Sunday, July 17, 2011

A complete short story for fans of crime and murder

HANDLER HANK by Vincent H. O’Neil

Here’s a question for you: When are undercover cops most at risk? Some people think it’s when they’re all alone with a gang of criminals, completely cut off from backup—but that’s wrong. That’s the meat-and-potatoes of undercover, and most of the people who do this kind of work are pretty comfortable with it. They’d better be, anyway. No, the most dangerous time for undercovers is when they’re meeting their handlers. Just about any other situation can be explained, but being spotted at an out-of-the-way place having a nice little chat with a police detective is pretty much a death sentence.
That’s where I come in. Although I’m not actually a cop anymore, and I’m not officially a handler, my nickname with a tiny group of police detectives is Handler Hank. I take that potentially lethal circumstance—the contact between the undercover and his or her managers—and make it almost perfectly safe.
I say ‘almost’ because nothing in this world is perfect. Most of it’s not even close.
My latest imperfect day started early. I was standing on the loading dock in back of my business, sipping coffee and watching the bicycle messengers clown around. It was a cool morning, early spring, but the sun was beginning to show itself and it looked like it would be a pretty nice day.
            Elvis Coolidge, an early-twenties black guy with a shaved head and the lean physique common to my bike employees, was just winning a bet he’d made with the other messengers. The rear tire of his racing bike was planted neatly in the middle of an overturned egg carton, and he was almost motionless. Keeping a bicycle upright without pedaling is no feat for these kids, but this particular display was still something. With a quick dip of his shoulders, Elvis surged upward in the pedals while yanking on the handlebars. The bike jumped just high enough to crush the container’s next two cardboard egg holders, and once again he was immobile.
            He seemed well on his way to winning the bet (that he’d be able to crush all twelve egg holders two at a time in six hops) when I heard the motorcycle coming. It was one of those big ugly monsters that make you wish you hadn’t left the windows open on a hot summer night, and I recognized it as belonging to one of the two undercovers I was currently hosting.
            “No-Show’s here.” Benny Martinez, one of the other messengers, announced brightly. As usual, he was wearing a long-sleeved top that hugged his torso to cut down on wind resistance. It hid the tattoos that covered most of his upper body, but the purple rooster’s comb in the center of his dark hair almost made up for their absence. If a tattoo is supposed to make a statement, this kid’s body is just plain babbling.
            “He ain’t the only no-show around here, numbnuts.” That came from Tracy Witten, her brown hair pulled back into a French braid so tight that I swear she couldn’t even make a frown. But it was all part of the bike messenger ethos—reduced wind resistance, you know.
            The undercover pulled in just then, riding the loud Harley and looking like he hadn’t slept in a week. He wore black boots, jeans, a heavy work shirt, and a leather motorcycle vest with a big American eagle on the back. His cover name was Bobby Moore and I honestly don’t know what his real name was. I almost never do. He parked the bike off to the side and approached with a worried look on his face.
“I really screwed up, Hank.” Moore spoke from a chair in my windowless office in the dead-center of the building. The place was an old warehouse that I’d converted into a combination bike-and-van delivery service with a printing-and-mailing shop in the front. I had seven bike messengers working for me, five people in the print shop, three van drivers, and a couple of maintenance guys who kept everything running. Although none of them knew about my secret life, almost half of them were ex-cons.
            Which is why a deep undercover like Bobby Moore (or whoever he was) could just ride up to my place and walk in. Or spend several hours in my very secure office typing up a report. Or even sleep over, if necessary. That’s because I hire lots of people with criminal records, many of them on parole, and even let a few of them slide on things like coming to work.
            That’s what Martinez meant with the ‘No-Show’ name. For a fee from their criminal associates, I give jobs to the recently paroled and never require them to show up. If their Parole Officer ever checks, which most of them don’t, I say that they just missed the gainfully employed ex-con and promise to have him call. Our city’s one organized crime family feeds me a steady stream of their newly-released personnel who are needed elsewhere, and it supplements my income nicely.
            It also lets me harbor undercover cops from a special unit run by an ambitious senior detective named Angela Ringgold. She inherited me, so to speak, but recognized the important service I provide and continued the relationship. Every now and then she’ll send me a deep cover operator pretending to be a recent parolee who needs a phony job in order to work the streets. Bobby Moore had been doing that for the past three months, slowly making friends with one of our city’s motorcycle gangs.
            “Tell me what happened.” I almost whispered this to him, having worked undercover myself in another life and recognizing the strain.
            “Everything was going great. I been hanging out with the Scavengers more and more, and some of ‘em were finally saying I should prospect with them.” In motorcycle clubs a prospect is like a fraternity pledge, someone going through a grueling probationary phase while being considered for full membership. “Last night we were partying pretty hard and one of the guys—No-Class Nate, I’ve told you about him—asked if he could crash at my place.”
            “Good sign.”
            “It is, ya know?” He leaned forward suddenly, anxious to make the point. “I’m getting somewhere here. Been working at that chop shop for months now, slowly gettin’ to know these guys when they come by, playin’ it cool like you said, and they’re finally starting to trust me.
            “But when me and Nate got back to my place I had a phone message waiting. I don’t have to tell you we were both shitfaced.” He didn’t; I could smell him from behind the desk and his eyes looked like they needed a tourniquet. “So I played it without thinking. And with No-Class Nate standing right there . . . I hear my mother telling me my dad died.”
            “My God.” That just came out, but for good reason. First, he’d actually given his mother the phone number to the apartment where he was living undercover. Second, his dad had just died. Third, his assignment was already over even if he didn’t recognize it.
            “I know, I know!” His face contorted briefly, and he looked at the floor in a mix of grief and embarrassment that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. Tears welled up in his eyes and he wiped them away quickly. “I know I shouldn’t have done it, but my dad’s been sick for a long time and I wanted to make sure they’d be able to get in touch with me.”
            That was understandable, but unacceptable all the same. And not because I’m some rules-and-regs kind of guy; quite the contrary as you’ll soon find out. But what he’d done could easily have gotten him killed, and he still didn’t seem to know it.
            “Anyway, Nate gave me a big hug, and the next thing I know he’s saying he wants to go to the funeral, me bein’ such a good friend of the club and all.” This wasn’t surprising. I’d read his reports before passing them to Angela, and the Scavengers put a lot of stock in that kind of gesture. Most of the outlaw clubs do.
“I’m so sorry about your father, Bobby.” Undercover is a strange world. His real dad was dead and I was consoling him under his false name.
            “Thanks, man.” He fixed me with those bloodshot eyes for a moment, and then asked the question that I’d been expecting almost from the start.
            “Any way we can fix this, Hank?”
I tried to convince him that his current job was over and that he should now report this to Angela, but that’s when one of the ugly traits of so many undercover cops showed up. He was so invested in the assignment that he wasn’t going to give it up until he had actual proof he was blown.
            So I played along for awhile, thinking I might have to call Angela myself even as I gently shot down each of his outlandish solutions. I pointed out that a sudden disappearance, coupled with a lie about running from an old enemy, would take him out of circulation for much too long and also make the bikers suspicious. A fake arrest wouldn’t work either, because as a parolee it would mean he’d have to go back inside. Even worse, it might not stop the Scavengers from sending a representative to his father’s funeral.
            Not that they’d show up in his real hometown. His cover was good enough for them to believe he came from someplace else entirely, and at least he’d warned his mother not to use his name on the phone. He came from a cop family, so his mom had known to only call him ‘sweetheart’ or ‘honey’ even in delivering sad news. That was too bad, actually, because if she’d used his real name his cover would have been well and truly blown.
            Undercovers are a different breed, bloodhounds that will chase a scent until it kills them, and I soon saw that there was no convincing him to throw in the towel. As someone who’d done that kind of work—and, in a way, was still doing it—I sympathized with his mad desire to find a way to keep the act going. So when he began babbling about creating a fake funeral in his fake hometown, I pretended to think that crazy notion had some merit. I told him to lie down on the cot in the back room while promising to think his nutty idea through, and was just reaching for a secure cell phone for my call to Angela when I got an idea of my own.
I’ve been in my current job for several years now, and I know a lot about what goes on in this city. I was medically retired while still in my twenties, shot twice in a way that really didn’t hinder me much but served as an excellent excuse for my old department to put me out to pasture. I’d relocated from one coast to the other just after that, and had a fateful lunch with a very senior detective in the city that I now call home. We’d met on the job years before, and he’d come up with an idea about creating a legitimate business that would hide undercover police. He’d sensed that I wasn’t finished being a cop just yet, and talked me into sinking my severance into a small delivery service that grew a lot as time went by. I actually owned and ran the place, under a new identity of course, and had been surprised to find I enjoyed running it. My secret boss had passed me on to Angela when he’d retired—and that was when I realized that he’d told almost no one about me, if he’d told anyone at all.
Angela had kept the thing as a going concern once she saw the value I could add to her career.     Between my new friends in organized crime and my bike messengers, I’ve become one of the most connected guys out here. There are times when I know more about the crime in this city than the criminals themselves, and Angela has made full use of that knowledge. It’s a two-way street, though, as access to the undercovers gives me information I couldn’t get in any other way.
Which is why I already knew so much about the Scavengers. From Bobby’s reports and my own observations, they were a well-disciplined gang of outlaw bikers who moved drugs as their main source of income. They were smart enough to keep the violence at a low level, but ruthless enough to carve out a nice territory for themselves.
            They were also just a tad predictable.
My imperfect day got a little less perfect an hour or so later, when Gary Fields paid me an unexpected visit. I was immersed in my slowly emerging plan to help Bobby when the second of my two undercovers walked in.
            I think I mentioned that the people I handle are high-end undercover, and it doesn’t get much higher than Gary Fields. At least at the municipal level. Tall and handsome, he was always decked out in expensive clothing and all the glitter that went with it. As you might have already guessed, he was not pretending to be a parolee with a no-show job at my place.
            Fields had created his own cover while working a dead-end assignment in some forgotten wing of our detective branch, and it was pure genius. Most assignments are like Bobby’s: They give you a reason to be around the places where your targets hang out and hope you make a contact. It takes an ungodly amount of time, and many promising assignments are terminated prematurely because they don’t seem to be going anywhere. Fields had bypassed all that by taking up with the widow of a recently-deceased mid-level guy in our local Mafia. He’d been a stockbroker earlier in life (he was now forty-five) and had convinced her he was a financial advisor with a wide range of clients.
            Gary was a natural impostor and a legitimate man’s man, so the wiseguys in his new lady friend’s social circle took to him at once. He’d shown no interest in their activities and even brushed off their first suggestions that he might help them hide illicit revenue. One of the biggest tricks in any con man’s bag is the initial refusal, and if it’s done right it really whets the mark’s appetite. He’d left them salivating while he contacted Angela personally with the revelation of what he’d been doing, and she’d gladly had him transferred.
            Fields had done all that without authorization, and mostly in his spare time. I might harbor a sneaking admiration for that, but I’ve never been comfortable around him. My print shop produced voluminous financial reports for his business, so he had good reason for dropping by every now and then.
            “I need a special delivery from you, Hank. Kind of a rush job.” Fields sat across from me in the same chair Bobby had occupied, smiling as usual. He wore a tan suit that day and looked like he’d just returned from a month in the Caribbean.
            “How big a rush? And how special?”
            “This afternoon would be good. Relax, it’s right here in town. And here’s how special.”  He’d been carrying a small backpack when he’d walked in, and I’d wondered what it contained. He now reached inside the bag and came up with a tall, quart-sized bottle filled with what looked like very large, very long human fingers. They were packed in some kind of brine, and I needed the label to see what they were.
            “A rush delivery of pig’s feet?”
            “What can I say? The guy loves ‘em. And they’re hard to get around here; I had to hit three shops this morning just to find those.” Fields smirked at me for a moment longer before dropping the act and continuing in a straight voice. “I’m trying to get somebody to stop looking at me.”
            My antennae came up. “How close they looking?”
            “Oh, nothing special. It’s just that there’s a new guy in town, a wiseguy from down south, and for some reason he doesn’t seem to trust me much.”
            “Imagine that.”
            “I know—everybody else in the crew likes me just fine. Anyway, one of the others was ridin’ him a little when we were out last night, calling him a hick and things like that. So I figure if he gets a delivery of these he’ll get good and mad at that guy and forget all about little ol’ me.”
            “I see.” Something in the way I said that must have told him I didn’t see at all, because he leaned forward in his chair and did his best to work a sincere expression onto his face.
            “Really, Hank, I need this to happen pronto. I think he comes from a crew that doesn’t accept outsiders as easily as mine does, and he might give them ideas. We were all up late last night, so he’ll be sleeping in.” He dropped an address and a name on the desk before getting up to leave, taking the now-empty sack with him. He stopped before he got to the door. “Do I have to tell you to make sure nobody can trace this back here?”
Of course I didn’t need this extra chore just then, but you gain a few strange skills after working undercover for even a short time. You’re juggling the information of two different personalities, so you get good at focusing on the task or the conversation or the crisis at hand. Looking ahead to something that’s not going to happen until later can make you slip up in the here and now. While I would have preferred to concentrate on Bobby’s problem, most of that plan could wait until later—and so in the here and now I decided to handle the errand for Fields.
            After some preparation, I ended up window-shopping in another part of the city that afternoon, just across the street from a row of stylish front stoops. The visiting wiseguy from down south lived in one of those, and I watched the reflection of a kid I’d never met pedal up in front of his door. He was carrying a package that I’d wrapped myself, bearing bogus postal stamps and the label of a bike messenger service that didn’t exist.
            Elvis Coolidge had picked the kid out for me, and clearly he’d coached him well. When he rang the buzzer, a tall man with dark hair came to the door wearing an expensive bathrobe and looking like he’d just been shaken from a deep sleep. The kid made him sign for the package, and even shook him down for a tip before quickly pedaling away.
            Things happened fast after that. The same door opened abruptly less than two minutes later, and the robe-clad man stepped outside to look up and down the street. He was wide awake now, and didn’t look much like a mob guy unhappy with his most recent gift. He looked scared.
            I walked around the corner by instinct, and it turned out my instincts were still sound. He’d rushed back inside by then, and not five minutes later a big black car came racing down the street and cut across traffic to park where the messenger had dropped his bike. Three men and one woman, all dressed in business suits, piled out of the car and through a front door that was held open by the bathrobe guy. He was half-dressed by then, and I briefly glimpsed a gun in his hand before the door slammed shut.
            I’d posted Tracy Witten behind the apartment block, just in case, and so I now called her on my cell as I walked away. She took a leisurely ride by the place a few minutes later, just in time to see the big black car pull away with five people inside.
            Damn you, Fields. Southern wiseguy my ass. I kicked myself as I walked away, for not seeing the other message that a jar of pig’s feet might convey. There was no way of knowing what agency the people in suits worked for, but my guess was FBI. Fields had spotted one of their undercovers in one of the circles he now frequented, and had decided to make the guy go away. He was territorial by nature, and no doubt was breaking a few rules while undercover, so it made sense for him to scare off this interloper.
            Pig’s feet. Pig. Police.
            At least he’d warned me to make sure no one could trace the package back to us.
Just as undercover work allows you to focus on the task at hand and ignore the things you’ve yet to do, it also lets you forget the things that have already happened. Mad as I was at Fields, I had to put his little shenanigan behind me if I was going to help Bobby maintain his cover with the Scavengers—and keep from going to jail, or getting killed, while doing it.
            I already mentioned that the Scavengers are a little too predictable for their own good, but some of that’s unavoidable. Ritual and tradition hold high places in the world of the motorcycle clubs, and one Scavenger tradition involved bonfire parties in the early spring. Their clubhouse, a concrete-block affair that had once been a youth center, sat in front of a large playing field that was now little more than a vacant lot. A dense stand of trees backed up to it, and several Scavenger prospects were piling wood into a teepee shape when I drove by just before it got dark.
Here’s a little advice: If you ever have to kill someone, do it alone. No partner watching your back, no buddy waiting with the getaway vehicle, no girlfriend swearing you were with her. So even though I’d used both Elvis and Tracy for our little delivery that afternoon, I darn sure didn’t use them for the night’s activities. Or anybody else, for that matter.
            I waited until after midnight before entering the woods behind the Scavenger clubhouse. It was cool out, and I was wearing a dark jacket over black jeans and black boots. I moved very slowly, aware of the garbage that had been dumped there over the years, reminding myself over and over again that I had all the time in the world. The bonfire was larger than a man, and the outlaws’ gophers kept it blazing, but I was surprised that I wasn’t able to see it until I’d traveled deep into the woods.
            That was good; I wanted all the concealment I could get. The party was going strong, with over twenty bikers and almost as many girls all swigging from various bottles and standing close to the flames. That was good, too; staring into the light wasn’t going to help anyone see into the trees. Not even the ones who walked out there to relieve themselves.
            I’d backed up against the thickest trunk I could find close to the wood line’s edge, and let several opportunities pass while the cold slowly seeped into my bones. Most of those chances had been ruined when more than one biker had stumbled into the darkness at the same time, but I’d hesitated too long on at least two others. I knew why, and so I simply waited. And thought about my last day as an undercover, years earlier and on the other side of the country.
            Not knowing my cover had been blown, I’d meekly followed three of my new criminal friends into the basement of one of their houses. It had been cold down there, too, and it got a lot colder when one of them switched on a light to reveal a large wooden chair with handcuffs attached to it, sitting on a big plastic tarpaulin. A long table stood nearby, and a grisly assortment of tools had been carefully arranged on it. Two of the three were now pointing pistols at me, and in that instant I’d been sure that I was experiencing my last moments on the earth.
            The one behind me had gotten a little carried away, though, and had punched me in the back of the head as hard as he could. I’d reeled forward, out of control, straight into the table loaded with all that scary gear. One of the items had been a hatchet, probably put there just for show, but I’d snatched it up in a heartbeat and moved with the speed that only comes from mortal terror.
            I’d buried the thing in one of the two who’d been holding a gun, following him to the stone floor while desperately scrambling for his fallen weapon. The next seconds had been taken up by a loud roaring, a madly swinging overhead light, and a hit-by-a-bus pain in my left leg. I’d gotten them all, and later one of my bosses had said I was lucky to have only been shot twice.
            The memory did the trick, but not the way you might think. Standing there in the woods, the damp chill from the ground rising through my boots, all I could see in that blood-spattered cellar was that horrible wooden chair with the handcuffs—and a mangled Bobby Moore seated in it. That’s why I was there. That’s why I’d decided to do what I was about to do.
            A voice called out from near the bonfire, louder then the rest, and another one answered it almost right behind me. One of the bikers stumbled past, temporarily blinded in the transition from the flames to the darkness. He moved unsteadily forward until he was a few feet in front of me, and I heard him unzip.
            I got lucky just then, as one of the club’s many bikes roared into life. Its rider was really screwing it on, attention-seeking behavior that had always offended my undercover sensibilities. But it gave me protection, and I knew the moment had come. Using the engine’s roar, I stepped out and brought the sap down on the back of the guy’s head.
            He dropped to his hands and knees, but he was an outlaw biker and so I was ready when he didn’t go down completely. Two more hard shots, smothered by the motorcycle’s roar, finally put him out. Another bike joined in with the first as I dragged him facedown to a small depression I’d noticed nearby. I hung his head over the edge to lessen the backsplash, and the bikes really began to howl when I took him by the hair and put the knife to his throat.
Almost everything I’d worn or carried went into the incinerator when I got back to the shop. The knife and gloves, quickly rinsed in a small stream as I’d made my escape, had gone into three separate dumpsters as I’d cut through the alleys on my way home. I live at my delivery service, in a nice upstairs apartment, but I stayed downstairs for a long time.
            Once the clothes and boots were burned up I walked naked into the middle of the small bay where we wash the vans. I set the overhead sprayers to a mild rinse before stepping into the middle of the deluge with arms raised and eyes shut. The soap took off whatever traces might have been left on me, and it washed down the center drain with a hungry slurping sound. I could have turned the sprayers down much further (at full strength they would have taken the skin right off me) but for some reason I left it pretty strong that time.
            I only stepped out of there after I’d reached the point where I simply couldn’t stand it anymore.
Wanna know when an undercover is most at risk? It’s when they’re meeting their handlers. And although I’m not undercover anymore—at least not officially—I had to take that risk two days later when Angela called for a meeting. Bobby Moore had been quietly sent off to bury his father, a fake obituary was running in the paper of his phony hometown, and the Scavengers motorcycle gang had gone on full alert. Armed men now stood on the roof of their clubhouse at all hours, you didn’t seen them riding alone anymore, and the word was spreading that they were very interested in finding out who’d hit them.
            They’d completely forgotten about Bobby, which was why I’d chosen the method I’d used two nights before. A rival biker gang would probably have resorted to a spray of gunfire or a bomb, so the stealthy killing of one of their own just a few yards from the group had left them plenty confused. Believe me, if there had been another way I would have used it.
            Angela Ringgold sat in a high-backed booth in the rear of a hamburger place out on the highway many miles from our city. She wore an expensive lavender suit that showed off her trim figure, and her long black hair was loose over her shoulders. I have it on good authority that when Angela had been a patrol officer she’d kept her hair cut close to her skull and worn a special set of tactical shoes that she’d joyfully applied to criminals who ran from her. She still ran like a deer, and trained at a martial arts school where her classmates were afraid to spar with her, but now she was moving up the ladder and that was one reason why she put up with me.       
            In addition to providing her undercovers with sanctuary and guidance, I’d made sure early on that Angela understood I bring a lot of things to the table. I already told you I know more about what’s going on in our city than most of the criminals, and I’ve helped Angela’s career more than once by giving her the answers to big questions being asked at police headquarters. I doubt anyone above her pay grade even knows I exist, and I want to give her every reason to keep it that way.
            You see, when my cover was blown years ago it was because someone who never should have had access to that information had blabbed about it. Some mid-level brass hat had been trying to impress his girlfriend, and a wiseguy sitting in that same bar had overheard just enough to figure out who I was. That’s why they were so eager to pin a medal on me and give me that retirement; it’s my understanding that the brass hat who almost got me killed is in line to become the commissioner in my old department some day. God help them.
            “Hello, Hank.” Angela’s dark eyes swiftly looked me up and down. When you run undercovers, you fall into the habit of examining them closely whenever you get the chance.
            “Hi Angela.” I sat across from her, uncomfortable to have my back to the door even though we were at the end of the row and the booth concealed us both.
            “Our friend got off all right.” No one was near us, but it was our habit to speak in riddles like that anyway. “From what I hear, he won’t be missed.”
            “He should be fine to come back and pick up right where he left off.”
            “Oh, I’m not too sure about that. His playmates are a little on edge.”
            “I heard about that.”
            She tried not to snort, but it happened anyway. Her face was usually a mask of amused neutrality, but every now and then it slipped. She recovered quickly. “Odd timing, that little event. Really turned the spotlight somewhere else.”
            “From what I hear, the spotlight’s jumping all over the place.”
            “Exactly my point.” The control was back, and so I waited for her to say what she’d summoned me to hear. “I don’t like things that I can’t control, Hank. Even things I value.”
            She’d guessed my involvement, as I’d expected she might. But then she’d weighed what I could do for her career against what I could do to it, and still found me worth keeping. No doubt she was already getting her denials in a row for that imperfect day in the future when she might have to sever our relationship, but that works too—she’s not likely to tell anyone about me if she’s going to claim to hardly know me some day.
            “I understand.”
            “Good.” She actually smiled, a ghostly thing that reminded me of that cold cellar on the other side of the country. She slid out of the booth, her eyes already checking the clientele to see who’d arrived since she’d sat down. “You do fine work, Hank. And my boys like you, even the older one. Let’s keep it that way.”
            “Have a good day, Angel.”  I mispronounced her name on purpose, knowing it irked her.
            “Angel.” She repeated, as if hearing the word for the first time. She looked down at me for the briefest moment, the smile back again. “If you say so, Hank.”
And then she was gone.
So there it is. Why I do the things I do. Those undercovers are all alone out there. No badge, no backup, no gun most of the time. Many of their bosses don't even know who they are. I'm all they've got, so I give them everything I have. I'd do anything for any of them, even Angela’s conniving older one, Gary Fields. Anything at all.
You could say I already have.

Vincent H. O’Neil

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Best Review I've Ever Received

Libby Cudmore, a marvelous new writer from the noir side of the mystery world, just gave my new book DEATH TROUPE the greatest review. I'm practically speechless, so here it is:

Death Troupe is a mystery novel for writers.  It's about writing.  It's about the struggles of writing and what being a writer does to people.  It can unite or divide.  It can make partnerships or it can end in murder, sometimes both.  And Death Troupe explores all of this with a dark charm I've come to recognize from reading Vinny's Exile series . . . but I'd have to say without hesitation (or bribery) that this is Vinny's masterpiece, and with each chapter I read, I get inspired to go back to my own work . . . which, given some of the crazy circumstances of late, is a feat of it's own.  Now if only the book weren't so damn hard to put down . . .
                                                               --Libby Cudmore, April 28 2011

You can read the full blog (which says so many nice things about me that I couldn't reproduce them here) at Libby's fantastic blog "Record of the Month" (scroll down to April 28, 2011):

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Dancing with Myself: Vincent O'Neil Interviewing Vincent O'Neil (guest blog on Nigel Bird's "Sea Minor" site)

You’ve done a lot of things over the years. You were a paratrooper, a risk manager, an advertiser, a consultant, and even an “apprentice librarian” (whatever that is). Can’t you keep a job?

Oddly enough, writing is the only thing that’s stayed a constant throughout my working life. I wrote my first novel when I was in high school, and kept plugging away at various books for the next twenty years, all the time holding down most of the jobs you mentioned. Although I’ve always referred to my writing as something I did in my spare time, it’s outlasted every full-time job I’ve ever had—which makes me wonder if writing was the full-time job all along.

Your Frank Cole mystery series is set in the Florida panhandle, but you’re a New Englander. How does a guy from Massachusetts write about Florida?

New England winters make writing about Florida an easy, almost mandatory, thing. Honestly, I was introduced to the Florida panhandle many years ago when I was in the army. I was a newly-minted lieutenant from West Point, and was fighting my way through a very tough commando course called Ranger School. In Ranger they don’t let you sleep very much or eat very much for roughly two months, and you carry an enormous rucksack all over the Fort Benning part of central Georgia, the mountainous part of north Georgia, the lunar landscape part of Utah, and then the swampy part of the Florida panhandle. Apparently I didn’t do the swampy part right, because they made me do it over. As a result I spent close to a month partially submerged in a river there, so I can honestly claim that I know the region in a way that few of the locals do.

You mentioned wintertime just now. Your most recent novel, Death Troupe, starts out in the middle of a brutal winter in the Adirondacks. Did you get tired of sunny Florida?

No one ever gets tired of sunny Florida. And I’m certainly not tired of the Frank Cole series, either. With that said, I caught a slight case of the acting bug two years ago and began plotting a new series, one built around a high-end murder mystery theater outfit nicknamed Death Troupe. The great advantage of Death Troupe is that they perform one play a year, each year in a different place, so I’ll have to move them around a lot. The first novel is set in the Adirondack town of Schuyler Mills, and I drew on my long association with winter to write it.

So does that mean Death Troupe is a wintertime read?

You know, that raises a question that occurred to me early in the brainstorming phase of this story: We have plenty of books that are considered beach reads, but is there such a thing as a wintertime book?

I thought I was the one asking the questions.

I am you and you are me and we are we, so I doubt it really matters. But no, Death Troupe isn’t focused on freezing to death in upstate New York (although there’s a much-praised sequence where one of the characters comes close to doing just that) and the last part of the book is set against the backdrop of a spectacular Adirondack spring.

Your main character in Death Troupe is the group’s playwright, Jack Glynn. This isn’t another one of those gloomy stories where the writer is alone most of the time and may or may not be going insane, is it?

Well . . . maybe. Actually, no. Not at all. Death Troupe’s playwright takes up residence in the host town roughly six months before the show, and writes a murder mystery play based on the locale. That requires him to be out and about, meeting the people of the town and learning its quirks. So Jack spends much of his time in the more popular gathering places, from a sports bar to a coffee joint to a frozen lake in the deep woods that’s been turned into a skating rink. And of course he meets just about every resident of Schuyler Mills, from the average everyday people to the . . . how to put this . . . more flamboyant citizens.

Hopefully some of those more flamboyant citizens are females.

Very much so. Jack has been both lucky and unlucky in love, in that he has an on-again, off-again romance with the troupe’s lead actress Allison Green. Their jobs don’t let them spend much time together, and when Jack heads to Schuyler Mills he quickly meets some highly intriguing ladies there. This is tough, as he’s already torn between his feelings for Allison and his fear that the two of them won’t end up together. He enjoys the company of the town’s unpredictable publicity manager very much, and attracts the attentions of a free-spirited ice sculptress as well. Oh, and one of his former girlfriends may just be stalking the troupe, so there’s that.

I didn’t see “Actor” listed among your many failed careers. What qualified you to write about the theater?

Research, research, and more research. When you know nothing about a complex topic like the stage, you have to start from scratch. I got The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Amateur Theatricals from the local library, and it really put me on the right path. The Idiot’s Guides are worth their weight in gold, and I highly recommend The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Private Investigations for anyone thinking about writing mystery novels. After reading many, many beginner-level books about acting and directing, I slowly graduated to more advanced works and finally ended with the memoirs of some noted Broadway directors.

Notice any similarities between directing plays and writing novels?

Actually, I noted a lot of similarity with many different roles, from acting to costuming to set design and directing. In a way, novelists cover all those tasks: We explore our characters’ motivations just like the actors do, dress our characters using techniques from the costume design team, and shape the story in much the same way that directors do. And if it weren’t for the annoying voice asking me questions here, I’d be able to say novelists do all this without having to consider outside opinions.

Pipe down. We’re almost done. It sounds like your theater research helped your writing. Did it?

Unquestionably. I really did a disservice to actors, designers, and directors in my last answer, as one individual can’t even come close to doing all those jobs. But by reading about them and taking copious notes, I was able to pull bits and pieces of the things they do into Death Troupe. For example, I learned that some actors will create a biography of their character to help them understand the role better, even though none of that bio ever gets into the play. That helped me form the backgrounds of some of my own characters, and it reminded me that we writers don’t have to include every detail that we might have worked out in our heads. Sometimes it’s better to leave a few loose ends untied.

Always leave them laughing, right?

Absolutely. It’s very much a piece of stage wisdom to always leave the audience wanting more. So having said that, shut up and stop asking me questions.

No, you shut up.

To read Vinny’s blog on life, writing, and everything else, please go to

For his website, which is jam-packed with sample chapters and a review from The Sunday New York Times that he had tattooed on his back, please go to

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Midwest Book Review’s excellent review of DEATH TROUPE

It's quite annoying when fiction becomes reality. More so when your fiction is murder. "Death Troupe" follows the theatre group known as the Jerome Barron players who have earned the nickname Death Troupe, surrounding their practice of doing murder mystery plays. But when their writer turns up dead, it gets all the more complicated as they have a murder mystery in reality for themselves to play out. With plenty of intrigue and betrayal, "Death Troupe" is a fun and highly recommended read, not to be missed.

                                                                   --MBR Bookwatch, April 2011

DEATH TROUPE is available from as a 396-page paperback ($11.00) or a Kindle eBook ($2.99)

Friday, February 25, 2011

Hearing the Music: How composing a song and composing a story can be almost the exact same thing

In my latest novel Death Troupe, the play’s gruff director Jerome Barron gives some advice to his playwright, main character Jack Glynn:

“Do me a favor, Jack. Get yourself a nice set of headphones and listen to a few classical tunes. Pick something that really hits you, that gets your blood going or the tears flowing, anything you like as long as it’s got a lot of different instruments.
“Here’s why I say that: While you’re listening, shut your eyes and try to pick out some of the moments when the song’s building, like where an oboe hops in or a fife flutters a few notes and then disappears. Be honest with yourself, and ask if you ever noticed those things before. Then go back and listen for the big moments, those soaring, sweeping passages where you feel like your heart’s going to explode in expectation.
“And after that, start writing. Write this play like a composer. I’ve always said that the best members of this troupe came from musicals, and I stand by that. To do what we do, you gotta be able to hear the music—even when it isn’t there.” (Death Troupe, 2011)

I have a modest background in music, having played saxophone in two championship-winning bands (one marching, one jazz) back in high school. And as a writer, I’ve been impressed many times with the similarities between the things we did in those bands and the things I currently do.
The high points of a story, like the high notes of a song, don’t just suddenly appear. Both compositions build toward those moments, and in most cases they’re easily distinguishable from the rest of the work. Just as the high points in music can be signified by increased tempo and louder volume, the big moments in writing are sometimes identified by faster pacing and intensified action.
That doesn’t mean the passages between these peaks (the valleys, so to speak) are merely filler. They serve more than one purpose, in that they convey the readers or listeners from one peak to the next while holding their attention and advancing the overall work. In novels, subplots and backstories frequently populate these valleys in much the same way as the supporting instruments of an orchestral piece.
So take a page out of Death Troupe and listen to a little music before you start writing or when you’re on a break. Movie soundtracks are particularly good for this exercise, and many of them are available on YouTube.
As Jerome Barron observes later in the book, the similarities between orchestral groups and theater troupes shouldn’t be all that surprising: After all, they’re both led by a Director. The same thing goes for writing, except that the composer, the playwright, the novelist, and the overall Director are one individual: You.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Getting It Write: When your main character is a writer

In my new novel Death Troupe, the main character is a playwright. Creating such a role was a new experience for me, and I was surprised by how much work it turned out to be. I’ve read many novels in which the protagonist was some kind of writer (Stephen King’s The Shining, Misery, and salem’s Lot, just to name three from a single author) and had always found the writer-as-character to be highly engaging. Making my playwright interesting wasn’t the hard part, of course; what was difficult was describing a fictitious writer’s creative process without simply restating my own.

When it comes to writing, I believe that whatever works for you works for you. It might work for someone else, but then again it might not. These platitudes are easy to say (and even to follow) in real life because we so seldom control how someone else crafts a story. It’s a very different thing, however, when we do have that control.

Death Troupe’s main character, Jack Glynn, doesn’t follow a standard routine in writing his plays. He’s the in-house playwright for a theater troupe that comes together once a year, each year in a different town, to perform a mystery play written specifically for that locale. As a result, Jack has to travel to that vicinity (in this case a place in the Adirondacks called Schuyler Mills) and develop the story as he gets to know the area and its people. He draws heavily on local history and tradition for this, but the troupe’s director provides his own overbearing input as the play is being developed.

Jack’s meetings with the director provide great opportunities for showcasing the brainstorming process, and they also convert what might have been his deadly-dull ruminations into a freewheeling dialogue. This is helpful, as a main character who is a writer could be expected to spend long periods of time alone with the work-in-progress. As mentioned above, Stephen King did this quite successfully with his imprisoned (and terrorized) novelist in Misery, but even so there is always a danger of boring the audience with long passages where the writer is mentally building the story.

Which is not to suggest that the writer-as-protagonist is necessarily boring—far from it. Because they don’t normally hold down a nine-to-five job, writer-characters are freed to spend the day (or night) as they see fit. The search for inspiration can take them to some highly interesting settings, and those settings can be the home of some very unusual personalities and events. Writers see the world through very different sets of eyes, and the writer-protagonist’s interpretation of those sights, personalities, and events can be both entertaining and revealing.

Even the act of writing need not necessarily take place in a quiet room with a single desk and chair anymore. The laptop and Wi-Fi have freed the artist to roam about at will, almost like Hemingway composing essays in his notebook as he sat in busy caf├ęs. Putting the writer in the middle of things, even while creating, provides the opportunity for other characters to break up those long passages where the reader is inside the writer’s head. And that was where I discovered how to describe a fictitious character’s creative process so that it wasn’t just a repeat of my own: The shifting settings, and the information provided by various characters, drove the playwright’s imagination in such a multitude of directions that it assumed a life of its own. The involvement of the demanding director likewise sent the brainstorming down unexpected paths, as his personality and Jack Glynn’s are almost polar opposites.

Having stumbled across this technique for building someone else’s creative process, I was actually pulled along by it at various times. Jack Glynn’s emerging play itself became quite exciting, particularly when a period of seemingly useless effort bordering on writer’s block suddenly lurched into a full-blown creative spree:

. . . he now found himself in one of those exhilarating periods when he’d rather be writing than doing anything else. Things that made for a normal life—like a daily routine that followed the sun—took a back seat to times like these, and he exulted in that change because it served as proof that his writing was indeed the most important thing in his life. It wasn’t a conscious choice on his part, like deciding to repaint the bathroom or go buy the groceries, but an overarching reallocation of his existence that was as undeniable as breathing. Day turned into night, breakfast turned into dinner, and the laptop or the writing tablet beckoned even when he was asleep. He would often awake with a new idea—as if he’d merely been on a break and not unconscious—and he would see the empty seat before the desk not as his station in some pointless assembly line, but as the pilot’s seat in a ship that could go anywhere. (Death Troupe, 2011)

Perhaps that’s the best part of having a writer as the protagonist: Having followed that individual’s avocation ourselves, we identify with the character’s struggles as the story develops. We sympathize when the tale dead-ends, or a major rewrite becomes mandatory. And we beam with a shared pride when the final product comes together.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Blogs from Exile: Murder, Romance, Suspense, and Theater: My new nov...

Blogs from Exile: Murder, Romance, Suspense, and Theater: My new nov...: "Now available on Amazon: DEATH TROUPE by Vincent H. O’Neil (394 pages) The Jerome Barron Players have a problem. Their writer, Ryan Betancou..."

Murder, Romance, Suspense, and Theater: My new novel Death Troupe

Now available on Amazon:

DEATH TROUPE by Vincent H. O’Neil (394 pages)

The Jerome Barron Players have a problem. Their writer, Ryan Betancourt, has killed himself under mysterious circumstances and they need a replacement right away. The Players, unofficially known as Death Troupe, come together once a year to perform a high-end murder mystery play written specifically for that season’s host town. Their writer has to possess special talents, as there’s a wager involved: If the townspeople can correctly identify the murderer before the show’s final act, they don’t have to pay for the engagement. So far, no town has ever won the bet.

Enter Jack Glynn, original writer for the Barron Players. He and Ryan wrote two Death Troupe engagements before Ryan stole Jack’s girlfriend, lead actress Allison Green. Although Jack found fame in Hollywood after quitting the troupe, eccentric director Jerome Barron convinces him to return for one show: The upcoming engagement in the Adirondack town of Schuyler Mills.

It is only then that the troupe’s advance man, private investigator Wade Parker, tells Jack of the strange events which surrounded the group’s previous engagement in Red Bend, California. A local retiree killed himself a few days after the performance—an act Wade suspects was prompted by the storyline of Ryan’s final play. He also reveals that Ryan was greatly unnerved by anonymous third parties who had interfered with the group’s marquee clue distribution.

This is one of the unique features of Death Troupe: As the performance approaches, clues are sprinkled through the town in a variety of ways, from fake headstones bearing characters’ names to real players acting out their assigned roles. In Red Bend, a stranger pretending to be a troupe member had dropped clues that were surprisingly accurate, and Ryan had reacted badly to this—perhaps badly enough to kill himself.

Events take a sinister turn shortly after Jack arrives in the small, snow-covered village of Schuyler Mills. Someone leaves a bizarre arrangement of black roses and plastic skulls in his hotel room. Ryan’s missing notebook from the Red Bend engagement turns up, and it contains an alarming tale of psychological harassment. The people of Schuyler Mills are enthusiastic about Jack’s presence, but he knows that many of them, from the local community theater group to the town mayor, could have ulterior motives.

As the weeks go by, someone begins distributing clues that Jack doesn’t recognize, from a plastic head stuck in an ice-fishing hole to confidential information scrawled on a billboard. Reading Ryan’s notebook, Jack begins to fear that the same web that snared his old writing partner in Red Bend is being spun around him in Schuyler Mills.