Dan Warthman received the Robert L. Fish award for Best First Short Story for “A Dreadful Day” (AHMM, January/February 2009). He introduced Jones and Akin, the characters in this month’s cover story, in “Pansy Place” in our January/February 2011 issue. I was immediately struck by the rapport between these two men and the way they work in unspoken coordination with surprising results.
1) My friend Bill visited me several times when I lived in Beijing. More than once, we went on Saturday evening to the Sanwei Bookstore and Teahouse to listen to live performances of traditional Chinese music. A woman was playing the guzheng, the music was mesmerizing, the place was hushed. And then a mobile phone rang. And the guy, who happened to be another expat, answered it. And talked. And then made another call himself. During the break, Bill said, I’m going to talk to that guy . . .
2) I remember the first time I heard music through earbuds. The sound quality (though I don’t have, nor ever have had, a particularly refined ear) coming through those little globs of plastic was astounding, as if it were inside my brain. It was magical. Now, though, sitting in the coffee shop or trying to relax on an airplane, what I hear is that gaudy little, atonal, arhythmic, chh-chh-chink-chinka-chink tinkling out of other people’s earbuds. If I protest, most people say, Oh, sorry, and lower the volume; some people get belligerent, almost combative, No, you’re not hearing anything, you’re just an uptight….
3) I remember my dad looking out the window and saying, There’s the neighbor’s dog again, and calling the cops, asking for the dogcatcher. And when the cops didn’t do anything and the dogcatcher didn’t show up, my dad threatened to collect all the dog poop in our yard and take it to the neighbor’s yard. We lived in a row house, on the end, in a break between two rows of six houses, and our yard formed a cut-through between the alley and the street. People, kids especially, used our yard as a shortcut, and so did dogs (and cats and squirrels and a couple raccoons and one time a skunk). My dad didn’t like any of it, but he was especially disconcerted when the dogs made pit stops in my mom’s flower garden . . .
4) Maybe I’m just getting old, intolerant of all annoyance – people talking in full voice on their cell phones (it’s different, hearing only one side of a conversation, than eavesdropping on two or three people chatting); the over-loud and cacophonous ring tones people use in public; people taking up two spots in the grocery store parking lot or not closing the gap when parallel parking on unmarked streets; tying their dogs outside the coffee shop and letting them bark up a storm while they debate between skim or two-percent for their lattes; people moving slowly, idly, inattentively as they cross the street, holding up traffic, flipping the bird when urged by a car horn . . .
5) And related to getting old, it hit me a while back that twenty gazillion Baby Boomers are retiring . . . some of them must be criminals . . .
5) Finally, here’s a good one—I’m always amazed by people’s general intolerance of other people’s quirks and foibles and lapses . . . Yeah, well, as Emerson said, Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds . . .
Jones popped into my head. Someone who could—he’s a retired killer—and would—he’s a retired killer—deal with life’s small perturbations and injustices and unkindnesses. Someone who helps people with everyday problems, applying his unique skills to matters the legal system doesn’t have time to look at twice. An old guy who . . .
Who what? I don’t know for sure . . . what.
Jones has lived his life outside the normal patterns, oblivious to the usual ways that people relate to each other, get along with each other, care for each other. He’s been—still is—a criminal, a very, very bad guy, capable of the worst. He doesn’t have a problem hurting people, though he says he’d rather not hurt people who don’t deserve it, meaning people who aren’t in the crime business. He doesn’t seem to be motivated by a desire to do good, to improve the world, to right wrongs in general. He doesn’t exactly have a code (at least not that he expresses clearly).
No, he deals with things as they come up, one situation at a time, singular problems that either he himself or his old boss Konnie Kondrasin or his protegee Akin Stringfield decide need fixing.
Mostly, he’s retired. He bought his condo in Buffalo, he hangs out at the coffee shop, he’s trying—perhaps not assiduously and not too effectively—to fit in. But things get under his skin. He doesn’t like thoughtlessness, inconsiderateness, unfairness. He doesn’t like it when people mistreat each other, when people don’t have any recourse for small injustices.
He seems like a normal guy. Seem like . . .
As for the stories.
The first Jones story I wrote did not—or has not ye—worked out. He was in a diner and overheard a conversation between two women, one of them had a husband who was suffering from a lingering, painful, debilitating, hopeless illness. The woman said, Where is Dr. Kevorkian when you need him? And Jones thought to himself, I can help. That story was a little too gruesome.
But the idea of Jones helping people surfaced.
The stories come from things that happen. Things that interest or irritate or amuse me. Little snarls with no real solution, maybe even no real problem. I see or hear or read something, and I think . . . Hmm, Jones should look into that.
In any case, I’m pretty sure that Jones would be appalled to have made the cover of AHMM. I, though, am honored and thrilled.