24 March 2019

Jan Grape's Found Dead in Texas:
A Front Row Seat part 1

by Jan Grape
Jan Grape
Set in March, we bring you a rare treat, an Anthony Award-winning Best Short Story, also nominated for a Shamus Award. The first half runs today, the rest tomorrow.

Originally published in Vengeance is Hers (Signet 1997), 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 very well.

— Velma

A Front Row Seat
Part 1

by Jan Grape

I awoke on that cold wet March morning with a fierce sinus headache over my right eye. Things went downhill from there. I broke a fingernail and tore a run in my pantyhose. I had to dress twice because I snagged my sweater and had to change. When I walked out the front door I banged my little toe against the potted plant I’d inside brought for protection from the cold. “Damn Sam.” I limped out to my car and sank into the seat gratefully.

Some mornings should be outlawed I thought, but I managed to get to the office which I own and operate with my partner, Cinnamon Jemima Gunn, at eight-thirty a.m. on the dot. C.J., as she’s know to all except a few close friends, would have killed me if I’d opened up late. With the way things were going, death didn’t sound half bad.

At nine a man pushed opened the door with its distinct sign, G & G Investigations. He stopped cold in the middle of the reception area and looked around as if searching for someone.

He wasn’t handsome. His nose was too long and it hooked at the end, ruining his overall attractiveness. Dark, blue-black hair waved across his head and curled down over the tips of his ears. His eyes were blue-gray and crinkle lines radiated outward from the corners. He was probably no taller than five feet ten with a rounded abdomen and torso, like he’d rather sit in front of the tube and veg-out than work-out. I’d guess his age around fifty.

“May I help you?” I asked.

His navy suit looked expensive, but off-the-rack, and he added a floral print tie to spiff up his white shirt. He wore a black London-Fog-style raincoat, open and unbelted and a perplexed look.

“Do you need an investigator?” I asked when he didn’t answer my first question.

“Is Mr. Gunn here?” His voice was husky, like he had a cold.

“There is no Mr. Gunn. Only C.J., but she’s in court…

“She? I don’t understand. I want to talk to Mr. C. J. Gunn.” His annoyance was obvious in his derisive tone.

“C.J. isn’t a Mister. C.J.’s a woman.”

“I’ll speak to your boss, then.”

“I’m it,” I smiled. “I mean, I own this agency. Well, C.J. and I are co-owners actually. I’m Jenny Gordon.”

“You mean this detective agency is run by a bunch of damn women?”

“That’s about it, sir.”

“Well, shit.” He turned, walked out and slammed the door.

“Up yours, fella,” I said to his retreating footsteps.

I didn’t waste time wondering about him. It happened occasionally - some macho pea-brain unable to hire a female private eye because of his own ego. I shrugged and turned back to the computer terminal.

Electronic technology baffles me. I think I’m a little intimidated to think a machine is smarter than I am. But C.J., who’s a computer whiz, had set up a program for our business invoices and all I had to do was fill in the blanks, save, and print. I could handle that much.

G & G’s bank account was dangerously low and unless we collected on some delinquent accounts or came up with a rich client or two, we were in deep do-do.

We’d worked too hard for that, but it meant sending out timely statements and following up with telephone calls. Our biggest headaches were large insurance companies who always seemed to run sixty to ninety days past due.

I got all the blank spaces filled on the next account and saved the file, but before I could push the button to print, the telephone rang.

“Ms. Gordon, this is Dr. Anthony Randazzo.” The husky voice was familiar. “I want to apologize for the way I acted a few minutes ago.”

So, the piggy chauvinist was a doctor. His name rang a bell in my head, but I couldn’t connect it. My first impulse was to hang up in his ear, but he kept talking fast - as if he could read my mind.

“Ms. Gordon, I’ve been under a lot of stress…” He laughed, sounding nervous not jovial. “Boy, does that sound trite or what?”

I waited, unsure if he expected an answer.

“I honestly am sorry for storming out of your office. I acted like some idiot with a cave-man mentality. I need an investigator and your firm was highly recommended.”

I’m not a die-hard feminist, but the emotional side of my brain was yelling hang up on this bastard while the practical left brain was reminding me we needed a paying client and the doctor could be one. I wondered who was wicked enough to send this clown in our direction. “May I ask who recommended you?”

“My niece works as a receptionist for Will Martin’s law firm.”

Oh, hell. Will and Carolyn Martin were counted among my closest friends. Good friends aren’t supposed to send the jerks of the world to you.

“I’ve never met Mr. Martin,” he continued, “but my niece thinks highly of him.”

Whew! That explained it. When asked, Will automatically would have said, “G & G.” Knowing this guy wasn’t a client of Will’s made me feel better. “Dr. Randazzo, perhaps I should refer…”

“Please, Ms. Gordon, don’t judge me too quickly. My wife and I desperately need help. It’s a matter of life or death.”

Now that he was contrite he was much easier to take, but I still wasn’t sure I wanted to work with him. “I’m not…”

“Please don’t say no yet, let me explain briefly. Two months ago, I was involved in a malpractice suit. You probably heard about it.”

The bell in the back of the old brain pinged. Anyone old enough to read or watch television had heard. Because of the high costs of health care nowadays which the medical profession tried to blame on things like malpractice suits, the media had talked of nothing else. Randazzo was a plastic surgeon. A woman had sued him for ruining her face. She hadn’t looked too bad on TV, but the jury awarded her a huge amount. Mostly for pain and anguish, as I recalled. The doctor had lost and lost big.

“Yes, I recall,” I said, wondering why he needed a P.I. now. “But the lawsuit’s over, isn’t it?”

“Yes. Except for working out the payment schedule.” He cleared his throat, “But I think our problem has a definite connection. I’m really worried and will be happy to pay a consulting fee for your time.”

“I, uhm.mm…”

“Would five hundred be appropriate?”

He got my attention. Five big ones would certainly help our bank account. I could probably work for Attila the Hun for five hundred dollars. Okay, so I can be bought. “Would you like to make an appointment?”

“If you’re free this evening, my wife and I are having a few friends over for drinks and hors d’oeuvres. If you and Ms. Gunn could join us - whatever you decide to do afterwards is entirely up to you, but the five hundred is yours either way.”

“What time?”

“Seven, and thanks for not hanging up on me.”

Dr. Randazzo gave me directions to his house and we hung up.

I had the invoices ready to mail by the time C.J. returned.

 She remembered the Randazzo lawsuit. “Five hundred dollars just to talk?”

“That’s what the man said.”

“Are you sure he’s not kinky?” A knowing look was on her cola-nut colored face and her dark eyes gleamed wickedly.

“Maybe. But he said his wife and other people would be there. It didn’t sound too kinky.”

“Hummm. Guess the lawsuit didn’t bankrupt him if he’s got five C notes to throw around.” C.J. worked her fingers across the computer keyboard.

“He probably has hefty malpractice insurance,” I said.

I watched as she punched keys and letters appeared on the monitor in front of her eyes. C.J. can find out the most illuminating information about people in only a matter of minutes. With my technology phobia I don’t understand modems, networks and E-mail and have no idea what it is that she does. I’ve also decided I really don’t want to know any details.

“Let’s just check on his finances. I’m sure he has investments, stocks and bonds, real estate and what have you. Never knew a doctor who didn’t.” A few minutes later she muttered an “Ah-ha. Looks like Randazzo was shrewd enough to put a nice nest egg into his wife’s name, but his medical practice is close to bankruptcy.” She printed some up figures, stuck the papers in a folder, and we closed the office and left.

Since my apartment is only a few blocks from our office and her place is half-way across town, C.J. keeps a few clothes and essentials there for convenience. We took turns showering and dressing.

C.J. wanted to drive. Since she liked to change cars about every six months she’d recently leased a Dodge Dakota SE pick-up truck. As roomy and as comfortable as a car. But what she was proudest of was a fancy sound system, tape deck and CD player. She popped a CD in and turned up the volume.

A woman sang, “I wanna be around to pick up the pieces, when somebody breaks your heart.”

“All riiight.” I laughed and she raised an eyebrow. I picked up the box and read about the songs and the artists. These were golden oldies by: Peggy Lee, Nancy Wilson, Sarah Vaughn, Judy Garland and others. It wasn’t her usual type of music.

“That’s Dinah Washington,” she said. “I knew you were gonna get a kick out of this one.”

I’d been hooked on country music forever but a couple years ago I discovered Linda Ronstadt singing ballads from the 30s and 40s. And the funny thing is, I remember my parents playing records and dancing to music like this. It’s an early memory and a rare one with my parents having fun. Somehow my mother’s long unsuc-cessful battle with cancer had wiped out too many good memories.

I listened to Dinah singing about her old love getting his comeuppance, and how sweet revenge is as she’s sitting and applauding from a front row seat.

“Cripes,” I said. “That really knocks me out. I’ve gotta have a copy.”

“I’ll give you this one, Girl, after I’ve listened to it.”

The Randazzo’s house was located in the hills above Lake Travis, west of Austin. After a couple of wrong turns we found the brick pillars which flanked the entrance of the long drive. The black-top curved into the front of the house and ended in a concrete parking area. C.J. pulled up between a dark green Jaguar and a tan Volvo.

The Spanish-modern house was large and rambling, made of tan brick with a burnt-sienna tile roof and built onto the side of a hill. The arched windows were outlined in the same color tile as the roof and black wrought-iron bars covered the bottom halves. The Saint Augustine grass was a dun-muckle brown with little shoots of green poking out - normal for this time of year.

We got out, walked up to the ornately carved double doors and I pushed the oval lighted button beside the facing.

“Some joint,” C.J. said, as we waited.

A young man dressed in a cable-knit sweater with a Nordic design and charcoal gray slacks opened the door. Late twenties, blond and blue eyed with a Kevin Costner smile. He was so handsome my breath caught in my throat to look at him.

When I said Dr. Randazzo expected us he frowned, but stepped back and said, “Come in.”

We were in an entry hall which ran across most of the width of the front and was open ended on both sides. I couldn’t recall ever seeing a house where you entered into a width-wise hallway.

We were directly in front of and looking into a large square atrium. Behind the glass wall was a jungle of green plants, shrubs and trees, with a spray of water misting one side. The darkening sky was visible through the roof and I saw a couple of small green birds flitting back and forth between some trees.

The scene was exquisite and several moments passed before I could find my voice, “I… I’m Jenny Gordon and this is C.J. Gunn. We were to see Dr. Randazzo at seven.”

 “I’m Christopher Lansen and I work with Tony Randazzo.” His voice was nasal and high-pitched and it sure didn’t go with his looks. “And I’m sorry, Tony isn’t here at the moment.”

“Oh?” I asked, “A medical emergency?”

“I don’t think so. I mean, I don’t know exactly.”

“I’m sure Tony will be back shortly, please come in,” said a woman coming into the hall from the right side. Her voice was soft and there was no trace of a Texas accent. She sounded as if she’d had elocution lessons and had graduated at the top of the class.

She was dressed in a soft blue silk shirtwaist dress, belted with a gold chain, and wore gold hoop gypsy ear rings. She was tall and willowy with dark hair pulled severely back into a bun. She would have looked elegant except she hunched her shoulders instead of standing straight.

She had high cheek-bones and almond-shaped dark eyes. There was a hint of Spanish or American Indian in her tight, unlined and unblemished face. Her age could have been anywhere from thirty to sixty. Probably has had a face-lift, I thought.

“I’m Marta Randazzo. Are you the investigators my husband hired?”

“Uh, . .yes,” I said. “And please call me Jenny. My partner is C.J.”

The young man put his hand on her arm. “Marta, why don’t you go back inside and I’ll talk…”

“No, Chris. I, I want to speak to them now.” Her voice sounded tentative, as if she hated to contradict him. She turned abruptly and walked down the hallway towards the left, leaving us no choice except to follow.

 “Mrs. Randazzo,” said C.J., who was walking directly behind the woman. “I should clarify something. Your husband asked us over for a consultation only. He hasn’t actually hired us.”

Marta Randazzo entered a huge den/family room. At least half of my apartment could fit into this one room, but maybe it seemed bigger because of the glass wall of the atrium. Another wall was taken up by a fireplace large enough to roast a side of beef. The room’s decor was in Southwestern Indian colors. Navajo rugs and wall hangings, Kachina dolls, framed arrowhead and spear points, Zuni pottery, turquoise and silver jewelry knickknacks were everywhere. In a small alcove to one side of the fireplace was a wet bar. A sofa, love seat and three chairs were covered in Indian-design fabrics.

It felt like deja vu until I remembered I’d once been in a living room decorated with Indian things. Inexplicably, I couldn’t remember when or where. “It’s a lovely room,” I told her. “I like it.”

“Thank you.” She motioned for us to sit, indicating the sofa and she sat on a chair to our right. Christopher Lansen took a spot standing near the fireplace.

“I believe Chris told you Tony isn’t here at the moment,” Marta said. “He should be back soon.”

But she didn’t sound too certain, “I’m sure…I, uh, know he didn’t forget you were coming…”

Chris Lansen said, “Marta, I don’t think…”

“Chris?” Marta Randazzo stiffened. “Let me finish, please.”

Lansen turned away and walked to the window staring out into the darkness. His body language indicated he didn’t like something she’d said or was about to say.

“Tony mentioned you were coming.” Marta got up, walked to the mantle, ignoring Lansen, and took a piece of paper out from under a Zuni bowl. “He had me write out a check for you.” She walked over and held it out to me.

I automatically reached for the paper and looked at her. I glimpsed a flicker of something in her eyes just before she turned and sat down, but then it was gone. Fear maybe? Or despair. I couldn’t be sure.

The check was made out to G & G Investigations for five hundred dollars and signed by Marta Randazzo.

“Mrs. Randazzo,” said C.J. “Perhaps we should wait until your husband returns and we can talk to him.”

“I agree,” said Chris. He looked at Marta with a stern expression. Some battle of wills was going on between the two of them. “He’ll be back soon.” Lansen’s tone was emphatic. “He and I planned to talk about the surgery I’m doing on Mrs. Franklin tomorrow. He wouldn’t forget about that.”

“Oh, you’re a doctor, too?” I asked, hoping to ease the tension. He and Marta were definitely uptight.

“Yes. I’m an associate of Tony’s. A junior partner.”

“We could wait a little while for him if it won’t inconven-ience you, Mrs. Randazzo.” I tried to hand the check back to her. She ignored it, so I placed it on the end table next to me.

“Please, call me Marta,” she said. She jutted her chin slightly. “That check means you are working for me, doesn’t it?”

“We’re here on consult. That was my agreement with Dr. Randazzo.”

“Then, in that case I’m consulting you. It must be obvious to you both…I should explain.”

Chris Lansen cleared his throat and Marta Randazzo looked at him, her face creased with a frown. Her chin jutted out again briefly before she relaxed. “Jenny, C.J.? Would you like something to drink? Coffee or something stronger?”

“Coffee would be fine,” said C.J. and I agreed.

“Chris? Would you go make coffee for my guests?” Her tone sounded like an order, but she didn’t raise her voice.

He gave her a look as if she’d just asked him to wash the windows or something equally distasteful, but he left the room without speaking.

“Jenny, my husband has disappeared,” she said when Lansen was gone. “I was taking a shower. After I dressed and came out here, Tony was gone. I assumed he gone for a walk, but that was at five o’clock and he still isn’t back yet.”

“Have you looked for him?” I asked. She reminded me of someone, but I didn’t know who.

“Yes. Chris came over about six and when I mentioned I was getting worried about Tony, Chris got into his car and drove around looking. He didn’t find Tony.”

“Your husband walks regularly?” C.J. asked.

“Yes, if something is bothering him. It’s his way of reliev-ing stress. But he’s usually back after about twenty to thirty minutes.”

“Could his disappearance have something to do with why he wanted to hire us?” I noticed out of the corner of my eye that C. J. was poised on the edge of her seat.

C.J. got up, muttering something about going to help with the coffee and went in the same direction Chris had gone. I knew she was using the old divide-and-question-separately technique.

“Maybe,” said Marta.

“Do you know why he…”

“Yes,” said Marta. “Someone’s trying to kill me.”

“What makes you think someone is trying to kill you?”

“Someone followed me all last week. The same man I think, I’m sure it was the same car.” She began twisting the hem of her skirt as she talked and I noticed bruises on her inner thigh near her left knee.

“After I became aware of this man,” she continued, “I realized he’d probably followed me even before that. Then night before last that same car tried to run my car off the road. You drove up here and saw those treacherous curves. And the cliffs are pretty steep. I almost went over the edge It scared me silly.”

“Why would anyone want you dead?”

“I don’t know, uh…maybe it’s someone from the Davis family - wanting to get back at Tony.”

“The Davis family?”

“The people who sued my husband.”

“But why? They won their case.”

C.J. and Chris came back into the room. He was carrying a silver serving tray with four china cups sitting in saucers.

Chris said, “My thoughts exactly. Why would anyone from the Davis family…”

“Money might not be enough,” said C.J.

“What?” asked Marta.

“Revenge can be sweeter than money.” C.J. sat on the sofa where she’d been before while Chris placed the tray on the coffee table. “Mrs. Davis feels she has suffered,” she said. “And now it’s Mrs. Randazzo who must suffer.”

Chris carefully handed a saucered cup of coffee to each of us and then took his and returned to the fireplace. “That’s what Tony thought,” he said placing his coffee on the mantle. “But I think it’s all hogwash.”

“I know what you think, Chris. You’ve been vocal enough about it.” Marta’s voice got lower and that made her words sound more ominous. “You think I’m imagining all this, but you don’t know. You just don’t know.” Marta began stirring her coffee, banging the spoon against the cup. “Tony believed me. And now something has happened to him.”

“Oh, Marta,” said Chris with a there, there, little lady tone. “Tony’s only been gone a couple of hours. He’s gotten sidetracked, that’s all.”

“Maybe he twisted his ankle and fell into one of the canyons,” I said. “He could even be unconscious.”

“I looked in all the likely places,” said Chris.

“Maybe you should call the search and rescue squad,” I said.

“Law enforcement won’t be inclined to do anything until he’s been missing for twenty-four hours or so,” said C.J.

“I want to hire you to find my husband and find out who…”

The doorbell rang and Chris, without asking Marta, left to answer it. He acted as if this were his house not hers.

“Will you try to find Tony?” Marta asked, ignoring the interruption.

C.J. and I glanced at each other and I saw her imperceptible nod of agreement.

“Okay, Mrs. Randazzo,” I said. “You’ve just hired us.” I picked up the check. “Consider this a retainer for two days.”

My partner, who believes in being prepared said, “I have a contract with me.” She pulled papers out of her shoulder bag, handed a page to Marta Randazzo who scanned it quickly, and took the pen C.J. offered, and signed it.

“Marta?” I asked. “Does one of the cars out front belong to your husband?”

“The Jag is his. My Caddy is in the garage.”

“And the Volvo belongs to Chris?”

Marta nodded.

Chris walked in with a man and woman trailing behind. The man was stocky, about fifty with heavy dark eyebrows and a hairline that receded back past his ears. The strands left on top were plastered to his reddish scalp. He was dressed in a three piece suit and looked as if he’d rather be anyplace else except here. He walked straight to the bar without speaking and poured a drink.

The woman came over to where Marta now stood. “Chris told us Tony is missing.”

She was short with a voluptuous figure and blonde Farrah Fawcett hair. “Oh, Marta, you poor dear.” The woman put her arms around Marta and kissed the air near Marta’s cheek.

“I’m fine, Sonja.” Marta recoiled from the woman’s touch, but forced a smile. “I’m sorry, the party is canceled. Chris was supposed to call you.”

“Oh, he came by about six-thirty. Said he was looking for Tony,” said the woman. “He called back later and left a cancellation message on the infernal machine. I just thought we’d drop by on our way out to eat.”

The woman noticed C.J. and I for the first time. She looked at Marta and said in a stage whisper as if we weren’t there, “Are they from the police?”

“No, uh, Sonja Bernard, “ she nodded, and we stood. This is Jenny Gordon and C.J. Gunn. They’re private investigators.”

The man who’d come in swayed over, a double shot of amber liquid in a glass. I assumed he was Sonja Bernard’s husband.

 “Private dicks, huh?” He said and laughed uproariously at his unfunny joke. From his slurred words it was obvious this drink was not his first. “Don’t think I’ve ever met a female dick before, black or white. How do?”

He took a big swallow and said, “Tough gals, huh? Do you carry guns? Which one is the dyke? I’ll bet it’s the black one.”

“Bernie, don’t be crude,” said Sonja. “Their sexual preference is none of your damn business.”

Marta’s face turned red. “I apologize…”

I hated it too, because I knew C.J.’s sharp tongue would slash and trash Bernie before he could stagger another step. And that was if she decided to only chew him up instead of knocking him on his can. My partner’s an ex-police woman, six feet tall and trained in Tukong Martial Arts. She could put him down and out.

I felt her body tense and spoke quickly, “C.J.? We probably should go.” But I wasn’t quite fast enough.

“He doesn’t bother me, Mrs. Randazzo,” said C.J. She smiled sweetly at the man, and then back at Marta. “His whiskey-soaked minuscule brain is ruled by his own penile inadequacy.” Her next words were directed to me and spoken through clenched teeth.

“You’re right, Jenny. We must be on our way, but perhaps Marta will show us out. I have a couple more questions.”

“What did she say?” asked Bernie. “Did she just insult me?”

“Of course, Bernie,” said Chris, who walked over and took the man’s arm. “But turnabout’s fair play, wouldn’t you say? Let’s refresh your drink.” Chris took the man’s arm and turned him towards the bar.

The man needed another drink like a cowboy needed a burr under his saddle, but the maneuver had moved him out of C.J.’s reach.

The man followed, muttering something about how he’d bet a hundred dollars Tony was shacked up with a blonde someplace.

“I’m terribly embarrassed…” said Sonja.

“And I’m terribly sorry for you,” I said to her.

Marta Randazzo looked as if she’d like to climb into a hole someplace, but she walked out of the room instead.

C.J. and I followed. Marta veered off into a small sitting room where we stood and asked our questions.

C.J. made notes as Marta gave us descriptions of the car and the man who had followed her. She hadn’t seen the license number. She said the people who sued her husband were Ellen and Herbert Davis.

“First,” said C.J. “we’ll check the local hospitals and emergency clinics, in case Dr. Randazzo has been brought in unconscious. And we’ll try to check-up on who’s been following you. It won’t be easy without that plate number.”

“Will you call? No matter how late?” Marta asked. “I mean even if the news is…”

“Yes,” I said. “We’ll call if we hear anything.” She gave us a recent photo of her husband.

“This could turn into an all night job,” I said as we got into the truck and headed to town.

“Did you catch that last remark from old Bernie?” I asked.

“No, I was having too much trouble trying to keep from decking the guy.”

“I figured. Bernie mumbled something about Tony being shacked up someplace.”

“Which is why the police are reluctant to get involved in domestic squabbles,” said C.J. “The missing usually turn up the next day looking sheepish.”

“Did you learn anything from Chris?”

“Only that he knew his way around the kitchen.”

“You think the Randazzo’s quarreled?”

“Didn’t you see the bruises on Marta’s neck?”

“No, I missed those, but I saw bruises on her leg. That muddies up the waters a bit, doesn’t it?”



See you tomorrow for Part 2!

4 comments:

Leigh Lundin said...

>“You mean this … is run by a bunch of damn women?”

(laughing) Jan, you already know I enjoy your stories. It's hard to find better than Jenny and CJ.

Eve Fisher said...

Looking forward with bated breath for tomorrow!

Jan Grape said...

Don't hold your breath Sleuths till Part 2 come out. You might turn blue. And blue ain't my favorite color. Velma has been wanting to do this for months now. I kept hesitating but it has been a bit of fun to reread. At any rate, hope you enjoy.

Jerry House said...

Re: the first six words in this post's title

My first reaction was, "Oh,no!"

Then I realized the line could be read more than one way.

Phew!