21 July 2014

My Scarlet K


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

by Jan Grape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Was she also searching for a scarlet K?

    “You been throwing up?” She asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

See y’all next time.

20 July 2014

Impossible Things Before Breakfast, 3


by Leigh Lundin

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

Wh-h-at?

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

Recap

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

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

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

The Scene

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

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

DNA
State of the State

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

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

The Unsinkable Molly O'Neal


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

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

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

So…

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

19 July 2014

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


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

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

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

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

The Inciting Incident:

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

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t follow them back.

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

So I didn’t follow him back.

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

I didn’t follow them back.

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

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

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

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

So I’m not following them back.

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

18 July 2014

Black Market Money


by R.T. Lawton

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

Summer of '67

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two weeks from now, more Black Market.

17 July 2014

The National Pasttime


by Eve Fisher

It's a golden Sunday afternoon in South Dakota as I write this, and my husband and I are headed off to a minor league baseball game later.  There's a whole bunch of reasons I love baseball.  When I was a kid, I lived in southern California, and we watched the Dodgers every chance we could on TV.  I had a major crush on Sandy Koufax.  My second favorite team, of course, was the San Francisco Giants.  And my mother and I hissed the damn Yankees every chance we got.

Now I have a theory that there is something about baseball that makes it fuel for great novels and great movies, in a way that no other sport seems to do. Granted, every sport has at least one fantastic book and/or movie based on it. And before you start screaming about why I didn't include certain movies, I know that every sport has its dying player movie (Brian's Song v. Bang the Drum Slowly, James Caan v. Robert DeNiro, for example, take your pick), and its unusual and/or unlikable and/or unbeatable coach movie (often ad nauseum, make your own list).  And the occasional one with animal players, often monkeys (Every Which Way But Loose leaps to mind).  SO:

SURFING (my second favorite sport to watch - can you tell I'm a California girl?):  Endless Summer, of course, and Riding Giants.  (And, just for a time capsule and a so-bad-its-good movie, Gidget.)

BASKETBALL:  Hoosiers, Hoop Dreams, and He Got Game.

FOOTBALL:  Friday Night Lights, book, movie and show.  But my personal guilty pleasure is, Semi-Tough by Dan Jenkins, sadly made into an incredibly bad movie in the 70's.
(NOTE to Dan Jenkins:  get Kevin Smith to direct a new version of Semi-Tough, PLEASE, because he's the only director I can think of that could do justice to your profanity-laced, sex-sodden, really f---ing hilarious take on football, rivalry, and true love.  You do that, and it might wash the taste of that Michael Ritchie version out of my mind...)

ICE HOCKEY:  Slapshot.

Now these are good, but if you want depth, I think there are only two sports that really bring it out:  baseball and boxing.

TheNaturalFirstEdition.jpgThe Natural by Bernard Malamud.  Forget the movie version, though it's good in its own way.  The novel is raw and angry and sad and an allegory of life from the point of view of all of us who have screwed at least one thing up so badly it will never come right or have had fate step in and snatch everything away just as we had it in our hand:
"Roy, will you be the best there ever was in the game?"  "That's right."  She pulled the trigger...
"We have two lives; the life we learn with and the life we live after that."
Back when I put myself through college teaching ESL, we used The Natural to teach our Puerto Rican baseball scholarship students in order to get them to read - and it worked.  It also broke (some of) their adolescent, ambitious little hearts. Great book.  Good movie.

You Know Me Al by Ring Lardner.  A collection of short stories, all letters from the road, penned by Jack Keefe, the dumbest, greediest, most cluelessly self-absorbed pitcher the Chicago White Sox ever had.  I don't think even Will Farrell could capture Jack Keefe, because he is...  just read it and laugh your head off. (NOTE:  Ring Lardner ranks as one of the greatest short story writers of all time, imho, if nothing else for these and "Haircut" and "The Golden Honeymoon")

Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella.  Read it, please.  And, yes, go get the movie.  I hold my breath through half the movie, and then cry shamelessly (usually after the appearance of Burt Lancaster) every time I see the damn thing.  



Eight Men Out by Eliot Asinof and Stephen Jay Gould.  A meticulous, well-written, time capsule of the time and events of the worst baseball scandal in history.  The movie isn't any slouch, either, directed by John Sayles with a strong, strong cast, especially D. B. Sweeney as Shoeless Joe Jackson and Studs Terkel as sportswriter Hugh Fullerton.

Speaking of baseball movies, here's a few, in no particular order:
Bull Durham
The Pride of the Yankees
Damn Yankees (whatever Lola wants...)
Ken Burns' Baseball
A League of Their Own
The Rookie
The Babe Ruth Story
Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings

Now I said baseball and boxing, and first of all, here are some great boxing movies:

Raging Bull.  Rocky.  Requiem for a HeavyweightWhen We Were Kings.  The Harder They Fall.

And I think I may have found the connection.  We all know both boxing and baseball from the inside out. Most of us have played baseball, from sandlot on up.  Most of us have either gotten into a fight or watched one, with a lot (of pride, if nothing else) riding on the outcome.  Both sports give the illusion that anybody with enough heart can do it, otherwise we wouldn't be so damned bothered by all the allegations of doping in baseball, at least.  After all, we don't mind what are essentially genetic freaks (most people aren't 7 feet tall, folks!) in basketball; and when is someone going to bring up the size of American football players, especially fullbacks?  Surfers are too cool dude; and you can't even see hockey players...

But baseball players and boxers are right out there, for us all to see.  And both boxing and baseball movies and novels tend to focus on individual heroism and/or failure.  Both sports allow an individual to take center stage, to let us get to know them, and then watch them sink or swim.  We can make emotional connections. And they can be made into allegories that almost everyone can relate to.

Or at least that's my theory.  Meanwhile, I've got to get out to the ballpark!



16 July 2014

New choice!


by Robert Lopresti

I am writing this a few days after the Arthur Ellis Awards were announced by the Crime Writers of Canada.  Of course,  I am delighted that our latest blogger, Melodie Campbell,  won the award for best novella for "The Goddaughter's Revenge."  Such is the incredible power of the SleuthSayers brand that she started winning awards even before it was announced that she had signed up!

(By the way the award is named after Arthur Ellis, which was the nom de corde of several of Canada's official hangmen.  Fun fact!)

But  the truth is that today's piece was inspired by another of this year's winners: Twist Phelan's "Footprints in water," the champ in the short story category.  I wrote about it last year and it found a place on my best-of list as well.  It tells the tale of an African-born police detective in New York City who is called to a case involving a Congolese family.  But he is there as a translator, while the detective in charge of the case is newly-promoted, a person he has supervised in the past.

And here is my point: the cliche - and you've read it a dozen times, and probably seen it a hundred because TV loves cliches - would be for the two cops to butt heads, fighting for control of the case.  Instead Phelan turns it around: the new cop wants the senior detective's help and he politely but firmly insists that she run the show instead.  That unexpected source of conflict is one of the things that makes the story work so well and, naturally, it made me think of improv comedy.

Perhaps you don't spot the connection.  Let me explain.

My little city has been a hotbed for improv since the great comic Ryan Stiles moved here in 2004.  To indulge his passion he created the Upfront Theatre where improv is taught and performed.  And one of the games they play there is called "New Choice."  It starts with--  Wait.  Why should I try to explain it when you can see a demonstration by Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochry.  If it isn't working directly below you can find it http://tinyurl.com/oty5qsp


The point is, when I am writing (or more likely, rewriting) and I find myself face-to-screen with a cliche, I yell (internally, usually) "New choice!" and try to find a different way around the plot point.  Often, it is an improvement.

Another favorite example is from the movie Alien Nation, which takes place a few years after a huge saucer full of aliens ("the Newcomers") has landed, and they are trying to find a place in society.  Unfortunately some find their way into a life of crime and as the movie opens some of them kill a cop.

The dead detective's partner naturally wants nothing to do with Newcomers but one of them has just been promoted to detective and the bosses force our hero to work with  -- 

New choice!  The cliche would be our hero being forced to partner with the new guy (and in fact, that is exactly how they did it in the generally-better-than-that TV series), but in the movie our hero  astonishes and infuriates his peers by volunteering to work with the Newcomer.  Why?  Because he figures it improves his chances of catching the killers.  Logical, right?

A related thought:  Have you ever head of the Bechdel Test?   Alison Bechdel is a very talented cartoonist.  One of her characters once explained that she will only watch a movie if 1) there are at least two women it, and 2) there is at least one scene in which they talk together 3) about something other than a  man.

Doesn't sound like a  very high standard, but  there are tons of movies that don't reach it.  There is a website that rates more than 5000 movies as to whether they pass the Test.

And before we get distracted let me say I don't think anyone should be forced to put gratuitous women into a movie, a book, or for that matter, a comic strip. (I don't think Bechdel means that either.)  But the Test does give you a chance to look for stereotypes, which are just another kind of cliche, after all.

When I was editing my new novel I realized it didn't pass the Bechdel Test.  After a little thought I changed the sound technician in one scene from Stu to Serona.  Didn't hurt a bit (well, didn't hurt me.  I don't know how Stu/Serona felt about the operation.) 

And you know what?  It improved the scene.

Which is the point of it, after all.