One Hot January by J. Conrad Guest

In One Hot January, Joe January, an emotionally aloof private investigator from the South Bronx, gets more than he bargains for when he uncovers this seemingly impossible plot of time travel and alternate realities by grudgingly agreeing to help a pretty young woman locate her missing father. Her father, a Professor of Archeology from Columbia College, must prevent the secret location of Hitler’s body, which lies in a cryogenic state awaiting a cure for cancer, from falling into the wrong hands. By the end of the novel, January is thrust one hundred years into the future, where he must survive on a century-old sagacity as he endeavors to find his way back to his own time and the woman he loves but lacked the courage to tell. The tale concludes in January’s Thaw, to be released later this year.

Excerpt:

I stood on the brake pedal. The front brakes bit harder than the rear brakes; a high-pitched squeal sounded as the tires fought against the car’s forward momentum. I heard Melissa’s quick inhalation of air and her single syllable exclamation “Oh! ” underscore Lance’s “Jee-sus, Joe, what are you doing?” as he braced himself against the dashboard.

The rear tires lost traction amid blue smoke and the back end of the Ford started to pass me on the right. I allowed the car to come around ninety degrees before correcting into the skid. A moment later the Ford came to a halt in a position perpendicular to the flow of traffic.

Through the windshield I watched traffic in the southbound lane flow past. In the rearview mirror I saw Melissa’s surprised face. A ragged line of bright red streaked her right cheek; she had been applying lipstick when I’d locked the brakes. Beyond her face, through the rear window, I could see the Mapes Gates of Columbia College, and beyond them, University Hall. Grunting my amusement at the irony, I glanced at Lance, who looked somewhat shaken.

“What’s the matter, Lance?” I asked. “You look like you’re about to lose your breakfast.”

“Huh?”

Ignoring Lance’s question, I looked to my left to find the surprised face of the bespectacled driver of the Packard staring at me over the steering wheel he still clutched. Due to the Packard’s close proximity I was unable to open my door.

“Huh,” I grunted in contempt, suddenly aware of the many different uses of the three-letter interjection Lance had used but a moment ago. Had he intended interrogation, or had his response been simply reflex, an expression of surprise the result of shock?

“Hold this,” I said, handing my hat to Lance.

“Where are you going?” Lance asked dumbly, the color drained from his face.

“To make an acquaintance,” I said, hauling my bulk through the window frame.

I stepped one leg out, then the other, landing lightly on the Packard’s bumper. From there I bounded down onto the brick that was Broadway and made my way around to the driver’s side of the Packard. Flinging open its door, I reached in, grabbed the still startled driver by the lapels of his cheap tweed suit, and shook him violently several times. The last of the repetitions partially dislodged the pince-nez from the bridge of the nose it spanned. The blue eyes, now just inches from my own, swam beneath water that wasn’t tears. One eye, the left, focused its terror on me while the other, due to a weakness of its tendon an optometrist would diagnose as strabismus, seemed to focus furtively on some distant object behind and to my left. I resisted the urge to turn around to see what it was that held that other eye’s interest.

“Now that I have your attention,” I rasped, “maybe you’d like to tell me just what it is you’re doing tailing us.”

The great eyes blinked; yet the pools of water still threatened to spill over their levees.

“I haff no idea vat you are talking a-bout.” The man spoke, his high tenor surprising me, in a carefully metered pace that betrayed an uncertainty of the English language and I felt my stomach sink. We had yet to leave New York and already my worst fears were confirmed.

The man’s a Nazi! I concluded.

“Shit!” I said. An image of the man whose lapels I still firmly held dressed in the black of the German Gestapo flashed before my eyes.

And to think I was concerned over the likelihood that he was an agent of our own government. Dammit!

“You always make a point of enjoying a cup of coffee while reading The Wall Street in front of my office on 59th before following me uptown?”

“I haff no idea—”

“Yeah, yeah,” I broke in, giving him another violent shaking. The action provided a release for my slightly trembling hands, the result of my surging adrenaline. “I’ve already heard that.”

I snorted aloud and a new strategy began to take shape. I released my grip and fussed over the rumpled lapels.

“Obviously you’re a tourist,” I said, righting the glasses that still teetered precariously near the end of his nose.

“Ja, a tourist,” the German answered with a slow nod.

I watched the conspiratorial gaze that had been residing in the right eye make its way none too stealthily to the good eye. In the vacancy left behind, I thought I detected a certain nonchalance that surely was intended to disarm me.

“Ja,” I mimicked. “Well, being a local maybe I can help you find whatever landmark it is you’re looking for, Herr Tourist.”

“Land-mark?” the big German enunciated carefully. Neither eye looked like it comprehended what I was talking about.

“Ja,” I repeated. “You know ¼ sightseeing.” I watched the light come on in the cerulean of the left eye and the thin lips parted in a good-natured smile to reveal a good-sized gap between the two front teeth.

“Ja, sight-seeing,” the stranger acknowledged with a nod, and his smile broadened.

“Ja,” I repeated a third time with a nod of my own. “What would you like to see?” The smile inverted itself. Neither eye met my penetrating gaze. “The Statue of Liberty?”

Silence.

I nodded. “I see. Been there already. Well how about the Empire State Building, then?” Like all native New Yorkers, I slurred into one syllable the second and third words of the proper name that identifies New York’s most famous landmark. The stranger brought one eye to bear on me while the other stared off into the distance. I wondered if any object it might focus on would register an image for the German. “No? Well what about Columbia College? You seen that yet, Herr Pal?”

“Co-lum-bia Col-lege?” The German enunciated each syllable carefully, uncertainly.

“Great!” I said, allowing my own manufactured smile to break out. “I know just where Columbia College is. Why don’t you slide on over and I’ll have you there in no time.”

“Nein. I do not vish to ¼ trouble you. I vill find land-mark.”

“Oh, it’s no trouble at all,” I said with finality. “Now scootch.”

I stared hard at the one blue eye and saw it consider several alternatives, discarding each of them in turn. With a nod, the German, resigned to his one and only option, the one that had been forced upon him, relinquished his place behind the wheel of the Packard, and I hauled myself in beside him.

Firing the ignition, I stuck my head out the window and called to Lance, “Go ahead and park the car, Lance. We’ll be back in a few minutes.”

“But, where are you …?” I heard Lance call back as I brought my head back inside the Packard, just in time to see my unwilling passenger fumbling with the catch on the glove compartment. With catlike quickness I grabbed the German by his wrist.

“I don’t believe you’ll be needing that tour guidebook for this one,” I said.

With that, I dropped the Packard’s automatic transmission into reverse, glanced over my right shoulder, and backed up the few feet I needed to steer clear of the Ford. A moment later, with the Packard in drive, I slowly accelerated past my own car, giving a wave to Lance and Melissa, and on up Broadway.

“You know,” I said as the automatic transmission smoothly shifted from first to second gear, “you rubbernecks would get around our city a whole lot easier if you just kept in mind that the Avenues”—I glanced over at the German’s profile, a mask of contrived sincerity on my face— “you know avenues—Park Avenue, 5th Avenue. Avenues?”

“Ja, avenues.”

“Right, avenues. The Avenues in New York all run north and south, along the length of the island. Now the Streets,” I continued patiently. “The Streets all run east-west. Now if more of you tourists understood that concept—that the Avenues run north-south while the Streets run east-west ¼ well, you’d all have a helluva lot easier time finding landmarks and such and you wouldn’t have to pester us locals. You understand what I’m saying, Herr Rubberneck?”

“Ja.”

“Ja.” I noted our speed had crept up to thirty miles per hour.

“Now take Broadway for instance—the street we’re on now? It’s not a Street, so it doesn’t run east-west. It runs north-south—like an Avenue. But it’s not really an Avenue, I mean like Park Avenue, see? But avenue is another name for a broad roadway. Which is where Broadway derives its name.”

Our speed had risen to thirty-five miles per hour by now, well above the limit for the city. I kept a close lookout for any police cars that might be patrolling.

“So you see, Broadway really is an avenue, which is why it traverses the island in a more or less north-south direction. Just a little something for you to keep in mind while touring the sights here in our fair city, ja?”

“Ja.”

Even from his profile I could tell the German was more than a little edgy.

The speedometer now registered forty miles per hour. The traffic light at West 135th Street was red. I sailed right on through it—as I had the red at 125th Street.

“Oh, what am I thinking?” I said, pressing the palm of my right hand against my forehead. “You know I got so carried away with my advice, I didn’t realize we just passed Columbia College twenty or so blocks back.”

With a glance into the rearview mirror, I slammed the gear selector into reverse. The Packard came to a stop in a hurry and filled up with smoke, as much from the tires as from the transmission. Reverse was stripped out but that was no problem; I had allowed the Packard to do a tight one-hundred-eighty-degree spin in the middle of Broadway so we’d be facing south. Pale as a ghost and staring straight ahead, the German clutched the dashboard as I crossed into the southbound lane and drove back down Broadway.

“Well here we are, Mac, none the worse for wear,” I said once I’d finished parking the Packard in front of Columbia, just a few yards from where we’d started our little jaunt.

Nose-to-tail with the car in front, the German would effectively be dead in the water. With no reverse, he would have no choice but to wait until the car in front was moved before he could continue his pursuit, and by then we’d be miles away.

“Sorry about all the confusion,” I said. “I guess I’m just not used to driving one of these new automatic transmissions. Although,” I added as an afterthought, “I’ve got a buddy who tells me they’re turning them out like hotcakes in Detroit.” 

***

J. Conrad Guest’s writing credentials include January’s Paradigm, first published in 1998 by Minerva Press, London, England. Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings,  available from Second Wind Publishing, was adopted by the Illinois Institute of Technology as required reading for their spring 2011 course Baseball: America’s Literary Pastime. Several of Guest’s short stories and non-fiction pieces have appeared on Internet publications, including Cezanne’s Carrot, Saucy Vox, River Walk Journal, 63 Channels, The Writers Post Journal and Redbridge Review. Blood and Thunder: Musings on the Art of Medicine published in November 2005 Mother’s Day: Coming to Terms with the Cruelty of Parkinson’s, a memoir chronicling his mother’s battle against Parkinson’s. 

See also:
Interview with J. Conrad Guest, author of One Hot January
Interview with Joe January, hero of One Hot January by J. Conrad Guest
Chapter One – One Hot January by J. Conrad Guest

Click here to buy: One Hot January

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Interview with J. Conrad Guest, author of Backstop and One Hot January

How much of a story do you have in mind before you start writing it?

I start with a protagonist and his conflict; most times I have the ending in mind and simply write to it, although often the ending is amended depending on what happens prior to my getting there. Everything before that — the digressions, the journey — are discoveries that, hopefully, translate as discovery for the reader. I’ve never written from an outline. I haven’t even tried to work from an outline; I feel it would be too restrictive to me.

What is your writing schedule like? Do you strive for a certain number of words each day?

Raymond Chandler, one of my favorite novelists, despite Faulkner (no stranger to drink himself, Faulkner butchered the screenplay for The Big Sleep) calling him a “world class drunk,” wrote Alcohol is like love. The first kiss is magic, the second is intimate, the third is routine. After that you take the girl’s clothes off. My writing schedule is like that: the first sentence is magic, the second intimate, the third settles me in for the session, and after that it’s like taking the girl’s clothes off. I used to set a word count but learned to accept what comes. Some sessions produce more word count than others; but I focus on the content as my goal. Certain parts of the story are going to be more difficult to put down on paper than others. Some sessions result in 1,500 words, while others end with 4,000 words. I’m grateful for it all.

Do you have any rituals that you follow before sitting down to write?

Oh, yes, I do. We laugh at our pets for being creatures of habit, but we are, too, if we’re honest. My morning sessions start with a pot of coffee and a trip to my humidor to select a cigar. (In the evening, substitute bourbon and beer for the coffee.) The cigar is all about the ritual — selecting the right cigar to go with my mood, the time of day; taking it out of the cellophane, inhaling the fragrance of the wrapper, admiring the label, the workmanship (the better cigars are still handmade by someone with skilled hands in another culture thousands of miles away), snipping its head, lighting it, those first few draws, and watching the smoke infiltrate my den. The ritual helps get my creativity flowing.

Do you prefer to write at a particular time of day?

Yes, my preference is for Sunday morning. I schedule my entire day around my session. During the week, in the evening, I’ll polish or edit what I wrote on Sunday; but sometimes, if I’m really humming along, I’ll push the story forward during the week. But it’s difficult to do that consistently with a day job, especially one that puts me in front of a laptop writing. Sometimes the last thing I want to do when I get home from work is switch on my own laptop and be creative.

What are you working on right now?

I just finished a major project — A Retrospect in Death. It begins with a man’s death, and the reader is taken to the other side where the narrator encounters his higher self—the part of him that is immortal and is connected to the creator. The protagonist learns (much to his chagrin) that he must return to the lifecycle. But first he must be “debriefed” by his higher self, and so they set about discussing the man’s previous life — in reverse chronological order: knowing the end but retracing the journey, searching for the breadcrumbs left along the way. I’m just now tinkering with a concept for my next novel, a period piece during the golden age of motor racing—the 1960s—with the Indianapolis 500 as the centerpiece.

What is the most difficult part of the whole writing process?

When I started my first novel, nearly twenty years ago, the hardest part was sitting down to write the first sentence—even though I’d written it in my head several weeks previously. I was intimidated by the whole process and feared that I’d never complete it. I only talked about it to friends. Finally, someone asked me when I would stop talking and do something. It was the kick I needed to set pen to paper. Now, when I near the end of a project, I begin to worry about my next one. What’s the story? Who are my characters and what are their conflicts? How can I top my last novel? Today I find the revision process the most difficult part. I love polishing a text; but sometimes I get carried away with the tinkering. At that point I go back to the original draft and determine whether the tinkering adds something, some new dimension, or does it get in the way?

What is the easiest part of the writing process?

The late great sports writer Red Smith wrote Writing is easy. I just open a vein and bleed. Opening a vein is never easy, but it’s essential, in my opinion, to great writing. It separates the great writers from the mercenaries, who write simply for the masses, for profit. Unfortunately, that seems to go against what many creative writing courses are teaching young writers today. They’re told that they must allow the reader to experience the text in their own way. I understand that, but one must still lead the horse to the water. What if your reader has never experienced what you’re writing about? For example, I’ve never fathered children, so it does me little good to read about a character’s joy over holding his newborn son for the first time by writing, “He was proud.” I like metaphor and so I could relate to something like, “Holding his son for the first time he felt as if he’d just hit the walk-off homerun in the seventh game of the World Series.” Raymond Chandler was one of the greatest stylists ever to write, and I consider myself somewhat of a stylist, too. It comes natural to me. I love language, and to me how something is said is as important as what is said; yet sadly, the publishing industry seems to frown on anything that might take a reader out of the story. Well, commercials do that on TV; but it doesn’t lessen our enjoyment of our favorite shows, does it? If the industry is losing money, perhaps they should reconsider the cookie cutter mold stories they seem to want to publish.

Does writing come easy for you?

It comes a lot easier today than it did when I started twenty years ago! That’s a product of experience — like an exercise routine, the first few workout sessions are difficult as your muscles rebel against the abuse you put them through. But in time, your body craves those workouts. Writing is like that for me. The more I do it the more I feel the need to do it. Raymond Chandler wrote Everything a writer learns about the art or craft of fiction takes just a little away from his need or desire to write at all. In the end he knows all the tricks and has nothing to say. I hope I never reach that end because every session is an adventure. I learn something about the craft of writing and, more importantly, about myself.

What, in your opinion, are the essential qualities of a good story?

For me, the most essential quality of a good story is characters with whom I can connect. Finding a good story to write is easy; but writing about characters the reader cares about is more difficult. Hannibal Lecter is one of the most demented characters ever conceived, yet he was fascinating, a train wreck away from which we want to look but can’t.

Where can we learn more about your books?

My third novel, One Hot January, is soon to launch, through Second Wind Publishing. You can learn more about me and all my literary endeavors at my website.