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

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!

28 November 2016

I Confess


by Michael Bracken

    At the 2016 Bouchercon I received the Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer Award for lifetime achievement in short mystery fiction. While I’ve done pretty well writing short crime fiction, it represents less than ten percent of the 1,200-plus short stories I’ve placed since I began my professional writing career in the late 1970s.

True Confessions, Oct 2016
    In addition to writing for several anthologies, my fiction has appeared in digest-sized fiction periodicals, supermarket checkout-line tabloids, and slick consumer magazines. I’ve written for readers of all ages, both genders, multiple sexual orientations, and a variety of ethnicities.

    Of all the genres of fiction I’ve written, though, I’ve probably had my greatest success in a sub-genre of women’s fiction known as confessions– so much so that several years ago, when I had only published 170 of them, I was dubbed “The King of Confessions” (“Diversify Your Career: Exploring Fiction-Writing Options” by Vivi Anna, Romance Writers Report, July 2010).

    Now with more than 400 confessions published, another handful under contract, and several more sitting in the editor’s inbox, and with only two confession magazines still publishing original work, I’m confident that no one will steal my crown any time soon.

The True Story

True Story, Nov 1921
    The first confession magazine ever published, and one of the two still published monthly, is True Story. Launched in 1919 by Bernarr Macfadden, True Story became one of many similar magazines produced by a variety of publishers. When I began writing for confession magazines in 1981, only a few years after my professional writing debut in Young World and long past the genre’s heyday, there were still more than a dozen confession magazines, published by at least four different companies, voraciously sucking up content.

    Though not every magazine was monthly, the confession magazines were easily publishing more than 1200 short stories each year, and many of them also published poetry, recipes, and various kinds of non-fiction. The magazines in other genres--fantasy, horror, science fiction, mystery, etc.– did not publish as much fiction in a single genre each year as the confession magazines did. For a young fiction writer seeking publication, it made sense to try every possible publication in every possible genre. So I did.

    In February 1981, my poem “A Dozen Roses” appeared in True Secrets, and five more poems appeared in confession magazines that year. I also sold my first confession in 1981, but the publisher went bankrupt, and I still don’t know if the story was ever published. I had to wait until July 1984, when my story “Your Eyes Tell Me What Your Lips Can’t Say…” appeared in Secrets, to make my confirmable debut as a confession writer. A year passed before my second confession appeared, and two more years passed before my third and fourth were published. Three years elapsed before my fifth confession appeared in print and I’ve had several confessions published every year –except 2002– since then.

Only Your Hairdresser Knows for Sure

    I probably read my first confession magazines while waiting for my mother and grandmother at the hair salon. They were scandalous publications with lurid come-on lines enticing readers to delve into the debauched lives of the female contributors who were confessing their sins. Alas, the stories were never as lurid as the titles. I once sold a story with the working title, “I Slept with My Son, Now My Husband Won’t Sleep with Me,” which sounds like the author is revealing an incestuous relationship, but is actually about a young mother who takes her newborn son into the family bed while the new father sleeps in the other room.

True Story, Nov 2016
Sin, Suffer, Repent

    Confession magazines such as Intimate Romances, Intimate Secrets, True Experience, True Love, True Romance, True Secrets, and True Story targeted a white female readership. Magazines such as Black Romance, Bronze Thrills, and Jive targeted a black female readership. They all shared, and the surviving magazines still share, the same conceit: That the stories contained within their pages are “true.”

    And readers believe it.

    Certain genre conventions make these stories believable. They are all written in first person (most often with a female narrator), in a colloquial style, about matters of interest to blue-collar, middle-class woman. Nothing in a confession can be unrealistic (for example, cancer goes into remission but is never cured).

    Once upon a time, confessions followed a similar plotline, known as “sin, suffer, repent.” A woman does something outside the bounds of polite society, she suffers for her actions, and then she repents. In a story from the 1950s, for example, an unmarried young woman becomes pregnant, is sent away to a home where she gives birth to a baby she gives up for adoption, and returns home a changed woman.

    Modern confessions rarely follow the old sin-suffer-repent plotline, and are more likely to be problem stories– woman has a problem, explores various solutions to her problem, and then solves her problem (an unmarried pregnant woman must decide whether to terminate the pregnancy, give the baby up for adoption, or raise the baby as a single mother; she chooses one and is either happy or unhappy with her choice) or romances written in first person (girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy back).

    Other genres can also influence confessions. I’ve written mysteries, thrillers, and horror stories all while adhering to confession genre conventions.

Means, Motive, Opportunity

True Story, Dec 2016
    With only two confession magazines still publishing monthly– True Confessions and True Story– and with long-time confession writers such as me filling many of the 240 annual slots, the opportunity for new writers to break in is much diminished from when I started in the 1980s. Even so, it is possible.

    But is it worthwhile?

    That’s a tough call. The average response time for one of my submissions is 107 days, but I had one story accepted 542 days after submission, so response time can be slow. The magazines pay 3¢ a word for all rights, and payment arrives several months following publication.

    Also, you won’t see a byline. After all, these stories are supposed to be “true.”

    On the flip side, if you can master the style and can produce work at a steady pace, you might become a regular contributor with regular income. I once calculated that I earn $20+/hour when I write confessions, which is as good as or better than what I earn on an hourly basis writing for better paying publications in other genres.

    And the lack of a byline might be advantageous. If you are a literary wunderkind publishing in all the best non-paying literary journals, you might not want your fellow writers to know you pay the bills writing confessions, just as I don’t reveal the titles and bylines of all the pseudonymous sex letters I wrote early in my career.

How to Write Confessions

    For detailed information about how to write confessions, read “Writing and Selling Confessions” and “Sin, Suffer, Cash the Checks”. Though both articles are a little outdated– especially submission information– the nuts-and-bolts details remain the same.

    For True Confessions and True Story writer’s guidelines, and for other information about the publisher, visit True Renditions, LLC.

    Oh, and never tell your grandmother that confessions are fiction. You’ll break her heart.

21 July 2014

My Scarlet K


Early one morning (in the 1880s) a large pool of blood was found near Fifth and Congress Avenue giving the impression to passers-by that some dark and dreadful tragedy had been enacted there but nothing was ever learned concerning it. (Compiled from:Austin History Center Records.)

by Jan Grape

    I looked at myself in the women’s locker room mirror, surprised to see I didn’t look any different. Yes, my hair looked windblown and my eyes somewhat bloodshot and fatigue lines radiated from each corner, but that was all. Totally normal. I didn’t know what I expected. A gray streak, maybe, suddenly appearing in my hair? A scarlet K on my forehead? The mirror’s reflection didn’t show anything unusual, but I whispered, “I am a killer.”

    I’d never killed anyone before and I hope I never will again.

    The victim? A young male. In death, he looked no more than eighteen, but I now learned he was twenty-five. I remember how his black hair swept back from his thin face and how his black eye stared in that glassy way of the dead. That tragedy left one reality quite strong– that pool of blood is forever etched in my mind.

    Pure and simple self-defense? Yes, indeed. And in a way, you could say I have a license to kill. I’m a police officer for the Austin Police Department. The shoot was perfectly legal by anyone’s standards.

    I didn’t know who he was when I shot him. How could I? He was only a shadowy figure in the darkness. I saw him force a female officer he’d already wounded to walk ahead of him, her hand dripped her life force. He had used her for a shield. The guy had asked for it, hadn’t he?

    In the last few minutes of his life before I arrived on the scene and before taking this officer hostage, he had shot another policeman, a man named Lopez, one of the new young ones.

    When I confronted the suspect I had identified myself as a police officer. I’d asked him to give it up, but he shoved the policewoman to the floor and fired at me. That was when I shot him.

    Only afterwards when it was over did I find out he was Jesse Garcia– a felony suspect– wanted for eight long months because of an earlier shooting. Wanted for shooting yet another APD officer.

    For the past eight months, that other officer lay in a coma in a nursing home with little hope of recovery while his shooter, Jesse Garcia, was hiding in Mexico. I could picture Garcia drinking tequila and chasing girls.

    That other officer? Formerly a Special Missions officer. Formerly handsome, witty, intelligent, funny, gentle. Formerly a loving husband. Byron Barrow, my husband.

    Physical evidence proved without a doubt that Garcia, a known gang-banger, had fired the gun that wounded Byron, but Garcia took off the morning the arrest warrant had been issued. Ran to Mexico.

    “Zoe?” Lynda Haynes, a civilian working desk duty at headquarters, stuck her head inside the rest room door. “Are you okay, Zoey?”

    I hate being called Zoey because my name is pronounced Zoe like Joe. But Lynda’s tone was gentle, and I knew she only meant it in an endearing way. She wore a heavy perfume that wafted ahead, filling my nostrils and causing my stomach to churn in rebellion. I barely managed to keep it in control. She came inside, stood next to the sink, and stared at my reflection briefly before looking at me.

    Was she also searching for a scarlet K?

    “You been throwing up?” She asked.

    She wasn’t accusing in any way, her only concern was how I felt, how I was dealing with the aftermath– nothing more.

    “I don’t think there’s anything left down there.”

    “Yeah. I figured.”  She reached and patted my forearm. “Rob Morton wanted me to check on you.”

    “Tell him I’ll be out in a few minutes.”

    “If it makes you feel any better, Zoe. That puke got what he deserved.” Her lips stretched into a brief smile before she turned and walked out.

    Turning on the cold water faucet, I pulled a handful of paper towels from the dispenser and wet them. I held the cool wadded towels against my eyes, then re-wet them and wiped my mouth. I found a comb in my shoulder bag, ran it through my hair, put a dab of color on my lips, and looked in the mirror once more. “That’s a little better, Zoe.”

    Do I have regrets? Yes– and no. I’ll never forget that bloody horror and the knowledge that I took the life of another human being, but I’ll also never forget that I got the scumbag who nearly destroyed my life eight long months ago.



Comments please… especially about the little historical note at the beginning.

See y’all next time.

02 April 2014

Time to Accessorize


by Robert Lopresti

I am somewhat stunned to report that my morning granola was interrupted today (April Fool's Day) by the news that my "The Present" had won the Derringer Award for best short story.  Talk about a present!  I can't think of anything to say about the story that I didn't say here.  But thanks to the Derringer judges, the voters, and The Strand for publishing in the first place.  Now, on to more good news...

On the day my last blog entry went up I came home to a pleasant surprise: three copies of the June issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.  I knew they were publishing a story of mine but I had no idea when that happy event would occur.

"The Accessory" is my second appearance in EQMM in 38 years of trying.  Yes, you read that right.  It's a story about --

Well, let's pause for a moment.  This is a golden opportunity to rehash that favorite topic: Where Do You Get Your Ideas?  This time, by category!

1.  Personal experience.  At three in the morning one night a policewoman rang my doorbell to tell me my car had been "prowled."  The first two pages of my story "Shanks on the Prowl" are almost a literal description of that scene.

2.  Someone else's personal experience.  One day I watched an elderly, over-the-hill musician being disrespected by his accompaniest.  "Snake in the Sweetgrass" was conceived while they were still on the stage.

3.  News story. 
Or other piece of nonfiction.  "Crow's Lesson" began with a New York Times article about a school system hiring private eyes to follow students and see if they really lived in the catchment district.

5.  Out of the clear blue sky 
One day I had a vision of a short man attacking a much bigger man on the street for no obvious reason.  "Hammer and Dish" was my attempt to find out why and what happened.

And finally...

4.  Fiction.  To some extent ALL fiction comes from other fiction we have read.  For example, I read "My Life with the Butcher Girl," by Heath Lowrance, a very nice story about a man who becomes romantically obsessed with a woman who killed three men in sexual situations.  That got me thinking about people who correspond with convicted criminals.  The main character of my new story, "The Accessory" is a woman who does just that.  Now the man is out of prison and has apparently killed someone who testified against him.  The cops want to find out what she knows...

I hope you like it. 

05 March 2014

A Good Day For Bad Days


by Robert Lopresti

After I wrote this piece the Short Mystery Fiction Society announced the finalists for this year's Derringer Awards.  I am delighted to say that one of them is my "The Present," which appeared in The Strand Magazine.  If you are interested I wrote about the story here.

I am pleased to report that the May issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, on newsstands now, features my twenty-third story for that august journal.  I am even happier to report that number twenty-four was purchased in February.  So I may have a three-Hitchcock year twice in a row.

(And  I am delighted to see that two fellow SleuthSayers are on the cover.  Congrats John and Janice!)

But let's talk about where the idea for lucky twenty-three came from. Typically a story idea for me comes like a bolt from the blue, or it accumulates a piece at a time.  In this case, oddly enough, it did both.

You see, I had an idea for quite some time, but I lacked a place to put it.  I needed a setting where a group of strangers would be in close proximity and I couldn't find the right one.  Then, one day, I happened to be waiting in line for an estate sale  - the very one I described here  -- and I realized that that was the perfect setting.   I grabbed my notebook and started scribbling down all the possible ways I could use an estate sale in my story.

Then I needed a character, specifically a police officer who would be attending the sale as a customer.  And for my story to work he needed to be a specific kind of policeman.  Not to put too fine a point on it, I needed a cop who was not very good at his job.

Then I realized that I already had one.  A long time ago I had written a story called "A Bad Day for Pink and Yellow Shirts."  It described three men getting involved in a disastrous mess and having only a few minutes to come up with an explanation that made all of them come out looking good.  One of the characters was Officer Kite, a patrolman who had spent almost as much of his career suspended for various screw-ups as he had on the beat.  

Just the man for the job.  I quickly enlisted him and realized that I had the title for my story: "A Bad Day For Bargain Hunters."  Like the first tale, this one is also told from multiple viewpoints.

And here is another odd relationship between the stories.  "Shirts" appeared in Hitchcock's in May 2004.  "Hunters" is showing up ten years later to the month.  Odder still is that my last publication  is a sequel to a different tale that appeared in Hitchcock's almost exactly ten years earlier.  I seem to have a new habit: a decadal series.  Decadent?  Decimated? 

I hope you enjoy the story, anyway.

29 January 2014

Wishing you the best


by Robert Lopresti

Move aside, Oscar!  Fie on thee, Edgar!  Make room for the real awards. For the fifth year I am listing the best detective short stories of the year as determined by yours truly.

FIfteen stories made the list this time, one fewer than last year.  I am astonished to report that there was a three-way tie between Hitchcock, Queen, and The Strand, with four stories each.  The other three came from anthologies from three different publishers.  

Three of the stories are historical.  Three are humorous.  One is a first story.  By main character we have:

Detective 6
Criminal 5
Victim 1
Other 3

And here are the lucky winners.  They can pick up their gift bags in the green room.

"I Am Not Fluffy," by Liza Cody, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, December 2013.

I worked as a hostess and greeter at a bar-restaurant six nights a week for five years while Harvey qualified to be a tax lawyer.  And for two nights a week Harvey was going round to Alicia's flat to bounce her bones.  "You were never there," he complained.  "What was I supposed to do all by myself every night?"

What indeed.  Insult to injury: Alicia was an old friend of hers.  And now that Harvey is making a bundle he wants a no-fault divorce and a big white wedding to his new love.

Our narrator goes for textbook passive-aggressive tactics: refusing to sign the divorce papers.   And she begins writing her polite protests against the world around her in chalk on the sidewalk, signing them Fluffy.

Is this a story about a nervous breakdown?  A split personality?  Or is our heroine learning to not be Fluffy anymore, to be a person who can take care of herself?

"The Sequel," by Jeffrey Deaver, in The Strand Magazine, November-February 2012-2013.


Frederick Lowell is an elderly literary agent and one day he gets a letter that hints that one of his deceased clients wrote a sequel to his classic novel.  Lowell travels around the country in pursuit of it and - well, a lot of things happen.  In fact, it almost feels like Deaver made a list of every way this story could work out and then rang  the changes, covering every possibility.

In the first half of the story he gives us a classic quest structure but when that ends we get a mystery, one with several red herring solutions, clever reversals and unexpected twists.

"Margo and the Silver Cane," by Terence Faherty, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, January/February  2013.

My fellow SleuthSayer, Terence Faherty, is the only author making a second appearance on my list this year.   

In the days before Pearl Harbor Margo Banning is an ambitious career woman, working as associate producer on a Sunday radio show.  One of the stars is Philip St,  Pierre, a self-proclaimed "radio detective."  And in this week's show he announces that next week he will be revealing the identity of a top German spy.  What follows is a lot of fun and amusingly written.  Take this conversation regarding one of the other performers on the radio show.

"You are not a radio detective?"
"That question takes us into the realm of philosophy.  Or do I mean psychology?  Are we who we decide to be or who the world tells us to be?  For example, I work with a woman who has forced her will upon the world.  She's become a former Broadway star despite the inconvenience of never having been a current one."
"Mamie Gallagher," Edelweiss said a little wistfully.  "She has a very attractive voice.  I imagine her blonde."
"So does she."


"Restraint" by Alison Gaylin, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2013.

When the woman who killed Kevin Murphy's daughter walked into Cumberland Farms to pay for her gas, the first thing Kevin noticed about her was the way she crumpled her money.

Got your attention?  I thought it would.  And the ending is no slouch either.  But in between you will slowly learn about what happened to Murphy's daughter -- none of the obvious things that might pop into your head  -- and about the revenge Murphy plans.  Again, that is a long way from obvious.  It is not bloody or particularly violent, but it will shock you.


"The Confidante," by Diana Dixon Healy, in Best New England Crime Stories 2014: Stone Cold, edited by Mark Ammons, Katherine Fast, Barbara Ross, and Leslie Wheeler, Level Best Books, 2013.


Peggy is a mousy young woman who works for a presidential campaign. She is flattered when the more vibrant worker Kim takes an interest in her.  They start meeting regularly and Kim begins to tell her secrets, secrets that could change political history...

Some lovely twists in this one.

"The Murderer At The Cabin," by Robert Holt, in All Hallow's Evil, edited by Sarah E. Glenn, Mystery and Horror, LLC.


 Lexington is a very bad fella.   He's a serial killer with a complicated system of picking his victims and a suitably insane motive.  As the story starts he is looking for a new person to focus his attention on.  And he finds one in a cabin in the woods where a dozen wealthy people are holding a meeting.  So he takes his hatchet and prepares to single out his first victim.

And here's the twist.  The people in the cabin have paid big money for a high-grade murder theatre experience, complete with elaborate props and make-up.  So when Lexington starts his work they think it's part of the show.  But Lexington doesn't know about the mystery theatre aspect and he is as baffled by his victims as they are by him...


"A People Person," by Michael Koryta, in The Strand Magazine, November-February
2012-2013.

Koryta has given us a lovely little character study about Thor, who has been the hit man for two decades for Belov, who is the head of organized crime in Cleveland.  These two have been through tough times on two continents and, in a business that doesn't  support long-lasting relationships, they seem inseparable.

 The English word for the way Thor felt about killing was "desensitized," but he did not know that it was a proper fit.  Maybe he was overly sensitized.  Maybe he understood it more than most.  Maybe the poeple who had not killed or could not imagine being killed were the desensitized breed.

What could come between Thor and his boss?  Could there, to his own amazement, be a line he could not cross?

"Not A Penny More," by Jon Land, in The Strand Magazine, February-May 2013.

Walter Schnitzel is a loser and a loner.  He is a middle-aged accountant, watching younger men get promoted over his head.

But his life makes a sudden lurch when he takes an old clunker of a used Buick for a week-long test drive.  All of a sudden Walter gets lucky - in more senses than one.  His whole self-image changes as well.

So, is the car magic?  Is it all coincidence?  And, oh yeah, why is this story in a magazine full of crime stories?

"The Queen of Yongju-gol," by Martin  Limón, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine,
November 2013.


Martin's fiction is always  set in South Korea.  In this tale  the hero is Roh Yonk-bok, one of the wealthiest men in the country.

But he didn't start out that way.  He was able to get an education only through  money sent back home from his big sister who was working as a bar girl in Yongju-gol, a community that served American G.I.'s, where Koreans were forbidden as customers.  One day his sister disappeared and now, years later, Roh is determined to find out what happened to her.

It is a dark tale, full of betrayal and hard-learned cynicism.

"Canyou trust these people, sir?"
Roh turned to look at his bodyguard.  He was a faithful man -- in fact chosen for that quality -- and competent at his job, but he had little imagination.
"They want money, don't they?" Roh replied.
"Yes, sir."
"Then I have trust.  Not for them but for their greed."

"Othello Revised," by Denise Middlebrooks, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, December 2013.

This is Middlebrooks' first story, a promising start.

The narrator has just written a mystery novel and his wife recommends he takes it to a professional editor.  The editor turns out to be an interesting person, a real estate agent who reinvented herself in the recession, and she has some fascinating suggestions about the book.  Or what she thinks is the book.

And there we have to stop.  Go read the story.  You deserve a treat.




"Dress Blues," by Chris Muessig, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, October 2013.


Sergeant Nolan, a Marine sergeant, finds himself facing multiple crises.  His wife has left him.  He has to decide whether to re-enlist for another six-year hitch.  And his boss goes off on extended duty, leaving him as the only Corps member to look after a private who has been arrested for murder.  Worse, that private is a Black man and this story takes place in a time and place where that can be a dangerous place to be -- especially if you are accused of killing a white man.

A fascinating tale, and one that told me a lot I didn't know about its time period.

"Footprints in Water," by Twist Phelan, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July 2013.


Henri Karubje is a detective in the NYPD and he is called out to help investigate the missing daughter of  a Congolese family.  The relationships between the people, and with their medicine man, neighbors, and priest, are complicated to say the least.

Tangling the matter further is that Karubje is not their as investigator, but as translator.  The lead detective is a newly promoted woman he has worked with when she was on patrol.  The cliche here would be to have them in territorial conflict but Phelan chooses instead to have the new detective looking for more help while Karubje insists on making/letting her run the show. 

Karubje is haunted by his childhood in the genocidal conflict of Rwanda and he makes good use of his memories of that horror to sort out the motives and inconsistencies of the characters.

"A Game Played," by Jonathan Rabb, in The Strand Magazine, June-September 2013.



George Philby is a member of Britain's diplomatic core, stationed in Washington.  He is a quiet, self-effacing man, and his great burden is his name.  Kim Philby was the most famous British traitor in a century, so he is somewhat in the position of a man named Benedict Arnold joining the U.S. Army.  "It made them all think too much, a sudden hesitation in the voice."

And in D.C. it leads to an odd friendship with Jack Crane, an American oil man.  Crane brings Philby out of his shell a bit and the relationship leads to -- well, that would be telling.  But one question this story asks is: Does your name determine your destiny?

I liked this low-key tale better the day after I read it.  Then I read it a second time and liked it more.


"The Samsa File," by Jim Weikart, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September 2013.

Havel, a police detective in present-day Prague is assigned to investigate the apparent murder by poisoning of a young man named Gregor Samsa.  Except - surprise! - Gregor had somehow transformed into a giant cockroach.

This is sort of reverse steampunk, transforming a Victorian plot -- Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis, of course -- into the modern era, and a modern genre, the police procedural.  Weikart even offers something that Kafka had no interest in, an explanation for Samsa's transformation. 

"The Hotel des Mutilées," by Jim Williams, in Knife Edge Anthology, Marble City Publishing, 2013.

It's Paris between the wars and our narrator says he is a guy who fixes situations, no details given.  In a bar he meets an American named Scotty, who says he is a writer.  Scotty asks him to talk about the most fascinating person he ever met.  So the fixer talks about a guy he met in World War I.

This is one of the stories where the joy comes in figuring out what's going on.  For me, the enlightment came in three distinct bursts, about three different characters.

30 January 2013

A story about a story in a story


by Robert Lopresti

'Tis a time for great joy and merry-making, at least around my house, because the April issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine has arrived, bringing with it "Shanks' Ride."  This is my twentieth story in AHMM, and  the eighth published tale about Leopold Longshanks, a curmudgeonly mystery writer who occasionally finds himself reluctantly thrust into the position of crime-solver.

What makes this particular story special to me (although I love all the little darlings equally, of course) is that it belongs to a specific subgenre:  one character relates a story containing a puzzle and another character solves it.  It is the first Shanks story of that type I have gotten published, though not for lack of trying.

Here is the opening scene:


            “I don’t think my alcohol level is over the legal limit,” said Leopold Longshanks.  “I could probably drive home all right.  But I figure there’s no point in taking chances.”

            “I know,” said the taxi driver.    “You’ve told me that three times.”

            “Oh.”  Shanks considered.  “Then maybe I do need a ride.”

            “Hop in.”


You can probably guess that the taxi driver is the one with the story to tell.

The earliest example of this story type of which I am aware is "The Tuesday Night Club," (1927) by Agatha Christie.  It is also the first appearance of one of literature's great detectives, Miss Jane Marple.  In this story a group of friends gather and discuss a genuine crime.  To everyone's surprise the elderly spinster solves the crime.  Christie published a series of stories about this club, published as The Thirteen Problems and The Tuesday Club Murders.

Another great example is (are?) the Black Widower stories of Isaac Asimov.  He acknowledged Christie as his inspiration for them, by  the way.  These short tales featured a group of men whose meetings were enlivened each month by a guest who, inevitably, had a puzzle in need of solving.  After all the clever and sophisticated members had picked the problem to pieces Henry, the waiter, would provide the solution.

You'll notice that both of these series are not only stories-within-stories, but examples of the least-likely-detective syndrome, since Miss Marple and Henry would appear to be the least qualified members of their groups to solve a mystery.

My friend Shanks doesn't qualify for that, of course.  He is a reluctant, but highly logical choice for detective. He is so logical, in fact, that he complains the concept is ridiculous: no one could possibly get enough information from a tale-teller to figure out whodunit.  Alas, I am cooking the books so he has no choice but to succeed.

 And I think I will leave it there.  If you want to know more, you know where to find the rest of the tale.