Sunday, March 22, 2009

Silenced Cry

Review by Mayra Calvani in Book Reviews, Reviews

If you like mystery novels with rich plots that dig into the past, then you’ll enjoy Silenced Cry by Marta Stephens.

During a routine pick-up for questioning, Detective Sam Harper loses his partner and friend, Gillies. Harper is confused and distraught by the event, which happens under suspicious circumstances. Soon afterwards he’s called to solve a murder case like none he’s been involved before: the homicide of an infant. In a rundown building that’s about to be demolished, trapped behind a wall, they find the skeletal remains of an newborn baby. To make matters worse, the murder seems to have taken place not recently but over a decade ago, making the investigation a lot harder.

As Detective Harper begins to investigate, a line of suspects slowly emerges. The detective must moved back in time in order to uncover the terrible events which let to the infant’s demise. Soon he’s pulled into a vortex of drugs, corruption, rape and murder as other members of the police force become suspects. At the same time, someone wants the case close and the building demolished as soon as possible, someone who doesn’t want Harper opening the door to the past.

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?

Silenced Cry is deftly crafted and an impressive first novel. The pace moves steadily without being too quick nor too slow, allowing the reader to savor each stage of the investigation. The dialogue is sharp and natural and the prose focuses on the action without letting unnecessary details and description get in the way. The police procedurals read realistically, giving the impression that the author either knows well about the subject or did a fair amount of research. For me, this was not a thriller that read at a fast pace, but a ‘gourmet’ mystery that I enjoyed at every stage of the story. Sam Harper is a likable character, but I would say that this is a plot-driven novel more than a character-driven one. Our detective protagonist is sympathetic, but there were times when, for me, he got lost in the midst of the plot. I feel he would have stood out more given stronger, more sharply defined characteristics or quirks. This is an observation more than a criticism, as it didn’t lessen by desire to keep on reading. The secondary characters are quite realistic as well, especially some of the suspects–though I don’t dare say more for fear of giving away spoilers.

Marta Stephens is a mystery author to watch out for. I will be soon reviewing the second book in the series, The Devil Can Wait, and I have to say I’m very much looking forward to it. If you enjoy an intelligently crafted detective story, I recommend you give this one a try.

Monday, March 16, 2009

An Unlikely Alliance - Part II

© Marta Stephens 2009 all rights reserved
Read Part I

Part II

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.”

“How so?”

“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.”

“Why not?”

“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.”

“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.”

“A souvenir.”

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?”

“City homicide.”

“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.”

“Very funny.”

“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.”

The End
Kind of ... look for more of this character and this scene in the next Sam Harper Crime Mystery novel.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

An Unlikely Alliance - Part I

© Marta Stephens 2009 all rights reserved

Part I

I scoured through the morning paper for what? A client? Right. I was starting to mumble under my breath a lot these days. For the past several weeks I knocked on the doors of countless law firms from Wall Street to Harlem and everyplace in between. The insurance companies who had paid for my skills in the past weren’t hiring either, and the banks? The criminals were on the inside now. The Feds had those greedy bastards and corporate leaders on a short leash to hell.

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

Eleven words if you count the initial. That’s all. Aside from the signature, I had no clue to the sender’s identity or his reason for wanting to meet. One thing for sure was the reputation of the membership at the Chester House. In recent years, the club had caved in to the demands for admitting women executives. Gender aside, this little note had the smell of testosterone and deep-pocket money. The kitchen clock told me I had two hours to shower, dress and get my rear down to the swanky club in the center of Wall Street. Must have changed clothes three times before deciding on a pair of khakis and a lime-colored blouse. Frilly’s not me and anything more than casual would have screamed desperation.
* * *
I walked into the Chester House with six minutes to spare. The stench from years of cigars and pipe tobacco wafted over me. Dark wood paneling lined the walls of the lobby and scattered about, in groups of twos and threes, were burgundy leather wingback chairs. The polished ends on the arms marked their years of use.

“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--”

“Private investigator.”

“—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.”

“What offer?”

“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?”

“Not exactly.”

“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?"

The End ~ Part I
Read conclusion on 3/16/09

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Twelve Witnesses

Memo to the file
S. Harper, Homicide

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 …