Trial by Fire

In her fifth outing (after Permanent Vacation), former detective-turned-real-estate-agent CW McCoy rushes headlong into her most troubling case, one that will change her life forever. With Burning Man, she faces the greatest challenge of all—coming to terms with a past that continues to blaze.

Here’s the opening chapter:

I WOKE TO the smell of danger. It seeped through the floorboards and pushed under the door and crawled into my bed. It stung my eyes and clogged my nose and tasted sour as an old penny. There was another smell, too, like the time Mommy turned on the stove and forgot to light it and my brother made a joke about the house blowing up.

It was four days before Christmas, a Saturday and the start of our holiday vacation, mine from kindergarten, Colton’s from second grade, although it didn’t feel like Christmas, because there was no snow. Daddy had just put up the lights, too many, Mommy said. He’d stood on a ladder and hung them over the windows while Mommy stood on the sidewalk below, her arms crossed, telling him not to burn down the house.

This smell felt wrong. Like the time Daddy lit a fire and forgot to open the flap in the chimney, and the smoke tumbled out in swirling stripes, as if it were trying to escape. The smell was dry as the newspapers he pushed beneath the twigs, the logs making a high, hissing sound as if they were hurt by the flames.

My parents had gone to a party. They should have been back. They should have come in to check.

The light that came through the curtains made a square on the wooden floor. Beneath the door, the smoke went in and out as if something in the hall was breathing, alive, coming after me. A lizard with a flame for a tongue or the lady with her hair full of snakes. Or burglars. Daddy was always talking about burglars. Colt would say it was a dragon, breathing fire and smoke as it hunted for little children to cook and eat, but then he liked to scare me.

The smoke stung my eyes and hurt my head. I couldn’t swallow. But I had to warn everyone. And I had to see what was in the hall.

Sliding from bed, knocking over the lamp and a gold cup with curly handles that said I could count to twenty, I crept toward the door. The floor felt warm. I reached for the knob. It turned, but the door wouldn’t open. I rattled and pulled and yanked as hard as I could, but the door wouldn’t budge. I banged on it and yelled for Colt, whose bedroom was across from mine, but no one answered. I put my ear to the keyhole, but I couldn’t hear the voices I’d heard earlier, just before I’d fallen asleep. Angry voices.

Smoke curled over my feet and crept up my pajamas. Like a dusty hand, it pushed me toward the bed. Tripping over the lamp, I crawled under the quilt Nana had made for me, the one with a picture of Snoopy on his doghouse, and stared at the door, daring the monster in the hall to break it down. Its gray breath grew dark, rolling up the wall and across the ceiling. It warmed the air and stuffed my nose and made my tongue stick to the top of my mouth.

From the street below, I heard a siren and the honk honk of horns.

The smoke changed from gray to yellow-brown. It rose through the cracks in the floor and reached over the bed. My chest felt as if someone had me in a bear hug, but I would not go with the smoke. I would climb out the window and come back through the front door and run up the stairs to wake Colton. And together we would save our parents.

Pulling the quilt over my shoulders, I stumbled to the window and tried to lift it, but the window was stuck. I pounded the latch with my hands, but the latch wouldn’t budge.

The sirens got louder, and then they stopped. Red lights flashed across the window. From the street, I heard honking and shouting and the rattle of something as it scraped against the house. Then a dark shape holding a long stick appeared in the window and ducked out of sight, so I wouldn’t know what it was doing. It raised the stick and used it to smash the window and ran it around the edge, the glass flying into the curtains and bouncing across the floor. The shape had a big head that stuck out in the back and a mask like divers wore in the ocean. That’s where its breath came from, the smoke, how it blew it under the door into my room. And because the door was locked, it had climbed up the side of the house. It put a foot on the window and another on the floor and, setting the stick against the wall, stuck out its big black hands and moved toward me.

My ears stung. My heart hurt. My mouth felt as dry as paper. Falling back into the quilt, I cried for help, but nothing came out.

The dark shape wore a raincoat and gloves and had a hump on its back. As it got closer, I saw that it wasn’t a monster but a man, a fireman. He was saying something from inside his mask, but I couldn’t hear. He stomped across the floor and, like the smoke, reached for me. I got scared. I couldn’t leave before I found Colton and Mom and Dad. As I backed against the bed, my hand landed on the cup. I couldn’t stop whatever was still in the hall, Colt would have to do that, but I could stop the man. Raising the cup over my head, I rose to my knees and swung as hard as I could.

But the man was too fast. Wrapping me in the quilt, he threw me over his shoulder and lifted me through the window. I couldn’t breathe and began pounding on his hump. Opening my eyes, I looked down a ladder at firetrucks and flashing lights and people dragging big fans through our front door. The ladder bounced. I felt dizzy. The lights hurt my eyes. The man’s foot slipped.

Just when I thought he would drop me, my cellphone rang.

Burning Man is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords. You can find all of the books in the Candace McCoy series, plus other works of fiction and nonfiction, at my author page on Amazon.

An unhappy family like no other

Did CW McCoy’s father kill her mother and brother and nearly take her life? The question has haunted the former detective for nearly thirty years. When friend and mentor Walter Bishop discovers that police have arrested a suspect, CW reluctantly revisits her roots to uncover the hard truth about her family—no matter the cost.

Confronted by hostile sources and a city ravaged by a string of arsons, CW questions everything she’s come to believe about that night. Did her father commit the crime, or was he framed? Did he disappear, or was he murdered? And what about her own history with conflict? Does the family’s violent streak run in her veins, too?

In her fifth outing (after Permanent Vacation), CW rushes headlong into her most troubling case, one that will change her life forever. With Burning Man, she faces the greatest challenge of all—coming to terms with a past that continues to blaze.

Burning Man is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords.

Burning down the house

It was 1967 and I was a junior in high school, hanging out at the music store after school, trying to learn that slippery instrument called the electric guitar. Across the street sat a record shop, a narrow sliver of a building with a record player in the back where the regulars could listen to LPs before buying them.

Decades before I would create the character of guitarist Hayden Quinn in Born Under a Bad Sign, I pushed aside the curtain that divided the rooms and heard a sound that set my head on fire. Nothing—not Cream, not the Who, not the Yardbirds—prepared me for that assault of Jimi Hendrix. The drums roared, the bass thundered, and the guitar cried with an agony and rage I never could have imagined.

And then there were the lyrics.

“I have only one burning desire,” Hendrix sang. “Let me stand next to your fire.”

With Noel Redding on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums, the Jimi Hendrix Experience blazed onto the scene with 11 songs on “Are You Experienced” that spoke of the distorted reality of love, confusion and mania.

At that time, the market was dominated by the swirling studio work of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” the cheerful vocals of the 5th Dimension’s “Up, Up and Away” and the jazz organ of Jimmy Smith. Hendrix arrived like the Big Bad Wolf, blowing away our rigid notions of pop music like a house of straw.

He played like a man possessed. Unlike anyone before him, and unlike few after—Joe Satriani, B.B. King and the late Roy Buchannan come to mind—Hendrix made the guitar sing. He made it weep. He let it cry out in joy and pain.

His image became as outlandish as his music.

Hendrix mimicked the tortured soul of Vietnam-obsessed America during his Woodstock rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” He played louder than loud as he jacked into a wall of amps, picked a Stratocaster with his teeth and set his axe on fire, wailing away in headband and psychedelic clothes.

Assessing his influence has been difficult, although books by Mitchell and Redding have helped. There have been many packages of Hendrix’s hits. Some have offered us a solid look at his fierce style, like Ryko’s “Radio One.” Some have smacked of exploitation. Others, like the four-disc “Lifelines, The Jimi Hendrix Story,” attempt through interviews and excerpts to shed light on that unquenchable fire.

Fifty years after he brought down the curtain on Woodstock, Hendrix remains the benchmark. He is to rockers what Charlie Parker is to jazz, a musician’s musician who shattered boundaries few could even see. Born in Seattle in 1942, Hendrix’s flame burned short but fierce.

He got his first guitar after his father returned to the projects one day to find his son wailing away on a broomstick. After a stint in the Army, Jimi rose from obscure backup guitarist for the Isley Brothers to rock’s standard-bearer. Three years after he exploded onto the pop scene, on Sept. 18, 1970, he died in his London apartment.

For those of us who struggled to learn his moves, his leads proved fascinating and difficult. Each time I played the war whoops that begin “Purple Haze” I felt the soul of a man consumed by demons. Here was a mortal creating the most liberating music I’d ever heard. We tried to copy it but we never found the cool spot at the center of the flame.

The closest I’ve come is with the music of Hayden Quinn, a tribute to the scorching work of the original.

Hendrix died a lifetime ago, but his music still burns. Fifty years after I first heard you, Jimi, I have only one burning desire: let me stand next to your fire.

Born Under a Bad Sign is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

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Finding Woodstock is a personal reflection on a decade that changed many of our lives—the Sixties. A companion to the novel Born Under a Bad Sign, the collection of short essays provides the backstory to a generation that is still trying, in the words of Joni Mitchell, to get back to the garden.

With original photography by the author.

Finding Woodstock is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and other retailers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Birthday, Woodstock

By the time we got to Woodstock, we were half-a-million strong. Minus one. I never did make it to Yasgur’s farm. For a former musician, that counts as a cardinal regret, although writing the novel Born Under a Bad Sign has enabled me to travel back in time for a visit.

The author at Bethel Woods

Years ago, I did tour the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, the calm and far less crowded tribute to the legendary festival in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. The center nestles on a hill overlooking the original location of the stage. The site features an amphitheater and museum containing historical timelines and a psychedelic bus. The area is surrounded by dense forest bisected by a two-lane macadam road, with fields and post-and-rail fences bordering the road. A green and pleasant land.

Aside from the museum and a plaque at the bottom of the hill, the land hasn’t changed much in 50 years.

From the start, the farm proved an unlikely place for a concert. There were no services within miles. To get there, you drive past abandoned summer camps whose cabin roofs have buckled with time and weather. The nearest town boasts a Walmart, a Super 8 motel and a dog track.

So why did the organizers, including promoter Michael Lang, choose a dairy farm in southeastern New York State to stage a rock festival? Because there was nowhere else to go. In 1969, the town of Wallkill, New York, feared the crowds and other venues didn’t pan out. With less than a month before the August 15 starting date, Lang scouted a farm near the town of Bethel. There, he writes in his book The Road to Woodstock, he found a kindred spirit in its owner, Max Yasgur.

Unlike Orwell, the fictional rock band in Born Under a Bad Sign, my group wasn’t famous enough to play Woodstock. But our drummer, John McAllister, had a pickup truck and an extra ticket and asked if I’d like to go.

I was set to start college in a few weeks—Penn State was on a term system and incoming freshmen were required to report a week early for orientation, which put move-in day a few hours after the close of the festival. It was raining at the site, and already there were reports of crowds and mud. So I did the safe thing: I went to college and, vowing never to look back, have spent most of my life doing that.

Until now.

Born Under a Bad Sign is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

_____________

Finding Woodstock is a personal reflection on a decade that changed many of our lives—the Sixties. A companion to the novel Born Under a Bad Sign, the collection of short essays provides the backstory to a generation that is still trying, in the words of Joni Mitchell, to get back to the garden.

With original photography by the author.

Finding Woodstock is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and other retailers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Celebrate Woodstock with free ebook

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the iconic music festival, my collection of essays Finding Woodstock is now free. The ebook contains twelve reflections on the music and mores of one of the most turbulent and liberating decades in American history. Each essay is accompanied by the author’s photography.

A companion to the novel Born Under a Bad Sign, the book provides the backstory to a generation that is still trying, in the words of Joni Mitchell, to get back to the garden.

You can download a free copy of Finding Woodstock from Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and other ebook retailers. Born Under a Bad Sign is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

 

 

 

 

 

Where the heart is

For Elizabeth Reed, the primary character in the novel Born Under a Bad Sign, photography is more than an art. It’s a calling. Elizabeth wants her camera to do more than interpret or preserve. She wants to plumb the soul of a person or place. For her, taking pictures is a spiritual act.

As the novel opens, Elizabeth struggles through her last summer before college. She needs to decide whether, after graduation, she will return to help run the family farm, settle in a distant city to practice law or abandon both options by continuing to follow guitarist Hayden Quinn and his band around the country like a groupie with a Nikon.

She wants to do it all (all except the groupie part) but photography has become her first love, and the place she feels compelled to explore is her home in the heart of Pennsylvania’s Minisink Valley. At the center of that home is the magnetic pull of the Delaware River.

Working as a stringer for the local newspaper allows her to expand her skills and subject matter. It also gives her a wildly exciting feeling for which she’s developed a craving—seeing her work in print.

In the mid-to-late 1960s, the period in which Born Under a Bad Sign takes place, news photographers would have used the gear Elizabeth chose, a rugged 35 mm cameras more affordable than exotic brands like Leica or medium-format models like those manufactured by Hasselblad. Her bag would have contained two camera bodies and lenses with at least three focal lengths: wide-angle (28 mm), normal (55 mm) and telephoto (135 mm or larger).

Elizabeth started with a Nikon F Photomic T body. Introduced in 1965, the camera was a TTL model, meaning it metering light through the lens rather than requiring the photographer to use a handheld meter—essential to capturing anything that moved. To the body she added a telephoto lens for portrait and distance work, a motor drive shooting four frames per second to capture action and an electronic flash unit for indoor subjects.

That made for a heavy rig. The camera body weighed 24 oz., the lens 14 oz. and the motor drive 10 oz. for a total of at least three pounds. Bolt to the body one of the early Nikon electronic flash units (affectionately known as potato mashers) and you have a slab of glass and metal that could easily serve as a defensive weapon.

Elizabeth carried smaller cameras for specialized work. She had a rangefinder with a fixed lens and view finder that did not look through the lens. The Konica C35 would have been a logical choice. It offered a 38 mm, f/2.8 lens. A lightweight unit compared to the Nikon, the camera clocked in at 13.4 oz. And while she couldn’t see or compose directly through the lens, rangefinders didn’t use a mirror to direct light into the viewfinder. That made for a smaller, quieter and somewhat unobtrusive camera.

Elizabeth also carried a Kodak Instamatic 100 with a built-in flashgun that took a peanut bulb. Unlike the Nikon, the Instamatic offered fixed focus, aperture and shutter speed. Her father bought it 1963 for $16. It still worked, and was compact enough that Elizabeth could carry it in a pocket. The 126-format film was smaller than 35 mm but the camera would shoot print or slide film, which made it a good backup when she needed stealth.

Which, as a photojournalist, you might sometimes need.

Born Under a Bad Sign is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

_____________

Finding Woodstock is a personal reflection on a decade that changed many of our lives—the Sixties. A companion to the novel Born Under a Bad Sign, the collection of short essays provides the backstory to a generation that is still trying, in the words of Joni Mitchell, to get back to the garden.

With original photography by the author.

Finding Woodstock is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and other retailers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sympathy for the devil

Guitarists of my generation know Robert Johnson through the song “Crossroads” by the British rock group Cream. Theirs is a cover of Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues,” which purportedly describes the day that Johnson traded his soul to the Devil for the ability to play his axe.

He was the inspiration for Hayden Quinn, the guitarist who sparks awe and rumor of his own unholy alliance in the new novel Born Under a Bad Sign. More on that later.

Johnson was born in Mississippi in 1911 and died in 1938. In those short years, he developed a reputation as one of the finest blues guitarists of all time, mastering the instrument so quickly that contemporaries accused him of having some otherworldly help.

Writers differ on how the legend began. Some, pointing to the lyrics in “Cross Road Blues,” say that Johnson stood at the crossroads not to trade his soul but to hitch a ride. Others say Johnson brought his guitar to a crossroad near a plantation at midnight to meet a large black man who granted him mastery of the instrument. Still others believe the guitarist, seeking solitude, fueled suspicion by practicing in the quiet of a graveyard.

Some of the characters in Born Under a Bad Sign see a similar pattern in Hayden Quinn. As facile as Eric Clapton, as inventive as Jimi Hendrix, Quinn fuses rock, blues, jazz and classical music into a cry of rebellion and pain. While his performances burn and records sell, that obsessive devotion invites rumors of his own compact with Lucifer.

It also plays the devil with his relationships with women, a fact the book’s principal character, Elizabeth Reed, discovers a little too late.

Born Under a Bad Sign is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

_____________

Finding Woodstock is a personal reflection on a decade that changed many of our lives—the Sixties. A companion to the novel Born Under a Bad Sign, the collection of short essays provides the backstory to a generation that is still trying, in the words of Joni Mitchell, to get back to the garden.

With original photography by the author.

Finding Woodstock is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and other retailers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Big battle for a little island

The battle over the Tocks Island Dam, one of two major events in the novel Born Under a Bad Sign, took on a new and dangerous front in 1969 when the U.S. Army Corps of engineers advertised houses for rent in several New York City newspapers.

The Corps had begun buying and condemning property for the dam and now those empty houses and farms stood vulnerable to vandals. Renting those structures along the Delaware River, the dividing line between Pennsylvania and New Jersey, would provide income for the government.

It also would create a conflict as explosive to locals as the Vietnam War.

At first, all looked peaceful. The feds called the renters flower children. They called themselves river people. They settled by the Delaware to grow crops and lead an alternative life. Angry at being displaced from their homes by hippies they viewed as decadent, the locals called them squatters.

By the early 1970s, that anger boiled over. Buildings in the squatter encampment burned. There were reports of drive-by shootings of windows and the killing of farm animals and pets.

The Corps finally acted. In September 1971, armed U.S. Marshals bulldozed six houses and a pup tent in an effort to clear out the trespassers, according to The Pocono Record in Stroudsburg, Pa. A legal battle ensued. In November 1973, a judge gave the river people 30 days to vacate. When they didn’t, in February 1974 about 90 U.S. Marshals staged a predawn raid to evict the 65 squatters who remained in the area of Shawnee-on-Delaware, on the Pennsylvania side of the river.

Steve Drachler, a colleague of mine at the Record, served as the pool reporter for the removal operation. He said that despite local hostility toward the squatters, their eviction by heavily armed U.S. Marshals was surprisingly peaceful.

“It was a very emotional moment, watching as these families, and a number of singles, were taken from the homes they had occupied. As soon as the people were removed the bulldozers began knocking the buildings down.”

Their experience, and those of the residents whose homes were condemned, form the backbone of Born Under a Bad Sign. The novel is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

_____________

Finding Woodstock is a personal reflection on a decade that changed many of our lives—the Sixties. A companion to the novel Born Under a Bad Sign, the collection of short essays provides the backstory to a generation that is still trying, in the words of Joni Mitchell, to get back to the garden.

With original photography by the author.

Finding Woodstock is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and other retailers.