Illusions of Magic Blog






Personal Note from J.B.

The August blog introduced my new novel Dangerous Parallel by including Chapter 1. In introducing it, I referred to it as a “serial novel.” This deserves explanation. Although the initial chapters appear serially, you will be able to read the entire book early in 2021.

Chapter 2 is included below. Chapters 3 and 4 will appear in the following blog, with two more chapters appearing in the next blog. By the time Chapter 6 appears, I will have finished writing the novel. I will then place the entire book on this site as a free download (PDF) file.

In the article “Flying to a Waterborne Assignment” I describe one of my most interesting assignments as a magazine reporter.

Below you’ll also find my take on “The Toughest Job.” It delves into what I regard as a most difficult art, that of creating the ‘shorthand’ description of a novel. I urge you to read it and comment to me about your reactions.

Please be aware that Dangerous Parallel is a novel on the adventures of two seafarers. I tried to tone down their salty talk, but the manuscript inevitably includes a sprinkling of expletives. If their presence will cause offense, avoid reading the story.

I hope you enjoy my blog. Please take time to comment, about the website, the blog, or other topic. (Be sure to tell me who it’s from.) Simply send an email to:


Flying to a Waterborne Assignment


I’ve been a writer for much of my life. Among the fascinating writing jobs I’ve held over the years was as a reporter for WorkBoat magazine during the early ‘90s. WorkBoat, a bimonthly publication at that time headquartered in New Orleans, specialized in covering the technical aspects of commercial and industrial seagoing vessels.

Illustrated below is a page from one of my more interesting assignments. The editor directed me to fly to Houston, where I would board a helicopter to cover a pre-authorized story on a vessel called Indian Seal. The blue chopper had passenger seating for me and a half-dozen crew of the Indian Seal. This was a crew-change flight on its way to the vessel working in the Gulf of Mexico.

Boats & Gear - Sounds from the Doghouse

As we descended, the vessel abruptly appeared from a misty January sky. At 210 feet long, the ‘Seal’ is not large. She is powerful, though, needing her two Alco diesels (a combined 4,500 horsepower) to tow miles-long trailing cables of ‘guns’ and hydrophones.

When the chopper descended to within a dozen or so feet of the vessel’s helipad, the pilot slowed the descent drastically. Wave action causes the ship’s skimpy helipad to move in unpredictable ways, so he’s extra careful. Nevertheless, we settle gently to the deck with an absence of bounce. Some crewmen on deck cheer as the chopper touches down—they look forward to the chopper’s return flight where they’ll enjoy  well-earned days off on dry land.

I’m aboard the ‘Seal’ to report how it fulfils its mission to gather data on oil and gas strata below the seabed, exploring for petroleum deposits. My research will take a couple of days, during which I’ll get to know many of the vessel’s complement of about 30, two-thirds of whom, during a typical duty tour, work the seismographic equipment on 12-hour shifts. During my stay, I’ll live, eat and sleep as a member of the crew.

The seismographic vessel uses high-energy sound reflected from geologic strata below the seabed to locate promising locations for drilling. So-called ‘guns’ powered by compressed air produce the reflected sounds that activate thousands of hydrophones distributed along the two streamers trailed behind the vessel (see illustration). Complicated computer processing housed in the ship’s ‘doghouse’ converts the raw data into useable information for transmission to shore.

With many photos and pages of notes that I hope are sufficient, I conclude my stay aboard the Indian Seal. I wait near the helipad for the arrival of the big blue chopper. I’ll board it for another crew-change flight to shore where I’ll begin writing the article that will subsequently appear as a two-issue spread in WorkBoat magazine.

It’s been a success—an exciting and informative trip aboard an interesting vessel, and a part of my writing life.



The Toughest Job


What’s a tougher job than writing a book? It’s writing a pithy description of what’s been written.

A description of a book is crucial to seeing it promoted, reviewed, recommended, and read. Despite the difficulty it represents, the writer must understand his book’s appeal to a reader. If the writer can’t explain what the book offers, it’s impossible to interest a possible reader. A good book description makes a reader say, “I must read that.”

When hearing or reading a description, a reader expects to learn what the book is about and whether the book will inform, thrill, bore, entertain, etc. The reader always hopes that the description offered is valid, that the book delivers what is described.

A book description also provides keys to online search engines so readers can find a book. It is needed wherever the book is marketed and sold to the public, be that a website, store or Amazon.

Describing a book in a few hundred words is hard. Describing a book in two sentences is almost impossible. Yet both are necessary.

A two-sentence description is sometimes called a blurb or ‘elevator pitch.’ It is needed to tease a potential reader into seeking the longer description—or to reading the book itself.

To write a two-sentence description of Dangerous Parallel, I had first to review the entire novel. This prepared me to consider an overall, or high altitude, view of the story.

I followed by asking questions:

  • What is the story about?
  • What makes the story unique?
  • Who are its major characters?
  • Where is the story set?
  • What are the story’s major events?
  • When does the story take place?
  • What will the reader enjoy most?
  • When finished, what will a reader think?

Later, I wrote short phrases that gave, alluded to, symbolized, or summarized answers to these questions. Some of these were discarded because they gave away too much. Thus, with the remaining phrases in mind, I formed test sentences combining them to see how they might be blended into a satisfactory description. Ultimately, I chose two sentences that together seemed to best satisfy the objectives given above. This resulted in:

When their charter-fishing boat is hijacked, Billy and Captain Zack acquire a quarter-million dollars. Enmeshed in an international plot that baffles even the FBI, they outmaneuver both sheriff and conspirators in a comedic adventure that affords a thrilling ride.



Dangerous Parallel



The noise from the engine and wake was loud. Vincent wouldn’t overhear, so without turning my body, I said, “Where’s your gun?” Zack kept a loaded revolver on the boat, hidden from the prying eyes of the Coast Guard.

“Port engine hatch. Behind the generator.”

“I’ll tell him you’re worried we’re low on oil. I’ll lift the hatch, grab the gun and fill that beer belly full of lead.”

Zack reached for the range switch on the radar. “You never were strong on humor, Billy.” He switched the range switch to five miles. “He’s holding a gun aimed at you. Before you had a chance to raise the gun, you’d be shot dead.”

“Nice thought, though, about Vincent’s belly. So how come, back there, you didn’t jam on full throttle and toss the bum over the stern?”

Before Zach could answer, there was movement below. Vincent approached, his voice harsh and loud. “Up there, what’s doing?”

Zack turned and yelled. “It’s okay. Got to check the fuel.” As he turned back to the dash, he glared at me, said in a low voice, “Who’s running this boat, Billy? You or me?”

Oh-oh. I’d stomped on a nerve. “Okay, skipper...”

“Did you forget? About the lady? Maybe she’s not in on this.”

I figured she was in on it, and she’d rightly have gone over the stern with Vincent. Quietly, I said, “What’s the chance we can raise somebody by cell phone?”

“Not good, reception’s weak here. With Vincent eyeballing us...”

“Yeah, but—”

“You!” Vincent hollered, waving at me with his gun, “Shut up. Keep to business!”

“Yeah, okay,” I said, nodding.

Zack said, “What’d I tell you?”

I noticed the glitter in Vincent’s dark eyes—reflections from the quartz lights above.  To Zack I said, “The lights are right in his eyes. You could switch them off and—”

“Hell’s bells!” Zack put the tip of his index finger below a blip near the top of the radar screen—a move meant to fend off Vincent’s suspicions. “Don’t go half-cocked, Billy. Act normal. I’ll figure a way out.” He punched the volume button on the weather radio. “We don’t want him to start shooting. He might accidentally kill me. Then where would you be?”

“Mourning, of course.”

His cheek lifted slightly in a weak smile.

A loud gunshot intruded. We whirled around.

Vincent’s gun was raised high in the air. Smoke wafted from the barrel. “You!” he yelled, pointing at me with his gun-free hand. “Get the mikes. All mikes for radio! Down here. Bring cell phones, also!”

“Sure, okay,” I yelled.

Zack yanked mike cords from the radios. While talking with minimal lip movement Zack said, “Listen. He can’t sell any dope he gets from a boat out here. He has to get it to shore. He needs us to get him to his customers.” He handed the mikes and his cell to me. “We’re okay until we get to shore.”

That was Zack’s futile attempt to calm me. I climbed down, handed the mikes and our cells to a sour-faced Vincent. He quickly tossed them all overboard.

For the remainder of the long ride to the rendezvous, Vincent and Christine sat to starboard, opposite me across the rear deck. Vincent’s pistol hand rested on his thigh, the barrel pointed more or less at me. His focus roved in a nervous pattern: from me to Zack, forward, then back again to me. He paid no attention to his wife. Sea spray beaded up on his forehead, and he sometimes wiped it, but his grim scowl never changed. I noted his fat lower lip quivered from time to time. Christine didn’t turn to me or Zack, and I never caught her talking with Vincent. Her gaze was fixed forward, on where the boat was heading.

After a short time, I stood up and reached for one of the fishing rods.

“Sit down. You not hear me, I shoot you.”

I sat down, spread my hands out. “I was going to stow the rods inside, out of the spray.” I pointed. “These big reels are worth a lot of money...”

“No.” he said. The bags under his eyes wobbled as he shook his head. “Sit,” he commanded.

Zack reduced throttles to idle, and the boat slowed and settled. I figured we were nearing the rendezvous. I searched the darkness ahead for a vessel, but saw nothing.

Zack turned and spoke loudly to Vincent. “We’re at your numbers. There’s a vessel ahead on the radar. What do you want to do?”

Vincent stood up with the side of the gun raised to his forehead to shield his eyes from the quartz lights. He squinted up at Zack. “Go close. I can’t see.”

Zack increased throttles. Exhausts gurgled in the wake. Vincent cocked his head to afford a better view forward. I saw an opportunity to jump him, but he still had his finger on the gun’s trigger. 

We moved forward with minimal wake.

The green glow of a running light appeared off our starboard bow. Vincent saw it. “Pull to them,” he shouted.

The dim outline of a trawler loomed out of the night.

Zack turned toward it. Its slow-running diesel throbbed across the narrowing gap. Bilge water poured from a rust-rimmed hole in its hull and splashed to the sea below. Lack of a wake proved the trawler was not moving.

We closed and Zack put the motors in reverse. Our exhausts bubbled louder. We slowed severely within a yard or so of the trawler. No one was visible onboard. Nets hung in disarray from the trawler’s frames and outriggers. I expected lights to show, but none were visible. I searched for movement in the pilot house, but saw nothing.

Zack maneuvered our starboard side toward the trawler. A deck hand with a red bandana tied over top of his head appeared from behind a winch on the aft deck.

Vincent stood about a yard ahead of the stern, feet spread to counter the rocking of the boat. “You!” he said, waving the gun at me, “Get rope to him.”

I grabbed a dock line, stepped to the deck on the side of the cabin and tossed it. The red bandana man caught it. I cinched it to a cleat. He hauled it hand over hand, inching our starboard side closer.

I turned toward Vincent. He threw his gun into the blue bag, and dropped it. He placed his thumbs to the sides of his chin and shouted something in Spanish. Christine joined him at the starboard side of our boat.

Zack disengaged the motors. Reel Time thumped against the trawler’s starboard side.

Christine’s right arm and shoulder made a powerful arc, her wrist disappearing into Vincent’s belly. He exhaled like a blowing dolphin, and spun toward her. He doubled up and collapsed in a heap, both arms embracing his middle.

I dropped the rope and jumped to Reel Time’s deck. As I steadied my feet, I saw a bearded crew-member in a gray jumpsuit appear at the trawler’s rail. He pointed an AK-47 at me. I froze and raised my arms in surrender.

Christine climbed with surprising agility on Reel Time’s hull rim and grasped the trawler’s gunnel. The man in the red bandana leaned, grabbed her and helped her crawl over onto the trawler’s deck. The guy with the gun continued pointing it at me.

By now lights were on in the trawler’s cabin. The shouting in Spanish sounded urgent. The dock line I’d tossed went limp in the water. The bearded guy with the gun lifted its barrel and turned away from us.

Zack quickly sized up the scene. As the guy with the AK-47 headed for the trawler’s cabin and the guy in the red bandana retreated, Zack flipped the quartz lights off, threw the motors in gear, and bent down to make himself less of a target. We moved forward, skimming alongside the trawler’s aft hull. As we passed its stern, I saw Christine, silhouetted against the transom. She seemed to be staring at us calmly as we receded into the night.

Once clear of the trawler, Zack jammed the throttles and Reel Time lurched to top water. The abrupt movement pitched me back onto my haunches.

“Get his gun!” Zack shouted.

I scrambled to gain my feet and launched toward Vincent at the stern. Then I remembered he didn’t have the gun. It’s in the blue bag, dummy!

I dove cross deck, searching and feeling for the bag. Reel Time churned at maximum speed, spray flying. Lack of light made it difficult to see anything. Luckily I hit the bag, reached inside and grasped the cold steel. With one knee still on the deck I pointed the gun toward Vincent. At the same time I realized the gun’s safety might prevent it from firing.

We were a good distance from the trawler now. “Gimme light,” I shouted. “Turn on the lights.”

Zack flipped the switch. The quartz lights came on. With my eyes adjusted, I saw that Vincent’s lump at the stern wasn’t moving.

I searched the gun. “I think he’s out,” I shouted, “but where the hell’s the safety?”

Zack pulled back the throttles and the boat settled to a slow cruise. He turned, glanced at Vincent, and slid down the ladder. He snatched the pistol from me and flipped the safety off.

“Here,” he said, handing the gun to me. He turned around. “Keep me covered.”

Hands ready to grapple, he approached Vincent. He nudged Vincent’s shoulder with his knee. No reaction.

He leaned down to look closely. “He’s not breathing. I don’t—”

I came up behind. “That Christine has some kind of punch.”

With one hand Zack waved me back. “Wait a minute...” As he spoke, a thin line of bright red blood ran out along the deck from under Vincent’s form.

Zack gave me a worried glance, and I shrugged. He unfolded one of Vincent’s arms. When he lifted the second arm, a black plastic handle in the middle of a bloody patch in the center of Vincent’s shirt was visible. Zack said, “That looks like a—”

“Knife,” I said.

Zack placed the tip of his index finger below Vincent’s ear. Vincent didn’t react.

I said, “Is he alive?”

“I don’t feel anything. Could he be dead?”

Zack turned to me and glanced at the gun. “So what are you doing, holding the gun on him?”

I lowered the barrel. “Here,” I said, “you take it.”

Zack took the pistol, and turned the safety on. He went to the starboard side to check the boat’s progress. “Dead, dead, dead,” he said as he tossed the gun inside the cabin.

Reflexively, I started coiling the dock line. I dropped it and plopped onto a deck chair. My brain ached. 

Zack climbed onto the flying bridge. “Shit!” he said, “no mikes! No phones! We can’t call the Coast Guard or...” His voice trailed off. 

The stream of blood lengthened. I stood, climbed onto the flying bridge and fit my bottom onto the bench seat. “We got a body.”

“Thanks for the news.”

“Nobody’s going to believe this.”

“I’m not sure I believe it.”

Zack rested his hands on the wheel. We sat silent for several minutes. Then a smile formed on Zack’s lips. He slapped his knee with one hand and began laughing.

I gave him a serious look. “What’s so damned funny?”

“You. You, standing there, holding a gun on a dead guy.”

I considered the picture and smiled. “Who says I’m not a ‘take-charge’ guy?”

Zack entered numbers into the electronics box, and punched “Start” on the autopilot. “We’ve got a ways to go to get home. We’d better figure out how we’re going to play this.”

I got off the seat and started down the ladder. Zack said, “Where you going?”

“Just thought of something.” I thumped to the deck and grabbed Vincent’s blue bag. I clawed through the clothing inside feeling for what I’d bumped against when I grabbed the pistol. Inside a folded jacket were two packages wrapped in brown paper with big rubber bands around them. I tore open the end of one package.

I clambered one-handed onto the bridge. “Look at this.”

“What is it?” Zack turned the autopilot off and slowed the boat. I handed him the package.

He held the package, thumbed the ends of the bills through the opening I’d torn. “Hundreds—these are hundred-dollar bills! We’re rich!”

“Rich and in trouble.” Inside were at least a dozen packs of hundreds. I began counting the number of bills in a single pack.

“There must be a hundred thousand here,” Zack said.

It took me a while to complete the count of the pack. “This package must contain about a hundred-twenty thousand dollars.”

This package?”

“There’s another one—below.”

“Where’d you get it?”

“Vincent’s blue bag. There’s a second package like this one in there.”

“Hell, that’s like a quarter-million dollars!”

“But Zack, we’ve also got Vincent.”

Zack grinned. “We get rich. And all you do is worry.”

“When we get back to the dock with Vincent’s body, we’ll have some worry. Like how to convince cops of the whole story—this hijacking, the rendezvous, the killing...”

“Piece of cake,” Zack said. “Even with your record.”

He referred to my detention record. As a teen, I’d served nine months for grand theft auto. “Don’t forget—I got time off for good behavior.”

Zack laughed. “That’s the part no one will ever believe.” A grin plumped his cheeks. “We dump his body over the side...we’re home free, and rich.”

“Yeah? How do we explain what happened to our charter?”

“Okay. We clean up the blood.”

“But what about the charter?”

“We took them nightclubbing in Key West and they got too drunk to return with us.”

“Come on, Zack. If Vincent’s body washes ashore with a knife hole in it, cops are going to think we didn’t show them a good time.”

Zack frowned, and returned the power to autopilot. “We can’t go back with a dead body.” A serious look came to his eyes. “No, no no. We got to come up with a story. Something everybody will believe.”

“Including Sheriff Flannigan?”

Zack squinted into the blackness. “Hey! I got it! Listen to this!”




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