Excerpt from novel-in-progress

Here’s an excerpt from a novel I’ve been working on for a few years on-again-off-again.  I’m going to finish it over the next month or so.  Let me know what you think – thanks!

Chapter One


     “There is beauty in everything.”
     Vinatoru Kocescu scanned the street, his black eyes hooded by the mop of hair falling across his brow, the flesh around them puffy and dark.  Gray concrete tenements with shattered windows abutted gutters teeming with used condoms and cigarette butts.  A vacant construction site overflowed with rusted I-beams and posters promising a better tomorrow by politicians growing fat off of bribes and corruption.
     What did they call these places in America?  The ghetto?
     Kocescu called it paradise – his paradise.
     Just after eleven o’clock this morning drizzle dribbled like God had a prostate problem.  Kocescu’s best whores formed a ragged garland across the apartment entrances, awaiting the lunchtime crowd of bureaucrats, office workers, and construction Joes to blow their pitiful paychecks on fifteen minutes of sticky friction.
     God bless them all, thought Kocescu.  Them and their money.
     A spit of rain dotted his face, rivulets stumbling through the ravine of scar tissue that spanned Kocescu’s right jaw from his ear lobe to his chin.  The souvenir came from a knife fight in Bucharest years back.  A millimeter lower and it would have been Kocescu’s body that littered the dank alley.  Enraged – giddy almost – from the cut, Kocescu had dipped his shoulder and pumped his own blade up and under the punk’s sternum, shredding the pulmonary artery.
     Kocescu took a deep breath, passing the air up his nostrils and then opening his mouth to let it escape again.  He repeated the cycle once more.  Despite the yoke of carbon monoxide from too many cars, he smelled something.
     Now he used his tongue to taste the air.  Flicking and waggling, allowing the entire range of his olfactory system to break the air molecules apart, catalog them, and confirm or refute the presence of prey.
     Kocescu could smell a woman before he even saw her.  He’d acquired the skill establishing himself as the kingpin of lust and depravity in Moldova.  Dealing with the thousands of women he’d pimped, beaten, or sold into slavery, he got to know all the weird and wonderful scents that leaked from their pores and dripped from their dark places.
     His nostrils flared again.  He knew the perfume.  And he knew the scent that lay beneath the manufactured smell.
     Old woman.
     And something more.
     Kocescu turned his head, knowing she’d be coming around the corner.  An old woman didn’t interest him.  Most of Kocescu’s clients preferred much younger delicacy.  But for those searching for more mature interaction, he had two lively grandmothers on speed dial. 
     Just in case.
     She ambled around the corner with a slight limp, leaning forward.  Kocescu figured both arthritis and an injury were to blame.
     Opportunity walked with the old woman.
     Kocescu eased back into the recessed doorway of the building behind him.  What, he wondered, would make an old woman walk through a dangerous section of town?
Arrogance.  He could see it in the way she moved.  Even with her afflictions, he could sense anger and determination in the old gal.  The way her jaw was set firm.  The way she struggled to keep her chin up.  The way she eyed the scene before her with a mixture of contempt and pity.
     Kocescu smiled.  In another life, he might have respected her.  But now, she was making a terrible mistake.
     The girl who walked with the old woman couldn’t have been any older than twelve.  But she, too, had determination.  Kocescu saw it in the way she tugged on her…grandmother? Yes.  On her grandmother’s hand.  Insistent.  Steady resolve.
     Kocescu lit a cigarette and sucked at the filterless tip until the cinder glowed bright red.  He blew out a thin stream of smoke and watched a sudden gust of wind jerk it out of the doorway.
     The old woman had stopped.  Was she rethinking her decision to come this way?  Perhaps she remembered when this part of town had been a family neighborhood.  Long before the Communists had razed the old houses to put up the apartment complexes that had then fallen into disrepair with the end of the Cold War.
     Kocescu could see it – the battle of emotions playing out across the pale slabs of baggy skin on her face.  For several long moments, she stood there, immune to the drizzle and the brash desires of her younger companion.
     Kocescu heard the girl now.  Pleading.  Something about how they had to go this way in order to reach their destination in time.
     Still the battle raged.
     The old woman took a step forward.  Then another.  And more until they had resumed their walk with the same speed as before.
     The old woman hugged the girl close to her as they passed the first of Kocescu’s whores.  He heard his girls clucking at them.  The little girl’s eyes went wide when she heard what they said to her.
     Kocescu chuckled.
     Then the old woman’s voice cut through the air, slicing at the most aggressive whores.  They backed off.
     Arrogant and spunky, Kocescu decided.  But they were trespassing in Kocescu’s domain, one he’d worked hard to acquire.  And one he was expanding into America.
     Kocescu studied the girl.  He watched the way she walked.  He saw her hips hadn’t yet blossomed.  She still had the gait of a young boy.  Her breasts were still probably absent as well.
     He sucked at the cigarette.
     They cleared the first block.  Ahead of them, an intersection on an almost deserted street that ran across this section of Kocescu’s turf.
     From his pocket, he removed the Nokia cellphone and pressed a single button.  The phone purred in his ear and then someone on the other end picked up.
     Kocescu said three words and then disconnected.
     Further down the street, the aging blue van’s engine came to life.  Black soot shot out of its tailpipe, clogging the air nearby with the smell of diesel and sulfur.
     The old woman and the girl finished walking the gauntlet.
     They had cleared Kocescu’s domain.
     He saw relief flood the old woman’s frame as her shoulders relaxed and her gait slowed.  The girl must have sensed something was wrong because she was asking her grandmother questions.
     Kocescu ground his cigarette underfoot and took a long drag on the air, feeling the cold air rush in through his nostrils, cleansing him of the tobacco he’d just ingested.  The old smells returned: the stench of urban decay, the pollution, and even the scent of the old woman.
     The new smell interested him most: the perfume of youth.  Kocescu licked his lips as if he could draw from the air the young girl’s essence.
     The old woman and the girl reached the intersection, stopping to check for traffic before they crossed.  The van shot away from the curb as the old woman stepped onto the street.
     Screeching tires and the van’s wailing horn ripped apart the relative silence of the late morning; the van’s bumper stopped inches from the old woman, but she fell to the ground anyway.
     Kocescu saw the next moments like stills in a flipbook animation sequence.
     The van’s side panel jerking open on its rails.  From inside, Vitya and Daro, Kocescu’s thugs, jumping out.
     The girl, huddling over her grandmother, looking up.
     Alarm sweeping over her face – the look of sudden realization – she starts to back away, clawing at the ground beneath her for purchase as she screams.
     Vitya reaches her first, clamping his gloved hand over the girl’s mouth.  The girl kicks and struggles but she’s no match for Vitya’s hulking form.  He drags her into the darkness of the van.
     Daro bends over the old woman’s frame.  The grandmother’s hands come up trying to fight him.  He brushes her feeble attacks off, grabs one of her wrists and snaps it at the joint.  The old woman screams now, displaying weakness for the first time as she clutches the useless limb.
     Daro squats down behind her, pats her head and then jerks it to the side.  Even though he’s too far away, Kocescu can imagine the dull snap as the old woman’s neck breaks.
     The lifeless body slides from Daro’s embrace and then he’s back into the van.  Tires screech again; more exhaust spurts into the air and the van roars off down the street, makes one turn at the next intersection and then disappears.
     Behind them, the old woman’s body lays in a crumpled heap, one hand still outstretched toward the street – still fighting, even in death.
     Kocescu lit a fresh cigarette and inhaled deep.  He’d seen a lot of grabs before.  He’d done them himself a few times in the past.  But no one had ever impressed him as much as the old woman.  He admired her resolve – her willingness to sacrifice everything for her family.
     Kocescu had never known such sentiment.  Few of the orphans he’d grown up with on the streets did.
     He watched the scene for another minute, drinking in the stark detail.  Across the street, his whores paid no attention.  They knew Kocescu would kill them if they said anything.
     He sucked another bit of the tobacco into his lungs and felt the heat clear his mind.  He had a business to run.  And his bottom line was about to get even better; the girl would fetch him a lot of money.
     Kocescu pulled the cellphone back out and pressed a new number.  He had arrangements to make.
     But as he listened to the ringing at the other end of the line, a strange thought popped into his head:
     What if the grandmother hadn’t been protecting the girl?

This Election: A Chance to Get It Right

I’m less twelve hours or so away from proudly casting my ballot for Barack Obama to become the next President of the United States of America.  And in the waning hours of this historic campaign, it’s coming down to every single vote.

I know that there might be many people who read this blog post and shake their heads at me.  They know that I’ve served in the military, and done my part for this country throughout the years.  They think that because of this, that I should be voting for McCain.  But to me McCain isn’t putting this country first at all.  He’s only putting himself and his personal ambitions first.

His choice of Sarah Palin for the VP spot should have been the wake-up call for every single American.  Very rarely do we have the chance to see the brilliant true nature of a politician.  By selecting Palin to be one heartbeat away from the White House, when there were other far more qualified GOP women (Olympia Snowe from Maine comes to mind first) out there, shows that McCain only thinks about his election and not about the country.

And yet, to this day, there are still people who feel that Palin is great, wonderful, and a bed of roses.  These people are beyond hope as they’re so terminally stupid that I actually feel they should have a chance to be a citizen under a McCain/Palin administration just so they can see how utterly awful it would be – just not here in the United States.  Perhaps we put a string of barges together and float them offshore or something where they can have their own fiefdom of idiocy.

Look, I know Obama’s not perfect.  I don’t know any politician I’ve ever truly ever trusted 100%.  But Obama also knows he’s not perfect.  He’s got humility and he’s got the courage to know that he needs smarter people around him for the stuff he doesn’t know.  McCain paints himself as this nation’s greatest hero.


The primary directive of any Prisoner of War is to a) give as little information to the enemy as possible and b) try to escape.  And yet McCain never tried to escape from his prison.  Another captive did repeatedly and endured far worse treatment because of it.  And prior to this, when McCain crashed yet another plane and caused a huge fire aboard his carrier, he went to the pilot’s lounge instead of helping out.

McCain’s entire career has been about himself and how he can get ahead.  He has bedded every major lobbyist of every stripe.  He owes more favors to corporate America than any other politician.  He is – without a doubt – the biggest fraud that has been foisted upon this nation.  His voting record has mirrored W’s 90% of the time.  This is not the change we need; this is damage we need to get rid of.

An Obama administration will once again restore this nation to the greatness it deserves and the position in the global community we need to occupy.  We have a lot of wounds to mend and we have a lot of rectifying in our own country to get to.

Perhaps people are holding back because they make decent money and don’t want their taxes to go up.  If you are truly that selfish, then there’s very little that can be said to you to make you into the compassionate person you truly ought to be.  Think about your fellow people and how the variety of social programs can help others less fortunate than yourself.  Don’t be miserly with your money; celebrate the chance to use some of your good fortune to the benefit of mankind.   A rising tide floats all boats, not just the corporate yachts.

I’m hoping every single person who reads this post understands that I am probably one of the most national security-conscious people I know.  I hate terrorists.  I agreed with the war in Afghanistan but bitterly disagreed with Iraq.  I have scores of friends in the service and have served my country.  On good years, I am happy to pay Clinton-era taxes on my bounty so that others may have a little less stress in their lives, because I’ve been in those shoes, too, and know what it’s like to lay awake at night wondering when the tide of fortune will change.

It changes tomorrow for the United States of America.  Take your right as a citizen of this great nation and use it to make it a greater one.  Cast your vote for Barack Obama and help put this nation one track for a great future full of hope, accomplishment, and prosperity!


Self-Protection for Children – Article 1

I have two sons and, like any decent parent, spend a fair amount of time worrying about the world they’re growing up in.  When I was a kid, things seemed safer.  It was rare that we heard of someone grabbing a kid.  Getting flashed was about the worst thing to happen and I didn’t hear about any of that until I was almost a teen. Things are different now, whether the actual number of incidents has risen, or because the media has constant access to us and in their search for content, they report on things like this a lot more.

Regardless, I am determined that my children will not go out into the real world without the tools they need to survive potentially bad situations.  But training them for such things is a science unto itself.  For me, the martial arts have been a lifelong pursuit of constant study and training.  But I’m also a fully grown adult.  I know what my body is capable of doing; and I know full well what my own responses will be in any number of very bad situations due to a rather colorful canvas of past experiences.

But kids are a different story.  I train my oldest for about twenty-thirty minutes each weekday morning before he gets on the school bus.  We run through a variety of physical techniques that are designed to give him a foundation in the martial art I study.  He is now familiar with the basics of proper footwork, distancing, and timing and angling (even if he doesn’t recognize them as such.)  He knows how to throw a solid jab and a decent simple kick.  He knows several hand release techniques in case someone grabs him.  And he knows how to use a staff about as long as his body and improvise that weapon in the form of an umbrella.  Again, he doesn’t necessarily “recognize” that he knows this, but this is all in his neurology right now.

Here’s the problem: he’s a child.  And these physical techniques won’t mean a whole lot unless he’s mixing it up with someone his own size and age.  It’s never too early to build a foundation, of course, and the time will certainly come when his techniques work on adults.  But it’s not here yet.  And relying on only the physical to help protect him would be doing him a grave disservice.

At his age, the single best thing I can do for him is to teach him how to be aware.  His awareness is his equalizer given his stature.  If he is able to see or sense danger coming before it gets to him, he can avoid it.  And by developing his wareness, he is helping himself in ways he can’t yet fathom.

Examples abound of supposed adults who wander through life with their heads in the clouds, oblivious to all but their own selfish inclinations, uncaring of the effects of words they utter without regard or actions they take or don’t, and disdainful of those whose perspectives they lack the ability or inclination to grasp.  We all know these people – whether they’re co-workers, friends, or – regretably – family.

What I hope to accomplish with my sons is to teach them that awareness is their best defense – not only against the external dangers that exist in the real world, but also against the internal danger of becoming a lazy, rude, complacent idiot.

I instituted a new drill today with my oldest son.  Each morning his task is to locate an index card placed somewhere around the house.  On each side of the index card is written a code word.  Every day, one side of the index card will be faced up with that day’s code word on it.  My son is to locate the card, read the day’s code word, and then at some point later, when I ask him, repeat the code word back to me.  Each day the location changes and the code word may or may not change as well.

The drill works on several levels: he must first locate it by paying attention and actively searching it out.  He must then read and remember the code word for the day, knowing that he will be asked at some point later on. There are a few other levels built into it as well that we’ll talk about in future installments.

I’ll talk about this topic again, since it’s obviously something I believe in quite strongly.  Thanks for reading!

Past, Present & Future

Today is my late father’s birthday.  He was born October 21, 1944 and passed on in August of 1993.  But I don’t do anything on the anniversary of his passing, preferring instead to celebrate his birthday as a time of remembrance and contemplation.

My father was a mere 48 years old when he passed.  It was, mercifully, a quick and sudden death that stunned my family greatly.  It would have been far, far worse to watch him fade away from some long-suffering disease or illness.  And as much as one grieves in any loss, one can also appreciate the fact that he didn’t suffer in his passing.

My father’s birthday always gives me great reason to reflect on what is most important in life.  Along with my father there are three other relatives on my father’s side buried with him.  Gottlieb Frederick was my great grandfather and I never knew him since he passed two years before my own birth.  He was close to 90 when he passed after having spent his life building houses when he emigrated to the US from Germany.

George Edward was always known more to me as Uncle George.  In truth, he was my father’s uncle and a great uncle to me, but we always called him Uncle George.  I remember him as a big bear of a man with a strong deep voice and big belly who drove a big Cadillac up from where he lived in Connecticut.  Many times around the holidays, I would stand at the window peering up the street trying to see when his car would suddenly round the corner and creep down toward our house.  Despite being small and young, I would always try to help him with his suitcases.  He was a lifelong bachelor who kept a lady companion and the idea of that seemed especially novel to me as I’d never heard of that before.  When he passed in the mid-80s, it was a loss I felt deeply.  I have kept his license plate that reads “ZREM” for many years.  Those of you who have known me for a while will now understand where I got my email addresses and original website.  It was a bit of a tribute to his memory.  I’ve continued that by taking his middle name for my youngest son, William Edward as well.

Marion Elizabeth was always a mystery to me.  Like her brother Uncle George, she worked on certain classified projects for the military and its civilian contractors during World War II.  She held a long career as a personal assistant at the company that would later become Texas Instruments.  When she was younger, she traveled extensively and was almost single-handedly responsible for raising my father and his two sisters when their mother passed at a very young age.  (In truth, my father was well into his rebellious 1950s teen years by then, so the idea that she “raised” him is a bit of a stretch, heh)  Marion, who for some reason I’ve never quite understood – although it probably has to do with how young kids distort names in pronunciation, was called “Marmoo” by me and my sisters growing up.  By then, she was already into her late 60s.  She was a bit strange, often standing at her window staring at us as we played.  I tended to view her as eccentric and she probably was quite so.  However, I also owe her a debt of immense gratitude.  When I was born, my parents had no idea what to name me and were a heartbeat away from settling on George Jr. when Marion suggested the name “Jon.”  Not short for Jonathan.  Just Jon.  Thankfully, my parents liked the name and I’ve been relieved ever since.  I don’t think I’d do well with a Jr. attached to my name…just sayin’.

Whenever I visit the cemetery to spend time with my father, I try to pay my respects to those who have gone before me and lie with my father.  Knowing where you come from is vital to understanding who you are in the present and who you hope to be in the future.  Forest Hills Cemetery holds other grave sites of other relatives in my family and I can remember my father taking me there when I was younger, pointing out who was where and what he knew about them.

I try to continue that tradition today.  I brought my two sons with me earlier and explained to them what I thought they could handle.  Jack, my oldest, is just starting to fathom the idea of death and what it means, but he’s filled with questions – the same questions I can remember peppering my father with at that age – about what happens and where do we go and all that jazz.  William is also fairly conscious of the idea, but he equates it to more of a physical reality than anything else.  Their natural curiosity inspires me to try to answer as best I’m able given the subject matter, aware as I am that my own belief system is somewhat different than my wife’s and the material my sons have been exposed to in church.  Right now, it’s more a blending of answers so as not to cause a conflict of beliefs.  I want my sons to explore and come to their own decisions about what life and death mean for them.

An appreciation of family starts with an acknowledgment and understanding of the past.  Who are we named for (if anyone) and what did they do in their own life.  How has what they accomplished or passed on to us affected us in the present?  And how can we take the lessons they learned and apply them to our own lives such that the future we see for ourselves is fully actualized?

I know many people who are trapped only in the present.  And in that trap they become a shell of a person – unthinking and uncaring about who they were and the lessons they were supposed to learn years ago.  Their focus is both narrow and limiting because they have forgotten whence they came and they cannot see beyond the short distance of a today to greet the grand vista of a brighter tomorrow. Their relationships suffer because of this and yet it then becomes even tougher to free themselves from the trap.  The cycle continues.

Remembrance days like my father’s birthday are a reminder to me that I need to be conscious of my own journey through life and how it should always be with a three-pronged perspective of past, present, and future.  In appreciation of the past with all its ups and downs, all its grand lessons both huge in scale and passing blinks of memory, we come to the present moment where we are able to apply the wisdom we have gained and focus it on making this the very best instant possible.  Only by doing so will we be able to bring about our sweeping vision for a happier, better tomorrow.

I hope those of you reading this will take a moment – any moment really – and think back about someone in your own family who may have affected your own life in some positive way.  Give thanks.  God knows we don’t always do that enough or appreciate the ones we claim to love the most.

In honor, memoriam, and deepest appreciation of my father George Frederick Merz.

Happy Birthday, Daddy.

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