Showing posts with label Jan Grape. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jan Grape. Show all posts

23 March 2020

Introducing Mr. Block


Jan Grape
My guest author today is Lawrence Block. Better known to most of us as Larry. I've known him for a number of years and spent many hours reading his fiction and his non-fiction. He's an author with so many books published that I am not sure he even knows the number.

He's a teacher of writing as well, with articles and books and essays and workshops on writing. In fact, if you've ever wanted to take a workshop with Larry, you are in for a treat, right here and right now.

A couple of weeks ago, Larry mentioned that he was going to pull the plug on his April workshop. I contacted him and he gave me permission to reprint this message and well, just continue reading.

— Jan Grape

by Larry Block:
  1. In an uncharacteristically prudent move, I've pulled the plug on A Time & A Place For Writing, the workshop I was scheduled to lead Tuesday & Thursday nights in April at @Center4Fiction in Brooklyn. Want to take it at home? For free? No problem.

  2. Thu April 2 @ 7pm—Turn off phone! Sit down with pen/pencil & legal pad set a kitchen timer, & do 15 minutes of free writing as explained in Write For Your Life. This is a warm-up exercise, nobody's going to read it, and as long as the pen is moving you're doing it perfectly.

  3. When the timer goes off, stop. If you're my age, go to the bathroom. If you're young, stay where you are. Boot up your computer. If you've got a work in progress, open the file. If not, open a new blank document. Set the kitchen timer for an hour. Take a deep breath.

  4. Start writing.

  5. When timer goes off at hour's end, stop immediately—or finish the sentence you're writing. Take a few deep breaths. Go to the bathroom. Pick up phone, put it down again w/o turning it on, & congratulate yourself for your resolve. Set timer for a half hour and resume writing.

  6. If you want, email me at lawbloc@gmail.com & say you want to participate. That'll get you an opening sentence each Tues & Thu for your free writing exercise, and may help foster the illusion that you're doing more than sitting home & writing on your own. #pandemicpandemonium

This evening, I went to Larry's Face Book page to look for a photo and title of his latest book or story and found that Mystery Reader's International Journal had a wonderful guest essay by Larry about his latest book. I spoke with Janet Rudolph, the journal's editor and since it's just out right now she sent me a link and photos. Please read. It's a wonderful article by a master author in our field.

LAWRENCE BLOCK:
DEAD GIRL BLUES
How My New Novel Came About and Why I’m Publishing It Myself

Sometime in the late fall of 2018 I started writing a short story. It began with a man picking up a woman in a lowdown roadhouse. A lot of stories, true and fictional, begin that way. Few of them end well.

This one didn’t end well for the woman. I’d have to finish writing it to find out how it would end for the man.

Lawrence Block


28 February 2020

What are the Odds?


Jan Grape
The night of February 27th, 1948, I was 8 years old, but the next day would be my 9th birthday. Not only was I excited about my birthday; that night my mother was having a baby.

I wasn’t exactly sure how the doctor was going to get that baby from my mother’s tummy. And I could tell the grownups weren’t going to explain anything to me because they were sending me off to a neighbor’s house. Yes, my mother would have the baby at home, but with our doctor in attendance. Post was a small town, which didn’t have a hospital. Mother definitely didn’t want her and my step-dad to make a crazy 40 mile trek to Lubbock to the nearest hospital. Besides we knew and trusted our wonderful young doctor, Glenn Kahler.

Late afternoon came and I was happily sent off to my girlfriend’s house to play and do a sleepover. My girlfriend’s mother went to my house to help the doctor make the delivery. Thank goodness I had learned the stork didn’t really bring babies. Doctors, nurses or midwives took on this major task.

Sometime in the wee hours, a knock on the neighbor’s door woke up the whole house. It was my Daddy, Charles. The plan had been for him to wait until morning to come get me but he was excited. “Your baby sister is here and I want you to see her right now.”

The excitement in his voice captured me while I pulled clothes on over my pajamas. But I couldn’t find my shoes.

Daddy Charles said, “Don’t worry about your shoes. I’ll carry you.”
And carry me he did. Diagonally across our street and two houses down. It wasn’t far and at eight years old I was skinny and not that heavy.

It was a cool, February night. The 28th, to be exact. My birthday. But I was too excited to even think about a birthday. I was going to see my new little baby sister, Sharla.

We got to our house and he set me down on the cold concrete porch and led me by hand inside the warm house to the middle bedroon to the beautiful bassinet (like a cradle but with no swing or rocker) my mother had lovingly made for the baby to sleep in.

I crept up and looked inside and there she was, my brand new baby sister. Big brown eyes looking up at me and looking all around. A big beautiful baby doll. I just knew she was thinking, “Hello world. Look out cause here I come.”

“Happy Birthday,” my mama kept trying to say. Then she said, “Take this,” as she held out her hand. I touched her hand. Nothing was in it. “Take this needle,” she said. Daddy Charles said, “Pretend to take it. The doctor gave her medicine and it made her a little loopy.” I didn’t understand exactly, but I pretended to take the invisable needle. “Thank you,” Mama said and closed her eyes and went to sleep.

Still to this day, after all these years, I still can feel that wonderment and excitement and the overwhelming love I felt for this little sister.

Now comes the one in a million odds. The year was 1950, and again it was the evening before my 11th, birthday, February 28th,. My mother was having a baby. Of course, it wasn’t planned.

Once again I was sent to my neighbor’s house to play with and do a sleep over with my friend Toni. Doctor Kahler was again there along with my friend’s mom to assist the doctor.

Jan, Patsy, Sharla
Jan (13), Sharla (5), Patsy (3)
This time Daddy Charles did wait until morning to come and get me. A second sister, Patsy had been born again on my birthday. The excitement, wonder and love once again filled my heart. A big eyed beautiful living doll lying in the ruffled yellow trimmed bassinet. Happy Birthday, Janice.

These two sisters are always part of my life and we always, always talk about our special connection. Not twins or triplets but the shared birthday is always thought of as the 28th, of February rolls around. Patsy likes to tell me, “I was the best birthday present you ever got.” She’s right but I have to then say, “Both you girls were the best presents I ever got.”

No more sisters or brothers born on 28th, of Feb. But my mother’s sister had a boy, named Michael who was born on Feb 28 a year or two later. He was my aunt’s second child and that made four out of five Grandchildren born on February 28th,.

Someone want to figure up those odds?

24 February 2020

The A List in Paperback



I'm very excited to have as my guest author today, J.A. Jance. She gave me permission to reprint this piece from her blog.   I'm not sure I've read all her books, but I've read most including her stand alone thrillers. 

I first met Ms Jance at a Bouchercon in Scotsdale AZ. And  recently was able to spend a few steps with her in Dallas at the 50th Anniversary B'Con. If you've never read J.A. Jance, I suggest you rush right out and get several copies. You will enjoy the time you spend in AZ or in Seattle, Washington  I guarantee you.

She did a drive-by signing at Mysteries & More bookstore, that my late husband, Elmer and I owned in Austin from 1990 to 1999. At that signing, not advertised except to our customers, Ms Jance read from one of her books and opened my eyes to a new and better way to do this. She'd read a little bit, then she'd stop and talk about what she'd been thinking about for that scene or why her character acted in such a way. There were about 12 to 15 people there and at least two were writers and we learned a lesson in keeping people interested and not get into that boring  task of just reading your book. I hope you enjoy this article.
Photo by Mary Ann Halpin Studios

 -Jan Grape


THE A LIST IN PAPERBACK

by J.A. Jance

Yes, The A List, Ali Reynolds # 14, is due out in paperback on January 28, 2020. I may have typed 2020, but my fingers still want to start out with 19 something. Get used to it!

So yes, to my loyal paperback readers, The A List is finally coming out in a mass-market, pen-and-ink edition. I’m sure you think it’s high time, and it is. So today, I’d like to take this opportunity to give you a little background on not only the book but also on how that book in particular has intersected with my life.

In December, a little over a year ago, I was busy putting the final touches on the manuscript. In the story, we encounter Ali Reynolds as she is now, but also as she was while still a news anchor in LA and dealing with one of the biggest stories of her TV newscasting career.

Writing the manuscript hadn’t been easy. In July I developed a frozen shoulder, and in October my husband had back surgery. Initially he recovered well, but by mid-November, the recovery process had stalled out. He wasn’t eating properly. Nothing I cooked suited him, and he wasn’t at all himself. He was grumpy and not quite with it mentally. The only good thing about the situation was that, since he wasn’t eating, he was losing weight which he dutifully posted each morning on a weight-management app on his phone. On December 17, shortly after he posted his weight for the day, the app sent him a text: YOU ARE LOSING WEIGHT TOO FAST. CALL YOUR DOCTOR!

Bill is a retired electronics engineer. This was the computer speaking to him, and having the God in the Machine tell him to do something was a lot more effective than having someone else … namely his wife … tell him the same thing. He called his doctor and made an appointment for the following day. After an examination, the doctor ordered an ultrasound. As soon as he saw the results, the doctor said, “Go directly to the ER!” which we did. By the time we got there Bill, was suffering from acute kidney failure with his kidney function at 14%. Whoa! Had it not been for the app—had we waited one more day—I might well have lost him.

But I didn’t. It’s been a long slow process. He’s recovered enough that we’ll be going on a cruise the end of March. YAY. I love cruises. By now, you’re probably thinking, she’s really flipped her lid this time. Nice story, but what on earth does this have to do with The A List?

For one thing, although the book is a murder mystery, a major subplot is all about … well … kidney disease. In creating the story, I read about kidney disease. I researched kidney disease. I wrote about kidney disease.

Between Christmas and New Years, days after we ended up in the ER, my editor sent me a second pass of the galleys for The A List. I had already done the first pass, but there had been so much chaos in our lives at the time that I thought they deserved a second go-down. In the book there’s a scene where a bereaved mother tells Ali about losing her daughter to kidney disease. In the process she relates the daughter’s symptoms shortly before she died of acute kidney failure. As I read through that passage, the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. I had been describing a fictional character’s symptoms without recognizing that the very same real life symptoms were sitting beside me, right here in our family room!

So, if you’re a paperback reader, by all means, go out and pick up a copy of The A List. But thank you, too, for reading this combination newsletter/blog all the way through, because I want to get the word out. Kidney disease is dangerous and subtle. The symptoms sneak up on you, and sudden unexplained weight loss is one of them. I always thought that questions on physicals about sudden weight changes in the past six months was nothing but a sneaky way of finding out if people were sticking to their diets. Properly functioning kidneys sort out and dispose of all kinds of poisons that pass through the human body. When kidneys quit working, bad things happen. You lose mental acuity right along with losing your appetite. Your personality changes. And it’s not something where a physician can prescribe a medication and you’re suddenly good to go.

So, if you’re reading this through and if any of the above mentioned symptoms seem to fit what’s going on with you or with someone you love, CALL THE DOCTOR and ask to be tested for kidney function. This isn’t your wife or husband speaking—it’s the VOICE IN THE MACHINE, SO PAY ATTENTION!

Thus endeth the daily reading. As for coming attractions? I’m currently doing copy editing on Ali # 15, Credible Threat and working on the next Joanna Brady book, Missing and Endangered, due out this fall. So I’m still writing, and I’m incredibly grateful that so many of you are still reading. 

27 January 2020

Music, Stories, and Books


author Jan Grape
author Jan Grape
They say that music soothes the savage beast. I believe it. Especially when the savage beast is human. Music can bring back wonderful memories. Music can make you laugh or make you cry.

I grew up in the 40s and 50s. My mother loved Big Band music but her absolutely favorite music was out of the Nashville from The Grand Old Opry. We listened on the radio every Saturday night. She loved Ernest Tubb and Eddy Arnold. She liked Hank Williams and Little Jimmy Dickins. She adored Patsy Cline and Dotty West and Loretta Lynn. When I happen to hear one of these singers on Country Gold I can be transported to our living room in Post, Texas listening to my mother singing along.

When my parents, Iva Ann and Tommy Barrow, were a young couple first married they lived in a small upstairs apartment in Fort Worth. This was right after I was born and before they divorced two years later. My dad played guitar and a couple of friends joined in including mother who could strum along, the guys all patted their feet to keep rhythm. To keep the downstairs neighbors from complaining, mother put pillows under their feet.

After my mom rremarried and we moved out to Post and I visited my dad in the summer in Fort Worth and he would play ukelate and he and I would sing. Now ukes are popular again. But those memories of my mom and dad are both very precious to me

When my husband, Elmer passed away in '05, I had major health problems. Breast cancer mastectomy and chemo '06, shingles '06, a broken humerus that required a steel plate and 10 screws to repair in '07, an abcess in my colon requiring surgery in '08 it was music that kept me sane. I began going to see live musicians twice a week at my favorite restaurant. It helped to heal my soul and body heal and kept me sane.

What does this all do with stories and books. To my mind when an author makes a mention of the music the characters plays or listens to, I think it makes that character stronger and more real in my mind.

A good example is Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch. Harry loves jazz and has many albums of his favorites that he mentions in every story. I feel I know Harry, a now retired LAPD detective a little better than just his solving murders and maybe getting into physical trouble while doing so.

A successful writer told me many years ago that you should let the reader see, hear, smell, feel or touch on every page. I don't know if I ever do that. I do know I try to invoke reader's senses as much as possible. I do think your characters are stronger and more realistic if you can do this and that's one thing I find with Barb Goffman's short stories. Short stories are harder to give a reader a real sense of the major characer becaause you don't have 250 pages to develop them. Barb does it better than many others I've read.

Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller, Bill Pronzini, Lee Child all have strong characters in their books. Sue Grafton and Tony Hillerman also. You can see, feel, smell, hear and touch what their characters are doing and you are right there along with them because you believe them.

I want to remember these points myself which is partly why I'm writing this down!

24 January 2020

Ten Pin Alley


Riley Fox
Riley Fox
Riley Fox is my oldest grandchild. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee.  He's been writing or telling little fiction stories ever since he was five years old. For past ten years he has done stand-up comedy writing his own jokes. This is his first fiction story to be published.     — Jan Grape


TEN PIN ALLEY
by Riley Fox

There’s something about the smell of a bowling alley that is hard to define. From the coat of mineral oil on the wooden lanes, to the inescapable presence of cigarette smoke that clings to the brick walls like a memory that refuses to leave you alone in the dead of night, to whatever it is they spray into the insides of those cheap rental shoes that always seem to be too big and too small at the exact same time, it’s a smell that you can only identify in fragments. But that’s exactly what Earl loves about it. Sometimes you can only appreciate a full image by its parts.

Earl has owned this bowling alley for so long that many frequent visitors greet him by name. Even the ones who don’t know his name recognize his ever-present smile peeking from beneath his thick white mustache and his piercing blue eyes that seem to see into your heart without seeing through it. He asks them about their days, their families, their lives, and he remembers the details. He delights in their successes and commiserates in their failures, and usually throws in a free game or, depending on the circumstances, a free alcoholic beverage to long-time regulars. He never sees them beyond the bowling alley, so they are the closest thing to friends he has, but he doesn’t mind. He’s happy to have the repeat business.

Each night, when the hour strikes eleven, Earl switches off the neon sign outside, and after escorting the night’s final patrons to the exit, he locks the doors, goes behind the bar to pour himself a glass of Coors Light, plays the Hotel California album by The Eagles on the jukebox, and opens a lane to roll a single solitary game. Some nights go better than others, but he doesn’t think nor care about the score. Instead, Earl uses the nightly ritual to meditate and reflect, to wander and get lost within the vastness of a mind that has vicariously lived hundreds of lives in a single day. The bright crackle of pins being knocked around by a speeding ball is an intoxicating sound, itself a repetitive rhythm that soothes the soul and ignites the synapses to look into the past, present, and future. Some nights he imagines the ball rolling on forever until it becomes the size of a speck of dust and then disappears into nothingness. Infinity is only bound by the limits of how far one chooses to see.

After the last roll of his game, Earl waits for the ball-return machine to spit his bowling ball out to him so he can return it to the nearby shelf of in-house balls. Bowling balls are identical in size, but vary in weight. For casual players, this simply means finding the weight you are most comfortable rolling. However, for more experienced players, this can create strategic opportunities: a lighter ball can be spun faster and create a wider-angle trajectory for picking up tricky spares, while a heavier ball creates a more powerful impact to increase the likelihood of a strike. As Earl has gotten older, his preferred weight has dwindled slightly– he currently uses an eleven-pound ball as opposed to the fourteen-pounder he rolled in his younger years– but he still likes a simplistic approach: feet lined up along the center boards (the thin lined rows along the lane), throw it down the middle, between the center head pin and the pin to its right, which seasoned bowlers refer to as “the pocket,” and try to strike. Then, if any pins remain standing, adjust to the left or right along the boards, and angle the throw however necessary in order to attempt the spare. Earl never bowled at a competitive level himself, but after spending so many years watching others, he learned a few things along the way. If he saw someone successfully pick up one of the more difficult spare arrangements, such as a 6-7-10 split, he might pick their brain for a tip.

After placing his ball back on the shelf, Earl sat at a laneside chair and finished drinking his beer as the warm sound of The Eagles continued to fill the room. When the final song concluded, he unplugged the jukebox, performed one final sweep around the alley to turn off all the mechanical machinery that makes a bowling alley operate, turned out the lights, and headed for the exit. Looking out into the parking lot, he saw a handful of vehicles scattered across the moonlit pavement. The air was thick and still. Even though he was the last one to leave, oftentimes visitors left their cars overnight, particularly if they had had too many alcoholic beverages and called a cab home, and later returned to retrieve them the following day. Earl never minded this; he was certainly much happier to allow these vehicles to remain parked in order to prevent someone from driving when they shouldn’t.

Because he remembered what happened that night.

He remembered the glint of shattered glass on the highway beneath the stars. He remembered the grim taste of blood in his mouth. He remembered the overbearing stench of burnt rubber. He remembered the way time itself seemed to slow to a harrowing crawl; every second seemed like a minute, and every hour seemed infinite. He remembered the cacophonous anti-symphony of wailing sirens and shrieks. He remembered not remembering what happened next. He remembered waking up in a bed that wasn’t his own, surrounded by people he didn’t recognize. He remembered a man in a suit standing at the foot of the bed, speaking words that blurred together, a violent collection of syllables twisting into each other until three slashed their way to the forefront.

Manslaughter.

The word sliced through every cell in his body. The man in the suit dryly and methodically recounted the sequence of events, as though he were giving a presentation. Earl did the best he could to keep up despite his disoriented state: torrential rain, low visibility, hydroplaned, lost control, careened into oncoming traffic, female high school student, graduation party, flipped into a roadside ditch, died instantaneously upon impact. Infinity is only bound by the limits of how far one chooses to see, and he had robbed someone of making that choice for themselves. The man in the suit said something about justice for the family. Earl looked at the couple holding each other next to him. They were sobbing. Earl cried with them.

The trial was mercifully swift. Earl pleaded guilty. The girl’s parents asked the judge for moderate leniency on Earl’s sentence, citing the fact that Earl had no prior criminal record, and that living with the guilt of his actions--which he had already begun to experience when he grieved with them in the hospital--would be punishment enough. Earl testified that, while he was grateful for the parents’ kindness and compassion, he felt he did not deserve it due to the nature of the crime he had committed, and asked the judge not to grant any measure of leniency, for he believed that the only thing the family truly deserved was something that was impossible, and therefore anything less than the maximum sentence would still come up short of what he considered to be justice for the family. The judge handed down his sentence: four years in prison, half of the maximum federal sentence for involuntary manslaughter.

Earl’s incarceration was a lonely time. When he slept, he dreamed haunting tales of isolation. When he was conscious, he would read books from the prison library, or he would simply lie on his bed and stare at the ceiling. He thought about the girl. He thought about her parents. He thought about that night. He replayed the details over and over until he made himself sick and vomited into his toilet. He wanted to rewrite her history. Scratch that, he wanted her to live out the rest of her story. His was over anyway.

On the one-year anniversary of the day he entered prison, Earl received a letter in the mail. His first piece of mail since being incarcerated. He looked at the envelope. The return address was from his town, but he didn’t recognize it. Maybe it was from an attorney about his case, or a relative who had heard about what happened. Earl carefully opened the envelope, treating it like some kind of rare gemstone. Inside was a letter addressed to him. Before finishing the opening line, he began to cry. It was from the girl’s parents. His heart flayed open and his soul crawled through the incision, not like someone trying to escape but like an infant emerging triumphantly from a pile of rubble, fully aware of its surroundings and yet without the communicative tools to express itself effectively. He pored over each word, each line, with the studious eye of an academic, while letting every emotion underneath fight its way to the surface.

He learned about the girl, at least as much as the parents were willing to share to the man who stole her from their lives. He learned about her sociopolitical interests (criminal justice reform, the environment, gun safety), her hobbies (binging Netflix shows with her friends, fashion blogging), her favorite authors (Haruki Murakami, Toni Morrison, Ursula Le Guin), her dreams (she had planned on attending the University of Oregon that fall with the intent to major in journalism, but wanted to wait a year or two before committing). Each new detail was another stroke of paint on a blank canvas, and after finishing the letter, Earl wanted to expand the palette of colors. He wrote back to the parents. He thanked them for being kind enough to write to him, explaining that their letter was the first communication he’d had with the outside world in a year. He asked them to write back, to share more about their wonderful daughter, because he wanted to use the remainder of his life to honor her in whatever way he could. He wanted to lift her into Infinity’s grace, so she could see the precious gifts that lie beyond the limits of space.

For months, Earl heard nothing. Each day the prison guard tasked with handing out mail would pass by his cell without acknowledgement, and Earl would spend each night silently begging the girl for forgiveness, for just a modicum of compassion. He looked out the window of his cell at the sparkling dots of the distant city, each one twinkling at its own tempo. He often wondered if one of them belonged to the home of the girl’s parents. He imagined them attempting to have a meal together, only for it to be derailed when one of them broke down in tears. He often wished he could be there for those moments, in order to comfort them, to hold them tight and tell them he was sorry, that sorry would never fill the permanent void in their hearts, that he shared their feelings of loss, that he hated himself as much as they did, even if they never dared to admit it, because they didn’t want to desecrate her memory with vengeful rage, even if it was a natural part of the grieving process, to feel the impulse to wrap their hands around his throat, to become a self-appointed god of revenge, to hear the croaking struggles of his desperate final breath, to see his eyes become vacant and lifeless, in acceptance of a fate so violent, so primal, knowing he deserved to choke on his own benevolence, such that were he to ask for mercy, he would know the true answer. Every night, he wished for this. And every night, his yearning desires went unanswered, and he would cry himself to sleep. So often the pain of not knowing hurts worse, because there’s no bone to stop the questioning blade from slicing deeper, until your body has become a pile of shredded ribbons where you once stood.

A few weeks before Earl was scheduled to be released from prison, the answer he begged the endless sky for arrived. Another letter had come for him, this time with no return address. The envelope was much thinner than the one he had received previously, but he didn’t care. He ripped it open with the same ferocity of a child on their birthday, eager to caress the contents between his fingers but careful not to damage them in the process. Inside was a single piece of paper. It was another note from the parents. They wished him luck with the rest of his life, and asked that he refrain from ever contacting them upon being granted his freedom out of respect for their privacy. Then they reiterated their hope that he would use his remaining days to honor their daughter, like Earl himself had pledged. Unlike the first letter, however, this one ended differently. The first letter had been signed with two names: those of the two parents. This one had a third name added to the signature line.

Sadie.

He read the name over and over. Sadie. Sadie. Sadie. Sadie. Sadie. It rattled around his brain until it hurt. He certainly thought it was a prettier name than his own. For a name without any hard consonants, Earl had a guttural inflection to it that he often likened to human vomit (it didn’t help that his name rhymes with hurl). The name Sadie was soft and delicate, like a rose petal floating gently towards the ground long after the flower itself crashed with a bursting thud. He wanted to keep her name suspended in midair, between the chasm of life and death, where all things can exist forever in Infinity, from the blackest days to the brightest nights, with the dazzling vibrancy of colors, the sonic clarity of sounds, and the neverending collage of the grand tapestry of the universe.

Back in the present, as Earl approached his vehicle in the bowling alley parking lot, he gazed up at the stars as they danced in the moonlight. He turned to take one final look at the pink-and-yellow neon sign in front of the building– which read: Sadie’s Ten Pin Alley--muttered a prayer to himself, and drove into the night as the sign illuminated her spirit into the sky.


11 January 2020

Crime Fiction and Comedy.


In addition to publishing short form humor, Bill Rodgers writes action-filled thrillers with an element of mystery. His initial foray into crime fiction, Killer Set: Drop the Mic, a Bullet Book, debuted in Fall 2019. Bill has written for Jay Leno for over twenty years, and his material has been used in Jay’s monologues and comedy routines around the world. Bill’s writing has taken many other forms, including sitcom scripts, stage plays, and action-comedy screenplays.

 
CRIME FICTION AND COMEDY

by Bill Rodgers

Writing comedy and writing crime fiction share a number of common elements, though they may be used in different ways. Two interesting elements are voice and the release of tension.

When writing jokes for Jay Leno, I write in Jay’s voice. I write the way Jay talks - the way he delivers. I write on topics Jay likes to use in his act. I use the same attitude Jay exudes while performing.

Recently, I co-authored my first crime fiction book with Manning Wolfe. Killer Set: Drop the Mic, is the story of a road comic, Beau Maxwell, who travels the country performing his standup comedy. While in Boston, he’s accused of murdering the comedy club owner where he is headlining. Although the main character is a comedian, he has to navigate through serious and sometimes dangerous circumstances. It was a challenge to develop a voice for Beau that allowed him to be both funny and fearful when in danger.

The idea of comic relief has been around since the beginning of storytelling and involves the buildup and release of tension. A comedian develops the setup of a joke, leading the audience or reader along a certain direction, building interest or tension along the way. Then he takes a sharp and unexpected turn for the punchline. The release of tension results in a laugh.

In crime fiction, the story carries the reader along as conflict and tension build. This tension can be released in a number of ways. There could be a fight, either verbal or physical. Or murder, which then leads to more conflict.

There could be an escape, or a surprise revelation. Sometimes, conflict in crime fiction can be released with humor. Turns out, Beau is a bit of a smartass, which allowed us to use humor to release conflict before starting to re-build it – akin to riding a roller coaster – up and down. I hope you find time to read Killer Set: Drop the Mic soon, and that you enjoy the ride!

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!