Friday, September 25, 2009
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Sunday, May 24, 2009
"The Devil Can Wait" selected 2009 Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPY) bronze medal finalist in the mystery/suspense/thriller category.
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
The winners will be announce on May 29th on the first evening of the BookExpo America convention in NYC. Fingers crossed!
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Case of THE BLACK GARDEN
The call came in five days ago about the incident at THE BLACK GARDEN. Word on the street was that a guy by the name of Joe Bright, had all the answers. I finally caught up with the suspect after spotting him entering The Smoke House on Lakeside drive. Too bad he couldn’t finish that prime rib, but getting the straight facts about this case was more pressing.
I shoved open the door to interrogation room three. Bright feigned a smile, but the eyes couldn’t mask the million questions that were running through his head—like he didn’t know I’d come after him. His feet were flat on the floor, palms down in front of him on top of the small metal table in the center of the otherwise barren room.
I took a seat across from Bright and studied him a second or two before asking:
“So, what gives, Joe? What’s your story?”
“My life has always revolved around the arts. When I was young, I used to draw constantly. I went to college on a fine arts scholarship and spent a few years on a dance team touring Canada and Europe. I also won a music showdown, playing the guitar and singing songs I’d written. Yet my biggest passion has always been writing. I wrote short stories while in high school and college, but never embarked on the daunting task of writing a novel until I’d graduated and moved to Hawaii.
I’ve been writing for fifteen years now and have written five novels. THE BLACK GARDEN is the first one to get picked up by a traditional publisher. Three of the others were published on audio cassette, but have since been discontinued. I also self-published two of them on my own, but have now discontinued those as well, since I’m rewriting them and plan to submit them to publishers once they’re finished.
Most of my stories fall within the gothic suspense category. THE BLACK GARDEN, however, is more of a drama/mystery. With its rural setting and dark theme, it still fits in the American Gothic genre, but without the supernatural elements that are often associated with the genre.”
“I see what you mean about the supernatural," I said, thinking about my own brush with the Devil. "But why this book? What drove you to do it?”
“One of the inspirations for THE BLACK GARDEN was a murder that took place in my hometown in Wyoming, when I was nineteen. I learned the details of the murder from my older brother’s best friend. He said the girl had been raped and strangled. She was eight-years-old.
A murder makes a large impact on a small town, mainly because it rarely happens there and because it tends to affect almost everyone. We know the victim. We know the killer. We know their families. When you come from a family of eight children, as I do, it increases the chances of there being a connection. In this case, the killer turned out to be my older brother’s best friend, the same one who had told us about the murder.
With the first suspect, I was willing to see the man hanged, even without seeing any of the evidence. When it turned out to be a friend of the family, I felt sick. I felt sorry for his family and for my brother. If he hadn’t confessed, I would have sworn they had the wrong guy. Why? Because I knew him and we often choose sides based on association rather than on the facts of the situation.
This murder is a very small part of THE BLACK GARDEN; however, the theme of judgment runs throughout the story. Who’s right, the Hatfields or McCoys? Depends if you’re a Hatfield or a McCoy.”
I knew exactly where he was coming from—that sick feeling when you find out those you care about most are not who you think they are. “That’s tough, but you can’t play it both ways. I mean, what did you think the people of this town would get out of your work?”
"I hope the novel gives readers a different perspective on events, and entertains them at the same time.”
I skimmed through my note, ran a finger down the page until I found what I needed. “What do you know about Mitchell Sanders?”
“Mitchell is the outsider. He moves to the small town of Winter Haven for a summer job. He doesn’t care about his employers or the community. He’s a coward who has run away from his problems in Boston and then finds himself entrenched in even bigger problems. He’s not comfortable speaking his mind while in the company of people he knows will disagree with him. Yet as the conflict mounts, he’s forced to take a stand and to grow as a person.”
“What aren’t you telling me? I have all your notes, something’s missing,” I said, leaning forward and waving a set of loose pages in his face. “Found them on your website, http://www.joebrightbooks.com/pages/excerpt_black_garden.html, certainly caught my attention. How about you give it to me straight? The whole story; the plot, the characters, the setting, everything!”
“Mitchell Sanders takes a summer job in Winter Haven, helping the O’Briens fix up their house. He moves into the studio at the back of the black garden, a bizarre assortment of items now overrun with weeds. Soon, Mitchell realizes there is something very peculiar about his employers and discovers that not all of their skeletons are in the closet where they belong.
The story revolves around three characters: Mitchell, George, and Candice. Mitchell Sanders, the main protagonist, starts out naïve and detached but gradually grows more and more intrigued by his quirky employers, mainly George. All of us know someone like George O’Brien, a crotchety old man who has nothing good to say about anything. Yet, within his orneriness, you can’t help but be entertained by him and ultimately care about him. George’s granddaughter, Candice has led a sheltered life. Mitchell’s arrival provides her first real glimpse into the outer world. I chose Vermont for the setting mainly because when I visited there I was taken by its beauty and felt it would make a great backdrop for the story. The town of Winter Haven is fictitious; however, I drew a lot on my hometown of Evanston, Wyoming, when describing the layout.”
“Where’d you dig up your facts?”
“Since THE BLACK GARDEN takes place in 1958, I had to do a lot of research about the era to make the setting authentic. I wanted to make sure the dialog didn’t contain slang or technical terms that didn’t exist at the time. I also needed to know how the police investigated a crime prior to the advent of DNA testing. Fortunately, one of my older brothers works in law enforcement, and I was able to pick his brain on procedures and protocol.”
“A cop, huh?” I was thinking maybe Bright wasn’t so bad after all. Still, I needed to satisfy that nagging voice that wouldn't stop tapping inside my head. “This case you stumbled onto. Any road blocks along the way?”
“The hardest part about writing is the blank page. I often say that writing is a lot like creating a sculpture out of clay. In the first draft, you are creating the clay. That’s the hard part. Molding it is the fun part. To help me through this process, I first write an outline, plotting out the story. Through this, I come up with my characters, establishing their backgrounds, their likes and dislikes, as well as their strengths and weaknesses. Once I know my characters, it’s much easier to know how they will react in a given situation. Often I’ll just write anything that comes to mind, just to get the writing going and to fill up that daunting blank page. I also tend to keep other novels around so I can pick one up and read a little to get me in the right frame of mind.”
“So how does a guy who works full time find time write?"
“I’m a graphic designer during the day and a writer in the evenings. Thus, I’m at the computer all day long. The tragic part of that is that I have very little social life. I can be quite obsessive and have to force myself to take a break and go do something fun. In other words, I’m still trying to find that balance.”
“Who are you trying to kid?” Everyone does the juggling act. I thought to myself. I leaned back and waited to see if he flinched—he didn’t—damn it. “All right, Bright, what I want to know is how did burning the midnight oil affect you? Everyone has their breaking point. What’s yours? How did working on THE BLACK GARDEN impact you?"
“It’s such a great feeling of accomplishment to finish a novel. I also write songs, and I remember how proud I was when I wrote my first song, which took a few days. A novel, on the other hand, takes months or years. Thus, the feeling of pride is that much greater. The most rewarding part of it is having other people read and enjoy it. It’s a nice boost of confidence and encourages me to continue fine tuning my writing skills and to work on the next novel.”
“Something tells me you weren't working alone. Who talked you into it?”
“My parents and brothers and sisters have always encouraged me. It’s nice to have someone believe in you, even when you’re having trouble getting agents and publishers to read your work. I’m very fortunate to have such a supporting family.”
“This is premeditation plain and simple. So how’d you do it? Did you have a plan? Did you outline the chapters? Did you plan out the plot? What steps did you take before you wrote the first sentence?”
“The first novel I ever wrote, I took the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach. That is, I just delved in without really knowing where the story would take me. Many writers work that way and do a splendid job with it. Not me. I ended up doing a lot of editing that I could have avoided if I’d have thought things out better. Now I always outline. First, I write a brief synopsis of the story. Second, I figure out who my characters are. This often takes a month or more, because I really need to know who these people are so I can work with them. Third, I write an outline. My outlines include most of the dialogue and brief sketches of the action. Thus, they tend to be around a hundred pages long. Fourth, I start writing the novel. The novel never follows the outline completely, since I discover new things while writing and often encounter flaws that I’d overlooked before.”
No matter how hard I pushed, I couldn’t break this guy’s spirit. Worse, I couldn’t hold him another minute without cause. But my gut was sending me signals. This wasn’t the last I’d see of Joe Bright and you can bet I’m going to keep an eye on him. He wiped the sweat from his brow and asked if he was free to go. I said sure—for now, but couldn’t leave it alone. I just had to ask him that burning question: “What’s next?"
“I’m doing a rewrite of my first novel, The Reflection. It’s a gothic suspense about a man who inherits an estate in England from someone he doesn’t know, and then discovers that he looks like the man who killed his benefactor. This is one of the novels that I self-published earlier. I’ve learned a lot since then and feel this new version is vastly superior to the last. I still have a few more months’ worth of work to go on it.”
I wasn’t entirely sorry I asked. Silenced followed us as I walked him down the main hall. When he started out the front doors of city hall it hit me again and I yelled: “Hey Joe, any words of wisdom for the fledgling writer?”
He turned and shot me a Hollywood smiled. “Never stop learning. There’s always more to learn about the art of writing that can help you perfect your novel. Besides reading novels and analyzing the authors’ techniques, it’s good to read books about writing, even if just to refresh your memory. I highly recommend Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain, and The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri. If I’d read these books years ago, I probably would have gotten published sooner.”
About the author:
Joe Bright was raised in Wyoming and received his BA in English from Utah State University. Bright began his career as a technical writer for Thiokol, the manufacturer of space shuttle rocket boosters. He later taught English in Honolulu, Hawaii and Berkeley, California. He currently lives in Studio City , California , and works as a graphic designer. Bright is published by BeWrite Books (UK).
Sunday, March 22, 2009
Who murdered the infant? Is the murder only a small part of a much larger set of crimes which have been kept secret all these years? Is Harper ready to face the truth and come to terms with the results of his own investigation?
Monday, March 16, 2009
Read Part I
The instructions on Oliver Kurtz’s note underscored his demand for punctuality. I was to arrive at ten a.m. on the dot at his home in the twelve hundred block of east South Street. How could a man who knew every sordid detail of my life not be aware that I’d never bow down to an edict? I arrived promptly at twelve after the hour noting how disgustingly out of place my scratched ten-year-old Chevy looked parked in front of the house at 1215 South.
The marker displayed at the intersection four blocks back indicated I had entered a history neighborhood. Both sides of the road were flanked with large stately homes and well-manicured lawns. I expected to see a lavish home and an expensive car in Kurtz’s driveway to match the others along this street. Instead, his one-story ranch stood out like a brick in field of diamonds.
A second after ringing the bell, a man in his thirties sporting a golden tan and even features answered the door. I envisioned him waiting for me—one hand on the knob, an eye peering through the peephole. The image was as clear as seeing him rummage through my house. With a grunt and wave of the hand he motioned for me to enter. His black polo shirt did little to hide the bulge of muscles on his arms and upper chest, yet the emptiness in his gaze gave me a chill. I’d seen his type before, an animal who’d mindlessly comply with orders.
I followed him down the main hallway and into the den. There he instructed me to take a seat in one of two leather chairs in front of a less than impressive desk. I couldn’t help but notice the display of plaques and certificates adorning the wall to my immediate right. The room was more telling of the man I was about to meet than a twelve-page report. This man was neat and precise. He’d already displayed a keen wit, with knowledge comes power and the place oozed with it. He would expect perfection. I sensed as much. So the burning question on the tip of my tongue was, why me?
There wasn’t time to think of an answer before the tanned guy opened the door again. I assumed the man behind him was Oliver Kurtz. His appearance deceived the image I had conjured up in my mind. No, he wouldn’t have made me glance twice in a crowed room. Yet it was clear he had been there—in those crowded rooms, studying my style, memorizing my schedule, making me wonder now how long he’d been at it.
“Ms. Stone, you’re late,” he said, extending his hand. “Oliver Kurtz.”
“That much I figured.”
“Care for something to drink? Coffee, water?”
“No thanks.” I couldn’t help wonder why the muscleman had taken a seat in the overstuffed chair near the door. Clearly he was more than a pretty-faced butler. That assumption made me curious to know why Kurtz needed protecting. More to the point, from what or who?
Kurtz had thinning dark hair and seemed to be in relatively good shape for a man who looked to be nudging his mid-sixties. He had yet to smile or express any pleasure to meet me, but his eyes drew me in all the same; dark and intense, searching, questioning, yet non-threatening. At least that was my first assessment.
“You’re a former FBI,” I said, nodding at the plaque hanging on the wall behind his desk.
“Does it matter?”
“Not really.” I glanced back at the other man in the room unable to shake the image of him walking through my house. The thought of him slithering his meaty fingers through my panty drawer made me ill. And he had the insolence to place Kurtz’s package on my bed, the creep. I grinned in spite of the anger churning inside me. “The rose was a nice touch.”
The man’s granite-like expression made it clear he was unaffected by the intentional jab so I let it drop.
“I assume you’ve read through the case file?” Kurtz said.
“Yes, but it’s full of holes.”
“What’s your interest in Laura Wells?”
“For her?” I asked.
“Not hardly.” Kurtz lowered and raised his glance. “People have the misconception the FBI never misses their targets. Some cases will never be solved, others we simply couldn’t touch.”
“Various reasons, sometimes politics, at other times ... well, let’s just say that exposing the guilty would cause more damage than the crime itself.”
“Which is it with Wells, politics or damage control?”
“The obstacle keeping us from investigating Laura Wells is no longer an issue.”
“It’s not important.”
“It is if you expect me to take this case. I don’t play games, Mr. Kurtz—not with my work—not with my life. So what exactly do I need to know about her?”
Kurtz leaned back in his chair and drew in a breath. He paused for a moment then said:
“Her uncle, Paul H. Jutte, was a high-power criminal defense attorney in a community just north of Boston from the 1950s through the ’90s. On December 26, 1959, he was a brash 34 year-old full of spit and vinegar when he defended a small time hoodlum by the name of Robert O’Malley who had been charged with robbing $800 from a local bank. O’Malley served five of his ten-year sentence and was granted early parole for good behavior. Six months after his release, an armored car was hijacked. The driver was killed, but not before plugging one of the thieves with bullets from his service revolver.”
“No. Another man, Bill Fife. What’s important is that Fife and O’Malley met in prison, were released around the same time, and ...”
“Let me guess, both were represented by Jutte.”
“Smart girl,” he said. “We knew Fife impersonated a security guard by the phony company ID we found on his body. The driver was legit, but we have no idea if he was in on the heist or not.”
“Except for the fact he killed Fife.”
“Yes, but for all we know, it was a stray bullet. No way to know if he intended to kill Fife or not,” he said. “At any rate, the dispatch logs indicated the truck pulled out of the garage at nine in the morning and arrived at the First National Bank at ten-twenty-three. We have witness statements that confirm Fife and the driver went into the bank vault and removed bags containing $4 million in cash and more than $1 million in checks before leaving. When the truck didn’t return to the garage, the company reported it and the guards missing. The local police found the bodies of the two men and the empty truck on a side road three miles off highway 128.”
“What about the bullet taken from the driver’s body? Did it match Fife’s gun?”
“No,” he said.
“So there was a third person involved in the heist.”
“At least. Unfortunately, ballistics never found a match to the bullet and we never found the gun.”
“Then why finger Jutte and O’Malley?”
“Gut instinct,” he said. “Fife didn’t have the smarts to pull off something that big on his own. He was a loner, no family to speak of and the only two calls he ever made to the outside were to Jutte and O’Malley. Every ounce of evidence against the two was purely circumstantial. We lost the case, of course, but my instincts still tell me those two were neck-high involved in it.”
“And the five million?”
“Never recovered. The case is still on the books, but without witnesses or evidence, the case might as well be closed. No one at the agency has worked it for years.”
“So where’s Jutte now?”
“Dead--two years ago of natural causes.”
“Fascinating.” My thoughts of reward money, a front page spread, and a spot on Oprah were fading fast. “From the picture you placed in the file, Wells can’t be over 30.”
“Thirty-six. What’s your point?” he asked.
“She wasn’t alive when that robbery took place. So she’s related to Jutte, what’s she have to do with any of this?”
“After her uncle’s death, she took over his law firm in Chandler and with it she inherited his clientele.”
“Including Robert O’Malley.”
“Right again, Ms. Stone.”
“And you think she’ll talk? Wells is bound by client/attorney privileges.” I couldn’t believe he needed reminding.
“I doubt Wells is terribly concerned with ethics. She has a somewhat sorted past of her own. My interest at the moment, however, is to find out what she knows about robbery. Even though Jutte defended O’Malley at the trial, Jutte wouldn’t have placed any pertinent information about the robbery in O’Malley’s file. But trust me, his ego wouldn’t have allowed him to not keep some type of memento of his victory.”
Kurtz didn’t respond. Instead, he frisked me with a piercing glance.
“I get it. Get close and see what she knows. Is that it?” I didn’t wait for an answer. “Wouldn’t it be more direct to shake down O’Malley?”
“No. He thinks he’s been out of the spotlight for years. If he knows we’re on to him, we might lose him for good. Besides, he’s old and my sources tell me he’s not in the best of health.” Kurtz reached for a notepad and pen and scribbled on it. “Here’s someone you may want to contact.”
“Sam Harper? Who’s he?”
“I work alone.”
“I know,” he said.
“Then what makes you think I need a cop?”
“Wells is defending one of his arrests right now. I understand there’s no love lost between them. Could work in our favor.”
“Maybe.” Never met a cop who like working with a PI. The feeling was entirely mutual so I couldn’t see getting close to this one. Kurtz had a point though. “Think he knows about Laura Wells’s past?”
“It’s hard to say. Get close enough and he might just confide in you. Surely you can be persuasive without tackling the man to the ground.”
“Go home. Pack a few bags. I expect you in Chandler by the end of the week.”
It was all I could do to keep the smirk off my lips. I opened the door then stopped and glanced over my shoulder. He looked too smug for words and I couldn’t resist getting the final word. “I travel light. Should be there by seven this evening. And just so you know, I don’t need any calls from you or visits from Mr. Goon over there to keep me focused.”
Saturday, March 14, 2009
It’d been too long since my last case and even longer since I’d seen a check for services rendered. All the same, I wasn’t desperate enough to go after the mafia type criminal who blackmailed poor shopkeepers on the lower east end. Not this girl. I’d rather hold out for the white-collar crimes. The cases that allowed me to blend in without getting fingered as a private investigator.
My last job dried up mid-stream when the only witness to a land scam skipped town and my client vanished without writing a check. I’d leave my home every morning with a promise on my lips to not come home without finding a client. I’m tired—dead tired. I woke up this morning feeling as worn as an old pair of socks. I gave the paper a toss and wondered how I ever managed before the invention of automatic timers on coffee pots. Now the aroma from the Italian blend dripping into the pot was the only reason to get out of bed before ten. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and reached for a mug from the dish rack. I was in the midst of pouring that much needed first cup when I heard the familiar sound of metal rumbling outside on the porch. The mailman arrived like clockwork with the usual assortment of unwanted bills and junk mail.
I waited for him to leave before snatching the envelopes from the box and slamming the front door shut with a deliberate swing of a hip. The envelopes got a quick thumb through and just as I was ready to pitch the pile in the trash, a small square envelope caught my attention. My name, Jacquie Stone, was scrawled across the front in heavy black strokes of ink. The New York postmark was dated two days before but that wasn’t a problem. It was the absence of a return address that brought on a frown. Like an idiot, I studied it for a second or two the way some people look at and shake a gift-wrapped box before trying to guess what’s in it. This little delivery was just what I needed to fire up the old inquisitive juices. I ripped it open with a few jagged strokes of the thumb and read:
Must talk, noon, Augusts 19, at the Chester House. ~ O. Kurtz
“May I help you?” The slender man behind the desk could easily have walked out of a 1950s flick with his yellow cardigan sweater, polo shirt and slicked back hair--pure white. His ruddy complexion and the burst of capillaries that crisscrossed his face revealed an old habit.
“Jacquie Stone,” I said. “I’m supposed to meet a Mr. Kurtz.”
“Right.” He pointed to one of the leather chairs. “Have a seat. I’ll tell ’em you’re here.”
The gawky little man disappeared down a narrow hallway and didn’t return. A few minutes later and still no sign of him or Kurtz. Money or not, my patience was starting to wane.
By twenty after, I was royally pissed. Regardless of my penniless state, being the butt end of an old geezer’s joke wasn’t on my agenda. Only one thing to do, but when I started to leave the familiar tone of my cell made me stop and reach into my pocket.
“Sit down, Ms. Stone.”
I instinctively shot a glance around the lobby. There were only a handful of men here today. Some were reading the paper. The two off to one side were in the middle of a heated discussion, and the man across the way was sound asleep. None of them was using a phone.
“Would you like a drink, Ms. Stone?” the caller said as if we were a couple of long lost friends.
“I don’t think so.” I should have kept walking. Instead, my curiosity got the better of me so I took a seat. Still, I couldn’t stop scanning the room. Silence screamed at me from the other end of the line. It was deafening and I wondered what the hell I had gotten myself into. “I suppose you’re feeling smug with yourself. You know my name and apparently what I look like. Why the sham?”
“Let’s just say I’m cautious.”
“I suppose Kurtz isn’t your real name either.” I waited for a response--it never came. “Right, have it your way. So, what’s on your mind?”
“I need to know you can be trusted.”
“You came looking for me, remember?” In fatter days, I would’ve left by now. Instead, I glanced at my watch and pretended to be out of time. I had nowhere to go, but at least that was one thing the creep on the other end of the line couldn’t possibly know.
“Am I keeping you from something?” he asked.
The hint of laughter in his voice nudged me to the next level of unease. “A paying client.”
“Really, Ms. Stone. You haven’t worked a case in six weeks, you’re past due on your mortgage, the bill collectors are beating a path to your door, and you have no prospect for work. Go on, have a drink on me.”
“Any fool can get his hands on that information if he knows where to look.”
“You grew up in Pennsylvania, your father worked in the mines, your mother was a teacher. You are the youngest of four, caught pneumonia at the age of seven—nearly died, flunked out your first year at Penn State and decided police work was a better fit. Shall I go on?”
“Who the hell are you?”
“That shack you call home and your personal life are a mess by most people’s standards. You smoke and drink entirely too much to be called a lady and in spite of your failed attempts at what most would consider normal jobs, your success rate as a detective--”
“—is noteworthy. You can be cold and ruthless when the situation calls for it and equally clever when no one’s looking—just the qualities needed for the task I have in mind.”
“You forgot suspicious. And buddy, you’re at the top of my list.”
“I’d expect nothing less from you,” he said. “Being guarded isn’t a bad thing which is why I’ve decided to overlook your shortcomings and hire you.”
A barrage of thoughts buzzed through my head like gnats on a bruised banana. All right, so I was desperate for money. The kicker was this joker knew it and was using that little roadblock against me.
“And if I refuse?”
“That, my dear, will be your choice—certainly your loss.”
Hadn’t realized how tightly I was holding the phone to my ear until I felt a tingly numb feeling rip through my fingers.
“Don’t think too long on it,” he said. “My offer is on the table until the end of this meeting.”
“You have a good record when you actually work. I imagine by now you’d be willing to do anything.”
“Not quite. Even I have my limits.” Not the most accurate statement I’d ever made, but I sure as hell wasn’t about to give any man an ounce of power over my life. Still, that hard spot pressing against my back was starting to sting and I had to wonder if Kurtz was responsible for my failed attempts to find clients. Our conversation was leaving a pungent taste in my mouth and a slug’s trail of chills up my spine. I felt sickened by my vulnerable, desperate state. It seemed I had no choice but to take whatever morsels of work Kurtz had to offer.
“Ms. Stone, all you have to say is, ‘yes’ and the job is yours.”
Thinking, thinking. The law, my standards and principles were all things I could talk myself into bending in spite of the logic against it. Having spent the last thirty-five dollars on gas to drive across town to the club was incentive enough for me to consider my options.
“Who are you?” I asked again. “How do you know—”
“I assure you that isn’t as important as my proposition.”
“Which is?” I questioned my sanity the second the words shot out of my mouth.
“I need information.”
“You and half of New York City.”
“I want you to follow someone.”
“Let me guess, your wife or your mistress? Maybe both?” I reached for the note pad and pen at the bottom of my purse.
“Neither. And there’s no need for that, Ms. Stone. All the information on the case is waiting for you in your home as we speak.”
“Great. I suppose one of your thugs broke in?”
“Whatever that means.” I had visions of a busted lock or a window I’d have no way to fix. Yes, I desperately needed the money this jerk was willing to part with. The question was, what did he expect in return? Was he with the mafia or worse, a government agency? I finally managed to state the obvious.
“You’re forgetting one thing.”
“I doubt it.”
“I haven’t agreed to anything.”
“Ms. Stone, you and I both know you can’t afford to be hard-nosed about this. The fact that you’ve stayed on the line tells a great deal more than you’re willing to reveal. Take the case. Trust me, you’ll thank me later.”
“I’ll be in touch.”
“Not until we meet face-to-face.”
“In time. Not here, not now.”
“Yes, now!” From the corner of my eye I noticed the men in the lobby turn their heads when I raised my voice.
“That will do nothing but complicate matters.”
I could feel him watching each move I made. Nothing good every came from a deal made in hell. Then again, for the right price, I could easily overlook the old man’s eccentricities. Two could play at this cat and mouse game and unless I missed my guess, he was just as desperate. “My fee is five hundred a day plus expenses. Take it or leave it.”
“Go home, Ms. Stone. Read over the material and then get some sleep. You’ll need it.”
I didn’t remember the half hour drive home. His voice was trapped in my head. His words ricocheted from lobe to lobe and angered me more with each passing. It was nearly three when I nosed my car in front of my house. From the street, the place looked just as I left it. No busted lock or broken glass on my living room floor. Instead, I found the large, sealed manila envelope Kurtz’s goon left on my bed. A perfectly shaped rose rested on top of it. It wasn’t enough that he entered my place uninvited, he had to get personal. He had to go to my room.
I raised the bud to my lips, felt its velvety peddles and drew in its scent. “Angel Face.” My grandmother’s prize rose garden in Ohio was full of them. The light purple color and strong, citrus fragrance instantly took me back to my youth, the summers spent on her farm, and the number of ribbons her roses consistently won at the state fair. I drew in a second whiff of aroma and looked at the rose again.
“How the hell did you know?"
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
RE: Case of “The Devil Can Wait.”
Twelve witnesses came forward last night. Each had a different account of what happened – none of them knew the victims, but they had personal reasons to point a finger at our suspect. Interesting …
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Sunday, February 22, 2009
Dear Citizens, Neighbors, Friends and Family,
My name is Jill and I am a cop. That means that the pains and joys of my personal life are often muted by my work. I resent the intrusion but I confuse my self with my job almost as often as you do. The label "police officer" creates a false image of who I really am. Sometimes I feel like I'm floating between two worlds. My work is not just protecting and serving. It's preserving that buffer that exists in the space between what you think the world is, and what the world really is.
My job isn't like television. The action is less frequent, and more graphic. It is not exhilarating to point a gun at someone. Pooled blood has a disgusting metallic smell and steams a little when the temperature drops. CPR isn't an instant miracle and it's no fun listening to an elderly grandmother's ribs break while I keep her heart beating. I'm not flattered by your curiosity about my work. I don't keep a record of which incident was the most frightening, or the strangest, or the bloodiest, or even the funniest. I don't tell you about my day because I don't want to share the images that haunt me.
But I do have some confessions to make:
Sometimes my stereo is too loud. Andrea Bocelli's voice makes it easier to forget the wasted body of the young man who died alone in a rented room because his family feared the stigma of AIDS. Beethoven's 9th symphony erases the sight of the nurses who sobbed as they scrubbed layers of dirt and slime from a neglected 2-year-old's skin. The Rolling Stones' angry beat assures me that it was ignorance that drove a young mother to draw blood when she bit her toddler on the cheek in an attempt to teach him not to bite.
Sometimes I set a bad example. I exceeded the speed limit on my way home from work because I had trouble shedding the adrenalin that kicked in when I discovered that the man I handcuffed during a drug raid was sitting on a loaded 9mm pistol.
Sometimes I seem rude. I was distracted and forgot to smile when you greeted me in the store because I was remembering the anguished, whispered confession of a teenager who pushed away his drowning brother to save his own life.
Sometimes I'm not as sympathetic as you'd like. I'm not concerned that your 15-year-old daughter is dating an 18-year-old because I just comforted the parents of a young man who slashed his own throat while they slept in the next bedroom. I was terse on the phone because I resented the burden of having to weigh the value of two lives when I was pointing my gun at an armed man who kept begging me to kill him. I laugh when you cringe away from the mess in your teen's room because I know the revulsion of feeling a heroin addict's blood trickling toward an open cut on my arm. If I was silent when you whined about your overbearing mother it's because I really wanted to tell you that I spoke to one of our high school friends today. I found her mother slumped behind the wheel of her car in a tightly closed garage. She had dressed in her best outfit before rolling down the windows and starting the engine.
On the other hand, if I seem totally oblivious to the blood on my uniform, or the names people call me, or the hateful editorials, it's because I am remembering the lessons my job has taught me.
I learned not to sweat the small stuff. Grape juice on the beige sofa and puppy pee on the oriental carpet don't faze me because I know what arterial bleeding and decaying bodies can do to one's decor.
I learned when to shut out the world and take a mental health day. I skipped your daughter's 4th birthday party because I was thinking about the six children under the age of 10 whose mother left them unattended to go out with a friend. When the 3-year-old offered the dog the milk from her cereal bowl, the dog attacked her, tearing open her head and staining the sandbox with blood. The little girl's siblings had to pry her head out of the dog's jaws - twice.
I learned that everyone has a lesson to teach me. Two mothers engaged in custody battles taught me not to judge a book by its cover. The teenage mother on welfare mustered the strength to refrain from crying in front of her worried child while the well-dressed, upper-class mother literally played tug of war with her toddler before running into traffic with the shrieking child in her arms.
I learned that nothing given from the heart is truly gone. A hug, a smile, a reassuring word, or an attentive ear can bring an injured or distraught person back to the surface, and help me refocus.
And I learned not to give up, ever! That split second of terror when I think I have finally engaged the one who is young enough and strong enough to take me down taught me that I have only one restriction: my own mortality.
One week in May has been set aside as Police Memorial Week, a time to remember those officers who didn't make it home after their shift. But why wait? Take a moment to tell an officer that you appreciate her work. Smile and say "Hi" when he's getting coffee. Bite your tongue when you start to tell a "bad cop" story. Better yet, find the time to tell a "good cop" story. The family at the next table may be a cop's family.
Nothing given from the heart is truly gone. It is kept in the hearts of the recipients. Give from the heart. Give something back to the officers who risk everything they have.
About the author:
Jill Wragg is a retired Police Officer from Massachusetts. She can be reached at JKWragg@yahoo.com This piece is copyrighted and was printed here with permission from the author. Please contact Wragg for permission to reprint.
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
Friday, February 13, 2009
Thanks to the Scotch Joe planted in front of him, the evening at the Pig and Whistle held no prospects except to forget. This was the only break in Sam Harper’s ten-hour day. Soon, he’d get up and do it again. He’d continue to scour the streets for leads on the Raymond Anthony murder. If he was lucky, they’d produce some viable evidence.
As it was, ballistics hadn’t matched the bullet taken from the victim’s brain to any known registered weapons and Anthony’s prints and bodily fluids were the only ones found at the scene. A week into the case, still no leads. It seemed the odds on a swift arrest weren’t stacked in Harper’s favor. The exceptionally clean shot through the temple sparked unrest among the other detectives. The guys tossed several possible scenarios around, but the one that kept ripping through Harper’s mind was the chance they were dealing with a professional hit man. If that were the case, the usual breadcrumbs marking a path to the killer’s identity would be non-existing.
Harper motioned to Joe with his glass for a refill. After a minute, the bartender returned with two.
“There you go. I’ll put ’em on your tab.”
Joe read his mind. Harper knocked the next one back then stared into his half empty glass, swished the Scotch through the ice and waited for the red-labeled concoction to work its magic.
At happy hour, the Pig and Whistle was dotted with regulars, now at nine p.m. he and a handful of patrons had the place to themselves. All eyes were on the flat screen TV at the end of the bar watching the Celtics lose to the Knicks by a measly five points. Harper didn’t care who won. It was a temporary distraction meant to work with the booze and help him relax. A few more of these, he thought, and I’ll be there. That’s what he was thinking when he heard Jennie’s voice.
“I thought I’d find you here.”
He drew in a breath and slowly glanced over his shoulder. Jennifer Blake had etched herself into his heart two months before, then vanished as abruptly as she entered his life.
“Mind if I sit down?” she asked.
Harper lowered and raised his glance. He sensed what was coming. It wasn’t where he wanted to be; not here, not now. Jennie was all he’d thought of for weeks. Every provocative inch of her body was seared into his thoughts. Part of him wanted to pull her close, kiss her as if it were their first and pretend she had never left. That was at the heart of his being, but his logic demanded answers and now. “I called you. Several times.”
“I want to explain,” she said. “Can we talk?”
“Skip the apologies, Jen. They don’t suite you.”
“You wouldn’t say that if you knew the truth.”
“I’m listening.” For once he’d like nothing more than an honest statement but something in her voice put him on edge. Harper ordered a glass of Chablis for her, grabbed his drink, and led her to one of the small tables near the back. He watched every move she made; the way she slipped off her coat, how she brushed her bangs from her eyes. Everything about her was all too familiar, especially her eyes—he’d never forget their spark or the intimacies that had led them here to this minute. “Well?”
“I was on a special assignment for the Chandler Times.”
“Come on, Jen. It’s me. You can do better than that.”
She stared at him for a second before breaking her silenced. “I didn’t have a choice in the matter.”
“Since when?” Where was that playfulness in her tone or that staunch determination that had captivated him the minute they met? Jennifer Blake didn’t have a submissive cell in her body. Did she really expect him to buy the line that her editor, Brian Taylor, forced her to go against her will? The Jennie he knew wouldn’t let him. On the other hand, Jennie wasn’t beyond working an angle. “So which is it? Are you after another exclusive or did you step in a pile of trouble?”
“Good. I’m fresh out of favors.”
“It’s the truth,” she said, taking a sip of her wine. “Foolish me for thinking you’d appreciate the challenges of my job.”
“I can live with the demands of your career, but you left without a word, no warning, nothing. Three weeks ago, I came home after work—you didn’t. I was crazy with worry; checked the hospital, the morgue, missing persons. You weren’t listed anywhere, just gone—vanished. What the hell was I suppose to think? You could have called.”
“There was no time.”
“I didn’t want…” She choked on the words. “I didn’t know about the assignment until Brian handed me the plane tickets that morning.”
“Two seconds. That’s all it would have taken. I’m on your speed dial, at least I was.”
“I couldn’t. I was under strict orders to keep my location confidential. Brian was worried that if the calls were traced, it would have blown my cover and jeopardized our chance for an inside story.”
“Please … don’t ask.”
“It’s still sensitive information,” she said.
An uneasy silence seemed to suck the air out of the room.
“Then why'd you bother to come here?” he asked.
“Because I wanted to tell you what happened.”
“Cut the charades, Blake. You haven’t told me a damn thing more than what I already know. You left—end of story.”
Jennie took a sip of her wine and looked away. Harper didn’t need to see her face to know she was checking her options.
“I was investigating a drug ring in Florida.”
“Christ, I know the scum that’s out on the streets. You could have been killed.”
“I wasn’t. Besides, it was a huge exclusive for us.”
“Right, the story. Now you’re back and what? You want to pretend none of this happened? Goddamn it, you could have been wasted and no one would have known to ask. And what’s so damn important about Florida? We have plenty of drug related stories right here in Chandler.”
“It’s linked to a high-level state official,” she said. “That’s all I can tell you. The story will break in a couple of days.”
“What the hell were you thinking? I’ve heard you say no before. That would’ve been a great time to voice it.”
“And lose my job?” She shook her head. “It’s okay for you to risk your life, but when I—”
“Don’t even go there. I’m trained to take risks.”
“Some things never change, do they?” She pushed back her chair and grabbed her coat.
“Where’re you going?” Harper shot around in his chair in time to see her rush out of the pub. Stupid, stupid, stupid! He jerked his coat off the back of his chair, yanked the door open, and stood on the snow-cover sidewalk. A glance in one direction made him turn and run in the other. She was only a few yards away. “Jennie, stop! Where’re you going?”
“You forgot to yell, Freeze, Detective.”
He raced to reach for her arm and made her stop. “This's your answer to everything, isn’t it? You disappear, come back, dangle a carrot in front of my nose, and take off? Think again.”
“Sam, what do you want?" she asked, blinking away the tears that welled in her eyes. "I tried, but there’s no talking with you.”
She was wrong. His thoughts and emotions were playing war, twisting the words he wanted to say and leaving them in a tangled mess somewhere between the pit of his gut and a brain that wasn’t connecting with his speech. “I’m not the one who left. I deserve some answers.”
“Then you should have the courtesy to hear me out! I told you what I could. Believe me, don’t believe. It won’t change the facts.” Jennie wiggled from his grasp and slipped away.
He cursed under his breath, rubbed a hand over his mouth then yelled again, “Jennie, wait. I didn’t mean it.”
“That’s the problem, Sam, you never do.” She took a few more steps then stopped. “Yeah, you’re a cop and you, of all people, should know it isn’t a perfect world. Things won’t always go your way, you’re not going to get calls when you expect them, but damn it, the least you could do is trust that maybe, just maybe someone else’s life is a tad more complicated than yours!”
“Trust? Hell, I didn’t know what happened. I called Brian—”
“And he told you he didn’t know where I was, right?”
“Yeah. Talked with your neighbors too. No one’s seen or heard from you. What was I supposed to think? For all I knew you skipped town with another guy.”
“Another …? You don’t get it, do you?”
“I’m in love with you. There, it’s out.” She paced back and forth then stomped a foot and held her ground. “Do you think I wanted to leave the way I did? Do you have any idea how many times I reached for the phone fully aware that I shouldn’t? How much it hurt not to be with you—wondering what you were thinking—knowing the next time we’d meet you’d react exactly like this?”
It wasn’t the what of the situation, but the how and her inability to give him details that sent him into a rage. But even the brilliant Jennifer Blake didn’t have what it took to make this one up and bluff her way through it. She was, however, one of the few people who could make him feel like an ass and get away with it. “I’m sorry. Jennie, I’m…”
Had they stood in the frigid air looking into each other eyes for a minute or was it five? It didn’t matter. It wasn’t the cold he felt or the reason for his embrace. All he wanted to do was soak in her being and prayed she wouldn’t resist.
“It’s been like a bad dream,” he whispered. “The one where someone dies and you go through all the emotions of loss. Then you wake up in a sweat and realize how damn lucky you are because nothing has changed and you never, ever want to go back there again.” He kissed her cheek. “I woke up, Jen. Back there. You scared the hell out of me.”
“Ever?” she asked.
He cupped his hands around her face and leaned in for kissed. “Only if I can I hold you to it.”
“Hold me to what?”
Harper glanced away for only a second. “You know … what you said a minute ago.”
“Spit it out, Harper. It’s not like you to be at a loss for words.”
“That you care.”
“I’ll always love you.” She pressed her lips to his. “Take it as a threat or a promise.”
Jennie was the only person who could send him on an emotional rollercoaster ride and make him feel grateful for it. She was back in full form. They were as different as the jobs they had married. He’d concede he was a skeptic—a left over tick from his work, but Jennie was exasperating at times. Still he needed her by his side to keep him in check, to remind him there was more to life than the scumbags he chased for a living.
“What do you say we get out of the cold?” he asked.
“My car is right here.” Jennie reached into her pocket for the keys. “I’ll meet you at your place.”
“Not tonight.” He took her by the hand and walked her toward his jeep. “It’s late and I’m not letting you out of my sight.”
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
From: Sam Harper, Homicide
Subject: Call From Shannon Wallace
My current case was about to crack. I was looking forward to putting this one to rest; thought a few extra hours would just about wrap it up when I got the call. I recognized the phone number on the display and glanced at my watch—7:00 PM. It was Shannon Wallace, a friend of a friend of a friend. Damn it, she was in trouble again. How did I know? Call it instinct or maybe dumb luck—mine. Either way, that torque in the pit of my gut went for a spin. I was willing to bet Shannon was neck deep in trouble and sinking fast. Why else would she waste a perfectly good chunk of change on an out-of-state call?
Our conversation went something like this:
HARPER: All right, Shannon, just settle down. Let’s start from the beginning. You had the incredible bad judgment to fall for your boss, he fired you and hours later he’s dead. You have to admit, it doesn’t look good. How did you ever get involved with a guy like Rick Fine?
WALLACE: Oh you know the type, Sam.
HARPER: Come on, it’s late. Enlighten me.
WALLACE: I was young, impressionable, and naïve. Who ever thinks that they can get out of a relationship with their boss, for crying out loud? Not without losing your job, right? So… that’s me in a nutshell. I needed a job, it came with strings.
HARPER: Right, some strings. So what kind of dealings was Rick involved with anyway? I mean, were there any suspicious characters hanging around before he was murdered? And don’t give me any snappy answers. I want details.
WALLACE: I’ve been thinking about this and I remember a situation that happened not long ago. Someone was calling Rick's house and hanging up. I always put it off as his mean brother. His brother is a real character, Sam. His own dad fired him from the family business for his bad deals and even worse attitude. He could have done it.
HARPER: You’re going to need more than a ‘could have done it’ excuse to convince the authorities. What do you have on the guy?
WALLACE: Hey, I heard that going on your gut instinct is good enough for cops, why not me? I definitely have a gut about Charles Fine. He’s just the type to do it. I mean he blamed Rick for getting fired. That’s a motive in my opinion.
HARPER: What about detective Ramirez? You said you knew him—I know you’re on shaky ground with him, but can he be trusted?
WALLACE: Shaky ground? You could say that. I don’t know about the trust thing, we, uh, had a friendship at one time. He can be trusted to do the right thing for himself, maybe, but I’m not so sure about doing the right thing for me.
HARPER: If he’s clean, he won’t let his personal feelings interfere with the job. You know, you really should be talking to Ramirez, not me. Just tell him the truth.
WALLACE: But, geez, Sam. The DVDs are the thing. I can't let him find out about those damn disks. He’s always held a grudge. I just don’t believe he won’t use them against me if he gets the chance.
HARPER: DVDs? I’m afraid to ask … what exactly is on the DVDs?
WALLACE: Oh, um, can I take the fifth? Oh okay, look, we took a video camera and we turned it on at various times including… you know. THOSE times. Lots of them. And don’t tell me about Paris Hilton or anyone else making sex tapes. Dwayne said that too, and I just don’t want to hear it. That’s why I broke into Rick’s apartment. I don’t want anyone to see me wiggle my jiggle on television! Oh Lord.
HARPER: Damn it, I can’t believe ... anyone ever mention that breaking and entering, especially into a crime scene, is against the law? All right, I’m sorry, stop crying. Look I’m sure forensics combed through the place. If you didn’t kill the guy ... you didn’t did you?
WALLACE: I didn’t do it, Sam! I swear I didn’t. I can only hope that I didn’t leave anything behind for forensics to connect me to Rick’s murder, including my disks.
HARPER: If you're innocent, you'll be in the clear. None of the evidence will point to you. But the DVDs are another matter. They're incriminating. They give you motive and you certainly had opportunity. Who else knew about them?
WALLACE: Unless Rick had some kinky friends, well, you know what I mean. I can’t believe he would just leave them laying around for Mr. Anybody to find. What the heck? I mean, he promised me. He PROMISED me, no one would ever know. That’s what I get for believing a man.
HARPER: Don’t beat yourself up. Everyone’s made a mistake or two in their lifetime. You mentioned Rick’s personal phone book was missing. How do you know he didn’t leave it someplace--that it’s not missing?
WALLACE: Well, this is the kicker. I know the freak took the phone book because it was missing. Ask me why, I can’t tell you.
HARPER: All right so you have a feeling about it. I go with my gut too, but you know Ramirez is going to want answers.
WALLACE: Answers? He’ll want my blood. He’s got reasons to get me back. I stole his personal journal in college and I published it in the freaking newspaper. There, do you understand now? He’s out for revenge. I’m surprised he hasn’t been the one calling to threaten me.
HARPER: If Ramirez was into revenge, why wait until now? It doesn’t add up. You really think the killer’s the one who’s been calling you?
WALLACE: Whoever killed Rick took that phone book. I know it has to be him.
HARPER: Why single you out of all the names in Rick’s phone log?
WALLACE: Why? Well, that’s the million dollar question.
HARPER: So tell me about them--the phone calls you’ve been getting.
WALLACE: He calls me at all these weird times. I think he watches me and knows that I am going to be asleep or in the shower. Then, he blows up my cell, breathing heavily into the phone, threatening to come after me.
HARPER: Did you recognize the voice?
WALLACE: No. He masks his voice. I swear it could be Charlie. What if he stole that phone book and now he’s calling up all of Rick’s girlfriends? He’s a big enough creep to do it.
HARPER: What’s Ramirez doing about it? Is he checking your phone records?
WALLACE: I don’t know. I told him about the calls, but he sort of took the attitude that I am imagining an old boyfriend has turned into the killer. I mean, what the eff? I’m scared all right! I have a plan to draw this freak out but Dwayne thinks I’m nuts.
HARPER: Sounds to me like you should listen to Dwayne. After all he’s your closest friend. Right?
WALLACE: Sam, I’m damn scared.
HARPER: I know.
WALLACE: If I don’t do something to get this guy to show himself, Rick’s killer will go free and with my DVDs. And believe me free is bad in this case.
HARPER: That's Ramirez's job, not yours.
For a moment, neither of us spoke. What was she thinking? I knew calling me was probably Shannon’s last ditch effort for justice, but what the hell was I supposed to do from over 900 miles away? Still, the plea in her voice rang as true as the bells from St. Paul’s.
HARPER: Look, I’ll probably regret saying this ... actually I know I will, but let me make a few calls. See what I can find out. In the meantime, keep your nose clean and stay under the radar. Understand?
WALLACE: Yes sir, way under the radar. I’m already hiding over at Dwayne’s from everyone including my aunts. No one will think to look for me at his place. You’ve got my number. Please see what you can do to help me. I owe you one, man.
I had her number all right and that ugly place between a rock and a hard spot just pinched a nerve and shot a pain straight up to my neck. I didn’t like the sound of this—any of it. I sure as hell didn’t need or want to get involved. Shannon is as wild and unpredictable as a porcupine in heat, but … she's a friend of a friend of a friend and then there’s that promise I made to serve and protect. I drew in a deeper than usual gulp of air and broke the silence.
HARPER: I’ll be in touch.
About the author:
Kim Smith was born in Memphis Tennessee, the youngest of four children. After a short stint in a Northwest Mississippi junior college, during the era of John Grisham’s rise as a lawyer, she gave up educational pursuits to marry and begin family life.She has worked in many fields in her life, from fast food waitress to telephone sales. “I always got the seniors on the phone who were lonely and wanted someone to talk to. My boss couldn’t understand why in the world I spent so much time talking to them and not enough time selling. That was when I realized I love people and care deeply about their lives.”Writing was a dream, hidden but not forgotten, and soon Kim began to talk again of trying her hand at it. She played with words, and wrote several poems, one of which was picked up for an anthologyOne day in the early nineties her husband came home with a desktop computer and sat her in front of it. “Now you have no more excuses,” he said, and she realized the truth in his words. Procrastination, now no longer an option, she took off on the pursuit of penning her first book. Though that book, a young adult fantasy, was lost due to unforeseen circumstances, she kept going, writing a historical romance, and another YA.When she decided to try out her hand at mystery writing, she discovered her true love and niche in the writing journey. She has since had four short stories, and her first mystery novel accepted for publication.Kim is a member of Sisters in Crime, and is a Coffeetime Romance and More author member. She still lives in the Mid South region of the United States and is currently working on her second book in the Shannon Wallace mysteryseries.
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
Reviewed by Thomas Fortenberry for Midwest Book Review
The latest Sam Harper mystery may leave the devil waiting, but not the readers. This gritty mystery series lies at the crossroads of crime and thrillers, both 87th Precinct and Davinci Code. Bodies of teenagers are washing ashore in an apocalypse of murder and intrigue spanning the dark dangerous world, from Vatican to Colombia to Harper’s hometown of Chandler, Mass. Drugs to ancient religious secrets to serial killers, this book has it all.
But the book’s unrelenting drama isn’t what captures me. It is the character Sam Harper and author Stephens. She writes with a forensic authority that makes these pages bleed with real world angst. Detective Harper is a well-realized, no-nonsense cop, a streetwise guy who refuses to give up despite the odds. When the going gets rough, everyone else has given up, an easy option looms, and the race becomes overwhelming, Harper is just getting started. He is the original it ain’t over guy. He literally pushes himself beyond physical collapse to solve crimes. He refuses to let any criminal escape on his watch.
The Devil Can Wait is a good mystery. Sam Harper is a better cop. I can’t wait to follow his next career move.
Sunday, February 1, 2009
Reminds me of a newspaper reporter who tracked me down a few months ago. Claimed she had questions about the Hancock murder. I gave her what facts I could but a few minutes later she made it clear it wasn't enough. She had to get personal.
"What's your passion," she asked. "I mean, what gets you out of bed, Harper?"
"The alarm clock," I told her. She didn't care much for my humor. That's fine. I didn't like the question.
Funny how little things stick with a guy. Later, much later and for reasons unknown, the issue of passion continued to buzz around in my head.
It's the innocent who keep me going; the muted victims who can’t fight against a criminal justice system that punishes them by protecting the rights of the criminals. It's the dead whose cases have grown cold and who wait on the sideline for justice.
Defense attorneys can manipulate evidence and their clients can lie all they want. I’ll turn into that festering thorn in their side, before it's over. Eventually I'll be the one who slaps down the winning hand.
Passion? Yeah, I guess you can say I have one.
Friday, January 30, 2009
The far end of the dimly lit hallway was barely visible from the elevator. Harper knew the sign above the last door to the right pointed the way into the city morgue. He also knew what to expect on the other side. The chill in the air would be as cold as the look of the stainless steel surfaces that dominated the autopsy room. It would permeate his clothing keeping them cool to the touch moments after leaving the place. White tiled walls shimmered under the bright florescent lights. The spotless floor, a large suspended scale, and three polished stainless steel tables, situated in the center of the room, were as expected as the smell of disinfectant that masked the stench of death.
“I came over as soon as I got your page,” Harper said. “What’s up?”
“Nice work letting the McGuires in on their mother’s final wishes. Come on, over here.” Jack Fowler crossed the room and pulled out one of the middle drawers in a morgue refrigerator. “The authorization for the autopsy came through a couple of hours ago. I was just getting ready to start on her. Want to watch?”
Harper cocked his head to one side and glanced down at the late Catherine McGuire. Her flesh looked pasty white under the florescent light; her lips were drained of color. “I’ll trust you on this one. Have a couple of other things to check on this morning.”
“So what was Allison Pike’s story?” Jack positioned the body onto a gurney and pushed it into the autopsy room.
“Same as the others. She’s a victim of circumstances. You know the old, I-was-just-trying-to-help story. Do me a favor.”
“If I can.”
“Check for poison in her system.”
“Anything in particular?”
“Just a hunch right now.”
“And if I don’t find anything?”
“We can say we tried and move on.”
At ten in the morning, Harper was in the forensics lab down in the basement of police headquarters listening to Carter Graves review his initial findings.
“Go ahead. Take a look,” Carter said, tossing Catherine McGuire’s high blood pressure medicine bottle at him. “There are no discrepancies in the dose she was given. Based on the date it was prescribed and recommended dose, there should be ten pills left in the bottle and ... there are.”
“What else was she taking?” Harper asked.
“Aside from the high blood pressure, she didn’t have any major illnesses. She was taking a daily dose of vitamins, minerals, calcium and a pain killer.”
“What kind of pain meds?”
“Over the counter Ibuprofen for arthritis. Hope I’m in her shape when I’m eighty-three. Anyway, no discrepancies there either.” Carter glanced at several sealed evidence containers on a nearby table. “Luminol showed no sign of blood anywhere at the scene—not on the bed, nightstand, walls, floor, bathroom—none. I took dust samples from her room and vacuumed the bedroom floor. I’ll let you know if I find anything worth looking into.”
Harper was beginning to think this was a murder that didn’t happen. A body and accusations.
“If she was murdered,” Carter said, “the killer didn’t mess with her pills.”
“What about the phone records?”
“One of my techs just got them back. He checked the calls made from the son’s and daughter’s homes. They each phoned Mrs. McGuire a couple of times a week since October. No way to know if they actually spoke with their mother, but at least they weren’t lying about making the calls.”
“Yeah, why? Does it mean something?”
“Allison Pike claimed that Clinton and Evelyn only called when they needed money. Do you suppose mom turned her kids down one too many times and pissed them off?” Harper frowned at the thought. “I take it back. Plotting to kill would be too much trouble for them. If you ask me, they’re all nuts, the old lady died in her sleep, and we just wasted taxpayers’ money.”
The mansion was a quarter mile away when the sun decided to show after five days of sub-zero temperatures. But relentless winds continued to blow and shaped the soft drifts of snow into waves across the open fields on either side of the road.
The housekeeper answered the door on the second ring and except for a quick glance over a shoulder she fixed her eyes on his.
“This way, Detective.”
Harper followed her down the main hall to the back of the house and into the kitchen. Stainless steel appliances were tucked in among spotless blue granite countertops that stretched into an L-shaped formation. On the back wall of the room was a span of large windows and patio doors that led to the terrace now under a foot of snow. Harper sat at one end of the kitchen table and watched as Nelly served him a steaming cup of coffee.
“Twenty-seven years. That’s a long time to work for one family; not the easiest bunch to care for either, you know.” Nelly nodded as if to emphasize her amazing ability to survive the McGuire ordeal. “Clinton and Eve were unruly as children now they’re out of control adults. Without their mother at the helm, who knows what they’ll do next.”
“This house, me, everything. Oh, I know, Clinton moved in, but there are no guarantees. Obviously, Mrs. McGuire didn’t make any provisions for me in her will so--”
“I’m sorry.” Harper trusted Nelly hadn’t dragged him here to discuss the McGuire’s bleak prospect of a future and her financial misfortune. “I read in the paper the court denied the McGuire’s request to contest it.”
“Such a scandal, but they brought it upon themselves. They’ll have to sell this house, you know. I should look for other arrangements I suppose, but at my age ...” Nelly mindlessly stirred her coffee several times before resting the spoon on her napkin and taking a sip. “At least Allison came out on top. Goodness knows she deserves compensation for all she had to put up from the ungrateful brutes. In fact, I heard she’s moving to St. Tropez.”
“France?” The image of her that evening in her home, sitting across from him with the fire casting a glow on her face invaded his thoughts with uncanny clarity. He had suspected Allison Pike just as he had the others. That was his job, but as evidence diminished and leads went cold, it became clear that Allison had been caught in the middle of an ugly family feud and was innocent of any wrong doing. He’d talked with her several times since, and although he had kept a professional distance, Allison had slowly haunted his thoughts. “When is she leaving?”
“Today. Her flight leaves at five.”
He glanced at his watch. It was ten after two. He quickly dismissed any thoughts of regret. “Mrs. Blount, when you called, you said you had something to show me.”
“Yes, I’m so ashamed. I haven’t been able to stop going over every minute of that day in my mind. The thing is, Mrs. McGuire was perfectly fine in the morning. She had been up and around, I should have—”
“That week Allison informed me that Mrs. McGuire requested to take all her meals in her room. I never questioned Mrs. McGuire’s request and did as I was instructed to do.”
“Did you question Allison?”
“Why should I have?” she asked as she twisted her napkin. “She and I always got along. After all, we were both in Mrs. McGuire’s employ. Yes, the request seemed strange to me but it wasn't the first odd thing Mrs. McGuired had asked for in my years here. If you want to know the truth, I was glad to have someone help out a bit for a change. No more running up and down the stairs every time Mrs. McGuire yelled for something. Hours before she died, Allison stepped out of the house for a bit."
Harper lowered his glance to the napkin Mrs. Blount had managed to shred into thirds. “What’s bothering you?”
Nelly paused for a moment. “Two days before she died, Mrs. McGuire got it into her head that she wanted a large bouquet of tulips in her room. I couldn't be sure, but is sounded as if she and Allison were disputing something. Their voices carried down here to the main floor. A minute later, Alli ran out the front door. I assumed it was to buy the tulips. I then went upstairs to tidy Mrs. McGuire’s suite and noticed she was standing at the bedroom window that overlooks the driveway. After a moment, Mrs. McGuire handed me this.” Nelly smoothed the creased corners of the sealed envelope she took from her pocket. “I feel horrible about it. I was supposed to mail it for her. Instead, I slipped the envelope into the pocket of this cardigan while I finished with her room. After that, I got busy with other things and completely forgot about it until today when I put the sweater on again. I thought it would raise suspicion to mail it after her death. That's why I called you.”
Harper rubbed a thumb over the surface and felt three small, round, hard objects inside the envelope addressed in Catherine McGuire’s handwriting to her attorney Jacob Stanley. He ripped it open, took out the note leaving the three items inside. He read it, returned the page to the envelope then slipped it into his breast pocket. “Thank you, Mrs. Blount.”
“Well, what did she write in the note? Is it important?”
“You did the right thing in calling me. I’ll take care of it.” Harper drained the last of his coffee and glanced out toward the terrace as he slipped on his coat. “Did you say, tulips?”
“They’re out of season. No shop would have them in stock this time of year.”
“I know.” Nelly rolled her eyes. “All I can say is, Mrs. McGuire was a bit eccentric at times and when she got into one of her moods, you didn’t ask why.” Nelly raised a hand to her lips and frowned. “If you ask me though, she didn’t want flowers at all.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Allison bought her two dozen beautiful red roses instead, but Mrs. McGuire didn’t react to them one way or another. I suppose the reason the whole incident stayed with me is because Mrs. McGuire was never one to have fresh cut flowers around. Sometimes she was a horrible person to please.”
“Jack, it’s me,” Harper said. “I have new evidence in the Catherine McGuire case. I need some answers and fast.”
“Why would Mrs. McGuire write to her attorney about grapefruit seeds?”
Harper recognized the silence on the other end of the line and knew he hit on something that had rendered the medical examiner speechless. “Jack, are you with me?”
“Jesus, Harp. Damn, it makes perfect sense now.”
Three o’clock and the only things on Harper’s mind were Allison Pike and her five o’clock flight to France. He nosed his Jeep into the driveway behind her BMW then ran to knock on her door. “Allison. It’s Sam Harper.” He waited a second or two then knocked again. This time, he hammered the door with his fist. “Come on, Allison, open up!”
Allison cracked open the door. The surprise in her eyes faded into contempt as she motioned for him to come in.
"Harper, this isn’t a good time.”
“Is it ever? We need to talk.” He stepped into the living room and glanced at the five pieces of luggage on floor. “Going somewhere?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact. I’m really in a hurry. My flight—”
“This won’t take long. Why don't you sit down?"
"I'd rather not."
"All right. There's a small detail about the case that's been nagging at me from the very beginning.”
“I thought we were done with it?”
“You told me you met Catherine McGuire at an art gallery and it was only after you two became friends that she hired you as her assistant.”
“That’s right, what of it?”
“Throughout the investigation I heard comments about Mrs. McGuire’s strong character. She was a woman who knew her mind—followed her own instincts, never took anyone’s word for anything.”
“That pretty much sums her up.”
“Then why did you give her a list of references?”
“Excuse me?” Allison feigned a smile but couldn’t disguise the uneasiness that had flashed across her face. “What difference does it make now?”
“If she trusted you as a friend why did she need references? Wouldn’t she have known if you were right for the job?”
“She asked for them.” Allison took a step back.
“I don’t think so. No more than it was her idea to cut the family out of her will. What kind of game were you playing, Alli?”
“You’re out of your mind.”
“Check the records, Detective. The case was closed two weeks ago. You’ve had your fun, now leave.”
“No one’s going anywhere except for your art gallery pal. He’s at police headquarters right now having a chat with my partner. I heard he’s cooperating and talking about the scam you two had going.”
“Sure about that?” he asked. “Your friend was the one with connections, wasn’t he? He knew the widows who frequently visited the gallery and introduced you to them one by one. Am I close?”
“You gained their trust, stole them blind, and split the sum with your pal. By the way, does he know you’re leaving town with the McGuire fortune?”
“Talk all you want, Harper. I’m not listening to this nonsense.” A nervous laugh deceived her attempt to blow him off.
“The problem is, you found out too late that Catherine McGuire was as shrewd as you are. It wasn’t enough that she was paying you well, you got greedy. That's when you convinced her the family didn’t care and talked her into cutting them out of the will.”
“No. It wasn’t like that. I had no idea that—”
“How exactly was it then? Jacob Stanley knew her a hell of a lot longer than you and your story doesn't match his. According to Stanley, Mrs. McGuire knew what her children were like but loved them unconditionally."
She took another step back without taking him out of her sight.
"I’m thinking that somewhere along the way she must have realized you couldn’t be trusted," he said. "What’d you do, let it slip that it was you who wouldn’t let the McGuires get near to her?”
“They didn’t care about her.”
“I imagine Catherine threatened to report you. Is that what turned things around? The fact that her resistance didn’t quite fit into your plans so you decided it was time to end things.”
“No. It’s not true.” Allison’s eyes widen as she turned her head to the sound of siren approaching her home. “I couldn’t. I never—”
“Mrs. McGuire wasn’t bedridden, so why did you tell the housekeeper that Catherine wanted her meals taken to her room?”
“She ordered it.”
“I'm willing to bet Catherine McGuire was held prisoner in her own home to buy you some time knowing that Nelly would never question your authority.”
“I’m calling my attorney.”
“In your own words, your interests are varied. Diverse enough to know that traces of poisons can be found in an autopsy. Was that an added insurance clause in the will in case you had to resort to it?” Harper reached for the handcuffs. “But you didn’t need it because you knew grapefruit consumed in any form would conflict with Catherine’s high blood pressure medication. It elevated the amount of medication in her system and consequently lowered her blood pressure to dangerous levels without a trace of what caused it. The question is, how did you do it? Mixed it in with her other juices to disguise the taste? Hell you could have bought extract and gotten away with it. But in your rush, you got sloppy. All you wanted to do was make certain Mrs. McGuire got it down before she realized that she had taken it.”
As Harper slipped the handcuffs over her wrists and read Allison her rights, the scent of her perfume sickened him as much as the thought of how easily he could have fallen for her.
“You can’t prove any of this.” Hate mixed with tears welled in her eyes.
“Want to know what Catherine McGuire did the day she sent you off on a wild goose chase after tulips?”
“I couldn’t care less.”
“You should,” he said. “She was desperate to get you out of the house. She left two phone messages for her attorney. When he didn’t answer right away, she wrote him a letter.” Harper reached into his coat pocket and shook the envelope Nelly Blount had given to him the hour before. “This one. Accusing you of her murder. Catherine McGuire had you pegged, Allison, and it’s all right here dated, signed and sealed in her handwriting.”
“For God’s sakes, if she felt threatened, why didn’t she call the police? See, she didn’t know what she was doing. Why do you think she needed a guardian? Her own children wanted nothing to do with her. She needed me--me!”
Harper tipped the content of the envelope onto the palm of his hand and let Allison see the three grapefruit seeds Catherine had saved with the intent of sending them to Jacob Stanley. “You must have been in a hell of a hurry to not strain the seeds."
She didn't respond.
"Wealth doesn’t diminish the insecurity brought on by age. She was scared to death of you—you—the only person she accuses in her note. Last thing she wrote is, ‘If anything happens to me, give the seeds to my doctor, he’ll know.’”
"Listen to you," she said. "You're making this up as you go. That doesn't prove a thing. I’ll fight this, you know.”
He took her by the arm and handed her to the uniformed officers.
"Harper? Do you hear me?"
“Your greed blurred that fine line between right and wrong, Alli. How many more of these cases am I going to find in your past?”
Again, she didn’t respond. Why would she? Harper could see the calculated cold indifference in her eyes. There was nothing more to say.