Showing posts with label story. Show all posts
Showing posts with label story. Show all posts

17 June 2019

Jan Grape's Found Dead in Texas:
Scarlett Fever, 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

Scarlett Fever
Part 2

by Jan Grape

continued…

I filled him in on Wilson Billeau and the saga of Scarlett, and on everything C.J. and I had done. “Everyone I talked to was convinced she’d left for more bucks and glory elsewhere.” It was difficult trying to talk and eat too, but I managed. “What’s the story on this guy you’ve arrested?”

“Tolliver tells a straight forward tale with only one twist. Says he was in town for a sales conference and he picked her up yesterday afternoon at the hotel bar.” Larry was shoveling his food and didn’t let the talk slow him down. “They spent a short time talking and indulged in a little slap and tickle. He figured she was a hooker, working the convention, but he didn’t mind.”

“Does he have a record?”

“Nope. He’s squeaky clean.”

“Then what’s the twist?”

“Somebody slipped him a Mickey Finn,” he said. “We had a few last year. Hookers setting-up and rolling out-of-towners. First one I’ve seen this year though.”

“But why did he kill her?”

“The captain thinks Tolliver woke-up earlier than expected. Caught the woman with her hand in his billfold and flew into a rage.” Larry finished his food and Paco unobtrusively removed the plate.

“You don’t agree?”

“I don’t know. Maybe I’ve got a burr up my tail. I think his story about waking up at one o’clock this morning and finding her dead in his bathroom is the truth.”

I shuddered. Finding a woman in the bathroom stabbed to death gave me the willies.

“It won’t be easy to prove his innocence. He claims he never saw the knife before, but it was there in the shower, his prints on it. Two points in his favor is that he didn’t run. He called the cops and waited until they showed. His hands were also unmarked.”

“Why wouldn’t he hide the knife?”

“Exactly. Or wipe his prints. Tolliver says he picked it up without thinking.” Larry lit up one of his favored cigarillos. “He wasn’t too coherent during questioning, he acted much like a person would if they’d been given a Mickey.”

“Do you have a better ID for the girl than Scarlett Fever O’Hara?”

Larry nearly choked on his iced tea. “Are you shitting me? Scarlett Fever O’Hara?”

“She danced at the Lucky Star Bar And Grill as Scarlett Fever. But she was registered at the Stagecoach Motel under Scarlett Fever O’Hara.”

“The Stagecoach Motel, huh? We don’t have that yet. Where is it?”

“On South Congress just before you get to 71.”

“I’d better make a trip out there. They took her prints at the morgue and are running a search with AFIS (Automated Fingerprint Identification System.) If she’s been arrested, we’ll get a positive ID and her real name.”

“She’d moved out, the place was empty. It’s probably been rented to someone else by now.” When I saw his face, I knew I’d said too much. “How could I know it was going to be a murder investigation. That was three weeks ago.”

Larry tried, but couldn’t hold his serious face and smiled, “You bribed the clerk?”

“Let’s say I donated to his favorite charity.”

“I’ll still need to talk to him - the sooner the better.” He punched his cigarillo out in the ashtray, stood up and grabbed his wallet. “Thanks for the info, Jen.”

“Thanks for lunch. You are buying?” I walked with him to the cash register.

“Sure. You saved me some leg work. That’s worth lunch.”

“Christmas will be here soon,” I said, as we walked into the bright sunshine.

“And someone’s daughter won’t be home. God, I hate this time of year.” He walked with me to my car. “That photo didn’t do her justice,” he said, as he bent to give me a brotherly goodbye kiss.

I headed for the Interstate wanting to get back to work before I started thinking about Wilson Billeau and his beautiful dead Scarlett and got depressed.



IV

Damn Sam. I was northbound, four miles from my exit when it hit me, that niggling little thing I’d overlooked earlier. Dancers work-out all the time, they have to to stay in shape. Why not strippers? Especially one hoping to latch on to a star. Neither C.J. nor I had thought about checking for a dance studio or health spa. I found a clear space in traffic, wrenched my car across the lanes, squealed off at the exit, crossed under the underpass, and headed down the southbound entrance ramp.

Once I was going in the right direction, I picked up the Cellular phone and dialed. “C.J.? What dance studios or panting palaces are near The Lucky Star or the Stagecoach Motel?”

“What do you think I am? The frigging information op. . .” She caught on fast. “Scarlett, huh?”

“You got that right. Why didn’t we. . .?”

“It was slim to none. She wasn’t into ballet.”

“Yeah, but,” I couldn’t explain the feeling, some inner instinct. “It’s a long shot.”

“I’ve gone out on a lot less before, Girlfriend.” She gave me names and addresses of two dance places and three health clubs in the area. “Let me know what you find out.”

The dance studios were a bust, ditto the first health club. The next sweat box on the list didn’t sound promising because of its name, but nothing ventured and all that.

The Texas Gym and Health Spa was three miles south of the Lucky Star. For boxer and weight-lifter types only, I thought. A dirty beige concrete block building. It looked like it went out of business in 1969. A sign in the front window said OPEN. I walked in and the stale odor of sweat almost made me walk back out again. The reception area was small, a motel-style counter and doors on each side leading to open hallways. LADY’S GYM right and MEN’S GYM left. So it was co-ed. A door behind the counter led to what probably was an office.

A man of indeterminate age came out from the MEN’S side. He had on sweat pants and a form-fitting T-shirt which didn’t do a thing for the extra fifty pounds he carried in his belly. His arms and shoulders were huge, but his face drew your attention. A deep red scar began at his nose and curled down across his chin. His small eyes were buried in folds of fat. How could he convince anyone they needed to shape-up?

“Are you the manager?”

“The manager ain’t here now. I’m his helper.” He spoke slowly, like he had to think about what I said and then think about what he was going to say before he said it.

“When do you expect him?”

“Tonight. He’s got a funeral this afternoon.”

That one threw me. “What?’

The man guffawed. “That’s right, Brother Adkins owns this gym and he’s a preacher, too.” He scratched his chin along the edge of the scar. “Brother Adkins says the body is a Holy Temple and we should treat it as such.”

A strange combination, if you ask me, but perhaps it did make a sort of weird sense. “Guess I never thought of it that way.”

“Can I show you around?”

“No, I really needed to talk to. . .”

“I’m Buddy. He leaves me in charge when he’s gone. I’m sure I can tell you. . .”

Taking the photo out of my purse, I said. “I’m Jenny Gordon, a private detective. I’m trying to find this young woman.” I held the picture out. He took it and studied it as if memorizing some state secret.

Eventually he looked up and said. “She sure looks like Miss Henrietta, but it can’t be. This girl is older and too painted up.”

“Miss Henrietta?”

“She’s Brother Adkins’ daughter.” He looked at the picture again. “I’m sure it’s not her.”

“Where would I find Miss Henrietta?”

“She’s gone. Brother Adkins said something about her going up to Dallas a few days ago. I don’t think she’s come back yet.”

This was maybe even a longer shot now, but I’d already started down this path and hated to give up. “And you’re sure this isn’t Henrietta Adkins?”

Buddy looked again. “No, it’s not Miss Henrietta, but it looks like her older sister.”

“Does Miss Adkins have an older sister?”

“I don’t think so. Brother Adkins never told it to me. Henrietta never said nothing about a sister either.” Buddy stared at me, his gaze almost as intent as the one he’d given the photo. “Did you say you was a cop?”

“No. I didn’t say that, Buddy. I’m a private detective. Looking for this missing girl.”

“Oh, yeah. You said that when you come in.”

“I’d like to talk to the Reverend. Maybe he saw this girl. Someone said she used to workout here.”

“I didn’t never see her.” He looked at his watch. “He’ll have go to the cemetery for the grave side.”

“Will he come back here after the cemetery?”

“Maybe. In an hour. . .I guess.”

“Thanks, I’ll come back in a hour.” I stopped at the door and asked, “Is Miss Henrietta a dancer - like a ballet dancer?”

“No way. Dancing is forbidden by the Word. It’s a sin and ab-bomi-nee-tion for a woman to call attention to herself.” He stumbled over the four-syllable word.

“I understand. Well, thanks and don’t work out too hard, you don’t want to strain a muscle.” He gave me a puzzled look as I left. It taxed his brain too much to figure that one.

A hamburger emporium was a block down and across from the gym. I went inside, ordered a large iced tea, and found a pay phone.

“C.J.?” I told her about Brother Adkins and his daughter. “Can you check family records to see if there’s another child, an older girl?”

“Like a black sheep daughter?”

“Maybe. Something’s there, but I don’t know what or how it connects.”

“No problemo.” Our other phone line rang. “Check you later, Girlfriend. Bye.”

I sat in a booth facing the gym and sipped on my drink. I took out a pocket notebook and tried to make sense out of what I knew and what I didn’t. Mostly, I doodled.

All the tea I’d had for lunch added to these extra ounces soon sent me scurrying to the LADIES. I hated to leave my looking post, but when you gotta go. . .

A maroon station wagon, a sign on the side reading Texas Gym & Health Spa, had pulled up while I was answering nature’s call, and I saw a slender man in a dark leisure suit walking up to the gym’s entrance. That must be Preacher Adkins, I thought, hustled out and drove across the street.

The reception area was empty. I crossed behind the counter and stuck my head into the office. The man I assumed to be Adkins was bent over the open drawer of a file cabinet.

I knocked on the doorjamb.

He whirled around. “Who are y..you?” His gray eyes in his narrow oval face showed surprise. He was about six feet tall, his muscular arms and legs were well defined under the suit. A product of his own sound-body-dictum, probably. He had graying hair, thin, disapproving lips and a deep cleft in his chin. It was the Kirk Douglas-dimple that fit Delia Rose’s description of an older movie star.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you, Brother Adkins. I’m Jenny Gordon. I’m trying to locate a missing girl who supposedly worked-out here. I’m hoping you might know her.” I noticed the faint indentation in Scarlett’s chin on the photo I handed to him. Hard to deny family genes, I thought.

He took the photograph and glanced at it briefly. “I don’t know her. She may have been in here, but I don’t think so.”

“Are you sure? I was told this girl resembles your daughter?” “You’ve been talking to Buddy,” he said, handing the picture back. “You can’t pay too much attention to him. His brain is addled from taking too many jabs to the head. Every photograph he sees of a girl looks like Henrietta to him. He has a big crush on her.”

“Then this girl doesn’t look like your daughter?”

“No.” He evaded my eyes and his voice grew indignant. “My daughter is younger, more beautiful and innocent. She has blue eyes and blonde hair. Henrietta would never paint herself up like a harlot either.”

“Is Henrietta your only daughter?”

“My only child. My wife died in childbirth.”

The part about his wife was true maybe, but I didn’t believe for a minute he only had one child. “I’m sorry.”

“It was a long time ago. I’m sure The Lord had a greater need for her than we did.”

“This young woman is laying stone-cold in the Travis County morgue. Unloved and unwanted,” I said, hoping for some reaction. “Somebody’s family will miss her this Christmas.”

His voice took on the timbre of the hell-fire and brimstone evangelist. “I read about this harlot in the newspaper. She was a sinner, a whore. She doesn’t deserve a Christian burial.”

“That’s one way of looking at it,” I said. “Whatever happened to Christian forgiveness?”

“The Lord Almighty is the only One who can forgive sins. He will finally turn away from you if you keep rejecting him, just like some parents have to turn away from their children.”

He’d justified it all in his mind and I didn’t have any argument for that. “Thanks for your time,” I said, anxious to get away from this holier-than-thou Bible-thumper. No wonder Scarlett wanted to be anonymous. Henrietta probably felt the same way. “I’d like to call Henrietta. . .”

He pointed a finger at me and shouted. “Get out of here, you Jezebel. And you stay away from Henrietta. She has nothing to do with harlots and whores.”

I’d never been accused of being a Jezebel before. It was time to go before he started throwing stones at me.



V

Information poured from the office printer like hail coming from a Texas tornado cloud, amazing my technological aptitude of a horned toad with it’s speed. C.J. got all the information we needed without ever leaving her desk.

Two legal document copies blew away all my theories. Texas birth certificates require a response to: other children born to this mother? And more specifically: how many other children are now living? Henrietta Jo Adkins was the only child born to Mary Madeline Fever Adkins. A death certificate for the wife of Stephen Adkins showed Madeline died on January 29, 1970, from heart failure. “Fever” wasn’t just part of Scarlett’s clever stage name, it was also her mother’s maiden name. I’d been so sure there was an older daughter but Henrietta Adkins and Scarlett Fever O’Hara had to be one and the same.

“Any other proof?” I asked C.J.

“Uh-huh. Scarlett was arrested for solicitation twice under the name of Henrietta Jo Adkins. The Austin police department AFIS computer matched their fingerprints.”

Preacher Adkins’ attitude still infuriated me. “That sancti-monious bastard doesn’t even intend to bury his own flesh and blood. Doesn’t he care or know that Wilson is claiming the body?”

“No, because the heartless S.O.B. disowned her completely. But I hope he feels some fear right about now.”

“Because his daughter was identified as a hooker?”

“You got it,” said C.J. “His little church flock will probably tar and feather him. His reputation is ruined and . . .”

“Maybe he killed her to keep his reputation intact .”

“Good thinking, Jenny.”

“We seem to have a plethora of male suspects,” I said.

“Marshall Tolliver, the man found in the room with the very dead Scarlett and, Preacher Adkins. Who else?”

“Buddy, the pug-ugly down at the gym. Except I can’t see him being smart enough to carry out the complications of Mickey Finns. And. . .Wilson Billeau.”

“Surely you don’t think our good old country boy killed the girl he claims to love? Besides he’s our client.”

“He’s technically not ours anymore. It’s happened before, even to us.” I knew she didn’t want to be reminded about when her cousin, Veronica, and Veronica’s baby had been killed, so I continued.

“If we rule out Buddy,” I said, “we still have three viable suspects. You do know it’s not exactly our business to get into an active homicide case.”

“Larry Hays would never forgive us.”

“Understatement of the year. Yet you and I know what a heavy case load he has. He won’t devote much time trying to solve a hooker’s murder.”

“What have you got in mind?”

“Not a darn thing, but if we put our heads together, we should be able to come up with someone who might have wanted Scarlett dead.”

“Exactly and who was around to do it.”

We brainstormed for an hour and couldn’t figure out how to bypass Larry without causing trouble. “Maybe we should lay low and see what happens.”

“I’d much rather stir things up and see what happens,” said C.J. with an evil grin.

“What do we do about Mr. Tolliver?” I asked.

“After what Larry told you earlier,” she said, “we can probably rule him out. If we talk to the hotel employees we might collaborate his story.”

“Larry’s team has already done that, I would imagine.”

“Okay, let’s head out to Dripping Springs to see what Wilson Billeau has to say and come back by the Lucky Star. We can stop in there for a cold beer. Talk to some folks.”

C.J. drove us to Wilson’s house with the top down on her Mustang. It was a great evening for a drive, but I didn’t feel much like talking. I kept thinking how Wilson was really a sweet kid and how it would upset me if he was involved. C. J. knew how I felt, or maybe she even felt the same way, because she kept quiet too.

Bulldog Porter’s Lincoln Towncar was in the driveway and he greeted us at the door, a finger to his lips. “Wilson is laying down. He could use some feminine company. I’m not too good at this.”

We walked into the living room and sat down. “The police called my office a short time ago,” said Bulldog. “They knew I represented the man who claimed Scarlett’s body and made the funeral arrangements. They said she’d been identified as Henrietta Adkins, but I can only say the name Wilson always used.”

Wilson had heard us come in and he joined us. “Do you know if the police have arrested the man who killed her yet?” he asked without preamble. “Bulldog said they cleared that man from Houston and he was released from jail.” His face showed the ravages of grief and his eyes were red-rimmed. He was suffering. If it was an act, it was the Oscar-winning performance of the year.

C.J. and I looked at each other. An unspoken message passed between us. This young man can’t be the killer.

“We haven’t talked to the police in the past few hours,” I said. “I think our friend in homicide will call when APD makes an arrest.”

Wilson said Scarlett’s father still wanted no part of claiming her, so the funeral would be as he’d planned, tomorrow at two p.m. He said he hoped we’d come. We said we’d be there and he went back to the bedroom.

I could tell Bulldog was grieving along with Wilson. He obviously had unusually strong feelings about his friend’s son.

Bulldog said, “I’ve told Wilson the police will do their best, but they’ll soon give up unless the killer drops in their lap. They don’t have the time to devote to a long investigation. Wilson would like you to take the case when the police give up.”

We finally agreed to do what we legally could.

Bulldog was nodding off as we left, but Wilson came out to walk to the car with us. “Jenny, would you and C.J. promise me one thing?” he asked and for the first time since we arrived, his voice had some emotion. “No matter how long it takes or how much it costs, I want you to keep on looking. I want whoever killed her to rot in jail.”

“We’ll do our best,” I said. “But as far as the jail term, Wilson, you know today’s justice system - the killer may only serve a short time or get off completely. It’s up to a judge and jury.”

C.J. and I headed back to Austin.

“I can’t help feeling sorry for him,” I said. “For someone who’d never dated that girl, much less had a relationship with her, he’s in bad shape. Did you see those big sad eyes?”

“She represented a fantasy to him, a dream,” said C.J. “A dream that died. That’s what had been worrying me. I was afraid he might have been too obsessed. That when he’d found out she was a hooker he didn’t want anyone else to touch her.”

“I know. Deep down I was afraid of the same thing. Are you confident he’s innocent?”

“Yes. And if Larry has cleared Marshall Tolliver - that poor sucker from Houston - there’s only one suspect left.”

“Scarlett’s unforgiving father,” I said.

“And if Larry’s as smart as I think he is, he’s already checking Adkins from top to bottom. Let’s go to the Hyatt for some fajitas,” she said. “We can eat and talk about our options.”

“I can’t do it. I had a humongous lunch. We could go over to my house and I’ll fix a salad and grill a steak or a chicken breast for you.”

C.J. is a big gal and eats like a construction worker. Luckily she never gains an ounce, but she also lifts weights, swims, and does martial arts training.

When we reached my apartment C.J. parked and opened her car door. “I hope you have a cold beer - I could use one, maybe even two.”

We went inside. I went to the kitchen and got out a couple of Lite Coors. “I’ll make up the bed in the guest room for you and we won’t worry about you driving home tonight.”

“That works for me,” C.J. said and popped the top on her can.

I popped mine also and checked for my telephone messages. One was a hang-up and the other was Bulldog Porter. “Jenny? Are you there? Wilson has talked himself into doing something drastic. He’s on his way now to talk to Scarlett’s father. He thinks Adkins had something to do with killing her. I dozed off, but he left me a note. Wait, I’ve got Adkins’s home address here.”

Papers rustled noisily, then Bulldog gave out the preacher’s address. “That’s just off William Cannon and West Gate. We’ve got to stop him. I’m heading over there now.” A moment later Bulldog said, “It’s 9:05.”

“Holy Shit! That was over forty minutes ago,” said C.J. “Let’s go.”

The barely-sipped beer went down the drain and we left. The address where Preacher Adkins lived was five or six miles farther south and two or three miles west of the Lucky Star Bar and Grill It was a yuppified suburban area a good thirty to forty minutes from my apartment even at this time of night and using the freeway.

“MiGod, C.J. Did you see this coming?”

“No way. But in hindsight, I should have. Wilson was a man in pain and he wants a killer brought to justice.”

“And I just had to remind him justice was blind and deaf.”

“He didn’t need you to figure that out, Girlfriend.”

“I know, but damn. Damn, damn.”

As we raced down Interstate-35 I called Larry’s house and office. No answer at either place. I dialed his pager and punched in our number. He still had not responded when we exited on William Cannon Drive and turned into a sub-division. The houses along here were a little older than others in the upscale section down the block. When we neared the address, I spotted Larry’s car parked behind two patrol units, their red and blue lights stabbing the darkness.

A Special Missions Team (SMT) was there, tall men dressed in black, with helmets and equipment hanging from everywhere. They carried heavy firepower and looked like alien warriors from Star Wars.

Two uniformed patrolmen kept back a small knot of thrill-seekers and, as we parked I saw the SMT squad move out surrounding the house.

Bulldog’s Lincoln Towncar was angled up to the edge of the lawn two houses away. We parked on the opposite side of the street. When he saw us he opened his car door and waved us over. “Can you find out what’s going on?” he asked. “No one will tell me anything.”

“They haven’t let you talk to Wilson?” I said. “Don’t they know you might be able to talk some sense into him? Come on, we’ll try to find someone in charge.”

The three of us walked slowly toward the house, edging our way through people politely so the uniformed officers wouldn’t think we were troublemakers. As we reached one of the patrolmen, a shot was fired, coming from inside the house.

A second shot followed, moments later. Both shots sounded like they were from the same handgun and not one of the rifles the SMT officers used.

“I don’t think Wilson has a gun,” said Bulldog.

The SMT squad swarmed in and someone yelled “He’s down.”

I knew it would be awhile before we would know anything. Two ambulances squealed up, one behind the other, and the silence when they turned off the sirens was exquisite. The EMS attendants ran inside the house.

“That’s a good sign, isn’t it?” asked Bulldog. “Someone needs medical attention.”

“It could mean anything, Bulldog,” I said. “Don’t get your hopes too high.”

When the Medical Examiner’s station wagon pulled up a few minutes later, I had to catch Bulldog when he slumped. I eased the old man to a sitting position on the ground and C.J., with tightened lips, said she was going to find Larry Hays and get some answers.

Time passed and I couldn’t get Bulldog to go to his car. We sat in the dewy grass and I kept my arm around his shaking bony shoulders. Neither of us talked.

When C.J. returned to where we sat, one of the EMS attendants followed and I could tell from her face the news was grim. “They’re both. . .,” she shook her head. “Looks like they fought. The preacher had a gun. After he shot Wilson, he killed himself.”

Bulldog started having chest pains. “He was my son,” Bulldog said. “His legal father was my best friend, but no one except his mother and I ever knew.”

The EMS guys began checking the old man.

C.J. took me aside. “The police found news clippings of Adkins being convicted of child abuse. He’d beaten up on Scarlett for years. Larry Hays had already found out that Adkins had served time for that conviction in another state and had been released from prison six months ago. There was also a letter of resignation to his church in which he admitted killing his daughter. Claimed she was a seed of Satan and had to be destroyed.”

The medics reported that Bulldog didn’t have a heart attack, it was emotional stress. They put him on a stretcher saying a check-up at the hospital was routine procedure. I said I’d ride with him in the ambulance and C.J. said she’d meet me there.

The EMS wagon was ready to roll, but I couldn’t get in yet. “Naive little shit.” The tears I’d held back slipped out. “What could we have done differently C.J.? What more…”

“Nothing,” she said, putting an arm around me. “Not a damn thing.”

“Why? C.J. Why?”

“The Scarlet Fever got hold of Wilson and never let go.”

Thanks to Kenny Rogers for writing and recording the song “Scarlet Fever” which inspired this story.



Many thanks to Jan and those who made this possible. If you enjoyed the story, let Jan know. Perhaps she'll bring us another double feature.

16 June 2019

Jan Grape's Found Dead in Texas:
Scarlett Fever, 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 very well.

— Velma

Scarlett Fever
Part 1

by Jan Grape

I

It was one those crisp, autumn-tinged November mornings that central Texans rarely get. The heat often begins in April – simmers – builds to a boil in August and barely slackens until December. With the heat people snarl, cursing the weather or each other. Some folks go limp with exhaustion or shoot someone to relieve the pressure cooker. But when the jet stream pushes cool Canadian air down across the plains and deep into the heart of Texas, people actually smile at each other and say inane things like “Isn’t this weather great?” and “Reckon we might have some winter after all.”

The old Balcones Fault line runs through the center of Austin, dividing the city east and west. The eastern side slopes to gently rolling hills. The western side is rougher terrain, full of limestone cliffs and hills and canyons. My office, on the fourth floor of the LaGrange Building, is in northwest Austin and the building sits on a small hill. My apartment is only a few blocks from the LaGrange.

It was seven fifty-eight a.m. when I arrived. My partner, Cinnamon Jemima Gunn, or C.J., as she is known to most folks, is always in the office by eight a.m. We had just completed a big insurance fraud investigation and were behind on our paperwork and, I had promised to come in early. Okay, so eight is not exactly early to those who get up with the chickens, but it was early for me. I don’t do single digits of the day well.

The telephone rang as I walked in and C.J. answered. “G & G Investigations,” she said, listening briefly. “Yes, Mr. Porter, Ms. Gordon just walked in. Will you hold a moment?” Her professional-signal tone clashed with the surprised roll of her eyes when she noted the early hour.

C.J. punched a button, held the receiver out, and with a wry expression said, “Bulldog Porter wants you, Jenny.”

“Bulldog” King Porter, one of the best criminal defense attorneys money can buy, had sent work our way before. It began with us doing a bang-up job on the Loudermilk case, making Bulldog happy and a nice piece of change for us. His nickname came from being tenacious in court.

“You talk to him.”

“I don’t have time. He gets off on ‘those old rum-running days in Galveston,’ and ties a person up for hours.”

Bulldog’s stories can be endless depending on his mood. I hurried into the inner office, not wanting to leave him dangling. “Mr. Porter, how are you?”

His voice held a chuckle. “I thought we’d gotten past that Mr. Porter and Mrs. Gordon stuff by now, Jenny.”

“Well, we have, Bulldog, but. . .”

“Young lady, you don’t have to be polite to an old curmudgeon. Can’t say I deserve politeness even from a pretty lady like you.”

I could picture him, the widow’s peak and the thick steel gray hair, his piercing blue eyes startling in his seventy-eight year old face. I swivelled my chair around and looked out the window. A northerly wind swirled leaves around like a giant cake mixer whipping batter. Thick white clouds with black-streaked bottoms looked as if they would develop into thunder-boomers soon. “I’m sure you didn’t call just to pass out compliments, Bulldog.”

“Quite right. Complimenting you is a pleasant chore, but I will get to the point. There’s a young man I’d like you to see.”

“Fine. One of your clients?”

“Not exactly. He’s the son of an old and dear friend. The boy’s about your age. His is an unusual story I think you should hear. He’s looking for a young woman who’s disappeared. Someone special, but he. . . well, perhaps he should tell you himself. He does, however, need a good investigator and you lovely damsels at G & G fit the bill.” Bulldog held a whispered conversation on his end and when he came back asked, “Are either you or C.J. available today? Perhaps right after lunch?”

“Yes, I believe so,” I said, knowing full well we had all day free. “How does one o’clock sound?”

“One is fine. Wilson Billeau is my young friend’s name. Thank you Jenny, this means a lot. Wilson’s like the son I never had. His father, Jud Billeau, and I were deputy DAs back in the fifties and sixties and we . . .”

Damn Sam. I choked back a sigh. He could go on for another half-hour, but for once I got lucky. Bulldog’s secretary, Martha May, interrupted him, saying he had a long distance call on another line. “I’ll finish this story one day, Jenny. You’ll enjoy it. And listen, I appreciate this.”

“Don’t mention it, Bulldog.”

After hanging up, I walked out to our kitchen/storage room, grabbed a mug of coffee, and went to fill C. J. in on the conversation with Bulldog.

“Who does Porter think we are, the frigging Bureau of the Missing?” C.J.’s haughty tone made it all sound distasteful. She slammed drawers, shoved things around on her desk, and said, “A missing person, huh? Sounds boring, too.”

Hoo boy, she’s in one of her moods, I thought. But despite her gripes, I knew she’d never want us to refuse a paying customer.

My partner was a Pittsburgh police officer for eight years before moving back to her native Texas. She stands six feet tall, is built a lot like Racquel Welch, and reminds me of Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played in Star Trek, except C.J.’s skin tone is darker. Her tongue can be as sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel.

Good paying customers are her favorite kind. She’s not money-hungry, but her favorites are the ones with cash. We operate on a slim margin and, because of her excellent business head, manage to stay afloat.

“And who’s going to pay for this?”

“I assume Mr. Billeau is paying. Bulldog didn’t exactly say. Who cares? As long as we get paid.”

“You got that right. I’ve been going over the bank statement this morning.”

“We’re not overdrawn?”

“No, but damn these companies who run sixty days behind. Afraid we could be in deep dodo before then.”

Bank statements are Greek to me and I round everything off to the nearest dollar. C.J. knows her balance to the exact penny. I’d once offered to keep our office books, but she said not until our sun goes super-nova. She does the books, but it makes her cranky.

“Well, if the client’s due at one you can grab his check out of his hand and hot-foot it to the bank before it closes.”

“Aww, shit. Somebody has to worry about money around here.”

“I know, and you do it so well I don’t like to deprive you.”

“You just remember to get a retainer. We don’t do freebies.” The computer keyboard began clicking again. “Why don’t you get back to your desk and finish your reports?”

“Yessum, Miz Gunn, whatebber you say, Miz Gunn.”

“Smart Ass. You ain’t the right color to talk the talk.”

“Discrimination again. Boy, the things I have to put up with around here.” A Post-it note pad hit the doorjamb as I went through it.

I was tempted to say, Yah-ha ya missed me, but instead, I stuck my head around the corner of the door. “Are you going to join me when our client arrives?”

“Afraid not, Jen. I’ve got too much to do. These invoices need to go in tonight’s mail.”

“You just don’t want to listen to a tale of lost love.”

“You got that right. I heard enough of those when I was a cop.” C.J. came to the door to stand in front of me. “Besides, you’re so much better at that than I. You get all full of empathy and the client loves that shit.”

“Okay, I’ll wing alone, but if you think you can cut out early. . .”

“You just call me when the action begins.” Her laugh was evil. “That’s what I crave, Girlfriend. The excitement.”

“You are so bad.” I went back to my expense reports, glad she’d lightened up a bit.

Mr. Billeau walked in on time and introduced himself. He probably wasn’t thirty yet, but he had one of those faces that would look boyish for the next thirty years. His thick auburn hair was cut short, not quite a crew cut. He had a narrow waist and broad shoulders that looked like he wore football pads. His plaid western shirt was clean and his stone-washed Levis and scuffed cowboy boots, the working-type not the fancy dress ones, completed the picture. A burnt orange and white gimme cap with a U.T. Longhorn logo was tucked under his left arm.

“Mr. Billeau?” I held out my hand. He looked for a moment as if he wasn’t sure what to do and then took it. His hand was limp, but I gave him a firm shake and almost laughed at his surprise. Some men get uncomfortable when shaking hands with a woman. “I’m Jenny Gordon,” I said. “And this is my partner, C.J. Gunn.”

C.J. gave him a brief nod and went back to her monitor. Damn her, I thought, she could be a little more cordial, but she winked as I led the way to the inner office.

“We can talk more comfortably in here.” Once inside I indicated an upholstered customer chair for him and turned to walk behind my desk. I stopped. He had followed only to the doorway.

“Mrs. Gordon, I’m not sure about this.”

I put on my most disarming smile. “Fine, but you’ve made an effort to come here. Let’s discuss it. If you decide there’s nothing I can do to help,” I said, “you can be on your way. It won’t hurt my feelings.”

He stared at his feet. When he finally looked up, I could see he’d decided to give me a try. He walked to the chair. “Mrs. Gordon, if you can help, I’ll be obliged.”

He sat down and began staring at his feet again. He looked like a kid in high school taking a history test and looking for answers he’d written on his shoe tops.

Maybe he found something because he suddenly began talking. “I’m a country boy, Mrs. Gordon.” He raised his head. “Probably a little dumb, too.”

I smiled reassuringly after telling him to call me Jenny.

“‘Bout all I’m good at is farming. My grandpa left me a little place out near Dripping Springs. Nothing much, but it’s mine. I raise a few chickens - milk a few cows. I work hard all week and come Saturday night, I like to go into town maybe have a few beers.”

“Sounds normal to me.”

He began twisting the gimme cap in his large hands. “There’s this one place I like to go to - The Lucky Star Bar and Grill. You heard of it?”

I admitted I hadn’t.

“They have these girls that dance.”

“With the customers?”

“No, ma’am. I mean dance on stage. They take off their clothes, too.” He blushed. “For several weeks. . .one girl. She was so lovely and I, uh, I sorta fell for her.”

I nodded, not wanting to interrupt.

“Every man who came in - fell for her. I mean, this girl - pretty as a speckled pup - dancing in this joint. She made you feel special. Everybody stopped whatever they were doing just to watch Scarlett dance.”

“Scarlett?”

“Yes, ma’am. Her name is Scarlett Fever.”

I almost made a joke, but he was so doggone serious. “What happened?”

“It’s driving me crazy. Ten days ago her name was gone from that big sign out front. I went in and asked the bartender. He said she was gone. I asked where. He said maybe Los Angeles or Las Vegas. He didn’t know. He thought she’d moved on to a bigger city where she could make bigger money.

“Miss Jenny. I’ve gone to Dallas, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Houston, even Nashville. I can’t find a trace. And ma’am, I’ve got to find her. She and I. . . Oh, we never went out or nothing, but I knew from the way she looked at me - we were meant to be.”

Could anyone be so incredibly naive? He was such a country bumpkin. “Wilson, this world is full of big cities. Bigger and better places than Austin, Texas. She could be in any city.”

“Yes, ma’am, I know it’s hopeless. I might be dumb, but I’m not stupid.” He blushed again. “It was crazy to come here. Take up your time.” He studied his feet again for a moment. “But the crazy part. I’m afraid something bad has happened. I’ll never believe she left without saying good-bye. And I don’t know where else to turn. Mr. Porter said if anyone could find Scarlett, you could.”

“His vote of confidence is nice, even if it is somewhat skewed.”

Forlorn couldn’t even begin to cover his hang-dog expression as he realized what I was implying. That I probably wouldn’t be able to find her either.

C. J. had nailed it when she said clients love it when they feel you care. The police don’t have time to give them personal attention. That’s why they come to a private eye in the first place, but that’s also why it hurts when you can’t help.

Girls like Scarlett change locations about as often as the weather changes in central Texas, and they never leave a forwarding address. I knew what the odds were. An impossible mission, right?

No one was more surprised than I when the next words came out of my mouth. “Wilson, it’s not hopeless.”

Did I really say that? “There are a couple of things I can do that might produce a lead.”

“Like what?”

Yeah, like what, smart ass. Me and my big mouth. “First, I’d check where she worked. Maybe someone there knows something.”

“Jim, the bartender, didn’t know anything.”

“Maybe she had a girlfriend and confided in her. What about the other dancers and the waitresses and the musicians?”

“I’ve already asked. Nobody knows nothing.”

“Maybe they were leery about why you wanted to know. People working around singers and dancers, especially pretty ones, learn they have to be careful about giving out information. You can never tell who might be a sicko or a pervert. They might talk to me.” A faint hope shined in his eyes. And strangely enough, I started having a little hope myself.

There were a few other places I could check - the owner of the club - the person who wrote the checks. Maybe a talent agency or a dancer’s union. Surely a young woman moving on to greener pastures didn’t do it entirely on her own. Someone, somewhere knew Scarlett and knew where she had gone.

“Wilson, why don’t you give me a couple of days, let me see what I can turn up. That way you’ll at least have the satisfaction of knowing you gave it your best shot.”

“I’ll be happy to pay whatever it cost. I’ve got money saved. A lot of money.”

I almost said we could talk money later, but C.J. would have killed me. “Okay. A three hundred dollar retainer to begin. That’s two days. We can settle expenses afterwards.” I pulled a standard contract out of the top drawer of my desk.

He took out his billfold and handed me six fifty dollar bills. “I feel better already. Just knowing someone will be doing something. I haven’t been able to eat or sleep.”

Wilson Billeau walked out feeling hopeful and I wondered if I had lost my cotton-picking mind.


II

C.J. and I went into our missing persons routine. She began a paper chase via computer and since legwork is my specialty, I drove out to the Lucky Star Bar and Grill.

Beginning in front of the State Capitol Building and driving south on South Congress Avenue, you pass through the downtown area, cross Town Lake and continue along where eventually the area becomes a strip of nightclubs, bars, motels and prowling grounds for pimps and prostitutes. A scuzzy area only a few short miles from the state’s political power.

The club was on South Congress, a mile or so west of Interstate 35. As suspected it had a western motif, a big white Lone Star on the roof and country music twanged inside; also, as suspected, no one thought it was unusual that Scarlett had left. Dancers work here and there - leaving when the mood struck.

Oh, she had mentioned moving on, but who knew which bright lights had lured her. One day she just ups and didn’t show.

Jim, the bartender, looked like a Mexican bandido, but was talkative except he didn’t have a clue about Scarlett. I thanked him for his time and asked if he had a photograph of the girl. He found a black and white 8 x 10 publicity shot that the club had put in the lobby for promotion.

At the front door I had to pause to allow a young woman carrying a guitar case to come in, and Jim called out to me. “Hey, Detective Lady, this here’s one of Scarlett’s friends. I’ll bet Delia Rose can tell you what you want to know.”

The young woman was short, around twenty, a few pounds overweight, but chunky not fat. Her straight blonde hair was pulled back into a pony tail. Her blue eyes, more knowing than they should be at her age, told of all the hard knocks she’d received in her short life.

The bartender introduced us and Delia Rose and I slid into an empty booth. I told her I was a private investigator.

“And you’ve been hired to find Scarlett?”

I nodded.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Scarlett talked about going to Vegas, but I don’t know if that’s where she went. She didn’t even tell me good-bye. I’m a little hurt, too, because I thought we were friends.”

“Maybe she left with a boyfriend,” I said. “Was there a special guy? Someone you remember coming in to see her?”

She began shaking her head before I was through talking.

“Look,” I said. “She was a beautiful girl. Surely there was someone. . .”

“Not really. She flirted with everyone, but I don’t think there was a boyfriend.”

“Or a girlfriend?”

Delia Rose blushed. “She didn’t have any designs that way either and believe me I would have known.”

“Who of the regulars did she pay attention to?”

She thought a moment. “Only one guy - a farm boy. Sweet kid. He had a funny name.”

“Wilson Billeau?”

“Yeah, that was it. Wilson Billeau. He had the fever for Scarlett Fever.” She realized her joke and we laughed.

“He’s my client.”

“Scarlett was nice to his face, but she made fun of him behind his back.” Delia Rose looked wistful. “Man, I wish someone would get that kind of hots for me.”

I stood. “Well, I appreciate your help. If you think of anything, will you call?” I gave her my card.

Delia Rose arched an eyebrow and smiled. “When you find her, tell her I said to drop dead, okay?” She smiled wistfully again and that’s when I knew she also had the fever for Scarlett.

“Will do,” I said.

Before I was halfway to the door, she called me back.

“I just thought of something. The day before Scarlett left an older man came in. She was dancing and suddenly got a sick look. When she came off stage he grabbed her arm and said, ‘We have to talk.’ Scarlett pulled away and told him to leave her alone. His face got all red and Scarlett had this funny look. Not scared exactly, but sorta like resigned.

“The old guy doubled up his fist and I thought sure he was going to hit her. Jim saw the guy was acting up and came over. Told him we didn’t want any trouble and asked him to leave.”

“Did you ask her about this guy afterwards?”

“Yeah, but she said she didn’t want to talk about him and for me to forget it. So I did. I guess I forgot all about it until just now.”

“What did he look like?”

“Let’s see, I can’t remember much. Maybe late fifties. Dark hair, turning gray. Jim might remember. He got a better look.”

She called Jim over, but he couldn’t add much more. He said the guy was plain vanilla. “Some old fart. Dressed in a business suit that went out of style twenty years ago.”

“I remember thinking at the time he reminded me of a movie star,” said Delia Rose. “One of those older guys, but I can’t remember who.”

They couldn’t think of anything else and this time I really did leave.

I tacked Scarlett’s picture to the wall next to my desk hoping to be inspired. A striking dark-haired woman, twenty-two or thereabouts. Her eyes were dark, too, but with only a black and white photo, I couldn’t be sure of exact colors. A smile extended to her come-hither eyes, yet there was an innocence, too. Try as I might, I couldn’t see much to make her star-quality. Dark-haired beauties aren’t exactly a novelty. Obviously, you had to have seen her dance moves.

Strippers don’t belong to a union, but C.J. traced the photographer who’d taken the publicity picture. I talked to him and to the talent agency who’d booked Scarlett into the Lucky Star. Sure they knew her, but she hadn’t confided any plans to them.

C.J.’s nimble computer fingers found no records of credit cards or bank accounts. Scarlett Fever didn’t have a car registration or a driver’s license, either, but C.J. discovered Scarlett had a room, for the past six months, at the Stagecoach Motel, a half-mile south of the Lucky Star. She was registered as Scarlett Fever O’Hara.

A trip to the motel seemed logical. It was sleazy-looking, more like a place for rent-by-the-hour trysts than a home for a young girl. The manager was also a sleaze-bag, but he took my twenty dollar bill greedily and gave me the key. The room was pathetic; an old iron bedstead held a sagging mattress, a vanity-type dresser from the fifties stood against one wall. Worn carpet and torn drapes over yellowed window shades completed the decor. I found a rust-speckled can of Lady Schick shave cream and one lipstick tube, fire engine red, used down to the metal. Nothing else to show a young woman had lived in that depressing room for six months - no clothes, no receipts, no pictures. Scarlett appeared and disappeared - end of story.

As I left I asked the manager how Scarlet got around as she didn’t have a car.

“How should I know? Walked maybe?”

My twenty must not have extended to his answering questions.

It was discouraging, although I hadn’t expected much to begin with. Yet one tiny cell in the back of my brain kept taunting in a sing-song voice, “Nah-na, nah-na, nah-na - you’ve forgotten something.”

C.J. and I checked and double checked every scrap of information we had. It was wasted time.

At the end of two days I called Wilson Billeau. He didn’t seem surprised. The slight hope he’d nursed must have dwindled soon after he’d left our office.

“Thanks for trying, ma’am. I know you did your best.”

“Wilson, I believe things happen for a reason. Scarlett came into your life. Maybe to remind you that you ought to do something besides muck around with cows and chickens. I’ll bet if you tried, you’d find a young lady who’d like to live on a farm in Dripping Springs.”

“I guess. I promised myself I’d put this all behind me if you couldn’t find her, but I can’t give up yet.” His voice didn’t sound as if his heart was in it, but he was determined.

I wished him luck and broke the connection.

C.J. said Wilson’s money helped to ease our cash flow, but the whole episode left me feeling sad for a couple of days. Soon though, we both put the missing Scarlett Fever out of our minds.


III

Three weeks later, I unfolded the morning newspaper, The Austin American Statesman and, there she was - Scarlett Fever O’Hara. The grainy picture was the same publicity photo I had and she was identified only as Scarlett. The headline for this rainy December day read SCARLETT IS DEAD. The story said a hooker’s nude body had been found in one of Austin’s better downtown hotel rooms. The woman had been beaten severely and then, stabbed to death.

Unholy murder served up with notes of Christmas cheer.

A man registered to that room as Marshall Tolliver from Houston was now in police custody.

C.J. called me at home. “Did you see her?”

We discussed the murder for a few minutes and I said I’d better contact Wilson Billeau. “I hope he’s already seen the paper because I’d hate to be the one to tell him.”

There was no answer when I called Wilson, so I tried Bulldog Porter. The attorney said one of his informants had called him soon after the girl’s body was found and he’d notified Wilson of the girl’s death. He said Wilson had gone to the funeral home to make arrangements for her and would drop by Bulldog’s office later. Bulldog said he would give Wilson our condolences.

My next call was to Lieutenant Larry Hays. Larry works in the homicide unit of the Austin Police Department. He and I have been good friends for years. I’d first met him when he and my late husband, Tommy Gordon, entered the police academy together. They were partners until Tommy left APD to become a private detective.

After Tommy’s death Larry took a brotherly role with me. One I was grateful for, except when he got too protective. Especially where it related to the detective agency. Larry is sensitive, witty, and stubborn as only a Swede can be. He is also one hell of a good cop.

When he returned my call, I asked, “What’s the story on the dead hooker?”

“The one known as Scarlett? What do you know about it?”

“Nothing about the murder, but…”

“Just a minute,” Larry put me on hold, briefly. When he came back, he said in his official voice, “Meet me at Casa Mañana!”

His gruff, insistent order hit me the way that tone usually does and I almost told him to go take a flying leap from the Congress Avenue bridge, but with a conciliatory tone he said, “Please, Jenny. I could use your help here.”

I said I’d be there by one-thirty.

Casa Mañana is a Tex-Mex restaurant near APD headquarters and the officers frequently go there for lunch. It’s a converted old stucco house, yellow with green trim and the feel of a cantina. Inside were plain wooden tables covered with oilcloth and the tables at each booth had Mexican tile tops. The food is excellent, the price is reasonable and the service is top-notch.

Larry is attractive, long-legged, and wears a size 13 shoe. He’s five years older than me and I was unmerciful when he turned forty recently. He was seated in the corner booth when I arrived, two iced teas, hot salsa and tortilla chips already on the table. I slid into the booth and he said, “Where you been keeping yourself?”

“C.J.’s been cracking the whip. We’ve hardly had time to go to the bathroom.”

“That explains your pained expression.”

“If I have a pained expression, it’s because you haven’t called or come by to see us.”

“Hah! I used to complain when we had one homicide a month. Little did I know those were the good old days.”

“Makes you wonder what’s happening to our normally laid-back capital city.”

“Fast growth, drugs and hard times.”

We were interrupted by Paco Hidalgo, the owner, as he placed chicken enchiladas - with all the trimmings - on the table and refilled my glass. The chips and salsa I’d been nibbling called for constant mouth-cooling, but I get anemic if I don’t get my quota of Mexican food.

“I hope you don’t mind, I ordered your usual. Thought we could save time.” Larry began eating without waiting for my reply. “Tell me what you know about Scarlett.”



See you tomorrow for Part 2!

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.

24 March 2019

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

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

Originally published in Vengeance is Hers (Signet 1997), this story also appears in Jan’s collection, Found Dead in Texas II. Pull up a chair, pour a glass of wine, and lean back. A fine Grape ages very well.

— Velma

A Front Row Seat
Part 1

by Jan Grape

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

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

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

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

“May I help you?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll speak to your boss, then.”

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

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

“That’s about it, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I waited, unsure if he expected an answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I, uhm.mm…”

“Would five hundred be appropriate?”

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

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

“What time?”

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

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

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

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

“That’s what the man said.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh?” I asked, “A medical emergency?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe,” said Marta.

“Do you know why he…”

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

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

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

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

“Why would anyone want you dead?”

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

“The Davis family?”

“The people who sued my husband.”

“But why? They won their case.”

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

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

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

“What?” asked Marta.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And the Volvo belongs to Chris?”

Marta nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m terribly embarrassed…” said Sonja.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you learn anything from Chris?”

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

“You think the Randazzo’s quarreled?”

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

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




See you tomorrow for Part 2!