Northcoast Shakedown: Sample

Northcoast ShakedownA sample scene for you today. Enjoy.

And if you like what you see, check it out on Amazon or Nook.

Once upon a time, Jerry’s was a Methodist church.  Decades ago, stern Victorians listened to some stentorian minister rail on the evils of gambling and booze, and probably would have gone into histrionics over rock, hip hop, and country.  Today, Jerry Mussini served that same evil booze while patrons bet on sports piped in via satellite, all to the strains of Alice in Chains, Snoop Dogg, and Shania Twain, depending on the night.  Neon beer signs had replaced the stained glass, and the pews gave way to tables and a jukebox.  It was my home away from home.

Aside from my blind, lifelong devotion to a baseball team once owned by a dead man for several years, I went there for these nasty, grilled things called Thermal Wings.  The sauce consisted of one-part garlic, one-part mustard, and five parts hydrochloric acid.  They required at least one pitcher of beer to finish.

By the third inning, I’d seared my tongue and was into my second pitcher of beer.  As Danys Baez fanned an Oakland hitter to bring Cleveland up to bat, she walked in.

She stood about six-foot even, her blond hair perfectly coiffed, make-up in place, thousand dollar silver pantsuit crisp and fresh.  All that for little ol’ me, I thought, then realized she said something about meeting clients.  I watched as she searched the bar for me.  Jerry, a short, blocky man who looked like Sammy “The Bull” Gravano’s meaner twin, pointed me out to her.

“Nick Kepler?” she asked in that same smoky voice I heard on the phone.

I looked up from the last of my Thermal Wings and nodded, politely wiping sauce from my chin.  “Yes?”

She thrust out a long, slender hand.  “Tanya Molnar.  We spoke on the phone earlier.”

I shook her hand.  She had a firm grip.  “Please, have a seat.  Can I get you a drink?”

“I don’t drink.  I’ll just have an ice water.”  She looked down at the pile of stripped bones on my plate.  “And whatever you just had.”

“Thermal Wings?  You sure you don’t want something more than ice water?  At least a pitcher of ice water?”

She smiled, her blue eyes sparkling.  She seemed to be sizing me up as we talked, as a stranger, as an adversary, as a consumable.  I liked that last part.  “I can stand anything I’ve got to stand, Nick.  Can I call you Nick?”

I shrugged.  “Sure.  If I can call you Tanya.”

Her smile became a grin.  I had just become a consumable in her mind.  “Tanya is fine.  What did you want to see me about?”

I took a sip of my beer.  “Frank Colbert.”

“What about him?”

“Mr. Shannon said you knew him and his wife quite well.”

She rolled her eyes.  “George thinks I screw anything that moves.”

“So his assertion that you had an affair with both Mr. and Mrs. Colbert is…”

Tanya threw back her head and laughed.  “I don’t believe him!  What an idiot!  You know the only time that moron ever checks the chlorine levels in the pool is if I happen to be laying out?  Jesus, I think he masturbates to my real estate photo every night.”

I couldn’t help but chuckle at that.  “So George Shannon is lacking in his love life.”

“I think he’s still a virgin, to be honest with you.”

“How well do you know the Colberts?”

“As well as anyone, I guess.”

Cindy, Jerry’s slender twenty-something waitress, came over to take Tanya’s order.  I felt embarrassed when I couldn’t take my eyes off her tank top and cut-offs.  I avoided looking Tanya in the eye.

“Isn’t she a bit young for you?” said Tanya when Cindy went off to place her order.

“There’s a big difference between admiration and desire.”

“Not in my experience.”

“She doesn’t have enough miles on her.  She’d probably giggle in bed.  I hate giggling.”

“Really?  So what kind of woman do you like?”

How did this end up being her interview?   “I like a well-rounded woman, even if it’s a casual fling.  Otherwise, what’s the point?”

“You’re looking for a relationship?”

“Not actively.”  I signaled for more beer.  “Enough about me.  I’m just a simple man making his way in the universe.  Tell me about the Colberts.  How well do you know them?”

“Socially,” she said.  “I’m in real estate, and Frank and Marti had a lot of contacts.  They made introductions for me.”

“Did you go to parties with them?”

“All the time.”

“And did these parties ever get a bit wild?”

“That’s a bit personal.”

“Sorry.  It’s my job to ask.”

“Right.  You’re a private detective.  Where’s your trench coat and fedora?”

“Well, it’s mid-August and eighty-five degrees at noon, so the trench coat’s in my closet, where it’ll probably stay until November.  And I don’t own a fedora.  It’s just a job.  About the parties, did they ever get wild?”

“Define wild.”

“Frat party wild.  Hollywood wild.  Roman Imperial wild.”

She folded her hands and rested her chin on them with a practiced innocence.  “Why, Nick, it sounds like you’re on a fishing expedition.”

I knocked back the rest of my beer.  “Yeah, pretty much.”

“So what are you looking for, Nick?  Just ask me.”

As the alcohol soaked deeper into my brain, temptation boiled up from my nether regions.  Not now, Kepler, you’re working.  Instead, I said, “Specifically, did Frank Colbert ever do any drugs at any parties or in your presence?”

Tanya laughed hard again.  “You’re kidding, right?”

I returned the laugh, though not with as much gusto.  “I wish I was.  Look, I shouldn’t be telling you this, but it’s a bullshit case as it is.  Claims is ready to pay up, but the underwriter’s ass is on the line since he wrote the policy.  If Claims pays out, he’s out the door, with the Ebersole family’s collective boot up his ass.”

“Okay, he smoked some weed.  Does that help?”

“Nope.  Colbert was too honest for my client’s good.  He admitted it before the mandatory drug test.  Did he do anything stronger?”

“I saw him drink half a bottle of Jaegermeister once.”

“That’s stupid, but not prohibited by his life insurance.  I need something illegal, like cocaine or ecstasy.  Crystal meth.”

“Nope.  Sorry.  Worst I can give you is pot.  That, and he fooled around a little bit.”

“Not exactly banned by the insurance company.  Oh, well.  Guess Al’d better update his résumé.”

The wings and a glass of ice water arrived.  I gestured at the plate of corrosive meat.  “Dig in.”

My eyes watered as she took a wing, stuck it in her mouth, and stripped it to the bone, slowly.  She licked her lips and stared at me, daring me to say something.  When I just sat there, my jaw hanging open, she said, “Not bad.  I’ve had hotter.”

“I am impressed.”

She just smiled and suggestively stripped another wing.  I don’t know what I liked better about her being there:  being able to expense dinner to Polnacek or watching her do lewd things with wings.

The Best Time To Write?

A few years ago, a friend of mine gave me some advice about the best time to write to get production up. She is a full-time writer now, but when she had a day job, she wrote first thing in the morning. I do like writing first thing. My mind is fresh, still a little fuzzy from sleep, so it retains some of that dream state.

For a while, that was possible. At BigHugeCo, and with a couple of my contract jobs, getting up in the morning was the best thing for me. I’d get up, shower, make a cup of coffee, and write for half an hour or so. It was great. But two of my contract jobs were in Northern Kentucky, near the airport. I had a 45-minute drive one-way. No bus trip downtown or quick jaunt down to the NKU campus. So I had to take to writing in the evening. Now I have to because I often have to be at work before 7 AM. Even when I’m not, I often have to get AJ lunch money or run an errand on the way to work. Yeah, I know. Putting my family first. Where are my priorities?

So I write evenings. There’s a downside to this. I’m tired in the evening. To make sure I have unlimited time to write, I do my exercise, homework, and any house chores first. Unfortunately, I often run out of time.

This is too bad. Once upon a time, I used to stay up all night writing. I loved it. Couldn’t get enough of it. It was my way of blowing off steam and just enjoying the act of creating. One time, I caught myself writing with my eyes closed and my head lolling to the side. That, of course, is extreme.

It’s tough finding a balance, but I think I’ve gotten better about writing regularly again.


For most of my adult life, I was a cat person. I had one cat from shortly after I moved to Cincinnati until about six months before I met Nita. There were other cats in that time. A black cat, several foisted on my ex and me by a roommate who forgot whose apartment she lived in. But it was a Russian blue, Toonces, who was my little buddy for about 17 years, a good run for a cat.

Most of my life, however, I had dogs. When I married Nita, I not only gained a stepson, I gained a stepdog. While I still miss Toonces (I feel tears whenever I think about the day he had to be put down.), I found when I remarried that I really missed dogs. There is nothing like the unconditional love a dog can give you. They can be needy, and walking them can be a bit messy, but dogs are incredibly loyal. In fact, except for a seventeen-year break, I’ve had a dog since birth. Who were they?

Duchess – This black shepherd lived with me and my parents at their first home in rural Chatham. She was this big, sweet black dog who went to live with my grandparents when mom and dad opted for a more suburban lifestyle. We spent every Sunday with my dad’s parents when they still lived near Cleveland. Part of those visits was always hanging out with Duchess, who reminds me an awful lot of my current dog.

Hercules – I have fading memories of this rambunctious beagle. Mind you, I have some sharp memories going back before I was five. I called him Herky. My mom gave him to a hunter, however, when Herc got excited and wrapped his chain around my neck (which I don’t remember.) I missed that dog.

Rags – We didn’t have this shaggy mutt for very long. He was white with a bit of sheep dog in him, and I think he was the dog we had when Ziggins was born. Rags, however, liked to fight other dogs and once picked a fight with the neighbor’s docile beagle mix. (That’s like picking a fight with Mr. Rogers.) Dad gave him to my uncle, who in turn gave him to his kids. So now my cousins think of Rags more as their dog.

Noodles – My parents picked up a Samoyed mix pup for the cousin of one of my classmates. We had her the longest of any dog my family ever had. We raised her almost from birth, and I actually potty trained her. My parents went to get Noodles fixed, only she got pregnant with her first litter before it could happen. So they waited six months, during which… Well… She had three litters of pups before my parents could get her fixed. She was a wonderful dog, however, an outdoor dog. Every winter, we would stuff her doghouse with straw almost to the point where she couldn’t get inside. She was comfortable in all but the coldest weather. When she died, we didn’t wait long to get…

Spanky – I’m pretty sure this pup we got a few months after Noodles died was part Australian shepherd. She also had a love of mud, which drove my mother crazy. And it wouldn’t be our house if mom and dad didn’t miss getting a female pup fixed before she had that first litter. In getting rid of the pups, we met a woman who insisted we give her Spanky and all the pups. My mom refused. The next morning, they were all gone except for…

Seamus – Spanky’s pup and one Ziggins took a shine to.  Seamus got his name from the Pink Floyd song. I would blast Pink Floyd whenever possible, and every time Meddle played, Seamus would come running, probably to the sound of the titular dog barking in the background. Soon, if we sang the song, he would come running. The night Spanky and her pups were kidnapped, Ziggins had taken Seamus to bed with him. So Seamus became our dog. Seamus was not the brightest dog I’ve ever owned. For a time in the late 1980’s, we lived out in Amish country, and Seamus had a habit of chasing Amish buggies. The horses had a habit of leaving horseshoe prints in Seamus’s ass. Seamus had the additional habit of nursing his wounds for a week before going right back out and chasing the horses again.

Gurl – For seventeen years, I didn’t have a dog. Then I married Nita. Now I have Gurl. She was four years old when Nita and I married. When we were dating, I’d left my cell phone at her place after staying over. I got sick at work and had to leave. We worried how Gurl, a very territorial dog, would react to me barging in unescorted. Gurl didn’t do boyfriends well. However, once I had my phone, Gurl looked all depressed that I was leaving. I called Nita when I got home and said, “Honey, I have to marry you. The dog will be depressed if we don’t.”

Of all the dogs I’ve had, Gurl is the most loyal. She’s extremely well-behaved, though definitely a watchdog. Step into our yard, and she’ll go berzerk, but out on a walk, she is (usually) friendly and ignores other dogs. One memorable exception happened when Nita took her out for a walk and happened upon a deer. Gurl wanted to fight it.

As I’ve said, I’ve had my share of cats. However, I’ve always felt more love and loyalty from dogs. They can be needy sometimes, but there’s nothing like a dog, especially a female dog, who will look after you when you’re ill or sad and is always happy to see you when you walk in the door at the end of the day.

Thursday Reviews: Frankenstein By Mary Shelley, Microsoft: The First Generation By Cheryl Tsang


Mary Shelley

We all know the story. An arrogant scientist raids graveyards to sew together a superman only to be disgusted and horrified by his creation, which then turns on him. We also know all the film variations: Victor Frankenstein screaming, “Alive! It’s alive!” The bolts on the neck. The Tesla coils. And of course, “It isn’t Igor. It’s Eye-gor.”

But let’s go back to the original 1821 novel, written by a very young Mary Shelley. She was only 18 when she started work on this novel. And contrast its prose with that of contemporary and later novels of the early nineteenth century. In an era when Melville and Dickens wrote thick, wordy prose, Shelley shook up the literary world with a lean piece of work. Frankenstein in print barely reaches 300 pages, often falling short depending on which edition you read.

Shelley’s Frankenstein isn’t the mad scientist played by Colin Clive or parodied by Gene Wilder. If anything, he’s the eighteenth century equivalent of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Medicine is changing, dammit, and Victor Frankenstein is going to use it to change the world. Only Steve and Bill gave you the mouse and friendly graphical interfaces. Vic played with dead bodies and lightning (Shelley is intentionally vague and suggests alchemy is involved.) and realized he went too far. As for his monster, hideous he may be, but he’s not the flat-headed mute played by Boris Karloff and Peter Boyle. He is a large caricature  of a man with super strength and speed, as tragic a figure as the creator with whom he shares a mutual hatred.

What’s amazing is how well this story holds up, and maybe that’s the secret of its appeal. It is written in the warm afterglow of the Enlightenment, and Frankenstein shows the dark side of that period.

But if Shelley’s human, bare-bones version of this classic tale is not your speed, well…

How about something more recent?

Microsoft: The First Generation

Cheryl Tsang

As with Apple, Microsoft was built by a group of passionate workaholics. Cheryl Tsang takes eleven of Microsoft’s first generation of employees and paints a portrait of a startup where 16 hour days and seven-day work weeks were the norm. It wasn’t really expected. With the exception of two of Tsang’s subjects, they were young men and women who got caught up in designing and building technology that did not yet exist. The company began as a startup in New Mexico creating computer languages for microcomputers, moved into applications when Apple began work on the Macintosh and, once Windows, Xenix, and OS/2 (jointly designed by IBM) were established, pioneered CD ROM multimedia.

To a person, everyone Tsang profiles had a hand in taking Microsoft from a small shop of seven employees to a juggernaut that eclipsed IBM and Hewlett-Packard. And they all retired young when the long hours and grueling effort took its toll. They left with few regrets, and all of them give insights into the personalities of Bill Gates – sharp, confrontational, and occasionally so wrapped up in his work that he had to be steered toward his gate at the airport – and Steve Ballmer, a man so busy Sunday mornings were the only time to get a meeting with him.

I was disappointed there wasn’t more about Paul Allen, Microsoft’s cofounder. Allen left in the early eighties to deal with an illness, but it still would have been good to hear more about him. Like Steve Wozniak at Apple, Allen remains something of an enigma to many.

The other thing Tsang manages to capture was the almost pirate mentality at Microsoft even after the company went public. There were no memos, no agendas, no committees. People discussed projects in the halls, even poking their heads into Bill Gates’ office to pitch an idea. That disappeared some time in the 1990’s when the company became so large that bureaucracy set in. It’s a different Microsoft now.

The February Reading List

So what’s on ye olde TBR stack for February?

I kick off the month with three 87th Precinct novels, Like Love, Ten Plus One, and Ax. Two or three times a year, I read a pair of McBains, but this time, I have a trio in a hardcover released some time in the 1970’s. I follow that up with my first ever LeCarre novel, The Constant Gardener.

Then I have an ebook I’ve been wanting to get to for a long time, Nathan Singer’s In the Light of You. It’s been a while since I read Nathan’s work, so this will be a treat. He’s paired up with Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude.

Next month’s Stephen King entry will be Skeleton Crew. This is the collection that gave us “The Mist.” It also has a bizarre – even for King – short called “Survivor Type” where a castaway discovers an unusual food source to keep himself alive. It’s one of the few stories King could not sell after he became successful because… Well… Go look it up.

I plan to round out the month with a biography of the exciting and dynamic President William McKinley. Yeah, I’m still in the Anonymous Dull President phase of American history. At least Teddy Roosevelt is up the following month.

Can’t tell you what I’m listening to on audio because I generally don’t know until a few days before I finish the audiobook I’m listening to at the moment. For instance, I had no clue until I was down to the last disk of a book on Microsoft that I’d be listening to Eric Clapton’s autobiography. Fascinating stuff Eric’s done, but the narrator doesn’t sound like Clapton. He sounds like a BBC announcer. A little jarring to here the life story of a guy from Ripley, England narrated in the RP.

Northcoast Shakedown: Why Bring It Back?

I’ve been asked over the years if I’d ever bring Northcoast Shakedown back. The questions became more frequent when Kindle took off, and self-publishing lost most of its original stigma.

It took me a while to come to the decision. Part of it was I had no idea if this ebook thing would take off. Another part would be sales. The numbers for Road Rules and “A Walk in the Rain” aren’t exactly burning up the charts. But then ebooks require no cash up front to publish, and they have forever to find their audience. For that, I have nothing to lose.

But there’s more to it than that.

Northcoast very likely would have ended up at a major New York press if I had waited two weeks before signing my contract with a small press east of Baltimore. As it was, I was shocked someone wanted to take a chance on the story, so I signed. Too bad. I was faced with the prospect of having to create a new novel for an agent while fulfilling the contract I’d signed. In short, impatience and naivete got the better of me.

I was stoked. I’d published a novel. I had a second one in the can and in the process of editing. I had a draft of a third novel. Finish this contract, and I could probably move up the ladder to the next step.

Then the bottom dropped out. The publisher went out of business, and like a lot of small presses that fail, there was a lot of denial about the situation. I got my rights back but…


Given the state of publishing then (2006), I couldn’t just turn around and resell the books to another publisher. And I had trouble finding the magic I found with the first three Kepler novels. A story called Devil’s Dance had a more unlikeable protag. Road Rules started making rounds about the time publishing started to get skittish about new authors. And several new projects fizzled on the pad.

Then I started on Holland Bay, what I called my “magnum opus.” That’s a book that’s going to take a long, long time to get right. I’m stoked when I work on that project, but it’s so big that I need time to make it work properly. The writing career that seemed so promising at the middle of the decade suddenly seemed like a waste of time.

About the time I moved in with Nita, I found the box of copies the publisher sent me as a “peace offering.” (I’d told him to destroy them.) I was so disgusted with the experience that I dumped them in the bins out back and sent them off to Mt. Rumpke. A couple months later, I blogged a request that anyone who owned a copy destroy it.

I might have been a tad bitter. Just a tad.

Then I put out Road Rules as an ebook. The six people who’ve read it generally liked it. So why not Northcoast? It’s edited. It’s already out of print. Redoing it as an ebook cost me nothing. I asked Erin O’Brien to get me some photos of the Cleveland skyline for the cover, and it’s her photo that provides the basis for Northcoast‘s new cover.

I plan to bring out the follow up, Second Hand Goods this spring. I also will write a new third Kepler novel, one that more logically follows on the consequences of the second book. But will I try print again?

I think it’s stupid not to try print. This term “legacy publishing” is really shit. I don’t have time for the rantings of some failed midlist writer who’s now complaining no one wants to buy his books anymore. (Really, dude? Try writing better books and telling us why we should read them. Thumbing your nose at New York isn’t a sellling point.) Yes, the ground is shifting beneath our feet in publishing. But last I checked, the only ones saying print is dead are those trying to hawk ebooks. And many of them are selling fewer copies than I am. I’m all for going indie now that it’s feasible. I’m doing it. But not going traditional? Why would you narrow your options?

It’s not either/or. Either/or is suicide. But Kepler will remain an independent endeavor. It’s wholly mine, and I want to control it end to end.