19 June 2019

It's So Crazy It Might Just... Be Crazy

The author (R) with lampshade.
by Robert Lopresti

I have been a fan of The Blacklist through all of its long and somewhat checkered career.  Today I was watching an episode which attempted to explain some of the convoluted conspiracy which is supposedly at the heart of what has gone on for the past six years.  At one point a character said: "That is absurd."

And my reaction was: "Wow.  Nice piece of lampshade-hanging."

I discussed this concept in passing once before.  It refers to a method of coping with a particular authorial dilemma.

Let's say your story involves a plot twist or coincidence so outlandish you are afraid the readers will roll their eyes and throw the book across the room.  That happens.  If you can't change the plot, how can you change the reader's reaction to it?

Well, one method is to "hang a lampshade on it."  This means that, instead of trying to draw attention away from the problem, you actually have a character point it out.  This seems counter-intuitive, but it often works.  Maybe you are indicating to the readers that you know how smart they are.

As the wonderful website TV Tropes points out, the ol' Bard of Avon could hang a lampshade as neatly as any pulp magazine hack:  Fabian: If this were play'd upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction. (Twelfth Night)

A related method is known as So Crazy It Just Might Work.  Do I have to explain what that means?  You've read it/seen it in a thousand action movies.  It is practically Captain James Kirk's middle name.*

But I would suggest you can divide SCIJMW into two types: Physics and People.  One is better than the other, I think.

Physics: "There's no way the ship's engines can pull us out of the Interplanetary Squid Forest, so let's go full speed ahead straight in! It's so crazy etc."

People: "They have hundreds of armed guards hunting for us everywhere. The one thing they'll never expect us to do is walk up to the prison and sign in as visitors.  It's so crazy etc."

Both are crazy (although not as crazy as an Interplanetary Squid Forest) but the second one seems more reasonable to me because it is based on reverse psychology.  And hey, that sometimes works in real life. Remember the event that was the basis for the movie Argo? Who would expect the CIA to sneak people out of the country by setting them up as a film crew?

SPOILERS AHEAD.

Another way of grappling with an improbable plot point is foreshadowing.   I think it was Lawrence Block who pointed out my favorite example of that technique.  In The Dead Zone Stephen King has a lightning rod salesman show up at a bar and try to convince the owner to buy, pointing out the building's location makes it a perfect target for boom.  The owner turns him down and the salesman drives off, his service to literature complete.  When lightning strikes the bar at the very moment the plot requires it the reader, instead of saying "How unlikely!", says "Ha!  The salesman was right!"

 Of course, foreshadowing can be used for different purposes.
In the brilliant TV series I, Claudius there is a scene where a seer witnesses what appears to be an omen.  He interprets it to mean  that young Claudius will grow up to be the rescuer of Rome.  Claudius's sister Livilla scornfully says that she hopes she will be dead before that happens.  Their mother says "Wicked girl!  Go to bed without your supper."  Guess when and how Livilla dies?

So if you are a writer how do you deal with an attacks of the Unlikelies?  And if you are a reader (and I know you all are) which types bother you the most?

* Yes, I know Captain Kirk's middle name is Tiberius.  Now go over there and sit down. 

18 June 2019

Professional Tips from Screenwriters

Introducing John Temple…
John Temple
John Temple is a veteran investigative journalist whose books shed light on significant issues in American life.

Forthcoming next Tuesday, June 25th, John’s newest book, Up in Arms: How the Bundy Family Hijacked Public Lands, Outfoxed the Federal Government, and Ignited America’s Patriot Movement, chronicles Cliven and Ammon Bundys’s standoffs with the federal government.

His last book, American Pain: How a Young Felon and His Ring of Doctors Unleashed America’s Deadliest Drug Epidemic, was named a New York Post “Favorite Book of 2015” and was a 2016 Edgar Award nominee. American Pain documented how two young felons built the largest pill mill in the United States and also traced the roots of the opioid epidemic. John has spoken widely about the opioid epidemic to audiences that include addiction counselors, medical professionals, lawyers, and law enforcement.

John also wrote The Last Lawyer: The Fight to Save Death Row Inmates (2009) and Deadhouse: Life in a Coroner’s Office (2005). The Last Lawyer won the Scribes Book Award from the American Society of Legal Writers. More information about John’s books can be found at www.JohnTempleBooks.com.

John Temple is a tenured full professor at West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media, where he teaches journalism. He studied creative nonfiction writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where he earned an M.F.A. John worked in the newspaper business for six years. He was the health/education reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, a general assignment reporter for the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C., and a government and politics reporter for the Tampa Tribune in Tampa, FL. I've had the pleasure of knowing him for more than twenty years, since attending law school with his wife. I'm so pleased to let you all meet and learn from such a great journalist and storyteller.

— Barb Goffman

Learning from Screenwriters

by John Temple

In 2006, I read a book that changed the trajectory of my writing life. I was beginning work on my second nonfiction book, about a North Carolina lawyer who defended death row inmates, when a screenwriter friend recommended I read Syd Field’s 1979 book, Screenplay, which is a sort of holy text for Hollywood screenwriters.

I wasn’t a screenwriter, but I soon realized why the book had such an impact. Somehow, even after many years of working as a newspaper reporter, devouring numerous writing books, and earning an MFA in creative nonfiction, I had never come across such solid, practical advice about how stories are built. Among other ideas, Field advocated a fairly strict three-act structure as the screenplay ideal, but for me the single most helpful concept in his book involved “beats.”

Most screenwriters agree that their chief mission is to find the story’s moments of change, which they call beats. In a screenplay, where efficiency is key, those transformative moments determine whether a scene or sequence earns its pages. In every scene, something must occur that alters either the character’s mindset or the stakes or the dramatic action. In my last three books, all nonfiction crime stories, I’ve tried to consciously seek out the moments of change that my various characters have experienced, and let those beats dictate how I structured the books. I’m looking for the events that contain catalytic moments that alter the protagonist or the surroundings and further the story. Those are the moments I seek to present as full-fledged scenes, rich with vivid detail. The rest is summary.

Sometimes, a beat can be dramatic and external. As Raymond Chandler wrote: “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.” (What Chandler actually meant by that quote is somewhat more complicated.) However, the most intriguing and pivotal beats often involve internal change, which is often a decision or realization. In my 2015 book, American Pain, which chronicled the rise and fall of the nation’s largest painkiller pill mill, the owner realized how much money he stood to make if he could avoid the Drug Enforcement Administration’s scrutiny. That meant he needed to clamp down on his doctors and staff. This was a key moment of change for this primary character. So instead of breezing through that section of the book in an expository way, I meticulously looked for moments and details that would illuminate that beat. There were many other moments of obvious drama in the book – train crashes, overdoses, a kidnapping, drug busts – but that change in the character’s outlook felt more important to the overall story.

Temple: Up in Arms
Another type of internal change is a shift in the character’s emotional state. If a character enters and exits a scene in emotional stasis, then the scene may be lacking in movement. My new book, Up in Arms, chronicles the Cliven Bundy family’s multiple standoffs with the federal government. I deliberately sought to find scenes that showed Ammon Bundy’s increasing mistrust and suspicion of the feds, which eventually led to his engineering of an armed takeover of a wildlife refuge in Oregon.

External change is any change in the character’s environment, usually resulting in what Aristotle termed “peripeteia” or “reversal,” a sort of flip-flopping of the pressures being exerted against the protagonist. At the beginning of a scene, the character may be under one kind of stress, but by the end of the scene, a new pressure, often a polar opposite, has arisen. A third type of change is the shift in the relationship between two characters. Like any change, a relational change can be subtle or obvious. As veteran screenwriter Aaron Sorkin said in a 2000 interview: “Any time you get two people in a room who disagree about anything, there is a scene to be written. That’s what I look for.”

So every scene or sequence must contain a beat of change. How should these beats be arranged? Screenwriters are continually puzzling over this question. In The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers & Screenwriters, Christopher Vogler repackaged the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell for modern Hollywood, outlining 12 major beats that are part of what he called the Hero’s Journey, including a Call to Adventure, Crossing the Threshold, and the Return with the Elixir. The specifics of these beats are endlessly variable, adaptable to any genre or character.

Robert McKee’s book, Story, suggests that narratives feature a warring Idea and Counter-Idea, illustrated by beats in which one or the other gains the upper hand. Scenes and sequences should be arranged so the Idea prevails in one beat, only to be defeated by the Counter-Idea in the next, and so on in an undulating wave of positive and negative beats. McKee writes: “At climax one of these two voices wins and becomes the story’s Controlling Idea.”

All narrative writers know change must occur to keep a story moving. But novelists and creative nonfiction authors may benefit by using the concept of story beats to more deliberately analyze the value and possibilities of their scenes and the structure of their books. It’s a concept that’s just as useful on the page as it is on the screen.

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!

15 June 2019

Anthology Psychology


by John M. Floyd



I've often told my writing students that there are three markets for short fiction: magazines, anthologies, and collections. (You can also self-publish stories one at a time, if you need a fourth option.) Most of my shorts are targeted to magazines, but lately I've seen more and more routed toward anthologies, either via invitation or via an open call. And most anthologies are themed in that they feature tales that have something in common.

This common ground can be almost anything, from location to genre to time period. Here are some of the anthologies I've had stories in, along with their themes:



- the seven deadly sins -- Seven by Seven (Wolfmont Publishing, 2006)

- the afterlife -- After Death (Dark Moon Press, 2013)

- Texas -- The Eyes of Texas (Down & Out Books, upcoming)

- New England -- Landfall (Level Best Books, 2018)

- natural disasters -- Quakes and Storms (Lake Fossil Press, 2005)

- travel -- Passport to Murder (Down & Out Books, 2017)

- the moon -- Under the Full Moon's Light (Owl Hollow Press, 2018)

- the South -- Fireflies in Fruit Jars (Queen's Hill Press, 2007), Mad Dogs and Moonshine (Queen's Hill, 2008), Sweet Tea and Afternoon Tales (AWOC Publishing, 2009), Magnolia Blossoms and Afternoon Tales (AWOC, 2010), Rocking Chairs and Afternoon Tales (Doctor's Dreams Publishing, 2012)

- time travel -- Crime Travel (Wildside Press, upcoming)

safe havens -- Sanctuary (Darkhouse Books, 2018)

- private investigators -- Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea (Down & Out Books, 2017)

Joni Mitchell songs -- The Beat of Black Wings (upcoming)

- Florida -- Florida Happens (Three Rooms Press, 2018)

- the 1950s -- Pop the Clutch (Dark Moon Books, 2019), Mid-Cantury Murder (Darkhouse Books, upcoming)

flash fiction -- Short Tales (2006)

- politics -- We've Been Trumped (Darkhouse Books, 2016)

Mississippi -- Mississippi Noir (Akashic Books, 2016), What Would Elvis Think? (Clinton Ink-Slingers, 2019)

- horror -- Horror Library, Vol. 6 (Farolight Publishing, 2017)

- romance -- Meet Cute (Indiegogo, 2017)

- mystery -- Short Attention Span Mysteries (Kerlak Publishing, 2005), Crime and Suspense I (Wolfmont Publishing, 2007), Mouth Full of Bullets (Best of, 2007), Ten for Ten (Wolfmont Publishing, 2008), A Criminal Brief Christmas anthology (Criminal Enterprises Press, 2009), Trust and Treachery (Dark Quest Books, 2014), Flash and Bang (Untreed Reads Publishing, 2015), The Best American Mystery Stories (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015 and 2018)

- science fiction -- Visions VII: Universe (Lillicat Publishers, 2017)

- fantasy -- Children of the Sky (Schreyer Ink Publishing, 2018), Freakshow (Copper Pen Press, upcoming), Voices and Visions (Cyberwit Publishing, upcoming)

- food and drink -- Noir at the Salad Bar (Level Best Books, 2017)

- Louisiana -- Blood on the Bayou (Down & Out Books, 2016)

- the military -- The Odds Are Against Us (Liberty Island Media, 2019)

- the ten commandments -- Thou Shalt Not (Dark Cloud Press, 2006)



I suspect some of these titles were familiar to you, since I've been lucky enough to share space with many of you in these books. And I hope seeing them might remind you, as it reminds me, of just how you went about satisfying whatever theme each of them required.

Tailor-made

Writing a story to match a theme can be fun, but it can also be hard, at least for me. I know a few writers who love themed anthologies because writing to a particular subject is challenging and inspiring to them. Others find it difficult, and prefer sticking to their own story ideas. Occasionally I've stumbled onto a submission call for an anthology whose theme perfectly matches a story I've already written, which makes the process easier. That doesn't happen a lot.

Marketingwise, one good thing about anthologies is that they're sometimes receptive to reprints (some actually prefer reprints). Another is that--if you do have a story that fits the theme--the usually-short submission window can mean less competition. But there are two downsides to anthologies. One is that the pay can be less than what you might get from a magazine, and the other is that anthologies--unless they're widely-published best-of-the-year anthos--often get limited exposure.

A team effort

Another thing about anthologies. Depending on the project, one can often feel a definite bond with the other contributors. An example of that, for me, was the 49-story anthology Seven by Seven, edited by Tony Burton of Wolfmont Publishing in Georgia. Tony chose seven authors from seven different states to write seven stories each about the Seven Deadly Sins. My participation in 7x7 led to treasured and longtime friendships with the editor and with several of the other writers (Deborah Elliott-Upton, BJ Bourg, Frank Scalise, and Gary Hoffman). Probably because the project happened fairly early in our writing careers and included so many stories by only seven authors, I think all of us had great fun and learned a lot as well.

The latest anthology featuring one of my stories is a book called What Would Elvis Think?: Mississippi Stories. The common thread is that each tale must be set in a town in Elvis's birth state. It was edited by a friend and former student of mine, Johnny Lowe, and is being released today, June 15. One reason I'm pleased to have been included in this project is that 16 of the 22 other contributors are also friends of mine. Most of us plan to be at Lemuria Books here in Jackson for the launch signing this afternoon at two o'clock. If you're reading this on your phone and you happen to be down this way today, stop in.

Questions

What percentage of the stories you write are submitted to anthologies, rather than to magazines? What kind of payment do you usually receive (flat rate, royalty, pat on the back)? Do you tend to try anthologies first, or try them only after a magazine has rejected a story? Do you enjoy writing to a particular theme? Do you find it difficult (as I do)? Are most of your antho stories reprints, or originals? Are you often invited to contribute a story, or do you usually submit as a response to an open call?

Meanwhile, whether you're targeting your stories to magazines OR anthologies, I wish you luck. May the submission gods (another name for editors) favor you with hundred-watt smiles, all the way to the bank.

See you in two weeks.




14 June 2019

Suspense Fiction

by O'Neil De Noux

These are not rules, not guidelines, not anything etched in stone. These are observations about suspense novels from publishers, editors and writers I've known.

What is a Suspense story/novel? Here are some notes taken over the years:

A subgenre of the Mystery genre, it is more about menace than crime. Most of the time.

Crime usually serves as danger. The layout of the story/novel centers on the rising suspense of the storyline, which is dramatic, exciting with a rising level of tension.

The intent of the suspense story/novel is to achieve an emotional reaction from the reader – fear or anticipation. It is not merely suspenseful, the focus of the story/novel is suspense, defined in the intention of the writer and the expectation of the reader.

It is realistic in his presentation and usually logical in its execution. If it jumps the shark midway with characters acting illogically, the writer can lose the reader. How many times have we read books or seen movies and thought – why did this character do something so stupid? Yes, stupid. Turn off all the lights and run around in their underwear. Not calling police when they can. Leaving the gun behind. Not scooping up a machine gun to use their snub-nosed revolver in a gun battle. #1 - not shooting the bad guy when they have the chance to end it all.

Tension results in the manner in which an expected conclusion is achieved. Often it is malice aforethought. In the novel Malice Aforethought, Frances Iles begins with the statement that Dr. Bickleigh will murder his wife.

The focus centers on the human passion, the results of action on the people in the story/novel more than the deed of series of deeds bringing the passion to the surface. For example – in a Techno-Thriller, the focus is more on the hardware than the people's reaction to the events.

The supernatural has no place in the straight suspense story/novel. If the supernatural appears, the piece enters another genre – horror, fantasy or science fiction.

As I said, these are not rules or even guidelines. Just observations.

Alfred Hitchcock's movies are excellent examples of the suspense story: The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Birds, Rear Window and others.








That's all for now.
http://www.oneildenoux.com

13 June 2019

Cracking the Code For "Code-Switching"

by Brian Thornton

Code-Switching: (noun) The switching from the linguistic system of one language or dialect to that of another. (Merriam-Webster)

So my day gig includes a fair amount of something called "code-switching." It's something every human does, even if they're not familiar with the term.

Walk down the halls of the school where I work and you'll hear half-a-dozen different languages being spoken by kids who will switch to something approximating Standard American English once they hit the classroom. And of course there are the dialects (Mr. Mister famously sang about "The Uniform of Youth," but there are also any number of linguae franca associated with teenagers as well).

But more than that, we even code-switch within our own language: maybe you don't talk to your mom the same as you do the guys you bowl with, or the ladies you play darts with. Your child and your accountant may hear you speaking the same language, but they're not hearing you speak the same way.

I can hear my regular readers (BOTH of you!*rimshot*) saying, "Yeah, we know people do this. What does it have to do with writing crime fiction, Captain Obvious? I mean, after all, this is a crime fiction writing blog."

What does code-switching have to do with writing crime fiction?

Unfortunately, not too much.

To be blunt, there needs to be a hell of a lot more code-switching going on in crime fiction.

Why?

Because it helps make characters, conversations, actions, more realistic.

And to be fair, there are writers (especially writers of color) who excel at documenting the phenomenon of code-switching within their work. Walter Moseley, Philip Kerr, Sarah Paretsky, Chester Himes, Gary Phillips, Naomi Hirahara, and a host of others immediately spring to mind.

But it's not easy to pull off. And here's where the fine line difference between "reality" and "realism" comes in to play.

Because if you don't nail it, and you try to sell writing where you've tried code-switching on for size, you're likely to get it handed back, accompanied by the shop-worn criticism: "Your characters need distinctive voices. Ones where, even without dialogue tags, we know who is talking."

Because, again, code-switching believably in fictional conversations takes a deft touch and the ability to balance the individual's recognizable dialogical tics with the different ways they speak to those they encounter over the course of the narrative.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, and not just when walking through the halls at my school. So I wanted to toss it out there to the hive mind.

So why don't we open this up in the comments section? If you're an author, and have tips for how to believably pull off code-switching with a voice still distinctive enough to be recognizable across a variety of social situations, what suggestions do you have for the rest of us? And if you're a reader, and have a favorite author who you think pulls this sort of thing off well, why not share a bit about said author with us?

Hope to hear from all of you, and see you in two weeks!








12 June 2019

Wire in the Blood

David Edgerley Gates



Wire in the Blood is a Brit TV show based on Val McDermid's series of books featuring forensic psychologist Tony Hill. The character's played by Robson Green, who might be familiar to some of you from Grantchester, and who was also in seasons 4 and 5 of Strike Back, which is where he first caught my attention. He's had a solid career going back to the late 1980's, light comedy and heavy drama, but I wouldn't wonder if doing Tony Hill isn't one of the highlights.

Criminal profiling, in the formal sense, goes back at least to the Whitechapel terror - Jack the Ripper is said to be the first object of analysis. David Morrell would give you an argument, and suggest Thomas de Quincey's essay "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts," which examines the Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811, predating the Ripper by some 75 years. The 'science,' disputed by some scholars, has gotten a lot of traction over the last forty years or so. The FBI commissioned their Behavioral Science Unit in 1972. Thomas Harris published Red Dragon in 1981. Popular imagination does the rest.


Wire in the Blood falls very much in hagiographic terrain. Tony Hill has an unsettling ability to put himself in a killer's shoes, but his insights aren't always appreciated by the more evidence-driven homicide dicks he works with. He'll make an intuitive leap; they'll be looking for a DNA match. In practice, it usually works out, and the bad guys meet their just desserts. In terms of narrative structure, it can be a little predictable, since Tony's so often proved right. This isn't, in the scheme of things, actually a weakness. It provides a two-track storyline, and even though you know Tony has his finger on the killer's internal mechanics, it's gonna be the cops who run the villain to earth.

There's a very definite something else going on with Tony Hill, though, and certainly in the way that Robson Green inhabits the character. Tony isn't socially adept. If he's not quite as bone-headed as, say, Doc Martin, he's obviously somewhere on the spectrum. This plays out as an interesting contradiction. Tony will walk his way through a crime scene, and try to experience it from the POV of both victim and killer. This kind of sympathetic vibration doesn't work for him, however, with what most of us think of as generic social interaction. He'll stop a conversation cold because he's had a sudden epiphany, he'll forget what he was saying, he'll walk out of a room. He doesn't realize his behavior is often careless or even hurtful. He doesn't mean it to be, of course, and he's embarrassed when he's caught out, but he's obsessive-compulsive. He's got tunnel vision. 


This is a curiously common characteristic in our ratiocinatory detectives - is that a word? Sherlock Holmes, for one. Emotion clouds the reasoning process. On the other hand, empathy is a necessary part of it. Tony Hill is deeply affected by what he does, but he has to keep his distance. It's a puzzle in and of itself, and Robson Green makes the guy fascinating to watch. Not endearing, mind, but isolated, apart. Too much in his own head.

I should add a cautionary note. Wire in the Blood isn't a cozy. The theme is damage, the pathologies are unsettling, the prey are children, or the weak, or the damned. It's not terribly reassuring. It makes for one hell of a compelling narrative, though.