Review of A Sniper in the Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders, a true crime book by Gary M. Lavergne

Sniper Book

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.

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Kurt Russell playing Whitman

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.

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The real life Charles Whitman

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.

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Where Whitman fired from

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…

To the Gellesian Fields Part 10

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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.

Althalus…

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?”

“A cockatrice.”

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:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

Part 8

Part 9

Character Background Material

My New Campaign

#dungeonsanddragons

Anniversary of the Disappearance of Keith Call and Cassandra Hailey

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Crime scene photo of where Keith Call’s car was found on the Colonial Parkway near Yorktown, Virginia.

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.

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Keith Call – Student at Christopher Newport
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Cassandra Hailey – Christopher Newport student

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.

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Keith’s car…did you see it that night?  

If you do have any information, please contact the FBI at (757) 455-0100 or me at bpardoe870@aol.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.

Centennial of US Entry into WWI

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Bill Thaw – One of the Americans that joined the French Foreign Legion, then the French Air Service, then became a combat commander in the US Air Service.  August 1915 photo.

Today, April 6, 2017, marks the 100th anniversary of the US declaring war and entering the Great War.  We were latecomers to “the big show,” which had been raging since 1914. Even with the declaration, it took months before US troops began to arrive in France, and even longer before we actually waded into combat in 1918.  We fought in significant battles for a few months until the war ended on November 11, 1918.  As the author of several books on the Great War, I cannot simply let this event pass without a few random and wandering thoughts of my own.

My first exposure to the war came in childhood.  I remember my great grandparents had a farm handyman that was a vet – I think his name was Ernie.  Quiet man, never talked much.  It’s hard to believe that in my lifetime I knew a WWI vet.  All have “gone west” now.

The US doesn’t embrace the Great War the way we do WWII.  The First World War was a quick event for us, unlike the rest of Europe who bore the scars of it to this day.  We lost a lot of men though.  The Meuse Argonne Cemetery is filled with more Americans than the cemetery at Normandy, or so I read.  While the war was horrific – with flamethrowers, gas, tanks, bombs, trench warfare, etc.; our troops were only in it for a few relatively short months.  It failed to scar us enough to be remembered the way we do WWII.

It was a war that changed our country though.  We realized that standing on the sidelines, hiding under neutrality, did not spare you from the war.  It was the first war that brought about terrorism.  The US Capitol was bombed by the Germans.  Munitions plants in New Jersey were blowing up – even damaging the Statue of Liberty.  We were the victim of unrestricted submarine warfare.  In fairness, we were selling tons of munitions to France and England…so our neutrality was at best, a means for us to profit from the war.

While there are bound to be a lot of ceremonies marking this event, I would like to remind folks that we actually had Americans fighting in the war years before the official US entry.  Volunteers, mostly college students, joined the French Foreign Legion in 1914, looking for adventure.  Many of them transferred into the French Air Service, joining the Lafayette Flying Corps and the all-American (French led) Lafayette Escadrille.  These men would later become the heart and soul of the fledgling US Air Service when American did finally formally arrive in France in 1917.  Others joined the American Ambulance Service.

That’s right.  American men were flying and fighting and dying in the Great War four years before the rest of the country caught up to them.  They knew in their hearts what was right long before the rest of the nation did and took action – many giving their lives for a cause that the rest of the country ignored.  On this day of commemoration, let us not forget the men who went before.

Nor let us forget the commitment to our allies, still strong today.  As Colonel C. E. Stanton said to our French comrades upon our arrival, “What we have of blood and treasure are yours.  In the presence of the illustrious dead, we pledge our hearts and our honor in carrying the war to a successful conclusion…”

“…Lafayette, we are here!”

BattleTech April Fool’s Day – Operation Total Freakin’ Awesomeness

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Let’s face it…we’ve all thought this at one point or another.

Every two weeks or so someone asks me to read their fan fiction.  I always decline.  I used to read fan fiction but I found that most of it was beyond redemption and some made my stomach queasy.  You know you’re doomed when someone says, “I’m three-hundred pages in and am not sure where to go with it.  Maybe you can give me suggestions?”  Or, better yet, you have someone who writes a story from 24 different perspectives – you know, so you can see the whole battle unfold.  Ugh.  How do you explain to someone that they are, in essence, extremely fu*ked?”  Answer, you don’t.

Back in the day, I used to read fanfic and give my feedback.  Then I had someone accuse me of lifting their story . “My story was about a ‘Mech commander, fighting impossible odds, and winning. You stole that idea for your book.”  Um dude, you basically described every BattleTech novel ever written.  Oddly, the guy that made the claim got it wrong – I never even read his 60 page single-sentence monstrosity.  It made my eyes bleed.

People float unsolicited ideas to me too.  “Here’s a story where House Davion destroys the Lyran Commonweath,” or “I came up with a new clan that has been forgotten about.”  Each time one of these crosses my inbox a new ulcer is born and I drift one step closer to that aneurysm that I know is coming.

I like good fanfic and encourage people to take their ideas to BattleCorps.  Don’t try and pitch it to me that I should read your work with the line, “they’ve already rejected it twice.”  That’s not quite the selling point you think it is. Also, submitting it in crayon on the back of a iHOP placemat is also not a format I find amusing.

Not all fan fiction sucks.  I’ve read some good stuff in the past, on my own accord. I support fan fiction that people post for free. Having said that though, a lot of it is a crazed fanboy delusion wrapped in energy-drink fueled nightmares with a thick foamy layer of twisted brain-farts that barely resemble the BattleTech universe.

I do not favor fan fiction where someone sells their novel or sourcebook online.  I have gotten into heated debates with these self-appointed constitutional and copyright authorities.  Let’s be clear, if you are selling your stuff, you’re infringing on the copyright.  If you are stealing BattleTech artwork for your little self-publishing venture, you’re stealing.  Just because BattleTech has been around for a while doesn’t mean you get to do whatever you desire.

Alright – rant mode off.  To commemorate April Fool’s Day this year – I offer you a “typical” bit of fan fiction for your consideration.  It is a tribute to every nauseating fan fiction ever created.  I’ve incorporated a few dozen elements in this story – something to offend and upset almost everyone.  So here – whatever you do, don’t enjoy it!

Operation Total Freakin’ Awesomeness

By The World’s Biggest BattleTech Fan Who Knows Everything About the Universe – Even More than Stackpole, definitely more than Pardoe.

Lieutenant Cody Whiplash Brightstar- callsign Tight-Testicles, piloted his family’s Stinger ™ with ease.  BattleMech’s ® had been the cross-dressing kings of the battlefield for over 30 centuries (give or take 28 centuries or so).  They were humanoid war machines capable of leveling city blocks even when they weren’t in the city.  They used tanks for rollerskates and greased their actuators with the blood of dead infantry who dared oppose them.  To blend with their surroundings, they were painted a variety of bright colors and patterns.  What was the point?  When you’re running at 97 kph in a three story, 75 ton war machine, blasting everything with lasers, particle burst slingshots, missiles, autocannons, hypersonic potato cannon, fuzz-busters, etc., camouflage is secondary to destruction.

The BattleMech ® Brightstar piloted had been a Star League machine, handed down generation after generation to him.  His father, grandfather, great-grandmother, great-great uncle, cousin six-times removed, and the guy his great-great-great grandmother had slept with, had all died in the cockpit of the ‘Mech that he was piloting.  That didn’t bother him. He was sure his fate would be different. I have the benefit of learning from their failures. Only after his father’s death did he assume command of the 12259th Lightfoot Lancers.

Like his ‘Mech, his unit could trace its origins back to the Star League, as could all of the really good and hip mercenary units.  The 12259th had opted to remain in the Inner Sphere when General Kerensky left the Inner Sphere to go and found the Clans.  They could have gone, but they were way too cool to just be a bunch of followers.  They had fought for all of the major houses and had been betrayed by all of them at one point or another…because that’s what cool mercenary units do, get betrayed.  Even ComStar rated them as “Posers,” which Brightstar treated as a badge of honor because ComStar was so damned weird to begin with.  The constant double-dealing and selling-out by their employers had given the Lightfoot Lancers a reputation of not only being awesome but somewhat a flight risk.

They stood on Urban – an almost forgotten planet in the Lyran Commonwealth ®, their latest employer and betrayer.  Cody’s father had negotiated a contract to garrison the world at the edge of the Periphery against the ice pirates and other raiders. The world was said to have held a Star League garrison in as Castle Bran complete with a Star League Memory Core somewhere on the planet.  Of course his father had been betrayed by the local Duchess, Duchess Imma Douchebage, who was scheming to become the next Archon General because that was what everyone in the Commonwealth did.  Urban was a world that was covered with old abandoned cities which made perfect scenes later in this story for battle.

Then came the Clan invasion™ !

They struck like a horny pit bull at a bitch in heat…humping the leg of every planet along the periphery border.  The Clans went all honey-badger (oddly enough there is a Clan Emerald Honey-Badger) on the fringe of humanity, devouring worlds and crushing entire regiments because of their vastly superior firepower, speed, and confusing tactics of only sending three warriors to defeat an entire battalion.

Now they had come to Urban.  Now they would face the 12259th in battle.

“Sir,” Dax Starscream signaled.  “The Clan commander wants to meet with you before the fight.  She sounds tough.  Said something about a combat trial.”

“Very well,” Cody responded, peeing just a little bit inside his coolant suit. “I will show her what she’s up against.  That should scare her into submission.” He was already plotting his escape off-world.

* * * * *

Star Commander Shamalamadingdong, a warrior of Clan Tin Sloth © tightened the straps on her battle stiletto high heels and adjusted her duraweave bullet-proof push-up sports bra.  Today the denizens of the Inner Sphere would feel her wrath.  Today they would be overwhelmed with her fashion sense and whipped into submission (in just the manner you are thinking) by her intimidating unibrow and tats of Elementals over the crease of her muscled buttocks. She put on her olive drab Nordstrom 211 combat lipstick for the occasion. Today we will take this world because, well, it’s in our way.  We will conquer all of the worlds in our flight path, despite the fact they could be bypassed, because it is the Clan Way ™.  One day the Tin Sloth will stand victoriously on the home soil of Terra and be the illclan and all of the other Clans, the Rancid Cows, the Copper Snails, the Jade Ratsuckers, The Ivory Poachers, the Mauve Moths…they will all acknowledge the greatness of the Tin Sloths!

She stepped off of the Ironclad Class dropship ramp and saw her opposition – Cody Brightstar.  She was unimpressed.  A mercenary…who dares evoke the Star League in the name of his unit. She mentally connected the pimples on his forehead to form the letter “L”, outlining her opinion of her competition.

“I am Star Commander Shamalamadingdong, of Clan Tin Sloth© and the Skywalker Bloodname © and I have come to take this cesspool of a planet from your feeble, relatively weak, grasp. I initiate this formal Trial of Keepsies against your paltry and unworthy forces.  With what forces will you defend this pimple-on-the-Great-Kerensky’s-ass-of-a-planet ™?” she barked at him.  She wasn’t entirely sure, but she thought she saw a small wet spot form on his coolant suit crotch as she issued her Challall.

The Inner Sphere scum cleared his throat and the wet spot on his crotch seemed to grow with each beat of his paltry heart.  “I don’t know – what are you attacking with?”

“The Tin Sloths are steeped in honor.  Before we were the Tin Sloths © we were the Rainbow Trout, absorbed during the Great Trial of Deathly Pummeling.  We abhor waste and are great recyclers – as was the will of Nicholas the Whacked.  I would be willing to take you on alone, in one-on-one combat for possession of this lint-trap-scrapings you call a world.”  She paused long enough to spit the tobacco she had been chewing, splattering it at Cody’s feet.

“One-on-one?”

“Affidavit – that’s ‘yes’ for you, you ignorant tapeworm on society,” she replied with confidence, ending with the cursory and required Clan word for “aff.”  Clan Warriors had an entire dictionary of abbreviations and words they were required by the Holy Nicholas Kerensky to include when they spoke. It was the depth of their “culture.” Nicholas had based the Clans on the animals that had come to him during a drug-induced binge where he had almost drowned in a pool of his own vomit.  The warriors of Clan Nova Shart went so far as to go on a LSD and acid induced high annually to try and recreate his experience.

“To the death?”

”To your death – aff,” she said.

“What if I cheat and bring my entire company?”

“Then I will bring my trinary,” she replied.

“Well, that sucks.”

“Aff,” she replied with a wicked grin.  “What say you…you goiter on the neck of mankind.”  The goiter insult was one only the Sloth’s used and was considered devastating amongst the Clans.

“Could I send someone in my place?”

“A warrior with honor would never do such a thing.”

Cody stared at her with a blank expression on his face through the ten seconds of awkward silence – a silence she shattered like an artillery barrage.  “Neg Cody of the Brightstar bloodline.  You must fight your own battle.”

“I accept?”

“Is that a question or your response to my challenge, quiaff?”

“My response?”

“This,” Shamalamadingdong said to herself, “is going to be easy.”

“You know your mike is hot,” Cody replied.

She gritted her teeth in anger and swore to kill her Tech, despite the fact it was not his fault.  “We meet at noon tomorrow at the place of your choosing,” she said out loud.  Don’t bother to purchase a coffin, I intend to fry your remains in the cockpit.

* * * * *

“You’ll be dead before the end of the first salvo,” Tech Sergeant Chen said to Brightstar.

“I have a plan,” Cody said with confidence that came from two bottles of Benadryl and a handful of pills he found in a men’s room floor.

“You pilot a bloody Stinger ™, Chen replied.  “You’d be better off wrapping yourself in aluminum foil and carrying an Airsoft pistol.”

“You know that abandoned military museum near the spaceport?” Cody asked.

“Yeah – all of that stuff is antique,” Chen said frowning.

“Here’s a list,” he handed an Apple ™ iNoputer to the sergeant.  “Get these things and meet me in the bay.”

Chen surveyed the list suspiciously.  “You’re mad!  These are museum pieces you’re talking about.”

Cody Brightstar smiled in response.  “I’m not crazy.  No, I’m going to win.”

The next day Cody stepped out in his modified Stinger ™ and stood before Star Commander Shamalamadingdong.  Her Spitting Sidewider Class OmniMech ® was adorned with patches of brightly colored faux fur, typical for the Tin Sloths, giving her a strange (if not nauseating) camouflage pattern.  The OmniMech ® was easily 35 tons heavier than his Stinger.  Despite that, and the fact that she had been genetically bred for war, and had trained her entire life for battle, in a society where warriors were the epitome, and that her ‘Mech had superior technology…Cody felt he had a good chance of taking her down. Part of that was his confidence in his skills.  The other part was bold arrogance capped off by a copious amount of cheap vodka he had just consumed.

“You showed,” she said on the open battle channel.

“You thought I wouldn’t?” he replied.

“You surat-suckling Inner-Spherers are known to lack courage, honor, integrity, and left testicles,” Shamalamadingdong replied.  “You have reconfigured your Stinger ™ , affidavit?”

“Oh these?” he lifted up his arms where duct tape held the new weapons securely in place.  “Yes.  I did.”  BattleMechs ™ were like Legos ® in that you could pop off any component and with a bit of brute force and Gorilla Glue ™ you could make them work.

“Your shoulder mounted missiles are a joke.  You will not even damage me with so few,” she boasted, popping open her faceplate and wiping the sweat from her single brow.

Cody made his Stinger ™ shrug with his neurohelmet control.  “You may be right.  We will have to see.”

Shamalamadingdong cleared her throat like a chronic smoker than spoke again.  “We shall fight this engagement in our time-honored and tradition-laden rede-mandated manner – steeped in ceremony and ritual.  The Trial of Keepsies is our most sacred tradition.”

“Um, okay,” Cody returned.

“First, you will step back 19 paces, one each for the great clans who will send you to your grave.”

“Aren’t there 20 clans?”

“Negatory,” she snapped.  “There is one, the unspoken clan, who we don’t acknowledge existed and we never speak about them.”

“But you just did.  You just told me about them.”

“Nuh-uh,” the Star Commander said.  “Did not.”

“So you basically don’t talk about them?  What did they do that was so heinous?”  Cody pictured a fraternity panty-raid gone horribly awry resulting in the death of everyone involved.

“Crimes so dark and disturbing that we cannot speak of them.  Things that soiled the very fabric of our traditions and society.  Acts so hideous and perverse that the mere mention of them is punishable by death – or being forced to watch the ancient broadcasts of ‘The View,’ or Spiderman 3.”

The mention of Spiderman 3, a film that had led to the Kentares Massacre, was no small thing and sent a chill down Cody’s spine.  Strangely, he managed to fake being cool.  With pure bravado Cody smiled.  “You don’t know what they did do you?”

“Negatory,” she replied.  “As I said, we are forbidden to speak of it.”

“Okay, I back up 19 steps.  Then what?”

“We fight – to the death!”

“Huh,” he said unimpressed.  “I expected a lot more.  I mean with all of that talk of tradition and stuff.”

“That is all.  Our traditions are simple really, but extremely steeped in history.”  Pride rang in her words.

“Okie-dokie,” he said, starting backwards in his modified Stinger ™.  The rubble and ruins of a once vast city around them would provide plenty of places for him to run and hide once the firing started.  Besides, I have a few tricks up my sleeve.  Shamalamadingdong backed up her imposing, if not oddly colored ‘Mech as well.   When she stopped they stood facing each other.

“Okay,” Cody said coolly.  “Now what?”

“It begins – with your death!”  She raised her arm mounted weapons aiming at him.

Cody used his neurohelm to raise the arm if his own ‘Mech, pointing over her shoulder in the distance.  “What in the hell is that?”

Shamalamadingdong turned her ‘Mech to face the new threat, one that didn’t exist.  Cody broke into a run, swinging behind a crumbling building.  “You are a cunning foe.  I respect such guile.  I shall relish grinding you to pulp under the feet of my Spitting Sidewider ®. “

Cody flattened his ‘Mech with its back against a building…to better blend in.  “You have a weird way of showing respect.”

* * * * *

The Star Commander stealthfully poked her ‘Mech’s head around the corner to see if the inner-spherer scumbag was there – but he was not.  Her tactical display had lost track of him in all of the rubble and ruins.  I believe he means for me to chase him all across this planet.  That thought did not daunt her.  Her OmniMech brandished enough firepower to consume his paltry Stinger ™ in a shot or two.  Sure its destruction might litter the area with radioactive debris once his fusion reactor was ripped apart, but that was a small price to pay for honorable victory.

She stepped into the street when suddenly her ‘Mech reeled.  Her damage indicators showed damage to the neck coil, just under the cockpit.  Spinning she caught another blow from Cody’s ‘Mech, a karate chop to her head.  She was caught off guard, since Clan warriors did not stoop to physical attacks, despite the fact their ‘Mechs were humanoid in shape and form. She used her joystick to angle her targeting reticle on the inner-sphere scumbag but he made that difficult, bitch-slapping her ‘Mech about the cockpit/head hard.  The impacts of the open-palmed slaps made her bite her lip, suffering 1/3 a hit point in damage.  Curse you Cody Brightstar!

Using her neurohelm to control the massive Sidewinder, she unleashed a roundhouse kick.  Cody’s nimble Stinger ™ tucked and rolled and her leg crashed into the building she stood next to, sending a wall of bricks and wood falling onto her.  Cody came out of his summersault, stood and ran.  She went to lock weapons on him and unleashed a blast with her CT-001 Piercer Model J pulse laser.  A stream of 4th of July-like sparklers of red and blue filled the space between them, glancing off of Cody’s right leg for four points of armor damage and eight points of paint damage.  She wanted to unleash the fury of her SearTech 8-9-200 Particle Projection Cannon but cursed to herself.  He’s within my minimum range, so I cannot shoot him.  Curse that surat-loving pond scum!  She broke into a run in pursuit but his erratic dodging and tendency to run through the crumbling buildings, coupled with her own ‘Mech sinking deep into roadway which was never built to handle 60 tons of running OmniMech, allowed Cody to evade her pursuit.

He will not get far.  The next time, I will have range on him and he will die, perhaps even with honor. 

* * * * *

Cody’s sprinting had heated up his ‘Mech so much that he had to pull his s’mores off of his cockpit dash and store them in the cooler near his seat or the chocolate would have melted and made a sticky mess.  I won’t let that happen again!  The air in his cockpit smelled of marshmallows, the sweat of dead relatives, and the stick of his own despair.  It was the smell of desperation and victory.  His earpiece in his neurohelm chirped.  “Tight Testicles – come in.  This is Range Rover ™, over.”

“Go ahead Range Rover ™,” he said, happy to hear Dax Starscream’s gravelly voice.

“Our sensors show Shamalamadingdong moving towards the south edge of Central Park.”

“Roger that,” Cody said pulling up Mapquest ™ on his tactical display and waiting for it to recalculate.  The old park was perfect.  Flat, clear of debris, it stretched for three miles.  I have her now.

He trotted his modified Stinger ™ and brought his new weapons to bear.  When he reached the edge of the park he knew Shamalamadingdong’s sensors would pick him up.  Before she could charge, he activated his direct channel to her.  “Star Commander, this is Lieutenant Brightstar,” he said in his best Sam Elliot/Daniel Radcliffe voice.  “There is nothing between us, I suggest we slug it out at this range.”

Shamalamadingdong roared with laughter and he pictured her unibrow furrowing.  “We are at least 60 hexes distant and you are in a Stinger ™.  Even if you could swamp out for LRM’s, you couldn’t hit me at this range.”

Cody adjusted his father’s fuzzy red dice so he could make her out better in the distance.  “Then you have nothing to worry about, unless you are afraid of me.”

“I fear no man.”

Bring it on witch!  “Then I double-dog-dare you, come and get me!”

Her Spitting Sidewider ® started to move towards him, casually, arrogantly.  Cody hit the target interlock trigger button (TITB) and fired his four missiles mounted on his torso.  The missiles streaked out and slammed into the Sidewinder ®, sending massive chucks of armor flailing into the air like butterflies scattered in a stiff spring breeze.

“Impossible!” Shamalamadingdong howled.  She picked up her pace trying to close the gap.

Cody locked on his machineguns and opened fire at 40 hexes.  The bullets couldn’t miss the building-size ‘Mech, riddling its armor with each step.  Cody stayed locked onto her, pausing only to take his s’more out of the mini-fridge in his cockpit.  Each step ripped her armor apart more and more. Piles of .50 cal armor piercing round casings littered the ground around his ‘Mech, forming small piles as he unleashed machinegun fury.

At 35 hexes range he triggered two more stubbier missiles.  They streaked in hitting her ‘Mech’s crotch region, penetrating deep and blowing it apart.  The Sidewinder‘s ® left leg fell off and Shamalamadingdong plunged forward, furrowing a trench in the sod of the old city park.

“How?” he heard her gasp.  “You used a machinegun beyond its three hex range.  And those missiles, you hit me at two miles out.  That is inconceivable!” Pure frustration and quasi-erotic fury rang in her words.  Cody was tempted to touch himself he was so happy.

“I raided the old military museum.  I outfitted my ‘Mech with 21st century Browning machineguns, MGM-140 ATACMS and FGM-148 Javelin missiles.”

“But their ranges and the size of their warheads….”

“All 20th century tech.  I know, it surprises the hell out of me too.  Hey, what can I say, sometimes the best tech is the old tech.”

“You cheated.”

“I turned information into ammunition – literally,” he replied.

She struggled for several agonizing moments to get her ‘Mech upright. It listed like a Marine in port on payday.  “You have won Cody Brightstar.  Urban is yours to keep.  The Tin Sloths will depart.”

Cody grinned.  “I guess that makes you my bondsperson,” he finally replied.

Shamefully she replied, “Affirmative.”

“Awesome!  First things first, you’ll need to cut that unibrow of yours in half.  Second, report to my HQ for duty.”

“What assignment will you have me fulfill?”

“Laundry Shamalamadingdong – starting with the underwear I have on.  I may have spoiled myself a little at the start.”

# # #

So there you have it – the most horrible BattleTech fan fiction ever written…a tribute to every horrible piece of fanfic out there.  I stopped counting the mistakes, errors, and illegalities involved with this at 51 – so this parody is fairly robust in its violations of the laws of God and man.

I fully anticipate at Gen Con this year seeing Clan Tin Sloth patches and t-shirts, because no matter how bad this was, there will be some that love it.  Me, I’m looking forward to the logo for Clan Nova Shart which is destined to surface at some point.

The Cynic’s Guide to Making Your Meetings Effective

EffectiveMeetngs-page-0
My snapshot of a typical week’s worth of meetings – totally scientific.  

I have spent the better part of my daytime career in meetings, and I am no better for it. If people were compensated by how effective their meetings are, most would be living in cardboard boxes or in a van down by the river.  Even worse, most people don’t seem to care that the way they run meetings sucks.

When I was at Ford, we determined that our division lost upwards of $50k a day on poorly run meetings.  We changed that with intensive training and some simple rules.  I have learned a few things along the way, so allow me to share (in my usual snarky way)…

  • Have an agenda. I recently got back to this.  You don’t have write War and Peace – just a line or two about what the meeting is about.  Are you driving for a decision?  Then state that.
  • Start and end on time. People eventually get the idea that you are being effective. I never start more than two minutes after the scheduled time.  Sorry dude, that’s just how I roll.  Either be there or not – but this train is rolling out of the station.  Starting and ending on time is showing respect to people.
  • Don’t stop to catch someone up. That just burns time.  If that person needs to know what they missed, talk to them one-on-one later.
  • If you don’t have the right people in the meeting – then kill the meeting. If someone says, “We really can’t do it without Joan’s input,” then say you’ll reschedule with Joan.  Corollary:  Invite the right people to the call to begin with.  Don’t invite the whole world.  Invite the minimum number of folks needed to meet the objectives of the call/meeting.
  • Don’t read your PowerPoint deck. It is hard to believe, but most of the people on the call attended school and can read (though sometimes that is questionable with senior leadership.) Your slides should reinforce what you have to say.  And the fewer slides, the better.
  • Document the decision or summary of the meeting. One sentence can do it.
  • Silence does not mean agreement. Whoever the idiot was that first said, “If you’re silent I assume you’re agreeing,” clearly doesn’t understand people.  Sometimes I am quiet because I can’t think of non-swear words to convey my shock and awe at the raw stupidity of what I have just been told.
  • Engage everyone. If you invited people to the call you must want to know what they think.  If they are being quiet, ask them what their perspective is.
  • Facilitate your meeting. There are some people who are just blowhards.  They babble on-and-on just to wear out everyone else.  Keep the meeting on point.  Feel free to time-box discussions.  “We’re going to allow 15 minutes for debate on this subject.”  Personally, I like cutting people off when they are on some rambling tangent – but I’m partially evil.
  • Acknowledge people’s contributions. “Thanks Stephanie – that was a good point you raised.”
  • Schedule your call for the smallest amount of time necessary. We’re all busy.  Don’t schedule an hour for something that should take 20 minutes just because you’re paranoid that Mary is going to pontificate her perspective.  Surprisingly you can get most things done in the time you allot if you run your meeting right.
  • If you check that phone one more time I will break your fingers. You’re not in the meeting to play with your phone.  Shut it off or stuff it in your pocket.

Most of this stuff falls into the category of, “common sense,” but let’s face it, that is a rare commodity in most offices.  Share this with the guiltier members in your team.  There’s a chance they will get a clue and even if they adopt two of these suggestions, you’re ahead of the game.

Want more snarky ideas for work?  Check out my book – Corporate Rules – The Cynic’s Guidebook to the Corporate Overlords.