Tuesday, August 23, 2011
The guy driving this bus seems to be changing his mind about which road to take to the opening of my next case. I’m getting the feeling I may be on my way back to New York sooner than planned.
I should have guessed as much from his delay in getting the case underway. He’s been giving me the stall while encouraging me to amuse myself watching sunsets at this beachfront resort on the Gulf of Mexico. Admittedly, the scenery has been picture perfect at the postcard resort, especially whenever Kyoko’s part of the view, but I was supposed to be in Mexico City by now. A bunch of high-ranking officials in the Mexican government are curious about the quality replicas that turned up as part of a sealed shipment of Pre-Columbian artifacts sent to a museum in New York. Those officials insist they shipped the genuine articles, so I’ve been brought in as a two-legged bloodhound to track down what got lost on the trail. The Consortium holds the paper on the exhibit while it’s in NYC, and isn’t thrilled to be on the hook for irreplaceable objects they contend they never had.
The forgeries are just for openers, of course; the ole MacGuffen again. Blood Rituals — that’s the working title of my next case— promises to be a very different kind of adventure than my last. Portrait of Deadly Excess was, as I’ve already mentioned a cut and paste job. In a nutshell, I was the cut and paste. Inserting me into an already finished story, as the new leading character no less, caused considerable disruption, and the reconstruction effort took almost as long as the one that followed the Civil War. My presence, as lead, created numerous ripples in even the most innocuous backwaters and eddies of the story. It wasn’t merely my gamesmanship with Kane that prompted those changes; it was the very nature of my presence. I was the lead, not Kane, and not Latimore, the one originally telling the story. Being the protagonist and a gumshoe, it stood to reason that I had to be the one tracking down the key leads and clues, and I had to be the conduit through which most information ran. I had to be the one earning my fee, living up to my reputation and piecing the puzzle together. The entire story had to be retold, from a different vantage point, and with a very different structure. It was no small undertaking, and the process gave author-dearest fits.
Blood Rituals, on the other hand, is being conceived and written from the ground up with the basic cast and plotline already in place. The preliminary notes and outline I’ve seen of the case has me in the proverbial shit from square one, but the story follows a more traditional noir trajectory, where the private dick methodically picks the scab of what seems to be a fairly straightforward and innocuous job and, before he knows better finds himself knee deep in a classic nest-of-vipers caper that gets more complicated with every step he takes.
I’m down with that kind of action, but if the story is to build to a boil then someone better turn on the flame. That’s not likely to happen while I’m sitting on a veranda sipping Balvenie. All the prolonged wait is doing is stoking my latest case of bad feelings, a nagging suspicion that our tour guide was losing his way. We’re not talking a strobe light and siren warning, folks, but more of a quiet, unsettling feeling deep inside my gut that warned something was radically wrong. You know the feeling. You calmly walk down the stairs to a subway platform and see wall-to-wall people and know right then and there that the trains are all fucked up. You don’t need to ask a lot of fool questions of strangers who know less about what’s going on than you do, or bother waiting for an garbled announcement not one of the one-hundred sixty four languages represented on the platform can clearly understand to know that your whole afternoon just dove, head-first, into the crapper.
My own radar for trouble has been much-written about. I seem especially attuned to things that are ‘off’, and I was having such misgivings about my extended sojourn at this resort. I could sense it. Author dearest was spinning his wheels. There was a mood of indecision in the air — always as bad a sign for writers as it is for detectives. In both professions, you either know what you’re doing or you’re lost.
Exactly what was taking him so long?
Well, sure enough, turns out he was having second thoughts. Not about me, or about my next case, but about its location. The guy who writes me seems to be debating whether I need to be or belong in Mexico at all. Just like him to spoil my fun. I’m not talking about my prolonged holiday with Kyoko. She’s a Christmas gift I get to open all year round, regardless. I’m talking about my consternation over possibly missing an opportunity to mix it up south of the border with some people whose threshold for pain — giving and receiving it — might be equal to my own. The carnage in Mexico isn’t getting much play in the States, probably because we’re scared shitless to have a failed-state controlled by drug cartels and a cult of the dead at our doorstep, but the prospect of setting me loose in such grisly killing fields clearly came with a certain amount of risk
It was a concern over my propensity for upping the ante and causing mayhem that seems to be what gave the man behind the curtain genuine pause. He’s afraid of what I might do, what I might have to become simply to survive in such blood-soaked surroundings; potentially taking me over the edge as a viable, somewhat sympathetic character and thrusting me into a realm of pariahs like Pol Pot and Vlad the Impaler. I appreciate the fact he’s looking out for my interests, but he might have bothered to ask me what I thought before pulling the plug on my visa.
When I voiced my displeasure he went on to confide that he thinks I’m intricately connected to my home turf of New York City. He’s of the opinion everyone, us fictional characters included, are products and embodiment of their time and place; inexorably interwoven with and inseparable from their surroundings. He invokes Philip Marlowe’s umbilical connection to L.A., Sam Spade’s to San Francisco, Jules Maigret’s to Paris, etc., etc. to illustrate his point. He tells me I’m hopelessly bound to New York and that taking me out of my milieu and on the road will do me irreparable harm. He thinks who and what I am, what I do and how I do it won’t necessarily translate to Des Moines — or Mexico City — and that placing me in these alien locales would be like transplanting Joe Leaphorn from the Navajo lands in the Four Corners to Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.
Author dearest may have a point. I don’t necessarily like it because it confines me, sets limits to where I can go and what I can do, but I may have to concede the issue; although I can rattle off a list of detectives who have in some degree run away from home. Just how well they managed such roadshows is a topic for debate. Truth is, even I have to admit there’s no way I could be from or of anywhere else than NY. I need the three-dimensional world of ever-climbing skyscrapers, congested streets and dark, forbidding undergrounds of New York as my personal playground. I need the fast pace and unbridled ambitions of the big city, need the diversity of its potential antagonists, drawn from the pressure-cooker of ethnicities as varied and as mixed as my own.
Let’s face it: I’m a night creature even in daylight. I feed on the competing avarice and greed of the city’s murky shapes and shadows. Tracking their nefarious schemes is what helps define me and keep me on my toes. I earn a living assuming the worst of people and by cutting through the crap they dress up in fancy clothes. Why do some people think that by gilding their warts in designer labels they somehow change their nature or make them harder to see?
My author thinks there’s enough craven insanity here in New York and that there’s no need to travel to Mexico to find it. I humbly concede the point. He’s afraid my own proclivity to the dark side might be excessively stimulated by the current mayhem south of the border, and here, too, I bow at the waist to his authorial wisdom. He thinks I’m dangerous enough as it is and don’t need encouragement, and to that I’m sure Kyoko would agree.
But let’s face it, people; I’m not as stupid as I look. I'm as much a 'fixer’ in my world as author dearest is in his. If I can’t travel to the mayhem then the mayhem will just have to travel to me.
Now, where the hell did I put my suitcase?
Tuesday, August 9, 2011
The realization you’re working the trapeze without a net can be very liberating. You’re not allowed mistakes so you tend not to make any, and you savor every swing of the bar because it could well be your last. Just like every case can be your last. Maybe that’s why Kyoko’s been trying to get me to hang up my six guns from day one. She’s one to take chances herself, but has long thought my cases as a freelance snoop were a little too dangerous, especially for an action junkie like me. She says I make them more dangerous than they need to be, says I push myself and the situations I find myself in too far. She objects to my ‘Doc Holliday’ death-wish mentality of inviting disaster and risking everything on my ability to get out of tight jambs.
I take exception to the ‘Doc Holliday’ association on grounds that, unlike Doc, I don’t really harbor a death wish. Holliday spent most of his adult life looking for someone to kill him, but he never found anyone good enough to get the job done. I suppose I do share the same inherent challenge of pitting my best against that of anyone else, but I’m not a hopelessly sick man in a hurry to wind up on a slab in the morgue. I’m in perfect health and aim to stay in one piece despite my author’s machinations. Besides, it’s only lately that the threshold of mayhem has started to ratchet-up out of control. My early cases weren’t quite so menacing. This or that painting was stolen so I was hired to find and reclaim it. Straightforward enough, right? It didn’t matter much whether the piece went AWOL from the Metropolitan Museum of Art last week during an asset inventory, stolen by the Nazi’s during the Second World War, or looted by one ancient empire in the process of conquering another; my job was to find it. The trail could be very hot or very cold, it didn’t matter. I sift through detritus, remember? Finding traces of what was once but is no longer there, sniffing the ground like a bloodhound in search of a scent to follow, and tracing the faint imprint of footsteps and uncovering where they lead were what defined those early cases. It was a lot like when I was on the force. I was cutting my teeth, and so it’s probably a good thing that I lacked a Dr. Watson to chronicle my early missteps, and yet even though those initial exploits were never recorded they still loiter in the recesses of my memory, like so much of the exposition and background of any story or its characters looms just off-stage, on the near borders of the action. The past crops up through the blanched topsoil of what hasn't been written and, like stubborn weeds taking root in a garden, grows to spawn shadows that haunt the words that are left behind on the page.
That’s because the past is never far away. Not for me, not for any of us. Shakespeare said that “what is past is prologue”, and he usually knew what he was talking about. I’ve always suspected that much of my past and my family history has been extensively mapped and charted by the guy who writes me for the sole purpose of it later being mined in future tales. Those details usually work themselves into the story in subtle ways, and sometimes not so overtly that the reader will notice, but they’re there. Take my word for it. The guy at the wheel has written down the details of my life from birth. He can tell you what schools I’ve gone to, what I like to eat, the clothes I like to wear, the books I read, and the music I listen to; all to help him ferret ever deeper into who and what I am so he can better animate me to himself and to you.
Frankly, it’s a bit awkward, even embarrassing, to have all your personal shit ‘out there’; a veritable billboard advertising all your dirty linen for total strangers to gawk at. Besides being a product of someone’s imagination I’m also a walking, talking, transparent middle-aged anachronism carrying around satchels full of crap. Why do you think I resist carrying your baggage? The bags I’m toting around are heavy enough; full of all the background my author has gifted me. It’s as if I was one of Eldon Tyrell’s latest Nexus models from Blade Runner, implanted with memories not my own. My past is precisely that kind of blatant fabrication, a composite meld of an actual childhood memory given me by my author, appropriated from other characters from a book once read or a film once seen, extracted from a newspaper or nightly news story, a line overheard in a crowded subway or otherwise grafted from a cluster of associations specifically invented for my later use; to give me greater depth, wider berth, or to amp up my already cutting attitude.
It’s all made up, the same way all our pasts are made up despite illusions to the contrary. Be honest: you're no less a piece of fiction than I am. I’m not the only one treasuring old Polaroid’s in an album somewhere. I’m a patchwork quilt sewn together from “stray associations, scalpel-sharp insights and dulled recollections — the rusted shards, bitter regrets and warmed-over remains of memories wrapped, in a great ball, like so much leftover string.” That’s how my author put it when recording my last case, and he wasn’t describing only me when he wrote it. Like you, I remember what I can use, discard what I can’t, and distort whatever falls in between. It sounds like Kane all over again, doesn’t it? I warned you I’m not the only one haunted by memories and bad feelings.
Expressing them may come easier to me than they do you simply because that’s part of my nature. I wouldn’t be worth spit as a character or a gumshoe if I left the reader too much in the dark. Am I a bit self serving in the way I impart that information? Hell yes. Aren’t we all? Distilled down to a pitch point even a Hollywood mogul can grasp, my job is to bring to light what’s hidden. I find what’s been swapped, stolen or lost. I solve problems and, like Theseus, follow the unraveling string from one end of the labyrinth to the other; hopefully without becoming the Minotaur’s next meal. That I’m often forced to solve my cases out of chronological sequence, sifting through snippets of information and deliberate misdirection, with hands tied behind my back, makes my track record all the more noteworthy. This shit isn’t easy. I’m working under a sizable handicap here. I not only have to track down the bad guys and see justice done, but I have to do it with considerable panache to keep your fickle attention. Worse, I have to do it while holding your sweaty hand, walking you down every dark alley --- your personal Moose Malloy while you go searching for Velma --- and letting you borrow my size double D 13’s every so often to kick-in the locked doors of the case.
All that and spoon you Pablum, too? You must be kidding me! This isn’t Alice in fucking Wonderland. I’ve got no little pills up my sleeve to make you big or small, but one way or another you’re going down the rabbit-hole with me. So better keep your wits about you; I have better things to do than carry your dumb ass along as dead weight.
Wednesday, August 3, 2011
Some single malts go down smoother than others. I’m mostly a Highlands kind a guy, and stay away from the peaty malts altogether. Balvenie 15 is what they had at the local store, and that will work just fine. Typical of us arrogant gringos selling Mexico short. I, of all people, should know better. Now where were we?
Discussing the murky lines of distinction between me and the guy I share these ruminations with. I was about to say that he and I are both counter-punchers and veritable Jacks-in-the-boxes, meaning neither of us plays true to type and often winds up being the surprise at the bottom of the box when the shit hits the fan. Where his calm, detached and cerebral outer crust conceals the volcanic core within, I’m the opposite, a volatile avenger eager to wage total war on the drop of a dime. That’s often a calculated overreaction on my part that can buy me the measured detachment essential in my line of work. He’s soft on the outside, hard underneath, where I’m the opposite: Kevlar exterior with a softer, kinder interior. But please, keep your trap shut. You’ll ruin my professional reputation as a hard-nosed equalizer, and I’ve still got a daughter in college and a Fat Tuesday sized mortgage on a Greenwich Village brownstone to pay off.
If you were to put me and my author together you’d probably wind up with a whole person, and therein lays the key dynamic to this duet he and I are playing in this journal. Some would call it a variation on the ‘good cop/bad cop’ routine, or maybe it’s really more an alternating current of ‘Hide and Seek’ on one hand and ‘Show and Tell’ on the other. Like I said, that’s for you to sort out.
Neither one of us is so much offended by the snap judgments our outer guises prompt as we are amused by them. Take the incident with the rookie cop I took exception with in the opening of my last case, Portrait of Deadly Excess. I appear on the scene and instantly become a large, read threatening, black man (being half of anything doesn’t count when you’re any part black) in a predominantly white world and therefore probably guilty of something. Why do we persist in being so inherently dishonest about race in America? Let’s be real here for a moment and call shit what it is. The rookie saw me as suspicious on sight simply because I was black, and took it as his personal mission from God to discover the crime I had inevitably committed. Nothing else mattered. Not my past, my education, my training, the fact that I was a former cop myself and close friends of the owner of the house I was visiting; only his stereotypical perception of me, and his reaction to it, entered into his ‘thinking’.
Admittedly, I’ve been known to have that effect on people. I take jaded pleasure in the reactions I prompt, but that’s not something my author would know much about. Not directly, at least. He’s a somewhat self-contained loner by nature who can fit in well enough but prefers not to. Go figure. He doesn’t want to run with the herd. He’s too guarded and self-conscious in public to mix well with others, whereas I figure I’m a marked man from square one and tend not to give a shit whether you like me or not. If I have business with you you’ll deal with me, regardless. I’m big and bad enough to force the issue. Guess the time I spent being a half this and half that high wire act paid some dividends after all. I take a twisted sort of pride fucking with the heads of those who fuck with me. Despite outward appearances to the contrary, I’m usually very much in control. Oh, I’ve been known to teeter on the wire. Sometimes that’s an act, inviting others to make a mistake by trying to exploit a perceived weakness, sometimes I really am damaged goods in desperate need of a pit stop, but you, dear friends, and the proverbial bad guys will never know which is which. I’ve become adept at maintaining the illusion I’m always rock solid, a pillar of strength and stability as good as the gold sitting in the vaults at Fort Knox. You may hurt me, but you’ll be the last one to know it, and many have learned the hard way that hurting me and stopping me aren’t the same thing.
My balancing act sometimes makes me feel like that tightrope walker in Thus Spake Zarathustra, tenuously prancing high above the crowd. In Nietzsche’s parable the tightrope walker was crossing over from one tower to another and ultimately fell, but that’s one of the few places where he and I part company. Screw that! I’m no bridge over troubled water, nor am I pretending to be a mixed-race poster child begging sympathy. I just don’t walk the line, like some Johnny Cash wannabe, I live it. Where I’m going is as irrelevant as where I’ve been. It’s only where I am, here, this minute, that matters. No origins, no destinations, just journey. Think about it. Given all you do and don’t know about me, could I play the hand I was dealt any other way?
Welcome to my world, where falling down isn’t an option. Like the self-contained chick in the Bob Dylan song, I never stumble because I’ve got no place to fall.
How about you?