We live in a world today where social media and the court of public opinion determines who is noteworthy in our society. We are a short-term people. What is hot today is old news tomorrow. We are driven by what the media tells us, right and wrong. Our icons today are reality TV stars, grossly overpaid sports figures, musicians that can’t play an instrument, or people who covet fame from YouTube.com. Our heroes are defined by pixels, their income, and their momentary popularity, more than by their accomplishments.
We weren’t always like that. In 1927 we chose our heroes differently – by their actions and deeds rather than TV ratings. Charles Lindbergh was such a man. He wasn’t the first person to fly the Atlantic, but he was the first to do it solo. He helped design the airplane for the journey, on that would take him across an ocean and into the history books.
Making such a flight alone was akin the madness. Several aviators, some of much greater repute, had already died making such attempts. In the Spirit of St. Louis, he didn’t have a life raft or radio to call for help. If he ran into trouble he was going to die.
Lindbergh was the antithesis of today’s public icons. He shunned publicity. The man merely wanted to achieve the goal, not bask in the glory. That was a big part of his great appeal. He was a boy from next door – everyman. In many respects he represented America at its best. He was a man that challenged nature and fate and won. Lindbergh harkened back to the American ideal of a pioneer and trailblazer.
One of my favorite movies is The Spirit of St. Louis starring Jimmy Stewart. Yes, there are some factual errors with the film, but it is the best representation we have of what that flight was like and the challenges that this supreme aviator faced.
In crossing the Atlantic solo, Charles Lindbergh changed forever the way we viewed aviation. Suddenly, overnight, the world became much closer, more connected.
Every time I visit the NASM I make a point to pause and look at The Spirit hanging in the main gallery. For a fleeting moment, I remember Charles Lindbergh and the daring he exhibited. In that second of time I wonder if we will ever again have such men in our nation, men that we don’t seek to bring down, but instead bring out the very best of us. In find myself longing for standards of men and women and go beyond the internet. I know I am a romantic at heart, longing for a sense of something that is intangible yet wondrous.
The celebration at Omsford, where Matthias Blackshear lived was incredible. The families were so overjoyed at recovering their lost children they threw us a feast! It was the first time other than my annual day of birth that anyone had thrown a party in our honor. I’m not counting that time we killed those Owlbears. That was not a feast but more of a drinking event. Many a chair and table were broken that night! Compared to this meal, the whole Owlbear incident was nothing more than a fading memory.
Everything thanked us, shoot our hands, even kissed our cheeks. This was what it was to be a hero – one of the greatest thieves in the land.
Matthias’s granddaughter Miley stayed close to him and her mother, Clarissa. She thanked me three times, so we all know what that means…she was in love with me! I saw her eyes catching mine, and that smile. I remembered Guild Rule #88 Never pass up an opportunity to make a new friend, especially if she is cute.
After my third ale I asked Matthias, “Is your daughter married?” I saw no ring nor sign of a husband.
He didn’t answer. He just glared at me with squinted eyes and flashed his gritted teeth. I got the impression he was offended. How could that be? I was a hero like him and the others! Surely Clarissa could do no better in this tiny farming community. Blackshear stalked off.
“You had better watch it,” Arius said. “He’s likely to take your head off.”
“I think I could seduce her,” I added as I finished another tankard of ale. “Besides, she’s cute.”
Theren heard our conversation and shook his head. “We’ve done a lot to win these people’s trust Galinndan. Don’t do something that is going to get us killed.”
“What—killed? All I’m saying is that I think we could hit it off. Me helping rescue her daughter and all.”
“Do you really want Blackshear as a father-in-law?” Arius asked. “You slip up one time and your head will go bouncing like that Amber Elf he decapitated.”
That was a good point. Over the years I had become quite fond of my head and neck and they were right, Matthias seemed to be a bit over reactive at times. I settled on giving Clarissa a wink. She didn’t return it but I could tell, she wanted me.
Blackshear pulled us aside an hour later as the party began to break up. “We are only two days travel to Karn. Sleep well and tomorrow I will escort you there myself.”
We thanked him for his hospitality. My father had gone to Karn before, usually to pay taxes and homage to Lord Sklaver. I always wondered why he had never taken me. Our home was but a village. Karn was a small city, or so I had been told.
The next morning there were potato cakes and we found our haversacks stuffed with dried meats and fresh fruit, compliments of the citizens of Omsford. We set out and saw little more than a farmer with an oxcart who we passed along the way. The next day five riders approached us, all in full armor, glinting with the morning sun. Their armor was matching, as was their slung shields.
Blackshear rode out a few yards ahead of us, meeting them men. One of them was a lanky fellow with a flowing yellow beard that poked out from under his helm. “If it is isn’t Matthias Blackshear,” he sneered. The other men seemed amused. Two put their hands on their swords.
“Blondebeard,” Matthias spat back as if it were a curse. This had to be that Syrus Blondebeard that he had told us about, the First Knight of the Royal Guard.
“Where are you going old man?” Blondebeard asked.
“I am taking my friends here to Karn.”
“I thought you were banned from there,” one of the men said half-jokingly.
“Who would stop me?” Blackshear countered. “You? You’d piss yourself the moment I drew my sword – we both know that.” He turned back to Blondebeard. “What are you doing away from the whorehouses and taverns?”
“There have been reports of Amber Elves roaming the countryside. We are merely doing our job – your former job – searching for them.”
Blackshear flashed a grin of pride. “Well you can turn your pansy-asses around. We found them and recovered the children they had kidnapped.”
“Really?” Blondebeard said suspiciously.
“You doubt me Syrus?” His jaw set firm.
There was an awkward pause, I sure felt it. Finally Blondebeard spoke, not to Matthias, but to us. “You men have thrown in with a dangerous man. I’d advise you to part ways with him now. He’s not welcome in Karn, which means the same will apply to you.”
Theren spoke for us. “Thank you…but we will stick with him. We’ve shed blood together.”
“Your choice then,” Blondebeard said. “You watch yourselves in Karn. That is our city…our rules.” He and the other men in the patrol passed us without further comment.
“You make a misstep in Karn, you’ll be dealing with me, Krolf Lorraine, or Adrian Kraverhall. None of us have much use or patience for farm boys causing trouble.”
Farmboys? We had been to the Gellesian Fields, had battled ogres, cockatrice, and had even been tested by a member of the Sisterhood of the Sword. Not to mention the Amber Elves. If anyone was a yokel, it was this Blondebeard. Armor made men pompous – I saw that.
“He sure doesn’t seem to like you,” I said.
“Mounted pile of shit wearing armor he doesn’t deserve to polish,” Blackshear replied. “I trained that arse in everything he knows – and only half of it stuck. Now he and the guard are nothing but playthings for the Vizir. Look at them, riding out five days too late. When they were under my command the Guards were there to protect the citizens. They would have driven off those yellow-skinned bug-suckers days ago. Now they hide in Karn. It is getting more dangerous to live outside of the city every year.” There was a longing in his voice, the first time I had heard it from him.
We arrived at Karn later that day. The road leading to the city was dotted with farm houses and cottages. The city itself was surrounded by a stone wall that was very old. Vines and moss clogged every mortar seam in it, given the twelve foot walls a green shimmer. The gate was manned by five guardsmen, though I thought none of them looked too impressive. They seemed to notice Blackshear. One of them said, “We don’t want any trouble,” the oldest of the guards said.
“No one ever does,” Matthias said in response.
At the inner portcullis we were told to stop and to read the sign. It was red lettering painted on a white background with the rules for visitors. I presume that the red lettering was supposed to instill a sense of warning or threat. It was faded and chipped.
Murder, arson, or rape is punishable by death administered immediately by the City Guard.
Theft is prohibited in the city limits.
Fighting is frowned upon.
Laying of hands on members of the royal family or the City Guard is prohibited.
Magic of all kinds outside those of the church is prohibited. Violators will be turned over to the church for justice.
All dangerous animals are to be kept secured.
Horse thieves will be whipped in public.
Have a glorious day!
Theren pointed to the theft line and gave me a knowing wink. “I think that means you.” I had no intention of stealing here – not now anyways. Doing so without checking in with the guild would result in punishments that I didn’t know the details of, but feared nevertheless.
As we entered the city the smell gave it away first. Unlike our home Whiterock, it was a stink of sewage, dampness, and dirty feet that stung at your nostrils. Smoke mingled with the odors and I swore I could smell rotting meat too. There were people walking through the cobblestone streets, more than in our village.
Blackshear pulled us into a huddle. “Alright ladies, here’s the plan. For you to get to Lord Sklaver you have to do it through his bloody Vizir. Krolf Lorraine is as crooked as Wilding Creek. I may be able to get you in to see him. You’ll have to work your way past that greasy weasel to get to Lord Sklaver. I don’t trust Lorraine in the least…for reasons I’ll tell you about sometime.
In the meantime – I’d recommend you stopping by Grayson’s Maps. Chester is well known and worth stopping by the see. No matter what, you should go to Odd-Bob’s too. Robert is, well, strange, but always good for a story or two. Stay away from the Wayward Knight Inn if you go and seek a drink. Try and get a room at the Copper Horse – I’ll find you there later.” With that Blackshear waded into the people on the street, most of them parting to get out of his way.
Arius stabled our mounts at Kurn’s Stables for what seemed like a lot of money. We made our way through the twisting main street of Karn, finally spotting a sight for Grayson’s Maps.
The inside smelled musty with a hint of old man. Rolled maps stored in wooden tubes lined the walls, along with books. In the center of the building was a skylight directly over a large table where an old man leaned over a map, looking at it with a magnifying glass. “Just a moment,” he said as he moved his pen over the large parchment on the adjustable table. Then he looked up only out of the corner of his eye at us.
“What are you working on?” Theren asked, genuinely curious.
“A map of Tempora,” the old man said, dipping his pen in ink and continuing to work.
“What is Tempora?” I asked.
“The lost city of the dwarves to the north of the Gash. I found some references to it in a book I recently purchased and wanted to add to the map that I started. Tempora has been lost for ages, it was said to be a great city that could only be accessed on the path of blood…whatever that is. A lot of adventurers have tried to find it, only a few have come back and none of them sane.” He set his quill on a stand and turned slowly to face us, flashing an instant smile.
“Ah, visitors! I am Chester Grayson. Welcome to my humble cartography works.” He waved his hand to point to the maps. “What are you looking for?”
“Matthias Blackshear told us to stop here,” I said.
“Matthias? Is he here in Karn?” the old man’s voice got excited.
“Yes. He’s helping us,” Theren said.
Grayson smiled. “Friends of Blackshear – well, you must be travelers from afar.”
“We’ve been to the Gelllesian Fields and back,” I said with pride.
“Marvelous. Did you happen to make a map of your journey? The fields are difficult for many to navigate.”
I shook my head. “Sorry.”
“Well then, you are travelers, so you need a map of the realm,” he climbed off his stool and shuffled over to a tube, pulling out a map. “This is one of my best sellers – the most accurate map of the realm.”
“How much?” Airus asked.
“Fifty gold…but well worth it.”
“Not exactly the ‘Friends of Blackshear’ price,” I said half-under my breath.
Grayson heard me. “I will also give you a map of the city. If you are new here, it may help you.”
“Done!” Airus replied, dolling out the money. I checked my own funds and was surprised. I had a bag of copper pieces where there had been gold. It was the coins we had found in the fields, in that offering urn. Damn! I guess I should have not stolen the contents of that urn.
Outside he saw some men pass and Chester Grayson winced. “Blue Cloaks!”
“What are they?” Theren asked.
“They have been here for a year or so. Strange monks. They make people nervous more than anything.”
I watched them in their hooded azure cloaks. These were bald men shifted in and out of the people on the cobblestone street, almost blending in – but not quite. There was clearly more to these men then meet the eyes. I had heard of monks before, but these were the first I had ever seen.
We huddled over the map and for the first time realized how far we had traveled. I focused on the Great Gash. That was tied to that message we had gotten from Lexa Lyoncroft. It was a like a nasty scar on the map. I wondered for a moment what had happened to those paladins.
“Come on,” I said. “We need to find the guildhall and Odd Bob’s.”
I hope you have enjoyed the saga thus far. Here are the previous parts if you have missed any installments. Enjoy!
“These soulless yellow-skinned spawn-of-the-gash have kidnapped my granddaughter. I could use some help, good men with swords, to help recover her,” Matthias Blackshear said painfully.
A kidnapped child? This was a cause that made my heart leap! My life as a holy warrior was based on faith and an understanding of my role in the balance of the world. “Who are these Amber Elves?”
“What? Are you not from around here?”
“Nay. We harken from Whiterock.”
He winced, suddenly making me feel like a farm boy or a dullard…or worse, a heathen bard. “Yellow skinned bastards,” he spat back. “They travel in wagons, moving from community to community. Always singing and putting on little skits. Friendly enough, while they pick your pocket, steal your crops, and kidnap your young. They are the worst kind of vagabonds. That’s why I use these,” he pointed to the cotton balls jammed into his ears. “You can’t listen to their music. It’s enchanted. You listen to it and you are under their spell. That’s how these thievin’ scum-sucking dregs work you. They play their little tunes and the next thing you know you are tied naked to a tree, robbed of your worldly possessions – or worse.”
It did not take a lot to imagine what “worse” could be. His warnings about their songs spoke of bardic magic, minstrels whose spells were interwoven in song. Galinndan spoke up. “Maybe we should be stuffing cotton in our ears.” I ignored him. None of us had brought cotton with us, though I did see Galinndan cutting up some of his own shirt and stuffing the wads of cloth in his ears. They hung out like dog’s ears from his own.
“We haven’t seen them,” I said to Blackshear, “But we did come across some wagon tracks a ways back.”
“Wagons…” the hulking Blackshear pondered for but a moment. “That had to be them. Show me.”
We didn’t talk about helping this man, it was not necessary. Even if my brothers in arms had refused I would have helped him. The Third Tenant of my holy order, demanded giving aid to those in need. We backtracked down the road to where the wheel ruts crossed the dirt path. Blackshear knelt down while Theren moved alongside. “They’re heading northwest.”
Theren looked at the tracks that crossed the road as if he could somehow ascertain the same information, but could not. “How do you know that?”
“The slave markets of the Amber Elves are in Bahshir in the western reaches.”
“There is only two sets of wagon tracks,” Galinndan pointed out.
“Common practice with these dirty bug-suckers. They go in column to hide their numbers.”
“Like Sandpeople,” Galinndan added.
“Who?” Blackshear asked angrily.
“Never mind,” Galinndan replied. He realized the childhood stories he had been told of the mythical Sandpeople had no bearing here, nor did Matthias Blackshear have the patience for humor.
We trudged on into the night and made a hasty camp. “They can’t be more than a few hours ahead of us. That means if we press on, we can catch them tomorrow,” Blackshear said as sat on a log before the small fire. He propped up his massive sword and axe next to him.
“Your weapons are impressive,” I said looking at them. That sword was different – long, thick at the handle with only a slight taper to it. Both bore the nicks of battle damage that could not be simply pounded out by a weapons-smith.
“This is Render,” Blackshear said patting the sword the way one might a loyal dog. The shadows of the firelight showed the scars on his arms and hand “This is Reamer,” he gestured to the battle axe proudly. “When I was a First Knight of Royal Guards I captured these fighting a band of marauding minotaur’s in the eastern slopes. Killed their leader DeSaul. They have served me well over the years.
It has been said that naming a weapon gives it strength, taps the power of God. It is also said that only honorable men should do such things. I understood that all too well. “You served in the Royal Guards?”
“Damned right I did. Until they ran me off. Stupid boot-licking dung-puckering arseholes. The guards isn’t what it was when I led it. Now they are more interested in attending balls and escorting pansy-ass-kissing gentlemen rather than protecting the innocent. A bunch of glorified pig-fucking tax collectors…that’s what the Royal Guards have become.”
“Why’d they run you off?”
His eyes narrowed with a rage he was somehow keeping in check. “The little lordling…the heir to the Sklaver throne. Little shit wasn’t fit to polish my codpiece. He got his pasty white ass in trouble he did. A man would have resolve the situation. He expected us to bail him out. His father wasn’t raising him to stand on his own, I let him try and resolve the matter. Little paper-butt got knocked about – but the bastard had it coming. He had his father remove me. Said I was a coward. A flagging lie! He started it with those men and by God he should have finished it himself, not turned to us to save him. They ran me out after that. Said I had disgraced the Guards. It was greasy Syrus Blondebeard and the bloody Vizir, Krolf Lorraine; they were behind my disgrace. They wanted someone with less backbone than me, someone to do their bidding. Blondebeard is perfect for that role…the spineless, chamber-pot-licker. Well they got what they wanted – someone to suckle the little lordship’s tit. They couldn’t take my honor from me and they damned well couldn’t take my pride.”
In the dim light of the fire I could see the pride in his face, it was etched in every scar and wrinkle. There was nothing about this man that showed even a hint of fear. “We will rescue your granddaughter,” I vowed.
“You do,” he said with stern glare, “and I will get you to Karn myself.”
The next day we pressed on crossing the tree-dotted plains, following the wagon ruts in the grass. That evening we came across their camp, in a low swale, surrounded by trees. I half-expected the big warrior to insist on rushing into the camp, but the safety of his granddaughter clearly governed his sword. “We need to know how many of them are down there…where my granddaughter is, before we act. Moreover, we need a plan,” he said with a calm that told me that lives were about to be lost. The only thing that kept me focused was the fact that what we were doing was right – saving a young damsel in distress.
Theren spoke up. “I can shapeshift into something small, a rat perhaps. I can infiltrate the camp and see if I can find her. If nothing else, I can learn their disposition.” There were nods and we watched as he paused, pressed his hands together, and closed his eyes in thought. I had my doubts. Theren had been talking about shapeshifting, but a rat? That seemed preposterous.
The outline of his body shimmered, blurred in the evening, and seemed to collapse. We looked down and saw a rat where Theren had stood. We had never seen him do it and I could not help but wonder what kind of dark magic he was using. This is why the church had purged the druids, no doubt. I was sure that every time he used that accursed magic it would cost him some his mortal soul. That was faith and fate.
Rat/Theren scurried off but came back a short time later, resuming his human form, wet with sweat and covered with blades of grass. “There are five wagons, all parked facing outward, like a star. They have a few archers poised in the trees. I was able to chew my way into one wagon but I could not see your granddaughter Matthias, only some women. They have a campfire in the middle. What I could tell there are at least a dozen men – perhaps that many females. The men don’t seem armed with anything more threatening than lutes and rapiers.” He sketched out the camp in the dirt.
I didn’t disregard his comments about rapiers, they could kill a man just as easy as a cutlass when wielded by the right man. Blackshear stared at the configuration of the camp. “Typical for the Amber Elves. They do it so they can scatter if attacked, brilliant positioning on their part. Those archers, they are a problem – but the real threat will come from their magic. We need a diversion. I can take out five of them, if I can get in there. “
Galinndan grinned. “I can fire on the archers. That should keep them busy.”
“We can move in and try to unharness the horses, prevent some of them from scattering,” I offered.
“We must take care…no harm must come to the hostages,” Blackshear warned. I hated to think what he might do if his granddaughter were harmed, either to the Amber Elves or us. We all nodded nervously.
Carefully we crawled towards the camp, coming at it from three directions to help block any flight they might try and undertake. The signal was given with a wave of Blackshear’s beefy hand and the battle began.
I rushed in, swinging my flaming sword at one of the men, cutting him deep and setting him afire, if only for a moment. I spotted Althalus emerge but suddenly stop, as if paralyzed. I saw a distant elf, strumming his mandolin, staring at the warlock, trapping him for a moment in some sort of charm. Blast it! I struggled with my elven foe, his blade tearing across my chest armor with a rattle that shook me.
Blackshear rushed in, swinging the massive blade of Render – cutting the head off of one elf, sending it bouncing in torso of another. Arrows filled the air, all aimed at Galinndan. Theren cast one of his black spells, some sort of whip of thorns. It snared one elf and tossed it into the one that was concentrated on charming Althalus. The disruption shook the magic that held the warlock. He grinned and prepared to unleash a blast of his own magic.
Suddenly the warlock shimmered and for a moment I thought he had disappeared. No, far worse, he had changed into a raccoon. What kind of madness was this? I swung again at my foe, knocking him back, but he still clung to life.
The air filled around Theren with a flurry of magic swirling daggers, which he emerged from angered and more frustrated. He stood face-to-face with one of the elves who held up his hands to the sky. Suddenly the air around both of them filled with raining jagged javelins of ice and frigid death. Both took some damage, but it was enough to shake Theren back.
“Stop the wagons!” Blackshear howled to the druid as he planted his battle axe in the chest of another elf.
I rushed forward and hit one of the elves, apparently shaking the spell that had held Althalus in the form of a raccoon. He shook his head as if in a daze.
Theren, having heard the words of Blackshear, shimmered again but not to the form of a rat. No, this time a massive black bear. He rushed forward and collided with one of the wagon wheels, hitting it hard and sideways, breaking it off of the axle mount. That wagon would not flee.
The warlock, Althalus, grinned, finally prepared to unleash his eldritch blast. He fired at one elf but missed completely. His blast seared into the bear-hide of Theren. The bear disappeared, and what emerged through the magic shimmer was a druid with a burn hole in his side.
“Sorry,” Althalus said upon seeing the damage he had done to his comrade, turning back to the elf he had missed. That elf disappeared, sidestepping through some sort of magic opening in the air. He appeared behind Bor, who has hit by several arrows in the fight. The elf stabbed him from behind, staggering the big warrior.
Blackshear rushed towards one of the wagons near the fire when one of the elves emerged from a wagon and raised his hands. “Stop! We wish to negotiate! Parlay!”
Galinndan fired one more arrow, pretending he hadn’t heard the call for truce. To my utter surprise Blackshear stopped his charge and raised his hand in the air, a sign for us to halt. He gave Galinndan a scornful glare at the last twang of his bow, then focused on the elf. “Watch your words elf-scum,” he spat. “If you are attempting to use your magic on us, the rest of you will die.”
“No tricks,” the yellow-skinned elf said. “Enough have been injured or slain this night. What is it you are after? I am sure we can arrive at a mutually agreeable solution.”
“What I want is my granddaughter Miley and others you stole from their homes. I want them back. Give them to us and you live. Resist, I will kill all of you,” the former First Knight said.
The elf pondered his words for three whole seconds, making me wonder if the battle would be rejoined. “Very well. A misunderstanding I am sure. No harm has come to them. We were merely borrowing them.” He opened the rear door of one of the wagons. Looking inside it appeared empty. Then the illusion disappeared. Inside were five children, being held by another female elf, no doubt a sorceress herself. It was brilliant. Even if we had looked in the wagon, we would have not seen them.
He led them out and Blackshear’s granddaughter rushed to him. “Pa-pa!” she wailed as she hugged him. I saw a tear trickle down the face of the big warrior and it filled me with faith – faith that we had fought the good fight and for the right reasons. I silently thanked God for our victory as Bor and I gathered the others and backed away from the camp.
“If you know what is good for you, you will leave these lands. The next time we meet, there will be no parlay. There will be death.”
“We never cross the same ground twice,” the elf replied. “It is our lot in life.”
We gathered up the children and carefully made our way out of the camp. I saw the man I had downed rising and standing, healed already by one of their number. I silently pondered that if we had continued to fight if we would have prevailed.
Of course we would! Our cause was just and God was on our side! There is no room in a paladin’s life for self-doubt.
Roleplaying games are where the players are essentially writing their own fantasy sagas. I hope you are enjoying the chronicling of our D&D campaign. Here are the previous parts of the story.
Note: None of this is related to my current employer where everything is sunshine, roses, rainbows, Prozac, and unicorns. I’m just offering perspective about organizations as a whole and my disdain for annual performance reviews in general. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
To say I loathe the annual performance review process used by most organizations would be a gross understatement. Personally, I don’t like to talk about my career choices or reflect on my last year, even if that year was outstanding. My “career” (and I use that word loosely) is my business. I have an Evil Plan and I’m not inclined to share it. Last year I critiqued the infamous bell curve The Dreaded Performance Review Season
Reviews have a sense of hopelessness about them. They force you to take stock of the last 12 months and to obtain feedback on the last four weeks (which is usually the basis of the core of your rating). In some organizations reviews are a burdensome administrative task that can fail to accomplish the intended goal of improving performance. Instead they become exercises in statistic mathematics (fitting people to a bell curve) and focusing on the three things that an employee did wrong in a year, rather than the 300 things they did well. I have yet to emerge from a review energized, inspired, and enthusiastic – and I get good ratings over the years.
So I started thinking about ways to make the process go by faster. (Hey, if it can’t be motivating, at least we can get it over with – right?) I thought a multiple choice/survey format that the employee could check off would expedite things in the discussion. Now, I’m still tweaking this prototype – but I thought you’d enjoy my current working copy. Feel free to share.
Annual Review Multiple Choice
Where do you see yourself in five years?
___Prison – for that whole, “Lone sniper on the roof of his place of employment” incident I’ve been covertly planning.
___Getting my hands on some fissionable material to finish a DYI project I have going in my basement.
___Wearing a “special” white coat with long sleeves that lace together in the back.
___Kicking back and retired on the income from my Nigerian Prince scam.
___Still waiting for Skype to connect my call from earlier today.
___Waiting in line for Star Wars XVI – The Last Sith
___Still searching for my long lost marbles.
___Trying to explain to my family why I wasn’t with them because I needed this job to pay the damned bills.
___In a shack in the forest, writing that manifesto I have been meaning to get to.
___In line at CVS to up my antidepressants.
___I see myself in a room, doing an annual review, making up another bullshit answer so that I can end this ordeal.
What are your career goals?
___Making sure someone else is framed for the crime or at least the guilty parties are identified.
___I’d like to be CEO. Can you help make that happen? If not, leave me alone.
___I’d settle for some cheesy title if you can’t actually promote me. I’m quite fond of the title “Emperor” but you can call me ‘Sire.”
___To make the voices in my head go away or at least get down to a reasonable number.
___Four words: Hand of the King.
___What is this “career” thing you are referring to?
___I am counting on the lottery or getting my own reality TV series about a guy working in a dysfunctional office.
___I don’t suppose “survival” is an option? If so, I choose it.
How well do you work with your peers/colleagues?
___The fact they are still alive should tell you something.
___I like them. When we are on a call together they make me look like the smartest person in the meeting.
___I strongly believe at least one of them will be featured on the news with one of their neighbors saying, “He was quiet – a loner…he seemed normal to me.”
___They are the best trained group of clowns to ever emerge from the same tiny car.
___Most seem stressed – but then again, underachievers usually are.
___Without them you wouldn’t need me. (Think about it – you’ll eventually get it)
___I think enough of them to secretly post their resume’s on several leading job recruitment sites.
What do you think of your teammates?
___You will never meet a finer group of team members – outside of a prison basketball court.
___Great group of people…the kind you of team you see in Goodfellas or The Godfather.
___They can be counted on – for lunch and for making most of my meetings pointless.
___We are unified and cohesive on one thing, a common enemy, our manager. Oops! Awkward…
___They can be consistently relied upon, to shuffle their workload to me.
___You will not meet a finer group of people outside of a chain gang.
___What I think my teammates says less about them and more about you and your interviewing standards and approaches.
___I hope at least two of them marry Cersi Lannister.
What kind of experiences can we give you to help your stretch and advance your career aspirations?
___Put my on a project that was not hopelessly doomed, horribly sponsored, technically impossible, or led by an escaped lunatic.
___How about putting me in charge of the whole shooting match? I figure it will take three weeks…four tops, to straighten this all out.
___Please stop trying to help me by giving me more work. If you stretch me more, I may snap.
___Something that is near completion, competently run, that I can claim credit for “leading.”
___I’ve been working with all of the responsibility and none of the power – how about we flip that for next year?
___Preferably something that requires travel to Hawaii, Europe, of Polynesia.
___I have been a patient in this asylum long enough, I’d like to be a guard for a while.
___None. I just watch you as my manager and mentally note to do the opposite of what you do.
How do you feel about the feedback you received this year from your peers?
___I got feedback? I thought we were still on “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell?”
___Apparently the bribe money was well spent.
___I’m sorry, we were supposed to read that before the review session? I assure you I give that feedback all of the attention it is due.
___It is good to know that the people that gave me feedback are taking medication and drinking still.
___Those negative comments are totally deserved. I was being a dick and want to assure you I will be a dick again in the future.
___There would have been more positive feedback if the system had allowed people to submit what they wrote in crayon.
___My response to the feedback begins with, “Those assholes started it!” It goes downhill from there.
___I think the constructive (negative) feedback I received was because those people couldn’t find their ass with a flashlight and both hands.
___I am ashamed that these people who gave me feedback have that kind of time on their hands. Makes you wonder about them, doesn’t it?
What kind of learning should we put in your annual plan?
___I was thinking of taking the Web Based Learning course, “Giving a damn – you can do it!”
___I don’t suppose I can convince you that basket-weaving is related to my job?
___Why bother, you will never give me the time to attend the course anyway?
___I believe a course in advanced cursing would be in order.
___I’ve tracked down an industry tradeshow for a week in Vegas. Send me and I promise to make an effort to attend one of the sessions.
___Using Advanced PowerPoint Techniques, Graphics and Animations to Bedazzle Leaders 101
___Is there anything we have on substance abuse – a “how-to” kind of class?
___Really? You’re going to give me the time to go to learning or the money to travel to it? Don’t make me laugh.
___I don’t know – what did you take to get your job? I’m sure only a short course will suffice to fill that gap.
What could you have done to have been more successful last year?
___”More successful?” It sounds like you aren’t thankful for what you got there buddy. You might want to work on that.
___Less leadership “support” and more common sense would have helped.
___While a bonus will not make me more successful, it can’t hurt matters.
___Suppressed my sense of humor and my snarky remarks during meetings.
___How about the ability to pick and choose the work I am assigned?
___I could have constructed a functional time machine to reverse your bad decisions.
___I have everything I need to be successful, at another company. Thanks.
What can I do to make your job easier?
___Nothing. Just keep those checks coming.
___Please, sweet Jesus, stop trying to help me.
___A limit of three random/psychotic changes of direction per month would be great.
___Have you considered an extended vacation or taking a sabbatical? I recommend it.
___I have a list of people who need to “disappear,” if you catch my drift. (Wink, wink)
___You can stop assigning me the workload of three full time staff.
___Before you make up deadlines, could you please purchase a calendar?
___Please have your boss remove their head from their ass.
What kind of feedback to you have for me as your manager?
___Keep on going – oblivious seems to work for you as well as me.
___I am impressed with you – well, that you find the office daily. That I’m impressed with.
___What you don’t know won’t hurt you.
___Whatever you do, don’t look in the box under my desk.
___It’s adorable that you pretend to care.
___I don’t supposed you’d be willing to take a job with our competitors?
___You are PURE. A Previously Undetected Recruiting Error.
___You don’t have stress but you ARE a carrier.
___I’m sorry, do I work for you?
___Like you care…
I think my multiple-choice approach streamlines the process – don’t you agree?
When I was a kid in the 1970s, I saw the TV movie The Deadly Tower, about Charles Joseph Whitman infamous shooting spree in the University of Texas tower. Kurt Russell played the killer, in an almost cardboard portrayal. I remember at the end of the film they referenced that in his autopsy, it was determined he had a brain tumor. That seemed to explain away what he did – shooting 45 people and killing sixteen (including his wife and mother off-campus). That movie really stuck with me.
Of course that was before all of the other mass shooting incidents that were to follow. Still, I never forgot that movie.
Amazon popped up a book suggestion for me, A Sniper in the Tower, the Charles Whitman Murders, and I had to pick it up. (This says a lot that Amazon’s algorithms thought that this would be a good book for me – but that is for another blog post.) My first thought was that it was a university press book, which meant that this was going to hit the facts. A lot of university presses are seeing true crime as a context for history, which is great. One of my own publishers of Secret Witness is the University of Michigan Press. I like this trend. It brings a good clinical perspective to a genre that is often tabloid-ish and exploitive.
This book did not disappoint. Mr. Lavergne had a daunting task ahead of him, one that only a fellow true crime author could appreciate. How do you tell the stories tied to such a large-scale crime and do so in a way that the narrative is not a hodge-podge of confusion? I’ll tell you want, he cracked that nut. This story begins far before August 1, 1966. Lavergne weaves a story of a pressure cooker slowly building up steam, reaching the inevitable point of explosion.
So much has been written and produced about the shootings I was worried I would be disappointed with the narrative. I was not. Where PBS’s recent documentary Tower failed was that it did not weave a cohesive story. It tried to mirror the confusion and chaos of that day into its telling. Mr. Lavergne does not fall into that trap. He stays the course and leads you on the path from the start of Whitman’s spiral into madness to his death and beyond.
The writing style here is crisp and to the point. There’s not a lot of theorizing. The facts are what drive this story. I learned a great deal I didn’t know – which is hard to do with a story that is so often told as this one has done.
I found it interesting in how the author explored the myths and urban legends that surround who actually shot Whitman. At first I wasn’t sure where he was going, but Lavergne did not disappoint on taking me down this little side-trip through the crime.
A Sniper in the Tower is a great read for true crime enthusiasts. I have to admit, I’m jealous of Gary Lavergne’s efforts. I always thought this might make a good book, and it has – I just didn’t get the chance to write it. I think this book will remain the go-to book on this heinous crime for generations to come. I give it five out of five stars.
Now, I need to start getting paranoid about the books Amazon is suggesting I might like…
At a Michcon convention in the 1970’s I met Gary Gygax, the co-creator of D&D. I remember him saying that playing the game was akin to writing a novel. That always stuck in the back of my mind as a neat idea. We all think this, but few ever put it into action – to actually script the game sessions as a book. Hence this effort.
Thus continues the novelization of our current Dungeons and Dragons campaign. Note: At the bottom of this post is the links to the previous segments if you have not been keeping up.
I limped the church in Whiterock with a bit of a wry grin on my face. My gait was still erratic, but slightly better than in previous days. I was coping with my injury as best I could. Entering the temple, I was reminded all too well of the church’s disdain for magic that was not practiced by their priests. They had been purging those that practiced the art arcane for years. Just admitting you were a practitioner of non-church magic was enough to bring down the wrath of the church. It did not bother me as much as it caused them fear.
The church had a lot to fear. I was a warlock, a Keeper of the Great Fire, Ushers of the Great Old One. Our numbers in Whiterock were few, but it was more than enough to keep our mission ongoing. While the church wasted time on mortal souls, our quest was much more complicated. Bringing about the end of the world was something that consumed souls, even those that the church claimed to save.
The temple itself smelled of beeswax, incense, and false hope – at least in my mind. The priest war long flowing robes and seemed to float across the dark wooden floors to me. “What brings you here my son?” The old man always made me edgy. Some of it was the concern that he would learn that I was a warlock, but some of it was just his strange, almost always happy demeanor. Men that are always happy carry the darkest secrets – or so my sect-master says.
“This,” I said, pulling up my britches to show my leg where the cockatrice had bitten me. The skin was gray and hard like a stone, a large patch that stretched from just above my knee and up almost to my codpiece. “I was hoping you could heal me.”
The priest leaned in and touched the stoneskin almost apprehensively. “How did you get this injury?”
The old priest shook his head. “This is beyond me. I will say a prayer for you though.”
“Save it,” I replied. “I don’t need your prayer, I need a cure.” I turned and shuffled out. The entire encounter summed up my dealings with the church. They were always there in life when I didn’t need them, offering me things I couldn’t use. That was one of the reasons I had embraced the Dark Ones. At least they offered power in exchange for my service.
I made my way to Braxton Oldsford’s home, a member of my sect. I knocked and he and Dumar Ultard were there at the door. “You’ve returned!” he exclaimed and ushered me in. Ultard bombarded me with questions about the Gellesian Fields and the creatures we had faced there. Both were interested in my stoneskin, though neither had any idea of how to cure it.
Inevitably the talk turned to the demon skull that had possessed, albeit only for a few short days. “I have heard that such artifacts speak to you…is that true?” Oldsford asked.
“It did speak to me, though it did so in dissonant voices. I could not understand much of what it said. It was as if it were trying to impart something on me, pass on some message.”
Their mouths hung agape at my words. “None of us have ever dared march into that haunted battlefield, yet you Althalus, you went there and found such an artifact. To hold the skull of a demon it is said gives you power over them in the hells. Where is it now?”
My lips curled. “I was forced to surrender it by my comrades.”
“You no longer have it?” Ultard asked.
I glared at him, always the idiot. “What part of ‘surrender’ did you not understand? We were waylaid by a member of the Sisterhood of the Sword. It was necessary to turn it over to her to get what we went after. Now we must recover then go onto Karn and finish this fool’s errand.” I was far from happy about being little more than messengers for the long-dead Gray Rider. This was not getting me closer to my goal…bringing about the end of the world.
Braxton Oldsford nodded then went to the large red leather tome he kept above his fireplace. He carried it down. “You have done well Althalus, better than any of the others of our sect,” he shot a disappointed glace over at Ultard. “I impart on you the second rites – the spell for those that have communed with the dead.” He handed me the sacred book.”
“What kind of magic does it hold?”
“You are only ready for those of the second verse – but you are more than ready. Read on and choose your spells wisely.”
I was stunned. Only Oldsford had ever read the second or third verses of the book. “You honor me.”
“Nay,” he replied. “You have heard the voices of the dead. That is your first step down a greater path my young friend. I see much of me in you. Learn your new spells. I foresee that this journey you are on is much longer than you anticipate. You will venture far into the world, which has been foreseen in the fires. You alone may be one of the few that brings about the return of the Great Old One.”
The disappointment in Ultard’s eyes gave me some happiness. “I will not fail.”
“Study – learn what you are able – and prepared. Your journey is a long one.”
* * * * *
For two days I stayed in my room, only leaving to eat and shit. The spells in the second verse were difficult to understand at first. The more I read and re-read them, the more they began to make sense. I practiced at night, so my comrades wouldn’t see me. Theren had gone off to his sacred grove, and Arius went to the temple daily to pray and meditate. Galinndan hung with his friends from the Thieves Guild, drinking with the money he had paid them. Bor – Bor just practiced with his sword. On the second day I finally understood the words and could speak in incantations with some degree of accuracy. The spells worked! The power came to me as a trickle at first, but as I mastered the new spells-arcane, it became a tidal wave.
On the third day Theren returned looking overly rested. “We should be leaving for Karn,” he announced at breakfast. “I am now ready.” Arius and the rest had traded some of our treasure for horses. He called his Rollo, which seemed a strange name for a horse. Theren’s was named Drago, which was somewhat sinister sounding for the druid. We had all used our few days to recover and recoup, though I was still plagued with my stoneskin growth.
“Did the trees tell you it was time to go?” I asked, allowing myself a grin at his expense. “Or perhaps you have smoked enough of the wild-weed that you finally are ready to finish this journey.”
Theren was not amused. “I communed with nature and the forest spoke to me,” he said arrogantly. “I have learned much now. I can transform into the form of an animal, if it is my whim.” He was proud of what he had just mastered. I tried to picture him as a threatening bunny or a menacing mole. Such a power was a waste in the wrong hands. What I could do with that would be something to send ripples of fear into those that opposed me.
Arius grinned. “Of course you can,” he sniped back. “If you smoke enough of that forest weed and drink that mushroom soup, you believe you can do anything. You druids are all the same. Every little rock sings a song – every tree has a story to tell.” Coming from a paladin I found his words ironic and funny because they were at Theren’s expense.
“Would you like me to show you?” he retorted.
“No,” I said flatly. “We are really not interested.” I saw the red rise on his cheeks at my words. His frustration made me happy. Perhaps next time you will not be so quick to give up my possessions…
“Oh we believe you,” Bor added sarcastically. “You can change into an animal. Very useful I’m sure.” His piling on only infuriated Theren even more. It made my heart less black.
We set out mid-morning, fully provisioned. None of us had been to Karn before, there had never been a reason. We had heard all sorts of rumors though about Lord Sklaven. Some said he was mad with old age, others claimed that his advisors were the true power. I did not care. We needed to deliver our message recovered from Lexa Lyoncroft and be done with this business.
On the road to the east, we passed several farmers with carts heading off to Whiterock. My companions and I had changed. In the past we would have merely waved to them. Now we put our hands on the hilts of our weapons and wondered if every passing farmer was some sort of concealed threat, ready to spring upon us.
Several days passed and it wasn’t until the fourth day that we came across some strange wagon tracks. What made them strange was that they crossed the road before us, rather than travel on the road itself. Why would anyone not take the road and travel with wagons cross-country? Also I noted that some of the ruts were deep in the dried mud, an indication that they had formed up in column to conceal their numbers. This was not the work of farmers off to reap hay – that much I knew. Theren agreed.
Near that end of that day Galinndan spotted something on the road before it. It came into our view – a massive man, all muscles. He wore dark leather breeches and a chestplate of leather and steel. His arms were bare, and looked more like trees than arms. He was bald, except for his bushy eyebrows and a thin goatee. The man stood before us with a thick cape of fur on his back, from a creature or creatures I have never beheld before. He was older than us, probably late 40’s or even 50’s, though the years did not seem to take a toll on him. His sword was massive, with nicks and dings on its length that spoke to battles long fought and won. In the warrior’s other hand was a battle axe, almost as menacing as the giant sword. This is no run-of-the-mill fighter, this is a killer. Handling one of these weapons would be enough for most – he wields both.
He spoke through gritted teeth. “Who are you pond-scum-sucking vermin? Have you seen them? I am on their trail…they were headed this way!”
I could see that Bor and Arius were contemplating drawing their weapons and I was glad they did not. Doing so would have probably done little more than decapitate us and perhaps leave another nick on his sword, if we were lucky.
“Who are you following?” I asked nervously.
“The Amber Elves. They’ve stolen my granddaughter you woodchuck-humping, cockpiece-sucking fools.”
Before I could ask what Amber Elves were, Bor asked him his name.
“I am Matthias Blackshear, former First Knight of the Royal Guards, and I demand your assistance; you pansy-wasted little piles of minotaur shit! If you do not aid me, I can only assume you in league with those kidnapping bastards.” Pride hung in his words on the dusty trail. He said his name as if we should know who he was. We looked at each other with some confusion.
Seeing him, nearly half a man more than any of us, I realized that we were about to assist this man or perish.
“What kind of help do you need?” I asked.
I hope you are enjoying this as much as I am writing them up. Below are previous episodes:
For those of you that follow my blog, you know I take the anniversaries of victims of unsolved crimes seriously. April 9 marks the 29th anniversary of the disappearance of Richard “Keith” Call and Cassandra Hailey. I say, “disappearance,” because their remains have never been recovered. While it is surmised that they were murdered, we do not know what their final fate was. We only know that they have never been seen since the night of their journey into the unknown.
Over two years ago I had no idea who they were or how they were intertwined to the murders dubbed the “Colonial Parkway Murders.” A lot has changed in two years. Like most cold cases, the story is often treated as a footnote in the annals of law enforcement. Keith and Cassandra are not a mere statistic, they were vibrant young people with the world and lives ahead of them.
In working on our book on these murders (A Special Kind of Evil) we’ve had a chance to interview Virginia State Police, FBI, and, most importantly, family members of this pair. I can’t call them a “couple.” They disappeared on their first date, and it was not a romantic affair but a trip to a movie and a visit to a college party off-campus near Christopher Newport in Newport News, VA.
It started out so innocently – like a scene from a 1980’s teen movie. Keith picked up Cassandra at her parent’s home. They went to the movie then onto the party and mingled, and Keith left to take her home. That’s the short version. In the early morning hours, only a short time later, Keith’s car was spotted on the Colonial Parkway by several people…including his brother. It was at a pull-off right after Yorktown heading north on the Colonial Parkway, less than 15 feet from the road in plain sight. Keith’s father found the car on the way to work but was not entirely alarmed by what he saw.
The majority of their clothing was in the car and the National Park Service rangers proposed to the media that they had gone skinny dipping in the York River. It was a preposterous suggestion – it had been in the low 40’s that night and just getting to the river would have been treacherous, especially if you were naked and in the pitch darkness of the historic roadway.
On top of that, both of them had an aversion to the Parkway. Two years earlier, a mile or so from where Keith’s red Toyota Celica was found, there had been a brutal killing of Cathy Thomas and Rebecca Dowski. Their deaths were horrific and proved to be the first of four pairs of killings on the Virginia peninsula. Their murders cast the first shadow on the Colonial Parkway.
Most in law enforcement have contended that Keith and Cassandra went there to make out. Empty beers were found in the back seat of the car near their clothing. When you find clothing and an abandoned car in a place known for wild partying and young couples parking to do what young couples do when they park, it almost made sense. Almost. The thing was that Keith was in a serious relationship at the time. He and Cassandra had not demonstrated any romantic inkling towards each other. Many authorities still cling to the concept they went there to park. This was reinforced by search dogs that seemed to indicate they were taken separately from the vehicle to the icy cold York River.
I favor Major Ron Montgomery’s (York County) thinking however. In my interview with him he told me he doesn’t believe they were ever on the parkway…that was just where Keith’s car was abandoned. Honestly, there’s a lot to back that theory up. There is no tangible physical evidence that verifies they were on the Parkway. On top of that – the Parkway is past where Cassandra’s house was. They would have had to driven her past her home to go to the Parkway, and when they left the party Keith’s intention was to get Cassandra home before curfew.
I used to love driving the parkway before I worked on this book. Now I drive it and I go slow, noting the changes to the terrain over three decades. I am always torn between the natural beauty of the drive and the horrible things that happened there.
All of the crimes tied to the parkway murders are horrible. This one stands out for most people for one reason – there were no bodies. Keith and Cassandra were simply gone. Having a body does not ease the pain but it is important beyond description. It means their remains are someplace known. I cannot fathom the anguish of not knowing where your loved brother, sister, or child is. Keith and Cassandra left that party and drove off into nothingness. It is an open wound that tears at you as a writer or as a human being.
The sad part is that someone out there must now something about what happened to them on the drive between Christopher Newport and Sandra’s home in Grafton, VA – most likely on or near Route 17, J. Clyde Morris Boulevard. In that short distance, someone had to see something – even if it was a faux police car pulling over Keith’s red Toyota Celica. At the time you probably didn’t give it a second thought. Today your information could help re-energize this 29 year old cold case. There is no such thing as an inconsequential tip.
If you do have any information, please contact the FBI at (757) 455-0100 or me at email@example.com. I will be passing along any tips directly to the authorities.
Having spent considerable time crawling through these murders each one is special…and I will cover them as each couple’s crime arrives on the calendar. Today however it is about Keith and Missy (as she was known to her family.) Today, we need to focus on solving their disappearance.
And to the insidious monster that was responsible for these crimes – my daughter Victoria and I are your worst freaking nightmare. We are going to get the full story out, as full as possible, and we are going to generate new tips and leads. Our books on cold cases generate tips for law enforcement all of the time – and this book will do the same. Your days of living free thinking you got away with these murders are limited. Why? Simply put, we are not alone. The people of the Tidewater want justice and the families demand it. We won’t let this story be a footnote. We want it to be page one.
It is time for us all to work together to bring Keith and Cassandra home once and for all. It is time for justice.