I love a good whydunnit!
Greg Hickey’s novel, Parabellum, is structured differently from the average mystery novel. This book starts with a horrific, terrifying event and then jumps back in time by a year. It follows four individuals, the ex-athlete, the programmer, the veteran, and the student, and examines their lives and what may have cause any one of them to take their pain out on the group of innocent people from the event at the start of the book.
After Greg reads Chapter 1 of the book to us, I ask him about this structure and what inspired him to write the book this way. We also talk about the themes in the book, including the responsibility of society to take care of its members.
Also in our interview, Greg mentions the free novella available at his website called The Theory of Anything. You can learn more about the book and get your free copy here.
Today’s show is supported by my patrons at Patreon. Thank you! When you become a patron for as little as $1 a month you receive a short mystery story each and every month. And the rewards for those who love mystery stories go up from there! Learn more and become a part of my community of readers at www.Patreon.com/alexandraamor
This week’s mystery author
Greg Hickey is a former international professional baseball player and current forensic scientist, endurance athlete and author. He is the author of three novels, including the recently published crime novel Parabellum.
His debut novel, Our Dried Voices, was a finalist for Foreword Reviews’ INDIES Science Fiction Book of the Year Award. He lives in Chicago with his wife, Lindsay.
Learn more about Greg and all his books at GregHickeyWrites.com
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Excerpt from Parabellum
The ex-college athlete remembered her first concussion the way she remembered her first so-called memory of getting stuck in the unsodded mud patch between her family’s new home and the neighbor’s when she was one and a half. It was not a truly a memory, she knew, so much as an amalgamation of other memory fragments and the accounts of others and conjured imaginings all wrapped around a kernel of true recollection, like how your cells begin to die the minute you are born and are constantly shed away or eaten by your own macrophages and replaced by others, so that in the course of a lifetime you are a completely different physical entity from the one you were at the start. Except for your brain. Neurons don’t get replaced. They hang on as long as they can, and when enough of them die, so do you. So that’s you, in the you-est sense. Your brain and its memories are the canvas of you-ness upon which you shellac fresh coats of cells and ideas to maintain an appearance of life and identity.
She was nine, playing in the fifth soccer game of her life and tracking the ball as it arced through the crisp blue autumn sky, one of the miraculous times a stubby little leg had lifted the ball more than a foot off the ground. She was chasing the ball, and a girl on the opposing team was running to meet it. When she woke up, she was staring again into the clear sky, and her father later told her she had bumped heads with the other young girl and had been knocked unconscious.
Her parents took her to the hospital for routine tests. After the doctor told her she had only suffered a mild concussion and, aside from a slight headache and some sleepiness that could last a few days, she would be fine, her mother handed her a silver chain with a star-shaped pendant. Years later, after the most recent in her long line of head traumas, her mother had fingered the star as it rested below her collar bones and said, “Remember, no matter what happens, you won’t always be a soccer player, but you can always be a star.”
It was not until that moment that the ex-athlete realized the necklace had not been an innocuous reward for a child’s bravery, like the dollar bill left in exchange for her first lost tooth. It was a tangible expression of her mother’s profound relief that her only daughter had for the first time been blasted into contact with death and had somehow skirted disaster.
She had always been somewhat oblivious to the world. She went after her life with a single-minded focus that could blind her to other people and events. In high school, she could spend hours on the soccer field, ignorant of the time until her father arrived to ask if she would be home before curfew, not to mention if she’d had any thought of dinner. She pulled all-nighters as early as tenth grade, plowing through hours of soccer training and Advanced Placement homework, unwilling to sleep until she was satisfied with the results of her daily efforts. She could read a book in the middle of a crowded room. She monopolized the squat rack in a weight cage full of football players. She forgot her Christmas shopping until Christmas Eve.
She never remembered the actual impact of her concussions, not even when she remained conscious after the collision. One minute, she was chasing a ball as it floated through the air or diving toward the goal to intercept a low, hard corner kick. The next, she was lying on her back in the grass or feeling her teammates mob her at hyperspeed while her brain drifted along in the slow lane, punch-drunk and unable to tell if she was high on adrenaline or intracranial pressure. And so even at the very end, it was hard to associate playing soccer with head trauma. The soccer field was a place of pure, joyous striving, from which she sometimes awoke as if from a dream. The headaches, sen-sitivity to light and noise, getting lost in conversations, nausea, depression, anger—all that came later and seemed the product of some other world.
* * *
There was no pain, none that the computer programmer remembered, merely a quick hiss when he wrapped his fingers on the handle of the pan, then a sharp pressure, like tracing a line from his index finger to his thumb with a sharpened pencil. It wasn’t enough to make him jerk his hand away, and there was a second that seemed to stretch on for minutes in which his brain became aware of the danger and his mother noticed what was going on and screamed and then he finally pulled his fingers away. She dragged him to the sink and ran his hand under the cold water, and he stood there not quite understanding what was going on, why it didn’t hurt as he thought it should have and feeling the water cascading over his distant fingers as though they belonged to someone else.
His skin turned red that night and blistered. By morning, it had begun to peel. For a week, his mother slapped at his hand to keep him from scratching, the skin perpetually raw and pink, a little crescent arcing from the web between his thumb and forefinger back toward his inner wrist. The fresh skin was hot to his touch, the air cool on the puckering flesh. Yet he felt he was missing something essential, the way his mother doted on him and cajoled him, the way the skin on his hand hissed and reddened and flaked away, all without any meaningful connection to his recollection of the experience.
The ensuing scar was a kind of mystery to him, a tangible mark of some significant change to his body which he could not understand. And throughout his life, whenever someone asked him about it and he related the story, their sympathetic winces and head shakes never quite jibed with his memory. He felt as though something far worse should have happened to him to elicit these immediate, visceral reactions. And he felt that they expected an equivalent reaction from him when they reciprocated by sharing their own childhood mishaps. But he found himself unable to mobilize a response for a memory that seemed equally inconsequential to his own. So his scar remained a double defect—a flaw in the otherwise unmarred skin of his hand and an emblem of some greater dissimilarity between himself and others which he struggled to comprehend.
* * *
The veteran remembered 9/11, the same as everyone else of his generation. It was their Pearl Harbor, their Kennedy assassination. Years later, after the war and his messed-up back and several years on the force, he still thought of his life as cut in two by that date. Yet no matter how many times he saw the media-adopted images of that day—the plane hitting the second tower, the towers collapsing into themselves like snakes sloughing off dead skin—these were not the images that remained. Instead, he remembered watching the television coverage in his college American History class that afternoon, after both towers had fallen, after the other planes had crashed into the Pentagon and in rural Pennsylvania. The news was showing footage of the highways leading out of Manhattan, packed from median to concrete side guard, not with cars, but with people fleeing the so-called Capital of the World.
He had grown up with the Gulf War, had asked his mother as she tucked him in one night if bullets could fly from Kuwait to his bedroom in south suburban Chicago. He felt a sense of un-finished business regarding his country’s opposition to Saddam and Iraq. He never had a chance to outgrow his fears. Instead, the source of his anxiety had faded into relative obscurity before he could face it with all the faculties of adulthood.
He enlisted in 2002, a week after the end of the fall semester of his sophomore year.
His best friend from high school told him he was crazy. “The Army? Fuck that. You want to go halfway around the world and die in some shithole desert?”
They had come downtown for some last-minute Christmas shopping. It was a Wednesday afternoon, but Chicago still had that energy he loved. There was a chill in the air, but he hardly noticed it with the bustle of shoppers and the carolers and Salvation Army Santas on every other corner of State Street.
“Are you asking me if I want to die or where I want to die?” he responded.
“No, I don’t want to die,” he said, “But if I do, I won’t care because I’ll be dead.”
“Fine. Do you want to spend your last days sweating your balls off, getting shot at and sleeping in a tent full of dudes who’ve gone weeks without a shower?”
It had snowed the night before, and the streets were wet and shiny under the city lights cutting through the early evening darkness. The one thing that was better about the suburbs was the snow. In the city, it turned to gray mush as soon as it hit the ground. He would return home that night with salt stains on his shoes and dirty snow marks on the bottoms of his jeans. Not like the snow days of his childhood when he would spend hours outside, playing in pristine white drifts.
He said, “It ain’t about wanting to live or die or be in a certain place.”
“All right, then,” his friend said. “What is it about?”
“I don’t think what’s happening over there is right. I think our country should step in and help people getting persecuted by an unjust government, a government that supports terrorists.”
“You know you don’t have to go, right? You’re in college. Graduate, get your degree. I guarantee the war will still be there in two years.”
“I know,” he said. “I realize I don’t have to go. But I’m not going to leave the fighting to people who have no better options. College will be here when I get back.”
“If you get back.”
“If I get back.”
They came to a forced stop against a crowd gathered around the Marshall Field’s holiday windows. His friend turned to look at the displays and, with a slow intake of breath, said, “Look, maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. You can tell me to shut the hell up at any time. But you don’t owe this country anything. Not with slavery and Jim Crow and all that. I mean, Alabama just legalized interracial marriage two years ago. If anyone owes America anything it’s rich white men who are getting fat off oil profits but don’t have the guts to say that’s what this war is all about and then go do their own dirty work. It’s not you.”
In the nearest window, red- and blue-clad toy soldiers with tall black hats marched in formation, led by a white-bearded nutcracker with an oversized head. The soldiers carried wooden muskets against their shoulders. The nutcracker brandished a silver cutlass.
The veteran laughed through his nose. “You taking a Black studies class or something?”
“I’m not doing it for America,” the veteran said. “I’m not trying to be a patriot. I’m doing it because I know a bit about what it’s like to get shit on by your government. And I’m doing it for those kids whose only options to get ahead in life are making the NBA, joining a gang, or joining the military.”
In the next window, the Mouse King and his army opposed the soldiers. The mice looked like butlers in their tailed suits and gold vests. Their oversized gray felt heads were neither cute nor baneful, merely anonymous and disconcerting on their all-too-human bodies.
“You don’t owe them anything either,” his friend said.
“No, I don’t,” he answered, “But it’s not fair for me to demand they fight a war for me because they don’t have better options and I do.”
They edged their way through the crowd.
“Like I said, you’re crazy, man,” his friend told him. “Why risk your life for something that has nothing to do with you?”
“I think it does have to do with me.”
But the war had different plans. The American-led coalition invaded three months after he enlisted and seized Baghdad in three weeks, while he was still mired in Basic Training. They captured Saddam before the end of the year. Thus, the purported face of American antagonism was revealed to be a megalomaniac with no real military might or wisdom. The old idea of a singular face of evil had long since become outmoded, propped up by deception and a wishful appetite for power. It had been replaced by a shifting morass of individuals on the left-hand tail of the moral bell curve, people whose particular violent urges happened to overlap with the same obscure and perverted ideology and who used anonymity when it served them while lusting after infamy. The war he had imagined had come and gone without him.
* * *
The high school student could recall one of his first visits to his grandmother’s house. As his father drove, the student had kicked his short legs against the plastic base of his car seat and asked over and over again where they were going.
In the seat next to him, his sister rolled her eyes. She was five years older than he was and she hated him.
“Shut up, Two-Face,” she said.
She called him “Two-Face” when she thought their parents couldn’t hear, on account of his different colored eyes.
“I told you,” his mother said again. “To Grandmom’s. We’re going to visit your grandmother.”
He didn’t know, or couldn’t remember, who Grandmom was, and he didn’t like being carted off to see this unfamiliar person. It didn’t help that his parents seemed to expect him to know who Grandmom was. If he was supposed to know her, if she was a good person, then he would remember her. And if he wasn’t supposed to know her, then why wouldn’t his parents say more about her?
“Are we almost there?” he asked, not sure which answer he would find more comforting.
“Almost.” His father smiled at him in the rearview mirror. “Don’t worry.”
Instead, he vomited into the vacant middle seat between him and his sister.
His sister screamed and squeezed herself against the side door. “Dad! He just puked!”
His father glanced over his shoulder and muttered something under his breath.
His mother leaned around her seat. “Oh honey, are you okay? What happened?”
“He puked on the seat,” his sister yelled. “That’s what happened!”
“Did it get on you?” his mother asked.
“It’s oozing across the seat.”
“We’re almost there,” his father repeated.
His sister unbuckled her seatbelt and stood, her head and shoulders hunched against the ceiling of the car. “I’m going to kill you, you two-faced freak.”
His mother plucked a napkin from the cup holder and stanched the vomit edges that had encroached closest to his sister while his sister eyed him and his bilious discharge with utter disgust and loathing. He sat pinioned in his seat with the taste of his own sick hot and sharp in his mouth and stinking on his chin and the front of his shirt, and his stomach no less uneasy.
When they arrived in a short driveway in front of a modest house on a quiet suburban street, his father went inside with his sister while his mother unbuckled his seatbelt, helped him out of his soiled shirt and wiped his face with it. She took him by the hand and led him shirtless through the crisp autumn air to the doorway. He decided it would be more humiliating to struggle now and let her pull him along toward the house that had already consumed half their family.
His mother opened the door without knocking, and they were greeted by the joyful shriek of a short, slim, curly-gray-haired woman. “There’s my favorite little pumpkin! Aren’t you cold? I’ll find you something to wear.” Before he could move, she planted a kiss on his forehead and puttered off into a back room.
Grandmom turned out to be a kind old woman, who spent that afternoon giving him gifts and telling him nice things he didn’t deserve, certainly not after he’d thrown up all over the car and generally ruined the last half of the drive for his family. He sat on the couch in an old gray sweatshirt with the sleeves scrunched up around his wrists and bunched under his arms and the hem at his knees. She planted herself between him and his sister and showered them both with her attention, while he kept a respectful distance and felt glad to at least escape his sister’s withering glare for a moment.
When they drove home that night, he almost didn’t mind that his sister kept staring at him with her upper lip curled in revulsion and warning him, “Don’t even think about it, Two-Face,” and, “If you feel like puking, you better make up your mind to swallow it.”
Grandmom was okay. The relief was temporary, but it was enough for now. He fell asleep and didn’t wake until his father carried him into his bed at home.