Sunday, May 26, 2019

Beginnings: Devious

What draws you to a book? Maybe the cover catches your eye. You read the blurb on the back cover or the teaser on the internet. With luck there’s just enough detail there to spark your interest.  Perhaps you read the first page or two and see if it brings you into the story.

When I’ve facilitated writer’s workshops, one of the key components we always discussed was to have that hook. You need to pull people into your stories, find a way to engage the reader, to get them curious about your characters and the dilemma they may be facing. 

So the opening is the key. Whether it’s the first chapter or a prologue, as a writer you must get their attention quickly.  

One fellow writer used to say “I want to bring them aboard quickly. So I need to grab them by the throat. Or some other body part!”

That’s not always easy to do with a book. But it’s something I will always try. So with that in mind, here’s the deal.  I’m going to post the first few pages of each of my books over the next several weeks. That way you can check it out and see for yourself which story appeals to you.

Let’s start with “Devious” the first book in the Jamie Richmond series.  Jamie is a former investigative reporter who is now pursuing a career as a novelist. This will give you a glimpse into her character and her background.


I can’t believe I’m standing here with a gun in my hand. And it’s pointed at his chest. My heart’s pounding in such a pronounced manner you’d think I had just run five miles. But there’s anger mixed with the adrenaline coursing through my system.

If someone told me four months ago I’d be facing a life or death situation, I would have gotten them a nice cup of tea and tried to find some way to calm them down before the ambulance arrived to carry them away. Danger is not my forte. I don’t live for danger. I live vicariously, documenting the courage and exploits of others. The scariest thing I have ever done is eat yogurt after the expiration date.

But now here I stand, gripping a weapon and praying I won’t have to use it as he narrows the gap between us. Yet, despite my hammering heart, I realize there is no way this ends neatly. There is too much at stake. I’ve already had a visit with Death tonight, and it wasn’t pleasant. Can I take the shot? 

Or will he rip it away from me and kill me with my own gun? 

How could this be happening to me?

Chapter One

It seems sudden death always brings us together. Amid the noise and confusion, I sensed his presence. Over there, behind the blinding flashes of colored light. Despite the pulsating crowd of spectators, despite the noise and the confusion, I saw him.

And he saw me.

He stood impassively, muscular chest straining to be contained inside his jacket. Even the sleeves were stretched to capacity. There was a scowl on his face. Perhaps it was a look of disgust, or maybe defiance. His eyes narrowed when they registered my own. If I had been expecting any acknowledgement, I was going to be disappointed. He turned his back on me and disappeared behind the lights.

I turned away, shaking my head.

* * * *

It was three days later before he agreed to see me. Despite the appointment I made, he kept me waiting fifteen minutes. At last the door opened. He waved me inside, closing off the escape route firmly behind me. There was that awkward moment when neither one of us knew exactly what to do. Finally, with a snort that could have either been disgust or laughter, he drew me close for a bear hug.

“You look good, Jamie.”

“You too, Bert. Still working out?”

“Every chance I get. How’s Vera?”

I tensed at the mention of her name. With his arm still around me, I had no doubt that he could feel it.
“She’s good.”

“Still with that psychiatrist?”

I shook my head. “No way, that was a year ago. She’s two beyond that. First there was a lawyer, now a stockbroker.”

“Sounds like crooks to me, just fancier versions.” He waved me to a chair in front of his desk.

“I still think you were her favorite, although it may have been a close race between you and the plastic surgeon.” He snorted again and shook his head.

Sometimes it’s hard for me to think of Bert as my father. Technically, he was, or is, my stepfather. He was my mother’s third husband. The first, Peter Richmond, was an artist. His sculptures still decorate several local galleries and museums. He had just been hitting his stride, having done a number of successful commercial projects, when a fall from scaffolding suddenly ended his career. That his life also ended then seemed secondary to my mother. I was seven at the time. 

She has progressed her way through a number of romances and marriages, trying to find the right combination of husband—lover. Bert married her when I was thirteen. She divorced him when I was twenty. She was currently on her seventh husband. I’d lost count of the boyfriends in between or during the other marriages. I’d never say it to her face, but she has developed a severe Mrs. Robinson complex. Her last three lovers were half her age.

Albert “Bert” Nowalski dressed more like a businessman than a police captain. And maybe, nowadays, that’s what was necessary. His tailored suit, freshly pressed, probably cost more than two weeks’ pay. He favored Italian shoes that were always gleaming with polish, and starched white shirts so crisp they looked brand new. He still wore the expensive Swiss watch Vera had given him as a wedding present. If you hinted that he was sentimental, he’d counter that it was merely an excellent timepiece that fit well. Bert always kept his hair short, in a crew cut style that was barely more than stubble. His piercing gray eyes never missed a trick, something I’d learned the hard way during my teenage years.

“Why were you hanging out at that crime scene Friday night? I thought you’d given up the police beat for something more normal.” He settled into the chair behind his desk.

After several years working for one of the local daily papers, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I’d started out with society and fashion, then gradually worked my way into where my real interest lies. Crime. I covered everything from the scenes, to arraignments and to trials. Along the way, I had a scare or two; this made me want to work on my own terms. Now, I write features that appeal to me and sell them to magazines all over the country. Sometimes, I can put a new slant on the same article and sell it to half a dozen different ‘specialty’ magazines. This allows me time to set my own schedule and to work on what I really want to do—write mysteries. 

I’ve done features on acrobats, gourmet chefs, successful businesswomen, construction workers, motorcycle riding nuns and a judge who was blind and used a guide dog to help him navigate his way, even in the courtroom. There have been stories about new rock bands, musical prodigies under the age of ten and a dyslexic spelling bee champ. Now, it was time for something new. I’d hoped that my relationship with Bert, whatever that currently was, would give me the inside track.

“It was just force of habit. I was driving by and saw the lights. Guess I’m still a reporter at heart. If there was enough for a complete story, I could have covered it and sold the effort to my old editor.”

“So why didn’t you follow it up?” Bert asked.

“By the time I asked a few questions, I realized two other stringers had beaten me to the punch. They must have heard the calls on the scanner. I gave mine up when I wanted to focus on features.”

"Good for you. I never liked the idea of you digging into the crime beat.”

“You meet some of the most interesting people that way,” I said with a smile. 

"Too bad some of those ‘interesting people’ are lacking in table manners.” Bert rocked slowly in his chair. He was as comfortable in his surroundings as I am at home. “So, why are you here, Jay? You want to take one of your many stepfathers out to lunch?”

"Technically, I only have two steps: you and Renaldo. And I wouldn’t waste the price of a Whopper on him.”

Bert snorted his laugh again. “Renaldo. There’s a joker I hadn’t thought about in years. Wasn’t he selling time shares or something?”

I nodded. “Last we heard from him, he was working on the ocean in South Carolina. Right before the hurricane ripped through.”

“I recall when you were fifteen and went through a phase where you were going to be a vegetarian. That lasted until I was grilling steaks.” He grinned at the memory and gave his head a slow shake. “Level with me, Taffy Ass. Why are you here?”

“Taffy ass? I haven’t heard that in years. I keep hoping you’d forgotten that by now.”

“Not on your life. That was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.”

Maybe to him, but to me, it was one of my most embarrassing moments ever. It happened when I was sixteen. There was a dance at school and I had gone with a group of kids. It wasn’t an official date. But Nicky Valenti had been very attentive that night. He bought me a Coke and a slice of pizza. We shared a few slow dances. Nicky was a senior. All the girls thought he was charming, with a sly smile and soulful brown eyes. I was junior. He had borrowed the keys to a friend’s car.

On the way out to the parking lot to ‘look at the stars’, he’d bought me a few pieces of taffy. I was young. I was na├»ve. I slid them into the back pocket of my jeans. After an hour of passionate kissing in the backseat of the car, we returned to the dance. The taffy had melted through my pocket, staining my jeans, my underwear and my bottom. My face was as red as my hair when I tried to explain it away to Vera. Bert didn’t believe a word of the story I came up with that night, and had tagged me taffy ass. He only used it in private and always with impeccable timing.

I couldn’t con him. He was far too sharp to accept anything but the truth. “I’m working on a mystery. I finally sold a book. It’ll be published in the spring.” 

A wide smile split his face. “That’s great! Why didn’t you tell me?”

I blushed at his enthusiasm. “I don’t want to jinx it. Until I see the actual book in my hands, I keep thinking something will go wrong. Like a bad blind date.”

.Jay, I’ve told you a hundred times, you’ve got talent. I said that back when you were working on the paper in high school.”

Bert always encouraged me. It’s nice to see some things never change. 

“They offered me an advance on a second book, and I want one of my key characters to be a patrol officer. I’d like to ride a shift or two with a uniformed trooper." 

"The state police force is not in the habit of allowing civilians to patrol with a trooper. Your presence could interfere with the performance of his duties." Bert was trying hard to keep the twinkle out of his eye. For a moment, he almost had me fooled. 

"Surely there must be exceptions to every policy, Captain, even in police work." I tried to think of something to bargain with.

He chuckled and stopped rocking. "Don’t get formal on me, little girl. Remember, I’m the one who caught you climbing up the trellis after curfew when you first discovered boys.”

“Hey, I was fifteen. And that’s ancient history, like a dozen years ago.”

The twinkle was definitely there. “Sixteen. But who’s counting. Anyway, I didn't say we wouldn't allow it. I'm just not so sure it would be a good idea. Things are a little tense among the troopers, with the governor spouting off about budget reform for the new fiscal year."

I knew what he meant. The latest political savior had some unorthodox ideas on attempting to balance the state's budget. Radical changes in the number of state troopers were only one of the methods currently being considered.

"What are you suggesting, Bert?"

"Best time for you to witness would be a daylight watch. Things aren't nearly as hectic as when the sun goes down."

I leaned forward, trying to read his expression. Nothing. Even as a kid, I could never gain any insight from his face. "If it's all the same to you, I'd much rather take an evening shift."

Bert shook his head and closed his eyes. "You're not going to make this easy for me, are you, Jay?"

"C'mon, Bert, have a heart. I’m talking about one shift, in the evening, with a regular trooper. Eight hours and I'm out of your hair. And I’ll never mention to Vera that I saw you, or how good you look." 
It was a shot, but I knew deep down that he still cared about Vera, despite her numerous faults.

He paused, studying me with those cool eyes. I wish I could get a sense of what was going on behind them, but Bert still wouldn’t give anything away. He’d tell me just enough when he was ready, and not before. At length, he slowly shook his head as if clearing his thoughts.

"Such flattery. You’re a piece of work, Jamie Rae.” He rocked again. “But I’d find it more amusing if you did mention it to your mother.”

I hooked a thumb toward the rocking chair. "Nerves?"

He nodded once. "My therapist recommended it. Claims the relaxing motion of rocking could help me deal with the stress of the job. It ain't all traffic tickets and parades, you know."

I pounced on his comment. "No, I don't know. I only know the parts from the cases I’ve covered, which usually involved detectives. Which is precisely why I want, no, make that why I need to do this. So I can find out. It will make my story more realistic if I can show some of the real incidents that happen to a cop on patrol. Authentic background information is what I need for this book."

“Is there anyone not writing the Great American Novel?”

“Writing it is one thing. Getting it published is something else. C’mon, Bert. Say yes and I’ll be your Valentine.”

The face splitting smile returned. “I remember the first time you pulled that.”

I came around the desk and planted a kiss on his cheek. “And who always sends you a card on Valentine’s Day?”

“You do.”

“And Christmas, Father’s Day and your birthday?”

“You do.”

“And who’s your favorite stepdaughter?”

“You’re my only stepdaughter.”

“Doesn’t that make me your favorite?”

“I guess it does.”

“So you’ll set it up?”

"Oh, all right,” he said with just a hint of disgust. “I’ll see to it. But if anything goes sour during the night, I'm giving the trooper specific orders to dump your taffy ass at the post."

“So are we clear? Any problems and they drop you at the post. Understood?”

I stood erect and snapped off a salute. "Understood."

Bert rose to escort me out to the lobby. I pulled a tissue out of my purse and carefully wiped the lipstick off his cheek. Bert was always fast on his feet, able to identify a problem and come up with a solution before I’d even finished speaking. I got the impression that I'd been snookered. He stopped me just outside his office, gently squeezing my elbow. “Why couldn’t you do something safe, like teaching or modeling?”

I looked down at my chest. "I couldn't make it as a model. I'm lacking a few of the essentials.”

“Bull. Legs like those could sell stockings. Hell, even I'd buy a pair." He gave me another brief hug then turned to go back to work.

“They call it hose now, Bert, pantyhose.”

“Hey, I’m an old-fashioned guy. Besides, stockings sound a whole lot sexier than hose.”

Here's a photo of what Jamie might look like. 

Here are some links where you can find Devious.

A bit of traveling music from Steve Miller.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Memorable Characters

While teaching a business class last week, the discussion was about the different types of ownership. We were talking about the benefits of a partnership when one student attempted to derail the conversation by asking “How can Tony Stark be fired from his own company?”

It took me a moment to shift gears. “You’re talking about Stark Industries? Iron Man?”

“Yeah, that’s right. This was a company his father built and he owned stock in it. How could he possibly be fired?”

Without knowing all the details, I explained how stockholders in a public corporation would elect a board of directors. It would be the board’s job to oversee the operations of the company and as such, they could be moved to fire Stark. I also gave the example of an actual business, The Men’s Wearhouse, whose founder was fired by the board not so many years ago.

Satisfied by the explanation, I was able to guide the conversation back to the lesson plans. But not before one other student remarked, “Wow, I’m impressed that you knew who Tony Stark was!”
I reminded them that the character had been around since the 1960s, long before Robert Downey Jr. brought him to life on the big screen.

As a writer, one of my goals is to create characters that readers can relate to and with any luck, grow to like. It’s important to me that each one has their own strengths and weaknesses, just as we all do.  While mine don’t happen to possess the super powers of an action figure like Tony Stark, they do have their own skills and talents that will hopefully get them out of whatever conflict they discover themselves in.

Maybe someday, Jamie Richmond or Jefferson Chene will become as popular as Tony Stark.  

Now that would be a blast!

Thinking of characters and their weaknesses, brought Chene to mind. Here’s an excerpt from “Your Turn to Die” that proves the point.

In this scene, Chene is interviewing Abigail Prentiss, a former employee of Kyle Morrissey, whose murder Chene and his team of detectives are investigating.

She waved me toward a small office in the back. I watched as she opted to lean against the desk in the center of the room. Abigail was about thirty, with a very short cut to her thick blonde hair. There was humor dancing in her blue eyes and she flashed me a toothy grin. She braced one hand behind her on the desk. The other hand slowly rubbed her distended stomach.

“I haven’t thought of Kyle Morrissey in almost five years.”

“First things first,” I said. “When are you due?”

“Three weeks. But this kid is either going to be a dancer or a soccer player. She doesn’t stop moving.”

Glancing beyond her I saw a series of finger painted pictures taped to the wall. “Second one?”

“Yes. Already have a boy, so the girl will make the set.”

“How old is he?”

“Two. And if you’re thinking he might be Kyle’s you’re dead wrong. He never got into my panties, despite his repeated efforts.”

My palms went up defensively. “I hadn’t gotten that far yet. Tell me about it.”

“I was engaged when Kyle made his first pass at me. He had always been charming. Thought I couldn’t resist him, but I’d seen all his antics before. I worked the Shores Madrid for a year in high school and came back after college as an assistant manager. I was in the job for about a month before he tried the first time.”

“What happened?”

Abigail closed her eyes. At first I thought she was reflecting on the past, until she began to rub slow circles across her stomach. She drew a deep breath, held it for as long as she could, then let it out in a gasp. “Definitely a dancer.”

“Are you okay?”

She nodded. “Relax, Detective. I’m not going into labor. I hope.”

“Three more weeks, huh?”

“Unless my doctor miscalculated.” Abigail gave a little shudder. “Morrissey. First pass wasn’t much. He happened to be there when I came in to work the evening shift. I’d just gotten engaged. Nick surprised me the night before with a ring. All the kids were clamoring around, checking it out. Everyone was hugging me. Morrissey did too. But he clung a bit longer than was comfortable.”

I glanced at her left hand. She wasn’t wearing jewelry. Abigail caught my eyes and laughed a deep, throaty blast.

“I’m guessing you don’t have children, Detective. My whole body is swollen, including my fingers. There’s no way I can wear my rings.”

“Add that to the growing list of things I don’t know about women. So Morrissey made the most of that clinch?”

“He did. I’m a little rounder than most of the women he hired for the theaters, but he still went for it.”

“What happened next?”

“About two weeks later, he stopped by. Said he wanted to get my reactions to some new movies he was considering.” She shrugged. “I was skeptical. He put his arm around my shoulders when we were in the office, looking at the listings. I started to pull away and his hand slid down my arm. That’s when he cupped my breast.”

“What did you do?”

“Told him I was going to file a harassment claim. I’d managed to speed dial my home number on my cell phone. The whole conversation was being recorded on my answering machine. I told Morrissey that and said the media would be my second call. His wife would be the first.”

“What did he do?”

Abigail shook her head and gave me a wry smile. “Son of a bitch didn’t let go. He just kept rolling his thumb against my nipple. Said he’d understand if I wanted to quit and he’d give me a generous payment to make it all go away. He named a number. I told him to double it.” She shrugged again. “He did. An attorney showed up at my apartment the next afternoon with a document and a check. He assured me it was real and encouraged me to have another attorney look it over. That was the last I ever saw of Morrissey.”

I knew how much the payment had been. That was more than a year’s salary for an assistant manager at a theater. 

“So you had no other contact with him or the theater?”

“I called the manager and said I wouldn’t be back. Then I called each of the girls working there, said if he ever touched them to call the cops. I think he stopped.”

“Maybe he did.”

Abigail thought about it. “I doubt it.”

Music this week comes from Joe Walsh and the James Gang.