Tuesday, February 28, 2017

A Chat with Barb Caffrey, Author of 'Changing Faces'

Barb Caffrey is a writer, musician, editor, and composer from the Upper Midwest who holds a BA in Music from the University of Wisconsin-Parkside and a Master's in Music from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She's the author of An Elfy on the Loose and A Little Elfy in Big Trouble (two YA urban fantasy/romances), and her short stories have been featured in many places, most recently in Realms of Darkover. Find her at Barb Caffrey's Elfyverse: http://elfyverse.wordpress.com
INTERVIEW:
Mayra Calvani: Please tell us about Changing Faces, and what compelled you to write it.
Barb Caffrey: Changing Faces is all about the power of love regardless of outward form. I wrote it because I saw two people in love—Allen Bridgeway, a heterosexual man of thirty, and Elaine Foster, a bisexual and transgender woman of twenty-eight—who were about to make a major mistake. Elaine felt that Allen could not understand her being transgender, you see, as she has just told Allen and he's floored. (She uses "she" as the default pronoun, is a feminist scholar, and there's absolutely no way he could've known this.) Allen wants to marry Elaine, but doesn't know what to make of these revelations; Elaine is so upset that despite a nasty winter storm, she demands to be taken to a hotel. So Allen drives her, inwardly praying that they not be separated.
And his prayer is answered.
They will get a second chance at love, but with conditions. He's now in her body. And she is inside his, but in a coma, speaking with an alien/angel known as an Amorphous Mass (a type of shapeshifter). He can tell no one he's Allen; she cannot speak with anyone except the alien/angel. Both still want to be with each other, but how can they get past this?
Thus, Changing Faces.
M.C.: What is your book about?
Barb Caffrey: The power of love, and the realization that LGBT people are just like anyone else. They want love, and happiness, and understanding, and to be desired for themselves. And that if someone can see inside you—see your soul, rather than the outward form of your body—that's what true love is all about.
Allen truly loves Elaine. The outward form doesn't matter that much to him, even though at first he is absolutely thrown when she tells him, at long last, that she is transgender. She feels she'd be better off in a male body, but she'd still want to use "she" as her pronoun, and that is just deeply confusing to him. He loves her, and wants her, and desires only her…even when he's confused, and doesn't understand what she's telling him, he does know that much.
Which is why he prays, and is answered…
In case you think this is giving short shrift to Elaine and Elaine's wishes, though, don't. Elaine, too, actually wanted the same thing. (These aliens/angels do not exist in our linear time, exactly. So one of them knows that Elaine, on her deathbed, after becoming outwardly male, wanted another chance with Allen and felt she'd made a bad mistake in refusing to stay with him.)
That's why the aliens/angels do this. They believe in love. And they want love to have its day, even if it means both Allen and Elaine must change their faces so they can have another chance.
M.C.:  What themes do you explore in Changing Faces?
Barb Caffrey: The power of love, mostly. Love can transcend everything, if you give it time; it doesn't matter what you look like, providing who you are matches up with who the other person is. Your gender, even, doesn't matter that much, providing both of you can look past that and see what's important: Do you love each other? Do you understand each other? Do you want what's best for one another? Do you care enough to live with this one person for the rest of your life, forsaking all others?
Allen and Elaine learn more about each other and Allen in particular learns a great deal about LGBT issues he never thought of before his face gets changed. But the love they have for each other never wavers; that much is set in stone, even if they're not sure how they can go on from here.
That's what life is about, you know. You overcome all sorts of obstacles. You have no idea what most of them are going to be when you start off on your life's journey. Some will be absolutely unprecedented, but you have to trust that with faith and will and understanding and love, you can and will overcome everything, with the right person.
Of course, the trick is in finding that right person…one nice thing about Changing Faces is, there's no doubt Allen and Elaine are meant for one another, even if Elaine doesn't always feel worthy of it or if Allen doesn't immediately "get" that Elaine is both trans and gender-fluid (sometimes feeling male, sometimes feeling female, but always, always using "she" as the default pronoun).
M.C.:  Why do you write?
Barb Caffrey: The quick and flippant answer would be that the stories just do not let me alone until I tell them. But the longer answer is because I have to; if I don't, I feel like I've wasted my time and potential on this Earth. And I can't abide that, so I continue to do my best at telling the stories I need to tell…and hope that someone else, along the way, may also find some meaning from them, too. (Or happiness, or understanding, or at least a few hours' worth of diversion from their troubles. If I've done any of that, I've done my job.)
M.C.:  When do you feel the most creative?
Barb Caffrey: I am much more creative at night. Every so often, I surprise myself and write during the morning or afternoon, but I don't feel as comfortable then. There's something about me that gets into gear at night, and I've known that since I was a child.
So I use the hours that work best for me as productively as I can, and go on from there. (May we all do the same.)
M.C.:  How picky are you with language?
Barb Caffrey: That's a tough one. I'm also an editor, you see, and because of that I have to have the right words. I get frustrated when I can't come up with the best word for a situation, and will spend a great deal of time and energy looking for that best word.
However, unlike some writers, I do not believe a ten-dollar word is necessary unless it is absolutely required. I prefer simple, direct, and honest interactions, and I don't need those ten-dollar words gumming up the works.
So, I'd say on a scale of one to ten for pickiness (with ten being the most picky), I'm probably at about an eight, maybe a nine?
M.C.:  When you write, do you sometimes feel as though you were being manipulated from afar?
Barb Caffrey: Another hard one…well, the easiest answer is to say that yes, I do. But only in certain situations. I'm trying to finish my late husband Michael B. Caffrey's writing, too, and when I work on his stuff, I definitely feel as if there's more there than just me. (I don't know if that's just a comforting mental image I'm telling myself, or if it's the actual truth. Either way, I feel it.)
When I work on my own stuff, though, I usually do not feel that way, though sometimes the story does surprise me. (I don't always know what I'm going to say next, mind, but I do know it's me saying it from whatever recesses of my mind.)
Does that help?
M.C.:  What is your worst time as a writer?
Barb Caffrey: Any time real life demands intercede. I find it difficult to maintain the creative flow when I have to deal with the bank, bills, doctor appointments, car issues, weather issues…that's one reason I'm glad that I work best at night, as I have far fewer real life issues interceding at that time. <grin>
M.C.:  Your best?
Barb Caffrey: At night, when the story is flowing naturally and I've been writing for two hours, but I know I have another three in me…those days are rare, but very welcome!
M.C.:  Is there anything that would stop you from writing?
Barb Caffrey: No. Even my beloved husband's untimely death did not stop me, though it did slow me down for a number of years.
M.C.: What’s the happiest moment you’ve lived as an author?
Barb Caffrey: When my husband Michael and I sold our first story to the Bedlam's Edge anthology back in 2004, I was absolutely ecstatic. This was about three, four months before Michael's untimely and unexpected death, and we thought our writing careers would just get better and better from there. The sky seemed the limit, then…and we were so happy with what we were doing, separately and together, as writers. That's by far my happiest moment as an author.
M.C.:  Is writing an obsession to you?
Barb Caffrey: I'd use the word "passion" rather than obsession, personally. I definitely feel passionate about writing. It is something I have to do, sure, so in that case it is like an obsession, but I don't like the negative connotations of that word much…so can we go with passion instead? <grin>
M.C.:  Are the stories you create connected with you in some way?
Barb Caffrey: Well, they all come out of me…but that's not what you mean, is it?
I think my belief in love comes through in the vast majority of my stories. I also believe in persistence, in seemingly impossible quests, in music and laughter and happiness and mutual respect…all of that is because I was fortunate enough, after a few bad romantic mistakes of my own, to find the right man and marry him. (No one could've asked for a better husband than I had in Michael B. Caffrey. Trust me.)
So, Allen and Elaine in Changing Faces and Bruno and Sarah in the Elfyverse are not drawn directly from my life, no. But their belief in the power of love, and the power of becoming themselves, is. (Does that help?)
M.C.:  Ray Bradbury once said, “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” Thoughts?
Barb Caffrey: That's an interesting conceit, there. I'm not sure I ever feel drunk on writing or as a creative person, but I do think writing and being creative strikes a blow against the darkness. And it's that darkness that I think Ray Bradbury is discussing; reality itself is made up of both good and bad elements, and there are moments of joy intermixed with the pain, for sure. But the dark times are hard to bear, and the only thing that can have a prayer of getting you through them is faith in yourself, and faith in what you're doing, even if no one knows what you're doing but you.
A writer's life can be lonely. I have found it so, after my husband died. But it's what I need to do, for myself, because that's what's in me. I can't break faith with myself; my talents, my will, my desire and my own stubbornness just will not let me do that. So I continue to write, and I continue to create, and I hope that in so doing I can bring happiness—or at least a moment of diversion here and there—to others.
M.C.:  Do you have a website or blog where readers can find out more about you and your work?
Barb Caffrey: Absolutely! Please come find me at Barb Caffrey's Elfyverse: http://elfyverse.wordpress.com
Note that I talk writing, publishing, music, sports, current events, sometimes even politics…anything that strikes my fancy. So you won't be bored, you might learn something, and certainly you can get to know me better, if you so desire…(hey, it's a free site, so what's the harm, hm?)
Thank you for having me, Mayra, and enjoy your day!


AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Howard Jay Smith, Author of BEETHOVEN IN LOVE; OPUS 139



Howard Jay Smith is an award-winning writer from Santa Barbara, California. BEETHOVEN IN LOVE; OPUS 139 is his third book. A former Washington, D.C. Commission for the Arts Fellow, & Bread Loaf Writers Conference Scholar, he taught for many years in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and has lectured nationally. His short stories, articles and photographs have appeared in the Washington Post, Horizon Magazine, the Journal of the Writers Guild of America, the Ojai Quarterly, and numerous literary and trade publications. While an executive at ABC Television, Embassy TV, and Academy Home Entertainment, he worked on numerous film, television, radio, and commercial projects. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Santa Barbara Symphony - "The Best Small City Symphony in America" -  and is a member of the American Beethoven Society.

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INTERVIEW BOOK CIRCLE ONLINE AT YOUTUBE

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About the Book:

At the moment of his death, Ludwig van Beethoven pleads with Providence to grant him a final wish—one day, just a single day of pure joy. But first he must confront the many failings in his life,
so the great composer and exceedingly complex man begins an odyssey into the netherworld of his past life led by a spirit guide who certainly seems to be Napoleon, who died six years before. This ghost of the former emperor, whom the historical Beethoven both revered and despised, struggles to compel the composer to confront the ugliness as well as the beauty and accomplishments of his past. 
As Beethoven ultimately faces the realities of his just-ended life, we encounter the women who loved and inspired him. In their own voices, we discover their Beethoven—a lover with whom they savor the profound beauty and passion of his creations. And it’s in the arms of his beloveds that he comes to terms with the meaning of his life and experiences the moment of true joy he has always sought.

Purchase Information:

Amazon


What first inspired you to write or who inspired you?

I began writing with my very first short story about piloting a Cessna 172 – about half a page long – when I was in elementary school.  And got my first rave reviews! I wrote all though High School and college, everything from the school paper to newspapers and journals.  My Master’s thesis was a draft of a novel about the social upheavals of the late 60’s and an accompanying teaching guide.

In my mid 20’s I was fortunate enough to be accepted as a Scholar into Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf Conference where I met the late novelist, John Gardner.  John became my mentor and over the next few years I returned to Bread Loaf as a scholar a total of three times. There I worked with other greats of that era, John Irving, Toni Morrison and Tim O’Brien. I also studied with John back in DC and Virginia. Gardner was hands down the best teacher I have ever had for any subject ever.  It was through my work with him that I found my essential voice and truly began my career as a writer.  I soon published a dozen or so short stories in literary magazines before heading to what I imagined were the greener pastures of Hollywood and screenplay writing. Years later it was John’s lessons that I reapplied to teaching my own writing class at UCLA.

At what age did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Around eleven or twelve.

Do you take notes when reading or watching a movie?

Always – not written but in my head.  I consider it an occupational hazard.  Having worked for years as a writer, teacher at UCLA and Hollywood Development executive, my mind’s eye is always unconsciously examining everything I read or watch.  Usually I am looking to see whether the story telling techniques work, if the pacing is proper, if the language is appropriate, if the narrative voice is firm and strong and on and on. For example I will rarely watch a movie if I cannot see it from the very beginning as I always want to see if the writer and director did their job of setting up the story and drawing us in properly.

Can you name three writing tips to pass on to aspiring authors?

One of my earlier books, Opening the Doors to Hollywood, published by Random House, is a guide for aspiring writers and is based on classes I used to teach at UCLA for their Writers Program.  Undertaking the researching and then writing a novel, such as Beethoven In Love; Opus 139 is a long journey, every moment of which should be an absolute pleasure. 

I learned ages ago that if you want someone to take the time and effort to read your book and find your work compelling and engaging, you must also be equally passionate about what you create. I absolutely love the entire process of crafting a story, from jotting down ideas and doing research when necessary, to shaping each line, each paragraph, each character, each scene. I want to transport the reader into a vivid and continuous dream that is so powerful, so all-encompassing that the next thing they know is that someone is calling them to dinner.

So my first advice to any other would be writer is this: love what you are doing and let that passion be your motor.

Next read everything aloud.  Listen to the sounds of your words.  Think about the dream you are creating in that readers mind.  Examine every word you put on the page and then throw out everything you have written that breaks that dream, no matter how brilliant or wonderful you think it is.  Your writing and your ability to communicate will be all the better for it.

And lastly, be conscious of what you are actually saying. As one of the fictional characters, Johann Gardner, a writer inspired by my mentor, John Gardner, says to the composer in the course of Beethoven in Love; Opus 139, “What is a novel, but a collection of lies we tell to reveal greater truths.” 

Whether we are conscious of it or not when writing, (and hopefully one is always conscious) a book, a story, an article is always about something, it always presents a world view, an attitude, a philosophy of life.  In simple terms, you want the reader to finish your book, and feel as if they have not only been thoroughly entertained but that they have also learned something about life and the way of the world.  If a character does something, it has its roots in their behavior and thoughts and there are consequences that occur because of those attitudes and actions – and this is what I would not only want my readers to reflect upon when they finish but to also consider how those situations, behaviors, and ideas might impact their own lives.

Do you let unimportant things get in the way of your writing?

No. Why would you do that?  But remember, we can often do our best thinking about our stories in progress when not actually working on them.  Some of my best ideas have come while washing the dishes, taking a shower or chopping wood.  Just trust your own mind, even when it is wandering.  Those unconscious wanders will often take you exactly where you need to go – but you must be open to that experience.

What hours do you write best?

Whenever I can. There are twenty-four hours in the day and you can put them all to use.  Some of my best imaginings of scenes, characters and story ideas comes when I am either trying to fall asleep or dreaming or working in the yard.

How often do you write?

As often as possible.

Are you an avid reader?

Yes. As a working professional writer, screenwriter, teacher and TV executive for almost four decades, I am always on the lookout for great stories of historical figures where my potential protagonist wrestles with the same types of profound emotional or psychological issues that each and every one of us can relate to in our own lives.

And once I have that idea, I read everything my choice deems necessary. For example. my initial thought upon coming up with this novel about Beethoven being forced to review the failings of his life by his “Ghost of Christmas Past,” before he could pass on to Elysium or paradise, was to read a single biography, find the empty or white spaces in his life that we did not know much about and then create a totally fictional story. After reading one biography, I quickly grasped that scholars and musicians knew and had preserved a staggering amount of information about Beethoven, so much so that there were few blank spaces to fill in. If I was going to do a novel about such a famous man, I realized that I was going to have to research that life fully and make sure everything I wrote was as accurate as possible.  

My personal dilemma was this: All of my mentors from my early years as a writer, John Irving, Tim O’Brien, Toni Morrison and the late John Gardner, all won National Book Awards or some similar accolade.  When I committed myself to doing a Beethoven novel, I knew there were two hurdles I had to overcome in order to be successful. First I would need to thoroughly research everything about his life and times and be exceedingly accurate or risk being shredded by historians and critics in the music world.  Given the enormous amount of material on his life, including dozens of major biographies, six volumes of letters as well as his diaries – not to mention his music - I was initially daunted by the scope and size of what I had taken on.  I decided not to proceed unless the quality of the writing line by line was at a level that those mentors would have approved. 

Feeling the weight of their teachings upon me, I committed myself to doing everything necessary to research not only Beethoven’s life, but the life and times of his family, friends, and lovers and of the entire Napoleonic era, no matter how long it took. And then and only then would I write a novel based on that research that could stand up to the weight of any critic or criticism.

I spent nearly two full years researching before writing a single word of fiction. I built a chronological outline that ran over two hundred pages itself. I read all the major biographies; all the volumes of letters to and from Beethoven; I read his diaries and first-hand accounts of his life compiled by his friends. I listened to endless hours of his music. I studied the history of the times, from Voltaire and the French Revolution to the spas of Central Europe and the life of Napoleon – whose ghost plays a central role in the novel.

I read each book at least three times: the first to get a general sense of its content; the second to highlight specific notes (don’t even ask how many yellow highlighters or sticky notes I went through); and the third to transfer key information to my outline. If Beethoven or Napoleon referenced a philosophical text, such as the Bhagavad Gita or the works of Confucius, I would read those as well. I had majored in Asian Studies as an undergrad, so that aspect came easily to me. I should note that the influence of Asian philosophy on Beethoven is unmistakable if one reads his diaries and letters, yet it is one area that musicologists generally miss not having any exposure to Eastern thought. His quotes go right over their heads.

Furthermore every character except for three minor but important ones, is an actual historical figure. I researched them as well.  And of those minor characters, one is inspired by my friendship with the now deceased novelist, John Gardner, and the other two are an homage to my own family’s East European history that I stumbled upon doing my research. I even learned that Napoleon, on his retreat from Moscow, passed through a tiny village in Belarus, the village my maternal grandparents are from, and that critical events in the war took place there.

Shaping the novel out of such a full and rich life had little resemblance to my initial notion of finding the blank spaces in his life and creating a fully woven fiction. Instead it was more like chipping away at a giant block of marble to find the essence of his life.

When I was nearly done with a first polished draft, I began showing it around to my friends in the writing community and to a one, their response was, “Yes, you’re there.”  Since that time, the reviews from critics in the literary world, the music world and more specifically, the world of Beethoven scholars and devotees has been wonderful – and gratifying. In fact my first public reading was for a gathering of Beethoven scholars at the American Beethoven Society’s Thirtieth Anniversary Conference.  There I was, reading a work of fiction to the very people who knew more about Beethoven than anyone, and, thankfully, they loved it.

But sadly, during the years I was working on my Beethoven novel, I scarcely had time to read anything else.  That’s the downside of being thoroughly committed to what one is working on.

What are you reading now?

Research materials for my next book.

What are you currently working on?

I am always looking for great stories. After scanning dozens of historical eras and possible new characters from Machiavelli to Brahms, I finally settled on another one related to music. This novel, Mozart, Da Ponte, Scandal, will focus on the life of Lorenzo Da Ponte, the man who wrote the lyrics for Mozart’s three most famous – and scandalous in their time – operas, ‘The Marriage of Figaro,’ ‘Don Giovanni,’ and ‘Cosi Fan Tutte.’ 

Born a Jew in 1749, Da Ponte not only outlived Mozart by some 40 years, he also grew up in and around Venice in an era when people still ran around in capes and masks all year round. After his father converted the entire family to Catholicism when Lorenzo was only 14, he unwillingly became a priest in order to get an education.  He led a rogue’s life; a priest and literary scholar who would say Mass on Sunday while whoring, drinking and gambling the other six days of the week with his friend, Casanova, the infamous role model for Don Giovanni.  

Always too politically outspoken for his own good, he was successively expelled from the Veneto, Venice and Vienna and had to flee debt collectors in London before making his way to early modern New York where he opened an Italian bookstore in Manhattan and a deli across the river in New Jersey.  He started an opera company – the seeds of today’s Met – and was the first professor of Italian at what became Columbia University. Da Ponte was the classic survivor, who in his day did everything he could to staf afloat financially while still writing a collection of operas that were considered scandalous in their day but are today revered as some of the finest works of that genre ever created. His eight decades constitute a life adventure well worth exploring.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Chapter reveal: The Right Wrong Number, by Jim Nesbitt

Title:  THE RIGHT WRONG NUMBER
Genre: Mystery
Author: Jim Nesbitt
Publisher: Spotted Mule Press
About the Book:  
When the phone rings long after midnight, it spells trouble of the lethal kind for Ed Earl Burch. A cashiered homicide detective with bad knees, a wounded liver and an empty bank account, Burch has been hired to protect an old flame after the disappearance of her husband, a high-flying Houston financier who ripped off his clients, including some deeply unsavory gentlemen from New Orleans.
It’s a simple job that goes wrong fast, plunging Burch into a ruthless contest where nothing is as it seems and no one can be trusted. Money and sex— twin temptations served up by the old flame, a rangy strawberry blonde with a violent temper and a terminal knack for larceny and betrayal—tempt Burch to break his own rules. But when his best friend gets murdered by hired muscle in Dallas, Burch blames himself and grimly sets out for vengeance.
Bristling with relentless action, a pulse-racer of a plot, a solid storyline, and a colorful cast of characters, The Right Wrong Number is hard-boiled detective fiction at its finest. With his pitch-perfect voice and keen eye for detail, Jim Nesbitt uses the skills honed over decades of deadline journalism to create an extraordinary story centered on a protagonist like no other: the deeply flawed but wildly compelling Ed Earl Burch. A taut, tense, uncompromising tale of revenge and redemption, The Right Wrong Number is a damned good story exceptionally well-told.

THE RIGHT WRONG NUMBER 
An Ed Earl Burch Novel


ONE 
It wasn’t San Francisco or London, but the fog was thick and flowing — like tufts sucked from a bale of cotton, carrying the muddy tint of a used linen filter. It made him think of trench coats, lamp posts and the low warning moan of a ship’s horn sounding somewhere out on the water. Rolling across the flat fields, it made dark gray ghosts of the trees that huddled along the far fencelines and left cold beads of moisture on his skin and memories of old black-and-white movies in his mind.
But there were no ships in the harbor, no waterside buckets of blood, no Rick or Ilsa. Just lightless farmhouses, barns, open-sided equipment sheds and squat corrugated feed bins for cattle, all cloaked by the fast-moving fog, glimpsed only if the wind parted the curtain of stained white wetness as you rolled by.
And it wasn’t the Left Coast or Britain. It was Texas and the scrubby coastal country north of Houston, beyond the Intercontinental and its roaring planes. Take a left off the farm-market road with the four-digit number. Find the third dirt road on the left, take it for three miles. Splash through the potholes and set your teeth against tires juddering across the washboard track. Hit the T of another dirt road. Look for a faint gravel trail at your 10 o’clock. Rattle over the cattle guard. Close the gate behind you.
Easy to remember. Hard to do with visibility down to zero. Even with the window rolled down and the Beemer’s fog lamps flipped on. Nice car. Leather seats the color of butterscotch taffy. Mahogany inserts flanking the instruments and fronting the glove box. Killer sound system and a cellular phone. Shame to bang this baby along back roads, splashing mud and gravel against its polished flanks of forest green.
Not his car. Not his problem. Fog and time were. He was already a half hour behind schedule when his contact finally drove up with the car, the briefcase of bills and directions to the meet. Fog was adding more minutes to his travel time. He had to double back when he missed one turnoff and that made him slow and leery of missing another.
Not good. Not good. Patient people weren’t on the other end. They never were. But they would wait because he had the money, they had the product and both sides wanted this deal closed tonight. And if they were pissed and wanted to wrangle, he could deal with that; a matte-chrome Smith & Wesson Model 6906 with thirteen rounds of 9 mm hollow point nestled in a shoulder rig underneath his black leather jacket.
Always the chance of a wrangle on a run like this. Rip-offs were a run-of-the-mill business risk, even between long-time associates. But on this deal the probability of gunplay was low. He was just nervous about running late. It wasn’t professional. He thought about using the cellular phone but shook the idea out of his head. Not something a pro would do.
And not something his people would appreciate. They were security-conscious and worked the high-dollar end of the street. No cowboys. Pros only. Running a well-oiled machine. Not that he knew them well. He was strictly a cutout man, a well-paid delivery boy who made it his business to stay ignorant about those who hired him and their business partners.
He wasn’t totally in the dark about his paymasters; no prudent pro ever was. But he kept his curiosity in check and his focus on the amount of money he was paid and the demands of the night’s job.
It was a relaxing way to make a living. A phone rings. A voice on the line gives him the name of a bar or cafe. A man meets him with an envelope and instructions. And he goes where he is told — to deliver money, to pick up a truck or car loaded with product, to put a bullet through the skull of someone he doesn’t know.
Command and control. Just like the Army and those over-the-border ops in Cambodia. Project Vesuvius. Studies and Observations Group. Words both grandiose and bland to cover what he and his comrades did. Slip over the fence, gather the intel, slit a few throats along the way. Set up the Big Death — from the air and on the ground. Operation Menu. Operation Patio. Operation Freedom Deal. Cambodian Incursion. More bland words for killing the enemy in his safest sanctuaries. Parrot’s Beak. The Fishhook. The Dog’s Face.
A sputtering string of electronic beeps startled him. The car phone. He glanced down and saw a red pin light flash to the time of the beeps. He pulled the receiver out of its cradle.
“Talk to me.”
“Where the hell are you?”
“You don’t want me to say.”
“You’re late and that’s making some people nervous.”
“Your man was late and this phone call is making me nervous. It’s not very smart.”
“We decide what’s smart. We pay you to get things done and be on time. How long till you get there?”
“Ten.”
“Get there.”
He snapped the receiver back in place and shook his head. Not good. Not good. Lots of snoopers scanning these cellular circuits. A pro would know this and wouldn’t risk a call unless the other side was making a ruckus. Made him wonder if the players in this game were as big league as he thought they were.
Those thoughts rode with him as he wheeled the Beemer down the dirt road, looking for the T intersection. There it was. He looked for the gravel trail, slowly turning the car to the left and letting the fog lamps cut a slow sweep across the far side of the road. There. At his ten o’clock. Just like he was told. He stayed alert, but his nagging nervousness and doubts started to fade.
The trail led from the gate and crossed the field at a sharp angle. He crept along, easing the car through ruts and washouts. He saw the shrouded form of a tin shed and weaved the car so the lights would pan across its open door. The yellow beams caught the wet metal of an old tractor and two men in dark slacks and windbreakers — one tall, bald and lean, the other short, squat and slick-haired.
He stopped the car, fog lamps still on. He pulled his pistol, letting his gun hand drop to his side and rear as he stepped out, keeping his body behind the car door.
“Wanna cut the lights, guy?”
A purring voice from the short guy, coming from a full, sleek face that made him think of a seal.
“Not really. Let’s keep everything illuminated. Makes me feel safe.”
“You’re among friends, guy. Nobody wants monkeyshines here. We just do the handoff and the call and we can all get the hell out of this fog. You’re late and we’re cold.”
“No arguments from me, my man. But let’s do this by the numbers.”
“Numbers it is, guy.”
He stepped away from the car.
“Money’s in the front seat. Have your buddy do the honors.”
A nod from the talker. His companion walked to the passenger side of the Beemer and leaned in. He heard the latches of the briefcase pop open.
“Looks good to me.”
“Make the call. That okay with you, guy?”
“By all means. Make that call. Tell Mabel to put a pot of coffee on.”
A laugh from the talker. He could see the other guy reach for the cellular phone. Somewhere across town, a phone would ring. Assurances the money was in hand. Somewhere else another phone would ring. Product would change hands. Then the Beemer’s cellular would ring again and the night’s business would be done.
He was alert but relaxed, ready to wait, the screw-ups behind him and the deal running smooth and professional now. He had a clear view of the talker and his companion. He had his gun in hand. He was thinking about a cup of coffee when the baseball bat cracked across the back of his skull.
“Cut those damn lights. Secure the money.”
A nod from the companion. The talker moved toward the third man, the man with the baseball bat, a hulk with the arms and shoulders of a lineman and the on-the-balls-of-the-feet stance of a third baseman. They stood over the slumped body.
“Give me a hand with this sumbitch. He’s heavy. Get that gun, Jack.”
“Got it. Who’d this guy piss off?”
“Nobody you need to know about, guy. Or me. He’s just a poor soul somebody wants whacked.”
“Awful lot of trouble just to whack a guy. What the fuck are we stagin’ this thing for, Louis? Why not just pop him and get it over with?”
“Not your worry, guy. Just muscle him into the driver’s seat and let me dress him up pretty. Bill, did you wipe your prints?”
“Does it matter?”
A glare from Louis. The companion shrugged, pulled a bandana from his back pocket and leaned into the Beemer. When done, he hoisted the briefcase and walked back toward the shed.
Louis kept his eyes locked on the bald man as he walked away, his head swiveling like a table-top fan, his eyes popped with anger. He broke the stare and fussed with the body, pulling the head back, reaching into the mouth, then his pocket, then back into the mouth. Jack watched and shook his head.
“Bill!”
“Yo!”
“Get me that bundle, guy. The jacket and the trench coat. And bring that bag with the stuff in it.”
“Yo.”
Bill hustled to the car. Louis patted him on the shoulder, thanking him in that purring voice, his face soft and placid again. He turned back to the body, peeling off the leather jacket and unfastening the shoulder rig. He fished through the pockets, pulling wallet, keys and a checkbook, leaving loose change. He replaced these items with wallet, keys and a checkbook he pulled from a crumpled brown paper bag. He pulled a ring from the right hand and a fake Rolex from the left wrist, digging a wedding band, a class ring and a real Rolex — an Oyster Perpetual Datejust — from the bag.
The jacket and trench coat came next — a nicely tailored Burberry, pity the waste. Louis started to sweat as he pulled and smoothed the clothes onto the body. He unbuttoned the shirt down to the navel, then reached into the bag and pulled out a squeeze bottle, the kind with the thin nozzle that could poke through the bars of a footballer’s facemask. He squeezed water onto the body’s chest then reached under the dash to pop the hood of the Beemer.
“Jack — hook up those cables, guy.”
“Jesus.”
“I know it’s unpleasant, but just do it for me, guy.”
Louis fired up the Beemer’s engine then waited for Jack to hand him the twin clamps. Clamps to the body’s chest. The smell of burning flesh and electrified ozone.
Again. Again the smell.
And again. Clamps to Jack. Engine off.
“Bill. The acid, guy.”
A glass bottle of sulfuric acid. A small glass tray. Fingers and thumb from one hand in. Then the other hand. He handed the tray to Bill.
“Careful with that, guy. Dump it.”
“Yo.”
Louis turned back to the body. He pursed his lips as he lined up the shoulders, the head and the arms to stage the proper angles of a kill shot.
The head was the difficult part. Without a helping hand to hold it in place, it rolled about and wouldn’t stay upright. Louis pulled the hips forward then shoved the shoulders deep into the folds of the leather seat, pressing them into place. The head was now resting lightly against the butterscotch leather padding of the headrest.
That’s how it would line up. He stood up and pulled a snub-nosed Colt Agent in .38 Special from the paper bag with a gloved hand. He eyed the angle for another second then nodded Jack away.
Louis eased the pistol barrel into a sagging mouth, eyeing the angle one more time. He pulled the trigger, blinking at the pistol’s flash and sharp report. He dropped the gun to the floor.
The bullet had blown off the back of the man’s skull, obliterating the pulpy mark of the baseball bat and spraying a dark stain of brains, blood and bone shards across the light-colored leather seats. The impact canted the body across the console and gearshift, head and shoulder jammed between the seats.
“Jesus, Louis.”
“What?”
“Christamighty, it’s one thing to whack a guy up close like that, another to do all that shit with the battery cables and the acid. But to have to fish out his dentures first? They’d have to pay me double to do that.”
“They are, guy. They are.”
“Whadja have to do it for?”
“They were making his gums sore. He needed a new pair.”
“Like he’ll need ’em where he’s going.”
“You never know. Blow the car, Jack. We gotta get us back on home, guy. Get us on the outside of some gumbo down to Tujague’s.”
“I’m for that. A shame though. This is a nice car.”
“That it is, guy. Blow her just the same. Make it burn pretty.”
“Lotta noise. Lotta flash. Cops’ll be here like flies on a dead fish.”
“Do it quick then, guy. So we can be long gone.”