25 March 2019

Jan Grape's Found Dead in Texas:
Front Row Seat, part 2

by Jan Grape
Jan Grape
Yesterday, we brought you a treat, an Anthony Award-winning Best Short Story. 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 Vengeance is Hers (Signet 1997). Pour a cup of coffee and enjoy this, the second part.

— Velma

A Front Row Seat
Part 2

by Jan Grape

The next morning we drove to work separately in our respective vehicles. My partner is a morning person and her energy and excitement greeting a new day bugs the hell out of me. I needed time for my body to wake up slowly and the short drive without her helped.

Last night we’d checked all the emergency rooms without turning up the doctor. I’d called a friend, Jana Hefflin, who worked in Austin Police Department communications to see if her department had taken a call regarding a John Doe of anyone fitting Dr. Randazzo’s description. She checked with the 911 operators, the EMS operators and police dispatch, all at APD headquarters. It was a negative on our man.

Finally, I called Marta Randazzo to report that there was nothing to report. It was almost two a.m. when we made up the bed in the guest room for C.J. and called it a night.

The new day was filled with sunshine and blue skies - reminding me of why I love central Texas.

Austin’s built over the Balcones Fault, an ancient geological plate that eons ago rumbled and formed the hills, canyons and steep cliffs around west Austin. The land west of Austin is known as the Texas Hill Country. The city’s east side slopes into gentle rolling hills and fertile farm land. Our office is in the LaGrange building which sits on a small knoll in far west Austin near the Mo-Pac Freeway and from our fourth floor office there’s a fantastic view of limestone cliffs and small canyons to the west.

At the office, C.J. ran computer checks on the Davises. Ellen Davis had never sued anyone before and neither she nor her husband had a police record. She also ran three other names: Sonja and Hirum “Bernie” Bernard and Christopher Lansen.

Mr. Bernard had a DUI and a resisting arrest charge pending. He also had a couple of business lawsuits resulting in settlements. Sonja Bernard had called the police recently in regard to a domestic dispute. Dr. Lansen had one bad debt on his credit record and a couple of unpaid parking tickets. A bunch of ordinary people, nothing to set off any alarm bells.

C.J. learned from a friend on the computer network that Ellen and Herbert Davis had left three weeks ago on an extended vacation to Hawaii. “That lets them out as revenge seekers,” she said.

“You got that right,” I said, using one of her favorite sayings. I called Mrs. Randazzo to see if she’d heard anything. She hadn’t, and afterwards I made follow-up calls to the hospitals.

I told C.J. a trip to Dr. Randazzo’s office might be helpful. “Maybe the doctor has a girlfriend and someone from his office knows about it.”

“Maybe he even plays with someone from work.”

Having spent a few years around doctors myself, I knew the long hours of togetherness sometimes bred familiarity. “This whole thing just doesn’t make good sense to me. If Randazzo and his wife had an argument and he stormed out, why didn’t he go off in his Jag, not just head out on foot someplace?”

“Unless,” said C.J., “he wanted to stage a disappearance. That malpractice suit left him in bad shape financially except for those assets in his wife’s name.”

I liked it. “What if he has other assets, hidden ones, and worked out a scheme? What better way than just walk off? Leave everything. And if another woman is involved she could meet up with him later. Intriguing, huh?”

“Yeah, but what about someone trying to kill Marta? If the Davises are out spending their new found money, then who?”

“So,” I said, “Randazzo hired someone to scare Marta in order to throw suspicion off of his own plans.”

We couldn’t come up with any more ideas, so I left to talk to the doctor’s employees.

Randazzo’s office was in the Medical\Professional high-rise building next door to Set on Hospital on Thirty-eighth Street, a few miles north of downtown and only a fifteen minute drive from my office.

Years ago, I had worked at an X-ray clinic in this building. My husband, Tommy, used to pick me up for lunch and we’d go around the corner to eat chicken-fried steak. The restaurant went bust a while back and of course, Tommy was killed a couple of years ago. Nothing stays the same, I thought, as I pulled into an empty parking spot and got out.

Randazzo’s suite of offices were on the second floor. A typical doctor’s suite. Comfortable chairs in the waiting room, popular magazines scattered on tables and modernistic art prints hanging on the wall. A curly-top redheaded young woman, about eighteen, sat in the glassed-in cubicle.

Were receptionists getting younger or was I only getting older? After I explained who I was and what I wanted, I was asked to wait. Ms. Williams, the head nurse, would be with me in just a few minutes, I was told.

It was a good half-hour before Ms. Williams called me. Her office was small, more like a closet under the stairs, but there was a desk and secretary-type chair. A telephone and a computer sat on the desk and file folders covered all the remaining space. She was about my age of thirty-five and every year showed on her face today. I’d guess a missing boss could upset routines.

“Ms. Williams, I’m sorry to bother you but if you’ll answer a few questions, I’ll get out of your way.”

“Please call me Tiffany. Ms. Williams reminds me of my mother and I’d just as soon not think of her.”

“I hear that,” I said. “And I’m Jenny.” Even though she didn’t ask me to, I sat down.

“I don’t know if you’ve talked to Mrs. Randazzo today, but she’s hired my partner and me to try to find her husband.”

“Wow, I’ve never talked to a private detective before. It must be exciting.” Tiffany Williams ran her hand through her brown hair which was cut extremely short and was two shades lighter than my own chestnut color.

“It’s not exactly like it is on TV. Most of my work involves checking backgrounds on people. Nothing too exciting there.”

She looked disappointed. “Dr. Lansen told us Mrs. Randazzo had hired someone to try to locate Dr. Tony. How do you go about finding a missing person?”

“Pretty much like I’m doing now with you. You talk to friends, family and co-workers. See if they have any knowledge or ideas.”

“I don’t know where he’s gone. I just work here.”

“I understand. But sometimes co-workers overhear things and that chance remark might give a clue.” She nodded and I continued, “Tell me about Dr. Randazzo.”

“Tell you what?”

“What kind of boss is he? It helps if I can get some feel for the person. Did he seem unusually upset or worried about anything lately?”

“He’s always upset about something. He’s a very intense person. A control freak. He got upset whenever people wouldn’t do as he said.”

“You mean his patients?”

“Everyone. His wife, his employees, the hospital staff.” Tiffany Williams began chewing her fingernails. They looked red and ragged as if she’d already spent a lot of time gnawing. “Everyone is afraid of him and no one would knowingly cross him - about anything.”

“When I worked in X-ray I ran across doctors like that and I always called it the prima-donna syndrome. Some doctors let a little power go to their heads.” Tiffany was nodding in agreement after her initial surprise that I’d once worked in medicine.

 “Yes. And when a second doctor comes in and is so nice, you see how things could be.”

“You mean Dr. Lansen?”

“Yeah, he’s so easy-going, but a great doctor, too. The patients all love him and the employees, too.” She thought a moment, “I think everyone responds to his kindness but that didn’t go over with Dr. Tony.”

“I can imagine. Do you know how Marta Randazzo got along with Dr. Lansen?”

“I don’t know if I should say. It’s not professional.”

“I understand and I don’t blame you. Let me tell you what I’ve observed and see if you agree.”

She nodded and I said, “There’s an undercurrent of something between them. It goes deeper than an…”

“Very definitely,” she interrupted. “I think Chris hopes to get ahead by being attentive to Marta.”

“That doesn’t sound too smart or ethical.”

“I never said Chris is an angel. He has his faults. He wants a partnership with Dr. Tony and he wants to reach the top as quickly as possible.”

Okay, I thought, the young Dr. Lansen is ambitious. But was that enough to have caused Randazzo’s disappearance? “How did Tony feel about Chris’s ambitions?”

“Pleased as long as Chris kept Marta occupied.”

“Oh?”

“Our patients are mostly female and women find Dr. Tony’s bedside manner quite charming. If Marta’s attention was elsewhere then…” Realized she was saying too much, she stood. “I’ve got to get back to work. It’s gonna be one of those days.”

I stood also. “Okay, but one more question. Was there one lady Dr. Tony was especially close to lately?”

She walked to the door, looking as if she were a little girl who’d just tick-a-locked her mouth shut. She then sighed. “I probably shouldn’t, but you’ll find out anyway if you keep digging. Dr. Tony is having a relationship with a patient - or was. We all knew about it.”

“Who?”

“Sonja Bernard, a neighbor of theirs. He did surgery on her and they got involved a few months ago. They were going hot and heavy and it was beginning to get sticky.”

“Did Marta know?”

She nodded. “Chris let it slip but I’m sure it wasn’t by accident. Chris always does things for a reason.” Tiffany went out into the hallway. “I really do have to get busy.”

“Okay and thanks.” I turned to leave, but remembered something she’d just said. “You said Dr. Tony and Sonja were going hot and heavy?”

“Yes, but they broke up last week. And remember you didn’t hear any of this from me.”

“My lips are sealed.”

On my way back to the office I wondered why Lansen had wanted Marta to know about Tony and Sonja. Somehow, that didn’t fit with my image of the young doctor on his way up. You can get fired for getting the boss’s wife upset.

I pulled onto the street behind the LaGrange and Jana Hefflin from APD communications rang my car phone.

“Jenny, I’ve been listening in on a call one of my 911 operators is working. Dr. Randazzo was located about an hour ago -he’s dead.”

“Damn. What happened?”

“He was shot. Body was in a deep ravine about a half-mile from his house. The police aren’t calling it homicide yet, they’re still investigating.”

“You’re sure it’s Randazzo?”

“Yep. He had identification. Sorry, Jenny.”

“Thanks, I appreciate it. I owe you one,” I said. I knew Jana had an abiding affection for chocolate-covered strawberries made by a local candy company - Lamme’s. I’d make sure she received a box the next time they were offered for sale.

When I got inside, I plopped in a customer chair in front of C.J.’s desk and told her our missing person had been found dead.

She was pulling apart sheets of computer paper as they came out of the printer. “Should we call Marta Randazzo?”

“We’ll wait. The police have to make their notifications.”

We discussed my conversations with Tiffany and when the printer’s clatter abruptly stopped, C.J. held up the pages. “I came up with more info about Mrs. Randazzo. She comes from an old West Texas ranching family. She inherited more money than you or I could ever imagine.

“I think,” she added, “Dr. Lansen changed horses in mid-stream. When he realized Randazzo was losing the lawsuit and the medical practice would go down the tubes, he figured Marta was his best bet. She’s got enough money to set up two or three practices.

“And personally, I think young Lansen is involved right up to his pretty blue eyes,” said C.J.

I thought about how Marta and Chris Lansen had acted when we were there. C.J. could be right. If Chris wanted to get ahead and if he felt Marta could help. But I didn’t think Marta was involved. She had seemed genuinely worried about Tony’s disappearance and, besides, I liked her. “No, I can’t buy it.”

“Why not?” C.J. prided herself on her judgement of people and she got a little huffy because I didn’t agree. “Look, he’s hot after the missus and he probably saw a quick and dirty way to take out the husband.”

She was working up her theory hoping to convince me. “He probably began stalking Marta to use as a cover for his real target…”

When I said I couldn’t buy it, I meant I couldn’t buy Marta’s involvement. I did have many doubts about Chris Lansen. “Possibly. He says he went out looking for Randazzo. Maybe he found him and killed him.”

“The stalking tale could have been just that, a tale.”

 “What about your ‘Good Buddy,’ Bernard?” I asked. “His wife’s infidelity could have sent him into a jealous rage. Or what about the woman scorned, Sonja Bernard?”

C.J. said, “Bernard might strike out in the heat of passion if he caught his wife with Tony. But he’s a drunk and I doubt he’d have the balls to plan anything sophisticated.

“And Mrs. Bernard is cut from the same mold as Randazzo. She’s played around for years, but she always goes back to her husband. He needs her.”

“Surely you didn’t find that out from your computer,” I said.

“No, I called Carolyn Martin, she filled me in on the Bernards.”

My friend, Carolyn, who’s hip-deep in society happenings, knew all about the skeletons in the jet-setters closets. If Carolyn said Sonja had the morals of a rock-star groupie, then it was true. “Okay, so where does that leave us?”

C.J. stared at me. “Back to Marta Randazzo. She’s one cool bitch.”

 “No, I think she’s putting on a front. Acting cool when she really isn’t.” The more I thought about it the more I felt I was right. “Marta couldn’t kill…”

“Listen to you, Jenny, listen to that nonsense coming from your mouth. The husband abused her regularly, he played around - even had an affair with a friend.” C.J.’s tone was curt.

 “Chris Lansen and Marta Randazzo together,” she said. “They have the best motive and Chris sure had the opportunity…”

 I thought about the vulnerability I had seen in Marta’s eyes and was determined to give her every benefit of the doubt. “If Chris did it he was acting alone.”

“No way. Marta is involved, believe me. She was fed up with her husband.” C.J. shook her finger at me and raised her voice. “Randazzo acted like a horse’s ass routinely. Now he’s lost his medical practice - suddenly, Marta and Chris both see a solution to all their problems.”

“Dammit, we don’t even know yet that it was murder. Maybe Randazzo killed himself. What do the police say?”

C.J. shrugged.

“Take it from me - if Randazzo was murdered Marta didn’t do it.” I stood and walked out of the reception area and into my inner office, slamming the door behind me.

Once inside I started cooling off immediately. I’ve always been that way. I can get angry enough to chew nails, spout off, then quickly my anger subsides. When C.J. began to get angry with me, I should’ve backed off. It was stupid and I knew it.

My partner can stay mad for hours - days even. The only way to head it off was to try and make her laugh. If I could get her to laugh things would smooth out quickly.

I stayed in my office for about five minutes, rehearsing what I would say to C.J., but when I went back out to her desk in reception - she was gone.

She’d left a note saying she’d gone to APD to see what she could find out from Larry Hays. Hoo-boy, I thought. When she’s too angry to tell me when she’s leaving, she’s really mad.

Lieutenant Hays worked in homicide and he’d been my late husband’s partner and best friend. After Tommy died Larry took on the role of my brother/protector. For a private investigator, having a friend on the force was a huge bonus. If Larry hadn’t worked on the Randazzo case, he’d know who had and would be able to give C.J. all the inside dope.

Talking to Larry was another good way for C.J. to get over her anger. If she could talk shop with him - she’d chill-out fast.

I tidied up my desk, set the answering machine and left.

But instead of going home, I found myself heading to the Randazzo’s. Something about Marta pushed my buttons and I had to see if I could find out why.



Marta Randazzo wasn’t particularly glad to see me, but she didn’t slam the door in my face. She just said, “Come in, if you like.” I followed her down the hall to the den.

Once again I had the feeling I’d been in this room before, the Indian colors and Kachina Dolls and arrowheads were so familiar it was spooky. I refused the drink she offered and sat down.

Marta certainly didn’t look like a woman who only a few hours ago had learned of her husband’s death. Her make-up was impec-cable. No red eyes or tears. Her whole demeanor was changed, she acted poised and self-assured. She picked up her glass and drank, standing regally by the fireplace, and then stared at me over the rim. “You expected tears?” Her tone was defiant.

“Everyone handles grief differently.”

“I can’t pretend grief when there’s nothing there. I can’t pretend when deep down I’m glad Tony’s dead.”

Suddenly, I was ten years old again and memories came flooding back. My mother and I were at my aunt’s house, in her living room decorated with Indian artifacts. Decorated much like this room was.

I could even hear my mother’s voice. It sounded tearful and sad. “Everyone handles grief differently.

I recalled Aunt Patsy saying, “I can’t pretend grief when deep down I’m glad Stoney is dead.”

My mother said, “But Patsy, I don’t understand. What did you do?”

Both of my aunt’s eyes were blackened and she had a plaster cast on her arm. I’d never seen anyone look so defiant. Aunt Patsy said, “I killed him. I got his pistol and I shot him. I just couldn’t take the beatings any more. Not with this baby coming.”

“Shhh,” said my mother turning to me. “Jenny, why don’t you go play outside. Aunt Patsy and I need to talk grown-up stuff.”

I could now remember everything I’d blocked out. My aunt being arrested, and there was a trial or something. Later, she was sent away, probably to a women’s prison. She didn’t even come to my mother’s funeral three years later. Maybe she couldn’t if she was in prison, but as a child I didn’t know that. I only knew how hurt I was because she wasn’t there. I’d been crazy about Aunt Patsy and I guess I couldn’t deal with all the emotional trauma and had buried it. Until I met Marta Randazzo.

I looked at Marta, “You killed him, didn’t you? You killed him because he beat you and cheated on you and you’d finally had enough. His affair with Sonja Bernard was the last straw.”

Marta began shaking her head no, but I continued. “You wanted a way out.”

“No,” she said. And for the first time since I’d met her, she stood straight with her shoulders back. “He scarred Ellen Davis’s face, but he wasn’t sorry. He even laughed about it. Just like he laughed over what he did to me.” Marta pulled her sweater up and off her head in one fluid motion. She was braless and I winced at the misshapen breasts and the hideous-red-surgical-scar tissue.

“See! See what he did to me?” She was crying now and could barely speak. “I… I killed him…be-because I didn’t want him to get away with ruining another woman.”

“But he didn’t…”

“Y… you think giving Ellen Davis thousands of dollars could ever be enough? And it didn’t even faze him. He was going to disappear. Move to another state and start all over. Start butchering women again. I couldn’t let him. I-I had to stop him.”

“So, that’s why you had a blind spot about her. What did you do when she just up and confessed?” asked C.J.

“I told Marta I knew one of the best defense lawyers in Texas. I called Bulldog Porter. He came over and together they drove downtown to police headquarters.” I looked at C.J. “Thanks for not reminding me how right you were.”

She shrugged. “What about Marta being stalked?”

“Randazzo probably set that up for his disappearing act.”

“And Chris Lansen wasn’t involved?”

“Bulldog wouldn’t let Marta talk to me. I believe Chris dumped the body for her, but killing Tony was her own solitary act.” I thought about that Dinah Washington song, then. “Marta sure had a front row seat for her revenge.”



Many thanks to Jan and those who made this possible. If you enjoyed the story, let Jan know. We might make this a monthly feature.

5 comments:

Darlene Fields said...

Wonderful story. I enjoyed it very much. Thank you for sharing.

Eve Fisher said...

I think it's really good! Thanks, Jan.

Leigh Lundin said...

Jan, it's easy to understand why it was nominated, easy to understand why it won.

Thank you for sharing it with us.

Anne Curry said...

How nice to see a story and an award story at that. Very nice, Jan Grape. I liked that.

Lawrence Maddox said...

What a cool read, Jan. Thanks for sharing!