Spoiler Free Review of Spider-Man Homecoming

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The big question out there with geeky fans such as myself was whether Sony could work with Marvel to integrate Spider-Man into the Marvel Cinema universe.  Also looming like a shadow over the Spider-Man franchise was whether the first new Spider-Man movie would be able to stand on its own given its predecessors.  We all wondered what direction it might take.  How would this reboot work?

I’m happy to say that this was a fantastic film.

From the opening during the Marvel credits when they played the Spider-Man cartoon theme song, this is a well crafted story that stands completely on its own.

We didn’t get a whole origin story – thank God.  We all know it anyway.  Radioactive spider bites kid, he gets powers.  In a remarkable move, we didn’t get dragged through that in his film.  Instead this film focuses on a solid plot and characters.

I was concerned with the trailers and the emphasis on Iron Man/Tony Stark.  I was concerned that this would be Iron Man 4 rather than Spider-Man 1.  I was not disappointed in the least.  This was a movie where the supporting cast (Ned and Happy) really help add to the mythos of Spider-Man.  We got just enough Stark in this film, and in all the right way.  A man that is aging, coming to grips with the fact that his recruitment of 14 year old Peter Parker in Civil War put the young man at deadly risk.

The performance of Michael Keaton as the Vulture was great as well.  He plays a great villain who starts out in an almost Breaking Bad formula – being bad for good reasons.  That devolves as the character changes.

This movie is all about characters growing and evolving.  It is a fun romp in the Marvel universe.  We have a new Spider-Man for the new generation.  I took my young grandson to the movie and his take was that the movie was great, but they almost used a bad word at the end.  I wouldn’t say it is for every kid, but we had a blast.

Five out of five stars.  Go see this film!

The Chronicling of our D&D Campaign: To the Gellesian Fields Part 14

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Arius…

I have to admit, we were all a little mad at Galinndan for selling us out to the Thieves Guild, but none more than Bor.  I don’t blame him.  He had become quite attached to Skull Ringer. He muttered something about making the rogue’s skull ring. We thought he was joking, but you never could tell.

Galinndan and Althalus joined me for our designated meeting with Vizir Krolf Lorraine.  We went to the keep and were forced to disarm ourselves in front of the guards. The castle was situated in the center of the city, with plenty of clear ground around it.  My experience told me that those parade grounds and grassy areas would be deadly fields of fire in the event of a siege.  From the growth of vines and moss, it was clear that Karn had not seen military action for some time.

From what Matthias had told us about this Vizir, he was a man to not be trusted.  We were led to the door of his office.  His desk and chair were on a slightly raised pedestal, almost throne-like.  He was a tall man, lanky, in flowing purple robes.  His face was capped with a jet black goatee and mustache that was finely waxed.  His skin was dark, almost leathery, and there was something in the way he moved that told me that Matthias’s assessment of the man was not far off.

He invited us in and extended to us his hand to kiss his ring. I saw this for what it was, an act of domination. Galinndan hesitated.  I made the appropriate gesture, then drove right to the point.  “We desire an audience with Lord Sklaver.  We have message from a killed Gray Rider that is for his eyes only.”  I explained to him how the Gray Rider had come to our village and had died, and how we had been asked with his dying breath to find his stolen message and deliver it.  Krolf Lorraine was clearly unimpressed.

“His lordship is far too busy to waste time with a pack of mongrels wandering in from some backwater town with a mysterious message.  Still, I am curious.  Why not provide me the message and I will pass it to him when I have a chance.  That should satisfy your alleged need to deliver it.”  He waved his hand in the air as if to wave us off.

“We were told to deliver it to the Lord himself.  We traveled to the Gellesian Fields at the request of the rider before he died.  We have traveled far to complete his ride.” I stood firm.

“Why would Lord Sklaver act on the word of farmers from Whiterock?”

“How do we know we can trust you to deliver the message?”

“How did I know you did not kill this Gray Rider and seeking to profit from delivering his message?” Galinndan replied.  I almost whistled.

The Vizir clearly was not used to being questioned.  “You are dismissed.  Begone!”  Our rogue hung his head low and sulked out of the chambers.  Lorraine turned to us the moment that the door closed.  “Who would kill a Gray Rider?  Such an act would bring the wrath of The Herd down upon them.  No one slays a rider…they become marked men.”

“It was a woman, Lexa Lyoncraft.  She’s the one that stole the message,” I replied.

“Lexa Lyoncraft…well, now I know you are liars.  She is nothing more than a rumor on the wind.  The Church recognized the threat that the Sisterhood of the Sword presented.  They purged them in the name of the faith.  All were put to the sword except the handful whose names keep coming up.  I doubt she exists…I think it is someone using that name to instill fear. “

“Say what you will, I am speaking the truth.”

“Your story is fraught with flaws and lies woven within your lies.  The Gellesian Fields are at the end of our realm in un-ruled lands – the wilds.  Our patrols near the edge of that accursed place say that it is haunted land where the dead wander at night.  I doubt that farmhands such as you had the mettle to go there, let alone go and come back alive.”

Althalus weighed in on the debate.  “We have faced near death many times to deliver this message.  We only seek to pass it on and leave.  Why would we lie about meeting her and making up such a story?”

The Vizir sneered in response.  “You have constructed your little story quite well.  But there are mistakes.  Namely I have had agents who have seen you consorting in the city with a known man of low repute – Matthias Blackshear.  Drummed out of the Royal Guard for failing to perform his duty, any associate of Blackshear’s is presumed to be one of the dregs of society – not worthy of wasting the time of Lord Sklaver with.

“Why would we make up such a story?” I pressed.

“Perhaps you seek to lure away troops from the city, leaving us exposed.  Many lords would love the opportunity to seize control of our realm.  No.  You shall not have an audience.”

I was not surprised.  This had been anticipated by Matthias.  “You assume responsibility for us not delivering our message,” I curtly warned.

He laughed a deep almost crackling chuckle that reminded me of the story my mother told me as a child, a Vizir named Jafar.  “I do not think the realm is any lesser for your failure.  If this message is so important, you can give it to me.”

I shook my head. “Thank you sir,” I said bowing as little as possible.  We left and returned to the Copper Horse.  “How did it go?” Theren asked.

Althalus smiled wryly.  “Galinndan got himself kicked out of the audience.”  All eyes drifted to the rogue who was clearly embarrassed.

“As Blackshear predicted, he wouldn’t let us in.”

Theren nodded.  “Then we go with our fallback plan.  This afternoon, we go to court.”

 

I hope you have enjoyed the saga thus far.  Here are the previous parts if you have missed any installments.  Enjoy!

 

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

Part 8

Part 9

Part 10

Part 11

Part 12

Part 13

Character Background Material

My New Campaign

#dungeonsanddragons

 

Visiting the Crime Scene at Ragged Island, the Second of the Colonial Parkway Murders

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The shotgun blasted map of Ragged Island Refuge

This is my second in a string of blog posts designed to take readers to the crime scenes related to the Colonial Parkway Murders (1986-1989). Our book, A Special Kind of Evil, comes out on July 12. This material augments what is in the book with my personal observations and experiences in visiting these sites…a glimpse into the journey a true crime author goes on.

Ragged Island Wildlife Refuge is adjacent the James River Bridge on Route 17. On a map is seems benign enough. As researchers/authors, we had already started to form an opinion of the locale though. There was a seedy side to the site. There were rumors supported by newspaper accounts and our discussions with law enforcement seemed to confirm that the wildlife refuge was not a place that we should find ourselves visiting in the night.

My first visit there I went by myself during one of my many research visits to the area. My journey started in Newport News, the town of my birth, cruising on Route 17. Newport News is an eclectic mix of neighborhoods, some pristine, others much less so. Sometimes the line between these neighborhoods is little more than a street or a plaza built in the 1970’s.

As you cruise towards the James River, you hang a hard right on Route 17 to begin your trek across the James River Bridge. The bridge is 4.5 miles long. Most of it is just above the water, flat and long. Then in the middle of the river is the huge hump of the bridge, complete with small control house structures over the far tops. As you continue the drive your vehicle drops back down to just above the water level again to reach Isle of Wight County. Mentally you picture this journey in bad weather and cringe. There is a feeling of exposure on the bridge.

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The James River Bridge from the Newport News side of the river.

Arriving in Isle of Wight County I noticed an immediate change. Gone are the sea of plazas, apartments, and neighborhoods of Newport News. You are in the middle of brine water wetlands. The air had a river smell to it, that kind of humid aroma of plants and growth, not at all beach-like. On my solo trip I felt like I should be right at the refuge entrance but didn’t see it. I pulled over at a small war memorial to check my phone’s GPS. A road patrol person pulled in next to me, possibly thinking I might have a car problem. I greeted him warmly and thanked him. “I’m looking for Ragged Island.”

“You here for a blow job or to score some weed?”  He said it seriously for a moment, then chuckled.

“Um no, but thanks. I’m looking into a pair of murders that took place there.”

He nodded. “That place has had a reputation for a while. Been that way since I was a kid.” He showed me that I was only 40 yards from the entrance. He departed with the words, “Take care.”

I pulled in and it was a trip through time. My only impressions of the area were through newspaper accounts and crime scene photos, and the site didn’t look very different at all. The parking area was where David Knobling’s black Ford Ranger truck had been discovered. The trees and growth were thicker, but the site looked almost the same as the crime scene photographs.

David Knobling had driven his brother and cousin and fourteen year old Robin Edwards out for a night of kid-based fun the night of September 19, 1987. David had been nineteen at the time. On their way back home it had started to rain. David’s brother and cousin rode in the back of the truck allowing Robin to ride up front. They spent only a few minutes together before David dropped her off.

Apparently they made plans to connect later on. Robin snuck out of her house and the pair met up. From that point on – the facts are subject more to speculation than detail. What is known is that on the following Monday, David’s truck was found in the parking area of the Ragged Island Refuge. Two more days later a jogger running along the beach at Ragged Island found Robin’s body. David’s was discovered a few minutes later. Both had been shot in the head. David had an additional wound in the shoulder. They had been found a mile from David’s truck, testimony to the failure of the police search.

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Crime scene photo – David’s prized truck.

When you stand in the parking lot, there’s not a lot of options as to how to get to the river. One is a direct roadway, parallel to the road that takes you right to the base of the bridge at the James River. The other is a raised wooden and gravel walkway that snakes through the bogs and tall grass of the refuge, twisting and turning to the river’s edge about a mile away.

My research told me that the walkway had been replaced at least once since 1987. My study of the shore maps showed me that erosion had taken away the exact spots where David and Robin had been found. From the photos I had obtained from the era the walkway was twisting and turning, just as it is now. There are no lights. To reach the beach in the dark would have been precarious. On top of that, it was raining heavily. If you stepped off the path more than a few feet you could be mired up to your knees in mud. I went out on the walkway and I have to admit, it creeped me out. It was a turning and twisting trail. You can’t see if someone is only 30 feet ahead of you at any point in time.

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The walkway to the James River.  This has been updated and moved since 1987.  

The Virginia State Police theorized that they were killed on the sandy banks of the James River, a beach area popular with the kids. Their bodies were shot at or close to where they were discovered. How did they get there?  No flashlight was found. That trek in the dark would have been frightening, even if they were there to do what young people do in such isolated spots. It was raining that night, so there was no way they were down on the beach area for anything romantic. David had a girlfriend at home, one that had recently announced her pregnancy with his child. If David and Robin had gone down to that beach, it had been coerced with the barrel of a gun.

My focus shifted away from the beach to the other path, the roadway leading directly to the James River from the parking area. I walked down the roadway that led directly to the river, a few hundred feet. It is lined with trees on both sides. Along the road is a chain-link fence that is covered with a web of vines. At the end you can stand a few yards from the footing of the bridge. Vehicles passing you would not be able to see you. The lights from the bridge and roadway would have provided some degree of lighting in the middle of the night. I’m no criminologist, but this seemed to a more logical spot for a killer to perform his grizzly deed.

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The road/pathway from the parking area to the river.  

While I’m not expert, I looked for similarities in the between the first set of murders. Both paths where the victims were found or killed share one thing in common with the Colonial Parkway…they were channels, a funnel lined with trees. Did the killer choose this location because it mimicked the feeling of the Parkway?  Nature provided the murderer control of the victims. This killer was about control. Whichever pathway David and Robin were taken, there was nowhere for them to go. They were hemmed in by nature, the swamp, the darkness, and a killer with a gun on them.

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From my first visit. where the pathway reaches the James River at the base of the bridge. 

One theory that law enforcement had floated in the press was that someone could have killed the pair somewhere else, stopped on the bridge, and deposited their bodies over the side. They then would have washed up ashore. I don’t think so. There is no stopping lane on that long flat stretch of bridge, and the killer would have been exposed for a few minutes performing his gruesome task, under the lights of the bridge. Not only that, the people manning the structure atop the bridge would have possibly seen the car and assumed that it had broken down. The bridge is a magnet for accidents at night or during foggy periods, and it was raining hard the night that David and Robin were killed. No. No one stopped threw the bodies off of the bridge. This was one of those police theories that didn’t go anywhere.

When we went to interview the families of David and Robin, I took my coauthor/daughter Victoria to Ragged Island. The moment we arrived she noticed that the small visitor map had been blasted by a shotgun. We walked along the roadway/path along the bridge and at the end there were several bikers set up doing some fishing. Standing behind them, I told Victoria that this is where I think the killer would have done his horrible deed. “Going out on the walkway was too risky, too long, too much of a chance of losing control. This murderer is all about controlling his victims. Also I think murderers take the path of least resistance. This is a place you can get to easiest from the parking area, shoot your victims, push them in the water, and leave.”

Victoria nodded towards the fishermen. They could hear everything I was saying, casually talking about murders only a few feet behind them. None turned around and even gave us a glance. It was as if this was to be expected at Ragged Island.

We went back to the parking lot where David’s truck had been discovered. We didn’t know at the time that the vehicle had been staged, laid out as bait for someone to steal. That would come later that night when we met with some of the members of the Knobling family. We also didn’t realize that this was to be a signature of the killer going forward.

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The parking area in 2016, showing the only entrance roadway.  

Victoria and I only explored a short distance down the wooden walkway to the waterfront. Night time was coming and we had people to meet with and interview. “The answers to this crime are not down there anyway,” I told her. We turned around and headed back to the parking area.

“This place is beyond creepy,” she replied.

It was hard to deny that.

 

If you missed my visit to the first crime scene, here’s the link:  The First Crime Scene of the Colonial Parkway Murders

Other posts on the Colonial Parkway Murders  The Anniversary of the Disappearance of Keith Call and Cassandra Hailey

A 2016 Update on our Book – A Special Kind of Evil

Feel free to follow me on Facebook or Twitter @bpardoe870

#TrueCrime

#ColonialParkwayMurders

Visiting the Crime Scene of the First Colonial Parkway Murders

 

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Looking north on the Colonial Parkway from the turnoff where Cathy Thomas’s Honda was found. 

The Colonial Parkway is American’s narrowest national park, a thin ribbon of road snaking through the dense woods, swamps and coastlines of the James and York Rivers, linking Jamestown to Williamsburg and Yorktown.  To the normal tourist the road is serene – it was designed so that signs of modern life were blocked, as if to simulate a road during the Colonial period.  The handful of overpasses are red brick covered in moss in vines, harkening back in time.  We had driven it a half-dozen times before undertaking the book on the Colonial Parkway Murders.  After this book, we would never look at that stretch of road the same way again.

When you are true crime author like Victoria and I, you come to the scenes and drink in everything they can tell you.  Sometimes it is not much, sometimes it is a great deal.

Cathy Thomas’s car was discovered nose down at this site, pushed off of the parking area in a vain attempt to get it into the York River.  The undergrowth and angle of the car merely lodged it upright.  The victims had been strangled with a nylon line and their throats had been cut, in Thomas’s case, a near decapitation.  Additionally, Cathy Thomas suffered a knife wound on her hand – so there had been a struggle with their killer.  Their bodies had been placed in the rear areas of Cathy’s Honda Civic and had been doused with diesel fuel.  At the site there were matches found near the parking area where their murderer had tried to ignite the fuel but had failed.

When you pull off on the site where Cathy Thomas and Rebecca Dowski’s bodies were found, a few things strike you.  One, the space is relatively small.  There are a number of these half-moon shaped pull-offs on the parkway.  They can accommodate less than ten vehicles.  This one overlooks the York River.  When you push through the brush, there is a sheer drop of over ten feet to the water below. Back when their murders happened in October of 1986, there was no curb in the pull-off, nothing to prevent a car from drive off right into the river.

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The curb was not in place when Cathy’s car was pushed over the embankment into the York River

Victoria Hester – my co-author and daughter, joined me at the site where their car was found at twilight.  To us, it was strange and creepy.  The moment the sun started to set, the parkway seemed to transform.  It became eerie, with long shadows stretching across the road.  The trees lining the roads that had seemed so quaint in the daylight, now formed dark tunnels.  We interviewed a number of people that told us that the visitors on the parkway at night were not the tourists. The parkway becomes seedier at night. Rumors bordering on legends abound of drug sales sites, wild drinking parties, homosexual sex spots, and lover’s lane activities abound with the locals, combined with rumors of stalker park rangers. Any such location was bound to have some local folklore tied to it.

Standing at the pull-off, you’re struck by the noise too.  The Colonial Parkway is paved with a gravel to simulate a dirt road of the period.  As cars drive by they make a low rumbling, almost a growling sound.  You can hear a car coming for almost a half a mile.  There are no lines on the road.  When the darkness comes headlights angle on the gentle curves, exposing the parking areas, casting even more shadows.

I remember saying out loud to Victoria, “This isn’t where the murders took place.”  She was not so sure.  So I made my case there, where their bodies were found.

There would have been a lot of blood soaked into the rich Virginia clay, but there wasn’t any present at the pull off where the Honda was found.  There were signs that Thomas’s car had been pulled off a few yards up the road, before the killer’s tried to set it ablaze, and failing that pushed it over the river embankment.  Killing Cathy and Rebecca took time, there had been a life-and-death struggle with their killer.  Time and risk of being seen are key factors on the parkway.  Murder in this simple pull-off would have placed the killer under the glare of headlights of passing cars.  Someone would have noticed two women tied up, with someone holding a weapon on them.

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FBI Crime Scene photograph of the pull off area at the time of the murders.  

We tried to engage the first responders, the Park Rangers, who were called in when a jogger spotted the car.  I wrote them letters, but heard nothing.  After several months I called one of them.  He wouldn’t get on the phone with me, but put his wife on.  Sshe bluntly told me he was never going to speak with me and I should never contact him again.  The second ranger I reached out to, told me that I was to, “stop harassing me.”  A letter and single phone call hardly qualifies as harassment.  One ranger I tracked down, who had given press conferences about the murders, said he didn’t have any memories of the events.  Let’s be clear, murders in National Parks are rare – and on the Colonial Parkway, even rarer.  Giving a press conference about a pair of murders would be one of those things you remember in your career because you may only get to do it once or twice.  Convenient amnesia?  We came to the conclusion that either they were being told to not talk to us or they didn’t want their own mishandling of the cases to be exposed.

As it turns out, both were right.  That is a subject for another blog post.

The Colonial Parkway is a narrow tube – a funnel.  If either victim tried to flee, where could they go?  Up or down the parkway were the best options.  Get off the road and you are in a mire of swamps, creeks, the York River, forest, and confusion.  At night some of the gates are closed and locked, limiting access even more. If the victims were alive there, they were trapped.

Butting up to the Colonial Parkway is the Cheatham Annex, a Navy base that, in 1986, was storage for nuclear warheads.  We reviewed the Navy security logs for the night of the murder, nothing was out of the ordinary.  Also adjoining the Parkway is Camp Peary, better known as the CIA’s “Farm.”  In other words and intelligence training facility where our spies and those of our allies learn their tradecraft. Of course the CIA denies the facility or its purpose.

Stepping away from the emotions that the crime site generates, we pondered the obvious.  If the killer murdered them, how did he get away?  He clearly had driven Cathy’s Honda.  With the Honda pushed down the embankment, did their killer walk several miles along the parkway to get away.  Clearly there had been another vehicle at some point, one carrying diesel fuel, but had the fuel been poured into the interior before it had been brought to the parkway.  That seems unlikely out of fear that the fuel might ignite – the killer clearly didn’t know that diesel fuel has a higher ignition point than gasoline.  Did the killer have a partner that drove him away?  If he did walk out of the parkway at one of the exits, why hasn’t someone come forward who would have seen him?  There’s no appreciable shoulder in many spots of the route.  There are subdivisions and roads that come close to the parkway, but are obscured from sight.  Walking cross-country at night would have been a risky, possibly treacherous undertaking in the dark, covered in blood.

The fact that their bodies were in the rear of the vehicle points to them having been killed somewhere else and Thomas’s car driven there.  There is a larger, more secluded spot that could have been used, the Ringfield Picnic Area, less than a mile north.  It has been abandoned and closed off for years, though recently some clearing was done in that area.  On another visit to the parkway, Bill Thomas, Cathy’s brother, and I waded through the waist deep grass dotted with the remains of picnic tables and garbage cans.  It was surreal, almost post-apocalyptic.  Here, from the road, was a spot of complete seclusion.  This was where lovers could park and do what young people do in cars.  At the same time, here was the kind of place where such a heinous crime could take place and be done out of line of sight with the road.  There were several such places on the parkway.  Then again, we don’t know if Cathy and Rebecca were even alive at any point on the Parkway. They could have been killed almost anywhere.  This was simply where their mortal remains were found.  As much as you tell yourself that over and over, it is still an eerie place at twilight.

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The closed off entrance to Ringfield.  
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When twilight comes, the Parkway takes on an eerie feeling.  

Victoria and I walked the pull-off end to end then wandered up the road for a distance in both directions, taking it all in, hoping that the ground might tell us something that the investigators overlooked.  As the cars rumbled on by and their headlights hit us, we became convinced that, in this case, with these tragic deaths, the parkway didn’t hold the answers.  The trees still there were gnarled mute witnesses to the disposal of the bodies and the bumbled attempt to burn the Civic, but not of the murders.

The answers we were looking for were not on the parkway.  Not that night.

For more on the Colonial Parkway Murders, check out our upcoming book A Special Kind of Evil

#TrueCrime

#CrimeScene

#ColonialParkwayMurders

Review of Crime Buff’s Guide To Outlaw Los Angeles by Ron Franscell

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Fair play disclaimer.  I write for WildBlue Press and was provided a digital copy of this book to review at my option. I chose to write this review because, well, I liked the book.

I recently wrote a blog post on people who visit crime scenes.  I was behind the curve – Ron Francell recognized this a long time ago.  His “Outlaw” series of books explore a city or region, unearthing long lost true crime treasures.  These books are a gentle mix of history, true crime, and travel guide – a unique if not compelling combination.  I’ve read two of his books in this series and the new one, Outlaw Los Angeles, was a rollercoaster ride through the sordid and violent history of LA.  As with all of the books in the series, Ron provides GPS coordinates of crime scenes and grave sites for those that want to experience the locale themselves.

I have long maintained that if you want to know the history of a city or its people, look to the crimes that defined them.  Franscell has done an outstanding job of taking us through the eerie and sometimes bizarre past of the City of Angels. I went in looking for the crimes I knew about, the Black Dahlia, for example.  What stunned me were the number of crimes I knew nothing about.  Even with Discovery ID covering so many historical crimes, Franscell has dug up a myriad of intriguing and captivating true crime yarns.

The coverage of cold cases in the book was good, balancing storytelling with facts.  Franscell provides a good overview of them, often outlining the various suspects.  You have to bear in mind with some of these cases the numbers of suspects could be long and tedious.  The author, thankfully, does not delve into every crackpot theory.

None of these are very long, making this a perfect beach read. Ron knows just how deep to take the reader into the subject, without diving down any rabbit holes.  His prose are witting and wry at times, with obvious care to entertain the reader.  I found myself humbled at some of his text in the Manson chapter.  Franscell sets the bar pretty high for those of us in the genre.

It was a smart move to dedicate a chapter to Charles Manson.  To have included it any other fashion would have been a distraction.  With all of the locations he has tagged in the text, you are tricked into realizing the scope of the Manson family’s reign of terror.

This is not the kind of true crime book that breaks new ground, nor does it claim that it does.  Instead it provides a wonderful tapestry of the darker side of Los Angeles in a comprehensive and entertaining format.  Outlaw Los Angeles is a tour guide for every true crime fan that visits the city – written by one of the contemporary masters of the craft.
#TrueCrime

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Review of “She is Evil” Madness and Murder in Memphis – By Judith Yates

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Fair play warning.  While this book is from my publisher, I purchased my own copy of it and was not coerced into a book review.  My opinions are my own. 

Being a true crime junkie, (it’s part of being a true crime author) it’s hard not to get sucked into this book.  It opens with the discovery of a beheaded and mutilated body.  I was not familiar with Ms. Yates work up to this point, but I have to admit, she hooked me like a big dumb fish with that opening.  How could anyone put it down after that kind of intro?

I refuse to spoil the plot, but suffice it to say the murderess lives up to every bit of the title.  This book is not long – or I should more accurately say, I read it fast.  The victim, Ejaz Ahmad, a Pakistani, embodies everything you desire of the American dream.  He came here legally to carve out a new life.  Had working doesn’t sound like enough of a description of him.  In three chapters I found myself liking this man – a testament to Yate’s writing style.

But like all men, his choice in women was flawed…deadly flawed.  His kindheartedness reminds you of a time when every young man meets a woman that takes advantage of him.  You are caught between the love and lust and the betrayals.

Yates portrayal of Ahmad’s killer, Leah Ward, is such that you find no pity for her.  It is as if she stepped off the set of a season of FX’s Fargo.  The author does not make her a cardboard character, but instead twists the reader around the bizarre blend of mental instability, drugs, and horrific behavior.  As a reader, you find yourself squirming in your seat as Yates recreates the events leading up to the murder.  The mix of an innocent completely sympathetic victim and a gnarled and heartless murderess is something that leaves the reader trapped.  You cannot casually put the book down and convince yourself you know the whole story.  Yates compels you to read on.

The only critique I have of the book, albeit a minor one, is that the writing style is more contemporary than my preference.  In other words, Yates writes in short, crisp, easy to devour chapters.  I prefer somewhat longer (and fewer) chapters.  On the plus side, you can easily cruise through three chapters in an evening (if you dare).  This is purely a matter of personal preference and style on my part – and not a criticism of the book at all.

So, is this an addition to your summer reading list?  You betcha!   Kudos to Judith Yates for a great book and a perfect title.  She is Evil

#TrueCrime

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The Chronicling of our D&D Campaign: To the Gellesian Fields Part 13

Bor

Bor Boskin

The mapmaker, Grayson, told us where to find Odd Bob’s and The Twang – a bow and arrow maker.  We stopped there and Galinndan tried to ascertain the origins of the obsidian arrows he had found.  The owner, one Tagon Vrill, a lanky elf, offered to buy them but would not tell us what the arrows did. Galinndan demurred at his offer, saving the arrows.  To him, they seemed to be special, perhaps magical.  To me, firing arrows were a coward’s way to fight – from a distance.  Skull Ringer, my new warhammer, now that was the way for a man to fight.  Up close and personal.  If you are going to kill a man, at least look him in the eyes.

We reached Odd Bob’s little shop midafternoon.  From the outside it appeared to be a store that sold oddities and, well, junk.  I mean there was a plain rock on display in the window, along with a strange wooden headdress, a necklace of teeth, and other things.  Inside the shop were shelves filled with knick-knacks and trinkets.  The air smelled of dust and mold to me.  Seated on a high stool looking over a thick leather bound journal that filled his cluttered desktop was a small man with a long nose, beady eyes, and white hair that shot out form his balding head as if he had been hit by lightning.

“Welcome!” he said gleefully.  “I am Robert the White.”

“Why do they call you Odd Bob?” Galinndan asked.

“Because I’m odd I assume,” the man replied with a wry grin.

“We were sent by Matthias Blackshear,” Theren said.

“Ohh.  Matthias has not been here in a long time.  Any friend of his is a friend of mine.  It is a shame, what they did to him, dragging his reputation through the mud that way.  It was no fault of his that the prince lacks the common sense of a squirrel.  He was wrongly forced out of his post in disgrace – the man never did play politics well.”

“Do you sell these goods?” Theren said.

“I do.  Mostly I trade them…for good stories. Stories are what separate men from monsters.”

“Really?”  Theren said crossing his arms.  “Let me tell you of our journey into the Gellesian Fields…” He then went on about the murder of the Gray Rider and our journey into the fields and back.  I noticed that Theren highlighted his role in the affairs, such is the gift of a druid to spin such a yarn.  Odd Bob’s quill flew furiously in his journal, taking down every word I thought…or most of them.

When Theren finished, Bob looked at him.  “You may take any object from the first shelf.”

Theren took a small object, one I could not see.  Odd Bob said, “You mentioned a highwayman.  Who was it?  Tell me more.”

“Lexa Lyoncroft,” Theren said.  I added, “She bore the mark of the Sisterhood of the Sword on her arm.” I nodded in agreement.  I had seen the tattoo myself.

The old man squirmed at her name.  “Her I have heard of. She was Swordsworn in the Sisterhood at one point, one of their best.  They thought they’d killed her, twice, but she survived, or so the stories say.  She has found a way to cheat death, though none know what it is.  She only plays the role of mercenary to fit her own needs – that is restoring her order and honor and making the Church pay for what it did.  If she is working for anyone in the north, she is only playing them.  Lyoncroft only leave survivors to let the word reach the church that she is alive still – like a threat without speaking the words.  The church has even sent teams of killers from the Priory of the Burning Blade to apprehend her, only to disappear in the Fields.  Word is that she sent their severed heads back to the priory, but I doubt that she would be that brazen.  If my sources are correct, she has quite a reward on her head from the church.  For her to risk the wrath of the Herd by killing a Gray Rider means that she has become even more bold.”  Odd Bob paused for a moment then said, “For your story including her, you may take an item from the second shelf.”   Theren walked over and picked up a twig.  I presume it was a twig.  Of course he did – that’s what druids do.  Maybe the trig spoke to him.  You could never tell with Theren.

I had come to believe that there was a lot more to the story of Lyoncroft than we knew.  She had a reputation and that could be useful, and dangerous.  I had a nagging feeling that I would cross her path again.

We conversed with the strange man for some time then went for our rendezvous at the Copper Horse Inn with Matthias.  We noticed that we were being shadowed by a bald friar of some sort wearing a blue hooded cloak.  He seemed harmless enough, but I kept my eyes on him.  My father had warned me that cities were places of danger. “The more people you have in one place, the greater the chance you come across one to do you harm.”

The inn was true to its name, a green tarnished copper horse hung on the sign.  We entered and were greeted by the innkeeper, a chubby rough looking woman with moles and warts aplenty.  You could toss her in a pond and skim ugly for a week.  Victoria “Momma” Bellrung ordered us up a meal and drinks.  We were cordial despite her lowly looks.

I noticed a man bumping into Galinndan and seemed to pass him some sort of parchment. The rouge said nothing about it but excused himself to go to the Guildhall.  I remember him saying that he was supposed to check in at such establishments upon entering a town or city, but he had been so caught up with all that there was to see and do, he had failed to do so. At the time, I thought it was a minor infraction.  Of course, at the time, I had no way of knowing how important it was.

Matthias joined us during our second round of cool ale.  “Arrangements have been made, but you boys had better be coy.  This isn’t’ easy.”  I have to admit, with an opening like that, I was concerned.

“Krolf Lorraine is the court’s Vizir, and more a dangerous and crafty man will you find in the entire realm.  He controls the real power behind the throne and covets that seat for himself.  You will need to meet with him.  Do not share your message with him, no matter what.  If you do, you will never know if he delivers it or not.  Information is power to such a man, and if there is one thing I know about Lorraine is that he craves power.

“You have to go to him though – that is court protocol.  He will refuse you.  Lorraine hates not having control, and you speaking directly with Lord Sklaver represents a loss of such control.”

“If he will be turning us down, how do we deliver the message?” I asked.

“The Master of the Court – Uthar Danielson,” Blackshear said with confidence.  “He is an old friend of mine and I explained your desire.  The Master of the Court determines who is admitted into court. As a personal favor, he will give you entrance during the open court session.  Lorraine will be furious, but once you are in the court, it is up to you to pull this off.”

We all agreed, that sounded like a plan, though one with some risk.  Making an enemy of a man like this Krolf Lorraine made me feel a bit nervous.  Matthias confirmed for us our meetings.  “You meet with Lorraine at nine-bells tomorrow. At first bell of the afternoon, you will go to the main court and Danielson will let you in.”

“Will you be staying?” Theren asked.

Matthias finished her drink in a single gulp.  “No.  I need to get back to my farm.  You helped me and I have returned the favor.  But know this, we have shed blood in battle together and are friends from this time forward.  Just don’t abuse that right.”  He winked at us then rose.  “Best of luck to you all.”

We finished up for the evening, each paying for a hot bath.  I bunked with Galinndan and we left Arius and Theren in hall on guard duty.  I have to admit, it felt good to sleep on something other than the hard ground.  The bath felt even better and it gave us a chance to wash our clothing and patch up the damage we had.  I drifted off to sleep in a matter of a few heartbeats.

I awoke with a figure looming over me in the dark. Whoever it was grabbed my gear, armor and all, and darted out into the hallway.  I followed, naked as the day I was born.  In the hallway, I saw our “guards” asleep in their chairs.

The thief reached the stairs and I sprinted, catching him there with a vicious punch from behind.  It was a half-orc.  He fell forward, down the stairs, my armor and Skull Ringers crashing down with his body down the stairs.  I came down after him and when I reached him, he threw three small glass marbles on the ground near us.  They exploded, filling the stairwell with as dense acrid smoke that stung at my eyes and nostrils.

My reflexes kicked in, along with my legs – delivering a devastating kick to him as he tried to regain his footing.  I sent him flying down the last few stairs, sprawling him unconscious on the floor.

“Momma” Bellrung was behind the bar, washing mugs.  She grabbed an iron skillet from a hook and looked at me.  “Problem?”

“No ma’am,” I replied. “Galinndan, fetch some rope.  Let’s tie this bastard up and fight out what he was doing.”

Galinndan hesitated, but obeyed.  The foggy-headed Arius and Theren joined, as did a barely awake Althalus.  “What happened?” I asked our “guards.”  You two were supposed to watch out for us.  You had one job to do…”

Theren rubbed his eyes, fighting to get awakened.  “He came by and blew smoke from his pipe towards us.  It must have been some sort of drug. We went right to sleep.”

As we tied him the half orc came to.  He glanced at Galinndan who looked strangely embarrassed.  Then I spotted it as did the others in our group.  The half-orc had a tattoo on his arm that matched that Thieves’ Guild, matching the one that Galinndan had.  All eyes turned to our party thief.  “You want to explain?” I demanded, only then becoming aware that I was standing in the closed tavern buck naked. I quickly checked to see Skull Ringer on the floor.  If he didn’t answer to me, he would answer to the cold steel of the hammer.

“Um, well…you see, I was supposed to check in with the guild when I came to town.  They summoned me.  They took my money and asked me if we had anything of value.  I may have mentioned your magic warhammer of yours.” I couldn’t tell if he was embarrassed that he had been caught or afraid.  I also did not care.  My anger rose red on my face.

“You set me up to be robbed?”

Galinndan stammered.  “No one was supposed to be hurt.”

“Not good,” Theren said.  “Not good at all.  You don’t sell out your party.  We are practically brothers.”

“It wasn’t my fault.  The guild demanded it, that or they would remove on of my limbs.”

“Oddly enough,” I said picked up Skull Ringer, “I would be comfortable enough with that.”

“Guys…please.  I made a mistake,” the rogue replied. He did sound sincere, but honestly, I didn’t care at that point.

Arius shattered the calm.  “You don’t get to carry the party treasury anymore,” he said.

“The guild is going to be pissed at me,” Galinndan said.  “They have assassins working for them.”

“That’s your problem,” I said.  “No one touched my warhammer.”  I gathered up my gear and headed for the stairs.  I was confident that Momma would be more than capable of making sure that the half-orc ended up with the right authorities. “And I want a different bunk mate!” I added.

I hope you have enjoyed the saga thus far.  Here are the previous parts if you have missed any installments.  Enjoy!

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

Part 8

Part 9

Part 10

Part 11

Part 12

Character Background Material

My New Campaign

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