Patrick Reinken's Blog: Writing to Write

November 19, 2011

Kings of the EarthKings of the Earth by Jon Clinch

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In a book, playing with time is a kind of magic trick.

If it’s done poorly, we don’t believe. We see the dove that’s up the sleeve, the different sizes of playing cards in that deck, the fake feet on the woman who’s cut in half. And we don’t blink or wonder or feel amazed.

But if it’s done well – if it’s done in a way that doesn’t reveal the trickery in the trick – then we see a reality that's different from ours. The rabbit materializes from thin air, the man teleports, the lady does vanish. And we do blink and wonder and feel amazed.

In that instance, in that single moment of how’d they do that, we’re not truly focused on how they did that. We’re just reveling in the fact that we’ve seen some event in an entirely different way – from a position where the limitations of our view have constructed a scene not otherwise available to us, and that therefore carries the possibility of both misperception and insight.

Kings of the Earth, by Jon Clinch, is a magic trick.

Superbly written, it tells the story – both singular and collective – of the Proctor brothers, who live their lives in squalor and apparent general contentment on an upstate New York farm. From their background as children raised by a distant and abusive father and an adored mother, all the way through the decades-later death of one brother and the ramifications that flow from that, Kings in its author’s hands unfolds as a series of observations by, vignettes about, and reporting on the characters in these brothers’ lives. A sort of murder mystery and modern tragedy and character/culture study rolled into one, it comes with jumps in time, point of view changes in both character and voice, and chapters that vary from multiple pages down to a single perfect sentence. Throughout all that, it is vivid and encompassing in its creations of story and setting and people.

Some may criticize that approach as adding complexity, of making the book’s telling more difficult. That’s certainly their right. Different people read a given book differently, and they carry their perspectives into it and out of it. We all have our worlds, we all have our viewpoints, and we all have our reads on things.

For me, though, Clinch’s approach is compelling in its additions. That’s because of the point above – we all see and experience and describe things uniquely, and the shifting times and points of view reveal and emphasize one of the book’s key lessons: “I thought it was the strangest thing, how a person can go through this life and not see what you see. How he can stand right next to you and it’s all different.”

Some also may criticize the book in a belief it lacks resolution. That it fails to wrap up and tell “who did it.”

That one’s not accurate.

To be sure, the writing is subtle. Again like a magic trick, it’s folded together precisely and tightly. It’s tucked and fitted over itself, and any seams that exist in the way it’s pulled together are neatly stitched, almost to the point where they’re invisible.

But the “who did it” is resolved. The answer to that question can be found, as the author himself has suggested in a Kings discussion board posting here on Goodreads.

And I’ll argue the resolution isn’t the point, anyway. The point, at least to me, is the depiction of the world of these three brothers, who lived their lives in ways you or I might not understand or choose, but who were satisfied and content with the existence they had.

That’s because it was their world. It was their viewpoint. So it didn’t matter that someone might stand right next to them and see it and judge it all differently.

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Published on November 19, 2011 12:00 • 202 views • Tags: jon-clinch, kings-of-the-earth, proctor-brothers, review

November 6, 2011

This morning, I was thrilled to see that Glass House was in the Top 40 Legal Thriller Books overall on Amazon, and the Top 25 Legal Thriller Kindle eBooks!

Thanks to everyone who helped get it there...

Glass House by Patrick Reinken
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Published on November 06, 2011 08:56 • 135 views • Tags: amazon, bestseller, glass-house, kindle, legal-thriller, patrick-reinken

November 3, 2011

So here's the common sign of the times for the literary world we live in.... I was reading USAToday at lunch today and came across their Best Seller List.

I skimmed through it and found, with no surprise, three 99-cent indies in the top 50. Yes, the TOP FIFTY....

Last Breath by Michael Prescott is at 25, The Abbey by Chris Culver is at 29, and The Mill River Recluse by Darcie Chan is at 30. Good books all, and right there among Big Pub books that cost five, ten, twenty-five or thirty TIMES as much.

People sometimes see that as a tension between traditional print publishers and newer ebook publishing (most notably ebooks that are self-published). And it certainly is that - the pricing alone hints at the underlying issues still at work here.

But it's exciting, too, and it is a sign of the times - these authors wrote full time or part time, for a livelihood or hobby, in offices or at dining room tables or wherever the mood struck them, and they did that just like authors always have. But then they created and published the ebooks themselves, and there they sit - in the Top 50.

You can find the list in PDF form right here.
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Published on November 03, 2011 18:54 • 98 views • Tags: 99-cent, best-seller, chris-culver, darcie-chan, indie, michael-prescott

October 21, 2011

A few posts down, I raised the question about whether making one ebook free would increase sales of your other books. That post is right here.

I'd made Glass House free, and it had finally reached Amazon the day I wrote that post. That was fairly late on October 18th, and over the two and a half days since, downloads of Glass House have gone up exponentially. No surprise - it's free, and people like free things.

But Omicron isn't free, it's 99 cents. Sure, that's not a lot, but it's still a buck, and it's a world where a buck counts even more every day.

Downloads of Omicron have gone up about 2,500%. That's obviously a big jump, but I need to be clear - it only looks big because Omicron was at a pace of perhaps 1 download every 5 days (.2 per day), and there have been 10 downloads in the past 2 days (5 per day).

That's a twenty-five-fold increase, on a daily basis.

That's probably due to the free book, bringing traffic to a site where people also can find Omicron. That partly answers the basic question, but it's only a possible indicator on the way to the bigger question.

If the question is really looking at selling ebooks to make money (and based on reading the boards, it is), the writer's interest is in finding ways to dramatically increase sales of paid ebooks. Can free ebooks have that meaningful an impact?

Twenty-five hundred percent up is a big measure, but it's more muted when you consider that it's .2 increased to 5 per day. At 99 cents, no one's printing money by increasing sales like that (at Amazon's 35% percent royalty rate for a 99-cent ebook, it's around $1.75 a day and $52 a month).

Which brings me back to the point that's implied in the earlier post - what sorts of things might happen in the longer run?

I hope those 10 buyers picked up Omicron because it's a good book (I think it is...). But they may have bought it just because it's inexpensive and was in proximity to something else they got. The measure of any real impact in "free leads to paid sales" still waits, though, because again, I think that impact depends almost completely on whether the free book/story is any good.

If it is ... if people read the free work and like it and look for more and turn to other available books ... what will the impact be then? Could it be 10,000%? 50,000%? 100,000%?

Numbers like that seem impossible, but they're not. Taking the .2 per day figure, an increase of 100,000% would be 200 downloads a day (at the same royalty rate, that's $70 a day and $2100 a month).

I think impacts like that and more could be found, but only if the writing is good. So to me, the answer to whether "free" on one book increases "paid" on another so far has to be yes at a fairly low level in the short term, and it depends on how people see worth in the longer term.
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Published on October 21, 2011 13:04 • 338 views • Tags: amazon, ebook, free, glass-house, kindle, omicron, patrick-reinken

October 19, 2011

Great day today....

Glass House has gotten as high as #12 on Amazon's Top 100 Free Kindle Best Sellers List (it's at 13 as I write this). The list is here: Amazon Top 100 Best Seller Lists.

Right now, it's also #2 on Amazon's Top 100 Best Seller List for Thrillers (free) and #1 on the Top 100 Best Seller List for Legal Thrillers (free).

You can find the Thriller list here: Amazon Top 100 Best Seller Lists (Thrillers). And the Legal Thriller list is here: Amazon Top 100 Best Seller Lists (Legal Thrillers).

I want to thank everyone at Goodreads for getting the book, or just for offering support. It a great group, with great discussions and people who are generous with their thoughts and time. I appreciate it.
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Published on October 19, 2011 15:48 • 276 views • Tags: amazon, best-seller, bestseller, glass-house, patrick-reinken, thriller, top-100
As of this morning, Glass House was 2nd on Amazon's Top 100 Best Seller List for Legal Thrillers (free) and 10th on the Top 100 Best Seller List for Thrillers (free).

You can find the Legal Thriller list here: Amazon Best Seller Lists (Legal Thrillers).

And the Thriller list is here: Amazon Best Seller Lists (Thrillers).
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Published on October 19, 2011 06:07 • 158 views • Tags: amazon, best-seller, bestseller, glass-house, kindle, legal-thriller, patrick-reinken, thriller

October 18, 2011

On the boards - both here and on other discussion sites - you commonly see strings that come down to a simple issue: If you make an ebook free, will it increase sales of your other books?

I've no idea, of course. My common sense tells me it will, at least if the writing is any good. I mean, if the writing's no good in a free book, why would anyone expect a reader will think, "Well, I really didn't like that at all, but I'm gonna go ahead and get the other one, even though I have to pay for it this time."

Readers don't do that. People don't do that, because people avoid pain.

So the expectation is simple - a good free book might prompt someone to buy a book by the same author.

Whether that has any play in it ... well, that's another thing.

But I'm going to find out.

First, I'm assuming Glass House is good enough that at least some people might want to pay a buck to buy another of my books. I'm not stating that an absolute truth, mind you; I'm just assuming it for the test here (I figure if people don't like it, I'll hear that in the end, too).

Second, over the past couple weeks, I've reset the price for Glass House to free, and it's finally pushed out to all major sellers - B&N, Apple, Sony, and about an hour and a half ago, Amazon (a task that takes some discussion board friends and some finger crossing, as many of you out there know). Basically, that means it's free across probably 99 percent of the available sales volumes.

The book's cousin - and I say "cousin" because they sit side by side in my discussion board signatures and on my Goodreads page and have been out for close to the same amount of time and are both thrillers - is Omicron, and it's out there, too.

Will sales of Omicron increase as people pick up Glass House for free, (hopefully) read it and enjoy it, and look for another book to read?

I'll keep you posted....
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Published on October 18, 2011 19:50 • 138 views • Tags: amazon, apple, barnes-and-noble, ebook, free, glass-house, omicron, patrick-reinken, sony

October 16, 2011

Working (slowly but steadily...) on a Facebook Page. It's right here or through the badge below.

Take a look, and let me know what you think.

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Published on October 16, 2011 20:38 • 123 views • Tags: facebook, patrick-reinken

September 22, 2011

Omicron (Aristotle Project, #1) by Patrick Reinken

Patrick Reinken
99¢ in all formats

Prologue: Gold Protocol
May 8
7:54:14 p.m., British Summer Time
London, England, The United Kingdom
The sound was already deafening, and it was only beginning. In Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square, near Buckingham Palace and into Hyde Park, outside St. James and the Houses of Parliament and all up and down the Thames, the gathered crowds – crammed shoulder to shoulder in some places – were screaming and waving hats and shouting out ragged and wretched echoes of the Westminster bells.

It was VE Day again, and the bells were tolling a celebration. The end of the war was still celebrated, it was celebrated big, and all of London was screaming out the seconds toward the scheduled peak of the frenzy.

Their collective cacophony was drowned out only by the pounding sound of fireworks jetting from Tower Bridge and exploding in red, white, and blue smoke over the East End and the Docklands. Dimly, listening very closely, you could pick out wavering, warbled strains of “God Save the Queen” intermingled with shockingly poor renditions of “Over There.” Sure, that last one was from the Great War, not the second one, but few among the mass of people drunken on Guinness and Bass and Carling would have cared to make the distinction. The concern was the stout or ale or beer, the screaming, the getting close to just the right person at just the right time. History wasn’t exactly on the minds of the revelers.

The early evening was all outrageous sound and action in public, but it was silent in some tucked-away corners. In those places, the world was beginning to shut down.

The power grid was the first noticeable thing to go. At each central facility and relay station in the metropolitan area, the computerized management system was being triggered to initiate a search for new guidelines that were force-fed to it a second later. The program chewed the input in less than a breath of time, and the grid shut off, segment by segment, precisely according to the commands buried in the virgin code.

Reading the new instructions, the computer system closed the distribution grid down. It reserved principal and sole power for itself, and it waited.

May 8
6:55:24 p.m., Greenwich Mean Time
Over the Atlantic Ocean
Sean Ketelsen relaxed, at long last. He thumbed the button on the armrest and gently eased the seat back a notch, stretching his legs and letting out a light and long, almost inaudible sigh. A gin and tonic – more gin than tonic, truth be known – sat on the fold-out table that crossed his lap, and his hand circled it easily, keeping the drink steady during the typical soft bob and weave of jet travel.

Ketelsen looked wearily out the window and down, toward the layer of clouds receding below them. He watched as the colored lights along the plane’s wing winked off and on, off and on, rhythmically lulling him with their steady assurances.

It had been a long day. A long day and more. He’d started it in Tikrit, in Iraq. Two meetings there, both of them late last night. One with the bad guys, one with the good.

He’d bargained for sales of Misagh-2 missiles with the first group and reported the discussions to the second, providing best-known names, contact processes, connections, and supply routes – the whole thing, documented in a dead drop. He’d transferred everything he’d learned in the year-plus he’d been in Iraq, turning over the pictures and notes and fingerprints and anything else he’d managed to collect. And then he’d endured the rough, hidden and hurried trek out, in all its forms: jarring drives, a helicopter ride, an escorted blur through Baghdad, and then the strange and incongruous exit from Baghdad International. There, he’d been slipped in through the back to avoid the crowds and security screens but spent two hours waiting for his DHL military cargo flight, cooling his heels and whiling away time in a duty free shop, a bar, and a long stretch of doing nothing but lying flat out on the couches, where he stared at the PVC-prickled ceiling and struggled to stay awake.

The flight was long. Then another airport, this one in Frankfurt, but there was no wait this time because they’d held the plane for him. For him, and that was certainly outside his experience over the past year he’d spent in beaten-down and bombed-out neighborhoods in Iraq.

And so finally he was here, on this new flight, a flight home this time. Ketelsen was enjoying this single moment of nothingness, just him and the drink and the easy movement of the plane and the drone of the white snow background noise of its engines. Even his fellow passengers were helping out in that regard. The plane was full, but the people who were awake were concentrating on books and magazines and papers and anything that kept their attention away from having to sit still in the stuffiness of the recycled air. The rest of them were silent. They’d dozed away the takeoff and were treating the start of the Atlantic crossing the same way.

Eyeing those he could see, Ketelsen wondered who among the passengers might have been important enough, valuable enough, to have kept this plane waiting. Any of them? None? He wondered who among them would have been whisked through the locked and guarded gate to get to this takeoff, far from anything resembling customs or security, so that identities – not to mention weapons – wouldn’t be noticed.

He smiled drowsily. He moved a hand down and felt the comfortable and smooth surface of the leather satchel he carried. He unzipped it halfway and reached into its darkness, pushing his hand through the contents by touch until he came to the familiar shape of a Smith and Wesson 422. It was an old model, and an underpowered pistol at that, but he liked it. He liked the barrel’s position at the bottom of the block, and he liked the balance that came from that.

There was a short sheaf of papers beside it, a copy of the most important pieces of the information he’d collected and left at the dead drop, but this one was ready for hand delivery back to Langley.

A collection of congratulations was in store for Sean on his arrival, and the three or four dozen sheets of information were the reason why. Not public congratulations, to be sure, but congratulations nonetheless.

Then a vacation, maybe. Some time spent someplace nice. Someplace warm and with women who dressed in small patches of fabric instead of protective, layering wraps. Ketelsen smiled again, sat back, and sipped the drink. He enjoyed the slightly bitter taste of the Tanqueray while thoughts of bikinis in Nassau filled his mind.

He set the glass back down and closed his eyes. Then, secure in his world, he quickly began to doze.

May 8
20.56.47, Central European Summer Time
Paris, France
A shopping mall was buried under the Louvre. More accurately, it was buried beneath the streets and the courtyards that lay between the Louvre’s encircling wings. Back when I.M. Pei added the new entrance at the middle of everything by dropping his little glass pyramid into the central courtyard, the planners had the bright idea to dig out the whole area underground and squeeze in a couple levels of first rate tourist shops down there, as well.

Now you could check out the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo, then make your way out into the ultramodern, subterranean add-on stores and pick up a tie or tee shirt or umbrella with “Musée du Louvre” written in fancy script on it. Maybe have a ham and cheese on a baguette, too, with a Coke on the side.

The stores were at the back. They were connected to the museum through a columned passage that had a checkpoint in it, separating the shoppers from the art with all the appropriate security personnel and metal detectors and searches of handbags. But that wasn’t the only way into the little mall. That portion of the Louvre complex could also be reached through a parking garage and a Metro subway access and, even more surreptitiously, by stairs that led down from the street level above. Stairs that were hard to spot and that most people therefore never really paid attention to at all.

At ground level above those stairs, the Arc de Triomphe du Caroussel stood exactly as it had for two centuries, its sculpted surfaces and the warrior figures on it worn smoother by the years of weather and its surroundings cut by streets and paths never contemplated when it was completed to commemorate Napoleon’s victories. The arch was a symbol of pride no more. It was a landmark instead, for all intents and purposes no better than a gas station or billboard or restaurant that people used more as a guide in the city than as a reminder of anything great and memorable.

Near each of the arch’s sides, barely visible from the park at its back and the street at its front, staircases led down underground like cellar steps, their tops flush with the crushed-rock walking areas of the Tuileries gardens and grounds above. They were marked only with a simple light post and a small sign barely noting the access to the shops and museum below.

Alexander Bay knew the stairs were there, though. He knew everything about Paris. Knew everything about most of Western Europe, for that matter, if for no other reason than that it was his business – his task – to know those things and places and the people in them, inside and out.

He knew those stairs and the mall near their end and the museum beyond that, just as he knew a hundred other particular spots for meetings in the metropolitan area. The notable places like the crypts at Sacré Coeur and Dôme Church and the Panthéon. The red-velveted, balcony level of the Opera House. Montparnasse Cemetery.

And the less notable, too. The bar in the Concorde La Fayette, in the Chaillot Quarter. The corner booth on the upper level of the McDonald’s a couple doors down from the Moulin Rouge. The small artist’s apartment in Montmartre. The patch of grass to the south, across the path from the Medici Fountain in Luxembourg Garden.

He knew them all, he knew how and when to get to each of them, and more importantly, he knew how to get away from each of them. He knew the hiding places and quiet places and public places in and around them. He knew the vantage points where he could tuck himself away, to watch and see what developed at the appointed times.

Because Alexander Bay was, in American intelligence parlance, a collection agent for the CIA. Which meant he was a spy.

It was far and away from what he ever thought he would be at one time, but he was a spy even so. And Paris was what he had to know.

When the Central Intelligence Agency had come to Georgetown University a dozen years before, Bay had skipped out of his History of Revolutions class and attended the informational meeting for the same reason that virtually everyone else attended – as a lark. But he went and listened, politely and diligently, and at the end, he found out that intelligence work was far more than being James Bond and that he was far more interested in it than he ever thought he would be.

He signed up for an interview and sat with an impossibly nice and well-dressed man for twenty minutes, talking about himself and learning a sliver of the intricacies of what was available to anyone working as a public servant in the CIA. At the end of the meeting, the man asked him to come down to Agency headquarters in Langley to meet some more people, and Bay did.

Five times.

Five trips to Langley. Five sets of meetings with the insignificant and the not-so-insignificant, though still not too significant. There were more applications and questionnaires than he possibly could remember, along with interviews that picked apart his past and searched out what he wanted in his future. One of the interviewers told him more about his grandfather on his mother’s side than Alexander Bay ever had heard before.

At the end of that – and it all was so complicated and furiously fast that it really was no more than a blur now – he’d signed up, as excited about making it successfully through the process as he was about the prospects of working with his new employer. Months of class work and field training followed, with Bay aiming for a position in foreign intelligence analysis.

He wanted to be a bookworm. He wanted the information to drift in to him so he could sit and sift through it and pore over it and digest it. He wanted to eat up everything he could learn about all the bad guys out in the world and then report back on what it was that the United States of America should go and do about them.

That expectation, which he amazingly once labeled a dream but looked back on with dread more recently, ended surprisingly abruptly and with surprisingly less for Bay to say about it than he would have thought. His supervisors in the classes and exercises saw something in him, and they dutifully reported that to the appropriate people.

Those people took him aside. They had a word or two with him. Words like “honor” and “prestige” and “challenge.” And in the end, Alexander Bay, fresh out of college at the time, found himself in the intelligence agent training program of the CIA.

Under the dim yellow light that seeped from the poles marking the stairs by the Caroussel arch, Bay walked carefully but confidently down the steps, following their turns with an attentive eye for movement and an ear tuned for sounds. It was late. Not so horribly late that the complex would be closed, but that was coming soon. He saw only two people as he made his way down and in. Both of them were leaving, heading up and out. It was the end of the day, and people were heading to homes and apartments and hotels.

He reached one hand over, casually dragging his fingers along the soft and smooth facing of the walls. The stone that was cut and laid and stacked to form the walls and floor was so smooth and creamy pale and uniform that it looked as though you could carve a piece out of it with a knife and use it as soap.

Reaching the bottom level, Alexander had the same thought that always came to him – it was like stepping down into Egyptian tombs, with their stark finishing and decoration. Their earthen, tanned hues and desert-tinted colonnades.

Their silence.

That absence of meaningful sound both comforted Bay and made him nervous. It was soothing in the way it allowed him to hear everything, and hearing was sometimes far more important than seeing in his line of work. But the stillness crept eerily over him at the same time. Despite the training and the decade-plus of service since he was first at Langley, stepping into a silent room for a meeting with someone probably already in it – someone unknown, no less – still made him anxious.

That was part of the excitement, he supposed. Even today, after years filled with harrowing moments that nearly killed him and an even greater number of drearily boring experiences that he imagined someday would kill him, Bay’s heart beat pleasantly faster in anticipation of what he was doing.

It had been that way since the start. Each new country and city and face. Each new thing. Every day was some kind of challenge. Every meeting and drop, even the nerve-wracking, high security, coded ones like this one, was exciting.

Bay moved away from the end of the stairs. They didn’t open immediately into the area where the stores were, instead stopping in a cavernous antechamber that led, in turn, into a closed-off meeting room, the parking garage, and, straight on, the shops and museum. He turned north, toward the doors leading to the garage, and he faced five massive columns that, stretching away from him, marked out a line where the wall of a palace had once been.

He moved quietly up to the second column. He stepped around it slowly, to the left, until he saw the outline of the woman who was standing in the darkness of its shadow.

Even in the poor light he could tell she was beautiful. She seemed slight, of average height but thin in the neck and arms and legs. Her black hair shone with a single hint of color that barely caught the light and tossed it back with a red-purple tint. In that single swatch, her hair was washed with henna.

Other than that muted taste of color, the dark ebony of her hair matched the woman’s jeans. Her knee boots. Her leather gloves, hiding hands at her sides in the shadows.

She stepped up when Bay appeared, but she only came a pace nearer, moving until the light graced her face enough for him to make out her features.

Her eyes were moss green, in a softly tan-tinted face that was rounded but still small and that was put together exactly like the woman herself seemed to be – soft and hard at the same time. Common but trained. Determined but … what, he wondered. Refined? It was a face that Bay couldn’t help thinking he’d like to wake up next to, even though the woman’s dichotomies made it seem as if she might break into either tears or a maniacal laugh, depending on the turn of the next few seconds.

“You’re late,” she said. Her words were a clinical observation and no more. The deadness of her voice was a marked contrast to the baby doll pitch and lolling accent in it.

She sounded fifteen, and Bay would have thought she was fifteen, if he could have believed that fifteen-year-olds were in a position to send Gold Protocol, coded messages that accurately asked American CIA agents to meet them at designated drop spots.

“I’m on time, actually. You’re early. Your message decoded as Rivoli Metro, Museum Entry, Twenty-One Minus Two. That’s two till nine at night, and it’s –”

He checked his watch, leaning back into the light and studying its face. “Eight fifty-eight on the nose.”

The woman was glancing around him and past him when he looked at her once more, and he turned nonchalantly, as though he were chatting casually in a quiet corner with a woman he’d met and finally gotten alone.

“Nervous?” he asked.

Her eyes narrowed, the soft green color in them darkening to black in the squint. “I always watch.”

“Watch?” he repeated doubtfully.

“The things around me. I always watch the things around me.”

“Usually wise.” Bay wondered about a woman who was cautious enough to always keep an eye out on things around her and still apparently careless or unconcerned enough to color her hair in a way that couldn’t help but be noticed, but he pushed the momentary thought away.

She had the code, after all. It was in correct form and had been properly delivered. And here she was.

“You’re anxious to leave.” He was watching her step back into the shadows. “The message indicated a package for me. It came with a declaration of Gold Protocol. Face to face meeting. So I’m here. Where’s this package?”

At no point had Bay gotten himself closer than a half dozen feet. Just close enough to see the woman’s face and to like it, to trust it too much, even after it dipped back into concealment.

Before his words were done, the woman who looked like a fifteen-year old lifted a 22-caliber semiautomatic pistol, a sound suppressor stretching from the tip of its barrel. She stepped forward and brought the pistol flush up to his head. She tightened her finger on the trigger, twice in quick succession. The gun bucked lightly, punching out two small coughs of noise that were swallowed up almost entirely by the suppressor and by the muzzle’s contact with the agent’s skull.

Alexander Bay, shot two times in the forehead, dropped dead, straight to the floor.

The woman with the hennaed hair wasn’t concerned about the noise. With the small caliber, close range, and the suppressor, the extent of it wasn’t much more than the echo of a couple heavy footfalls. But she scanned the immediate area around her and out into the rooms as far as she could see.

She hadn’t been lying. She did always watch, precisely as she’d told the dead man.

So she knew no one had noticed. She was confident of that.

No one was there to notice, in fact. The museum visitors loved the see-through glass pyramid at the main entrance, and they flocked that direction, day and night. But back by the unnoticed rear stairs, aboveground at the arch and belowground near the access to the shopping areas, no one moved at this time of night.

She wasn’t worried, anyway. There was a huge, spreading park above her and a parking garage and subway station nearby. And no security points that she’d have to pass through to get to any of those places. To any of a thousand, ten thousand, places she could go.

It was Paris, after all.

She headed for the Metro station and the trains.

May 8
2:58:12 p.m., Eastern Daylight Savings Time
New York, New York, The United States of America
The old man on the bench beside the moored, four-masted bark Peking moved no more than was necessary to lift a double-scoop, pistachio over vanilla chip ice cream cone to his mouth. The motion was careful and constrained, the way the movements of the old can be, with each millimeter of it seemingly thought out and struggled at before it was achieved.

He was dressed warmly, more warmly than a Manhattan May normally would require, with a charcoal gray cardigan sweater and white turtleneck shirt, heavy cotton slacks, and cumbersome, thick-soled shoes that were scuffed bare at the toes and worn to rounded edges at the heels. But the East River and New York Harbor were at his back, and a choppy breeze was funneling toward the water from the Financial District buildings at his front. The soft, puffing wind caught at any loose corner of the buttoned-up sweater he was wearing, threatening to tug it open at the neck or bottom. The old man was ignoring it, concentrating only on the cone, which he tipped left and right with deliberation, turning the various drips to his mouth so he could lick them away before they fell.

The wind was pushing at what was left of his hair, as well. He had a decent head of it, gray and silver and black and white all mixed together, but it was thin and patchy, with tufts that were thicker around his ears and across the back of his head than they were anywhere else. The erratic breeze was making it all jerk like seaweed swaying underwater. The sudden to-and-fro motions were intercut with upright stillness.

The man was sixty years by his looks, seventy by his motions, and ninety by the absolute lack of attention that any of the tourists buzzing in and around New York’s South Street Seaport paid him. He had bought the outrageously-priced cone at the Häagen Dazs on Pier 17. He’d waited patiently, stooped-over with a cane in hand, until it was his turn, then got the ice cream and slowly found a seat where only the pigeons came close by. No one in the bustling sea of people had bothered to glance at him since.

Had anyone done so, they might have noticed something else about him. Something strange and out of place. Something that didn’t fit with everything else and that couldn’t possibly be created carefully and in front of a brightly-lighted mirror, as the rest of his appearance had been earlier in the day.

His eyes – the eyes of an old man with slow movements – were impossibly clear and bright. And he was watching the crowd with them. With every lick on the cone. With every dripping drop of ice cream and turn of the confection in his hand, he was studying the people who milled in and around the ships and shops of the Seaport.

He watched their faces and the things they carried. Their companions and the ways in which they talked with and looked at each other. The directions they were coming from or going. The presence of a seeming purpose or lack of purpose in their motions.

He was waiting for a woman in all of it. Not a standout woman, he didn’t imagine. That presumably wouldn’t be how she appeared. She probably would be nicely but plainly dressed, instead. Pants, not a skirt or dress. Sensible shoes that would be comfortable and quiet. A shirt that wouldn’t constrict at the shoulders, with a jacket over it that would be loose and somewhat long. Down to mid-thigh, perhaps. Long enough to conceal but not get in the way.

She would also be dressed too warmly on this day. Warm clothes sometimes were worn in disregard of the weather, but they were concealing clothes. And concealing clothes were best from time to time.

He was waiting for her because he knew she would appear at the appointed time. He had sent the message himself. In correct form. Properly delivered.

Gold Protocol.

Face to face.

She would appear because that was the way things worked in the rigid world of American intelligence agencies. You did things by the book. Particularly important things like meeting people who had sent appropriately-encoded messages setting the meeting up.

He figured she would arrive in thirty seconds. There was a clock on a street corner pole nearby, and he glanced at its face as his gaze scanned the crowd. Thirty seconds to meet him by the Pioneer, the schooner that was only steps away for him.

He stood as he caught sight of the clock once more – fifteen seconds, if it could be trusted – and he dropped the half-eaten cone into the garbage bin beside him, almost all the vanilla chip left untouched. He turned in the direction of the schooner. He saw the woman as he did.

On time. No surprise. She was on time and at the designated place.

She had a camera in her hand, and she lifted it twice while he watched, snapping pictures, which was a nice touch. She stepped a few feet farther down and clicked another snapshot, then checked the little digital screen on the camera’s back.

The man continued steadily on with his cane. It clicked against the boards, the sole sound his movements made as his soft-soled shoes padded along.

When he was within fifteen feet of the woman, he reached a hand into his sweater, pressing under his left arm. When he was within ten, he was straightening without anyone paying attention to him. At five, the woman, too oblivious for one so diligent in timing, finally noticed him. But by then it was too late.

The gun he retrieved from under his arm was in all respects identical to one used in the shops off the Louvre in Paris, only moments before. It was a Ruger Mark II, a small-caliber, semiautomatic pistol that made relatively little noise in the first place, and even less with a suppressor on it.

He placed its muzzle against the woman’s temple as she was turning to him, and he fired, like the woman in Paris, two quick shots. His target toppled, her eyes never closing as she fell to the ground.

The man didn’t hesitate, but he didn’t hurry, either. He simply tossed the pistol a few feet to the water, where it dropped with a quick plunk and sank instantly from sight.

The man continued pacing away even when, after the expected three or four second lag before anyone noticed the blood, a single scream caused startled heads to turn. The commotion of people, some approaching and some retreating from the woman, didn’t alter his methodical step.

He kept walking, he crossed the street at the light, and he made his way into the great city beyond.

May 8
6:59:55 p.m., Greenwich Mean Time
Over the Atlantic Ocean
Sean Ketelsen awoke with a jolt from a world that was black and still and into one filled with screams and a bright spotlight of orange flooding in through the window next to him. He was barely awake and aware when a second, rolling lurch came, this one tightening him against his fastened seatbelt as the plane mounted a height before yawing right and pitching down. He felt the seatbelt cut into his stomach as the contents of the overhead bins burst out in a storm of debris.

Ketelsen turned to the window. The sky was fire outside, the wing engulfed in the flames.

He knew, in the single second the whole thing had taken, what would happen to him.

He knew he would die.

The jolt had been a bomb, and the blaze was from the rupture of the wing tanks. The plane’s structure was disintegrating into a fiery ball that Ketelsen already could feel on his face and in the oxygen being pulled from his lungs.

He had just enough time to wonder who was behind it. Who it was that finally caught up with him or whoever it was they wanted on this plane.

But as the framework around him shrieked and alarms erupted, he also knew it didn’t make a difference. Not for him or anyone else on board.

What was left of the plane was rolling over in the air as it rode the flames that grew where its wings once were. Ketelsen felt that turnover as he clenched in his seat. The briefcase and its contents, the missile sales, the information successfully learned and turned over – it was all forgotten. As the destruction went on, the plane’s body finally fracturing into pieces, he wished for only one thing at the last.

That was to be on the ground, in one piece.

He felt nausea creep from his stomach into his throat as he struggled to keep it down. He straightened himself forcibly in his seat, still secure on a single chunk of the fuselage, then pushed himself back firmly into it, not knowing even which direction was up.

Glancing toward what once was the ceiling, he watched the world spinning there for a moment before he could sort it out. And then the nausea returned at the sight he saw. He felt himself retch and cough, and for the first time since he was an altar boy at St. Matthew’s on Jackson Street in Seattle nearly three decades ago, he prayed.

Ketelsen had seen the solid and uniform image of the distant ocean, a slab of even color that was hard as concrete miles below. It was the last thing he would see.

May 8
8:00:09 p.m., British Summer Time
London, England, The United Kingdom
From the City of London outward, the metro was blacking out in rapidly spreading, puzzle-piece blocks. Entire neighborhoods went dark in an instant, the streetlights and business signs and houses all going cold and dim as they dipped into a foggy depth that draped over the city like gray paint spilled and oozing across the floor.

When the traffic signals and streetlamps winked out, whatever traffic had been moving came instantly to a standstill. In that moment, fourteen accidents occurred in the greater London area, three people dying in one of them when their cab driver swerved at a suddenly crowded intersection, jumped a curb, and ran over a royal red postbox that split the cab’s petrol tank open, jetting a sheet of liquid fire into the car.

The crowds, the fireworks, the bands and the singing – all the sounds dropped away like a radio that was turned off, the noise first slowing to an odd drawl as realization came to the people, then stopping altogether. The wind was the strongest sound then. Though it was no more than a breeze, that light wind roared in the eerily-dead city.

Then there was a cheer. A single one at first, as someone in Piccadilly Circus let out a whooping noise of jubilation that was answered by another person across the circular roadway. Before long, the throng was screaming joyfully in the dusk, blissfully unaware of the events beginning silently and stealthily around them.

The cheering spread. Caught by the people in Trafalgar Square, it doubled in intensity, then ran down Whitehall to infect those gathered in the streets around Parliament.

The clock was chiming there. Operated by a system created long before computerized organization and power supply, the chimes in Big Ben rang on, playing out their simple melody in a clanging that, in the darkness, seemed to drumbeat the hearts of everyone who could hear it. The crowds up and down the river began to sing the Westminster tune, shouting out the “dum-dum-dum-dum” of its last notes and then moving right into the eight gongs that followed to mark the time.

All around the masses, the world was not so content or merry. In the subway tubes running below the streets, the lack of power had stranded the cars. Backup power came spottily to the Underground, and it didn’t matter when it did come. Like the power system, London’s transportation system was steadily collapsing.

On the Thames, an electronically-tethered barge broke free and began a slow, meandering run along the river. It scraped the built-up shore and bumped the boats tied there. Two smaller ones were crushed into boards and left sinking in the dirty and dark water.

Farther out, at Heathrow and Gatwick, the power system failures had blackened the airports, and the auxiliary power had failed to come on at any system-wide level at all. The only lights visible were those in the sky above, as the planes, having no contact with the ground, began to stack up in ragged and uncontrolled holding patterns that the pilots were devising of their own accord.

Inside the control tower, a few of the terminals glowed green with power, but their screens were blank. The monitoring equipment had crashed with all the other heavily computerized facilities in the city. Controllers were scrambling, punching buttons furiously while they tapped light pens impotently on the monitors in front of them, trying in vain to activate the tracking systems.

And so it began. System by system, the computers – after instantaneously seizing on new and meaningful code that suddenly had come to them – shut down one by one.

Power. Transportation and shipping. Public services. Telephone and communications lines. Satellite transmissions. A blackness was spreading across England. All of the United Kingdom. Into highly select spots in Europe.

At specific locations around the world.

It was beginning.
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Published on September 22, 2011 20:30 • 125 views • Tags: agent, assassin, cia, hacking, national-security-agency, nsa, spy, technological-terrorism, terrorism

August 5, 2011

All the Pretty Horses (Border Trilogy, #1)All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I gave some thought to doing a “two-sentences-and-one-word” review of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses – winner of the National Book Award – but I decided not to. Don’t get me wrong, it could be done that way. It’s just that I didn’t think I could do it justice that way.

The reason for that isn’t the characters. They are few, and they are finely drawn.

It’s also not the story. That’s stripped down to some classic essentials.

In 1949, following the death of his cattle rancher grandfather, and in face of the pending sale of the ranch, sixteen-year-old John Grady Cole decides to leave for Mexico with his friend Lacey Rawlins. They’re giving up on the post-war, modernizing America, in favor of the cowboy life south of the Rio Grande.

Along the way, they meet Jimmy Blevins, a boy of perhaps thirteen, who’s riding one of the finest horses John Grady’s ever seen. The boys travel together, surrounded by the stark beauty of Mexico. Until, that is, the thunderstorm.

Maintaining that getting struck by lightning “runs in the family,” Blevins tries to outrun the storm but loses the horse and his pistol in the process. The rest of the book is filled with attempts to regain Blevins’s items, bandits and prisons, work on a cattle ranch where John Grady and Rawlins break horses, and key involvements with a beautiful girl and her protective and traditional family. Along the way, McCarthy blends in his characteristically beautiful tragedy and despair and violence.

Again, the story’s fine, right?

So the reason I couldn’t limit any review to two sentences and a word is, simply put, McCarthy’s writing in telling his fine tale.

All the Pretty Horses can be labeled with many literary terms. Its coming-of-age elements make it a Bildungsroman. Its deeply-realized natural wonders, interwoven elements of mystical and godlike grandeur, and rejection of modernism and industrialized life in favor of a more basic and emotional existence all point to the Romanticism of the late 18th and early 19th century.

But the term that most defines this Romantic coming-of-age story is “polysyndetic.” More than he writes it, McCarthy paints All the Pretty Horses through polysyndeton – a stylistic emphasis on the rhythm and timing of words that's achieved through extensive use of conjunctions and, in McCarthy’s case, a comparative refusal to stick to traditional punctuation.

It can be hard on the eyes because of the plainness of it, with all those words strung together. But it can flow unbelievably in the ear, with the quasi-religious tone it brings (no surprise, the King James Bible is a prime example of polysyndeton).

In the wrong hands, it’s a recipe for disaster. In All the Pretty Horses, it’s one of those rare instances where a book does have a rhythm, and in this case that rhythm is beautiful.

It is deep and flawless here, worked so thoroughly into the text that the story’s existence without that rhythm seems impossible. As written, it’s a compelling read – one that strangely begs to be read out loud. But unpainted with its unique selection and ordering of words, the book would be no more than Three Boys Travel South.

Two examples, both from the first page of the Vintage paperback….

In the opening paragraph, John Grady enters a hall to see his grandfather’s body, laid out for the viewing. He takes off his hat. The floorboards creak. He sees a melted candle and idly presses a thumb into the liquid wax. Then he turns to the body of a man he loved:
Lastly he looked at the face so caved and drawn among the folds of funeral cloth, the yellowed moustache, the eyelids paper thin. That was not sleeping. That was not sleeping.

It was dark outside and cold and no wind. In the distance a calf bawled. He stood with his hat in his hand. You never combed your hair that way in your life, he said.

Short sentences for an emotionally bleak scene. Commas in the three-item description in the first sentence above, then nothing but conjunctions in the three-item description in the first sentence in the next paragraph. The collective emotion of the words is an emphasis of what they report – barren feelings in a barren land.

At the bottom of the same page, there’s a dramatic change as a train passes nearby:
It came boring out of the east like some ribald satellite of the coming sun howling and bellowing in the distance and the long light of the headlamp running through the tangled mesquite brakes and creating out of the night the endless fenceline down the dead straight right of way and sucking it back again wire and post mile on mile into the darkness after where the boilersmoke disbanded slowly along the faint new horizon and the sound came lagging and he stood still holding his hat in his hands in the passing ground-shudder watching it till it was gone.

Yeah, it’s just one sentence – one sentence with some made-up words, marking a grim intrusion by the world that John Grady will soon leave, on his way to the simpler one he understands better and therefore wants.

As I said, its presentation can be hard on the eyes. And it’s assuredly not for everyone by any means.

But gather your breath and read it out loud, in a moderate voice and with an easy pace and the breaks falling where they naturally would. Then – then – it rolls.

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