A friend asked me recently how I know when something in a story is going to work. She was searching for that kind of ‘ah-ha’ moment, as if I would recognize it the minute it appeared on my computer screen. She explained that her process is to plot everything out long before she begins to write a scene.
I pointed out that she is writing, by setting up these steps in her outline. She brushed my comments aside. “But you don’t do that. So how do you know?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“Can’t or won’t?”
“Can’t. It not something I can explain. It just happens.”
I went on to say that it could be inspiration or a subconscious feeling that the characters may point me in the direction it should take. She asked for an example and I shared a bit from the book that’s under development.
The original idea was for Leo Agonasti, the retired gangster who appears in the second Chene book, to be charged with a murder that happened almost twenty years ago. In the first pass, Agonasti is taken into custody by the FBI and tells his attorney ‘Get Chene’. That’s where it starts.
But the more I kicked this around, the less I liked it. The idea that he would just willingly turn himself into the feds, who had always been trying to find some reason to arrest him and pump him for information about illegal activities, didn’t feel right. Agonasti is a smart guy, one who understands how law enforcement works. He didn’t survive a career in organized crime and orchestrate a clean separation when he wanted to retire by following the rules. So why should he go quietly when they come knocking? That realization was enough of an ‘ah-ha’ moment to take the story in a brand new direction.
And so far, it’s working.
But there’s a long way to go with that story. As it goes, I’ll keep watching for those ah-ha moments.
(If I were casting the role for the movie, Pierce Brosnan would be a great fit for Agonasti)
Here’s an excerpt from “Your Turn to Die”. In this scene, Chene and Suarez, one of the new additions to the detective squad, are visiting with Leo Agonasti and his associate, Maximo Aurelio. Chene is hopeful these two can shed some light on their investigation into the murder of businessman Kyle Morrissey.
Leo Agonasti liked to say he was a student of life. He had a love of history, particularly anything to do with the Detroit area since the city was settled by the French. But he was most knowledgeable about the twentieth century. If it happened in Motown, he knew about it. From crooked labor unions to shady politicians, Leo could tell you stories. He was leaning against the cabin door, watching our approach. Max must have called him as we were on the way. Agonasti was not the type to sit placidly waiting for anyone’s arrival. He looked fit, with the solid upper body of someone who had done his share of manual labor. He squeezed my hand firmly and looked me straight in the eye.
“It’s been too long, Jeff. Far too long.”
“Nice to see you, Mr. Agonasti. You’re looking well.”
He clapped me on the shoulder. “When are you going to call me Leo? After all these years, there’s no need for formalities.”
“Old habits die hard.”
Agonasti waved me into the salon on the rear of the yacht. Max followed. I hesitated, watching Suarez step aboard. Agonasti was about to have some fun.
“You must be Ramon Suarez. Welcome aboard, Detective. You had a good track record with the Detroit P.D. How do you like working with the State?”
“It has its moments,” Suarez said. Instinctively he grabbed the door frame for support. I wondered if this was the first time Suarez had been on a boat of any kind.
“Come, sit down. How about a drink?” Agonasti gestured at Max, who was bringing a pitcher of iced tea out of a small refrigerator. “Unless you’d like a beer, Ramon?”
“Tea’s cool. I’ll pretend its tequila.”
“Quite a yacht, Leo,” I said. “This one new?”
Max handed me a glass. “We picked it up a few weeks back. Haven’t had the chance to really break it in yet. The captain I hired isn’t very reliable.”
“A damn shame,” Agonasti said. “It’s a perfect day for a ride.” He hesitated briefly. “What do you say, Jeff? Want to take it for a shakedown cruise?”
I moved to the wheelhouse and checked the switches. After activating the blower to air out the engine room, I kicked in the twin diesels and the generator. Max quickly walked to the bow and unhooked the connector to the shore power. Once he’d secured it to a wooden piling, he released to bow line from a shiny chrome cleat. He draped this over the same spot, making it easy to reattach upon our return. A glance over my shoulder confirmed Agonasti had done the same thing with the stern line. Max released the spring line, which secured the boat at its midpoint.
Suarez appeared at my elbow, looking a bit green. “You have any idea what the hell you’re doing?”
“Last time somebody said ‘trust me’, I found out it means ‘fuck you’ in Yiddish. And I got shot in the ass.”
I eased the engines into reverse. Once clear of the dock, I spun the boat on its heel by putting the right engine, known as the starboard side, into forward and leaving the left or port engine in reverse. When I had the right angle, I flipped the left engine into forward and we pulled out of the marina and eased toward the lake. Beyond the marina’s break wall, I gave the throttles a little more kick and pointed her out toward the middle of the lake.
“Care to try it from the bridge?” Agonasti jerked his thumb above us.
“It would be a shame not to.”
I stepped aside and Max took the wheel. Agonasti led me to a chrome ladder at the rear of the salon that took us up to the fly-bridge. From there we had an unobstructed view of the lake. We settled into a pair of captain’s chairs behind an identical set of controls. Agonasti tapped the horn once. I felt the wheel wiggle beneath my hands, a signal that Max was relinquishing the controls. I nudged the throttles and felt the wind tug at my clothes. This far out on the lake, no remote microphones would be effective. Although he was retired, I was sure Agonasti was still under the surveillance of some kind of a task force.
“What do you think, Jeff?”
“Hell of a ride. Why don’t you run it?”
He shrugged his thick shoulders. “Never learned how. Figured it was easier to have someone else who feels comfortable at the helm. I wouldn’t have been able to back her out of the dock.”
“Just takes practice.”
“It wouldn’t be right if I had trouble handling it. May give people the wrong impression. And I certainly don’t want that.”
I thought about that. Pity the fool who joked about Agonasti’s inability to dock a boat. If the old rumors were true, he’d find a dozen painful ways to make the person regret their comments.
“So how’s the homicide investigation coming?” Agonasti had carried the tea up with him and was twirling his glass slowly, watching the ice cubes roll around the rim.
“Typical. Chasing down leads, talking to his contacts. Same old song and dance.” I shifted my eyes from the water to him. “You ever meet?”
Agonasti merely shook his head.
“Then why the interest?”
“I’m interested in many things, especially when someone is brutally murdered. A family man, too.”
“Are you referring to that in the traditional sense?”
His face split into a wide grin. “That’s what I like about you, Jeff. Always straight to the point. No pulling punches.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
Again the grin. “See what I mean. No, Morrissey was not connected with any organized crime syndicate.”
“So there must be some reason his death peaks your interest?”
“I like old movies. Kick it up a notch.”
I increased the throttles to three-quarter speed. He’d tell me what was on his mind when he was ready. I leaned back in the chair and sipped my tea, one hand loosely on the wheel. I wondered how Suarez was fairing down below. A glance over my shoulder proved we were alone. Max was probably watching him get his sea legs.
We continued running northeast, across Lake St. Clair in the general direction of Port Huron. Agonasti gestured toward the right and I fell into the wake of an ore freighter that was headed in the same direction.
“Morrissey’s murder appeared to be an execution,” Leo said. “It made me curious. I’ve asked around. No one had any dealings with him. Whoever killed him might have been attempting to steer the investigation away and focus it on the family.”
I shrugged. “Makes sense. Shot at close range. Not as messy as through the ear, but just as effective.”
“Killers today don’t have the stomach for a signature hit. They don’t want to get their Guccis dirty. Most hits nowadays are as subtle as a drive-by shooting.”
“So you wanted to make sure we don’t waste our time searching for any organized crime connections?”
Agonasti’s head bobbed slowly on his shoulders. “Trail’s getting cold, Jeff. Whoever did this to Morrissey shouldn’t get away with it. Guy was a straight arrow. Wife and kids and all that jazz.”
Music this week comes from Paul Simon.