Saturday, October 18, 2014

The first two chapters of, While the Emperor Slept

Alright.  Within four days I will finally . . . FINALLY . . . finish writing the Decimus Julius Virilis novel, While the Emperor Slept.  As you may or may not know, someone asked me to write a novel (and possibly a potential series?) featuring a character from out of 1st Century Rome who acts, in his deductive reasoning, like an ancient Sherlock Holmes.  Not a clone of the famous sleuth, mind you;  just someone who would strongly remind you of the famous Baker Street detective.

The first question to ask, while approaching this delicious little quadmire, was . . . just what exactly makes Sherlock Holmes so interesting? Is it his personality?  His looks?  His cold, scientific mind?  His brassy assurance?  Or all of the above stirred up into one big stew and poured into a tall frame of sheer audacity?

The second question to ask was, could I recreate the ambiance and color of 1st Century Rome and make it believable.  And . . . did I have to make it 100% historically accurate?   (this led to a whole series of mental debates within my noggin' about just how important historically fiction had to toe the line in authenticity at the expense of dramatic framing of potential scenes).

In the end I threw all these concerns out the window and decided to write the best damn story I could and stuff it into the 1st Century as best as I could.  A good story, in my not-so-humble-opinion, wins out over historical accuracy any time (as long, of course, as the bending of historical fact doesn't completely fracture ons's Suspension of Belief to the breaking point).

So with all this in mind, I created Decimus Julius Virilis.  I thought I would do two things today.  I thought I might share with you a little Decimus' background and top it off with the first two chapters of the book. (a little blatant self-promotion here.  IF the book is accepted, and IF the book comes out in print, maybe it will receive a higher than expected audience if I kinda . . . you know . . . prime the pump first.  Yeah, I know; wishful thinking.)

So here goes:

Name:  Decimus Julius Virilis
Born:  Somewhere between 29-31 BC in a hut just outside the city of Brundisium
Occupation: At the age of 15 joined Octavius Caesar's Legio III Augusta  in 16 BC and
                    began rising through the ranks. Served in various legions and saw action in, Gaul
                    Hispania, Africanus, Aegypt,  Italia, Germania, Parthia.
Retired: 9 AD, after achieving the rank of Prafectus Castoreum (third in command of a Roman legion);
              becoming a full Roman citizen. (thanks to being distantly related to Caesar himself)
Further Employment:  Given the rank of Tribune in the Caesar's new Cohortes Urbanae (a specialized
                                  police unit for the cities of Rome and Ostia).  Put on special assignment personally
                                  by Octavius Caesar to investigate delicate cases particularly sensitive to the
                                  Julii familiy.
Died: Yet to be determined

So there is a snapshot portrait of my Holmesian wannabe.  Part detective. Part assassin.  Part seeker of political intrigues.  Sometimes very cold and calculating.  Sometimes very deadly.  Hopefully . . . a character that will catch on with the reading public.

So.  To stimulate that last thought, here are the first two chapters of While the Emperor Slept.


One

            With a shrug from a shoulder he slipped off the short toga and took the first tentative step into the hot bubbling waters of the bath.  Behind him his servant, a pepper haired old Roman soldier by the name of Gnaeus, eyed his master ruefully and then bent down and retrieved the short robe from the marbled floor. In the light of a hundred candles filling the bath with a soft warm light, he eyed the black marble columns of the private bath, noted the rich drapes which hung from the marbled ceiling, felt the warmth of the marble floors he stood on and nodded to himself in pleasure.
            The Baths of Juno Primus, with its marbled columned porch and impressive water fountains at the base of its portico steps, was the newest public baths in Rome. It sat three blocks away from the gigantic Balisca Julius, the elegant and impressively enclosed public forum and administrative building just completed in the heart of the city.  The baths, rumored to have been built with donations from the Imperator himself, were equally impressive.  It may have been true.  He knew Gaius Octavius.  An old man now known as Gaius Octavius Caesar, the Augustus.  He knew the other Caesar was that kind of person.  Julius Caesar had a passion for spending money lavishly on grand architecture.  Octavius inherited the family trait. Both had a passion for building.  Building large, grand structures out of the finest marble.  Each dreamed of converting, in one life time, a once dreary, almost rural, city called Rome into a world class megalopolis. 
            Smiling, Decimus Julius Virilis stepped into the warm clear waters of the steaming bath and lowered himself onto a marble bench.  Closing his eyes he stretched arms on either side of the bath and leaned back and heaved a sigh of relief.
            He sat in the water and allowed his senses to wonder.  Vaguely in other parts of the large bathhouseRome's rather complex society.  In such a place like this one would find the most noble and the most carnal.  Without question cabals were being hatched.  Dark secrets were being revealed.  Roman politics thrived behind the closed doors of each large bathing pool reserved for one patron or another.   Chin deep in the artificially warm waters of these baths there was no conceivable plot, no scandalous terror, men of power and wealth could not converse in soft whispers which had not been discussed a hundred times before.
he heard the voices of men mumbling or the splashing of water.  Somewhere a woman's voice, probably that of a serving girl, was laughing merrily.  Somewhere else the tinkling of goblets clinking together told him men were enjoying their wine. The baths was a giant complex filled with senators, generals, politicians.  The rich and elite of
             Sighing, he gently pushed the cacophony of noise from his mind, and allowed the heat of the water to seep into aching muscles and a tired body with its soothing fingers of sensual delight.  He was an average size man in height.  But the numerous scars which tattooed his flesh in a bizarre matrix of randomness, along with the amazing display of muscles he yet retained, would have indicated to an on looker this man was anything but remotely average. 
            Twenty five years soldiering in one of the many legions loyal to Octavius Caesar had a way of hardening a man's body . . . a man's soul.  From Hispania to Aegypt; from Illyrium to Gaul.  One legion after another.  Fighting.  Fighting Gauls.  Fighting Spaniards.  Fighting Romans.  Hundreds of skirmishes.  Several pitched battles.  Stepping over friends and foes alike lying on the ground dead, sword dripping with blood in one hand and shield in the other.  Battle fields littered with the dead, the dying, and the cowering for as far as the eye could see.
            Twenty five years.
            Watching fool politicians appointed to command riding prancing horses, banners and Eagles rising in the sunshine, with men shouting and hammering their shields with the swords eager for battle, only to, months later, see the same legion either victorious and lusty.  Or defeated and disgraced.  Or worse . . .  decimated and barely clinging in existence.
            Twenty five years.
            Rising up through the ranks.  First as a simple legionnaire in the tenth cohort . . . essentially the raw recruits of a legion.  Proving himself as both a leader and as a fighter.  Attaining on the battle field the promotion to centurion and assigned again to a tenth cohort as its commander.  Years of slugging through summer hit and winter's cold.  Through rain and snow.  Facing an almost unlimited number of Rome's enemies.  Facing  rampaging war elephants.  Facing armor clad Parthian cataphract cavalry with their deadly lances and stinging composite bows.  Facing Greek spears stacked up in their compact, vaunted, phalanxes.  Facing naked, blue painted Celtic madmen wielding gigantic two handed swords taller than a man.  But eventually . . . with a little luck at surviving defeats as will as victories, along with the acumen of using his own natural abilities  . . . his star kept rising.  Rising eventually to primus pilum, or First Spear; the top ranking centurion commanding the First Cohort in a Roman legion.  And finally, from there, to being promoted to a tribune and given the rank of prafectus castorum.  The highest rank a professional soldier could attain.  Third in command of a Roman legion.  The soldier's soldier a legion's twenty or so tribunes and eighty or so centurions came to with their problems.  The soldier expected to maintain discipline in the army.  To feed the army.  To provide the arms. To mold thousands of disparate individual souls into one efficiently killing machine.
            But no more.  No more.
            A life time of soldiering was enough.  With what few years of good health remained to him he would enjoy as a free man.  He had accepted all the accolades, all the honors bestowed on him by noblemen and commoner, and retired from the army.  He no longer served anyone.  No longer took orders from anyone.  No longer felt obligated to anyone.  It was a strange feeling.  A dichotomy of emotions.  On one hand was the feeling of joy . . . immense joy of finally, finally being in command of his own fate.  On the other hand was this feeling of extreme loss. An odd emptiness hanging just below his consciousness.   As if there was something critical was missing.  An order given and yet to be obeyed. Frowning, he inhaled the hot humid air of the baths and opened his eyes.
            What was he going to do with himself?   The need to be gainfully employed was of no concern.  Retiring from the position of prafectus castorum meant he left the service of the Imperator as a wealthy man.  Almost twenty three years of being first a centurion and then a tribune meant, among other things, being involved in the handling of his men's savings.  Yes, most of the men he commanded spent their wages on women and drink as fast as they could.  But a number of men in any legion had learned to save some money back.  To throw it into the cohort's banking system in the hopes that, if the army was successful and cities or provinces were plundered, their meager savings would grow.
            The final three years of his army life had been a considerable financial boon.  As perfectus castorum  his staff had been in charge of the entire legion's savings.  Several thousand sesterces worth.  If an officer was astute in his men's investments a sizeable profit could be had by all.   And if a legion was fortunate to be favored by its commander, or legate, for exceptional service, the reward would be even greater.
            He was not called The Lucky for nothing.  Lucky in war.  Lucky in investing.  Lucky in being related to the richest man in the empire.  Gaius Octavius Caesar.  Money was of no concern to him.  He would live comfortably for the rest of his life.
            But what to do?  What exercise to entertain and stimulate his mind?  He needed a challenge.  A goal . . . a . . . puzzle . . . to keep his wits about him!  Without some challenge for the gray matter in his skull to dwell on life was nothing but a series of boring mannerisms to endure.
            Closing his eyes again he idly heard his servant Gnaeus pouring wine in a large goblet for him.  And then . . . a brief silence.  An odd silence.  An out of place silence.  Softly followed by just the lightest whisper of heavy cloth rubbing across the leather scabbard of a sheathed gladius.
            He didn't move or show any outward gesture he was aware of a new presence behind him.  Resting in the water of the bath he appeared to be asleep.  But ever nerve in his body was tingling with delight!  He heard the soft tread of three distinct sets of sandals.  With one of the three, strangely, without question an old man. Opening eyes slowly he noticed the colors around him . . . the blue of the water, the black of the marble columns, the white of the marble bath walls . . . seemed to be a hundred times more intense!  For the first time in weeks he felt alive!  And when he heard that distinct shuffling of feet and the odd hissing of someone finding it difficult to breathe he almost laughed out loud.
            "Good evening, cousin," he said quietly, coming to a standing position and turning to face his unannounced guests.
            Three of them stood above him looking down at him as he stood in waters of the bath.  Two of them were big men dressed in the distinct cuirass and greaves of the Praetorian Guards.  Around their shoulders were short capes of the royal purple trimmed in silver thread.  Underneath their left arms were their brightly polished bronze helms.  At their waists lay the short blades of the Roman gladius. The double edged weapon that had carved out a vast empire for the City of Rome and its people.
            Between the two was an old man slightly stooped over and dressed in a dark wine red toga.  Around his shoulders and covering the curls of his white hair was a plain woolen cloak and hood.  But there was no mistaking this man.
            "Good evening, Decimus Julius Virilis," Augustus Caesar said, an amused smile spreading across thin lips.  "I see you still retain all your limbs and most of your senses."
            "No thanks to you, Imperator," Decimus laughed, making his way out of the bath completely unconcerned about his nakedness and men armed standing before him.  "You've tried to kill me at least a hundred times."
            "One of my few failures I'm sure," replied the old man, chuckling.
            "So tell me, cousin.  To what pleasure do I owe you receiving your company in a public bath house suddenly ordered vacated by a detachment of your Praetorian Guards?"
            The old man's eyes, bright and alive, looked upon his distant cousin with mirth and pleasure.  They had known each other for years.  Ever since Decimus, as a boy of fourteen, ran away from home and joined his first legion.  A legion he happened to be commanding in Greece facing Mark Anthony so many years ago.  Nodding approvingly, the old man moved closer to the younger man, took him gently by one arm and squeezed it affectionately.
            "I am in need of your services, cousin.   And, amusingly, some would say I bring with me an incredible opportunity you might consider.  A very delicate situation has come up that must be addressed swiftly and surely.  Swiftly and surely with . . . uh . . . only the talents you can bring to bear."

Two

            To his right the waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea seemed to lift up and fill the late afternoon sky in a soft blue haze from horizon to horizon.  Sails, white and wine red, from several large cargo ships, moved with an elegant ease as they headed for the port of Ostia.  Sea gulls circled and wove through the partially cloudy skies above them.  The Roman countryside slid down to the see was a lush verdant green.  To him it looked like the vast gardens of a royal estate as he rode down the rough trail toward their destination.
The sun was out and deliciously warm.  The panoramic view of the countryside pleasing to the eye. 
            One would think, if one only trusted his eyes and nothing more, the world was beautiful and peaceful and tranquility was the order of the day.  But he knew better.  He knew the true nature of the world.  Life was an illusion.  Beauty only a mask to hide the darkness and pain from our eyes.
            Reining in his powerful mare he turned and looked at the small entourage behind him.  Gnaeus, looked decidedly ill at ease sitting on a horse, dressed in the garb of a Roman legionnaire.  With the plain conical helm of a legionnaire partially hiding the thick mass of pepper and salt colored hair, the simple off white linen undergarment underneath the typical lamellar armor of a Roman cavalryman, Gnaeus reined in his horse expertly and scowled at Decimus.
            Smiling, the tribune turned his head and looked at the two other men who reined in on either side of Gnaeus.  One was a thin framed with the hooked nose of a scowling hawk.  Like Gnaeus, he too was dressed in the typical armor and uniform of a cavalryman.  And like his servant a man whom Decimus had known for years in the army.  A specialist in his own right.  A man who knew how to find things.  Any thing.  Find it and retrieve it without making any raucous noise about it.   Some said Rufus was a thief.  A pick pocket. A purse snatcher.  He knew Rufus for what he truly was.  A man with a very special talent any commander of a legion would require sooner or later.
            Or a man now in his newly appointed position.
            The third cavalryman was very much different.  He was a tall man with thick arms and powerful thighs.  Yet he rode his horse with the ease of someone who had lived all his life around horses.  He was dark complexion with jet black eyes and a small mouth.  There seemed to be an aloofness . . . a sense of otherness . . . that separated him from the rest of them.  Indeed he was this stranger.  He was not Roman born.  He was a foreigner.  A tribesman from the deserts of Numidia.  Yet he too, like the others, a man whom he had known and trusted for years.
            "Hassid.  That way," he said lifting an arm and pointing toward the south.  "Check the surrounding countryside for any tracks.  Make a full circle around the crime scene.  You will find us there when you return."
            The black eyed hunter from the desert nodded silently and urged his horse on.  He moved out rapidly and soon disappeared into a copse of trees hugging a small hill.  Decimus, waiting until the rider was well out of sight, grunted and turned his horse toward the southwest and heeled its flanks.
            With the two riding abreast and slightly behind him the newest tribune of Rome's  Cohortes Urbanae topped a small grassy knoll and began descending rapidly down upon the odd scene below.
            After the civil wars, after Octavius' arch rival, Mark Anthony, had been dispatched to Hades, Octavius returned to begin rebuilding both the city of Rome and the empire.  In Rome, after decades of neglect and civil strife, he found a city dominated by powerful underworld gangs. Gangs, bought and paid for by powerful patrician families of Rome, basically had carved out their own private empires within the city.  To fight the tenacious tentacles of organized crime Caesar created two organizations and gave them the specific tasks to accomplish.  That being bringing crime under control and providing some measure of safety for the citizens of the city from the ever-constant fear of the city burning to the ground in one gigantic conflagration.  One was the old Vigiles Urbani.  The other was the Cohortes Urbanae.
            The vigiles were the firefighters and beat cops of the city.  The city-watch.  A carry over idea, greatly expanded, from the numerous privately funded fire brigades and neighborhood watches that littered the city during Julius Caesar's time.  The Imperator collected the various units into one unit, assembled them along the lines of a Roman legion, and established taxes to pay for them.  Most of the men were ex-slaves commanded by Roman citizens--usually retired officers from the army.  They worked during the night looking for fires and chasing down common hoodlums.  They were effective if not, occasionally, a bit brutal.
           Cohortes Urbana acted more like the homicide division of a city's police force.  They investigated violent crime, organized crime, political shenanigans. They too were organized along the lines of a Roman legion.  But unlike the vigiles using ex-slaves as their manpower, only free Roman citizens could join the cohorts.  Better paid and equipped compared to their vigiles cousins the Urban Cohorts could, if the need arouse, actually be pulled from the city's streets and used in military operations.
The
            The Imperator commissioned Decimus with the rank of tribune in the Urban Cohorts.  A tribune minus the normal eight hundred or so men most tribunes in the army, or the vigiles, or the urbanae,  would command.  His orders, straight from the quill of Octavius himself, decreed he was on detached service answerable only to the Imperator. 
            His assignment was simple.  Find, and bring to justice, those whom the Imperator thought were of a particular dangerous threat to the newly acquired peace of the empire.
            Like this case.
            Reining up suddenly in front of a group of men, a mixed bag of vigiles and urban cohort soldiers standing around the destruction of what once had been a large wagon, he nodded to the centurion in charge and then slipped from his horse, throwing back the edge of his short scarlet and purple trimmed short riding cloak in the process.
            "Hail, tribune!" the young officer said, snapping to attention and saluting.
            "At ease, son.  And be so kind as to inform me of this situation."
            In the thick grass were several large dark stains where people had died violent deaths.  The bodies were gone but the visual evidence was ample to the trained eyed to conclude no one had survived the attack.  A quick sweep of the ground suggested to Decimus at least four people were dead.  The litter of several wooden trunks smashed to piece with their contents strewn all over the side, even the ripped out bottoms of the wagons themselves mixed in with the other flotsam, indicated someone must have been in search of something important.
            "Night before last the servant of a merchant in Ostia brought word there had been a series of murders . . . a massacre as they described it . . . just outside the port.  I sent two men out on horses to ascertain the truth.  As you can see the information was correct."
            He saw Rufus nod his head toward his master and drift off toward the sea to begin his assigned task. Gnaeus, scowling as always, silently moved away in a different direction and began looking at the signs left behind in the dirt and grass.  Decimus nodded, turned, and strode to one particularly large dark stain in the grass and knelt down.  The young centurion behind him followed respectfully yet watched the two servants of the tribune curiously.
            "The bodies?"
            "In Ostia, sir.  In the morgue of the vigiles' barracks.
            "Any survivors?"  he asked as he used an index finger and traced the outline of a particularly large partial print of distinctive shoe sole in the dust of the narrow trail beside the grass.
            "None that we know of.  When I arrived I found four bodies.  Two men of rank it would seem and two servants.  And, of course, the scene which greets you now."
            "Identification of any of the men?"
            "None.  No signet rings.  No personnel scrolls.  Nothing of monetary value left behind."
            "Are you sure, centurion, of the veracity of your men?  Are you sure no one in your command decided to claim a small prize of his own?  Say the first two men who came out and discovered this scene?"
            He stood up and turned to face the younger man.  A hot flash of anger swept across the centurion's face but quickly subsided.  The officer was of a famous plebian family.  A very famous, and rich, family.  Rarely had anyone doubted his veracity.
            But standing before was a tribune with a high sloping forehead with a thin swipe of grayish/blond curly hair covering the upper regions of his cranium.  The man also had this deep, experienced wrinkled face of a man who had seen much in life; like that perhaps of an old soldier.  Certainly the man exhibit a confident, almost arrogant, gate of a soldier.  There was the way the tribune gripped his ivory tipped baton, the symbol of rank for any high ranking Roman officer, which cautioned him.  Not just an ordinary soldier.  But someone who was used to command.
            A man not to be trifled with.
            Frowning, he turned and barked loudly two names.
            From the huddled group vigiles two men stepped forward and came to attention in front of the centurion.  Decimus, eying the two freedmen, slapped hands behind his back, stepped up very close to the men and began inspecting them closely as circled them.  Glancing down into the dust of the wagon ruts he noticed the prints of their sandals they had just imprinted into the dirt.
            "You," he said, using the long wooden baton of authority he gripped in one hand and slapped the man forcefully on the man's biceps. "Your name."
            "Gallus, sir."
            "You and this man beside you discovered the bodies last night when you road out from Ostia?"
            "Yes sir."
            Decimus nodded, hands gripping the baton behind his back, head down and staring at the ground thoughtfully as he walked slowly around the two men and stopped directly in front of the man who called himself Gallus.
            "Centurion, what is the punishment for a vigilii who is convicted of thievery?"
            The rough looking plank of an ex-slave visibly paled.  As did the man standing beside him.  Decimus eyed the tribune but returned his attention back to the two standing in front of him.
            "Ten lashes with the whip, sir.  And garnishment of one month's of wages.  Of course, if the theft is large enough, perhaps he might become a contestant at the next set of gladiatorial games."
            Beside the white faced Gallus groaned softly and his knees almost buckled.  The centurion, angry, exploded in rage.
            "By the gods, Gallus.  You filthy liar.  I'll personally peel the flesh off your back with a cat'o nine tails if you don't confess to your crimes now.  Do you understand me!"
            "Sir!  I . . . we . . . it was just a little thing!  Nothing expensive . . . really."
            Decimus turned his head and watched the forever scowling Gnaeus trotting up toward him carrying something white and thin between the forefinger and thumb of his right hand.  The tribune nodded and smiled grimly.  Extending a hand, palm up, toward his servant.  The bushy haired smaller man gently deposited the grim piece of evidence onto the tribune's hand
            The centurion's eyes, watching closely, did not see what was deposited into the older officer's hand. But he felt relatively certain it was something which would not go well for the undersized oaf named Gallus.
            "Let me paint you a picture of what happened last night, soldier.  Interrupt me whenever I stray from the truth."
            The young centurion strode up to stand by the balding yet dominating force of Decimus Julius Virilis and turned crimson faced in rage when his eyes fell upon the severed ring finger.  Slapping the small baton all centurions gripped angrily against the side of his bare leg he turned and gave his man a dark, murderous look.
            Decimus, snarling back a dangerous smirk, zeroed his eyes on the man in front of him and continued talking.
            "You and your companion arrived last night just as it began to lightly rain.  You found this site as it appears today.  You found four dead bodies, clothes and furniture scattered all over the field, along with the two small wagons completely dismantled and strewn about.  There was no gold.  No jewelry.  Nothing.  Except for one small item . . . "
            Lifting the severed finger in his palm he delicately put it directly under the ex-slaves flaring nostrils and continued.
            "You found a rather large fat man with a small signet ring on a finger.  A ring which would not come off because the man's fingers were swollen.  No no . . . don't deny it.  It was a signet ring.  In fact I suspect it was a signet key ring.  A key that was supposed to open a small jewelry box or some other small wooden chest.  See the circular discoloration on the flesh?  Yes?  Clear evidence the man wore a ring.  Now look closely at the finger.  It is a man's middle finger.  The finger a man of some importance would decorate with a signet key ring.  So tell me, Gallus.  Did you find the wooden box the ring you removed from the dead hand of Spurius Lavinius last night?"
            "I . . . uh . . . we found what . . . what was left of the box, tribune."
            "We . . . !" exploded the man standing beside him, wheeling around and stepping away from his comrade.  "I told you not to cut off that finger.  It was a trifling ring! It wasn't worth a penny!"
            "Silence!"
            The centurion, baton in hand, backhanded the man across the face viciously.  The man staggered to one side, holding his face with one hand, but came back to full attention.  Glaring at the man for one second the young officer thought about clubbing the man again. But he contained his anger and turned to face the tribune.
            "My sincerest, most humble, apologies sir.  I assure you when these two return to their barracks they will be severely dealt with."
            Decimus shook his head negatively and placed a hand on the officer's arm.
            "Severity in punishment will not correct evils committed, centurion.  Discipline them you must.  Preferably in front of their comrades for all to take note for those who cannot restrain themselves from petty theft.  But measure the punishment to the quality of the crime.  Otherwise you will generate more animosity than compliance among your men.
            Besides, I believe this man.   I suspect they did indeed find the small jewelry box already destroyed and its contents missing when they arrived."
            Turning back to the ex-slave the balding, darkly tanned tribune lifted a hand up and told the man to give him the ring.  The man fumbled the ring out of a small leather pouch and dropped it into Decimus' hand.
            "Sir, if I may ask a question?"
            Decimus smiled, turning from the two ex-slaves and motioned them to leave at the same time.
            "You're wondering how I knew so quickly this nasty little deed had taken place last night.  Yes?"
            "Sir!" the centurion nodded, surprised, and wondering if the older officer could read his mind. "I mean . . . how?"
            Decimus half turned toward the young officer and smiled fatherly as he lifted a finger up and motioned him to follow his actions.  Kneeling in front of the stain on the grass beside the dust of the wagon trail he waited for the centurion to kneel beside him and then he pointed toward a set of tracks in the recently dried soil.
            "There are two different set of foot prints.  Here and here," he said pointing to one and then the other.  "Look closely.  The vigilies and the urban cohorts issue to their men the exact types of sandals as the army does for their men. They have a distinctive pattern on the soles of the leather.  Notice one set is that of someone wearing such footwear and the other isn't?"
            Once pointed out it was obvious for anyone to see plainly written in the soil.  With the addition of the military soled sandal extruding from underneath it mud.  As if Gallus had knelt in the rain to do his dastardly deed.
            "Precisely," Decimus nodded, smiling with quiet pleasure at seeing the younger officer see the evidence without the need to point it out to him. "A slight rain producing just enough mud to generate such a track.  But not so the other.  Meaning?"
            "The murderer must have committed his dead prior to the rain last night.  The rain began just a little after midnight.  So . . . that means the massacre mush have taken place sometime before."
            "Very good," the older man said, coming to his feet and smiling. "Remember this small lesson, young man.  Every living creature uses their gift of sight to see world around us.  Our eyes gives us this wondrous sense of vision.  We see . . . but very few of us observe.  For an officer such as yourself the difference between seeing and observing could be all the difference in the world in keeping you and your men alive."
            "But . . . but how did you know in the beginning the dead man would have a signet key ring?  And this blood stain?  How did you know this was the precise stain to look at and not the other three?"
            Decimus laughed casually and glanced at Gnaeus who had come up to stand beside him.  The scowl on servant's face softened a bit but did not go away as he eyed the young centurion.
            "As to the knowledge of the key ring I confess I came owning such knowledge already.  I've been asked to look into this case and to bring it to a swift conclusion.  I was informed the patrician involved was carrying a small black wooden box engraved in ivory with a set of papers in it that were important.  Important to several groups of people.  That box and those papers my task is to find and obtain as well as to bring to justice those who killed Spurius Lavinius and his men.
            As to knowing to look at this stain and not the others?  I confess. I guessed. Over the years I have observed men in powerful positions and how they reacted in a number of extreme situations.  Experience, in other words, centurion.  Drawing on my experience in similar situations led me to believe a man of Spurius' position would have placed him in the lead wagon.  He would be the first to step down form the wagon if confronted by ruffians.  I knew the man, centurion.  I knew how arrogant and supremely confident he was toward those he considered his inferiors.  I'm sure Spurius thought he could bluster his way through this confrontation and continue on with his journey.  Unfortunately he sorely misread the situation and paid for it dearly."
            "Spurius Livinus?" the young centurion repeated, frowning and looking confused.  "I don't recall hearing this name before.  Who was he?"
            "An old, old, old villain my boy.  Very old . . . and very dangerous,"  Decimus answered softly.
            "Yet it appears, tribune,  someone even older and more dangerous found your man first. I assume this may be the opening gambit for a far more complex crime wave to come?"
            Decimus Julius Virlis glanced at the young centurion and frowned. 
            Indeed so, my boy.  Indeed so.


                   

Monday, September 15, 2014

Sometimes it just doesn't work

The other day I wrote a Smitty short story.  A short short story.  Numbering not much more than 580 words.  What I was trying to do was create a mood.  Create a mood and a distinct mental image that would linger in a reader's imagination for some length of time.  All in as few of words as possible.  I think I succeeded.  Apparently I'm the only one who thinks so.

Smitty, as you may or may not know, is a character I created who basically become the counter balance to my Turner Hahn/Frank Morales characters.  Turner and Frank are the good guys.  Two homicide detectives who try to follow the rules a civilized society dictates to its police force in how to handle and solve violent crimes.  Smitty is just the opposite.  Smitty is a hit man.  And the rules he follows are his own.  Neither civilization nor society have little to say in the matter.

What makes Smitty interesting . . . . well. interesting to me at least . . . is this; how do you make a dark character who is decidedly anti-social an interesting, and . . . dare we say it? . . . . a believable character who can actually generate some sympathy and affection from the reading audience?

You must admit.  An interesting conundrum.

Well, anyway.  Here's the short short story entitled, Sammy.  Read it and tell me what you think.


Sammy


            She was sixteen.  Sixteen and in tears.  Long black hair, as black as a murder of crows, fell well past her shoulders. Her hair reflecting brightly the few shards of sunlight piercing through the fall foliage of the park's old trees.  Just a child.  Thin. Almost anemic. Without feminine form yet.  Yet the orb of her face was young and flawless in complexion.  Promising soon a beautifully exotic flower about to bloom.
            He sat down on the park bench, and, with one gloved hand stretching out, deposited a worn, tattered, but much loved old teddy bear onto her lap.  Startled, wiping a floodgate of streaming tears from her eyes, she stared at the scruffy looking child's toy in silence before turning to look at the man sitting beside her.
            The chill of the morning air promised a hard winter.  The riot of colors of the deep Fall foliage a visual feast to behold.  The small park setting in the middle of a small city almost empty of human presence this early in the morning.
            "This . . . this is Sammy.  My toy," she whispered softly.  Almost inaudibly.
            "I know," the man with the dark eyes and the gloved hands of a concert pianist replied with a similar soft whisper.
            "I kept it at Dad's house.  The last time I saw Dad it was sitting on the dresser in my bedroom. But that's been five, six years ago.  How did you get it?"
            "He asked me to give it to.  I promised him I would."
            "You knew my Dad?"
            "We were friends.  At least, I considered him my friend."
            "Someone broke into Dad's house last week and killed him," she whispered, eyes flooding with tears and streaking down her cheeks as she watched the dark man stand up and step in front of her.  "Do you know who killed my father?"
            Above her, hidden deep in the bowels of the canopy of a grand old birch tree, a robin began chirping.  Behind him a squirrel leapt from a tree and began running madly across an open stretch of grass toward another tree.  Paralleling the park the city street had a heavy flow of cars and trucks rumbling slowly in queue from one traffic light to another.  Yet in the distance they both heard the sudden, startling, extremely loud squeal of tires screeching across hard cement.  A half second later a moving mass of steel and glass traveling at a high rate of speed smashed into an immovable object of immense weight.  The resulting crash generated an unbelievable explosion of noise and destruction.
            The infinitely black eyes of the man glanced toward the direction from where the sound of a horrible accident had just occurred.  But then the dark orbs turned back to face the young girl in front of him.
            "You asked if I knew the man you killed your father.  Yes, I used to.  But he's no longer anyone's problem.  Go home, Cindy.  Go back to your mother.  She needs you.  Like you, she never lost her love for your father.  She suffers as much as you.  Go home.  The two of you put this behind you.  Make yourselves a new life.  It's all over now.  All over."
            He turned and walked away, gloved hands in the pockets of the heavy blue coat he was wearing.  Just walked away.  Leaving her clutching to her heart with both hands the tattered, raggedy old form of an ancient teddy bear, with memories of her laughing father clouding her vision.

Friday, September 5, 2014

When do characters/series you love start to become irritating?

Original cover
Right up front; a statement of fact.  I love reading the Jack Reacher novels.  They are superb reads covering the trials and tribulations of a man who is, by any definition, of mythic proportions.  Reacher is six-feet-five in height, weighs in around 220 pounds, with fists as hard as sledge hammers.  He's like a search and destroy weapon when he latches onto a problem.  He never backs off.  He never gives up. He as tenacious at solving a problem as a pack of wolves are as tenacious tracking down their next meal.

He's an ex-Army major out of the Military Police.  More or less forced into retirement, he now roams the country like a bum.  He usually owns no mode of transportation, lives in very cheap motels, occasionally works menial jobs so he can make enough bucks to buy a bus ticket to move on to the next city or state.  And wherever he lands, he always, always, always gets his ass into trouble apparently only he can dig his way out of in his own fashion.

Like I said, the guy is of mythic proportions.  And maybe . . . just maybe . . . that's getting to be a problem.

It's hard to identify with a myth if he wins . . . all the time.  Hard to identify with a myth if he is far superior in his skill sets to any and all enemies he faces.  Sure, all of us want to be invincible.  All of us ultimately identify with some entity that seems to posses all the qualities we do not have.  We are human.  Meaning  we sometimes win a few battles, but usually we lose the vast majority of our little ruckuses and ultimately learn how to move on and live our lives out in average mediocrity.

Think about it.

Sit back and think of all the books you've read, all the characters you've stumbled over and discovered; all the adventures you've had while buried deep in the bowels of a good book.  Now ask yourself  . . . did any of these hero-types have any frailties, any weaknesses, which limited their ability to triumph in their struggles?  Did any of them get into a sticky-wicket and wind up losing.  Even though they were the 'good' guys?  I suspect the answer is NO. Probably not.

Jack rarely does.  And when he thinks he's wrong, it winds up he really wasn't.  And then he has his quirks, his little peccadilloes, which irritate the crap outta me.  He blue-collar through and through even though he comes from a professional military family (father) and a rather European-elite intellectual society (mother).  There's really nothing blue-collar.  Yet . . . he prefers shopping in the nearest local Goodwill or Wal-Mart store for just about everything.

And then he's got this almost psychotic shtick about not being tied down owning any possessions.  So he doesn't own a house.  He doesn't own a car.  He shies away from modern electronic devices.  He never stays in one spot for more than a couple of months at a time.  He constantly is moving on.

Okay, I know this sounds like I'm complaining loudly about someone I don't like.  In fact, it's just he opposite.  If Lee Child (author) writes a Jack Reacher novel, I'm buying it and keeping it in my library as a treasured memento.  I haven't collected all of the Reacher novels yet ('cause . . . you know.  I'm a writer myself in the classic sense.  I'm piss poor).  But I'm making headway.  Eventually . . .

Nevertheless.  At some point in time I suspect this mythic-hero hubris is going to start to wear a little thin on me.  Fortunately, that doesn't look like it's gonna happen until we're to book 100 or more in the series (we've got about 89 books to go yet).

Friday, August 22, 2014

Problems with Stubborness

Screw it.  I was going to write today's blog about the Problem with Prologues.  But . . . in reality, that's not the problem that's bugging me. It's a symptom.  But not the source.  Here's the real issure yanking my chain.

I've got a character by the name of Roland of the High Crags.  He's a warrior-monk who happens to be a wizard.  He's the typical heroic character usually found in most epic fantasy novels. He's loyal, brave, incredibly daring, with a sense of humor. But more than that . . . In my opinion the guy has a far, far more complex character to him.  He's got strengths and he's got his weaknesses. And it is his one major weakness, which is his sudden plunge into blinding rage against those who would do evil things, which makes him interesting. And he faces characters, both good and bad, who are just as complex as he is.

The problem is this;  I created this fantasy character to write a series . . . a long series . . . featuring him and a few of the characters he meets in his adventures.  I wanted to create a fantasy series that ultimate postulates the idea that Magic is just another name for Science.  Writing the first book of the series I fell into wonderful quandary of thinking about Time travel, Multiple Universes, and possibly meeting one's self from out of the distant Past and the far Future.

In short, one hell of a kick-ass fantasy series.  Or . . . at least I think so.

But no one has read the first novel of the series (Roland of the High Crags: Evil Arises.  See the right hand column of this page and find the book).  So how do you write a series when no one reads it?  How do you continue to write a series and generate ZERO INTEREST from any lit agent or book publisher who works in this genre?  Why not just move on . . . forget Roland and his adventures . . . and go on to something else.

That's the rub.  The conundrum.  The kink in the grand scheme of things.  I'm just too damn stubborn to set Roland aside.   Roland deserves an audience (hell . . . for that matter, ALL the characters I've come with need to find an audience of their own!)  Yeah, I know . . . I know.  There are all kinds of reasons on why Roland has not taken off.  One of them being that perhaps . . . just perhaps . . . the writing is atrocious and the writer himself is a talentless hack.

But, I read this stuff.  Regularly.  I know what's in the market these days.  I can live with the charge of being a talentless hack.  Sort of . . . 

So, for your entertainment, I thought I'd share the open few pages of the prologue from book two of the series.  Book two is called, Roland of the High Crags: Treacherous Brethren.

Enjoy.




Prologue

Know your enemy, my son.
 Respect his skill; admire his cunning.
                For the Dragon was built
                                For War.
                                                                -From the Book of St. Albans-
           

           
           
                                                                       



                                                            In the Beginning . . . . .

            They hung in the clear blue winter’s sky like two glistening jewels.  Two dragons.  One a Winged Beastie, her giant bat-wings stretched out to the fullest, riding the thermal drafts of the rugged forest hills like some dreaded Dark Lord.  Her wingspan was a good fifty feet.  Her body, a charcoal gray color, with its long serpentine neck and equally long horned tail delicately balancing her in her flight, sat in the sky as if she was a natural part of it.  She was a fire-breather.  An old warrior.  Supremely confident and master of the skies.
            Her rider, strapped in the heavy saddle just in front of the Beastie’s forward shoulders, had wrapped himself in a heavy cloak to keep the biting cold at bay.  The air was frigid cold.  Winter’s harsh grip had taken hold of the land and would not let go for another six months. Snuggled close to his body was the heavy looking crossbow so favored by King Dragons.  A weapon of immense power and range and very deadly in the hands of a marksman.  And something else was held close to him underneath the cloak.  Something important. 
So important it required him to keep his crossbow strung and notched.
            Two dragons riding the empty winds in maleficent grandeur.  Terrible to behold.
            Harbingers of Destiny.
            And I?
             Once a Bretan warrior-monk and accomplished wizard, now condemned and hunted by my brothers and all humanity, I rode in the saddle of my fierce Cedric high above and behind the unsuspecting Dragons.  Cedric was a Huygens-bred Great Wing.  A beast much resembling the smaller, but equally dangerous, Ferril Hawks which populates the forests and mountains of the High Kanris.  But bigger, much bigger, and far more deadly.  A powerful bird.  Capable of carrying me and my weapons of war high into the skies to hunt Winged Beasties and their masters.
            Friend. 
            Confidant. 
            Ally. 
            This was my Cedric. One does not own a Great Wing.  Neither bird nor man is the other’s master.  To fight the ravages of the Dragon,  man and bird must unite in a common cause.  They must blend into a well honed weapon with one partner knowing what the other will do in the heat of battle even before the other knows himself.  Cedric and I had fought the dragon for decades.  We knew each other’s soul as if it was our own.
            Neither of us could believe a Winged Beastie and King Dragon rode the cold blue skies of the
Northern Hill Country.  Yet there they were.  Both radiating from their souls a sense of boredom and being lost at the same time.  I sensed their half-hearted attempts to search the forests below for something they expected to find.  They were on a mission.  They were lost yet they were near to where they should be.  Given time they would find what they sought. They would deliver the dispatches the dragon clansman clutched beneath his cloak tightly to his chest.
            It was not that we were surprised in finding dragons.  Dragon clans possessed baronies in the North Country.  The Malawei, the Bruinii, and not too far in the west, along with the Marouth.  Malawei and Bruinii were near.  Small clans hardly large enough to keep the lands they had carved out of the enclaves of human kingdoms surrounding them as their own. Yet they too would have been an oddity to have one of its fabled fire-breathers riding alone in the clear skies here and now.
            But this clansman was neither Malawei nor Bruinii.  This clansman dressed in red and trimmed in black was Hartooth.  The First Clan.  A warrior of the fabled clan who first rose out of the swamps of the Far South.  A warrior far from home.  Far from the skies and forests he would be familiar with.  A creature who was decidedly out of his environment. Yet more importantly these Dragons were enemies.  The rider was a warrior of a legendary clan.  Legendary in their intense hatred for all of things human.  Wherever a Hartooth appeared, so too appeared death and destruction.  He was, for me as an outcast Bretan warrior-monk or not,  my sworn enemy.
            There was but one option for my feathered comrade and I to take.  We had to destroy the Hartooth courier and his fire-breathing companion.  We had to find out why a warrior of his clan was so far north.  It was imperative we snatch from his dead or dying body the messages he held so close to him and ascertain the real threat he represented.
            Reaching for my bow I quickly pulled it from its leather pouch strapped to my saddle and strung it.  Notching arrow to the string I said nothing, made no movement to signal my comrade, nor had to.  We were a team.  A well oiled machine.  The moment his sharp sense of hearing heard me string the bow he waited long enough for me to notch arrow to the string.  And then, in the blinking of an eye, he folded his wide but powerful wings and threw his beaked head down.  We, like a massive stone, dropped from out of the skies in a steep dive.  The cold winter air flew past my face at an incredible speed.  I felt my face grow numb and the sense of touch in my hands begin to disappear.  But this did no matter. Our enemies were rapidly approaching and our goals were simple.  Destroy both dragons and allow neither to escape.
            When it appeared we were about to crash into Dragon and fire-breather I sat up in my saddle, lifted the bow and pulled the string back to my ear before releasing the arrow.  It was a swift, sure, and practiced move.  One I had done a thousand times or more in my life.  The arrow flew from the bow straight and true.  It hit in the middle of the unsuspecting warrior’s back with such force it threw the warrior forward and actually penned the creature into the neck of his comrade.  The fire-breather lifted its head and screeched in pain as it started to turn and look behind and above him.
            Too late!  The Winged Beastie had no chance to dart away.  With talons extended my giant comrade and I slammed into the fire-breather’s neck with a horrendous jolt.  The collision almost ripped me out of the stout leather straps holding me into my saddle.  Cedric’s talons gripped the Beastie’s neck into a death grip and we, dragons and all, began plummeting to earth in a spiraling Dance of Death.
            The fire-breather tried to twist out of my Great Wing’s grip.  A stream of blue-white flame roared from the Beastie’s mouth as it tried to turn its head and engulf us in his fiery fury.  The roar of the flame, the heat of the fire, and the smell of burning sulfur almost saved him.  Close came his final blow to I and my faithful comrade.  But Cedric’s grip was too strong.  The Beastie could not turn his head far enough to hit to dislodge his tormentors.
            Onward we plummeted to the ground below.  I felt the life draining from the fire-breather and from the Hartooth.  And then, only few hundred feet above the snow covered forest below us, the fire-breather expired and Cedric released his grip and twisted away at the same time.  Hartooth rider and his Beastie crashed into the a small clearing with a thunderous finality.  A dark cloud of snow and soil was thrown up into the air and momentarily hid our enemies from view.  But we circled and waited, bow notched again with arrow, and both of us anticipating anything from below.  But there was no need.   The cloud of snow gently blew away.  Below us our prey lay in a jumbled heap of broken bones and splayed limbs.
            Cedric landed in the clearing some distance away from our fallen quarry and in a position which, if the fire-breather was still alive and wished to again use his hot breath against us, would be difficult for him to do so.  I leapt from my saddle after unstringing bow and replacing it in its quiver.  From my side I withdrew the curved blade of a Dragon scimitar and gripped it firmly as I approached the mass of flesh before me.  No life force could be felt within the stilled heart of the fire-breather.  But the Hartooth clansman was, for the moment, alive.  His life force was draining from his soul rapidly.  He had only moments left in this world before journeying over into the Netherworld.   He, still strapped to his saddle, had been ripped away from his companion and lay to one side of the dead Beastie.  As I stepped around the dying creature to face him I heard the clansman snort out of rattling chuckle of amusement as our eyes met for the first time.
            “Ah! I travel to the Dark World thanks to the deadly aim of a Bretan priest.  So be it.  I go honorably.  As it should be.  We were destined to meet, human. Our destinies were set long ago.  My life ends and yours continues on for a little time more.”
            He coughed, blood trickling down his lips.  From out of his chest the shaft of my arrow was visible.  He held one hand to his chest and coughed again.  And again chuckled in amusement.
            “Destiny, our destines, human, are set in stone.  It is the destiny of the Hartooth to rid this planet of all your kind.   It is the destiny of all of your kind to accept your extinction.”
            I nodded, frowning.
            “What if I do not believe in destiny, warrior?  What then?”
            “Ha!  Believe or not!  It does not matter.”
            He tried to laugh but had no strength as his life force deserted his physical form.
            Using the tip of my sword I reached forward and slid part of his red cloak to one side.  Lifting the heavy leather courier’s satchel from his body I cut the straps holding it to him. Picking the satchel up with the tip of my blade I stepped away from the dead and moved back to a position close to my comrade.  A quick perusal of the dispatches  made me frown even more.  The Hartooth were coming.  And they were coming in force.
            Destiny.  Our destines  sat long ago.  Set in stone forever and incapable of changing.
Did I believe that?  Was it true?  Was it the destiny of mankind to be eradicated from this world by the Hartooth?  Was it meaningless to resist?
            Destiny.


Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Story That Never Wants To End

Jeez, Louise!  Its been a long time since I've written something in here.  But that's the iffy thing about blog writing.  Especially for a writer (a good writer, or a bad one, or one totally pedestrian in nature.  It doesn't matter).   Coming up with something to write about  . . . on top of ALL the other writing you're supposed to be doing . . . gets to be a real drain on the imagination.

Or to put it more crudely;  it becomes a major pain in the ass.

But a topic hit me this morning that's worthy of a blog.  Maybe even worthy of a comment or two, depending of course, on whether there is anyone out there to comment on.  I doubt anyone is left who used to read this blog (all two of you).  Ah well, here goes anyway.

The subject of today's blog is;  A Story That Never Wants To End.

Here's the background you need to know.  A few weeks ago an idea came along for a short story featuring a rather unique character.  A combo of a Perry Mason lawyer and a Charlie Chan detective.  But a character with a definite 'odd' affinity for the strange and ghostly.  And . . . maybe . . . somewhat of a question of his gender.

The guy's name is Maurice.  He's a lawyer.  A lawyer who talks to ghosts.  In fact, it turns out a number of his 'clients' are ghosts.  Souls who have suffered through a violent end of their lives coming back as ghosts to 'hire' Maurice in an attempt to bring the perpatrators of the crimes to their long deserved rewards.  In the stories I hoped to throw in a court seen, ala Perry Mason, to give it some color.  And that, dear readers, is the rub . . .

The story refuses to wrap up into a tidy short story conclusion.  It keeps going on and on and on.  We're well past the short story limits.  With no end in sight.  So now . . . dammit! . . . it appears as if I have ANOTHER novel to write featuring ANOTHER character I'd like to get to know better!  I've got all the commitment and stick-to-it-tivness of a bowl of grape jello.  Ideas and characters just keep popping into my head and distracting me all the time.

Shit.

Ah, well.  Thought I'd share the opening few paragraps with this character. Maurice is the name . . . as is the title of the story.  Tell me what you think.


Maurice



Flipping the Zippo lighter open he thumbed the old relic into life and lifted the bright flame to the end of the cigarette. 
            And paused . . .
            A bright pink Caddy convertible slid into the No Parking Zone as if it belonged there and quietly came to a halt.  A big battleship of a car, with high tail fins in back and a spread of metal across the front hood big enough to be the landing deck of a Nimetz-class aircraft carrier.  Hot pink. Freshly polished . . . with white vinyl seats.  The white so intense he thought about lifting a hand up to shade the glare from his eyes.
            One big sonofabitch of a car.
            Had to be a '59 Caddy convertible. Looked just like the one he remembered his grandmother had way back when he was six or seven.  Yet it looked as if it just rolled off a showroom floor.  But as if the car wasn't enough to gawk at, the guy sitting behind the wheel was . . . was . . . unreal.
            At first the thought of Charlie Chan.  White three-piece Southern Plantation suit.  Perfectly tailored.  Very expensive material.  Hung on the guy's frame like a million dollars.  Not even a smidgeon of dirt anywhere to be seen on the white.  With white loafers.  Glistening white loafers.  But instead of a white derby sitting directly atop the man's head there was, instead, a wide brimmed white fedora.  The complexion of the guy suggesting oriental origins.  Or maybe not.  Maybe Egyptian.  Or Romano. Definitely pudgy around the midsection. Obviously the guy enjoyed his groceries. But . . . you really couldn't call him fat.  Not yet.  No . . . this wasn't a Charlie Chan.  Charlie Chan was a Hawaiian-Chinese homicide detective based out of Honolulu.  A fictional character concocted by a writer from out of the 1930's.   This guy . . . this guy, as he rolled out from behind the massively wide steering wheel of the car and reached into the back seat to extract a rather expensive looking leather briefcase, along with an odd looking twisted black ebony shillelagh-like cane, was real. 'Bout five eleven . . . maybe six foot.  'Bout two ten, maybe two twenty on the bathroom scales.  With just the suggestion of double chins beginning to thicken.
            Not Hawaiian.  Nor Chinese. Not anyone from the Far East. This guy had the greenest/yellow eyes he had ever seen and a smile that seemed to burst out from somewhere deep within. A smile that could warm up the frozen heart of a Spanish Inquisitor standing in a dungeon cell directly dead center on the North Pole.