19 September 2019

The Roman Emperor Elagabalus & His Big Stone God

by Brian Thornton

[Today's entry is the latest in my on-going miniseries cataloging infamous bastards throughout history. For previous entries, click herehere, and here.]

I will not describe the barbaric chants which [Elagabalus], together with his mother and grandmother, chanted to [Elagabal], or the secret sacrifices that he offered to him, slaying boys and using charms, in fact actually shutting up alive in the god’s temple a lion, a monkey and a snake, and throwing in among them human genitals, and practicing other unholy rites.

                                                                                                                                — Dio Cassius



If you’re going to catalogue historical bastardry throughout the ages, you’d better plan to touch on that colorful period in the historical record known as “Imperial Rome.”  As with the Papacy, the sheer number of men who wore the emperor’s purple robes over the empire’s five-plus centuries lends itself to the likelihood that the throne would occasionally be occupied by someone so “eccentric” that he stood out in a crowded field of “personalities” like Michael Jordan playing basketball with a bunch of kindergarteners.


Ladies and gentlemen, meet Varius Avitus Bassianus, a young, Syrian-born aristocrat who ruled the empire under the very Roman-sounding name of “Marcus Aurelius Antoninus” from 218 to 222 A.D., but was better known by the nick-name “Elagabalus.”

Elagabalus was so much more than an emperor.  He was also the hereditary high priest of a Syrian sun god cult that worshipped a craggy, two-ton phallic-shaped meteorite as the actual physical incarnation of his god (“Elagabal,” or “El-Gabal,” from which he derived his nick-name).  He was also a transsexual cross-dresser who wore more make-up than most strippers, and allegedly worked as a hooker out of his rooms in the imperial palace.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg (or, if you prefer, the meteorite).

Elagabalus was a shirt-tail relation of the great (and ruthless) emperor Septimius Severus.  His grandmother was Severus’ sister-in-law.  When Severus’ direct line died out (and the story of how that all played out is grist for a future post), Elagabalus’ grandmother (Julia Maesa) and mother (Julia Soaemias) schemed along with a eunuch named Gannys to put the boy forward as a plausible claimant to the imperial throne.

The kid was all of fourteen.  But, a couple of battles, an army proclamation declaring him emperor and an execution of the unpopular if effective Gannys later, and Elagabalus (along with his mother and grandmother) was on his way to Rome.

When he got there he made quite a splash, not least because he brought his god with him.

Literally.

This massive “sky stone” was ensconced in a new temple complex built expressly for it, right next to the old Flavian Amphitheatre (what we know today as the “Colosseum”) on Rome’s Palatine Hill, and named the “Elagaballium.”

The big rock even got its own coin!
During Rome’s annual Midsummer Day festival, the ancient writer Herodian reports:

[Elagabalus] placed the sun god in a chariot adorned with gold and jewels and brought him out from the city to the suburbs.  A six-horse chariot carried the divinity, the horses huge and flawlessly white, with expensive gold fittings and rich ornaments.  No one held the reins, and no one rode with the chariot; the vehicle was escorted as if the god himself were the charioteer.  Elagabalus ran backward in front of the chariot, facing the god and holding the horses’ reins.  He made the whole journey in this reverse fashion, looking up into the face of his god.

Aquilia Severa
As if that weren’t shaking things up enough for his new subjects, Elagabalus promptly swept aside the old Roman pantheon of gods, and “married” his god Elagabal to the Roman goddess Minerva.  As a mortal “echo” of this Heavenly union Elagabalus then did the truly unthinkable: he took one of Rome’s Vestal Virgins as his wife.  Dedicated to the Roman mother goddess Vesta, whose service obliged these priestesses to remain virgins during their thirty years of service.  If one of them didn’t, the punishment was for her to be buried alive.  And Elagabalus took one of them, a woman named Aquilia Severa as his wife not once, but twice!

In the four years he was emperor Elagabalus took at least three different women as his wife.  These marriages were likely arranged by his grandmother and mother (“the Julias”) in order to help preserve the fiction that “Imperator Marcus Aurelius Antoninus” was a solid, dependable Roman citizen and emperor, rather than the capricious Syrian drag-queen high-priest of a bloody-thirsty sun-worshipping cult.  It was hoped that keeping up this appearance would help cement support for his reign.  In fact, these two formidable women proved themselves to be particularly shrewd and capable administrators.  Put simply, things ran so smoothly in Rome and throughout the empire that for a while people didn’t seem to mind how much of a “free spirit” their emperor appeared to be.

And a “free spirit” he definitely was.  Although Romans had tolerated the tendency among some of their previous emperors to take male lovers, homosexuality in ancient Rome was by and large frowned upon.  Elagabalus flouted this attitude by taking as his “husband” a big, burly slave from Caria; a charioteer of some skill named Hierocles.  One of his favorite roles to play was that of the “cheating wife,” allowing himself to be “caught” in bed with another man by Hierocles, who then beat the emperor (who apparently enjoyed “rough trade”), at times so badly that ‘he had black eyes’ for days afterward.

Probably transsexual, Elagabalus seemed obsessed with becoming more like a woman, not with just taking men to bed. The Historia Augusta reports that the emperor “had the whole of his body depilated,” and according to the disapproving contemporary historian and senator Dio Cassius, Elagabalus “had planned, indeed, to cut off his genitals altogether,” but settled for having himself circumcised as “a part of the priestly requirements” of his cult.

By the time Elagabalus turned seventeen his continual nose-thumbing at Rome’s religious, social and sexual norms began to take a toll on his public image.  In 221 two different legions mutinied and just barely missed proclaiming their respective generals “augustus” (“emperor”) in his stead.

The formidable Julia Maesa
This unrest did not escape the attention of Elagabalus’ grandmother, the Augusta Julia Maesa.  Her hold on the levers of power depended on her grandson staying in the good graces of both the people and army, and his increasingly erratic behavior and eroding popularity with his subjects made the dowager empress very nervous.

She opted to advance Bassianus Alexianus, another of her grandsons, as Elagabalus’ co-ruler and “heir” (he was only four years younger than Elagabalus) with the ruling name “Severus Alexander.”  He too had a strong-willed mother named “Julia” (Julia Mamea), who “guided his actions.”

At first Elagabalus and his mother went along with the move.  Within weeks, however, the senior emperor had changed his mind and tried to have his younger cousin killed.  A power struggled ensued.  The modest, retiring Alexander was popular with the people, and especially with the army.
Don't make demands while standing in their camp!

It all finally came to a head in March of 222, when Elagabalus flew into a rage during a meeting with the commanders of his personal bodyguard (the Praetorian Guard, which also acted as the city of Rome’s police force).  Having been reminded again and again of the “virtues” of his younger cousin, Elagabalus once more called for Alexander’s arrest and execution, bitterly denouncing the Praetorians for preferring his cousin to himself.

It was not a smart thing to do this while still standing in the middle of their camp.

The emperor, only just eighteen years old, was chased down by his own bodyguard and killed in one of the camp latrines.  Supposedly his last words were, “Leave my mother alone!”  If those actually were his final wishes, they were ignored.  His mother was killed right alongside him.  Their bodies were beheaded, and dragged through the streets of Rome.  The corpse of Elagabalus wound up in the Tiber River: the sort of burial that contemporary Roman law reserved for criminals.

Later historians (especially Christians) whipped up improbable tales of human sacrifice conducted by this teenaged demagogue, and speculated wildly about the various depravities in which he might have indulged.  This speculation included the unlikely story of how “Heliogabalus” (sic) invited several very important people to a dinner party only to have them smothered to death under the weight of several hundred pounds of flowers.  This painting trades upon that myth.




The truth as we can divine it about Elagabalus is far more interesting.  After all, what gender-confused, hormonally addled teenager wouldn’t go off the rails if handed the literal “keys to the kingdom”?  It sure makes for one fascinating bastard.

A modern artist's (rather tame) vision of Elagabalus' entry into Rome, complete with dancing girls and his big stone god
See you in two weeks!

18 September 2019

All the World's a Con, Dublin Style


by Robert Lopresti

Two weeks ago I wrote about my recent trip to Ireland.  We finished up at the World Science Fiction Convention in Dublin.  Imagine 5,000 plus dedicated fans spending five days discussing books, movies, writing, science, and related issues.  Bouchercon on steroids.  So here are some highlights, and a few, uh, sidelights.

As it happened the first panel I attended was "A Portable Sort of Magic: Why We Love Books About Books."  Oddly enough, it turned out to NOT be about books.  It was mostly psalms in favor of libraries; not that I complained about that.  Genevieve Cogman writes a series of books called the Invisible Library, which (as I understood it) features people collecting books from around the universe.  A.J. Hackwith has written The Library of the Unwritten, about the place that books go if their authors never get around to writing them.  Tasha Suri, who is also a librarian, made useful distinctions between a library and an archive (briefly: an archive stores the only or original copy of something).

She also pointed out that those beloved "little libraries" that pop up on so many street corners are not libraries either.  They are book swaps.  Not that there is anything wrong with that, of course.  And I learned that almost every bus in Hamburg, Germany, has a book swap shelf.  What a great idea!

For some reason I wound up seeing a lot of panels featuring editors, and they were full of startling moments.  For example, one important book editor was not familiar with the phrase "Kill your darlings," which astonished me.

At one panel someone mentioned elevator pitches and editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden quoted what seemed to be a standard joke pitch for (I assume) a TV series:  "He's a chimp.  She's the Pope.  They're cops."  I'd watch that!

There was a panel of anthology editors and I asked: when they solicit stories from authors, what do they tell them about payment?  The editors seemed astonished.  "Nothing!" they declared.  Apparently science fiction authors are much less tied to petty materialistic things than mystery writers...

But the highlight for me was when I attended a panel featuring Wataru Ishigame, who edits science fiction for Tokyo Sogen.  Afterwards I went up to introduce myself and explain our connection but I never got the chance.  As soon as he saw my name tag he said "We publish your books!"  So we had a lovely chat.

I attended interesting science panels on "The Future of Food" and on DNA testing.  I won't attempt to summarize that stuff.

But honestly I didn't attend as many panels as I hoped because the Convention Centre Dublin was overwhelmed.  If you wanted to attend a session at noon you had to forgo any 11 AM session and get in line by 11:30.  It was that kind of crowding.  And the security staff was pretty unbearable, especially on the first day.  (The week before had been Comicon and I wonder if they were, in effect, fighting the last war?)

My favorite example of the problem.  My wife had been waiting in line for half an hour when a security guard came up and told her she was facing the wrong way.  Not that she was in the wrong place.  Not that she was in the wrong line.  But that she had to turn around and face the same direction as everyone else.  Daring rebel that she is, my wife said "No," and the guard backed down.  But, sheesh.

One more story.  I volunteered to work at the Registration Desk on Wednesday and Thursday morning.  During my four hour shift on Thursday my daypack vanished.  I didn't think any member of the public would have been able to steal it so I figured one of the other registration mavens had relocated it.  But no one could find it.

The good news is, it turned up on Saturday, literally minutes before I was going to leave to try to purchase a replacement.  I am very grateful to everyone who hunted for it and made an effort to get it back to me.

But, as they say in management school, it is possible to distinguish between process and product.  While the product was great (got my daypack!) the process had a few bumpy patches.  To illustrate, let me imagine a discussion that must have occurred.  I will try to refrain from sarcasm.

"Hey! Here is the daypack that charming and devilishly handsome volunteer was looking for.  I will take it across the foyer to the Lost and Found desk."  
"No, don't do that."
"Ah, I understand.  Because it is the end of the day you think I should take it directly three flights up to the Ops Office where lost objects are locked safely away for the night."
"No, don't do that either.  I happen to know that that volunteer's wife was working in the Finance Office, so take it up there."
"Are you sure she will volunteer there again?"
"No, but it stands to reason if she did one shift she will do another, doesn't it?"
"I suppose so.  Very well.  I will carry the daypack up the five flights and leave a note for her so she  knows it's there."
"Don't be silly!  No need to waste trees with paper notes. Just tell whoever is in the Finance Office about it and if/when she returns I'm sure one of the people you mention it to will happen to be there at the same time, will recognize her, remember what you mentioned, and be able to find the pack in the office, which, of course, is not set up to store missing items."
"Yes, that makes perfect sense.  But first I will stroll over to the Lost and Found Desk and tell them so they can stop looking for the pack and delete it from their database of missing objects."
"Again, why this obsession with direct communication?  I'm sure if we simply float happy thoughts in their direction they will grasp that the object has been found and make the corrections to their files."
"Thanks.  Now I understand.  I will  carry the daypack up five flights on the overcrowded escalators the nice security guards asked us not to overuse, rather than simply walking across the foyer to the Lost and Found Desk where any sensible person would expect a missing object to be returned."

Possibly a smidge of sarcasm slipped in there.  I hope you didn't notice.

To be fair, a Worldcon attendee whose opinion I greatly respect told me she would have also decided to bring the bag up to the Finance Office.  I replied: would you have told the Lost and Found folks that it had been recovered?  No, she said, but it would have been a good idea.

I think so too.

Those of you have seen my reports on other events can guess that I am about to include some quotes from panels.  There aren't so many this time because of the issues described above, but here you go...

"We can't put stuff back in Pandora's box but we can slip a warning label on the side." - Aimee Ogden

"A library is essentially a place of possibility." - A.J. Hackwith

"He's the sort of person you have to go into business with or you have to have him killed." - Patrick Nielsen Hayden

"When I originally wrote that novel I had a main character who I fired.  We had a labor dispute." - Benjamin Rosenbaum

"If your voice goes up at the end that doesn't necessarily make it a question." - Ginjer Buchanan

"I love that book.  It should not work.  It annoys me that he's that brilliant." - Laura Anne Gilman

"I am a science fiction writer and that is why I'm not having my DNA tested." -Aimee Ogden

"You have to blame something and it can't be me." - John R. Douglas

17 September 2019

Pithy and Thought-Provoking...or Not

by Michael Bracken

I’ve been so busy the past month that I’ve not had time to draft something pithy and thought-provoking. In August, I traveled to Colorado to attend the debut of a play written and directed by my youngest son. Then Temple and I traveled to Indiana to visit my daughter—whom I’ve not seen in eight years—and her family, which includes grandchildren we met for the first time. Before, between, and after the trips, I’ve been reading through submissions to a special issue of Black Cat Mystery Magazine and working on Season 2 of Guns + Tacos (due out in 2020) and Mickey Finn 2 (due out in 2021).

So, I dove into the files and found the following, a presentation I gave to the Mystery Writers of America’s Southwest Chapter at their September 2018 luncheon in Houston.


SHORT STORIES: FROM CONCEPT TO SALE, HOW THIS FORM CAN SATISFY

I write short stories. A lot of them.

In a publishing environment where many writers bemoan the lack of markets for short fiction, I’ve placed more than 1,200 short stories. That’s 4.2 million words, give or take, or the equivalent of 70 short novels.

When I began writing as a teenager in the 1970s, short story publication was considered the first step to becoming a genre novelist. Writers learned their craft by publishing short fiction in the popular magazines of the day before grappling with the complexity and length of novels. They established writing credentials, providing heft to their query and cover letters, and developed a readership before their first novel ever hit the wire racks at the grocery store.

That doesn’t seem to happen much today, and many writers, perhaps encouraged by the ease of publication offered by low-cost self-publishing, leap directly into novel writing without first establishing their writing skills and publishing credentials. Among those who succeed as novelists, some write short stories as an afterthought and some established novelists write short fiction only at the invitation of anthology editors. Whether they succeed or fail as novelists, few writers make a sincere effort to write short stories and fewer still earn a significant portion of their income from short fiction.

That’s a mistake.

Writing short fiction has several advantages over writing novels. A writer who devotes time and attention to short fiction can explore different genres, can experiment with different styles, and can develop a familiarity with several genres faster than most novelists. Additionally, short story writers quickly discover which genres play to their strengths and can avoid, or at least mitigate, the career damage caused by spending too much time dabbling in inappropriate genres.

As high school students, my best friend and I were determined to become the next Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. For several years I kept science fiction short stories circulating among all the professional and semi-professional science fiction magazines, but I achieved only modest success. On the other hand, after encouragement from the editor of a men’s magazine, I sold the first three mystery short stories I wrote. I have since sold short fiction in nearly every genre—with particular success in crime fiction and women’s fiction—and I continue to try new things.

Markets for short fiction no longer assault you at every magazine rack the way they did during the heyday of the pulp magazines or even during the 1970s when I began my career. Back then I could easily locate several dozen magazines devoted to short fiction—mystery, science fiction, and women’s fiction the most prevalent.

While some genre magazines remain—Alfred Hitchcock’s and Ellery Queen’s among them—and new genre magazines come and go, the best markets for short stories may be publications not known for publishing fiction. The weekly publication Woman’s World, for example, publishes 104 short stories each year, one romance and one mystery each issue.

Finding markets for short fiction, therefore, becomes a literary treasure hunt, one that only the truly dedicated attempt. I regularly stand at magazine racks and thumb through magazines I don’t normally read, looking for evidence of short fiction. I also search for on-line publications and print publications that maintain an on-line presence, looking for publications I can’t find at local newsstands. Sometimes what I find is clearly identified as fiction; sometimes it isn’t. For example, the short stories I used to write for True Story were presented as if they are, in fact, true.

Literary and small press publications—both on-line and in print—also publish fiction. Unfortunately, they often pay little or nothing. Prior to submitting to small press publications, I examine them carefully to determine if the stories they publish are well written and presented in a professional manner, if the contributors include writers well-known in their genre, and if any stories they have published have later been nominated for awards or been included in best-of-year anthologies.

General interest magazines are increasingly hard to find as publishers target narrower and narrower demographics. So, one of the most important things to remember in today’s publishing environment is the need to write to market.

While many writers prefer to write first and seek appropriate publications later, I’ve found it beneficial to target my markets before I begin writing. Targeting markets is a two-step process that involves understanding the conventions of the genre or sub-genre in which I write and then understanding the publications for which I wish to write.

Many of today’s publications seek to address a particular audience. A close examination of any magazine will reveal a great deal of information about the publication’s readers or, at least, the readers the publication is attempting to reach. Often the fiction contained within these publications presents characters the readers see as “just like me” or an idealized “just like me,” so the more I know about the readers, the better I am able to develop appropriate characters and plots when I write for these publications.

On a more practical level, I determine how many short stories the magazine publishes each issue, the length of the stories, what genre or genres are represented, and any stylistic requirements the magazine may have. Once I’ve done all that, it’s time to write.

The keys to successfully placing short stories—presuming basic literacy and some minimum level of talent—are high productivity and dogged determination. Beginning August 2003 and ending May 2018 I had one or more—sometimes as many as nine!—stories published each and every month. That’s 178 consecutive months. And beginning in July I’m three months into a new streak. That doesn’t happen without producing a lot of material.

While I don’t write fiction every day and don’t set daily page count or word count goals the way other writers do, I do set goals. I determine how many sales I’d like to achieve in a given year, and then I determine how many short stories I must complete to reach that goal. When I first began pounding the keyboard as a teenager, my goal was to sell one story. To anybody. After I achieved that, my goal was to sell a second story. Back then I completed dozens of short stories for each one that finally reached publication. My odds have improved since then and I now complete approximately eleven stories for every ten that sell.

I also keep manuscripts circulating on the firm belief that my work will be published eventually. These days some of my stories are written on assignment and many others are accepted by the first or second editor to read them—in part because I’m a more experienced writer and in part because I have a better understanding of the markets—but a few of my published stories were seen by dozens of editors before acceptance and one story—“I Can’t Touch the Clouds for You” (Sun, July 25, 2005)—spent thirty years visiting slush piles before reaching print.

Writing short fiction has allowed me to entertain many readers, to work with editors across multiple genres, and to generate steady income from writing while developing my craft.

And, if I ever decide to write another novel, I’m going to have one hell of a cover letter.

My story “Love, Or Something Like It” appears in the forthcoming Crime Travel (Wildside Press), an anthology of time travel mysteries, edited by fellow SleuthSayer Barb Goffman. Learn more and preorder here.

16 September 2019

The Play's the Thing

by Steve Liskow

Not long ago, I saw an audition call for a production of a play I performed in years ago, a mystery called Wait Until Dark. It's a rarity, a good mystery play that began as a play instead of being adapted from either a book or a film. There are several good mysteries on film, but most of them began as films or novels. My wife Barbara, who still acts in five or six plays a year and impersonates an 1890s British maid at the Mark Twain House, and I spent the rest of the evening trying to think of other good mystery plays that aren't adaptations.

It's a short list, and I don't like several of them for crochety reasons of my own. Obviously, many of Shakespeare's plays involve crime or mysteries: Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Lear, Caesar. I won't include them. Aeschylus gave us The Oresteia 2500 years ago, only a few years before Sophocles graced us with Oedipus The King, maybe the earliest detective story. I won't include those, either.

All those plays involve stage conventions we now consider "unrealistic" or "old-fashioned." The mystery form has conventions itself, and some of them are artificial, too. Red herrings, delaying a discovery, the impossible crime, and multiple suspects are pretty much standard procedure. Maybe that's why a script that leans heavily on staginess is effective for many of the plays I include below.

Investigating a mystery often involves moving from place to place, so a challenge in a mystery play is limiting scene/set changes that slow down the action. There are two ways to do this, one a staple of Shakespeare and the Greeks. That's the lack of a stage set at all. The audience has to imagine a different place for the action, often given the cue through dialogue ("What woods are these?"). The other is to construct a play that happens in one location. That's tough.

Barb and I have been involved in productions of most of these plays, which colors my judgment.

Book of Days by Lanford Wilson. Wilson passed away in 2011 after producing a body of work that equals Miller or Williams. He wrote roles for William Hurt, Christopher Reeve, Richard Thomas, Joan Allen, John Malkovich, and Judd Hirsch, among others. I directed this play about ten years ago, and Barb acted in it. In fact, I lost an actor less than a week before opening and had to step into his role myself. 


 If Raymond Chandler had written Our Town, the result might have been Book of Days. On a bare stage, 12 characters interact with each other and the audience to discuss how Walt, one of the small town's leading citizens, dies in a freak hunting accident. Apparently, a tree fell on him during a tornado and his shotgun went off. But there are inconsistencies, and by the play's end, the audience understands who killed Walt, how and why it was done, and that the killer will get away with it.
Book of Days, my wife at lower right, me 4th from right
The play uses a bare stage but has over 90 scenes in 17 locations. We used light changes and a few basic props to keep the story going, just like the Greeks and Shakespeare.

Agnes of God by John Pielmeier uses the same black box strategy and for the same reasons. The artificiality is effective because we don't KNOW exactly what happened even though we understand the broad outlines. On a set consisting of two chairs and a standing ashtray, a female psychiatrist tells of being called in to evaluate the competence of a young nun. Agnes is accused of killing a newborn baby she claims she bore after an immaculate conception. If she is ruled rational, she faces a trial for murder. Otherwise, she will go to an insane asylum. The only other character is the Mother Superior who accuses the psychiatrist of bias against the Catholic Church. Barbara was learning the lines for Agnes as we went on our honeymoon.

I've seen two other productions, and all three had problems. It's hard to strike a balance between the characters and the story, but some scenes--a hypnotized Agnes reliving the agony of giving birth, for example--will keep you awake at night. She's clearly crazy, but does that automatically mean she's lying?

The less said about the film starring Jane Fonda, the better. Why anyone thought that stripping the play of its theatricality and trying to present literal reality on film is a bigger mystery than the play itself.

Equus by Peter Schaeffer also uses several locations with only the barest of furniture, and for the same reasons. Schaeffer passed away in 2016 at age 90 after writing many other acclaimed works, including Amadeus, which is also sort of a mystery.

The play gives us another psychiatrist treating a young patient, this time a teen-aged boy accused of blinding several horses in the stable where he worked. My wife played the boy's mother and a mutual friend played the psychiatrist (Shrinks are big in mystery drama: at least one of the plays I left off this list also has one). Actors wearing elaborate wire-frame heads play the horses. The nightmare moment of the play comes on a completely dark stage when all the horses' eyes light up, little red pilot lights across the back of the stage...and advance to surround the boy. Unlike Agnes, this play answers all our questions. Lucky us.
Equus cast & crew. Horse's head at bottom

Wait Until Dark by Frederick Knott appeared on Broadway in 1966, and Lee Remick earned a Tony nomination as the blind woman who knows killers will break into her apartment that night. She smashes all the light bulbs in the apartment so she can fight them on equal terms. Robert Duvall played the ringleader in that production, and I wish I had seen the moment when he shows Susie the one light she forgot to smash: the bulb in the refrigerator (In theater parlance, we refer to this as the "Oh &$%# Moment").

The film version, a year or two later, drags badly. It allows us to see outside, too, which removes the claustrophobic feel of being trapped in the apartment. Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna and Jack Weston are excellent as the bad guys, but Audrey Hepburn's weepy and whiny blind girl is annoying. She's all wrong for the role. I played the Crenna role years ago, and now Jeffrey Hatcher has reworked the play and set it in the 1940s. The play has to be done in an older time period because a photographic dark room is vital, but I don't understand why someone felt it needed to be rewritten.

Death Trap by Ira Levin. Levin, who wrote many other works, including the novel that became the film Rosemary's Baby, saw this 1978 drama become the longest-running comedy-drama on Broadway. It was nominated for several Tony Awards, including Best Play. Another very stagy work, it involves two playwrights, a newcomer and a seasoned pro, who work together on a project that won't make it to the stage. The play-within-a-play structure works, and the script abounds with dark humor and theater in-jokes, including using a crossbow as a weapon. Done well, it's wonderful. Don badly, it's...well, deadly. I saw a local production with the same friend who played the psychiatrist in Equus as one lead and a former student as the other. The excellent film starred Michael Caine, Christopher Reeve, and Dyan Cannon. Hard to go wrong there.

That's it. If the plays don't work, the fault, dear Brutus is not in our star actors, but in ourselves.


15 September 2019

Jan Grape's Found Dead in Texas:
Whatever Has To Be Done, part 2

by Jan Grape
Jan Grape
Yesterday, we brought you a treat, an anthologized story set in Texas. That was Part 1; today we give you Part 2.

Crime family Jan Grape and her husband Elmer have enjoyed a long, varied, and storied career in the mystery business. Besides writing, besides winning awards, besides running a bookstore, besides getting away with murder, Jan knows everybody in the business… everybody.

This tale from Jan’s collection, Found Dead in Texas II, originally appeared in Deadly Allies II (Doubleday 1994). Pour a cup of coffee and enjoy this, the second part.

— Velma

Whatever Has To Be Done
Part 2

by Jan Grape

continued…

Just before 5:00 p.m., Elwanda Watson called and changed our meeting to her home. I stacked the paperwork on my desk, told C.J. I’d see her tomorrow, not that she heard me - she was still wrestling with the computer. Just before the door closed, however, she called out “Sunday brunch at my house, okay?”

Saturday afternoon traffic around the LaGrange Building was thicker than bees around molasses, maddening, but normal. The building is located two and a half blocks from the Galleria. Even in the early fifties, this whole area was still part of a dairy farm. Now, a six-block square area of high dollar shopping malls, department and specialty stores, hotels and high rise office buildings, including developer Gerald Hines’ sixty-five story, Transco Tower, filled the land where Crimson Clover used to grow and cows got fat. From the air, the whole area was filled with concrete, steel and bronzed glass and, looked like a city skyline, but it’s six miles from downtown Houston in suburbia-land. The lack of zoning laws here makes for some unusual building developments.

Elwanda Watson lived in a story and a half house made of white brick and wood and cedar shakes, four miles West of my office. An older neighborhood built in the late fifties before contractors and architects took a notion to make suburban houses all look alike. These were in a wide range of individual styles and colors. A huge Magnolia tree stood sentinel in front and a pink bicycle lay on it’s side in the St. Augustine grass. Four baskets of white and burgundy Impatiens hung from the eaves.

The woman who answered the door was short, overweight, with ponderous breasts and hips almost scraping the doorway. She had short, dark hair streaked heavily with gray and a startled expression which seemed to be a permanent look. She wore a dingy, white sweat suit, no make-up and said she was Elwanda Watson. It would be difficult to believe Liz Loudermilk came from this woman’s womb, if it had not been for the eyes. That unique shade of blue, tingeing to violet. Either Elwanda had lost her beauty long ago, or Liz got her looks from her father.

She led me to a large kitchen/den area, both paneled in knotty pine, and there were children’s play noises coming from the back yard. She indicated I should sit in the chair across from the sofa and brought tall glasses of iced tea before settling on the Early American style sofa.

I glanced around, the room had the look of having been hastily picked up. A large entertainment cabinet stood against one wall. Wires and plugs stuck out and dangled from the front and one side, indicating sound and electronics had once been installed and then removed. A small TV set was alone on a shelf. Newspapers, magazines, books, and games; Monopoly, Scrabble, Uncle Wiggly, Yahtzee, Pa-chiz-si, dominoes and cards, were piled on and in the cabinet. The drape hung loose from the rod on one side and drug on the floor. It was an “I don’t care look,” much like the woman herself. Two failed marriages had taken their toll. “Ms. Gordon, what . . .” she said.

Smiling at her, I said, “Call me Jenny, please.”

“And I’m Elwanda. Well, Jenny, what is it you wish to know? This whole horrible thing is too, too weird. Poor old J.W. dead. And Voda Beth accused of killing him. Unbelievable, I tell you. It just boggles my mind.”

“It’s hard to believe Voda Beth killed J.W.?”

“I’d just never figure her to do something so awful. She seems like such a nice person. Gracious and polite to me and she’s been really kind and generous to my Liz.”

“Really? Liz doesn’t share your feelings.”

“Oh that Liz. She can act like as spoiled brat. The things I could tell you would take half the night. But you don’t have time for that. She mouths off about Voda Beth something terrible sometimes, but deep down, I know she likes her step-mom.”

“That wasn’t the impression I got this morning.”

“Oh, I know,” said Elwanda. “Liz told me how tacky she was this morning and asked me to apologize for the things she said.”

“She doesn’t owe me an apology.”

“Well, she did mislead you. Made it seem like Voda Beth was a wicked person when she’s not.” She rubbed both eyes like a person just waking up. “My daughter is beautiful and brilliant, but she can also act like a two year old when she doesn’t get her way. Sooner or later you have to give in. Of course, she’s always sorry afterward and will make up for it a hundred ways.”

Despite Elwanda’s trying to make Liz sound like nothing more than a rebellious and rambunctious child, I had seen the rage Liz had for Voda Beth. It wasn’t just a temper tantrum. I’d hate to see that rage turned on anyone. Elwanda was maternally blind to her child’s faults. She didn’t want to think otherwise, and I thought it best to get off that subject.

“Voda Beth claimed J.W. was beating her when she killed him. Was he ever abusive to you?”

“Oh, my. No. I was married to the man for ten years and he never raised a hand to me.” She looked directly at me and her wide-eyed look of astonishment was more pronounced. “And I don’t see him abusing Voda Beth, either. He worshiped her. He was always a kind and wonderful husband. And father. Always.”

If that was true, I wondered, then why did she divorce this boy scout? I had to ask. “Why did you. . .”

“Divorce him? He left me. For another woman. Not Voda Beth, it was over long before he met her. There were lots of other women. Some men are born womanizers and J.W. was one. That is, until Voda Beth caught him. I don’t think he ever strayed from her.” Tears welled up in those big violet eyes and, this overweight, throw-away wife’s voice held a wistful note.

“What about his low boiling point?”

It took her a moment to speak, “He could get angry, real easy-like when he was young, but he’d mellowed out. Even so, his anger never, ever, led to violence.”

“Did Voda Beth ever go out on him?”

“I don’t think so. He probably would’ve told me if she had.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“It’s sounds funny I guess, but after he married her, he and I got real friendly-like. I mean, like close friends. He apologized for hurting me in the past. He was so good when my marriage with Don Watson broke up. Offered me money because he knew I was having a hard time with four little kids.”

At their mention, the children’s voices outside reached a crescendo and she walked to the patio door to check. Evidently, it was nothing which needed her presence. Mother-like, however, she stuck her head out and told them to stop whatever they were doing and find something else to do. She came back to the sofa and sat. “I think, it was because he was finally happy. He said once, Voda Beth had taught him the right way to treat a woman and he’d learned his lesson.”

Obviously, Elwanda still had deep feelings for J.W. Loudermilk and she wasn’t going to say anything against him. Unfortunately, what she said was detrimental to my client. If J.W. didn’t have a history of abusing women, it looked like Voda Beth had lied. I stood, “I appreciate your talking to me.”

“Sorry, I wasn’t more help.” We headed to the front door and she said, “Oh, I just thought of something. It’s possible they had some fights over Liz. That was one thing he could get angry enough to come to blows over. Although, I still don’t see it.”

“Why not?”

“Liz would have told me about it.”

After the way the girl had talked about her mother, I was not sure she’d confide in Elwanda, but what do I know about daughters? Especially teen-age ones.

“Liz was very angry with her father the past few years - for breaking up our marriage, for marrying Voda Beth. For what she saw as him neglecting her. She would gripe and complain how he didn’t pay any attention to her, how he was always fawning over Voda Beth. Now that I think on it, she must have been jealous of her father.”

That could explain the rage I saw in the girl. “I guess that’s normal in young girls who want their father all to themselves.”

“She could get all worked about it. Throw fits and scream at him. That’s one reason, he made her move out of the house.”

“He made his own daughter leave?”

“About three months ago. She was working and making good money, but she would stay out all hours and do things to aggravate him - like smoking pot in the house. Anyway, he got fed up and although, Voda Beth tried to stop him, he made Liz get a place of her own. She was really bent all out of shape over that for awhile.”

“I guess it’s hard to be a parent, these days.” I thanked her again and left.

I headed back to my apartment, grateful the traffic had slacked off, it gave me time to wonder about my client. Whatever had happened that night in the Loudermilk’s home was still muddled, but it looked as if my client had lied through her teeth.

I ate a light dinner, grilled chicken and a big salad and spent the rest of the evening reading a P.I. novel.

I went to bed and just before drifting off to sleep, I decided tomorrow I’d call Lieutenant Larry Hays of Houston’s homicide department. Maybe the police and autopsy reports would give me some fresh insights.



I called Larry Hays on his car phone and caught him as he was driving away from headquarters to go have breakfast. “No rest for the wicked, huh?”

“Not on Sunday,” he said. “Meet me at Kay’s in twenty minutes.”

Kay’s was a favorite hang-out of law enforcement personnel. The restaurant’s owner, Bert DeLeon, had a thing about listening to the cop’s war stories. He really got into that stuff. He’d been especially fond of my late husband, and when Tommy introduced me to him, I figured if Bert had not approved, Tommy would not have proposed. Kay’s served family style food and gave better service than the high priced restaurants.

Lieutenant Hays sat at the back booth on the west side and a mug of coffee was waiting for me. “Are you eating?” he asked.

“Just an English muffin and half a grapefruit.”

“Watching your weight again?”

“Always. I weighed 125 this morning.”

“That’s about your normal isn’t it?”

“Yes, but you know how I love chicken-fried steak and Mexican food and the only way I can indulge, is to keep this five feet six inch woman on that 125.”

“Poor baby.”

Larry is six, three and weighs about 185 and never has to watch his weight because he has a great metabolism. It was frustrating and I tried not to think about it. “Just shut up and eat your cholesterol filled eggs and pancakes and bacon.”

“I intend to.”

Larry had been my husband’s partner and friend from the day they were rookies, until politics had caused Tommy to resign and become a private detective. Larry took on a self-appointed task of watching out for me after my husband was killed and sometimes, it was stifling. We’d had several arguments about it, but recently, he had weakened. Mostly because I’d learned from C.J. how to handle myself. He was a damn good cop and I respected his opinions. It was easier when he respected mine.

After we’d eaten, he answered my questions about the Loudermilk case. “The medical examiner has some doubts about your client’s story.”

“What?”

“The angle of the shot for one thing. Mrs. Loudermilk says she was crouched on the bed when she shot him, that doesn’t wash. The M.E. says the shooter was standing. If she were as close to him as she says there would have been powder burns on his body. The M.E. says the shooter had to be standing, at least, twelve to fourteen feet away.”

“Wow. Bulldog’s not going to like that.”

Larry ran a big hand through his sandy hair, “Probably a good thing, I don’t think he can prove she was abused.”

“Why not?”

“I talked to our police psychologist and, although, he didn’t talk to her, he says she doesn’t display the attitude of a battered woman. Immediately after a battering, most woman usually act meek and acquiescent. She came in there full of self-confidence. Almost daring us to believe her.” Larry signaled the waitress to bring him more coffee. “She’s got all the buzz words and phrases down pat. Like how he got boozed up and how he used his open hand on her face and his fists on her breasts and abdomen.”

“Yeah, she gave me those classic statements, too, the ones I’ve read about; like how he’d say he was sorry and how she deserved it.”

His hazel eyes narrowed, “At one point Thursday night, the sex crimes unit took her over to get a medical exam. No evidence of sexual intercourse. They noticed a couple of bruises on her torso, but thought they could have been self-inflicted. She gave us a pretty good story, but she hasn’t given us the truth, yet.”

“Could she be covering for someone. Like maybe the daughter?”

“Possibly, but the captain and the D.A. want to go ahead with the indictment, anyway. The physical evidence and her confession wraps everything up in a nice neat package with a big bow. I just never have liked neat packages.”

“The daughter is seething with rage against the step-mother.”

“Rage isn’t evidence. Lots of daughters hate their step-parents. You don’t have to worry. Bulldog will plead Voda Beth on diminished capacity and get her off or he’ll plea bargain.” He absently stirred the coffee and then realized he hadn’t added the sugar yet. “I do have a funny feeling there’s something else.”

“I guess I’d better talk to Bulldog. He’s not going to be too happy with this.”

“Likely not.” He grabbed the check and stood, “I hate to eat and run,” he said, “but I’ve got to go interrogate witnesses in a drive-by shooting last night.”

“Have fun.”

“Oh, yeah.” He said harshly, his mind already to the task that lay ahead.

I headed for the office and, for once, the traffic wasn’t a problem. Sunday morning is one of the rare good times to drive in this congested Bayou city.

I had talked with C.J. before leaving home and canceled our brunch date, she said she’d go to the office and see what she could turn up on the computer. She wanted to run credit records on all three women, Voda Beth and Liz Loudermilk and Elwanda Watson; and throw in J.W. Loudermilk, too.

She’d made coffee. I poured a cup and sat down next to her desk. She had not found anything unusual on the women’s credit records, and the daughter hadn’t established any credit yet. We discussed my interview with Elwanda and told her what Larry had said. “I’d better call Bulldog. I don’t have one solitary thing to help him. He’ll probably want to fire us.”

“Okay,” she said, “but I’ve got a couple more checks to make while you’re getting us fired.”

I walked back to my desk and called Bulldog Porter’s office. His answering service said he’d call me back within the hour or if he didn’t, for me to call again.

Twenty minutes later, C.J. came in my office and a gleam was in her dark eyes. “I got it.”

“What?” I asked, not remembering what she’d been trying to do. I was still waiting on Bulldog to return my call and was trying to get my reports ready for him and figure out how much I could deduct from the $5,000 he had given me.

“Remember Liz Loudermilk told you about a big insurance policy?” I nodded. “She was right. You’re going to love this.”

“Uh-oh. Don’t tell me you’ve found another motive for Voda Beth.”

“Our client isn’t the only one with a motive. Little Miss Liz could inherit it all. All by herself.”

“Oh, yeah? How?

“If Voda Beth dies first or is disqualified; it all goes to the loving daughter.”

“All…ll rii…ii…ght. And I guess if ole Voda Beth goes to prison for killing her husband, she’ll be disqualified?”

“You got that right, Ms. Gordon, and to help put Liz to the top of the suspect list; you won’t believe this, she put money down yesterday on a brand new, fiery red Miata.

“You have got to be kidding.”

“If I’m lying, I’m dying. But just don’t forget one important thing - step-mommy’s told you and the police a big lie.”

“That’s okay. Old Bulldog will say she made that statement under duress,” I said. “This is just what he needed. It gives him some ammunition for his reasonable doubt.”

“Wonder what the lovely Liz was doing that night?”

I called Lieutenant Hays, knowing he’d need to know what we’d found. Luckily, he was near his car phone and I filled him in on Liz. He wasn’t too happy. The case was closed as far as he was concerned, but after he grumbled, said he’d talk with the daughter tomorrow, to see if she had an alibi for the night in question.

“C.J., I think Liz did it and our client confessed, all under some misguided idea to protect Liz. Bulldog can take this and run with it.”

“When do I get to meet this mouthpiece anyway?”

“Anytime you say. You’ll like him, he’s positively charming.”

“Unh-unh. No way I’m gonna like a shyster who useta work fo’ de mob. Those guys ain’t nobody for this li’l black girl to mess wid’.” As usual, her slipping into southern black, street talk cracked me up. Coming from such a smart and beautiful woman it was funny.

As I laughed, she said, “By the way, while running those credit card histories I did find a few interesting tidbits on old J.W. himself.”

“How can someone who sounds like you be so smart? You can check credit card records?”

“If you know the right buttons to push and Intertect does.” She handed me the print out of J.W. Loudermilk’s Visa and American Express statements for the past year.

I flipped through them. “Holy shit, this is scary. You don’t expect any old Jane Blow to be able to run a credit card account check.”

“Oh hell,” her voice full of pride, “not just any old Jane Blow can do it. It takes a few brains and persistence. I took what I learned from my investigator pals and played around for awhile and was able to come up with a pass word for a security code.”

“My partner - the smartass computer hack.” I was scanning the account statements and something caught my attention. Loudermilk had visited three different doctors in the past month and had charged his visits to his AmEX. “Wonder what this medical stuff is all about?”

“Give that girl a gold star. That’s what I thought was so interesting.”

“I happen to know this Doctor Gaudet is a neurosurgeon. I’m not sure about the other two.”

“Think I should check them out?” she grinned.

“Holy shit. Why didn’t I think of that.”

“Because you hired me to think for you.”

“Someone has to do the important stuff,” I said. “I don’t want to talk to Voda Beth again. It makes me mad when a client lies to me, but I could go talk to Elwanda Watson again. Maybe J.W. confided some medical problem to her. It’s probably not important though.”

“Fine. But do it tomorrow. I make a motion we get out of here. Sunday’s almost over and we need a little R & R.”

“Honey,” I said, using one of her favorite expressions, “you ain’t never lied.”



Monday morning dawned with Houston shrouded in fog. Not unusual this time of year, with cooler air sweeping down across Texas and meeting the warm Gulf air, it was inevitable. It looked like the sun would burn it off around ten, and sure enough, I was right. When I left for Elwanda’s around 10:30, there were only a few pockets of misty stuff, although, the sky was still hazy.

I had not called first for an appointment, sometimes it’s better to catch people when they’re not on guard. Turns out Elwanda was not the only one to be surprised. I found my client, Voda Beth Loudermilk visiting Elwanda. Neither seemed pleased to see me, but I didn’t let that stop me. They were both dressed in gowns and robes, but it looked as if neither had slept. What was going on between these two? I wondered.

They sat on the sofa next to each other and I sat in a platform rocker which angled off to their right. After exchanging a few politenesses, I mentioned homicide was interviewing Liz this morning, setting off quite a reaction.

Voda Beth practically yelled at me. “Liz didn’t have anything to do with anything. I’m the one who shot J.W. The police already have my statement.” She burst out crying and Elwanda moved closer to put her arms around Voda Beth, making soothing sounds as if comforting a baby.

“I resent someone accusing my daughter,” Elwanda said. “Was that your idea, Ms. Gordon?”

“Not exactly. But some new information about Liz did come to my attention. Naturally, I had to tell the lieutenant in charge.”

“What information?” she asked.

“I’m not at liberty to say.”

Voda Beth was crying so hard, she began coughing and Elwanda got up to get a glass of water. As she moved to the kitchen, the telephone rang. The receiver was a few feet from her, but when she shot a quick look at Voda Beth, she turned and said, “Jenny, would you mind getting that?”

I walked into the kitchen as Elwanda hurried back to the sofa. “Watson’s residence,” I said.

“Jenny, is that you? Good. I thought you should know what I found out from Doctor James Gaudet. Seems that Loudermilk had a deep-seated, inoperable brain tumor.”

I turned by back to the two women and kept my voice low. “Neuroblastoma?”

“Some big long name,” she said, “I’m not sure if that was it, but the doctor said it was bad. Real bad. That he’d never seen a malignancy grow so fast. The man was only weeks away from blindness, paralysis and death.”

“Sound like Loudermilk’s luck… wait a minute.”

“Now. Now, you’re thinking. This may have been planned.”

“A mercy killing… maybe.”

“Bingo. Something else you should know. Larry called. Liz has a strong alibi. She and a girlfriend was baby-sitting for her younger brothers and sisters at her mom’s house.”

“Where did Elwanda go?”

“Liz says she doesn’t know, but maybe. . .”

“The Loudermilk’s,” C.J. and I said in unison. I thought for a moment, then said, “Why don’t you call Bulldog Porter. Ask him to come over here immediately. This may get interesting.” I hung up the receiver, walked to the coffee pot, and poured a cup, but it was bitter.

I could see Elwanda and Voda Beth still huddled. It looked as if both had been crying, but there were signs of recovery. I rinsed out the coffee pot. The coffee canister was empty and it took me a few minutes to locate a new can, open it and get the pot dripping. I’d just poured three cups when the front doorbell rang.

Elwanda answered it and led Bulldog back into the den. Both women were definitely not expecting him, and wanted to know what was going on, would someone please tell them?

I handed the coffee around and then stood near the glass patio door and began. “I’m presenting a hypothetical case here, Bulldog. If you ladies will, please listen.” They turned tear-streaked faces to me. Elwanda’s permanent look of astonishment was more pronounced. Voda Beth looked tired. Bone tired.

“I think there was this nice man, who had a nice wife and a nice ex-wife and a not so very nice brain tumor. He knows he doesn’t have much time before he will be totally incapacitated and a short time after that, he will die. He doesn’t want to die like that. The man also had some business losses. There’s the wife and an eighteen year old daughter to think about.” You could have heard an eye blink, they were so quiet.

“I think this very nice man decided to complete suicide. Everything is planned, but that night for some reason, maybe fear, he was unable to do this alone. He asked his wife for help. She refused. He was on somewhat friendly terms with his ex-wife and he calls her. The ex comes over. He convinces the women time is running out. That the job must be done. The discussion continues, he is adamant, he begs and cajoles and one of them is convinced to help. Maybe it was the ex. But the wife says to the ex-wife “no,” if anything goes wrong what will happen to your children? You can’t go to prison. I won’t allow it. But I can’t kill the man I love, either. Finally, one woman does it and the wife calls the police.”

I looked at each woman, was unable to read the truth. “How does that sound to you ladies? Bulldog?”

No one said anything and I saw big tears running, first down Voda Beth’s face and then, Elwanda’s. Silent tears which quietly dripped into their laps, leaving traces on the robes. Their hands were clasped tightly together.

Elwanda said, “That’s pretty much what happened. I’m the one who shot him first. Voda Beth took the gun then, and emptied it into him so if the police tested her hands there would be gun powder traces and her fingerprints would be on the gun.”

“No.” The anguish was clear and strong in Voda Beth voice. “I’m the one who fired the gun. She had nothing to do with it. I killed him and I’ll take the punishment.”

“Bulldog,” I said. “Looks like you’ve got your hands full.”

“Oh no,” he said, “this one is already won. I doubt there will even be a trial. And if there is, plea bargaining is still an option. Thank you for your help, Jenny. You can expect business from me, now and then, when I have the need of an investigator. Send me an invoice for your expenses.”

I walked out of Elwanda Watson’s house and drove to the LaGrange, parked and walked inside. When I reached our office, C.J. asked, “Which one did it? Who fired the gun?”

“I don’t think it really matters. They just did what they thought had to be done.”



Many thanks to Jan and those who made this possible. Let Jan know you enjoyed it. Perhaps she'll bring us another double feature.

14 September 2019

Jan Grape's Found Dead in Texas:
Whatever Has To Be Done, part 1

by Jan Grape
Jan Grape
Once again SleuthSayers brings you a rare treat, an anthologized story from Jan Grape's CJ and Jenny series. The first half runs today, the rest tomorrow.

Originally published in Deadly Allies II (Doubleday 1994), this story also appears in Jan’s collection, Found Dead in Texas II. Pull up a chair, pour a glass of wine, and lean back. A fine Grape ages well.

— Velma

Whatever Has To Be Done
Part 1

by Jan Grape


A fierce lightening and thunder storm jarred me awake at 5:12 a.m. Autumn storms in Houston, Texas, often give the impression the end of the world is near. The dream I’d been immersed in had been pleasant, but try as I might, I couldn’t remember it. The brilliant streaks flashed a sesquicentennial fireworks display and seeped through the top edge of the mini-blinds as Mother Nature declared a moratorium for sleepers.

It’s not in my emotional make-up to wake up early; neither alert nor cheerful. Maybe it has to do with one of my past lives or blood pressure slow down or something. Anyway, I tossed around trying to will myself back to sleep, knowing all the time it wouldn’t work. But I waited until seven to crawl out to the shower. “Damn Sam,” I said aloud, while dressing and wishing I could have my caffeine intravenously. “Lousy way to start a Friday.”

The pyrotechnics were over, but the rain continued steadily, steaming the interior of my car and making the rush hour drive to the LaGrange building hazardous and hair-raising. Determined to shake off frustration at the lack of sleep and the Gulf Coast monsoon, I paused in front of the fourth floor door and felt a sense of pride as I read the discrete sign - G. & G. Investigations. My partner, Cinnamon Jemima Gunn, and I could be proud, we’d turned a profit the last three months. No one expected it to last. Sometimes, even we had doubts.

There was a message from C.J., as she was known to all except a few close friends, on the answering machine. “Gone to Dallas for the week-end, Jenny. Work today and play tomorrow. Keep outta trouble, Girlfriend.” She had a legitimate reason to go, a dying client wanted to find a missing niece and a good lead led to “Big D”, but once the work was done, she had a friend playing football for the Cowboys who would show her a fun week-end.

Lucky sister, I thought, ready to feel sorry for myself, “but wait - there’s only a half day’s work here,” I said aloud and it’s rainy - and besides it’s Friday.” It only took two seconds to decide to finish the paperwork and to blow this joint. I put myself in high gear and was ready to leave by noon.

I had straightened up the lounge/storeroom, grabbed my purse and reset the phone machine, when the outer door opened.

“Oh. No. Don’t tell me you’re leaving?” the woman said. “Are you Jenny Gordon?”

She was slender with reddish blonde hair, not really pretty, her eyes were too close together and her mouth too thin, but there was something about her. Vulnerability? She had one of those voices that rise into a whine and grated like fingernails on glass. I hate voices like that. She dropped her dripping umbrella, one of those bubble see-through ones, onto the floor. Her raincoat, after she peeled it off to reveal a blue velour jogging suit, hit the sofa, and slid to the floor. I hate slobs, too. As if your things are not good enough. Maybe people like that just don’t care. Or maybe she was used to someone picking up after her.

“I am Jenny Gordon and I was leaving, but what may. . .?”

“Well, great. That’s the way my whole life has been the past twenty-four hours. All screwed up.” She walked over and sat on one of the customer chairs, rummaged in her purse for a cigarette and pulled out a lighter encased in a silver and turquoise case. “It’s really the shits, you know. Me needing a P.I.,” she burst out laughing in a high-pitched nervous tone.

I tried to figure out what was going on without much luck.

She stopped laughing long enough to say, “And who does he send me to? A woman, for Christ’s sake.” She laughed some more and finished with a cough, then flicked the lighter and lit the cigarette without asking if I minded. I smoke, and didn’t mind, yet it’s nice to be asked.

I’m not the happy homemaker type, but I couldn’t stand the spreading, staining puddles. The woman really was a slob, I thought, picking up her raincoat. I hung it on the coat rack, folded her umbrella and stood it in the wastebasket near the door. There was no sign she noticed what I did and no thanks either. Some people should just stay in their own pig pens and not run around spreading their muck.

I headed across the room, intending to get some paper towels from our lounge/storage room to soak up the mess. “As I started to ask a moment ago, is there something I can do, Miss. . . ?”

“Ms. Loudermilk. Voda Beth Loudermilk.”

“Ms. Loudermilk, why do you need an investigator?” I paused momentarily, in the doorway. Her answer stopped me cold.

“I killed my husband last night. Emptied his own gun into him.” The whine was gone, and the words came out in monotone as if she were describing a grocery list. “He died on me.” She smashed the cigarette into an ashtray. “Isn’t that the silliest thing you ever heard?” She laughed, but sounded close to tears.

If I was surprised because she didn’t throw the butt onto the floor, I was totally wiped out by what she said. I was so intent, I didn’t noticed someone else had opened the outer door and entered. I blurted out, “perhaps you need a lawyer, Mrs. Loudermilk, not a detective.”

“It was time he hurt some instead of me.”

A quiet voice interrupted, “Voda Beth. Shut your mouth and keep it shut.” He spoke in a quiet even tone.

The speaker was a short wiry man I recognized immediately from his many newspaper photos and television appearances. A shock of steel gray hair, brushed back to emphasize the widow’s peak, the piercing blue eyes and everyone of his seventy-eight years etched on his face. I’d never met him, of course, but I knew who he was. Hell, everyone knew who “Bulldog” King Porter was - the best criminal lawyer money could buy.

“Oh shit, Bulldog,” Voda Beth said. “You know a P.I.’s like a priest. They can’t reveal the confidences their clients tell them.”

He was dressed like a lawyer would have dressed forty or fifty years ago. Dark charcoal, pinstripe, three piece suit, white shirt with French cuffs peeking out the prerequisite amount, big gold cufflinks. The tie, a shade lighter than the suit, was not a clip-on and tied with a perfect Windsor knot. A heavy gold link watch chain had a gold Phi Beta Kappa key dangling from one end. “That only applies to p.i.’s in dime store novels.” Bulldog walked over to me and held out his hand. “Ms. Gordon, I’ve heard a lot about you. I’m Bulldog Porter.”

His hand was soft, but the grip firm. “I’m honored to meet you sir, I’ve heard a lot about you, too.” Porter had begun his practice in Galveston, during the thirties, when the island city considered itself a free state, allowing drinking, gambling and prostitution. He had even defended members of the “beach gang” who smuggled Canadian booze into the Gulf port and shipped it to places like Chicago and Detroit.

“I’ll just bet you have, Ms. Gordon.” He chuckled, “and let me tell you up front, most of it is true.”

Mrs. Loudermilk stood up. Her curly hair framing the sharp angled face which twisted in anger. “Bulldog. . .”

“Voda Beth, just sit right back down there and keep quiet for a minute.”

She glared, but did as he said.

“Now, Ms. Gordon. . .”

“Please call me Jenny, Mr. Porter.”

“Only if you call me, Bulldog.”

“Deal. Now, I’m assuming you have a special reason to be here.”

“Good. I like that. Cut the crap and right down to brass tacks.” He nodded to our storage/lounge area. “Let’s go in here and have a little chat. Voda Beth, you stay put.” The woman sent him a lethal look, but didn’t get up.

“My client in there,” he said as we sat at the kitchen-style table, “was mouthing off when I came in. Let’s chalk that up to her current emotional state. To her grief, if you will. You see, her husband was shot and killed around 8:00 p.m. last night. She was questioned for hours, eventually charged by the police and locked up in women’s detention over at 61 Reisner, just before dawn. She’s been without food or sleep for over twenty-four hours.”

“Her lack of sleep,” I said, “plus the grief and trauma she’s experienced has rendered her incapable of acting correctly or speaking coherently.”

“Exactly. I heard you were sharp.” He took out a pipe and, within seconds, had asked if I minded and got it lit. Bulldog Porter wasn’t known as the plodding, methodical type. “We have great need of an investigator and you were highly recommended by Lieutenant Hays of HPD homicide department.”

The fact Larry Hays sent Porter to me was a surprise. Larry was a good friend, but he still thought it was laughable, my being a private detective. My background is medical; an x-ray technologist. I worked ten years detecting the mystery of the human body and knew nothing about real mysteries. Luckily, C.J. had police experience and I’d been a willing pupil.

If what Bulldog said about the woman was true, she needed help. Maybe I was wrong to condemn her casual attitude about her wet things. If I’d just spent the night in jail, I sure as hell wouldn’t be worrying about neatness. Besides, the chance to do a job for Porter was worth considering. G. & G. Investigations wasn’t doing so well that we could turn down someone with his clout. “Did she kill her husband?”

He didn’t answer immediately. “Voda Beth says she has been physically, sexually and emotionally abused her whole married life. She says he was hitting on her and couldn’t take it any longer. That she pulled his own gun out from under the mattress and emptied it into him. Her father and I were old school chums and I agreed to take her case because of him. Actually, it shouldn’t be hard to prove diminished-capacity.” He leaned back, and his eyes zeroed on mine like an electron beam. “What I need from you, Jenny,” he smiled, “is to discover if her story of abuse is true.”

“Is there any physical evidence of her being beaten; like bruises or anything?”

“Not to my knowledge.”

“Has she ever reported to a doctor or to anyone that she was abused?”

“I don’t think so. But I’d like you to find out.”

“What do you know about Mr. Loudermilk?”

“Another thing for you to look into. J.W. Loudermilk owned a development and construction company which was doing quite well until Houston’s oil bust. But you’d need to do a through background check on him. I do know he was married before and he has a daughter from that first marriage. The daughter lived with him, until recently, and she’d be the first place to start.”

“And next, the ex-wife?”

“Precisely. Her name is Elwanda Watson. Had a second marriage which also didn’t last. Four children by Watson. I have addresses and phone numbers for you.” He placed the pipe in the ashtray I’d placed near him, reached into his inner coat pocket and held out an index card. “I believe you’ve already decided to work for me?”

I smiled as I took the card, “I have indeed.” I went to get a copy of our standard contract for his signature. Voda Beth didn’t look up when I passed through. When I returned, Porter had written out a check and handed it to me. He’d not inquired about fees. I nearly gasped, it was made out for $5,000.”

“I need to have as much information as possible by next Tuesday morning for the preliminary hearing.” Bulldog said. “That means working through the week-end if necessary. If you can find out the truth about the Loudermilk’s relationship, I might be able to get the charges dropped and we won’t have to go to trial.”

“If the truth is as she says it is.”

“Oh. Naturally. But I believe it is.” Mr. Porter spent a few seconds with our client and left.

It was time to interview the widow. I walked in and sat behind the desk, searching her face. A neon sign flashing “not guilty” did not appear on her forehead.

“Why don’t you tell me what happened Voda Beth?”

Her eyelids were red-rimmed and the pale blue eyes were devoid of life or light. She was holding her body rigid and her mouth tight as if to keep herself from flying apart.

“Look,” I said, “I know you’re exhausted, you need food and rest, how about telling me a few brief details and if I need something else, we can talk later.”

“J.W. and I had been arguing all evening. If I said black, he said white. I can’t remember what started this particular one. Finally, I told him I couldn’t take anymore tonight, that I wanted to go to bed. I went to our bedroom, took a shower and he sat in the den and drank.”

“Did he drink a lot?”

“Sometimes, and even more lately.”

“Why lately?”

“Things were bad financially, really bad the past few months.” Voda Beth pressed her hands to her temples, then rubbed them slowly. “I remember now. That’s what started the argument. Money. I’d bought two new bras yesterday, the underwire on my last one broke that morning.”

My partner, C.J. had been a policewoman in Pittsburgh for eight years and one thing she’d taught me about interviewing someone, is it’s usually best to not say anything once the person is talking. If you interrupt you can lose them, they’ll clam-up.

“I had just finished brushing my hair and was ready to get into bed when J.W. came in, yelling about how stupid I was for spending money we didn’t have. He was furious. He’d sat in there and drank and got madder and madder.

He got right in my face, screaming and when I tried to ignore him, he got even madder. He slapped me. Twice, at least and the third time he knocked me onto the bed. He kept hitting with his open hand. One blow made me bite my lip, see?”

She showed me a large blood hematoma inside her cheek. I made appropriate noises of sympathy. “What happened next?”

“He straddled me and started punching me in the stomach and breast with his fists. A blackness came over me, slowly, at first. It got darker and redder. Somehow . . .I really don’t know how. I got my hand under the mattress and got hold of his gun. The next thing I knew, he was laying across bed and. . .and I remembered hearing the gun and there was blood everywhere and. . .”

She began crying, great shuddering sobs. I walked around the desk, handed her a box of Kleenex and patted her shoulder, not really knowing what to say or do. She kept trying to say she didn’t mean it, but it was a long time before she got it all out.

When she’d calmed down, and blew her nose, I sat down behind the desk. “This wasn’t the first time your husband beat you?”

“No. He didn’t do it often and he’d always apologize, say he was sorry and he’d never do it again. That he loved me and didn’t want to hurt me. Months would go by and I’d believe everything was fine, then wham.” She was back to her monotone voice.

“Did you ever tell anyone? Your doctor maybe?”

“No. I was too ashamed. Besides, whatever I’d done to set him off was all my fault. I was the one who. . .”

“Voda Beth. Whatever you did was no reason to be battered or beaten. But my telling you won’t help or make any difference to you. You need to get professional help.”

“I will. Bulldog is setting it up.”

I walked around to her again and patted her shoulder once more. “It’s time you went home. You didn’t drive over here did you?”

“Bulldog brought me. He said he’d send someone to pick me up.”

“Come on then, I’ll go downstairs with you.”

A white stretch-limo was waiting in the front circular drive when we reached the lobby and a driver lounging against the front passenger fender saw us and walked over. “Mrs. Loudermilk?” He helped her in and she waved one finger as he closed the door.

I walked to the parking garage. Lowly private investigators have to drive themselves home.



“If that tight-assed bitch thinks she can kill my father and get away with it, she’s crazy.”

J.W. Loudermilk’s daughter was two months over eighteen, but looked twenty-five. Her name was Elizabeth, but she preferred to be called Liz, she said, after inviting me into her condo in far southwest Houston. She mentioned that she was scheduled for a tennis lesson at the nearby YWCA, but said she could spare a few minutes.

I’d been unable to reach her the evening before and had secretly been glad. Voda Beth’s story had unnerved me. With a good night’s sleep, I’d hoped to be able to think more rationally. Silly me. My dreams had been filled with a faceless someone who punched and slapped me half the night. It was three o’clock before I finally slid into a dreamless sleep.

I showered and dressed in my week-end office attire - Wrangler jeans and a t-shirt - but since it was a cool forty-nine degrees this morning, I pulled on a sweater. My hair had been short and curly permed for summer and as I combed through the tangled dark mop, I decided to let it grow for the cooler weather. I checked out a new wrinkle at one corner of my right eye. “Damn Sam. At 33, you shouldn’t be having wrinkles,” I said. “Someday, you’ll have to pay more attention to such things, but not today.”

A tiny smudge of cocoa frost eye shadow added depth to my dark eyes, and a quick swipe of powder was easy and fast and completed my bow to cosmetics. Spending time with creams and moisturizers was not my idea of fun and I intended to fight it, as long as possible.

I’d arrived for my appointment with J.W.’s daughter at 10:30 a.m. on the dot.

She had offered a cold drink. I accepted a Diet Coke and sat down as she bustled around in the kitchen. Her living room was a high-beamed ceiling affair, all mirrors, posters and wicker furniture from Pier One Imports. There wasn’t a sofa, just two chairs, and a lamp table between them, set before a fireplace. As a young woman out on her own, she probably couldn’t afford much.

I studied her as she brought in the drinks. She was lovely, self-assured and poised. She had a heart-shaped face, blue-black hair, cut shoulder length and curly permed. Her eyes were such a deep indigo they looked violet and there was no doubt her resemblance to a young Liz Taylor was often mentioned. She was dressed in a white tennis skirt and top, showing off her golden tan to great advantage. Oh. To be eighteen again, I thought, but only for a brief second.

“Mrs. Gordon?” She seated herself opposite me.

“Jenny, please.”

“Okay, Jenny. Let’s get one thing cleared up right now. I never did like Voda Beth. She’s a coke-snorting, greedy slut who married my father for his money.”

“You know all this for a fact?” The violet eyes narrowed briefly, before looking at me head-on. Maybe she was sincere, but her cliched words sounded like the old evil step-mother routine.

“My father owned his own construction and development company. He built office buildings and shopping malls. When his business suffered reverses, she couldn’t stand it.” Liz sat her glass down on the end table next to her chair, picked up a nail file and began filing her nails. “They argued all the time. Mostly about money. She was always wanting this new dress or that new piece of furniture. Now, with Dad dead, I guess she’ll be in high cotton.”

“Were their arguments ever violent? Did you see or hear your father hitting her?”

Liz finished the nail she was working on, put that finger to her mouth and began chewing on the cuticle. She shook her head, “Dad did have a temper, but I don’t think he ever so much as slapped the bitch.”

I sipped on the Diet Coke, “What gave you the idea she’ll be in high cotton now? Insurance?”

“She talked him into taking out a policy for two million, a few months ago. She killed him to get that money, there’s no doubt in my mind.”

I made a mental note to check out the insurance. “How did you find out about this policy?”

She flaunted it in my face. It’s one of those big companies, something Mutual. I’m sure you can find a record of it someplace.”

“You mentioned she used coke?”

“I’ve known ever since I was sixteen and she offered it to me.” Liz’s face contorted with fury. “That bitch came along, turned my father against me, but it only worked a short time.”

“What else did they argue about besides the money?”

“The drugs and the men she slept with.”

“She slept around?”

“He said she did. I have no knowledge of that personally.”

The picture the girl painted was certainly not something to help Mr. Porter. In fact, it was more likely to hang Voda Beth Loudermilk. But it did strike me strange, the girl didn’t have one kind word to say about her stepmother. “How old were you when they married?”

“Thirteen.” She drained her glass. “My mother couldn’t hold on to Dad. She’s a silly bitch, too. Sometimes she doesn’t have the sense God gave a goose.” She stood. “Sorry, Jenny. I do have to get to the Y for my tennis lesson. My fondest hope is that Voda Beth rots in jail.”

Thirteen is a difficult age. I knew from losing my own mother when I was twelve that I would have resented it tremendously if my father had remarried. Her remarks about her own mother seemed strangely out of place. Didn’t this girl like anyone? I wondered. Placing the unfinished Coke on the table, I got up. “Appreciate your talking to me, Liz.” I handed her one of my cards. “If you think of anything else I should know, please call.”

Liz preceded me to the door and opened it. “If it’s something that’ll help convict her, you’ll hear from me.”



It would be easier to make notes of my interview at my office. When I arrived I was surprised to find C.J. at the front desk, hacking away at the computer. “It’s good to see you, but weren’t you supposed to stay in Dallas all week-end?”

“Yes, but don’t ask any questions, okay?” she said and her tone indicated she wasn’t kidding. C.J.’s face, which always reminded me of a darker-skinned Nichelle Nichols, the Star Trek actress, was marred by a deep frown of concentration. The new computer we’d recently bought, was giving her fits. She continued hitting the buttons and keys like she was working out on a punching bag.

The fun with the football player, obviously didn’t work out. “Ooo. . .kay,” I said and told her about our new client, Voda Beth Loudermilk, brought in by Mr. Bulldog Porter himself. She nodded without comment and I began telling of my interview of Liz Loudermilk. “Liz tried to look and sound sincere, but I’m having a hard time believing her. The hate this girl had was so thick in the room it nearly smothered me.”

She paused, and turned to listen. “Sounds like she’s definitely jealous of the second wife.”

“I’ve tried to imagine how I would feel, in that situation. I’m sure I would have resented any woman my father brought in to take my mother’s place.”

“Five years is a long time to nurse a grudge. Didn’t Voda Beth ever do anything nice for Liz?” C.J. looked down at herself and tried to brush off a minute piece of something white from her bright green sweater, gave up and plucked it with her fingernails and tossed it away. The sweater, trimmed in brown and gold leather, was worn over a slim dark brown skirt and she’d added a bright green leather belt. She was also wearing green tinted pantyhose and dark brown boots. At her six foot height, she looks great in whatever she wears, but a couple of years as a model in Manhattan had set her style forever into the high fashion look.

My taste usually runs to levis or sweats. Of course, no matter what I wore, I still looked just like me, Jenny Gordon, of Houston, Texas. “Liz Loudermilk will cheerfully push the plunger on the syringe if her step-mother is sentenced to die by injection. She ain’t too crazy about her own mother, either.”

“Maybe she’s got a fixation on her father and anyone else is just a big zero in her mind.”

“You’re probably right, I was madly in love with my father when I was fourteen.” I said, thinking back, “About six months later, I hated him.”

“That was a normal growing-up process. I did about the same thing.” She smiled and leaned the chair back, folding her hands across her stomach. “Girlfriend, you know what strikes me about your conversation with that girl?”

“That insurance policy?”

“Yes. But besides that. She called Voda Beth a tight-assed bitch. That describes someone uptight or morally rigid. It’s not something I normally would associate with a woman who used drugs and slept around.”

“You’re right. It’s total contradiction, isn’t it?” I lit a cigarette, forgetting for a moment how much C.J. disliked my smoking.

She fanned the smoke with an exaggerated flip of her black hand, “Get out of here with that thing.” She turned back to the computer. “Besides, until I figure out how to trace that insurance policy, I don’t need you in my hair.” She picked up the telephone receiver, “I guess I’d better call the ‘old pro’ over at Intertect first and find out where to start.”

C.J. had a good working relationship with the private investigators over at Intertect, an office which specialized in computers and data bases. Good thing. Computers blow my mind completely. I’d probably never figure this one out.

I went into the lounge and turned on the air purifier and thought about my client. Bulldog Porter had wanted me to find “something” to prove wife abuse. Unfortunately, the talk with Liz Loudermilk had only tightened the noose.

I’d felt sorry for Voda Beth when she told of being beaten. She might even be a greedy slut, but I doubted she was as bad as the girl had tried to make her sound. It’s easy to use pop psychology to categorize people, yet the girl did sound like the classic example of a jealous daughter.

I walked back through to the back office to my desk, taking care not to disturb C.J. as she punched keys on the computer and numbers on the telephone. I called to make a late afternoon appointment with the ex-wife, Elwanda Watson. She worked as a waitress at a seafood restaurant out in the Heights area and said we could meet there. I typed up notes of the “Liz” interview on my old IBM Selectric and placed them in the Loudermilk file. I’d never let that machine go, even if I did learn things like Word Perfect programs and networking with modems.




See you tomorrow for Part 2!