Complex Villains

My current work in progress, A New Tune, is a nonlinear story about a couple who are struggling to keep the flame of their love burning after a year of marriage. One is a famous rock star, the other a nobody attorney, who thinks himself a failure because he isn’t ambitious enough to make a name for himself.

The real villain of this story is self-doubt and distrust. And a lack of empathy on the part of each man.

That said, I introduce a side character who serves not only as a kind of villain but also as a kind of helper to my attorney character, Ben. I think it’s important to give key side characters (particularly ones you intend to serve more than one purpose) a background so their motivations can be clear to the reader.

The bad guy wants to blow up the building. Okay. Why? So the good guy can stop him. Not good enough. The bad guy wants to blow up the building because the man who murdered his sister is inside it. Too bad innocent people are going to get hurt, but they can’t be all THAT innocent if they work for his sister’s murderer.

In A New Tune, my sort of villain, Maksim Kuznetsov is a somewhat shady character, who isn’t above charging high rents for garbage apartments or roughing up patrons at his club, when they get out of line. He finds himself in something of a moral quandary because a stranger has just saved his life at nearly the cost of his own. Maksim feels obligated to “even the score” by helping his Good Samaritan in some way.

Below is the portion of the novel that introduces Maksim to the readers:

            Benjamin Scieszka was married less than a month when he was nearly killed in an accident on the Interstate 10 freeway. The day had started out badly enough. An unexpected rainstorm had spoilt his freshly pressed business suit and an umbrella too frail to withstand a breeze over five miles an hour. Thinking a caramel macchiato might raise his flagging spirits, Ben made a quick stop at the Starbucks on Ocean Ave.

As he was coming out of the coffee shop, a trio of teenagers, presumably eager to get beverages of their own, bumped into him. Ben’s caramel macchiato hit the pavement. “Hey, watch where you’re going?” he complained, only to have a sneering teen laugh in his face. Unwilling to stand in line a second time, Ben gathered up what remained of his treat, casting it into a nearby waste bin. He wouldn’t be ticketed for littering to top it all off. But his troubles, that day, were only just beginning.

The last thing he remembered clearly was giving the front of his trousers a pat down with a Wendy’s takeaway napkin. The freshly brewed macchiato wasn’t half so good on his crotch. Then, he supposed, he must have climbed into his car—correction, Travis’s car—heading for the nearest ramp onto the freeway for home.

From there, he had to count upon the official police report. He remembered nothing of the accident—or its aftermath. He woke, hours later, in a hospital bed in UCLA Medical Center. He had a splitting headache and a very sore chest, which, he later learned, he owed to a deployed airbag in Travis’s BMW.

A man was sitting in a chair beside Ben’s hospital bed. A man that Ben had never seen before, who looked so visibly relieved at the sight of Ben’s return to the land of the living (scratch that, the land of consciousness) that Ben was sure some mistake had been made in his identity.

The man was something short of forty. Handsome, in an artic way. Icy blue eyes, almost colorless blond hair. Wearing a well-tailored gunmetal-gray suit with a crisp white dress shirt. No tie. No jewelry. Expensive looking leather loafers.

The man quickly pocketed his iPhone, got to his feet, and turned to face Ben. “What’s your name?” he asked. He had a heavy Slavic accent. Russian, Ben guessed.

“Benjamin Scieszka.”

“You were driving someone else’s car?”

“My husband.”

“Your husband is—Travis Wintner?” The Russian’s bushy white eyebrows lifted slightly, as he asked this question, but his impassive face betrayed no emotion.

Ben nodded.

“They thought you might have stolen the car.”

“Who thought that?”

“The police. But car thieves don’t usually wear suits. Even cheap ones.”

Was that an insult—or a mere statement of the facts, as this man saw them? Clearly, he wasn’t the sort to spare feelings. Or to take shit.

“What happened to me?”

“There was an accident on the freeway. A sporting goods delivery truck with an inept driver overturned. The road was slick, with all the rain. So perhaps it wasn’t ENTIRELY his fault. ‘For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.’ Isn’t that right?” The man gave Ben a look, when he said this, that sent a chill down Ben’s badly bruised spine.

“I don’t remember—”

“Head injuries can be murder to the short-term memory. Luckily, I was there. I can tell you what happened. You were going to hit me head-on. You would have, if you hadn’t turned your car into the barrier.”

“I don’t remember—” Ben said again, not quite believing he’d have the nerve to wreck his car purposely into a wall. No. That was a panic reaction. Afraid of crashing head-on into anything, he wrenched the wheel as hard to the side as he could, hoping to have better luck in another direction. That he’d saved someone, doing that, was pure chance.

“Well, rest assured, I’m not likely to forget that.” The man made a sour face. “I take my—debts seriously, Mr. Scieszka. And I pay them. The police said your wallet was missing?”

“My wallet?” Ben gave the man a blank look.

“It wasn’t in your pockets or in the car when the paramedics arrived. Did you drop it?”

“Drop it?” Ben thought of the coffee and the teens who’d rudely jostled him. Oh, don’t tell me I fell for that? This really isn’t my day. “Some teenagers—at the coffee shop—they plowed into me—knocked the coffee out of my hand. Must have lifted my wallet. My credit cards are probably maxed by now.”

“What teenagers?”

Ben shrugged. “I didn’t get a good look at their faces. One of them was wearing a brown leather jacket with black fur on the collar. Kind of ratty. Thought that was weird. It’s like 90 degrees today.” Was it still today? How long had he been in this hospital bed?

The distant ghost of a smile briefly graced the Russian’s face as he contemplated this piece of information.

A nurse came into the room to check on Ben. When he looked up again, the Russian was gone. A police officer came next to question him. Satisfied that Ben had a right to drive the car he’d totaled, the police officer returned his personal effects, sans the wallets the teens had presumably made away with. The face of Ben’s iPhone was cracked, but still serviceable. He was able to call Travis, but he wasn’t sure that was such a good idea. For one thing, Travis was in New York. For another, he was about to go on stage at Madison Square Garden.

In the scale of things, twenty thousand fans who’d paid their hard-earned money to see you surely outweighed the lone man back west who’d had the bad luck to crash your car while you were away. And Ben wasn’t even that badly hurt. A couple bruised ribs, some random contusions, and a rotten headache. Nothing much, when you considered that three people, including the driver of the sporting goods delivery truck, had been killed. Ben ought to count himself lucky.

The Russian man he’d all but forgotten came back into the room shortly after a nurse brought Ben his evening meal. He was being kept overnight—for observation. He couldn’t wait to get the hospital bill for this one!

The Russian was carrying a cup with a Starbucks label. He set this down on the tray table beside what had been identified on the menu as “Salisbury steak” but looked more like a poorly formed hamburger someone had burned.

“What’s this?”

“A caramel macchiato,” the Russian answered crisply. He rummaged in his pocket, pulled out a wallet, somewhat the worse for wear, tossing it down next to the cup.

“You found my wallet?”

“I RECOVERED it,” the Russian said carefully. “The cards were not used. All the same, I’d cancel them. Pickpockets don’t usually waste their time with plastic. Cold hard cash is what they like. You can spend that anywhere—without leaving incriminating evidence on surveillance cameras. Check to see everything is there.”

Everything was there—except the cash.

“How much did they take?”

“I don’t know.”

“Estimate,” the Russian said frostily, annoyed with Ben’s vague answer.

“I took $200 out of an ATM a couple days ago. The only thing I remember buying was that coffee.”

“So about $195.”

Ben nodded.

The Russian retrieved his own wallet, counted out ten crisp $20 bills and set them down on the top of Ben’s wallet.

“You don’t have to do that.”

“You must have hit your head hard,” the Russian said, his blue eyes steely. “Or you aren’t paying attention. I said I owed you a debt. And I’m going to pay it.”

“You don’t owe me anything. It was just dumb luck, me avoiding you. I was thinking of myself, of getting out of the way.”

The Russian laughed hollowly. “Do you think that changes anything? The fact is, I’d be dead, if you hadn’t crashed into that cement wall. Fortunately for me, you survived your hare-brained attempt at saving yourself.”

“Fortunately,” Ben said, with a grimace.

“Unfortunately,” the Russian said, with a sigh, “getting your wallet back from those pickpockets isn’t enough to settle things between us.”

“Believe me. I’m grateful. My dad gave me this wallet. Really. This is enough.”

“It is not ENOUGH,” the Russian said flatly, his eyes flashing. Spying Ben’s iPhone on the bedside table, he asked, “is that your phone?”

Ben nodded.

The Russian picked up the phone. Realizing that it was locked, he handed it to Ben to enter the passcode. Ben did so, without questioning the man. The man sent a text to the phone in his own pocket.

 “What did you do that for?”

“So you can reach me, when you need me,” he answered.

“Reach you when I need you? I don’t even know who you are.”

“My name is Maksim Kuznetsov.”

“Kuznetsov,” Ben repeated. He’d heard that name before. “You aren’t the guy who owns Golgotha Red?” Golgotha Red was a night club in downtown Santa Monica, which Hollywood stars and other famous people frequented. It was very exclusive, very pricey.

“I am the guy,” the Russian answered.

Ben had heard other things about Maksim Kuznetsov, not so praiseworthy. For one thing, his staff got rough with the patrons of his club, when they got out of line. The police were called in, frequently, at the behest of some angry celebrity, who wanted to pay the Russian back for the bruises he’d gotten, but Mr. Kuznetsov always managed, somehow, to avoid arrest. He owned other businesses in Santa Monica besides the club. A couple restaurants. A strip mall, somewhat frayed around the edges. A half dozen rental properties, in various states of disrepair. Someone less charitable might have called him a slumlord.

A slumlord who wasn’t afraid to use a ball bat to collect his rent, when asking didn’t work. After all, you had to be something of a “tough” guy, if you were going to make it in city like Santa Monica, where the average home cost $1.6 million and the chance of getting robbed going from it to your car on any given morning was one in sixteen.

To make it in a place like this, you had to speak softly—and carry a big fucking stick.

“Travis used to come to my club with that brainless pretty boy.”

“Cedric DeWolf-Hopper,” Ben supplied.

“Well, there’s no accounting for taste,” the Russian remarked, heading for the door. “I’ll call you in a few days, see how you’re feeling. Give my love to Travis.”

From this brief flashback, the reader gets a firm grasp of Maksim’s motivation. He feels he owes Ben a debt for saving his life and he’s going to pay it in his own (possibly inimical) way.

I offer, in example, the recovery of Ben’s wallet. Doing that, I establish a couple important facts: (1) Maksim knows enough about the local criminals to find the thieves in short order, and (2) he has a certain amount of power over the thieves, either to recover stolen property merely by asking for it or by the use of some (possibly physically violent) force.

Maksim is, however, not satisfied that the recovery of Ben’s wallet is sufficient recompense. He is anxious to satisfy his perceived creditor as rapidly as possible. He establishes a means of contact between them so he can keep tabs on Ben.

Clearly, Maksim has a code of ethics (he pays his debts) but he probably (definitely) has  a different understanding of what constitutes right and wrong. Ben may have found a friend—or someone that is going to wreck his life in ways he isn’t capable at that point of comprehending.

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