Friday, January 30, 2009

Dirty Little Secrets ~ Part IV Conclusion

© Marta Stephens 2009 all rights reserved

Let the Dead Point the Way

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.”

* * *
Harper left the medical examiner to his pre-autopsy tasks of measuring and weighing the body then taking the usual photographs. The engine of his Jeep Commander fired up on the first try, but the plummeting temperatures gave him reason to give the motor a moment to warm again. He watched the wipers shove the snow from side to side and thought of the stinging accusations he’d heard getting tossed around days before. Not one allegation had led to evidence that would substantiate a charge of murder. Still, Pike’s list of references nagged at him. He checked them out and Jacob Stanley was right, there was nothing unusual about them, but that wasn’t the issue burning a hole in Harper’s mind. Allison Pike went to a lot of trouble to paint her relationship with Mrs. McGuire in pretty pastels, so why the need for references? Harper knew it was inevitable that he’d see Pike again. He’d insist she explain the possible glitch in her story. She, on the other hand, would make it a point to serve more wine.

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.”

“October, huh?”

“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.”

Four weeks since Catherine McGuire passed away and the only abnormality Jack Fowler noted in his autopsy report was slightly raised elevations of blood pressure medication in her system and minor abrasions in her intestines. He found nothing else to prove that her death was due to anything other than natural causes. With the case closed, Harper moved on to the next homicide on the roster. Clinton and his wife moved into Catherine’s home and that was the last he heard of the McGuires until an hour ago. A million thoughts ran through Harper’s mind as he listened to the voice mail message left by the family’s housekeeper, Nelly Blount.

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.”

“About what?”

“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."
"Where did she go?"
"I don't know, but when she returned, she went straight upstairs to her private own room. Not long after that, she was busy fetching the meal I had prepared for Mrs. McGuire. No, Detective, Allison took over much of Mrs. McGuire’s care which was just fine with me.”

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?”

“Yes, why?”

“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.”

Harper was back in his car, siren on, racing toward town and waiting for the medical examiner to answer his phone.

“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.”

“You’re bluffing.”

“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.

The End

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


© Marta Stephens 2007 all rights reserved

Count them; two years. Frank Gillies had no reason to die on that miserable March night, but my late partner had gotten it into his head to park in front of the Roving Dog Saloon and wait for an informants. I knew about Gillie’s connections. Not who they were or how he managed them, but that they existed.

Time doesn’t heal, it only distort. It plays with your head and won't let you shake poignant details like smells and sounds; that it was raining like hell that night, and Gillies wasn’t taking no for an answer.

Silenced Cry Excerpt ~ Chapter 2

The Roving Dog was a typical joint. Dark walls and sparse lighting managed to hide the stains, but couldn’t mask the stench of what might have slipped through the cracks in the floor. A couple of old men at the bar were too engrossed watching the small, suspended television to notice Harper as he walked through the door.

Harper scanned the room from his perch on a stool at the far end of the bar while he searched for the face of a killer. Across the room, two others were shooting pool. The crisp, crackling sound of billiard balls hitting against one another; the plunk when they sank, a slight pause followed by another clink, were familiar sounds to him. A handful of patrons sat in the booths along the back wall. Each was at a different stage of inebriation. No sign of Mellow.

Harper grabbed a napkin from a nearby stack on the bar and wiped his face.

“Hell of a night, huh?” The old bartender feigned a smile without looking up from the glass he had polished. “What’s your pick?” he asked, carefully placing it on top of the set of clean glasses on the counter.

“Coffee. Blond and sweet.”

The bartender returned with a mug brimming to the edge. Hesitation washed over his face at the sight of Harper’s badge visible beneath his coat. He slowly pushed the mug and the packets of cream and sugar toward Harper, leaned on the counter, and whispered: “You here on business?”

“Depends, did you call?” Harper blew into the mug then took a sip.

“Where’s Gillies?”

“Outside. What about Mellow?”

The man nodded toward the back of the room. “Got here about an hour before I called. Say, Gillies said he’d handle this himself.”

“An hour?” Harper flashed a look into the old man’s eyes. The words tumbled in his head in search for some logic. He raised his mug again and looked over the rim. Mellow came into focus. He was tucked away in the shadows of a corner booth, sidetracked by the woman sitting next to him and the freedoms she allowed him to take. “You sure he’s been here an hour?”

“Yeah, positive. See that?” The bartender thumbed over his shoulder at the Miller Beer clock above the phone. “I’m sure.”

“Doesn’t seem to be causing any trouble. What made you call?” Gillies’ haste and the old man’s delay to call didn’t add up. So far, nothing had.

“I wouldn’t have, except I heard him tell her a thing or two when I served them their last round.”

“Like what?”

The old man shrugged his shoulders. “Couldn’t tell you exactly.” He explained he only got the gist of the conversation. “Sounded like someone ripped him off. I heard him tell her, ‘… won’t be bothered by that mother again.’”

“You called us on that? How do you know he didn’t buy the guy a ticket out of town or something?”

“Anyone else, I wouldn’t have thought twice. But him? Not about to take any chances. You know what these bums are like. Just out of jail; temper’s as hot as his record is long. I’ve known him since he was this high,” said the man, raising his hand to his waist. “He was a punk then, now he’s nothing but a worthless piece of shit. Never hurts to think the worst.” He paused for a moment then whispered again: “So what’d he do? Kill somebody? Heard about the shooting near the overpass. Was it him?”

Harper took a drink. The bartender with the raspy voice knew more than his customer’s taste in booze and arrest record. “What do you know about the shooting?”

“Me? Nothing.”

Harper heard the denial but caught the man’s sideward glance.

“Someone heard the shots. A couple of the guys were talking about it. That’s all.”

“Which guys?”

“Ah, I don’t know. They weren’t regulars – left already.”

“What happened after you served Mellow that round?”

“Nothing. I acted like I wasn’t paying attention. Came back here. Made the call. Look, news in this neighborhood travels fast. I don’t want any problems. Don’t want him to know I’m the one
who called either, understand?”

Harper nodded. “Who’s the woman?”

“Couldn’t tell you her name. She’s in here with a different john every other night. As long as she pays the tab, what she does is her business. The rest of them,” he nodded toward his clientele, “just want to sit around, have a few drinks, and forget their problems. All I’m asking you to do is get him the hell out of here. So go on. Get Gillies in here and do your jobs already.”

“We’ll be waiting outside.” Harper reached into his pocket, pulled out a dollar, and tossed it next to his empty mug. “You’ve got Gillies’ number. Call the minute he starts to leave.”

“What? You’re leaving?” The man thumbed over his shoulder again. “What about him? Aren’t you going to arrest him?”

Harper pulled up his collar. “On what?” He waited for him to say the wrong thing. He wanted to catch him at a lie, to know what he knew. Anything to satisfy his suspicions that he and Gillies
were in cahoots. When he didn’t reply, Harper said: “You just make sure he walks out the front door. Got it?” He was near the door when he heard the bartender call out to him.

“Hey! Hold up. Here.” He held out a capped Styrofoam cup for Harper to take. “This’ll take the chill off the old man for now.”

“Hey Skip.” One of the gents at the bar waved his empty beer bottle. “Need another.”

* * *

“Well? Is he in there?” Gillies held out a towel in exchange for the steaming cup of coffee.

“Yeah. You could have told me you knew the bartender.”

Harper jerked the towel from Gillies’ hands.

“What the hell are ya pissed at? I’ve known Chuck a while.”

“I’m your partner, not your damned stooge. The guy knows more about what went down tonight than I do.”

“Don’t take it personal. We got the call. That’s all that matters. What’s Mellow doing?”

“Getting drunk with a whore,” Harper said squeezing the water from his hair.

“Shit, don’t need him drunk tonight.”

“Your friend claims he overheard Mellow telling her he got robbed.”

“That a fact?”

“Yeah. Here’s another news flash. He claimed Mellow was in the bar an hour before he called you. How do you figure that? How the hell does a guy kill someone two miles away while he’s sitting in a goddamned bar?”

Gillies took a drink of his coffee and pressed his lips. He stared straight ahead in silence. Harper could see it, even in the dark. How Gillies froze while the wheels in his head turned and the gears screeched into reverse trying to find another way out. Harper had seen that same look on the faces of criminals when the walls of incarceration closed in on them.

“Must be mistaken,” said Gillies.

“Did you tell him about the shooting?”


“He knows. How the hell does he know about a shooting clear across town minutes after it happened?”

“Mellow must have told him,” said Gillies.

“Shit. Mellow shouldn’t even be in there.”

“Don’t start assuming nothing. He’s mistaken, that’s all.”

“I’m not assuming a damned thing.” Harper shook his head. “Gotta hand it to you, that’s one hell of a coincidence.”

“It happens.”

“It’s bullshit and you know it.” He slapped the towel on the seat. “Start talking.”

“There’s nothing to tell. I told Chuck to keep his eyes open for Mellow and Owens. He said Mellow knew where Owens was keeping himself and I’d have to talk with Mellow for the details. Called to let me know about the shooting; said he’d keep Mellow at the bar until we got here. End of story.”

“I thought you said dispatch called you about the shooting? What the hell’s going on, Frank?”

“Nothing. What?”

“You’re lying. What kind of mess are you in this time?”

“What the hell are ya talking about? I just got confused is all.”

“Since when? Next to my dad, you’re the sharpest cop I know. Why did Chuck wait an hour to call?”

“How should I know? Tell ya what, I’ll ask him next time we talk, all right?”

“You do that. And while you’re at it, make damned sure you leave me the hell out of whatever is going down here tonight.”

“Would ya settle down? Nothing’s going on that ya don’t know about. We just need to see what he knows about Owens. That’s it!”

Gillies rubbed his hands together. “Damn this rain.” He raised his wrist and rolled his eyes at the hour. “Man, the old lady’s going to be pissed again tonight.”

Harper stared at the tavern door. His partner was good at changing the subject whenever it suited him. He listened, but didn’t intend to engage in the irrelevant conversation.

“Late nights,” Gillies continued, “she hates them. I’m sure she’d be happier if I had turned out to be a goddamned bean counter or bank teller. Ya know, the old home by five, bored to tears. Can’t remember the last time we didn’t have a fight the minute I set foot in the door. It’s bad enough when I’m not there for supper. On nights like this, she goes through the roof. I can tell ya right now, we won’t be sleeping together tonight. Bet ya a twenty she has my pillow waiting on the damned sofa.”

“Right, let’s hear another one.”

“Ya hear me laughing? It’s getting worse every day. She must be going through the change or something.”

Gillies’ comment made him think of his fiancée, Deanna. How often had they argued over his late hours at work too? “My mother used to worry about Dad all the time. Wouldn’t go to bed until she heard him walk through the door.”

“Not Ruthie. Hell, she’s locked me out more than once.” Silent minutes dragged. Gillies looked at his watch again. “Damn. Almost one. How the hell long is he going to be in there?”

“You never said what your plan is,” said Harper. “You do have a plan, don’t you?”

“We grab him when he comes out. We question him, simple as that.” Gillies gave him another playful punch in the arm. “You just keep your eyes wide open, hear? If he pulls out a weapon, be careful. I hate breaking in new partners.”

“He was soused two hours ago. I say we go in and get it over with,” said Harper.

“Nah, have to assume he’s carrying a piece. He’s a loose cannon. Now he’s drunk and about as predictable as a skunk in heat. You’re asking for a shitload of trouble. Last thing we want to do is rouse him up in a room full of people. We’ll just wait him out. He won’t give us any problems.”

“And if he does?”

“What do ya think?” Gillies rubbed his eyes. “We shoot first ask questions later. Ah, come on. What are ya worried about? We’ve been up against bigger problems than this guy, right?”

“I’m not worried. I’m tired.”

Water rose to within an inch from the top of the curbs, pooling in front of the bar at a clogged drain. Harper swept a glance at the dashboard clock. “One eighteen. I can’t believe I let you talk me into this. Should be home in my warm, dry bed.”

Gillies yawned and stretched then bolted straight up in his seat. “There he is!” he blurted. He reached for his Glock and the extra cartridge he shoved into his coat pocket.

“Damn. I told Chuck to call the minute he saw him leave,” said Harper. “Why the hell didn’t he warn us?”

The men watched as Mellow and the woman staggered out of the bar. He stopped and teetered as he turned up the collar of his jean jacket. He reached an arm around her shoulders and tried to stay on his feet.

“Shit.” Harper braced himself for another drenching and turned to say something when he caught sight of Gillies’ shirt beneath his coat. “Where’s your vest?”

“It’s in back. Look at him. He’s stumbling over his own feet. Won’t give us any problems now.”

“Damn it. Get it on!”

“A lot of good it’ll do if I get shot in the head. In the meantime, he’s getting away.”

“Don’t be an ass. It’s regulations. Put the damned thing on.”

“Ya know, I’d love to have this conversation with ya, college boy. Maybe later – at tea, real proper like,” he sneered. “Come on will ya, I don’t wanna be in this crap all night.” Gillies slammed the door and scuttled across the street.

“Son of a bitch.” Harper clenched his teeth and ran.

We drew our weapons and ran. So much for the element of surprise. Mellow didn’t see us at first. Gillies yelled for him to stop. That’s when Mellow took off like a jack rabbit.
“Freeze! Police!”

Startled, Mellow turned and pushed the woman away from him. She shrieked and fell to her knees. Pools of water had gathered along the ruts in the sidewalk and splashed up around her. She scrambled to get out of the way of the men and their drawn weapons. She cowered against a building and covered her face.

Mellow stumbled and fell; struggled to his feet and ran.

“I said freeze!” Gillies yelled again.

Harper hustled to narrow the gap between them. He charged past Gillies and yelled the order: “Freeze!”

Mellow made a half turn, drew his weapon, and took a blind shot.
Harper returned fire. With both hands on his .357 Magnum, he aimed for the heart. Squeezed the trigger. Reverberating blasts from the shot rang out above the sound of rain thumping against the metal awnings. Mellow buckled then stumbled backwards into a cluster of trash cans. Their rank contents flew out and scattered along the sidewalk. A lid rolled down the street, the driving rain muted the clatter of metal against the concrete. Seconds later, Mellow lay motionless on the heap of waste.

Lights flickered on in the windows of the apartment buildings along the street. Harper felt nameless, curious eyes descend upon him, watching from behind the safety of curtains.

He froze; arms stretched out, legs spread apart, his weapon still aimed at Mellow. His chest ached with each gasp, his lungs tightened with every draw of cold, damp air he sucked in. All he could do was blink to keep the rain out of his eyes. Slowly, without letting go of his gun, he lowered his outstretched arms and ran to the suspect’s side. Harper bent over the body and felt his jugular. It was motionless beneath his touch.

“He’s dead, Frank.” He dropped his head. “Damn it Mellow, you stupid drunk,” he whispered between heaves of air. “What the hell were you thinking?”

He waited a moment. “Hey, Frank. Did you hear me? We lost him. Frank?” In the heat of the chase, he hadn’t noticed his partner was not at his side. He glanced over his shoulder and rose to his feet. A cold taut current ran through him at the sight of a motionless Frank Gillies laying face up on the sidewalk a few feet away.

The gunshots drew curious patrons out of the bar. Gillies’ shirt and cream-colored overcoat looked dark from the distance – dark red. Harper’s immediate thought flashed to the pub’s neon lights. The gawking faces – the sidewalk – Gillies – everything was red.

“Frank!” he screamed and raced to his side. “Get out of the way!” Harper pushed the others away then dropped to his knees.

“Frank, damn it.” Blood seeped from the center of his partner’s chest. “Hold on, Frank. Hold on.” Harper firmly pressed a hand on the puncture wound while he speed dialed for dispatch and shrieked out a 10-55. “Officer down! I repeat. Officer down! Corner of Howard and Third.” Blood gushed between Harper’s fingers and sputtered from Gillies’ lips with each cough.

“I called for an ambulance soon as I heard the shot,” yelled the bartender. “I told you Mellow was no good.”

Harper hadn’t noticed Gillies’ opened eyes weren’t flinching away the raindrops, that his breathing had stopped, and that his hands rested lifelessly at his side.

“Looks dead to me,” said a voice in the crowd. The others agreed.

Surreal sounds drifted around him not meant for his ears.

“Where the hell’s the ambulance?” yelled Harper.

“It’s no good, buddy. You did your best.” The bartender placed his hand on Harper’s shoulder and tried to console him. “He’s gone.”

Harper jerked the man’s hands off and shoved him away. He caught sight of his own hands, his coat, and trousers. It wasn’t the neon lights after all. Lights don’t run between your fingers, creep under your nails, and smear onto everything you touch. And lights don’t wash off. That’s when he knew. That’s when the knot rose to his throat and wedged against his windpipe.

A split second. That’s all it took.

He closed his eyes and lowered his head. The drumming rain concealed his tears and flooded a nearby drain with Gillies’ blood.

Distant sirens were too late.

End of Excerpt

Silenced Cry, the book that kicked off the Sam Harper Crime Mystery series in 2007, went on to receive honorable mention at the 2008 New York Book Festival, and was among the top ten in the 2007 Preditors & Editors reader poll. It is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million and other online and traditional bookstores.

ISBN: 978-1-905202-72-0
Published by BeWrite Books (UK)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

New Review for "The Devil Can Wait"

Memo to: Lou Holloway, Captain, Chandler Police Department

From: Sam Harper, Homicide

Subject: Latest report on our case, "The Devil Can Wait."

Lou, just received the following report written by officer A. F. Stewart from Internal Affairs. Looks like we're in the clear. Thought you'd want to see it ASAP.

* * *

I was impressed by Marta Stephens’ first novel Silenced Cry, and was looking forward to her next book. I was not disappointed, finding The Devil Can Wait even more enjoyable. Again, as with her first book, I was drawn in by the realistic character interplay, especially the portrayal of the often frustrating work of a homicide detective.

The book begins in the middle of a messy crime spree, with the discovery of the latest teenage body in a string of possibly related murders. Short-handed and overworked, Sam Harper and his partner have no leads and a workload of aggravation. Throw in several more strange murders, a homicidal Colombian, a cursed ring that could bring the apocalypse, an attractive, vibrant reporter slated to become a damsel in distress, and Sam Harper is up against the clock to save lives by solving the case.

“He didn’t need one of Jack’s lectures on viable evidence. Not now. What he wanted was a neon sign pointing straight to the killer. As it was, there were as many possibilities for how that tiny bruise got on the boy’s finger as there were reasons to keep digging for answers.”

Marta Stephens does an admirable job of blending a solid crime mystery with an exotic supernatural touch and the undertone of religious beliefs. She never veers into the outrageous or unbelievable, but still manages to keep that small air of “what if”, integrating it all into a fabulous whole.

“The urgency that prodded him two minutes ago was suddenly gone. It’s nothing but hogwash, he told himself. A wives’ tale told to scare the shit out of weak men and innocent children.”

I am fast becoming a rabid fan of Ms. Stephens, appreciating her reliable plot work and her memorable characters. Her superb protagonist, Sam Harper, is a genuine, somewhat imperfect, thoroughly human personality. From his dedication to the job to his rather messy personal life, it is this character that breathes vivid life into the pages of her books.A definite recommend for all fans of crime/mystery fiction.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Dirty Little Secrets - Part III

© Marta Stephens 2009 all rights reserved

Read Parts I, II, & IV

On The Outside Looking In

The brass nameplate permanently attached to the brick façade of the Stanley building read, “Jacob D. Stanley, Attorney At Law.” Harper pulled open the door, unbuttoned his overcoat, and instantly felt his steps sink into the thick pile of burgundy carpeting. Except for the middle-aged guy waiting in the pinstriped suit with his nose in the New York Times, the lobby was empty of clients. Overstuffed chairs and lush tropical plants that didn’t belong in Massachusetts in January or any other time of the year, lined the path that led directly to the knockout redhead sitting behind the desk.

She glanced up from her filing and offered a practiced smile, but her eyes were immediately drawn to the badge secured to Harper’s belt. The blunt cut of her hair fell just at the shoulders, the blue of her eyes matched her blouse, and looking down from his vantage point of six feet up and standing well over her head, the bit of visible cleavage was a distraction he didn’t need at the moment. Harper was trained to hone in on the details, but he wondered what the hell he was thinking. Now she was looking him straight in the eyes.

“Mr. Stanley is expecting me—Sam Harper, homicide.”

“Have a seat, Detective. I’ll let him know you’re here.” A take-me-home smile eased across her lips as she disappeared down the hall.

* * *

“Yes, I appreciate your predicament.” Jacob Stanley polished his reading glasses then placed them back on the bridge of his nose. “But the attorney/client privilege doesn’t end when the client passes. You know that.”

“Yes, I do, but—”

“It continues on in perpetuity. I can tell you this, Mrs. McGuire was of sound mind when she changed her will.”

“Her family doesn’t agree. Any idea why she didn’t let them in on it?” Harper asked.

“I assume you’ve had the pleasure of meeting them, right?” Stanley paused for a moment. “Yes, of course you have. Regardless of what you’ve heard about Catherine McGuire, she had a soft spot for her children, the irony is, they never appreciated it.”

“So what was her motive?”

“You need to understand that my job was never to persuade Catherine to do anything she hadn’t already set her mind to. I was here to advise her on the legality of her actions and the ramifications thereof, not meddle in her private life. Her personal affairs were off limits.”

“You have to admit, the whole thing seems strange,” Harper said.

“Maybe to the average person it does, but there was nothing routine about Catherine McGuire. Perhaps she faced her own mortality and didn’t like what she saw. I do think she felt alone much of the time.”

“Is that when she hired Allison Pike?”

Stanley thumbed through a few pages in Mrs. McGuire’s file then stopped and flipped back and forth between two pieces of paper. “Ms. Pike was employed last year on December 27. Catherine changed her will eight months later—hardly a hasty decision.”

“What about Pike’s background? Anything suspicious?”

“Not that I’m aware of.” Stanley signaled Harper to wait while he picked up his phone. “Beka, could you come in a minute?”

Within seconds, the redheaded beauty walked in, took three sheets of paper from Stanley’s hand and left the room. She returned minutes later with a set of copies.

“Here,” Stanley said. “Maybe that will help clear up some of your questions.”

Harper studied the list of references Allison Pike had submitted to her former employer then whistled at the salary noted at the bottom of the page. “Can’t say I blame the McGuires for being upset. A hundred grand a year is a chunk of change for driving an old woman around and keeping her calendar. Pike had a sweet deal going, why would the family suspect her of wanting to stop the gravy train?”

“I’m sure it’s a ploy to contest the will. Like I said, Detective, no one forced Catherine McGuire’s hand. She came to see me of her own free will with a clear mind and conscience. I’m sure Ms. Pike will be glad to fill you in on anything else you need to know. Her phone and address are at the bottom of the second page.”

“Thanks.” Harper folded the pages lengthwise then handed the attorney his business card. “If you think of anything else.”

“I will.” Jacob Stanley paused for a moment then frowned. “Have you ever missed a chance to do something and later regretted it?”

“Yeah, once or twice. Why?”

Stanley removed his reading glasses again and placed them on top of his desk. “I was out of town on business this week when my secretary called to say that Catherine had phoned twice on Monday to speak with me—wouldn’t leave a message—Catherine never would. Anyway, I was having a heck of a time with cell phone connections and assumed whatever Catherine wanted could wait a couple of days until I got back. It didn’t quite work out the way I had planned. Haunting, wouldn’t you say?”

* * *

The information Harper received from attorney Jacob Stanley two days before led him to the front door of a 1930s bungalow on west 43rd. When he knocked, he expected to meet a middle-aged spinster with orthopedic shoes on her feet and a hard look in her eyes. Instead, Allison Pike stood in the threshold dressed in white close-fitting slacks, a red cardigan sweater, and waves of flowing dark hair swept over one shoulder.

She smiled and ushered him into the sitting room where the mellow sound of Etta James drifted through the air. He hadn’t intended to agree to coffee, but the temperature outside was ten below and he couldn’t say no to the warmth emitted from crackling log in the fireplace.

Allison brought in a tray with a carafe, two mugs and the usual condiments. She did the pouring and left him to fix his own. She grabbed one of several throws and curled up in the overstuffed loveseat across from his. Harper noticed the zest in her style; every move triggered a spark. There was no hesitation in her voice, no concern in her eyes—not even when Harper informed her of the McGuires’ accusations.

“I can’t say that I’m surprised,” she said. “They were against Catherine’s decision to hire me from the beginning.”

“Tell me about it. Start with how you two met.”

“A painter friend of mine had his oils featured in a gallery downtown during the spring arts festival. Catherine and I were drawn to the same painting. That one,” she said, pointing to a large landscape rendition hanging on the opposite wall. “I’m a nut about impressionist style, aren’t you?”

Harper took a drink of his coffee while he mulled around the abrupt redirection and chose to ignore it. “Then what?”

“We developed a friendship. Catherine often invited me out to her home. What began as the occasional visit quickly became weekly chats. Sometimes after dinner, we’d talk for hours. Next thing I knew, she had the housekeeper prepare a room for me so I could stay overnight.” Alli brushed back a strand of hair from her eyes and studied Harper’s face as if waiting for his immediate reaction.

“Did the family object at that point?” he asked.

“I’m not sure if they were even aware of our friendship. That’s the point, Detective. They never called on her except to ask for money so they didn't know what was going on in her life. Trust me, none of this was planned. In spite of having a family and wealth she didn’t have what she needed most, love—a sense of belonging.” She paused for a moment. “She called me her guardian angle. The true is, I’m the one who was saved.”

“Why’s that?”

“It’s personal and I’d rather not go down that road, but suffice to say that she was lonely and I needed a sense of belonging too.”

Allison’s words echoed the same sentiment Jacob Stanley expressed in their meeting on Wednesday, but just like two wrongs don’t make a right, neither did the word of a lawyer and the sole beneficiary of the McGuire fortune equal the truth. “I understand you were hired last year on December 27, is that correct?”

“Yes, I think that’s right.”

“You two met in the spring and what, eight, nine months later she hired you as her personal assistance? What happened that December?”

“They left her alone.” Allison raised a slender hand to her lips then turned toward the fire that had now engulfed the massive log in the hearth. “Those vile, ungrateful … if it hadn’t been for me, she would have been alone over the holidays.” She wiped a tear from her eye and slipped into an uneasy silence.

“Ms. Pike?”

She looked up, tears glistened in her eyes. “That set the stage for what happened next.”

“Go on.”

“A few months later she called to say that she needed to see her lawyer and wanted me to drive her to his office. That’s when I found out she had been discussing a change in her will. The meeting was simply for the purpose to sign papers. The last thing I expected was that she made me her guardian.”

“You could have backed out.”

“Not likely. No one ever backed out of a Catherine McGuire order.”

“Is that what it was? An order?”

“It felt like it.”

The flair of confidence Harper saw in her a moment before vanished. She threw back her head and closed her eyes as if the question had awakened an unpleasant memory.

“So your duties were more that of a caretaker; you dispensed her medication, took charge of her meals—”

“She insisted.”

“Managed her appointments too?”

“That’s right.”

“Jacob Stanley said he missed a couple of calls from Mrs. McGuire the day before she died. What was that all about?”

“I wouldn’t know.”

“You just said it was your job to keep track of her appointments.”

“Not all of them. She was a tyrant in that respect. You wouldn’t understand.”

“Try me. She paid you a hundred grand. Why didn’t you know?”

“I didn’t need the money,” she said, placing her half-empty mug on the tray, “but I could use a drink. Care for one?”

The sudden change in her tone didn’t escape him. Harper told her he’d pass on the drink then rose to his feet. While she tinkered around in the kitchen, he examined the collection of books on the nearby shelf. Allison Pike’s tastes varied from the literary classics of Mary Shelley and Earnest Hemmingway to modern fan fiction, history, and travel. Then one book among several caught his attention. He was thumbing through 200 pages that listed a detailed assortment of poisons, their sources, and their affects on the human body when Allison walked back into the room with a glass of wine.

“Interesting,” he said.

“I also have books on psychology, military strategies, religions of the world, emergency first aid, and the history of rock and roll.” She took a sip then a few more steps until she was inches away. “My interests are varied. What’s your passion?”

He waited to give her an answer, not because he needed to think twice, but because one good tease deserved another.

“Justice, Ms. Pike, and the terms of Catherine McGuire’s will. Have a seat.”

To be continued.
Part IV~ The Conclusion, Friday, January 30, 2009

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Devil Can Wait Book Trailer

Here's an insider's look at one of my recent cases, "The Devil Can Wait."

Many thanks to S. W. Vaughn, author of BROKEN ANGEL (4/28/09) and HUNTED (6/1/09) for creating "The Devil Can Wait" book trailer and to Kevin MacLeod for allowing us to use his music.

The trailer is also permanently available on this blog by scrolling to the bottom of the page.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Dirty Little Secrets ~ Part II

© Marta Stephens 2009 all rights reserved

Read Parts I, III, & IV

Meet the McGuires

Jack’s right. Harper thought, as he reached for the knobs on the double doors to the great room. Death had a way of bringing out the cut-throats in families. There was always at least one person convinced he’d been screwed, ignored as a child and who drummed up a host of old baggage to get his just reward—revenge on the unsuspecting.

His thoughts flashed to his mother’s untimely death six years before and the hit and run driver who was never apprehended. His younger brother, Paul, never forgave the two homicide detectives in the family, he and their father Walt, for failing to find the guilty. Harper shoved the unwelcomed memories back, deep into the distant crevice from which they came, but that old familiar sting was as relentless as ever. He cursed under his breath at his inability to let go of his anger or to wipe his father’s pain from his memory. “Damn it,” he said under his breath and heaved open the doors.

The discussion he heard moments before immediately ceased—heads jerked up as he stepped into the room. He recognized the McGuire siblings from years of newspaper photographs. Both had their mother’s eyes and their father’s distinctive Roman-shaped nose. But the brother and sister had developed their own wicked tongues putting the heat that spewed out from the roaring flames in the hearth to shame.

Four sets of probing, dry eyes scrutinized Harper’s moves as the uniformed officer handed him a slip of paper. It contained the names of those present and a sentence or two each had offered up as the utmost truth.

“Well, it’s about damn time.” The man who rose to his feet and took a step too close to Harper was Clinton McGuire, a man in fifties sporting an expensive tan and touch of gray along the temples. “Can we just move on?”

“Have a seat, Mr. McGuire,” Harper said as he finished reading the note.

“We demand answers.” Clinton shoved his hands into his pockets and leaned forward as if to make a point. “Now!”

Harper ignored the man’s outburst and continued to read through the officer’s scribbles. He glanced up at the patrolman and gave him a nod. “Thanks, I’ll take it from here.”

“We’ve been sequestered in this damned room for over two hours. I want—”

“I understand Mr. McGuire. You have my deepest condolences. Now, would you please take a seat?”

“Yes, Clint. Shut the hell up and sit down.” Evelyn Gunter raised a crystal tumbler to her lips and took a sip of what Harper knew to be fine distilled liquor. He watched her squirm a bit in the wingback chair near the fire and take a deep breath. Mrs. Gunter was impeccably groomed from her over-sprayed hair down to her Gucci slippers. A well-manicured hand held on to the glass while the other gripped the arm of the chair a little too tight.

“Evelyn Gunter?”

“Yes. Of course, who else would I be? For what it’s worth, that’s Mr. Gunter,” she said, pointing to the man on the couch. “Jesus, Vic, sit up and act as if you have some sense for a change.”

Vic’s elbows were resting on his knees; his posture made it clear that seconds before his head had been buried in the cup of his hands. Harper took note of the bloodshot eyes and the rumpled shirt and hair and tucked those facts in the back of his mind.

The slender woman on the other end of the couch who was coiling her finger around the silk printed scarf hanging from her neck seemed neither drunk nor vile at the moment.

“I’m Sylvia,” she said. “Just thought I’d mention it in case you’re interested. I’m with him.” She nodded toward Clinton and rolled her eyes. “But trust me, I’m nobody around here.”

“Wonderful, Sylvia dear. Now that we know who the hell we are, can we please get to the bottom of things?” Clinton paused for a moment. “Detective?”

That was the first thing Harper had heard thus far that made any sense. “Let’s start with you Mrs. Gunter. I understand you found your mother.”

“Yes, that’s right. I—”

“She’s embellishing the truth again, Detective. Eve didn’t go in to mother’s room until after Nelly cut loose with a blood-curdling scream,” Clinton said, curling his lip.

“Who’s Nelly?”

“Why the ... I’ve checked on mother every morning since we arrived long before you ever woke from your booze-induced slumber.” The look in Evelyn’s eyes could have burned a hole through Clinton’s heart like a red-hot poker.

“Hell, she was still alive in the morning.”

“Who is Nelly?” Harper asked again.

Evelyn and Clinton continued to argue. Vic took a few unsteady steps to the bar at the other side of the room and poured himself a straight shot of bourbon. Sylvia pursed her lips and persistently played with her scarf, rolling it up and down then letting it slip through her fingers.

“Enough!” Harper yelled. “Everyone sit down and keep your mouths shut until I give you permission to speak.” Harper looked them square in the eyes. “Bicker all you want, but not on my time. Do I make myself clear?” With their incessant backbiting momentarily quashed, he broke the silence, “You, Mr. McGuire. Who is Nelly?”

“The housekeeper, Nelly Blount. She’s been with the family for years. She’s the one who found mother.”

“And when was that?”

“Just after lunch.”

Amazingly, the others nodded in agreement about the time. Harper glanced at his watch. It was ten of two which figured right since he had been the last to arrive at the scene. Harper was almost afraid to push his luck, but the next logical question needed to be asked. “And what makes you think your mother was murdered?”

“Allison Pike. A cold, self-serving extortionist.” Evelyn narrowed her eyes as words and spittle shot from her lips.

A crease rippled across Clinton’s brow and for the first time, he seemed to be in a pensive state of mind. “Mother hired Alli about a year ago as an assistant to help keep track of her appointments, take her places, run errands, that sort of thing.”

“She had us for chrissakes, mother didn’t need her.” Evelyn mumbled the words between gulps of booze. “Oh yes, Alli seemed sweet enough at first, but that didn’t last.”

“How so?”

“She was subtle, I’ll give her that,” Evelyn said. “Alli gushed at every word mother said and lavished her with attention. Mother certainly loved getting attention.”

“Yes.” Clinton leaned back in his seat and crossed his left foot over his knee. “She seemed so efficient, we never questioned her motives at first. It was almost a relief that someone was taking care of things. I mean … mother was sharp and had never been shy about dismissing an unworthy employee so …”

Evelyn nodded in complete agreement with her brother then added: “But then it got so that Mother quit returning our calls. We made countless trips into Chandler over the past several months to see her. Recently, there was always an excuse as to why we couldn’t—everything from mother taking a nap to her being in the tub.”

“Befriending an elderly person isn’t a crime though,” Harper said.

“Alli didn’t just befriend our mother,” Clinton said, “she formed a wedge between us.”

“You want to know what the real stinky beef is all about?” Vic slurred his words. “The old lady changed her damned will. Cut these two vultures, and us,” he flung a finger at Sylvia then poked himself in the chest, “right out.”

“He’s right,” Sylvia said. “With one bitchy stroke of a pen she disinherited us and made Alli her guardian. The woman even insisted on dispensing mother’s medication and overseeing the food preparation. Can you believe it? After kissing up to the old bag all these years she cozies up to a complete stranger. What a hideous slap on the face.”

Evelyn raised a slender finger to her eye and dabbed the first tear Harper had seen since entering the McGuire mansion. The conduct he witnessed in the past twenty minutes validated Jack’s comment about money, death and greed. What else had Jack said about the McGuires? Oh yeah, royalty—my ass, he thought. Harper had a good picture of how things were, but even if these four’s suspicions were right, all the hatred in the world didn’t make it so or answer the why or how.

“Money is no object, Detective,” Clinton said. “Do what you must to convict her.”

“That could be construed as a bribe, Mr. McGuire. So I’ll just pretend I didn’t hear it. But I wouldn’t be too concerned if I were you. If your mother was murdered, I’ll know and whoever did it won’t be able to shake me off.” Harper let them hang on to his words as he started for the door then turned. “One last question. Had your mother always been opposed to autopsies?”

Each of the four searched the other three’s faces.

“What an incredibly strange thing to ask,” Evelyn said, raising the glass to her lips and draining its content. “Mother never mentioned it, why?”

To be continued ...
Part III, Friday, January 23, 2009

* * *

About the author:
Marta Stephens is the author of the Sam Harper Crime Mystery series published by BeWrite Books (UK)

SILENCED CRY (2007), Honorable Mention, 2008 New York Book Festival, Top Ten, 2007 Preditors and Editors Reader Poll (mystery)

Friday, January 9, 2009

Dirty Little Secrets ~ Part I

© Marta Stephens 2009 all rights reserved

Read Parts II, III, & IV

Did Someone Say, Murder?

Sam Harper turned left off Willow Boulevard into a winding private road he had driven past all his life but never entered. In the distance, the McGuire mansion, a sprawling two-story home, stood like a limestone monument to the family’s ego. Its stately structure and steep-angled roof was nestled against a backdrop of tall, lanky pines. Harper imagined a flawlessly, well-groomed lawn would grace the property at the first sign of spring. For now though, the tree branches were heavy from last night’s snowfall. Up ahead, the usual gathering of city cars were parked on the circle drive in front of the home’s entrance. Among them was the van driven by the head of forensics, Carter Graves. The medical examiner’s vehicle assigned to Jack Fowler was situated immediately behind the van. Inside the home, uniformed officer Jason Culp was the first to greet Harper as he walked through the door.

“This way, Detective.”

Harper swept a glance around the foyer. Polished hardwood floors and thick Persian rugs ran the length of the vast open space. A massive staircase curved upward along the right side of the room near a wall flanked with multi-paned windows from the base of the staircase to the vaulted ceiling.

Voices seeped into the hallway from behind a set of closed double doors situated to Harper’s immediate left.

Three feet away, the dutiful officer Culp was directing him to go in the opposite direction. "Detective? The body’s upstairs.”

Three generations of McGuires had forged the city of Chandler, Massachusetts into an industrial Mecca at the turn of the century. On their way to success, they drove every viable competitor and a Fortune 500 company or two out of town. They secured their wealth and brainwashed every man, woman, and child into thinking Chandler would fall to ruins without them. Of course, they were wrong. After the family moved the business out West, Chandler not only survived, it flourished. But in everyone’s eyes, the McGuires continued to reign supreme. Harper wasn’t as surprised to receive today’s phone call as he was that a murder had taken this long to touch the lives of the McGuires. He unbuttoned his overcoat and asked: “What do we have?”

“Upstairs, first door to the right,” Culp said, gesturing with a nod in that direction. “It’s Catherine McGuire.”

“Old lady McGuire? She’s what? In her eighties?”

“Eighty-three. The daughter--”

“Evelyn Gunter?”

“That’s the one,” Culp said, “claims she called the station as soon as she found her. Forensics and the doc are up in her room right now.”

“Who else is here from downtown?”

“My partner’s questioning the family in there.” He pointed to the doorway that had intrigued Harper a second before. “Lorenzo and Wade are standing by and waiting for orders.”

Harper pulled on a pair of latex gloves and made a move toward the stairs, but the look of consternation on Culp’s face made him stop. “What?”

The officer’s glance made a wide upward sweep. “Nothing like any homicide I’ve ever seen.”

“What do you mean?”

“The old lady died in her sleep. I’m no genius, but the sheets aren’t even wrinkled.”

“And you know this how?”

“I saw her with my own two eyes, Detective. My partner and I were the first to arrive. Not a mark on her—nothing out of place. Doesn’t feel right.”

“You think someone tampered with the scene?” Harper asked.

“Not according to them.” Again Culp gestured toward the door, “and no one was in the house who shouldn’t have been here—I checked.”

“For instance?”

“Seems Mrs. McGuire’s health was failing so the son and daughter arrived on Tuesday.”

“Three days ago.”

“Yeah, something like that.

“Is that it?”

“No, the housekeeper has a room on the first floor off the kitchen,” he said, thumbing over his shoulder, “and then there’s Mrs. McGuire’s assistant. Her room is upstairs too.”

Harper leaned an ear toward the doors leading into the great room and listened to the loud, muffled voices. “Thanks. I’ll keep it in mind.”

* * *

Carter was taking particular interest in the glass of water and the sizeable collection of medication bottles he found on Mrs. McGuire’s nightstand. Jack was standing over the body. He pushed his reading glasses to the top of his head, wrinkled his nose and pursed his lips. He didn’t bother to look up when Harper entered the room.

“False alarm?” Harper asked.

“Not if the family has anything to say about it,” Jack said.

“You don’t sound convinced.”

Jack Fowler shrugged a shoulder without hiding the look of disgust that washed over his face.

“Your word is the only one that counts. Remember?”

“Yeah ... so I hear.”

The hesitation in Jack’s tone spelled nothing but trouble in Harper’s mind. He’d been down this same road with the ME more than once. It meant long hours of work with no guarantees they’d find the killer. Catherine McGuire was laying face up on the bed. Beneath the full-length pink nightgown was a frail body. In life she’d been a five foot tall, vivacious woman and the power behind the McGuire fortune. Now her pale boney arms and hands were limp at her sides. The gold and red quilted spread beneath her barely registered the slightness of her weight. Officer Culp’s observation knocked a little louder in Harper’s head. As he studied the tranquil expression on her face and the neatness of her room he had to admit that neither jibed with the usual murder scene.

“Do we have a case or not?”

“No way to tell without an autopsy,” Jack said.

"And you'll push this one to the top of your list, right?"

"Not going to do one."

“What are you saying?” In all the years Harper had worked with Jack, he’d never once seen the ME sweat in the middle of January. "Answer me. What's the problem?"

“My hands are tied, that's what. We’re dealing with the McGuires, Harp.” Jack walked around the bed to Harper’s side and lowered his voice. “They’re the closest thing this city has to goddamn royalty.”

“Easy, Doc. The walls might hear.”

“Hell, you don’t tell the McGuires what to do, least of all when the corpse is one of their own.”

“You’re dancing around the May Pole,” Harper said. “Spit it out.”

“According to Mrs. McGuire’s appointed guardian—her assistant, she left explicit instructions in her will—no autopsy. From the collection of meds we found on the nightstand, she wasn’t opposed to medical attention, but she didn’t like doctors poking around or getting stuck with needles. Certainly didn’t want anything to do with getting cut up—as if she’d know the difference now.”

“She obviously hadn't planned on anyone pulling the plug ahead of time. Don't see why you're worried. Wills can be contested, especially if there's reason to suspect she’s been murdered. Give me something to take to a judge and we’ll—”

“Impossible.” A frown rippled across Jack’s brow. “If she was murdered, the evidence is inside. I’d have to examine the organs and that’s not going to happen if I can’t take the body.”

“Let me get this straight,” Harper said. “The family reported her death as a murder right?”


“Doesn't seem to be any evidence of foul play.”

“Right, and based on the apparent lack of it, I can’t rule her death a homicide,” Jack said.

“Then what do they know that you and I don't? Are you really going to let a little thing like a will stand in your way? Personally, I’d be more worried about what the living will do to you than the dead.”

“It’s not that simple.”

“Come on, Jack. This city’s leading family is yelling murder downstairs. You’re not really thinking of disappointing them, are you?”

Jack Fowler didn’t respond.

“Rational people don’t call the cops without a reason. Last will and testament or not, they’re going to expect me to investigate her death and I can’t do it without you giving the word.”

“Odd choice of words, Harp—rational. We’ve worked together what, six, seven years? How many times have we seen this type of thing before? You know being rational and levelheaded never enters the equation when there’s money involved. If there was an ounce of civility in her heirs, her death just wiped it clean away and replaced it with greed and suspicion. Hell, if they’re not accusing one another right now, it’s because they’re trying to get their stories straight and cover their tracks.”

“All the more reason to talk to a judge. But let’s say you’re right, then why report it as murder? All they needed to do was force their mother’s doctor to issue the death certificate stating she died of natural causes.” Harper slipped off his coat and glanced at the corpse again. “They could have split the dough after the wake before anyone questioned them. I mean, look at her. Who would have known?” Harper hooked a finger beneath the collar of his coat, flung it over a shoulder, and turned to leave.

“Where’re you going?” Jack asked.

“Where do you think? Into the lion’s den to find the killer.”

To be continued ...
Part II on Friday, January 16, 2009

* * *
About the author: Marta Stephens is the author of the Sam Harper Crime Mystery series published by BeWrite Books (UK)
SILENCED CRY (2007), Honorable Mention, 2008 New York Book Festival, Top Ten, 2007 Preditors and Editors Reader Poll (mystery)

Thursday, January 8, 2009

A Newspaper Clipping from Harper's File

By Laura Wills
Chandler Times

CHANDLER--This reporter had the enviable task of interviewing the city's toughest homicide detective, Sam Harper. To read more about his recent case click here.

LW: You look tired, Sam. What’s been keeping you up these days?

SH: Not much, the usual; nine murders, a power-hungry drug dealer bent on getting his hands on an ancient relic, a few miserable scraps of evidence, and a religious fanatic.

LW: Wow, what a mix, but I don’t understand. If you have evidence, what’s the problem?

SH: It’s circumstantial at best. What little trace evidence we found on the bodies led to a dead end. We have nothing.

LW: What about your partner, Dave Mann? What’s he think about those murdered teen boys?

SH: He’s convinced the murders are gang related.

LW: You don’t sound convinced.

SH: I’m not. The killer has a pattern—you know, a signature that tells us it’s him. Gang killings aren’t precise. To quote Jack, our medical examiner, kids act on impulse. They leave their victims where they drop and don’t scheme an elaborate cat and mouse game with the cops. Everything they do is for show. They don’t strip their victims of their identity and dump the bodies in the bay.

LW: Is that what you think this is? You think the killer is playing with you?

SH: Not intentionally, no. My gut’s telling me something went wrong. He had to change gears. Either way, we’ll find him.

LW: I trust you will. Heard you had a little clash with a reporter from the Chandler Times. Think she’s involved?

SH: Jennifer Blake knows a hell of a lot more than what she’s saying. Every move the woman makes is more telling than a four-page report. She balked when I questioned her about two of the victims.

LW: Big surprise.

SH: That’s what I thought. Nothing in common between the two men other than the fact that Blake was in contact with them hours before they were killed. Of course she claims to be innocent.

LW: Of course. So how do the cursed ring and the Christmas Eve prophesy fit into the case?

SH: How do you know about the ring? We didn’t release any information to the...

LW: Don’t change the subject, detective. I’m a journalist remember? It’s my job to know. So how about it?

SH: Off the record?

LW: We’re friends aren’t we? Sure, it’s off the record.

SH: Right. According to my source, it’s the stuff rumors and legends are made of. Historically, it’s destroyed everyone who has ever possessed it. The question is, why the hell is our suspect killing anyone who gets in the way of him finding it?

LW: Seems you have your work cut out for you with this case. Wish I could help. The last time we talked, you said once you made the decision to enter the police force, it’s all you wanted to do. Any regrets?

SH: None. It’s who I am, what I do. What else is there?

LW: So what’s a day in the life of a detective like?

SH: A good day in Homicide is the day we make an arrest; when all the pieces come together and they point straight to the killer.

LW: And a bad day?

SH: Every minute until we make the arrest.

LW: What about you?

SH: What about me?

LW: You’re on call 24/7. How do you handle the stress?

SH: I play the piano and ...

LW: Rhythm and blues with a splash of jazz and a Scotch and soda on the side.

SH: Nice to know you remember.

LW: How could I forget?

SH: I surround myself with people I care about too. Mostly I’ve learned to live with it. I mean ... Dave and I never know what we’ll be up against. We go into homes most people don’t want to drive by in broad daylight. We knock on doors without knowing who’s hiding behind them. It could be a felon pointing a weapon or a weeping child. It’s all about timing. A minute lost pushes the case an inch further into the cold case stack. So we watch the clock. The sooner we can get to the scene of the crime, talk with witnesses, and check for evidence, the better our chances are of solving the case.

LW: And that’s when you catch the killer?

SH: No. That’s what I do to find a potential suspect.

He left without another word. I’m not sure what the glint in his eyes meant in the brief moment before he walked away. All I know is that it left me with a slight yearning in my heart and more questions than answers. He didn’t even give me a chance to thank him. Maybe next time I’ll buy him a drink. I do so want to know more about the doggedly determined persona behind the badge.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Coming Soon, A Sam Harper Short Story

January 9 ~ Part one of a short story, DIRTY LITTLE SECRETS.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

From The Desk of Detective Sam Harper

It’s snowing again. Big wet flakes plunge from the evening sky to the streets below. From my fourth floor window the scenery looks as peaceful as the pictures on the Christmas cards Emma keeps on her desk. For me, it’s the season without reason. The new layer of snow only reminds me of the bodies piling up in the city morgue. When the hell did I start to count down to the holiday season by the hike in the crime rate?

I close my eyes—each victim’s face flashes before them. I curse under my breath and try to make sense of the killings.

Superstitions and biblical prophesies—old wives’ tales told to scare the shit out of weak men, and innocent children. Delusions of twisted beliefs rule the mind, poison the heart, and push unsuspecting fools to the brink of insanity.

To hell with what anyone says. There’s nothing supernatural about those boys we pulled out of the bay. They were dead long before their bodies washed ashore. The kicker? Assuming the bodies decayed at the same rate, he’s killed one kid every week. If he’s still at it, we’re already too late to prevent ... Jesus, who knows how many more. But it was the water and natural processes, not demons that left us with little more than the discarded remnants of a madman’s fury. Yet the crimes are precise, planned like a well-choreographed dance I didn’t agree to, but even the most deliberate acts of violence are rarely perfect.

On the streets, tinsel and bright colored lights can’t mask the undercurrent of fear that has spread through the city and reporters are pressing for answers. All I need to hear is a slip of the tongue—just one mindless deed and the killer is mine. But solutions are in short supply and the knot in the pit of my stomach is more in tune with each tick of the clock that measures another segment of time without answers. One inaccurate statement from me is all it would take to feed the media frenzy. That pack of journalists can lick their lips and starve before I’d give them a crumb to feed on.

Damn, it’s after eight. Later than I meant to stay. I’ve thumbed through the case file a million times and the lack of evidence stings like a sharp blow to the jaw. Facts are distorted, leads haven’t panned out. Just when I think I’m close, the evidence points in a different direction and makes it impossible for me to wipe the case from my mind. This time, capturing the guilty won’t begin to make anything right. The killer’s obsessions have destroyed lives and shattered beliefs.

A familiar, unsettling jerk in the pit of my gut yanks harder with each ring of my cell. I know exactly what’s coming. Don’t need to answer the call to know the killer has struck again. This time, that nagging little voice in the back of my head tells me I’m in for a long ugly chase down a narrow path that leads straight into hell.