Review of The Phantom Killer: Unlocking the Mystery of the Texarkana Serial Murders: The Story of a Town in Terror – by James Presley

Phantom Killer

I stumbled across this serial killing spree by a meme posted on Facebook that said that this was an unsolved series of cases in Texarkana.  I made note of it because I write about cold cases, with an emphasis now on serial killings.  I thought this might be worth looking into.

I did find a book on the case, The Phantom Killer, so I picked it up.  Wow.  I went from not knowing anything about these murders to being immersed not just in the cases, but in the culture and period of the crimes. The internet meme was wrong (I know, misinformation on the internet?  I was stunned too – NOT!)  The killer was known, but never fully brought to justice.

Taking place in 1946, the Phantom Killer killed five people and wounded three.  The victims were in pairs, which resonated with me after writing about the Colonial Parkway Murders.  The author, James Presley, is a master-historian, taking you back in time to Texarkana in 1946, putting you on the streets of his hometown in that era.

This was a ruthless killer in an age long before DNA testing and modern police investigatory techniques.  Today, this killer would have gone to jail much earlier.  Instead, the murderer hid in the folds of history, concealed by police incompetence or lack of skills we now take for granted.  The stories of the victims are recreated in painstaking detail.  Kudos to the author for what had to be difficult research after all of these years.

The books brings you a cast of characters that are right out of central casting – including a wily Texas Ranger that is bigger than life.

This is not a true cold case though.  The police caught Youell Swinney, a car thief, whose wife implicated him in the murders.  While the case was largely circumstantial, I feel confident that Swinney was indeed the killer.

What follows though is the legal twists and turns as to how Swinney dodged ever being tried as the Phantom Killer.  This is a book that leaves you wondering at the very end if the decisions by the authorities was the right course of action.  Yes, the killer spent years in jail, but never for his most heinous crimes.

James Presley is a great writer.  I found the book compelling and written with the care needed to take us back to the crime scenes.  He weaves a stirring tale of a serial killer in an era far before that label existed.  I devoured the book on a business trip, unable to put it down.

Well worth picking up – I recommend highly The Phantom Killer.

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What Everyone is Thinking (but not saying) About Your PowerPoint Presentation…

PowerPoint
And we all know how things turned out for Ned Stark…

I make no small qualms that I loathe PowerPoint almost as much as I hate attending mindless meetings.  PowerPoint has reprogrammed generations of people in business to think in poorly written, vague bullet points.  While some might argue that it makes us be concise, it reality it is a crutch for people that perform crappy presentations.  Some teams actually use PowerPoint decks as reading material…I guess Word was too complex for them.  Morons.  PowerPoint is to documentation what an abacus is to a computer.

I had a manager once, (She-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named) who was so obsessed over PowerPoint, she was concerned about people reading them.  “What if this gets forwarded to the wrong person and they read it?”  So we had to create slide decks for this harpy-from-hell that could be understood if you knew nothing about the subject of the deck.  Seriously.  It wasn’t as if we had plans for making an atomic bomb in your basement in the decks we produced.  I have long suspected that she stupidly fretted over someone reading her material without her being in the room to bask in their praise over what she had produced.

I spend a lot of my corporate life in mind-numbing PowerPoint presentations under the guise of being productive meetings.  The majority of PowerPoint decks are mediocre at best, and at worst, they blow chucks.  I have actually started to shift to doing meetings without PowerPoint.  What I have found is that people are so conditioned to seeing the tool in a meeting that it confuses them when you don’t put up slides.  They get nervous and visibly uncomfortable – which I love.  “Aren’t you going to put your slides up?”  “Fu*k no.”  People have actually frowned at me when I tell them that I don’t want to use slides to make my point.  Presentation is an art form that has been corrupted by the evil programming elves at Microsoft.  This PowerPoint/mind-control is so sinister it could be a plot in a James Bond film.

Having vested much of my day-job in meetings under the dull glow of PowerPoint, it is time for me to impart some knowledge.  Let me share with you what people are likely to be thinking, but not saying, during your next sucky PowerPoint presentation:

  • Really?  Forty-six slides to make your point?   That many slides makes me wonder what you are really up to.   What are you hiding?  I’ll bet I can find it.  Game on!
  • Clearly what you define as important has no bearing in reality, as evidenced by your presentation.
  • You can stop reading me your slides.  If you were going to read them to me you should have just sent them to me in an email.  This may shock you but I learned to read years ago.
  • You said, “I’ll keep this short…”  and that was an hour ago. We all want to kill you and some are taking notes on how to do it.
  • We should make prisoners at GITMO sit through your presentation.
  • Pointing out that your slide is hard to read tells me you don’t care.
  • Based on your slides, you clearly worship Satan given that the devil is in the details — which is where you are taking us.
  • Your bullet points read like a drunken teenager’s text messages.  You seem to be a vowel or two short here.
  • A six-point font?  What is this, an eye exam?  Can’t you see we are all squinting?
  • If you are going to use clip art, at least don’t use 1992 quality clip art.
  • No, your graphic does NOT make your point clearer.  In fact, it achieves quite the opposite.
  • Making something bold and red insults me a little.  I know what is important.
  • When I read that slide I keep asking myself, “What is he/she trying to say?”  Even re-reading it leaves me confused.  A bit of my soul is dying inside me as a result.  I hate you.
  • I am not paying attention to what you are saying because your font choice is distracting me.
  • All of your arguments are invalid because of your spelling and grammatical mistakes on one slide.
  • Your use of graphics is making me cry on the inside.
  • Incorporating meaningless buzzwords and phrases does not help your presentation.  You’re not fooling anyone.
  • This all sounds peachy-keen – what does it cost?
  • Don’t blame the projector for your failure to organize your thoughts.
  • If I had wanted to read a book, I would have brought my Kindle.
  • It is hard to believe that we paid you to produce such a hideous slide deck.
  • This presentation is so dull, I am imagining innovative and creative excuses to leave the room.
  • I have done the math.  It is impossible to cover the number of slides you have left in the time we have allotted.
  • My four year old could have produced a better graph, and she’s limited to crayons.
  • Presentations like this is why I am on anti-depressants.
  • I wonder how much it cost us in your time and effort to put together this travesty of a slide deck?
  • Rarely has so much effort gone into presenting such a lie.  You should be congratulated – or shot.
  • I am waiting for the right moment to destroy your entire premise so that the audience will see me as the genius I believe myself to be.
  • It’s probably a bad time to let you know your fly is open.
  • If your graphic can’t fit on a slide, it’s not worth us looking at.
  • I love your material but your abuse of transitions between slides qualifies as a war crime.
  • We’re about due for someone to raise a meaningless point or analogy in an attempt to ruin the hard work you put in on this presentation.
  • If they had told me in business school that I would be doing this for a living (watching your PowerPoint) I would have pursued a liberal arts degree instead.
  • We are all silently curious…are you going to make a point sometime in the next hour or so?  Seriously, any point will do.  Just pick one…please!
  • Oh, I see you Bob – checking your watch.  We both want this to end.  Who in the hell still owns a watch? More importantly, what time is it?
  • If I could take a nap right now, I would. The fact that I am not asleep is worthy of a spot-bonus.
  • There are at least three people watching this presentation that will tear it apart just to be assholes.
  • Your illegal and unethical use of several copywrittten images only makes us hate you a little bit more.
  • Oh joy, you’re using an acronym that no one in the room knows.  You should know, it doesn’t make you any smarter.
  • Because you didn’t follow the company standard template for PowerPoint, I am ignoring everything you are presenting on.
  • It is only a matter of moments before someone questions the validity of your data.
  • My only concern with your presentation is that I wonder if I can muffle my fart – and if I do, can I muffle its smell?
  • Out of your 26 slides, there is only one that matters.  Why didn’t we just start there?
  • Do you realize that you have the wrong audience in the room (on the call) for the material you are presenting?  Do you care?
  • This presentation is all that is between me and a much-needed trip to the bathroom.  Please hurry…
  • As I watch you flip through these slides I cannot help but think that we need to improve our recruitment and hiring standards.
  • I should have had a friend send me a text so I had an excuse to leave this meeting.  Lesson learned…
  • This is an hour of my life I will never get back and will completely forget by the end of the day.
  • I can, and will, derail your entire presentation with a single question – just to prove I can.
  • My phone is vibrating in my pocket and that is much more exciting than this slide show.
  • It would be nice if you told us at some point what the purpose of this meeting is.
  • Please God, don’t let someone say that we need to have another meeting on this subject.
  • Nothing makes me more nauseous than someone saying, “I’ve run out of time, let me go through the last eight slides in two minutes.”
  • You didn’t build in time for questions?  You really thought your material would answer every stupid thing we could come up with?  Really?
  • Why are the boring presentations always scheduled for late in the day on a Friday?  Why are you always the one presenting them?
  • The colors you have chosen are making my eyes bleed on the inside.
  • It’s bad enough your slides are dull, but your droning makes me want to start cutting myself again.
  • The person you rehearsed this with lied to you…it sucks.
  • I am smiling at you only because it makes you think I care.
  • An appendix to your horrible presentation?  And it’s longer than the presentation?  This just became a homework assignment you douchebag.
  • If you’re going to deflect questions to the end – you’d better leave time to answer them.
  • Stop saying things like, “As you clearly can see…” or “This slide points out…”  Let me be the judge of what your slides say or don’t say.  Otherwise, why have me here in the first place?
  • Having our graphics team make a pretty graphic of your material is akin to polishing a turd.

 

Review of Netflix’s Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist

Evil3

I still remember when it happened…when someone attached a collar bomb on a pizza delivery man in Erie Pennsylvania and sent him on a bank robbery. When I watched the footage of him it didn’t make sense.  His behavior was odd, not really concerned until a few moments before the bomb went off and killed him.  There was a lot of media coverage and then it died off.  It took years before someone was brought to trial on the case.  I admit, I didn’t follow it closely.  It seemed like a bizarre plot out of a bad Zach Galifianakis film.

Evil 2

Netflix has recently aired Evil Genius – a four-part true crime series on the case.  It does what the media struggled to do, bring clarity to the strange characters and twisted plot that led to the death of pizza deliveryman Brian Wells. I went into this series hoping to learn what happened, filling that curiosity that the internet couldn’t satisfy.  This is a carefully crafted story of a group of idiots and geniuses that are intertwined with each other in a sick and deadly plot to rob a bank to fund a murder.

The producers have done a great job with each episode, almost leaving you on a cliff-hanger each time with a new tid-bit of information.  This is the kind of case that when you think you have a handle on it, there’s something new that is introduced.   Mistake were made between the local authorities and the federal agents.

To say this band of cutthroats is bizarre is putting it lightly.  You have the prostitute that lured in the victim in this plot, the man that built the bomb and turned in a co-conspirtor for killing her former boyfriend…and storing him in a freezer.  You have the child molester and fugitive.  The drug dealer.  And the queen of this macabre plot, the batshit-crazy Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong – a strange bipolar genius that makes your skin crawl. How these people came together and concocted such a strange plot is the crux of this story.  Why they devised using a collar-bomb and a scavenger hunt to rob a bank and kill a man; is all masterfully pulled together.

Evil 1
She is right out of central casting…

What is disturbing about all of this is that it oddly makes sense when you hit episode four, in a weird kind of way. You are repulsed and disgusted by what they did, but it all seems to come together.

Word is that Netflix has approved another season. I’m on board.  This is a short little series and a great binge option for your true crime summer.

The Chronicling of our D&D Campaign: Tempora – Part 24

cube

Welcome to the novelization of my current D&D campaign, told through the perspective of the characters. Parts 1-19 charted the first part of the campaign, part 20 began the next phase of the saga: Tempora. For me, it lets me do a little creative writing between more serious projects. Links to the previous posts are at the bottom of this one. Enjoy!

Brandon…

“We don’t know for sure that the trap is disarmed,” Theren said. “Just because it went ‘click’ does not mean that you shut it off.

“I’ll check it out,” I said.  I stepped out ten-heads distance and nothing happened.  I went further, even bouncing up and down slightly, but the floor did not drop, nor did the flames come down.  The stones were still hot from the inferno that had nearly consumed Theren.

When I got to the other side of the hot stones, the band of heroes that I found myself attached to had assembled.

“You know,” Arius said.  “We have not been making a map as we go.”

“It is a straight line – we are on a road,” I offered.

“We might need to know our way out at some point,” the paladin pressed.  I didn’t like the use of the word, “might.” He was hinting what we were all thinking.  If we found the missing paladins, we had to overpower whoever had captured them, and find our way out.  This was not going to be easy.

“It is okay,” I assured my new friends.  “I have some skills in keeping a mental map.”  I tapped my head with my finger but it did not seem to instill the confidence I had hoped for.

Arius cast a twisted grin.  “Great.  Make sure we keep the ranger alive then or we’re trapped here.”  I like to think I was bringing more to the party than that…but I was content with the nods of agreement from the others.

We trudged on downward into the mountain.  Hundreds of feet passed.  Bor, the hulking fighter at the front of our party, his warhammer shimmering blue, stopped after a half-mile or so.  “Hold here.  There are some arrow slits on either side of the roadway with a door to each just past them.”

“They have to be abandoned,” I offered.

“The slits are low, probably for dwarves,” Bor said.

“I wonder if this is a trap of some sort.” Theren said. “They might fire arrows if we walk in front of them.”  That was a thought that was unappealing.  The last trap had almost roasted our druid.  He still smelled of smoke with a hint of bacon.

The druid had us all halt.  “I’ll crawl up under the slit.  You all hold back.”  Oddly we were all quite comfortable with that approach.

On his hands and knees he slithered under the arrow slit on the right side of the tunnel then made his way to the door just beyond it.  The knob turned with a squeal of rusted and protesting metal as he twisted it around.  The creaking of the hinges seemed to echo far too distant for my take.  Bor seemed like he wanted to join Theren, but did not want to further split the party.  Inevitably, he stayed behind with us.

Theren shuffled in the small antechamber for a few minutes, then emerged and returned to us with something in his arms, something black and almost shimmering.  It was a skull, black, almost polished to a reflective glare.  It was shaped like no creature I had ever seen wandering the woods or vales of the land.  In the skull were ebbed three crossbow bolts, silver tipped and stuck deep into the glossy surface.

Althalus, our warlock and resident expert on skulls immediately began to look it over with keen interest.  Whatever it was, it made me nervous.  The silver tipped bolts told me that it had belonged to an unnatural creature, a spawn of the nethervoid.  That usually meant powerful magic and danger to those near it.

“I’m keeping it,” the warlock said greedily. After dusting it off, Althalus put it on top of his quarterstaff.  It looked menacing – possibly even to us. I have to admit, it worried me, but I too carried a skull in my pack.  Mine was white and bleached with age.  His…his was something eerie, like out of a nightmare.

I turned my attention to the other opposing arrow slit.  I went over and duplicated the crawl under it that Theren had made.  The handle on the door past the slit on my side had rusted over and did not turn at first.  It took a surge of strength to get it to pop open.  Unlike Theren’s door, mine suddenly swung open and a Dwarven skeleton lurched out at me, wielding an axe!

The axe hit across my chest, severing my armor and slicing my skin enough to make me recoil.

Theren’s voice called me, “Get out of the way Brandon!” I swung at the skeleton but his rusted plate only rattled from my attack.  The skeletons seemed to grin at me under its helmet.  I stepped to the side.

Bor jumped beside me, swinging down with Skullringer.  The blue-blur of the warhammer hit the stout skeleton, doing no real damage other than scoring his old plate armor.  An arrow whizzed past my ear, missing both me and the skeleton.  A burst of brilliant emerald magic energy, no doubt from Althalus, hit the undead monstrosity.  The force of the hit was so hard that he was knocked back into his tiny alcove.   The hole in his armor glowed where the magic had punched through, but the angry dead-Dwarf only lunged back towards Bor and myself.

Arius lunched past Bor with his sword, hitting the skeleton square and true. There was a sickening metallic grinding sound as the sword punctured the once proud plate mail.  The undead creature staggered a half-step back.

Arius swung again, hitting him, driving him back further into the room.  There was a crash of armor and bone in the room, then his skeletal head came rolling out of the door.  I picked it up.  “The deed is done,” our paladin said proudly, sheathing his blade.

Before the other could join us, I moved in on top of the skeleton to see if there was anything of value on his remains.  I found a sliver necklace around its broken neck, one of exceptional value from what I could tell.  There was an old rather unremarkable battle axe as well.   In a small pouch on his belt, I found a small green glass vial with a tattered piece of paper attached to it.  I scanned the letters but they were gibberish to me.

“What do you make of this?” I held it in front of Arius.

“Chanel perhaps?” he then chuckled.

“I don’t get it.”

“An old joke.  It is a wizard that makes oils and balms that could make a pile of manure smell like roses,” the paladin said, still amused with his comment.

“Why would anyone want to make manure smell like roses?”

“It is just a legend,” was all I got in response.

“Let me look at it,” our warlock said.  He studied the writing for a moment.  “It is written in the old tongue, archaic.  It says, ‘remove curse.’”  As if to make his point, he took out his quill and wrote on it in common tongue, “remove curse.” “Just so we don’t forget.”

As we rested for a few minutes, I was surprised to see Althalus take out the ebony black skull with the arrows.  He fidgeted with the silver tipped crossbow bolts in it, removing the shafts but leaving the silver tips in the skull.  Each time he pried one loose we all gasped a little bit, wondering what would happen if he dislodged it.  I for one did not want to know.

“Why are you doing that?” our paladin asked.

“It makes it easier to carry – less risk,” the warlock replied.

The paladin closed his eyes and held his hand over the skull and concentrated. “This is evil, dark evil.  It is the skull of a devil.  What kind, I cannot say.”

“Excellent!” Althalus squealed. “I’ll bring it with us.  It makes up for that demon skull I was forced to give up.”

“Your obsession with demonic skulls is a bit disturbing,” Arius said, eyeing our comrade carefully as he put the skull in his pack as opposed to the staff he had put it on.  “I am not comfortable at all with that thing coming with us.”

“It’s just as skull,” I said.

“I wasn’t referring to the skull,” Arius said grimly, glaring momentarily at Althalus.

We continued on, downward into the long tunnel.  We walked for many minutes and came across a trench-like pit carved into the floor, crossing the entire tunnel.  Bor leaned over slightly.  “It’s deep, I cannot see the bottom.  There’s a mechanism on the other side.  This must be for drainage or defense of some kind.”

Looking upward as we closed on the pit I could see that the ceiling above it was cracked – thick openings and deep over the trench.  On the far side, some seven heads across, we could see a heavy oak plank.  Someone had used it to make a bridge, and had taken it with them.  From the footsteps I saw in the dust, I knew it must have been where the missing paladins had been taken.

Dimitrious stepped forward and dropped his torch into the pit, it disappeared entirely after a fall of only 20 heads.  I watched it disappear.  “That is odd.  It just disappeared.”

“Perhaps someone should jump across,” Arius said.  Clearly he was not volunteering. “Perhaps we could construct something, perhaps a rudimentary lathe?”  Everyone looked at the paladin and he grinned.

I saw the gap more as a challenge than an obstacle as did Bor.  He took his armor off and with a running start, jumped across, landing on bended knee as the others squabbled over the best way across.  He slid the board across forming a bridge.  I crossed it next with no issue whatsoever.  Theren joined us on the other side.

Althalus did not walk across, but came on all fours, slowly, which proved to be his downfall.  Halfway across I heard a slurping sound from the massive crack over the pit. A massive semi-transparent cube of a creature dropped down on him, taking him and the bridge and engulfing him entirely. The green oozing creature had things in it but it barely fit in the narrow trench. It oozed down slowly, with our warlock in the middle of it, his cheeks puffed out as he held his breath.

Arius was in pain, but his arcane spell made it so that if he took damage, he caused fire damage. There was a flash of flames everywhere, the tiny pockets of air feeding the flames.  The gelatinous creature was apparently flammable and it ignited on its own.  At this point we all move in and looked over at the scene unfolding…our friend, on fire, in a thick oozing mass, sliding into a pit.

The only good news was that the pit was treated with some sort of illusionary spell to make it seem much deeper.  It was only twenty-heads deep and the warlock and his flaming friend were only slowly sliding down.  The smell of the burning gelatinous creature rose, stinging our nostrils with a smell I have never heard before.

We were stunned, but not Bor.  He swung his deadly glowing warhammer at it, gouging a deep furrow in the oozing beast.  Dimitrious did the same with his staff, with a similar affect.  It was hard for us to know if we were doing any real damage…but the flames erupted up the sides as it burned and somewhere in the middle of this was our warlock.

I jabbed my staff into the goo and it sank deep, almost reaching Althalus.  As my staff emerged it caught the flames and came out on fire.  Theren swung his enchanted staff sending a spray of the greenish substance flying into the air.  Flames lapped up along the side of pit.

Althalus started to swim in the green goo, getting close to the edge, but not getting free.  Dimitrious sliced a big piece of the cube out with his staff.  The warlock stopped moving entirely and we realized that he may be near death. I couldn’t help but wonder what might happen to that devil’s skull that he had on him.  This has the potential to become much worse.

Our party, realizing that Althalus was about to die, leaned over the edge and swung wildly as the cube slid down.  Theren kill it finally with his staff.  Suddenly the creature lost all of its form, turning to a green flaming goo twenty heads down, burning.

“I feel so funky,” the warlock said as he gained his senses.

“I’ll jump down,” Arius said.

“Hold it,” Theren said, lowering a rope.  “Let him climb out.”

The ooze covered warlock grabbed the rope and got up about half-way out of the pit, then lost his grip and fell, letting out a low moan. Finally, after several minutes, he climbed out.  We were exhausted and the air still stung from the acidic smell of the burning creature.  I looked over the edge of the pit once the fires died down and saw a shield with a reflective surface of some sort and a suit of chainmail. Arius did as well.  “That shield looks interesting.  Hold the rope, I’m going down,” the paladin said.  He got halfway down the rope but lost his grip on the goo that Althalus had left on the rope, falling down.

“What is it?” I called down.

“This chainmail is light, good quality,” he said, putting it in his pack. The shield that he held was domed with a reflective surface almost like that of a mirror, but this one had a razor-like edge around its rounded edge.  The paladin tried to climb out, but once more slipped and fell back down.  “Damn this accursed pit!” he spat as he slowly made his way to the surface.

We were all winded and watched as our warlock tried to scrape off the bits of goo, charred and otherwise, from him.  “Perhaps,” I suggested, “This would be a good time for us to get some rest.”

The following are the previous installments. I hope you enjoy the campaign so far. Be sure to follow my blog if you do. 

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

Part 8

Part 9

Part 10

Part 11

Part 12

Part 13

Part 14

Part 15

Part 16

Part 17

Part 18

Part 19

Part 20

Part 21

Part 22

Part 23

Character Background Material

My New Campaign

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#DandD

#DnD

A Spoiler-Free Review of Solo – A Star Wars Story

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“Look Khaleesi, a dragon!”  

I was hoping this was going to be a good, solid, standalone film – one that would explore a period of the Star Wars universe that we don’t have a lot of information on.  If it was done well, the story would be solid on its own.  I was a little disappointed in this perspective.

Think of it this way, was Black Panther a good movie, even if he was not part of the greater Marvel cinematic universe?  Yes.  All on its own, the film was good.  Even if no other Marvel movies existed, Black Panther (and Ant-Man, and others) would have stood on their own.  The fact they are part of a bigger franchise makes them more awesome, but they are not dependent on that.

This is not the case with Solo.  It is a film that seems to strive to fill a few gaps in young Han Solo’s life with scant details buried in dialogue.  We get the whole Kessel Run parsec thing explained – we see the first meeting between Chewie and Han.  We get the Millennium Falcon and Lando.  Those things were great to have as parts of a much bigger story that could stand on its own.  This does not.  It is hooked on the Star Wars mythos to the point where it is a series of Easter Eggs that are masterfully strung together into a good story…not a great story, but a good one.  If there were no other Star Wars films, would this film have been as good?  No way.

The acting was solid.  There’s a lot of subplots happening in this film, which is great.  Emelia Clarke has ensured that she can live well off of the geek convention circuit – between Star Wars and Game of Thrones.  Her acting was clearly the best of the film followed by Woodie Harellson.

Some good characters were introduced – like Lando’s droid.  I wish we could have gotten more of her, but what we got saved the middle of this movie for me.

The Easter Eggs are there for those of us that have been with the franchise since the beginning, and they are there aplenty.  There’s a surprise cameo in the film too and it was awesome and unexpected.  My grandson loved it too.  The movie ended with plenty of room for a sequel…don’t they all?

There’s a couple of plot holes in this movie, some kludgy writing at times, but nothing horrific.

I give this film a three out of five stars.  It didn’t stand alone and I think would have been a lot better if it had.  I appreciate the candy for the true fans.  Bottom line, if you like Star Wars movies you probably will like this one.  We could have loved it though.  Disney continues to print more money by making these movies.

The Chronicling of our D&D Campaign: Tempora – Part 23

Trap
That’s one way to spring a trap…

Welcome to the novelization of my current D&D campaign, told through the perspective of the characters. Parts 1-19 charted the first part of the campaign, part 20 began the next phase of the saga: Tempora. For me, it lets me do a little creative writing between more serious projects. Links to the previous posts are at the bottom of this one. Enjoy!

Althalus…

We heard and felt the crash of the Bone Dragon against the heavy stone doors, then nothing.  I remember letting out a sigh of relief, only to realize that we were on the underground road to Tempora, with our backs turned to the long darkness. Only the light of Dimitrious’ flickering torch gave us good light.

Turning around I could see that it was essentially a long tunnel, slightly sloping downward into the cliff face and the mountain beyond.  It was wide, at least 50 heads across with a high arched ceiling nearly 25 heads high. The dwarves had done their job well.  This road was wide enough for several wagons to pass each other coming and going to city.  I could even make out the wheel ruts on the worn stone – indicating that the road had been used for centuries. The flutter of distant bat wings, or so I hoped that’s what we heard, was up ahead. Who knows how long this roadway would lead us into the mountain?

The floor was covered with a film of dust. There were piles every so often, most looked like either bones, rotting cloth, or bits of armor.  Through the dust we could make out a disturbance, as if a large party had marched through recently.  No doubt the mission paladins that we were looking for.  Cobwebs, some thick, some thin, filled the open space.  The air was musty, dusty, and dank.  What had we gotten ourselves into?

I turned and saw Brandon checking his pack.  “What are you doing?” I asked.

I picked up one of those skeleton skulls when we went through the Vale.  I wanted to make sure it was okay.”

“Why would you do that?”

“All of your talk about that demon skull you said you had once made me think it might be worth something.”

The mention of the demon skull and its loss to Lexa Lyoncroft was still a sore subject with me, one I intended to rectify at some point in the future. I shot Theren an icy stare since he was the one that had given it up to Lexa in his negotiations.

Theren ignored my glance and looked around.  “We have the door to our back here.  I think we might be best served camping here for the night.  It is better than somewhere further in.  At least we have one direction we cannot be attacked from.”  We were all quick to agree.  The fighting and navigation through the White Vale had left us weary.

Dimitrious set up his bed roll next to me.  We didn’t light a fire, there was no point in attracting any unwanted attention.  We had no idea what was down this tunnel-road or even how long it went.

“You know,” Arius said as he unrolled his blanket. “It just dawned on me that we left our horses at the edge of the White Vale tied up.”

I grinned.  “That’s okay, I hadn’t developed any sort of emotional bond with mine.”  We all knew it, those horses were as good as dead.

We split into three watches for the night.  It was not like sleeping outdoors.  There were strange sounds that echoed in the vast tunnel.  Even small sounds, like mice or bats, seemed to be much louder.  Part of it was our imagination, but the rest was the reality that we did not know what it was we might face.

As I started my watch, I noticed on the wall near the door we had entered, a strange carving.  Dimitrious and I went over to it and saw that it was a three-head wide relief map, apparently of the White Vale.  At the doorway in the canyon on the map was a hole with a crystal of some sort slid into the hole.  At the end of the crystal that jutted out there was a small gold chain that was artfully mounted to the wall.  The crystal fit perfectly in the hole, so it was clearly made to rest there. To me, it looked like a large piece of quartz, but it might have some magic properties, to have been chained up that way.

I looked at it carefully.  There were no cobwebs hanging off of it, so it must have been moved recently.  Dimitrious looked at it and shrugged.  It could wait until everyone had gotten a good night’s rest.

“I found a thing,” I said.

“A thing?”

“And it appears to have been manipulated recently.”

What I got back was puzzled expressions.  “What is it pray tell?” Arius finally asked.  I led my friends over to the strange carved map.

“Stand back. I have a spell that may help.  It detects magic,” Theren said standing in front of the relief.  He closed his eyes and waved his hands and seemed to be concentrating fairly intently on the map.

“Hmm…” he finally said.

“Well?” I asked.

“I’m picking up a magical aura around the map and crystal – and it matches the same aura I see on the other side of the door.  It is like it is connected to the Vale in some manner.”

“So does it open the door?”

The druid seemed unsure.  “We opened the door without the crystal.  This seems more linked to the White Vale itself.  You know, I’m going to pull it out.”

It seemed to me to be a rushed decision, so I backed up.  The others could deal with anything horrible that might emerge as a result.  Theren grabbed the crystal and slid it out of the matching hole.  Nothing happened.

“That’s weird,” he said holding the three inch long crystal on the chain. “The aura on the map and crystal and the aura outside has diminished…it is almost gone.  It is some sort of lever of some sort I think.  I am willing the gamble that it has something to do with those skeletons.”  He let the crystal hang limp on the chain.

It made sense to me.  This was the entrance to a major Dwarven city at one time.  The Vale could have been part of the defense of the city.  This could be the way of turning that on or off.  This could be important when we eventually leave this place.  Besides, if its magic is of value, I can steal it on the way out.

If we ever left this place.

Brandon spoke up.  “I think we should cut the crystal off and take it.”

Theren got a twisted grin.  “If you want to do that, go ahead.”  It was a challenge.  In other words, ‘If you do that, you are on your own.’  “I would leave it.  You never know, we might have to flee – and I don’t want to run back out in the Vale and face Bone Dragons again.”

The ranger seemed to get the message.  “Naa, I’ll leave it.”

We turned our attention to the long underground roadway. I was not a fan of strolling down there without some sort of illumination out in front of our party.  “I have the ability to summon orbs of light.  We can put those out in front of us.  If nothing else, it is can give us some warning of anything coming towards us.  They follow me.”  I received nods of agreement.  Bor took the point for our party and as he stepped down the road, his warhammer, Skullringer, started to glow a light blue, lighting him up. It made sense…it was of Dwarven make.  Perhaps it was forged in Tempora? The glow only made that weapon look more menacing.

Slowly we started down the gently sloping roadway.  We passed small piles of bones, covered in dust.  Some were those of men or Dwarves, others were animal.  I could make out bits of rust, either blades or armor, even an occasional helmet.  Green rotting leather straps remained in some places.

Brandon checked out the trail of disturbed dust that preceded us.  “These are human boot prints – a few days or weeks old – hard to tell here.  From the looks of it, there were a lot of people walking through this area.”

“The missing paladins,” Arius said, echoing what we all thought.

“You mean the dead paladins,” Theren offered. Even I cast him a suspicious eye.  “Hey, it is a safe assumption they are dead by now.  Whoever took them prisoner wouldn’t keep them alive unless there was a reason for it.”  The love-loss between the druids and the church had reared its ugly head.  It was one I understood all too well.  The church had killed hundreds of magic users of all kind in their inquisitions.  It was that common enemy that made Theren and I nearly brothers.

We continued on and a short distance in, we saw a massive iron portcullis/gate that had been dropped from above, blocking off the roadway.  It had a film of rust, but given the thickness of the bars, it was easily still an obstacle except for the hole in it – at floor level, opening to three feet.  The bars there sagged, as if melted, and puddles of rusted iron were covered with a film of dust near the spot.  Something hot, very hot, had burned their way through these defenses of the roadway. Then I noticed, the splatters of melted gate were on our side of the gate.  This had been dropped to keep something in the city.

The trial of footprints led through the hole.  Cobwebs sagged in the one-head-square, iron lattice of the portcullis.  Even with Bor’s strength, there was no way for us to lift it – and there was only one way through.

“Whatever happened here, happened a long time ago,” I offered.

Bor went first, and noticed on either side of the tunnel was a recessed area, probably part of the defenses of the tunnel.  I followed him cautiously as he pointed them out.  Theren came in right behind us.  I had my eyes on them when I heard a fluttered noise all around us.  At first, I assumed they were a swarm of bats.  Then I caught to glimpse of one in front of my face.  They had a long probing snout on the front.  These were not bats!  More than a dozen and a half of them swirled around those of us that had made it through the gate, some darting through the grating towards the rest of our small band.

Arius advanced towards the approaching swarm at the portcullis.  Bor swung Skullringer and connected with one of the creatures, splattering the one to the far wall.  The glowing blue warhammer was a blur of white-blue light against the darkness.

“Drop flat!” Theren yelled.  Bor and I did not need to be told twice, we dove for the dust covered floor.  Theren muttered some word and a thunderclap erupted in the air.  There was a concussion of magical power in the air above us, splattering half of the creatures into a misty spray that painted the walls and the massive iron gate.

Three of the surviving creatures dove on Arius, found a gap in his armor, sticking its snout in, penetrating flesh at his neckline.  The paladin wailed in pain and stepped back, but the creatures hung on him by their beaks.

Brandon killed one and his frantic swinging of his blade kept one at bay, flapping its leathery wings all about his head.  Dimitrious was a blur of action, but the creatures seemed to be only attracted more to him.  They dove on him, hitting the sleeves of his robes but failing to pierce his skin.

I missed the two coming at me – one hit my elbow joint in my armor.  It felt like an arrow hitting me…my arm throbbed.  My spell, however, made it burst into flames – but remained attached to me.  For a moment, I rejoiced, then I realized I had a flaming creature attached to my arm.  I swung it around wildly attempting to shake it off.

I tried to uses my eldritch blasts to attack another one of the creatures but my flaming arm threw off my aim.  My emerald blast of magic power hit the far wall, making the rock there glow.  Arius cleaved one of his assailants in half, hitting me with part of the body of the creature.

Theren was rushing back towards me as Brandon swung at one that hovered and darted in the air in front of him, missing.

Dimitrious struck one of his creatures with a flurry of rapid punches, killing it.  Theren swung his staff, hitting the one near Brandon, splattering him in oozing blackish blood.  Arius killed another one of the creatures.  The air was filled with swords, staffs and fists, making the dust swirl in the air around us, let up by the flaming creature attached to my arm.

Bor’s glowing warhammer was a blue arc in the air, destroying one of the creatures.  Arius was hit from behind by one of the creatures that planted its snout into him.  “Again?” he cursed, turning hard but unable to grasp it. The flames on my arm hurt as the paladin spun.  “Someone get this thing off of me!”  Brandon missed it entirely, though Dimitrious ripped it off of our holy knight.  I finally grabbed the one on my arm and jerked its now crispy body off of me.

Arius killed the last of the creatures with his sword.

We stood there, winded from the fight, sweat stinging in the cool air.  “What were those things?” Arius asked.

“I think they were stirges.  Vile creatures.  Blood drinkers,” I said, rubbing my aching elbow and checking the charred bit of my armor.  “I have never seen one before, but I recall reading about them.” I turned to Theren.  “Good move with that Thunderwave spell.”

As we bantered, our ranger Brandon wandered off towards one of the tunnel walls.  He was poking around the piles of bones and rusted armor that littered the floor.  The indentations were the stirges came from were fairly shallow, only five feet deep, just enough for a pair of archers on either side of the tunnel.  Clearly those archers had long ago left their posts, but the creatures must have taken to the positions to make their nest.

“Should we check them out?”  I had visions of stirge guano that made me cringe.  Please say no.

“Naa,” Theren said, clearly thinking the same way I did on the matter.

“I’ll do it,” Brandon said walking over to the furthest indentation.  He peered in.

“Well?” I called.

“There’s a leather pouch here.”  The ranger brought it back to us. We opened it carefully and found some gold, silver and copper coins – all very old minting. My comrades saw a handful of coins.  What I saw was another clue that something had happened here, many ages past, that was still a possible threat.  Tempora fell…and whatever made it fall may yet be here.

“Perhaps we should have one member of our party carry what we find,” Theren said, eyeing Bor.  “Someone strong.”  The hint hung in the air for a few seconds.

The burley fighter rolled his eyes.  “Fine.  I’ll do it.”  We put the pouch of coins in his pack.  I could tell he wasn’t thrilled with being turned into our mule, but went along with it.

Arius went to the other cubby hole and found a long-dead dwarven skeleton clad in armor.  He picked out an ornate silver-edged dagger. “This is all that was here,” he said sheathing the new artifact in his belt.

We trudged on down the long tunnel.  It was only a few minutes later that we saw something in the distance, piles of some sort.  I sensed that something was amiss, especially as we got closer and saw that these were not merely piles of bones – but ashes and puddles of long-melted metal.  I started to wonder – what kind of heat could melt metal as such other than a forge?  Were these people that had somehow been killed in place, or the victims of dragon fire? These piles were scattered – no pattern other than they ended in forty or fifty heads distance.

Bor moved forward to the first pile.  “It is ash and bone – their armor was melted in place.”

“Do you see anything else?” Theren asked from a distance.

“The stone slabs on the roadway here have some scorch marks along their edges,” Bor replied.  The big fighter was nervous, I could see that.  Theren moved to join Bor.  There was a low grinding noise for a moment as the floor lowered in the middle of the tunnel, with our two party members on it.  Flames roared down, white hot tinged in blue.  Only the far walls of the tunnel were not affected by the lowering.  The air became searing hot in an instant.

Pyrotechnics

Bor reacted quickly, leaping to the side.  Theren collapsed with a shriek of agony.  Brandon reached in to get Theren, and his scale mail seared into his skin as it superheated in the azure blast-flames.  The air we breathed was so hot it made my lungs ache.  The skin on my cheeks was hot just facing the flames from above.  Arius reached in and grabbed Theren and pulled him out.  He was on fire, unconscious, blistered and scars crusted black from the flames.  We patted out the flames of his clothing.

The moment he came off the floor section that had dropped, the floor rose back and the flames from above.  Arius laid hands on him, enough to get his eyes to open.  He was in pain, but still with us.  The paladin looked angry and frustrated.  “We are smarter than this.”

“Apparently not,” I said with a wry grin.  He snapped his head around and looked at me with fury in his face, clearly not amused by my comment.  Looking over to the side wall he spied a small rock that seemed to jut out from the otherwise smooth wall.  He went over to it and pulled the rock down with an audible click.  “We need to be wiser in the future if we are going to survive.  This was not even a creature…but part of the defense of Tempora.”

He was right of course.  But I would not give him the satisfaction of telling him that.

The following are the previous installments. I hope you enjoy the campaign so far. Be sure to follow my blog if you do. 

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

Part 8

Part 9

Part 10

Part 11

Part 12

Part 13

Part 14

Part 15

Part 16

Part 17

Part 18

Part 19

Part 20

Part 21

Part 22

Character Background Material

My New Campaign

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#DandD

#DnD

After-Action Report on CrimeCon 2018

 

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Like I’ve said before, I’m never off a cold case.  My only regret is Victoria couldn’t join us on the stage to talk about the Colonial Parkway Murders.  

This was CrimeCon’s second year.  I didn’t attend last year because I was unsure just what it was going to be all about.  This year I was on panelist for the Colonial Parkway Murders and, having reviewed the images and reports from last year, I felt pretty sure I was not attending some crazed weirdo cult gathering.

I had a good time.  Incorrect.  I had a GREAT time.  CrimeCon is one of the few places on the planet when you can say, “I write true crime,” and people don’t wince or say things like, “Oh, that’s nice…” while backing away slowly.  I get it, for decades true crime has been a secret pleasure for a lot of people.  The people here were fans – some were die-hard fans.  Others were dipping their toes into the true crime waters.  It was a very friendly group.

A bit about the demographics.  Most of the attendees were female…I don’t know the exact ratio but it seemed like 12 to 1.  Many were younger than me, which is easy because I’m 55.  There were fans of a wide variety of sub-genre’s too – TV crime show fans, author fans, serial killers, cold cases, podcast groupies, you name it.

The night we arrived at the Gaylord Resort in Nashville we were told we couldn’t go out to dinner at the mall because there had been a murder there.  I admit, I thought they were joking at first.  They weren’t.  Talk about mistakes.  We had a large number of FBI, law enforcement, lawyers and 3,500 armchair detectives only a half-a-mile away.

Victoria and I attended the session with Dianne Lake about her time with the Manson Family.  It was an interesting presentation.  It is hard to emotionally bond with Ms. Lake given where she was and who she was with in the summer of 1969.  You get this weird feeling with her of sadness, pity, yet some degree of distaste given that she was a member of the Manson Family.  I have to admit, I was fascinated on how Charlie got his talons into her.  Dang it – I will have to buy her book now.

The next session I attended was by Jim Fitzgerald on cracking the Unabomber case.  That’s right, it was “Fitz” himself.  He explained to us what parts of the show were not based on real life and did it in an amusing way, with actual Facebook and Twitter posts he had received.  Great stuff.  His insights and role in cracking that crime were incredible to listen to.  I want to go on Netflix now and re-watch it over again.

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“Fitz”  True story – Tabby was just a character.  He didn’t get someone’s career trashed – honest.  

I talked to Fitz about a serial murder spree that Victoria and I are working on.  More on this as we move forward…but our discussion was promising!

At the same time my co-author daughter attended the session on the Golden State Killer.  They had a great panel including one of the officers involved with this scumbag’s takedown.  New facts not in the press yet were presented.  I won’t take her thunder, she promised me a blog post on it, but I was intrigued to learn they had recovered some of the souvenirs this bastard had taken from his victims.  Oh, and that wheelchair?  Totally for the press.  I think his lawyer knows he’s going to lose the case but they want to try and mitigate the sentencing with a, “poor old feeble man,” routine.  Well, it’s a routine…and not very convincing.

I met with Gemma from The Keepers.  She was very nice.  We are cold case comrades.

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Giving up on cold cases is never really an option.  

The panel on the Colonial Parkway Murders that I was on was outstanding.  Bill Thomas and Joyce Call were on it; relatives of victims of Cathy Thomas and Keith Call respectively.  Both were outstanding as was expected.  We were moderated by former FBI agent Maureen O’Connell who did an admirable job of keeping us on task (no small feat mind you.)  We had over 520 attendees for the session – which is outstanding.  Get the word out about these crimes!

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Maureen O’Connell – A Class Act
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Bill Thomas – He’s been living this for 30 years.  
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Joyce Call did a great job keeping the family perspective first and foremost.  

We both sat in on the Delphi Murders panel.  Kudos to the family members and the Indiana State Police for coming.  Deeply moving.  I met with the grandfather of one of the victims later and offered him a couple of suggestions that he might consider.  The guy looked like a truck driver for some reason.  I suggested checking with the weigh-stations near the town.  You never know…

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Let’s get these families some closure.  

 

Victoria and I attended the early morning podcast session with Nancy Grace on the Delphi Murders…which we totally enjoyed.

While the rest of my family took in the Country Music Hall of Fame, I sat in on a session by Steven David Lampley on How to Catch a Liar.  Holy crudstunk – that was useful.  Not only is it something I can use as a true crime author when I interview people – it is something I can apply in my day-job as well.  Book purchased!

I attended the Nancy Grace Meet and Greet.  Wow has she got some great fans.  We were in line all talking and chatting about cases etc.  A young woman was there telling us about her cousin and a highly suspicious suicide down in Mississippi.  It was heart wrenching.  We offered her some advice on how to proceed.  I promised to post her information – so here it is.  Spread the word true crime fans!

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Christian Andreacchio – suicide or murder victim?  I want to know.  
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This is a case that demands someone to poke at.  It has a good-old-boy cover-up vibe to it.  

Nancy didn’t just do a meet and greet, we actually had a good conversation…so much so she asked for and got my phone number so we can talk at a later date.  It helped that I had a little gift for her – an autographed copy of A Special Kind of Evil.  It has been so long since an attractive lady has asked for my phone number, I was humbled by that alone.

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Nancy was a class act.  She’s jotting down my number inside our book.  

Later, I attended a fantastic session on Serial Killer profiling by Jim Clemente and John White.  They hit on some cases that I was unfamiliar with which made it interesting.  Their banter was funny, but not disrespectful to the victims (a line some podcasters need to learn from.)  I really enjoyed Dr. White’s perspectives on what make these killers tick.  I need to touch base with him on some work we are doing.

During the time there Victoria and I connected with quite a few podcasters and got approached for autographs – which is always good.  It is nice to meet our “fans.”  True Crime has never been this popular and CrimeCon helps make it more respectable.  Next year is New Orleans!

#crimecon

#ColonialParkwayMurders

#crimecon18

#NancyGrace