Murder in Ocean Hall – First Chapter

I’m just about done writing my murder mystery, “Murder in Ocean Hall.”  I’ve put the first chapter online.  The book is about a famous explorer who dies in mysterious circumstances in Ocean Hall at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.  Suspects are many. A cynical DC detective investigates the case.

Read the first chapter.

Feedback is welcome 🙂

Steal Something of Mine?

Steal Something of Mine?
My bike was stolen. I knew I would see it again.
The Washington Post, June 27, 2002
(c) Joe Flood

I knew that I would one day see my bike again. I just knew it. My old Bianchi Broadway had been stolen off the back stairs of my building. I couldn’t believe that someone had gone to the trouble. The mountain bike was five years old, with worn tires, a temperamental chain, and a skein of rust on its exposed parts. To take it, my thief had to go up two flights of winding metal stairs, break the U-lock, and then carry the bike back down.

Looking out that Sunday morning, at the empty spot along the rail where my bike should be, I was surprised. I shouldn’t have been. Kryptonite named Washington, DC as one of the “Top 10 Worst Cities for Bike Theft.” Nationwide, it is estimated that 1.5 million bicycles are stolen every year. An experienced thief can take your locked bike in about 10-20 seconds.

I just couldn’t believe that someone would steal something of mine. It hadn’t been an expensive bike, but it was the first bike I had ever owned. And my Bianchi had been with me everywhere. I had commuted on it up the long hill to American University. Ridden on it on pleasant weekend excursions along the C&O Canal. Coasted down the Mall by softball players and tourists. Why would someone steal something of mine? According to the National Bike Registry, the most common reason for bike theft is to pay for drugs. The value of a stolen bicycle is roughly 5-10% of the bicycle’s original retail value. Bikes are even used in lieu of currency in drug transactions.

But now my bike was gone. I don’t know why I bothered to report it. The police didn’t even come by to take my report; I filed it by phone. And stolen bikes are rarely recovered.

Yet, I knew I would one day see my bike again. For months afterward, whenever I saw a red mountain bike I would stop and squint at it, looking for identifying characteristics. No, the handlebars are too straight. No, the tires are too narrow. No, the bike looks too new.

One summer later, I found her. I was walking past a dusty park a couple blocks from my apartment, a little worn square of grass where men sit and drink. I looked over. Something that looked like my bike was leaning against a tree. I stepped into the park. The frame was covered with tacky stickers and duct tape. There was a big gash in the seat. It looked like the gearshifts had been broken off and the tires replaced. But it was my bike. I could tell by the rust.

The bike’s owner, a short Salvadoran walked over to me.

“This looks an awfully like my old bike,” I said.

“No, no, no. Es mine,” he said, pointing to his chest.

“I’m not saying you stole it, but this is my old bike,” I insisted.

We bantered in broken English and Spanish.

“I don’t want no trouble,” he said. He led me out of the park. “You follow, you follow,” he said, waving me on.

He got on the bike and rode out of the park, me walking behind him. I was waiting for him to take off and pedal away but he never did. My heart was pounding and I was shaky. Where was he taking me? He was careful not to get too far ahead of me, coasting down the sidewalk, looking back at me.

He turned down an empty alley. I followed. He reached a wooden door in a fence and pushed it open. He waved at me to come in. Me and the new owner of my bike squeezed into a narrow passage between a wall and a garage. The door shut.

He went to go get someone. I waited in a small courtyard. A man, his neighbor, approached. When he got closer, I saw that he had a Spanish-English dictionary in his hands.

I explained that this was my bike.

The neighbor got the story out of the Salvadoran man. He and his friend had found it, among junk, along V Street. They had taken it home and fixed it up. They fixed up bikes they found in the area. The neighbor didn’t know where they got them from but that they weren’t thieves.

The Salvadoran got anxious during the explanation.

“Calm down! Tranquilo!” his interpreter said. “He wants you to know that he’s not a criminal.”

“No criminal, no criminal.” He paced in the little courtyard, looking up into my eyes.

I didn’t think that he was a criminal. He could have told me to get lost back at the park, or rode off when I was following him. He didn’t have to get his neighbor to try to clear up the situation.

He offered me the bike. I didn’t want it. The bike was ruined, and nothing like the bike which had taken me everywhere. I had bought another one a few months earlier. I told him that he could keep it, that I didn’t think that he was a criminal.

“No criminal,” the man said, happy.

“No criminal,” I replied.

“Problem solved,” the neighbor added, relaxing.

The neighbor asked me my name. Joe. His was Joseph. The Salvadoran’s was Jose.

“Hey, we all got the same name,” Joseph said, beaming. “Joe, Joseph, and Jose.”

“Joe, Joseph, and Jose,” Jose said, pointing at each of us in turn.

I squeezed the brakes on my bike one last time and left.

Go Hollywood! What’s the Logline for Your Site?

InternetDay.com, April 1, 2002

“In the dizzying world of moviemaking, we must not be distracted from one fundamental concept: the idea is king.”
–Jeffrey Katzenberg

I can hear the protests already. Creating a web site is not like creating a movie, we don’t need to go “high concept” or any of that other Hollywood marketing fluff. We will build the web site, its value will be obvious, and it will sell itself to the appropriate audience. End of story. FADE OUT.

Wrong.

Every year, around 300 movies get released into the crowded multiplexes of America. And they get encapsulated in a sentence or two to make it easier for moviegoers to find what they want.

Every year, thousands of web sites get launched into the disorderly, low-barrier world of the web. How will your site stand a chance among all these competitors for your customers’ most valuable asset, their time? How will you differentiate your site among this cacophony?

Just like a movie, you better be able to explain the purpose of your site in a sentence. For those who wish to look down on Tinseltown, you may refer to it as your “elevator speech.” If you can’t explain your site in 15 seconds to a customer, how are you going to get him to visit your site?

Unfortunately, web development frequently begins with only the vaguest notions of what a site should be about.

FADE IN

INT. CEO’S OFFICE
The CEO of Widgets, Inc., has ordered the construction of a new web site. It’s going to be filled with all sorts of fancy bells and whistles to impress his buddies at the country club. The MARKETING DIRECTOR is nervous.

CEO
And I want Java. I read about that.

MARKETING DIRECTOR
I’ll get the techies to work on it. But, sir, who’s this site going to be for?

CEO
Me.

MARKETING DIRECTOR
Well, yes, you, obviously. But who is the audience? Customers? Investors? The press? What are we trying to do here? Before we start spending money, shouldn’t we figure that out?

CEO
All of the above. And everything. Now get out.

INT. CEO’S OFFICE
6 MONTHS LATER
The new web site for Widgets, Inc., has been launched to crushing silence. It’s another bland, corporate web site.

CEO
Can you explain to me why we have no traffic?

MARKETING DIRECTOR
I’ve thought about that, sir. And I think it’s because our web site has no identity. Our press releases, brochures, banner ads, and emails just talked about the “online home of Widgets, Inc.” They provided no compelling reason for anyone to visit.

CEO
You better have a plan.

MARKETING DIRECTOR
The most popular feature on the site is designing your own widgets.

CEO
It’s also the most profitable.

MARKETING DIRECTOR
I propose rebranding the site to appeal to customers, highlighting our widget customization feature. Our logline will be, “Widgets lovers, design widgets in seconds at the Widgets web site!”

CEO
Why didn’t you think of that in the first place?

FADE OUT

A good log line will help you focus your site around a single organizing principle. For example, eBay is “The World’s Online Marketplace.” Clickz.com provides news and viewpoints from the Internet marketing and advertising industry. The Onion is America’s Finest News Source. All these sites concentrate on one big idea which they do well.

Here’s a tool to help you get started.

Sample web site:

url: where’s the site going to be located?

title: what are you calling your site?

logline: what’s the elevator speech for the site?

audience: who’s the audience?

Think this is simplistic? It is, and necessarily so. Oftentimes, like in the example above, web sites get built with many different consituencies in mind and with many different purposes. The result is design by committee and a web site that pleases no one, especially visitors.

Creating a good log line is just the first step in marketing your web site. This first step is also the most important one. Taking the time to think about the unique benefits of your site will help focus the work of your web team on delivering a quality, unique site. It will also make later marketing efforts considerably easier and more effective.