choking on peanut butter.”

“No.” Staney looked around what was obviously the secondary staircase for this wing of the mansion. While it was a poor stepcousin of the curving grand staircase at the other end of the floor - a football team could have run up that one without feeling pinched - it was still better decorated than his own living room. “I take it Mr. Duplessis owned this place. Who are all those folks upstairs?”

The first uniform to arrive on the scene stepped forward. Her name tag said WALLINSKY. “The victim and his wife were hosting a fashion show. There were over a hundred people in the ballroom.”

“And nobody saw anything,” Merritt guessed.

“Not the ones we’ve talked to so far. They were all watching the show. And the room was dark except for the lights on the runway.”

“So Duplessis slipped out of the ballroom,” said Staney. “An older guy, stepping out of the darkness onto a brightly lit landing. He didn’t see where he was going and he took a tumble down the stairs. Could have happened.”

“In which case we can go home early.” Merritt frowned. “Who puts their ballroom on the second floor? When I win the lottery I’m building mine near the front door.”

“Billionaires do as they please. Ours not to reason why. Ours is to figure out if Mr. D. got a boost up on the way down.”

“Uh…” said the tech.

“Spit it out, sonny.”

“I’ve found something that might help you with that.”

“We’re all ears.”

“There’s a gash on the side of his head, above the temple.”

“And he didn’t get it falling down the stairs?”

“I don’t think so, sir. More like a blunt instrument.”

“Like maybe the cane?” asked Staney.

“Cane?”

“The wooden number with the silver handle. It’s lying near the wall behind you.”

“Get the Scenies to check it for prints and tissue,” said Merritt. “What’s your name, by the way?”

“Me?” The tech looked startled. “Uh. Davis.”

“Okay, Davis. Good work. Could that blow have killed him?”

“I don’t think so, sir. But it could have made him dizzy, disoriented.”

“And then he falls,” said Staney. “Felony murder.”

“Or gets pushed,” said Merritt. “Plain old vanilla murder. Hey, that’s your cause. Vanilla murder.”

“No. But that brings up the obvious question. Did our boy have a death tag?”

“If not, it’s too late now.”

Not long after the machine was invented a clever cop took a blood sample from a corpse and ran it through a box to see if something helpful popped out, like maybe the killer’s name and address.

Instead what she got was Division by zero error. Later trials with blood samples which had been taken before the victim croaked got the same result.

Implying that, somehow, the damned machines knew when somebody died. That wasn’t widely advertised since it was, as one distinguished biologist put it, “creepy as hell.”



On the other hand, the only creepy thing about Talia Duplessis was that neither cop could tell whether she was a thirty-year-old woman dipped in too much make-up or a fifty-year-old woman who had spent a lot of quality time with expensive surgeons. She looked terrific but a little artificial.

“I can’t believe he’s dead,” she said, again. They were in the main wing of the mansion, where the lucky one-percenters lived, as opposed to the side where they entertained. The cops were interviewing her in a room she called the salon, which looked to Staney like a museum exhibit on conspicuous consumption. “He was only sixty-seven.”

“We noticed he had a cane,” said Staney.

“Yes. Arthur suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, and it was getting worse. He should have used a walker, or a scooter. But he was too proud.” She frowned. “But why did he use the side stairs? There’s an elevator in the main hall.”

“Do you know why he was going downstairs in the first place?”

“No.”

“Where were you when he fell?”

“Me?” She paused to think. “One of the anterooms on the other side of the ballroom. Ed and I were checking the last minute details.”

“Ed?”

“Ed Forillo. Arthur’s assistant.”

“What was your husband’s business, by the way?” asked Merritt. “Was he a fashion designer?”

“Arthur? He didn’t have a creative bone in his body. He called himself a facilitator of the arts. He owned fashion magazines, and art galleries. A movie studio.”

“Did he have any enemies?”

“Enemies? Her eyes widened. “What a strange word. So medieval. I guess he had business rivals.”

“Were any of them here tonight?”

“Most of them.” She blinked, still playing catch-up. “What does this have to do with his accident?”

“There’s some evidence the fall might not have been an accident.”

“Oh my god.”

“Ms. Duplessis, do you know whether your husband ever used a death machine?”

“What? Yes. Broke neck in fall.” She shuddered. “That’s what it said. I told him we should block off the stairs, or move to a one-story house. He just laughed and said he might fall out of bed but he wasn’t going to sleep on the floor.”



“Mr. Forillo,” said Staney, “what exactly did you do here?”

The assistant was a good-looking man, thin and just over six-foot. Maybe thirty years old. If he was broken-hearted over his boss’s death he was managing to conceal it.

“I am—I was – Mr. Duplessis’ assistant.”

“I understand he owned a lot of businesses. Which one did you work for?”

Forillo smiled briefly. “My paychecks came from his publishing house, but I didn’t really work for them. My job was to coordinate his schedule, and keep any of his enterprises from taking up too much of his time.”

“You were his flak-catcher.”

“Something like that.”

“We understand you found his body,” said Merritt.

A nod. “The show was almost over and Ms. Duplessis wanted to make sure he was ready to make his speech. I didn’t see him in the hall and I thought he might have stepped out for a cigar.”

“His wife objected to him smoking? Even with the new med tobacco?”

“It’s terrible for people with arthritis.”

“I guess so,” said Staney. “How did you get along with Mr. Duplessis?”

A shrug. “I’ve had better employers, and worse. The money is good.”



A squad of detectives kept at the interviews until one A.M. when a wealthy guest persuaded the deputy chief to send everyone home.

“I don’t get it,” said Merritt, as they drove back to the station.

“What’s your problem now?”

“A man with all the money in the world, knew he was going to die in a fall. Why didn’t he move to a single story house? Hell, he could have hired a guard to stand at the top of the stairs, 24/7. Both staircases.”

“I guess he didn’t worry about it.”

“It’s crazy. You don’t see me going near a domestic disturbance.”

“If you keep slipping around on Vivian, I can tell you exactly which domestic disturbance you’ll die at. Hell, I can give you the address.”

“Wise ass. Hey, have I ever asked you if you die in a Domestic disturbance too?”

“You have.”



“Duplessis left the hall around ten and left this world before ten-twenty,” said Merritt the next morning. “Lao, our tame computer geek, pulled an all-nighter creating a matrix based on the statements of the guests. We have a list of everyone who isn’t alibied by at least two people.”

“We owe Lao a beer.”

“She doesn’t drink, but I’ll send her cheeseburgers with curly fries.”

“I don’t know how anyone can eat that crap,” said Staney.

“I guess she isn’t scheduled to die of a heart attack. Have I asked—”

“Yes. How many people are on that no-alibi list?”

“Nine. Including the grieving widow and the cold fish assistant.”

“Let’s see the others first.”



“I want to be diplomatic,” said Curtis Houston. “Speak no ill of the dead and all that. Arthur Duplessis was a turd in a five-grand suit.”

Staney’s eyes widened. “What would you say if you weren’t being diplomatic?”

“Just add examples, I suppose.”

Houston’s fashion business took up most of the ten-story building where they were seated. His office had a great view in two directions.

“What would his friends say?” asked Merritt.

“Hmm. That’s a puzzle.” He frowned at the ceiling. “I imagine they’d say that whatever he paid them to be his friends wasn’t nearly enough. Duplessis was vain, arrogant, and ruthless, never forgot a slight – I once saw him get a waiter fired merely because he looked like a different waiter Arthur hadn’t liked. I’m serious. He bragged about that.”

“So, he wasn’t an easy man to get along with.”

“No one got along with Arthur. You did what he wanted or you stayed the hell out of his way. You might think the MS would have made him take a broader view of things, but it just made him meaner.”

“MS?”

“Multiple sclerosis. Talia didn’t mention that?”

“She said he had rheumatoid arthritis.”

“It was more serious than that.” Houston shrugged. “Don’t ask me how I know. Of course he wanted to keep it secret from his competitors, but I’m surprised he would lie to his wife about it. Or maybe she lied to
you.”

“How was Mr. Duplessis as a businessman?”

“The instincts of a Rockefeller. The ethics of a pickpocket.” Houston smiled. “If gravity had an email account, I’d send it a thank you.”

“What if it isn’t gravity that gets the credit?” asked Merritt.

Houston’s eyes widened. “You mean – was he pushed?”

“If he was, who had a motive? Besides you, of course.”

“Me?” He looked astonished. “Don’t be silly. I loved the man!”



The next few interviews didn’t do much except confirm that Duplessis had not been a popular guy.

Suspect number six was Charlotte Wyngood, the victim’s lawyer.

“I understand due diligence, detectives, but I hope this isn’t going to turn into harassment of my client.”

”I thought your client was dead,” said Staney.

“I worked for both husband and wife.”

“Any conflict of interest there?”

She frowned. “What’s your point, exactly? Several people have told me you are asking some pretty rude questions.”

“Police investigations can get rude,” Merritt agreed. “That’s the worst thing about murder, I’ve always said.”

“Who said murder? Mr. Duplessis fell down the staircase.”

“After someone hit him on the head with his own cane.”

“Perhaps falling down the stairs…”

“He bumped the cane hard enough to leave blood on it? No.”

“I don’t see what this has to do with Ms. Duplessis.”

“We’re checking on everyone who isn’t alibied by at least two witnesses. For example, no one saw you after ten P.M.”

Wyngood’s eyebrows went up. “Oh, that’s why you’re here. The truth is, fashion shows bore me to tears. I was in one of the little rooms on the west side making business calls. I’m sure you can check my phone log.”

“Can and will. What did you think of Mr. Duplessis?”

A thin smile. “He paid his bills on time. And gave me some interesting challenges.”

“Ethical challenges?” asked Staney.

“I don't know what you’re implying-- Excuse me.” She looked at her phone. “Oh. It’s lucky you came by, detectives. A technician has arrived to open Mr. Duplessis’ safe.”

“And under Patriot Act III law enforcement representatives need to be present,” said Staney.

“To make sure there are no terrorist funds,” said Merritt, with a straight face.

“Very commendable,” said Wyngood, dryly. “Shall we go?”



“I say we’ll find a ton of Gazas in the safe,” said Staney, in the car. They were following the lawyer, who had refused to travel in a police car, even an unmarked one.

“Mind they don’t fall on you,” said Merritt. “Is that it? Crushed by a pile of gold coins?”

“My god, don’t you ever let up?”



The safe was a state-of-the-art cube six feet on a side, residing in the back of a closet in the victim’s dressing room.

The tech from the safe company was a state-of-the-art nerd with assorted gadgets hard-wired to his body. Once he had seen the court order, confirmed that cops were present, and received a thumb ID from the widow, the actual opening of the safe happened so fast as to seem an afterthought.

And a disappointment, too. Talia Duplessis immediately pulled out a leather folder. “Arthur’s will,” she explained, and handed it to Wyngood.

The rest of the loot was paperwork, stocks, and bonds.

Merritt was the first to spot a familiar rectangle of stiff white paper. “I’ll take that,” he said, picking up the death card in a gloved hand.

He read it and his eyebrows shot up. Then he handed it to Staney.

“Ms. Duplessis, what did you say was the machine’s prediction for your husband’s death?”

“Broke neck in fall.”

“That’s what I thought. So how do you explain this?”

Staney held the card out delicately, keeping it out of everyone’s reach. In the center of the card were the words: Talia and Ed.



Ah, but that's not the end of the story!  For the rest of the investigation click here..

08 October 2019

Open Your Heart and Bleed


What are your stories about?

I’m not interested in elevator pitches—“My stories are about a plucky private eye who searches for missing labradoodles with the aid of her grandfather’s long-dead schnauzer.”—but rather about the underlying themes in one’s work.

I’m pondering this question, as I have many times before, because Barb Goffman, moderator of “Short and Sweet but Sometimes Dark,” a short story panel at this month’s Bouchercon, asked participants to send her two recently published or about-to-be published stories to aid in her preparation.

As I looked through mine, I was reminded of how often I write about the lingering impact of expired relationships. Whether relationships end by choice or not, former lovers (survivors, in the case of death) carry emotional weight all the rest of their days, and this weight, in one form or another, informs much of my fiction.

I NEVER SAID GOODBYE

Michael Bracken, Heartache-bound
I had known Vickie since sixth grade, and she sat behind me in homeroom when I was a fourteen-year-old ninth grader at Mason Junior High School in Tacoma, Washington. I visited her home, where we played games, watched television, and dined with her family. Our first date—an unchaperoned date, no less—would be the first dance of the school year, held in a multi-purpose room with a stage at one end, theater seating at the other end, and a hardwood gymnasium floor between the two. Because Tacoma had public transportation, I would take the bus from home—a mere block from the junior high school—to hers a mile or so away, return with her, and attend the dance.

Between the time I asked Vickie to the dance and the day of our date, I learned that my parents and I would be moving to Fort Bragg, California, and we were leaving the morning after the dance. I told no one.

As planned, I picked Vickie up at her home and we traveled by city bus to the junior high school. We sat in the theater seats, listening to the music and watching some of our classmates on the dance floor. Vickie repeatedly asked me to dance, but I wouldn’t. I wanted to tell her I was moving, but I couldn’t.

After a while, she grew frustrated and left. Alone.

The next day I climbed in the back seat of my parents’ car, and we moved to California.

I never saw or talked to Vickie again.

I never told her I was leaving, I never said goodbye, and I have carried that weight for nearly fifty years.

MAYBE I DID THIS TIME

I did not have another girlfriend until I was a seventeen-year-old high school senior. Yvonne, a junior, served on the school’s newspaper staff with me, and we dated during the last semester of my senior year, the same semester my mother died during heart surgery. More than a girlfriend, she was one of the few people (along with my best friend Joe and my English teacher Mrs. Richmond) who helped me cope with the loss of my mother.

Even so, I struggled with my mother’s passing, and my stepfather and I did not get along. So, my grandmother traveled to Fort Bragg to take me home with her.

I think I told Yvonne I was leaving—I hope I did—but once again a budding relationship was truncated by events beyond my control, and at least two years passed before I again opened my heart.

AND THEN MY HEARTACHES BLED INTO MY STORIES

Over the years, I have survived many additional heartaches—the deaths of loved ones, the slow disintegration of relationships that began with such promise, relationships truncated for reasons beyond my control—and those heartaches bled into, and continue to bleed into, my fiction.

So, when I selected two stories for Barb, I found myself unable to find two in which the end of a relationship didn’t play at least some small part in the tale. I chose “Who Done It,” coming next month in Seascape: The Best New England Crime Stories 2019 (Level Best Books), and “Woodstock,” forthcoming in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. (I didn’t select “Love, Or Something Like It,” forthcoming in Crime Travel [Wildside Press], which Barb edited, because the theme is much too obvious.)

I could have selected any of several other stories because dealing with the emotional weight of expired relationships has long been an underlying theme in my work, just as it has in my life.

Still, if you prefer the elevator pitches, catch me when I’m feeling less confessional.


My story “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” published last year in Tough, has been named one of the “Other Distinguished Mystery Stories” in this year’s The Best American Mystery Stories. This is the second time one of my stories has made the list (the first, “Dreams Unborn,” made the 2005 list); last year my story “Smoked” actually made it into the anthology.

Join us at the launch party for The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods (Down and Out Books) at Murder By The Book in Houston on October 21. Seven of the contributors—Chuck Brownman, James A. Hearn, Scott Montgomery, Graham Powell, William Dylan Powell, Mark Troy, and Bev Vincent—will join me to discuss the anthology and their stories, and to sign copies. If you can’t get to the signing, contact Murder By The Book. I suspect they’ll let you preorder a copy that we can sign for you and that they can ship after the event.

28 September 2019

Being a Goddess Sucks When your Characters Won’t Behave… (warning: more silly stuff from Bad Girl)


(Dave, are you smiling down on me? My comedy is back)

Recently, my characters have become more mouthy.

I like to think of myself as their creator. Goddess material. Without me, they wouldn’t have a life on the page, or anywhere, for that matter. This should buy me a certain amount of respect, I figure. Sort of like you might give a minor deity. After all, I have created five series for them to live in.

Unfortunately, my characters haven’t bought into that. Worse, they seem to have cast me into the role of mother. That’s me: a necessary embarrassment for the perpetuation of their lives. And like all kids, they squabble. They fight with each other for attention. I liken it to sibling jealousy.

To wit: “You haven’t written about me lately,” says Rowena, star of Rowena Through the Wall.

I try to ignore the petulance in her voice.

“Been busy,” I mumble. “Gina (The Goddaughter) had to get married in Vegas. And Del, a relative of hers, started a vigilante group.”

“I don’t care if she started a rock group. You’re supposed to be writing MY story.”

I turn away from the keyboard and frown at her. “Listen, toots. You wouldn’t have any stories at ALL if it weren’t for me. You’ve had three books of adventures with men. A normal gal would be exhausted. So please be patient and wait your turn. Jennie had to suck it up for Worst Date Ever. Del and The B-Team were next in line. You can be after that, maybe.”

Maybe. I wasn’t going to tell her about the 6th Goddaughter book currently in the works.

“It’s not fair. I came first! Before all those silly mob comedies,” Row whines. “Don’t forget! I was the one who got you bestseller status.” She points at her ample chest.

“Hey!” says Gina, fresh from cannoli central. “And which book won the Derringer and the Arthur Ellis? Not some trashy old fantasy novel.”
“Who are YOU calling trashy?” says Rowena, balling her hands into fists. “Just because my bodice rips in every scene…”

“Like THAT isn’t a plot device,” chides Gina.

“Oh, PLEASE don’t fight,” says Jennie, the plucky romance heroine of Worst Date Ever. “I just want everyone to have a Happy Ever After. Can’t you do that for us all, Mom? Er…Melodie?”

I look at Del, from The B-Team. “What do you think?”

Del shrugs. “Sounds sucky. What kind of crap story would that be? Bugger, is that the time? I got a second story job that needs doing. Cover for me, will you? And this time, let me know if the cops start sniffing around.”
“Cops?” says Gina. “Crap! I’m outta here.”

“Cops?” says Rowena. “There’s that little matter of a dead body in book 2…” She vanishes.

“Cops?” says Jennie, hopefully. “OH! Is one of them single?”






Book 15 is now out! THE GODDAUGHTER DOES VEGAS

(Don't tell Rowena…)