The first email correspondence I received from Tony was in May of 2008. He had read a story I published online, a crazy story I wrote about a gentlemen named Vin Vanbly. Tony, like others, had found the free story quite by accident. He decided to take a moment to email me. He wrote:
“Thank-you so much for the deep tissue massage to my sexual psyche. You’re clearly a person of high emotional intelligence whose ability to manipulate others is quite frankly, a little scary. I hope in your real life you have as powerful and caring an impact on people as you do in your writing and would LOVE it if you have the time and the inclination to write more.”
This initiated our email correspondence. Tony was an insightful reader, easily making connections I thought were invisible to readers. He understood what I was trying to accomplish. He got me. We furiously scribbled twelve-paragraph emails to each other about love, about life, about how hard the world is sometimes. We wrote about unexpected moments of brilliance and the beauty of small gestures.
He’s not the only one who wrote me.
I received quite a bit of email in response to that story, enough positive feedback that I decided to write a few books about this strange guy, Vin, and how he came to be who he was. At that point in my life, I had been writing fiction for decades, but never anything I thought good enough to print. (Sell digitally. Whatever.) No, my writing was mediocre at best and I did not want to subject the world to more mediocre fiction. However, writing about the oddball Vin Vanbly sparked my writing to a new level.
I made a half-dozen lasting online friends from that experience, all of whom were mildly irritated when I yanked the free story from that site, having decided to turn this short-story silliness into a proper novel. In fact, I had decided to write a series of six books, The Lost and Founds, and rework this freebee story into Book Five.
Tony supported me.
He believed in me.
He called my story a “book of spells” and never tired of digging for the clues and philosophies I’d hidden within. Every riddler wants someone to solve the riddles, or at least have a blast investigating. Tony investigated. We played together! We laughed and goofed, shared websites or YouTube clips we loved, and revealed our life-shaping experiences. He always returned to Vin’s tale, telling me I must publish it and share it with the world.
I did. I published.
As the months turned into years, Tony remained one of my biggest fans, greatest cheerleaders, and grew as a dear friend. He preferred to keep out of the spotlight with my growing readership, but we corresponded privately, sometimes every single day for a month at a time. (While this may not seem extraordinary to some, for an introvert, this is marathon communication.) Tony emailed me articles about Found Kings and Queens he discovered out in the world, doing good, making the world better.
It wasn’t always about me. He shared dozens of favorite classical music clips from YouTube and noted the exact minute and seconds when Pavarotti’s voice made him cry. He adored Barbara Streisand and loved educating me on her best moments in song and in movies. His tastes were sophisticated and yet playful. He described exquisite meals he prepared. He explored the globe photographing animals, documenting his journey with his best friend, Denise.
While traveling, he emailed dazzling photos of icebergs, penguins, gorillas, exotic resorts, and once a picture of their group approaching Mount Kilimanjaro—a photo so breathtaking I made it my desktop wallpaper for three months. I used one of his penguin photos for the entire summer and autumn as my desktop. He drank expensive wines in Eastern Europe and saw Russian Opera. In Africa, he stayed in a bed and breakfast where giraffes came to wake you in the morning by poking their heads in your second story window, demanding breakfast.
Through Tony, I got to know Denise. I never met her, and we never emailed directly, but he told me about Denise’s horse ranch in California, how she loved her animals, particularly her dogs, how Tony celebrated Thanksgiving with Denise and her family every year. He belonged to their family as well as his own. He sent me pictures of the dazzling table setting and feast.
He was not wealthy. Oh, he liked nice things and I guess he was affluent. But he worked very hard at his job and—to my understanding—was much beloved in that environment. He successfully managed big integrations of monster computer systems (something like that), so I don’t think anyone at work begrudged him time off to explore the world.
We talked about his struggles and the times when he felt like giving up. We discussed the hard time, when he felt he had hit rock bottom. There were some pretty awful rock bottoms for Tony. Sometimes he lost the battle to his inner demons. Sometimes he won. After one such victory, he excitedly told me he knew his king name.
King Tony the Defender.
He explained he sometimes needed to defend himself in this life. He had allowed his good nature to be taken advantage of in the past. A highly visible profile at work meant he attracted some negative attention because, well, just because: high profile.
He knew that sometimes he needed to defend himself from himself. Tony was a man who “did his work” and stared unflinchingly at his own inner pain, the ugliness we all share and don’t want to witness. The negative voices in his head could yell and scream in his ear, and with his king name, Tony now possessed a sword to cut through those whispering ghosts, and cry out, “Enough!”
Tony and a group of work colleagues volunteered once a week reading to toddlers. Tony felt very protective of them, their vulnerability. Reading aloud to a small kid in his lap is the exact moment when he realized his king name was perfect for him.
When he was excited and proud of some healthy choice made or endured a hard work week while remaining positive and focused, he would sign his emails to me, Tony the DEFENDER. Sometimes he defended group morale. Sometimes he defended his family history by telling the absolute truth about his mother and father. He took his king name seriously and invented shades of meaning for the word ‘defender.’ His king name mattered to him, representing something powerful and beautiful.
Tony and I met only once.
In 2011, I threw myself a release party for King Perry, and Tony flew to Minneapolis to attend. It was my first book and I was proud, so I reserved a pub’s side room, proclaimed an open bar, and allowed my friends to show up and spend the evening partying. I had no idea what I was doing. The intense, extroverted energy of this party exploding for almost six hours. I talked non-stop to everyone, hugging people who loved me and were genuinely happy for this measure of success.
And Tony—who had flown from Canada to share this experience with me—sipped his drink quietly somewhere in the background, completely accepting that his night was to be shared with every person in the room. Despite the personal cost and the effort he’d made to be there for me, he gave me every inch of space I needed, and then some. He brought me water a few times and when I apologized profusely for not having enough time for him exclusively, he reminded me this was my night. Then, he’d wander away so I could socialize more.
Plus, he was spending the weekend, so we’d eventually have our chance to hang out.
We had a great weekend. My brother surprised me by coming to town for the party, and the three of us ate dinners together and took long walks around the lakes. Tony and I spent hours reviewing his Antarctica scrapbook full of incredible photos. I showed him Minneapolis. We walked by Minnehaha Creek as the spring buds began to green the bushes along the gushing stream.
The next year, for King Mai’s release, Tony mailed me an expensive bottle of champagne and suggested I save it for a very special occasion. I looked up the label once. I would never buy a bottle of anything this expensive, not ever. It’s that expensive. In fact, I’m still saving it. I was hoping Tony and I would drink it together at some point, possibly during our trip to Italy.
Tony wanted us to take a big trip together. He wanted to share his love of global travel with me. We agreed to tour Italy sometime in 2016. (Trip to be planned in 2015.) Back in 2014 when we first started planning together, I told him I needed a year or two to save up the money. He had no problem waiting. He and Denise had other fabulous trips scheduled.
But we’re not going to Italy in 2016.
We’re never going.
Earlier this year, one February afternoon, Tony disappeared.
He left a note asking a few friends be notified. I was on the list. He left behind his cell phone and computer. As far as the police could tell, he did not pack a bag.
Seven months later, he’s still gone.
Nobody understands what happened.
Suicide seems like the obvious answer here, but nobody realized he was suicidal. If he was, he hid it well. He gave away a family heirloom to a beloved relative the month before he disappeared—classic sign of someone planning on checking out.
Yet, he didn’t give away everything. Not all the family heirlooms. And Tony was regularly generous. While working in India years ago, he befriended a local man, someone assigned to take care of his American corporate charge. They became friends. Tony ate dinner in the man’s home. Met his family. Almost a year after he returned to Canada, Tony heard from his Indian friend who explained that without money for a lifesaving operation, he would die. Tony paid for the operation. He also paid the family’s living expenses for the next six months while his friend recovered. As far as I know, they kept in touch long afterward.
Tony defended that man’s life.
Tony defended the integrity of that family. He kept them alive. Together.
The day before Tony disappeared, he bought several pair of hand warmers and a coffee. In his apartment, they found printed maps of state forests hundreds of miles from where they eventually discovered his car. Did he walk into the Canadian wilderness to freeze in the winter? If so, why didn’t the professional search teams—experts in finding suicides and missing persons—find him anywhere within the two mile radius from the church parking lot where he abandoned his car?
The police investigating his disappearance seemed incredibly thorough and competent. I have never been through a missing person experience with a fellow American, but something tells me Tony’s case got more hours of careful attention than would be allocated here in my own country. I think they did their very best.
But nobody knows.
All of us who loved Tony must go forward without knowing.
After his disappearance, Tony’s sister did an amazing job keeping us updated on the investigation details. The night he left, she and I wept together on the phone.
For weeks we sweated through every lead, every possible hint of a clue…but nothing turned up. The emails became less frequent as there was less to report, less new leads. Lately, Denise and I have emailed each other to say, “Are you thinking of him? I am. This is kind of horrible, actually.” She and I have never met but we are forever bound by the burden of not knowing, of our unresolved love for him.
Where are you, King Tony the Defender?
Did an experienced world traveler decide to start over in some exotic foreign locale? Maybe. But he loved being part his extended family. He loved living close to his aunt and uncle. He loved Denise. He was eager to see the next king book. I’m not sure that makes sense.
Did he commit suicide? Yes, that seems plausible. But how did he disappear so effectively? Was he really suicidal? Could have been. The last time we talked at length, his life was in a good place, so I believed. He asked me if I wanted a Christmas fruitcake. I said, “Fuck yeah.”
Tony is also a gourmet cook.
Was a gourmet cook.
He mailed me gorgeous fruitcake, a work of art. A thing of beauty. I photographed it in sunlight and posted the picture to my Facebook page in December.
On Christmas Eve, after a fireside dinner with my dear friend Ron, we munched fruitcake and discussed its undeserved reputation. Still, we agreed that fruitcake was rarely this delicious. Over particularly good whiskey, Ron and I toasted my friend, King Tony. I shared the story of how I had come to feel very close to someone I had only met once.
The world is like that now. We love people far away. They get stuck in our hearts.
I refuse to throw away the last bit of unfinished fruitcake. I can’t. Tony made it. Besides, I think it’s still good to eat. Last I checked, no fur had grown on it. I’ve decided to finish it on the day King John releases. The book is dedicated to you, Tony.
I hadn’t told him that I planned on dedicating one of the series to him. I wanted it to be a surprise. For the years before I had a single Goodreads or Amazon review to remind me my stories might be worth telling, there was Tony. He nurtured me when I had little faith in myself.
He defended me.
King Tony, I miss you.
If you’re alive, you don’t have to write. You don’t have to explain. Just send another fruitcake. I will mail half of it to Denise and we will eat it together, chewing into the phone, thrilled to know you’re out there in the world.
Probably defending someone.