In my creative writing class, I advise against giving a detailed a description of the major character in order to allow the reader to see the individual as he or she wishes. The artist doing the cover for THE ZOZOBRA INCIDENT originally came up with the figure of a bearded man representing BJ Vinson, my series protagonist. I told her he was clean shaven, and she came back with: “How was I to know. You never described him.”
However, as you’ll see in the passage that follows, I often paint some of the minor players in detail to give them life and character. I did that with Emilio Prada in ZOBOBRA and with a character named Richard “Liver Lips” Martinson in THE CITY OF ROCKS.
In the following (abbreviated) scene in Chapter One of ROCKS, BJ has his first meeting with a man suspected of stealing some valuable property from a ranch in New Mexico’s boot heel country. BJ is having trouble taking his job seriously because he can’t wrap his head around the “kidnapping” of a duck. Nonetheless, his client insists he accept the assignment because the bird was insured for a quarter of a million dollars. With only an ill-conceived idea of what’s really happening, BJ rushes to the UNM Emergency Ward where he’s told the thief is being treated.
I had no trouble locating Martinson in the waiting room at the hospital. Liver Lips. The young man's nickname described him perfectly. His thick, purple-hued oral projections drew my eye like a magnet. It was only later I noticed he was skinny, seedy, and carried a generally disreputable air. Gray eyes darted here and there as if he were constantly searching for a bolt hole. The man’s scalp glistened through thin strands of frizzy blond hair. Whether talking or listening or simply idle, his dark tongue periodically snaked out to wash those heavy lips. Seldom had I been so thoroughly repulsed by another’s physical appearance.
He looked at me blankly after I handed over my card and introduced myself. “A private eye, huh. What you want with me?”
“I need to ask you a few questions.” I nodded at the bandages covering his forearms. “What happened?”
“Had a fight with a thorn bush. Frigging bush won.” He went for humor, glancing up through thin, colorless lashes to see if it had worked.
I pointed to the red veins snaking up out of the white bandages just short of his elbows. “Thorn bushes didn’t give you that infection. That’s blood poisoning. You want to tell me about stealing a valuable…bird.” If I’d said “duck” I’d have burst out laughing.
“Don’t guess I know what you’re talking about.”
“I don’t think the Sheriff of Luna County would have sicced me on you if he was just guessing.”
“Hidalgo,” he blurted.
“Sheriff of Hidalgo County.”
“Okay, now that you’ve admitted you know all about the theft, tell me about it.”
“Didn’t admit nothing.”
“You know where the abduction…uh, theft took place. Stop wasting my time. What did you want with a prize duck named….” I stopped, unable to call a bird by that ridiculous name.
“Quacky Quack, the Second,” he said. “That’s what old Mud Hen calls her. Ain’t that a hoot?”
“Millicent Muldren. Everbody calls her Mud Hen.”
“Why’d you steal her duck?”
“Who says I did?”
I improvised. “About everybody in the countryside. Police chief, sheriff, Ms. Muldren. There’s a warrant out for your arrest. Talk to me, and maybe I can do something about that.”
Old Liver Lips wasn’t as dumb as he looked. Those blood-suffused appendages quivered a couple of times before he squared his thin shoulders. “Ain’t nobody gonna arrest me. Who’d press charges on something like that?”
“Well, Mud Hen for one, and the insurance company for another.”
“You didn’t know the owner had insured her property.”
“Shoot, I guess there ain’t no insurance company in the world that’d insure a frigging duck.”
I didn’t know much more than he did, but I couldn’t let up on him now. “Then you’d guess wrong. They’ll insure soap bubbles if you pay the premiums. You give me what I want, and I can take care of the warrant.”
“Like what have you done with Qua…with the duck?” His eyes slid away as he opened his mouth and licked his lips. I held up a hand. “Don’t bother to deny it. You’re caught flat-out. Man-up and admit it. Where’s the duck?”
Liver Lip’s shoulders twitched. He did that rapid blinking thing and twisted his neck to loosen it up. A bead of sweat worked its way through thin tendrils of blond hair and trickled down his forehead. It looked muddy by the time it reached the corner of his eye. “I give her to somebody that wanted to play a trick on Mud Hen.”
“Who was this somebody?”
“If I give up his name, he’ll get me in trouble. And he can do it, too.”
“So can I. A world of trouble. You’ve already given me enough to report to the insurance company. You’re the chicken thief, Liver Lips. And they’ll come after you hard. You have any idea how far they’d go to keep from paying out all that money?”
“How much money?” His attitude changed. If Liver Lips had a crafty side, this was it.
“More than you can ever repay in your lifetime.” I built on the fiction I was spinning. “They’ll see you prosecuted for grand theft. What does your record look like? Probably penny-ante, right? Well, you made the big time with this.”
“For stealing a duck?”
I stared at the raunchy-looking man and wondered if this was an act. “Answer my question. Who hired you to steal the duck?”
Jeez. The guy hadn’t even been paid. He’d done it as a favor, or else someone had leverage on Richard Martinson.
“Who told you to take the duck? Who’d you give it to?”
“It’s a her. The duck, I mean. Quacky—”
“Yeah, I know. Who’d you give her to?”
Liver Lips crossed his arms over his chest and hugged himself tightly. “Oh, shit! I hurt, man. They supposed to be getting me something for the pain. And the infection, too. I gotta go check on it.”
“Okay, we’ll go together. Maybe I can help.”
“I can do it.” It came out as a whine. “I ain’t no kid that needs babysitting.”
Despite his objections, I trod on his heels as he walked toward a counter. They’d made some big-time changes at the UNM Emergency Center since I was here last. It was now housed in a new building called the Pavilion. But I was pretty sure this wasn’t the outpatient pharmacy. Liver Lips was getting ready to make a move. He did, but it wasn’t the one I expected; probably not the one he anticipated, either.
He turned a corner and bumped squarely into a burly Albuquerque cop. Back-pedaling, he held out his hands. “Sir, this here guy won’t leave me alone. Can you make him stop pestering me?”
The six-foot-two officer transferred his irritated look from Liver Lips to me. His shoulder unit belched static, but he ignored it. “What’s going on?”
I took a quick peek at his nametag. “Corporal Hines, my name is Vinson, and I’m a licensed PI. I’m going to reach for my ID, okay”
I whirled as the outside door crashed open. A man and a woman rushed inside with a little girl nursing a bloody hand wrapped in stained towels. Hines brushed by me to see if his help was needed. When I turned back to confront Liver lips, he was nowhere in sight. I made a quick sweep of the hallways, but he had disappeared. Maybe Liver did have a crafty side, after all.
Thanks for reading. Be happy to hear from you.
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