The dead branches of a tree; dead branches or trees.
Useless or burdensome people or things.
Two men dressed in dark slacks, pressed white shirts, scuffless black shoes shinier than a new penny, and aviator shades pushed above their foreheads examined the crime scene. Their suit jackets remained across the backseat of the black Chevy Suburban parked behind them on the shoulder of the interstate. Sweat layered their backs and pooled in droplets at the temples, soaked their armpits. Swatting at the insects swarming about proved useless.
The Georgia heat this day was stifling, the air thick with humidity, and enlaced with a putrid odor familiar to homicide investigators and most cops. They stared at the nude body about fifteen feet away, a male corpse lying face up on damp, decaying leaves. The skin of the cadaver was grayish and mottled; blood dried a Moorish brown. The eyes of the victim had been eaten away by the scavengers of the forest.
A trio of sheriff’s deputies and a couple of attendants clad
in white jumpsuits from the county coroner’s office stood on the perimeter.
Forensic pathologists, the medical doctors who performed autopsies, rarely left
the morgue. The professionals watched both FBI investigators intently, awaiting
their turn with the body. No doubt they were cursing from having to wait in the
stifling heat. One consolation, however, was the Feds appeared as miserable as
everyone else on this blistering day in mid-July, a record ninety-degrees or
better twenty-one days straight and counting.
The sheriff, a fiftyish gray-headed man with a round belly,
tie askew, top button of his dress shirt open to reveal a tuft of graying hair,
stood a couple of paces off to the side of the tall agents. He had placed the
call to the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Atlanta upon
notification of the horrific discovery. He had referenced a BOLO alert
disseminated to statewide law enforcement agencies the previous month
mentioning a string of linked and unsolved homicides.
“Who found the victim?” asked Special Agent Hales
without looking away from the body.
“Georgia Department of Transportation mowing crew,”
Sheriff Hinson said. “One of their men walked up into the wooded area a hundred
feet that way to take a leak. Claims he caught a foul stench and noticed
buzzards circling overhead. Figured it was a dead animal, a wild hog or such,
and though he’d take a peek. Made his way ‘round that ravine over yonder and
saw something curious. Thought it might be a decomposing animal carcass, but it
looked strange to him from a distance, so he decided to get a better look-see.
Curiosity got the best of him, I guess. It always does.” Hinson chuckled, but
lost his grin when the agents remained stoic.
Hales snorted as his partner, Special Agent Delvecchio,
spoke up, obviously frustrated with the man’s slow, winding drawl as evidenced
by the scowl ripped across his red face. “Go on sir.”
“When the worker got closer, he ain’t seen no dead hog
at all, but a body. He told his supervisor and 911 Dispatch got the call from
GDOT’s office in Macon. A couple deputies called out here to check.”
“Thanks, Sheriff Hinson,” said Delvecchio. “That’ll be
all for now.” He motioned the official to step away and give them room.
“We’ll call you over after an initial walk-through. Inform the
photographer and techs they can get to work afterward.”
Hinson opened his mouth to speak, thought better of it and
slunk away with his head bowed like a banished child. They took the cue and
snapped on nitrile gloves and microfiber booties before moving closer to the
body, careful not to disturb the scene.
“Give me the rundown,” said Delvecchio.
Hales bent at the knees. After a thorough once over, he
began reciting what he observed. Delvecchio took notes: “White male,
twenty-five to thirty-five, one-seventy to one eighty-five pounds alive. Height
about six feet. Dark hair cut short to the scalp, hairless torso. Signs of
trauma to the neck and chest. Bruising, ligature marks visible on both wrists,
ankles, and neck.” Hales lifted a stiff arm and portion of the right shoulder.
“Dark patches beneath the arms, shoulders, legs and buttocks appear to be livor
mortis caused by hypostasis. Abrasions caused by some ligature device;
rope, twine, or a type of cord perhaps. Hard to determine without a more
The younger agent swatted the gnats and flies swarming
around, then shifted his eyes lower.” Significant defects noted to the pelvic
region. Victim’s penis, scrotum and a portion of the abdomen incised.”
Hales cleared his throat and continued in a gravely tone. “No clothing or
personal identification present on scene, same with any visible tattoos, scars
or other identifying marks. Autopsy will determine the length of exposure to
the elements and possible cause of death, but my best guess is the victim has
been here four or five days at most.”
Delvecchio spotted something at the base of a thick
tree-trunk approximately three feet away and moved off, calling back over his
shoulder. “No drag marks or foot impressions I can see, but damn weather could
have erased any evidence therein by now.”
Hales followed his partner’s movements. Delvecchio bent at
the waist and retrieved something from the ground. He stood, holding an object
midair for closer inspection. “Looks like a piece of leather, a shoelace,”
he said. “The kind found on work-boots. Might be the ligature used on the
DB.” Delvecchio inspected the area around the barnacled trunk, circling to
the backside of the tree. “Hales, you need to see this.”
The agent joined Delvecchio after making a wide arc around
any potential evidence on the ground before cutting back to where his colleague
stood. On the lower portion of the trunk Hales saw the bark gouged, like a
wedge or deep notch. Inspecting farther up the tree he spotted numerous, much
thinner marks scored into the rough crust. Rope burns, perhaps from the portion
of shoelace Delvecchio held aloft.
“Victim was either tied to or propped against this
tree, strangled with some sort of ligature device, perhaps some of that
shoelace you found,” Hales said, bending at the knees. “The scars in the
tree’s bark would suggest the UNSUB braced a foot against the trunk for
leverage to garrote his victim, but the binding broke, so another device was
substituted.” Hales looked around the base of the tree. “Body was either cut
down or the bindings broke.”
Hales stood after inspecting the lower impression further,
then retraced his steps to the body.
“This our guy’s work?” Delvecchio asked, following
close behind, but his tone suggested he knew the answer.
“MO appears the same, but I cannot be sure until
getting a closer inspection of the body, more specifically the throat.” Hales
motioned for the crime scene photographer. A gangly shutterbug with billowing
white shoe coverings joined them at once. “Get your prelims before we inspect
the body. You can finish your evidence-quality shots once we’ve stepped away.”
The photographer nodded and began snapping away with a fancy
digital camera, bending, squatting, and contorting his lithe frame in a kind of
hushed, bizarre dance around the corpse, positioning himself near enough, but
not too close in order to avoid contamination. When satisfied, he stepped away
from the body to reclaim his spot at the perimeter where he began fussing with
his equipment and unpacking a tripod.
Hales withdrew a pair of chrome-plated micro tissue forceps
from his shirt pocket and stepped next to the corpse. Lowering his solid frame
to one knee, he leaned over the body. “Let’s determine for sure.” He
used the thin instrument to pry open the purple lips, and probed the interior
of the mouth, removing some dead leaves and earth. The steel prongs of the tool
snagged something solid, lodged deep within the throat. Hales withdrew the
forceps and held the foreign object aloft for closer inspection. “Piece of
deadwood,” he said, scowling. “Like all the others.”
“Where to next?” asked Delvecchio, wiping the
sweat from his forehead with the back of his meaty hand. The gnats were
relentless; the heat insufferable.
Hales glanced at the interstate and sighed. Motorized
vehicles whipped past at breakneck speed; their occupants oblivious to the
horrific discovery a few yards away. “Based on the UNSUB’s previous
pattern and northern trajectory these past few months, and considering the
body’s been here a few days, I’d say he’s already arrived at his next destination.”
Harte leaned back in his chair and stared up at the ceiling with a sigh.
She was an old woman. White hair, wrinkled face, shrivelled up old mouth.”
it’s the exact same woman from the events we spoke about when you were a
Forrest scribbled something onto her clipboard and then looked back up at
replied Blake. “It’s the same woman from when I was a kid because it’s the same
nightmare I’ve had ever since I was a
nodded as she continued writing. “And when these dreams started again, how long
had it been since the last one?”
I was at university, quite a few years ago.”
his hands together in his lap and wrung them together slightly. He absolutely
hated discussing the nightmares in such detail as this.
I had the first one a few months ago, I’ve been experiencing them at least once
a week. Sometimes twice. I even had one last night and apparently I woke up my
partner, because I was crying out, which is impressive as normally he can sleep
through an earthquake.”
was silence for a few moments as Linda finished writing her notes and then
placed the clipboard on the table between them.
studied her. She was a dumpy woman with kind looking blue eyes. He could not
help but wonder if she was a grandmother, because Blake could imagine that she
would be incredibly good at it. She had just the right level of calm serenity
about her but at the same time appeared ever so slightly stern. Overall, he
conceded, she seemed to be the right sort of person to be a therapist.
Linda said. “Let’s talk about the actual dream itself. What happens?”
shuffled in his seat but said nothing. The room they were in was hot, and he
could feel sweat trickling down his back, similar to how he felt whenever the
nightmare woke him up.
on, Blake,” Linda pressed gently. “I know it’s difficult, but I need you to
tell me what happens.”
took a deep breath. “It’s like I said. When I was ten, I broke into an old
house on my street. It had been abandoned for years, but me being a young
tearaway, I had to explore it. I had a mate that I used to have dares with,
Tommy, and he dared me to go and find out what was going on inside the house.”
nobody had been in or out of this house for years?” Linda asked him, leaning
that I saw,” Blake replied, shuffling slightly in his seat. “Though, I was only
ten. My parents always said that it may as well have been knocked down as they
had lived there for years before I was even born, and they had never seen
you get inside the house?”
Blake continued. “The whole place was locked up and the only way inside was
through a tiny window around the back of the house. I was a skinny child; I
mean I wouldn’t call myself exactly large now, but as a kid, I was like a rake.
Even I struggled squeezing through it, but I eventually found myself inside the
house. I wish I’d taken the difficulty in getting in as a sign to stop being so
stupid, but what can I say? I was ten.”
Linda said. “And what did you find once you had managed to get inside?”
sighed again as his eyes landed on the large fish tank in the corner. There was
a small fish fluttering weakly around the surface of the water, looking as if
it was in its last moments of its life.
room was dark,” Blake said quietly. “Pitch black, actually. I had to scramble
around to find the light switch. Then, when I finally turned it on, there she
what was she doing?”
lot,” Blake replied dryly. “She was dead. She was sitting in a rocking chair
with a knife sticking in her back. There was a pool of blood beneath the chair.
And I couldn’t move. I was so terrified staring at her face. It was like
someone had frozen her in the middle of the most horrified scream imaginable. I
mean, she had just been stabbed in the back, so I guess it’s understandable,
but it was the most horrific thing I’d ever seen.”
you were frozen, in your mind trapped, unable to escape with this traumatic
sight in front of you?” Linda clarified.
yes. After what must have only been about a minute or so, but it felt like
hours, I finally managed to get back the use of my legs and got out of there.
Then I ran home and my mum called the police.”
a policeman now, aren’t you?” Linda asked. “Do you think this event had
anything to do with that?”
had wondered that himself over the years. “No, I don’t think so. Though, being
a police detective did mean that I was able to find out details about the case
a few years later.”
what did you discover?”
great deal,” Blake replied. “I know they found out her name was Julia Watkins.
She was, according to her pension book, eighty-seven, and they also discovered
that she had been squatting in the house for months. I suppose it’s unavoidable
with old abandoned buildings. But as for her death, it was never solved. The
only way in and out was through that tiny window that even I had difficulty
climbing through. Other than that, the house was completely sealed.”
scratched the back of her head as she consulted her notes. “It’s the sort of
thing you’ve become quite used to, haven’t you? These sorts of impossible
shrugged. “I suppose so. I have been kept busy since moving to Harmschapel,
that’s certainly true.”
had my fair share,” Blake conceded. “Not that I didn’t get them when I worked
Sale in the Manchester area, where you used to live before moving to
seen a lot in the papers about some of the cases you’ve had to deal with since
moving to the area,” Linda said thoughtfully. “ And of course, you helped bring
a serial killer to justice in the earlier days of your career.”
shuddered at the memory. “Yeah. Thomas Frost.”
read about him,” Linda said, nodding. “He strangled a number of women in the
Manchester area and you were the officer that helped put him behind bars?”
the closest I’ve come to experiencing evil,” Blake replied quietly. “The man is
a psychopath. I had the unpleasant experience of meeting him again not so long
ago. He hadn’t changed.”
in all, that must be incredibly stressful, especially when you’re dealing with
bodies. Murdered bodies at that.”
mouth was starting to feel dry. He leant forwards and took a sip of water from
the plastic cup next to him.
can be,” he replied. “That’s the job. Sadly, being a police officer isn’t all
about catching people who have stolen the church collection money or handing
out parking tickets for vehicles parked on the village green. Sometimes life happens, and life can be pretty
you think that could have had an effect? Stabbings, shootings, strangulations,
you’re only human after all.” She smiled kindly at him, then glanced at the
clock on the wall. “Have a think about it. We’re coming to a close now for the
first session, but I think we’ve covered some really helpful details today.”
was doubtful. As he thanked Linda and left the office, he could not help
wondering exactly what she could possibly do to prevent him having bad dreams,
especially as they stemmed from an event that had actually happened to him.
There was no way to try and make sense of it, it was a traumatic experience
that had clearly stuck with him and no amount of therapy was going to change
climbed into his car, he lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply, briefly chastising
himself for his lack of self-control when it came to smoking. He had been
trying to quit for a long time, but recently, even Blake had to admit that he
had basically become a full-time smoker again.
heavy sigh, he turned the key in the ignition and began driving back towards
Harmschapel, the image of the screaming old woman flashing into his mind’s eye
briefly as he pulled out of the car park.
There’s no such thing as magic. Everything has a logical explanation, even when you can’t immediately see it. Nothing is impossible when looked at from the right angle.
Blake Harte has always lived by this mantra. It’s an attitude that has fared him well in Harmschapel after being faced with numerous bizarre murders and situations. But Blake’s beliefs are soon to be tested to breaking point when touring magician, Sebastian Klein, arrives in the village with his daughter, and glamorous assistant, Amelia, to perform their touring magic show.
Although reluctant to even watch the show, Blake and the rest of Harmschapel Police are soon called into action when Sebastian Klein performs the most baffling trick of his career. Just how many ways are there for a woman to completely vanish in front of an audience, especially when even the great Sebastian Klein has no explanation for what happened?
What initially looks like a big theatrical stunt soon leads Blake and the team to one of the darkest and most sinister cases they have ever come across. The disappearance of Amelia Klein threatens to explode in the ugliest way possible, and there is no way of telling just how many secrets she could expose if found…
Want to know more about the author? Click the image of Robert Innes to reach his website!
Robert Innes is the author of The Blake Harte Mysteries – a series of head scratching and impossible crimes. When he’s not trying to work out how to commit seemingly perfect murders and building up a worrying Google search history, Robert can be found at his local slimming group, wondering why eating three pizzas in the space of a week hasn’t resulted in a weight loss. Since the creation of the Blake Harte mystery series in November 2016, each book has become a best seller in LGBT mystery both in the USA and the UK.
The loneliest little harmonica sniffled. As best he could, he ignored all the distraction and noise from the store.
His name was Erik. Especially on a Christmas Eve like today, he tried to shut the world out. Then in his heart, he would listen to a cradle song for harmonica and orchestra, the most beautiful and soothing music he’d ever heard.
Deep inside of him, Erik had several secret wishes. The most important was that he wanted to be chosen by a good and caring child, and for that child he wanted to play a cradle song.
Long, long ago back to a time he could barely remember, Erik had heard cradle songs for harmonica and orchestra, a beautiful lullaby music. Only a few of those tunes existed. He wanted to make more. New ones. If not that, he wanted to make music with one little boy or girl, for one little boy or girl, music that would soar to the heavens in purity and grace. Music that would change the world, or at the least, heal a child’s tired and broken heart.
He wanted to play a song like that, be part of a song like that. To play for a child with or without an orchestra, to play a lullaby as the child fell asleep on Christmas Eve, all this in Erik’s forever home, nestled in the child’s hands. That was his deepest dream.
But he’d been stuck back here for years, longer than Erik could remember. He’d never been chosen, not even close; picked up and put back only once.
Erik wore a coating of dust most of the year. Maybe in the big cleaning before Christmas, he was noticed in his quiet refuge and someone wiped away the year’s dirt. Most times, they skipped him because they didn’t see him.
Erik was far, far back on his shelf. The dim light rarely reached as far back as he was. He was a little rusty and dinged up. All the bright, shiny trumpets, French horns, tubas, flugelhorns, coronets, and so many more were out in front on the big shelves throughout the store; ready to blare and blast at the slightest sign of interest. The kids who wandered this far back rarely even saw, much less put a hand out toward him.
Erik wasn’t as frightened as he had been in the beginning. He was used to feeling alone. He liked being so far back because he refused to ever show anyone that he was close to sniffling, or worse, crying.
Every Christmas Eve was the worst. Most days, the store thronged with children who all passed him by. He didn’t blame them. They couldn’t even see him all tucked away. Christmas Eve was the busiest day of the year, with the poor and dispossessed kids admitted to the Isle of Misfit Toys to pick and choose among them, and then take away a free toy. On that day, the crowds were the biggest of the year. To be bypassed by so many, added an extra drop to his despair.
On Erik’s own shelf, a cluster of knocked-around but shiny trumpets lounged way out front, followed by the battered but preening flutes and then, way far in the corner, him.
Erik was an oddity, a little baby harmonica. He hadn’t grown. He always thought this was because he’d been snatched from the factory too soon. The truth was, he’d been made that way, but he didn’t know that, and really, it didn’t make any difference to him. He was happy being the smallest possible harmonica. He just wished with all his heart to make music.
Today, Erik tried to be brave for the tiny little race car who had been thrust onto his shelf a month or so ago. The little car had been shoved way back, by a boy who was being mean to his younger brother.
Reginald was the little car’s name. It was his first Christmas Eve not being in someone’s home, without being cherished by a child. That woe-filled first day, he’d told Erik his story between stifled sobs and snorted sniffles.
Reginald was barely bigger than a Monopoly token and must originally have been bright yellow. He’d been loved and held and played with until he was worn to a dull sheen. Now, Reginald was all dinged, rusted, and seedy-mustard yellow. He had lost his left front tire. In his home, he hadn’t cared because he’d known he was loved.
Erik thought one of the worst parts of Reginald’s story was that, years before, the poor little car had lost his mom and dad to a crazed parent who was determined to throw away all her son’s so-called childish junk. Then disaster had struck on that recent fateful day just after Thanksgiving. That had been Reginald’s very worst moment.
The little car had talked between his tears about his home and the boy, Daniel, who loved him. How he always stayed in a special place in the boy’s bottom drawer. He had always been safe in that one tiny snugglement.
Daniel cared for Reginald, treasured him, and was very kind, and always protected him. On that horrible day, Daniel’s older brother, Harold, had waited in ambush to snatch the car out of Daniel’s hand. The little boy couldn’t get Reginald back.
Daniel got very angry and cried. His big brother dashed away and laughed at him. Daniel ran after his brother. He even chased him down the street, but the older boy danced and skipped away always an inch out of his brother’s reach. All that time, Harold waved the weeping little car above his head.
The little boy told his parents. His daddy was harsh, said he needed to get tough and not be a baby. His mother kept silent because she was afraid of her husband and also fed up with hearing the boys argue. Then later that day, in this store on the Isle of Misfit Toys, when no one was looking, Harold had thrust Reginald as far back on this shelf as he could. Daniel didn’t see him do it. No one did.
Their parents had been tired and shushed the squabbling boys, then rushed them out of the store so their fighting and wailing wouldn’t embarrass the adults.
Erik felt sorry for the little car who had no one and nothing in common with anyone on his shelf. After he’d been crying, Reginald tended to hiccup in the night. Erik comforted the little car as best he could.
As for himself, Erik had been passed around for years in many homes. In each one, he’d tried to be cheerful and make friends, but so many of the other musical instruments were indifferent or cared only about themselves. Plus, he was so tiny, it was easy to ignore or overlook him.
In one home, he’d met some snotty violins. One time when he’d thought they were feeling mellow, he’d explained to one of them about music for harmonica and orchestra, cradle songs, the kind he loved. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to him, he’d picked the most wrong one to confide in.
Agnes, the meanest violin, had snipped at him, “Well, even if that kind of music does exist, and I doubt it, you’re not a real harmonica, are you? You’re a little baby harmonica, hardly worth the few notes you can play.”
Agnes had liked to make the other toys feel bad. She tried to lord it over everyone, but Erik knew her secret. First, he’d noticed how she took to heart slights from the two closest other instruments, an oboe and a bassoon. He also saw that the bigger instruments and even other kinds of toys picked on Agnes. It was only when all of her tormentors weren’t around that Agnes attacked and berated the ones smaller than herself.
The little harmonica felt sorry for Agnes, but his every kind word to her always fell flat. She was always meaner faster than any other toy he’d ever met.
Erik knew he didn’t make as many notes as other instruments. Once, he’d met a huge grand piano. He’d lived in its bench for the longest time. The little boy of the house was made to take lessons on an instrument that seemed to be a bazillion times bigger and have a million more notes than the harmonica.
After his interminable session every day, the little boy would sneak Erik out of the great bench. The boy would hide in a vast closet in one of the elegant rooms, and he’d play and play. Erik did his best to help the little boy feel better.
His second favorite times at that house were when the mom or dad would read out loud with the boy. Erik would be all nestled in the boy’s shirt pocket, or if it was at night, in the pocket on his pajama tops, and Erik would feel the words wash over both of them as if they were part of a long flowing stream of stories stretching on endlessly into magic.
Then one day, the boy had taken him outside to a park. He had swung and twirled on a round-a-bout tilt-a-whirl. The boy had gotten dizzy and sick and forgot the little harmonica on the edge of the sandbox.
While climbing over the edge of the sandbox, a three-year-old girl with angelic blond locks had accidentally knocked Erik off the edge and down into the sand. The next day, the little boy had come to search for him. Everyone looked and hunted, and the little boy had cried. But Erik had landed under a small drift of sand that only got bigger as hands reached and searched for him.
Erik stayed buried in the sandbox for the longest time. It had rained and gotten very cold. Many nights, the harmonica shivered and shook.
Then one sunny spring day, another little girl had found him. She’d cleaned him up almost as good as new. Try as she might, she couldn’t get every bit of the rust off, but she got most of it. Her fingers weren’t skilled enough to fix the dents.
Erik lived for a while on a shelf with her dolls. They were friendly in a stand-offish way. They didn’t like to talk to him because he wasn’t one of them.
Later, Erik had been thrown into a box of junk, which made its way through garage sales and rummage sales and finally giveaways in church basements.
Erik survived the drops, dings, and dents as best he could. He was seldom played with during all his jostlings and journeys. These days, the noise he made wasn’t as true as it had once been.
In this store on the Isle of Misfit Toys, when he was brought in, they’d cleaned him up as new as he’d felt in years.
Even here with its kindly proprietor, the clarinets, flutes, and oboes farther along the shelves could be mean and snotty, most often in a snide way, whispering in their high or low-pitched whines.
The little harmonica knew he’d been here for years. No one had picked him. He’d barely ever been touched. He longed for one set of hands and one set of lips to bring him to life.
On his first Christmas Eve in this store, he was at one of his lowest points. At that moment, Erik had made the mistake of telling one of the other musical instruments his dream of playing a gentle cradle song for a child. He’d forgotten the lesson he’d learned from Agnes. He’d hoped her attitude wasn’t shared by anyone else. Surely, no one could be as cruel as that violin? Alas, he was wrong.
Mildred was a brass trumpet who’d lost one of her shiny knobs and had a couple of big dents. At that time, Erik was closer to the front of the shelf, before he got shoved so far back out of the light and had begun to lose hope.
This is the story of a Christmas Eve and the travails of a tiny harmonica alone and lost in the deep dark on the back of his shelf in a store on the Isle of Misfit Toys, and about a little boy frightened, alone, and lost from his family on Christmas Eve. It is a story of warmth, compassion, and joy to be read by the whole family.
Want to know more about Mark Zubro?
Click on the author’s photo to the left to be taken to his website:
Mrs Skinner rushed into my office in her hat and furs, pulled up a chair and sat down at my desk. “Have you got the pictures?” she said.
“Well, good morning to you, Mrs Skinner,” I responded.
“Never mind all that!” she snapped back. “Have you got the pictures?” She took off her hat and fur and slammed them on my desk.
“Have you got the money?”
I shook my head. “I need to know that you have the money before I show you the pictures.”
She looked at me and frowned. She grabbed her handbag and rummaged in it for her chequebook.
“How much was it again?” she asked, opening her chequebook and taking a pen out of her bag.
“Four hundred pounds,” I said. “And I want cash.”
She looked up, surprised. “You said three hundred and fifty.”
“The price has gone up.”
“Turns out there’s a bit more to your husband’s affair than meets the eye.”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you have the cash or not?”
Mrs Skinner replaced her chequebook and pen in her bag, took out her purse and started counting the money in it. “I have three hundred and fifty pounds,” she said, “as that’s what we agreed on. I can owe you the rest.”
She rolled her eyes in irritation, but she eventually took the notes out of her purse and laid them on the desk.
“Are you happy now, Mr Stone?” she said. “Do you think you can show me the pictures now?”
“I am, and I can.” I opened the desk drawer and retrieve the pictures. “I’ll show you the pictures now,” I said, opening the brown envelope, “but I should warn you, it’s not a pretty sight.”
“Just get on with it.”
I placed the pictures on the desk one by one and closely watched her face as I did so. It was rigid and emotionless.
“What’s this?” she said after I had placed the final picture on the desk. She was looking at me, frowning with confusion.
“That’s your husband,” I said.
“Who is that other person with him?”
“That is the man he’s been having an affair with.”
“That is not a man!”
“I think you’ll find he is.” I pointed at a certain part of Lenny’s anatomy.
“What are you suggesting?”
“I’m not suggesting anything.”
“Are you suggesting that my husband is a homosexual?”
“I’m not suggesting anything, Mrs Skinner. I let the pictures do the speaking.” I picked up the photo of Skinner eagerly swallowing Lenny’s cock and placed it on top of the other ones.
“My husband is not a homosexual!” she said, jumping up from her chair. “He is the son of an Anglican priest! That picture is a fake! Where is the man’s head?”
“I cut his head off, Mrs Skinner. There’s no need for you to know who the man is.”
“I’m not paying for those pictures! They are not what I asked for!”
“That’s fine. Then I won’t give them to you.” I picked up the photos, slipped them back in the envelope and locked the envelope in my drawer.
Mrs Skinner remained standing over my desk. Her body trembled with rage and her face began to contort. Finally, the emotion became too much for her and she burst into tears. She sat back down and buried her head in her hands. I admit I did feel a tinge of pity for her. I pulled the handkerchief out of my breast pocket and handed it to her.
“Thank you,” she said softly and began drying her tears. “This is so humiliating! I should never have married him. My father warned me not to marry outside my faith. We’re Catholics. This would never have happened if I had married a Catholic.”
I didn’t say anything.
“You will have to burn the pictures,” she said. “No one must see what I’ve seen.”
“You can burn them yourself if you pay for them.”
“There!” She threw the bank notes at me. “There’s your cursed money!”
“What about the other fifty pounds you still owe me?”
“I’ll come back with it another day.”
“How can I be sure?”
She looked at me indignantly. “I think you can trust me, Mr Stone.”
“I don’t trust anyone.”
“Well, what do you want me to do?”
I looked at her earrings. “Are those real pearls?”
“My pearls?” She put her hands to her earrings and stared at me with shock. “Are you serious? You want my pearls? Don’t you think I’ve been humiliated enough?”
“Hey, lady, I’ve got a business to run here.”
She took off her earrings and flung them at me. “Have the blessed pearls, you hard-hearted swine!”
I picked up the earrings and put them in my pocket. Then I opened the drawer, took out the envelope and handed it to her. She yanked it out of my hands, picked up her hat and fur and jumped out of her chair. “I hope I never see you again!” She marched out of the office.
“It was a pleasure doing business with you, Mrs Skinner,” I called after her, but she didn’t hear me.
Inspired by the pulp fiction novels of the 1940’s and 50’s, the novellas in this anthology emulate the dark, thrilling, sensational and taboo breaking stories of the post war era and gives them a gay twist.
1950’s London. Felix Stone is an openly gay P.I. He is approached by a mysterious woman who pays him to shadow her husband. What at first seems to be a run of the mill adultery case, soon turns out to be much more serious. When the people involved in the case suddenly start dying around him, Felix finds himself embroiled in the world of cold war espionage and his own life is put in danger.
1949. The East End of London is still recovering from the blitz. Fitzgerald O’Sullivan is a young man with romantic notions of living like an impoverished writer. In an attempt to escape his past, he abandons his life of privilege and rents a room in the East End. There he meets Roy Parker, a chirpy Cockney with a working-class charm. Roy asks Fitz to write a story about how he saved the lives of two Jewish ladies during the war. What follows is a far-fetched tale filled with lies and exaggerations. This is is a noir thriller where nothing is what it seems. A dark tale of love, bitterness and vengeance set in the chaotic aftermath of the Second World War
1950´s L.A. Sixteen year old Henry Blomqvist is the son of an aspiring actress and stepson of a millionaire businessman. He is an embarrasement to his parents, a useless layabout who is constantly getting arrested for cruising the parks. But his vices pale in comparison with the dark secrets in his parents´ lives. The kidnapping of Henry´s stepfather triggers a series of events which expose the skeletons in his parents´ closets and which finally give Henry the chance to step up to the mark and show what he´s really made of.
ebook link:(Releasing December 4th, 2018 via Amazon & FREE via Kindle Unlimited)
Born to Dutch parents and raised in Colombia and England, I am a rootless wanderer with itchy feet. I’ve spent the last few years living and working in The Netherlands, Czech Republic, Sudan and Bulgaria, but I have every confidence that I will now finally be able to settle down among the olive groves of Andalucia.
I am an avid reader and film fan (in fact, my study is overflowing with my various dvd collections!)
I did an MA in creative writing for film and television at the University of Sheffield. After a failed attempt at making a carreer as a screenwriter, I turned to the theater and wrote and produced a play called ´Death Takes a Lover´ (which has since been turned into the first D.S.Billings Victorian Mystery). The play was performed on the London Fringe to great critical acclaim.
Currently living in Spain where I make ends meet by teaching English .
To Peter, Samuel Powers was an excellent example of how weird New York style looks on people who are not physically in New York at the time. He wore a V-neck tee with a too-small blazer, cropped chinos, and polished brown loafers with no socks. His bare, tanned ankles dared the world to question his well-examined casualness. He would have looked amazing if he’d been walking through Central Park, holding some kind of whey-enriched smoothie. But sitting in the main offices of the Hamster, surrounded by mismatched office furniture, he just looked like he’d been beamed there from a cooler future—the victim of a science-fiction transporter accident.
At the same time, he looked vaguely familiar. But that might have been because he looked like every other handsome, stylish guy from New York.
“I’m sorry I kept you waiting.” Peter extended his hand, and Sam shook it with exactly the right amount of manly pressure and eye contact familiar enough that Peter felt certain that this couldn’t be their first meeting. He considered attempting to fake it—go in for a hug, or air-kiss even, just to take it to the next level—but decided against it. It was far too hot to hug, and he’d never been a kissy guy. “I’m sorry, but have we met before?”
Sam pulled a wide, perfectly toothed smile and said, “I came to your wedding three years ago.”
Now it all fell into place. Sam had attended their wedding as Nick’s agent, Donna’s, date.
The wedding itself had been such a blur—not just because he’d been excited and stressed by the first mingling of his and Nick’s respective families but because one of their guests had attempted to murder Nick. Lesser details of the occasion, like the names of their non-murdering guests, had largely slipped through the cracks of Peter’s memory.
“I’m so sorry.” Peter felt a line of red creeping up the back of his neck. “Please sit down.”
“It’s all right. I don’t think we spoke much beyond the congratulations.” Sam seated himself and then leaned in, elbows on Peter’s none-too-clean desk. “So the reason I’m here is that I’m working on a book and I was hoping I might convince you to help me. It’s about the Werks Collective.”
Peter ran down a list of every collective, commune, and co-op he could recall operating in greater Whatcom County, but nothing rang a bell and he said so.
“It’s the artists’ collective that Walter de Kamp was part of in New York.” At the mention of that name Peter’s naturally ebullient heart cooled to a dull simmer. Of course Sam wanted to talk about Walter de Kamp, Nick’s first lover—the ghost who just
wouldn’t stay down. Every time Peter thought he and Nick had finally broken free of the specter, he rose up to complicate their lives, bringing with him secrets and lies and old history.
“I’m afraid I can’t help you,” Peter said. “I never met the man. And before you even ask, Nick won’t be interviewed about him at all. Ever. Period.”
“Oh, I wasn’t hoping to interview Mr. Olson.” Sam held up his hands as if to show himself innocent of such notions. “I only hoped to have a closer look at a few of the paintings that you two have at your house. I’m specifically interested in the blue landscape in the dining room. It is such an amazing piece. Ever since I saw it three years ago it’s been on my mind.”
“Haunting you?” Peter asked. He couldn’t help it.
“In a way yes,” Sam said, apparently in complete seriousness. “I would be so grateful if you would just let me have another look at it.”
Peter weighed the request. Although it would annoy Nick to have someone in the house, maybe if Sam could publicize the painting, there might be enough interest in it that Nick would finally auction the thing off. After that last piece of Walter’s art had gone, Peter could hire an exorcist, and the spirit of Walter could be laid to rest. He could just picture it: a tall, thin man in a priest’s collar standing before his house, the Castle at Wildcat Cove, eyes pressed closed, whispering in Latin… For an instant, Peter nearly succumbed to his long-standing bad habit of writing the scene out in his head, but Sam had already gathered up his things and started for the door.
“Is it all right if we take my car?” he was saying. That took a moment for Peter to process. Finally, feeling stupid, he said, “You want to go now?” “If you’re free,” Sam returned. Peter glanced across the office at Doug, who had been
observing the entire exchange. Doug gave a silent shrug, which Peter interpreted as a go-ahead. “Let me just take a leak before we head out,” Peter said. Sam magnanimously agreed to wait in the car while Peter took the opportunity of the lone stall in the men’s room to fact-check
Sam’s story. Years ago, before he’d met Nick and taken up amateur sleuthing, Peter would have gotten
into Sam’s car on the strength of his handshake alone. But experience had made him wary of riding in cars with random strangers, well-dressed or not.
Sam Powers’ web page was everything Peter would have wanted for his own. Clear, organized, full of stylish fonts and praise about his writing from the New York Times and the Guardian. It also contained a full bibliography of Sam’s previously published book titles, three of which involved crimes that were related to the art world.
That hurt most of all.
Though Peter had written thousands of articles and even won a national award for journalism, he didn’t have even a single book with his name on the spine. He’d started numerous times, attempting to cobble together a concept that would hold his interest long enough to pitch it to an editor, but after a couple of days’ research into this or that subject he’d lose interest, get depressed, and eventually degenerate into writing fiction.
Peter’s narratives brimmed with irrelevant commentary on modern life and lacked in any sort of dramatic tension. He’d even attempted to write pornography, then given up, realizing how hard it was to be shocking in a world where a book about the gay X-rated exploits of were- dinosaurs who strove to control the Freemasons could actually get good reviews.
Now here came Sam Powers, flaunting his ability to stave off boredom by writing incisive long-form prose. Peter had half a mind to crawl out the window but turned instead to Sam’s social media pages, where he found, to his delight, that Sam did have some detractors after all.
Several citizen reviewers called him pretentious and unprincipled. Others disliked his tendency toward wild speculation.
In fact, a brief perusal of Sam’s bio led Peter to believe that Sam was some kind of alternate version of himself—the self that made different choices. Sam’s natal city was the unfortunately named Boring, Oregon—a city whose main claims to fame were having an accidentally funny name and a series of unsolved serial rapes in the late nineties. Whereas in comparison, Peter’s hometown of Bellingham had hosted a great number of actual serial killers in addition to a funny unofficial town motto: City of Subdued Excitement.
Though they both originated in small towns in the Pacific Northwest, Sam had lit out for the Big Apple immediately, whereas Peter had attended the local state university. Where Peter had traveled on his own and taken a long time to settle into writing, Sam landed a magazine gig straight out of private college.
Last, Sam’s Facebook page showed him to be almost relentlessly single up to the point that he started dating Donna, opposite of serial monogamist Peter. Yet the subjects they wrote about and even their writing style seemed eerily similar, like a literary doppelgänger or…evil twin.
So Sam checked out as a legit writer, not a serial killer, hired assassin, or art thief.
And despite the mad jealousy he might feel at Sam’s various awesome book deals, the classy thing to do would be to help him out with his research.
Purchase The Bellingham Mystery Series Volume 2 here:
click photo for Nicole Kingerling’s websiteNicole Kimberling is a novelist and the editor at Blind Eye Books. Her first novel, Turnskin, won the Lambda Literary Award. Other works include the Bellingham Mystery Series, set in the Washington town where she resides with her wife of thirty years and an ongoing cooking column for Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. She is also the creator and writer of “Lauren Proves Magic is Real!” a serial fiction podcast, which explores the day-to-day case files of Special Agent Keith Curry, supernatural food inspector.
My mother and I stopped at the top of the stairs. The courtyard below us had been transformed. The metal table we sat around so often had been pushed up against a card table and the two were covered in a festive orange plaid table cloth, set with white dishes and silverware, butterscotch napkins and giant wine glasses. The table, the chairs, and even the ground were covered in brown, yellow, orange and red leaves cut from construction paper. Lights were strung from the bottom of the balcony to the bird of paradise. Marc had brought out their compact stereo outside and a CD was playing, Carly Simon’s My Romance. It felt a little like being in a movie.
“Oh my goodness, I just thought of something,” my mother said. “We should have brought wine.”
“We’ve had a hectic day. I’m sure they’ll understand.”
The sky was cloudy and there was an occasional gust of wind. Standing in the center of the courtyard were Marc’s friends Deborah and Rob. Marc worked with Deborah at the studio where they did something with numbers. Rob was her husband. I didn’t know them well. She was short and little wide, while he was tall and pale.
Before we started down the stairs, my mother licked her fingers and smoothed down my hair over my right ear.
“There, that’s better,” she said. I felt about eight years old.
We went down the stairs. My mother wore a simple, brown sheath-like dress with low, conservative pumps. When she’d come out of the bathroom she’d whispered, “I have a nicer outfit, but it’s pink and that just seemed wrong.”
“I don’t think we’re expected to grieve for someone we’ve never met.”
“Still, I want to be respectful.”
“We don’t have to whisper. Remember? You drugged her.”
“You don’t have to remind me.”
I introduced my mother to Deborah and Rob. Then Rob pointed out a bottle of wine in a standing ice bucket—which made me wonder, Where do Marc and Louis get these things? Followed immediately by And where do they keep them?
“What kind of wine is it?” my mother asked.
“I don’t know,” Deborah said. “Something from Trader Joe’s.”
“It’s a pinot grigio,” I said, reading the label.
“Oh,” she said, sounding disappointed.
“It’s good,” Deborah said.
“Is it? All right.”
I poured out two glasses, and handed one to my mother. My anemia pill had had a little time to work, so I felt a bit perkier. Or maybe it was just the prospect of dinner.
“How’s your brother, Deborah?” I asked, having met him the past spring.
“Oh, Jamie is great. Loving St. Louis.”
“So he’s not moving out here?”
“No. He’s talking about moving to New York City, but I don’t think he’s going anywhere. He’s really a hometown boy.”
When he visited I got the distinct impression he didn’t much like St. Louis. My guess was he’d be in New York by the end of the year. We talked about northern Michigan for a while after Deborah asked where my mother had come in from. Then my mother asked how they knew Marc and Louis, and was told that he and Deborah worked together at a studio.
“And what do you do there?”
“Ultimates. My department estimates how much a film will make in every market and then we keep track of whether it does or not.”
“Well, that sounds important. And you do that for every movie?”
“All six thousand six hundred and thirty seven. Most of them no one cares about anymore, but the numbers still have to go somewhere.”
Marc came out of the kitchen. He wore a Hawaiian shirt he got at a thrift store over a white tee, khakis and a pair of mahogany Docs. In one hand he held a large plate topped by a folded cloth napkin, an orange and green floral that matched the table. On top of it were nearly a dozen tri-colored raviolis that had been fried in oil. A bowl of mayonnaise-based dip sat next to them.
“I’ve got nibbles,” he said. “Fried ravioli with aioli. How is Joanne?”
“That’s probably the best thing for her.”
“I think so, too,” my mother said, avoiding my look.
“Who’s Joanne?” Deborah wanted to know. An increasingly complicated question.
“A friend. Her son died last night. She just found out,” my mother explained, impressing me with her brevity.
“Oh my God. What happened to him?”
“Probably an overdose,” I said.
“These raviolis are great,” Rob said.
“Aren’t they?” Marc agreed. “I love when Louis makes them.”
“Is Joanne a friend from Michigan? Or someone you went to school with?” Deborah wondered.
“I met her in a bar at O’Hare.”
“Oh. I see.”
“About eighteen hours ago, give or take,” she admitted.
“Really? Noah, your mother is so much more interesting than mine.”
“Wait until you meet Joanne.”
My mother poked me in the side, the way she had when I was a teenager. Just then, Tina arrived. She wore a baby doll dress in a black-and-white print, a pair of worn yellow cowboy boots and about twenty Bakelite bracelets on one wrist. Her blond hair was caught up in a giant clip at the back of her head.
Greetings were exchanged, Tina knew Deborah and Rob from previous dinners and she’d met my mother on a previous visit.
“It’s nice to see you again, Angie,” she said, giving my mother a Hollywood air-kiss, which she somehow managed to make sincere. Then she dropped her large leather tote onto the ground.
“You don’t have scripts in there?” Marc asked.
“Just two. I may need to sneak off and do a little reading.” She lit a cigarette. “How was your flight, Angie?”
“Oh, the flight was lovely.”
Marc got Tina a glass of wine while we caught her up on the Joanne situation. When we finished, Tina said, “How uncomfortable.”
And, of course it was, particularly now that my mother had basically overdosed our guest on sleeping pills. Well, not overdosed exactly, but it was still unfortunate. Marc drifted off to get another plate of hors d’œuvres.
“So, she’s been sleeping all day?” Tina asked.
I glanced at my mother. “Yes.”
“I suppose that’s a defense,” Deborah said. “Against the grief.”
“That’s true,” Rob agreed. “The mind works things out while we sleep.”
Marc was back, saying, “These are miniature blue corn pancakes with caviar, sour cream and a bit of lemon zest. Just pop the whole thing in your mouth.”
My mother took one, eyeing it curiously. Then, over my shoulder, Marc said, “There you are.”
I turned and saw that our friend Leon had arrived. He was near forty, had dyed his hair platinum blond, and had a face that always looked a tiny bit pinched in judgment. He wore a lose rayon shirt with a black T-shirt underneath, jeans and heavy black work boots. I guessed that he planned to throw the rayon shirt into his car, strap on a leather wrist band, and spend the later part of the evening at The Gauntlet.
“Oh those look lovely,” Leon said, making a beeline for the nibbles.
“We were just talking about the woman who’s sleeping upstairs—” Deborah started.
“The one whose son died?” Leon said. “I know all about it.”
“He called earlier,” Marc explained.
“So, was he murdered?” Leon asked.
“Oh my God, no.” I said.
“Why would you say such a thing?” my mother asked.
Just then Louis ran out of his apartment, oven mitts on both hands, and zipped up the stairs to mine. I was pretty sure I heard him say, “Almost forgot.”
“What was that about?” Deborah asked.
“He put a couple of casseroles into my oven. An hour ago. Maybe more. Tell us more about what you do,” I said, trying to avoid what I knew was coming next.
“Oh no you don’t,” Leon said. “Noah, why don’t you think this woman’s son was murdered?”
“Because it’s much more common to overdose than it is to be murdered.”
“His mother doesn’t think that’s what happened, though, does she?”
Wow, I thought, Marc fit in a lot of detail.
My mother took over. “She says he stopped taking drugs, except for marijuana and alcohol, and she believes him.”
“A mother would, though, wouldn’t she?” I pointed out.
“Well, yes,” she admitted. “I imagine it’s the kind of thing an addict would tell his mother.”
“Lying well is a God-given talent,” Leon said.
My mother put a hand over her mouth while she giggled at that.
“Just because his mother doesn’t think he overdosed doesn’t mean he was murdered,” I said.
Louis came out of my apartment holding the baking tray between oven mitts and balancing the casseroles. Carefully, he descended the stairs.
“Oh dear, that could go terribly wrong,” said Tina. Since she spent her time reading movie scripts, I could see how she was trained to assume that a man carrying a tray of hot food while walking down a flight of stairs was inevitably going to tumble down into a comic heap at the bottom. But Louis made it to the bottom without incident and our dinner was undisturbed. We all breathed a sigh of relief and returned to our fitful conversation.
“I read in the paper today that they’ve had some luck treating AIDS with gene therapy,” Leon said. “They think they may be able to give you a virus that will insert a defective gene into HIV cells.”
“Give a virus to cure a virus?” Marc said skeptically. He switched from passing tiny pancakes to refilling wine glasses.
Leon shrugged. “It does sound a little far-fetched.”
“They might as well inject you with the spaceship from Fantastic Voyage,” I mock suggested. “Raquel Welch could cure AIDS with a miniature stun gun.”
“If only it were that easy,” my mother said quietly.
Leon wandered off toward the stereo. I sipped my wine , it was cool and crisp. “Do you like the wine?” I asked my mother.
“Oh, it’s lovely. Very tart.” I think that meant she didn’t. She preferred sweeter wines.
“Are we going to see Louis at all?” I asked Marc.
“Is there anything we can do to help?” my mother asked.
“Yes, we should help,” Tina said—the woman who’d brought something to read while someone else cleaned up.
“There’s not enough room in the kitchen,” Marc said. “Louis will be out once dinner is served. Don’t worry.”
“Really Marc?” Leon said, coming back from the stereo. “Five CDs and not one of them Barbra or Madonna? Sometimes I wonder if the two of you are homosexual at all.”
“Who is this singing, by the way?” Deborah asked.
“Lesbian music,” Leon said, dismissively. “All flannel and strumming guitars.”
“Oh, I have to go,” Marc said , he’d just seen Louis waving him over to the apartment.
“I wish they’d let us help,” my mother said. Determined to mother someone, she asked, “Do you think I should check on Joanne?”
“It’s only been twenty minutes.”
She frowned. “I’m sorry if I’ve ruined your Thanksgiving.”
“Stop saying that.”
“How did you ruin his Thanksgiving?” Leon asked. “Look at him, he’s got a glass of wine in his hand and he’s about to have a wonderful dinner—”
“I know but—if it weren’t for me we wouldn’t have Joanne on our hands and we wouldn’t be talking about that poor dead boy.”
“It’s not your fault, Angie,” Leon said. “Your son is the one who’s a magnet for dead bodies.”
“Mag— Noah, what does he mean?”
“Nothing,” I said pointedly. I gave Leon a searing look.
“Well, he means something.”
I sighed. “During the riots there was a body left in the dumpster behind my store.”
“Oh dear. You never told me. Why didn’t you—”
“And…” Leon said, annoying the heck out of me.
“And another time there was a dead body left here on this table.”
“This table?” My mother pointed at the table we were about to sit down at.
“The round part, not the folding part,” Leon said, getting unnecessarily specific.
“Why didn’t anyone mention that?” Deborah asked.
“They did mention it, honey. They told us all about it, in September I think.”
“What? Wait, no, that was a movie they were talking about. Wasn’t it? You mean it actually happened? Like, right there?”
Marc came out of the house with a small tray holding four soup bowls. “All right everyone, take a seat. We’re going to start with soup. Carrot, apple, and ginger.”
There were three chairs around the folding table and five around the round table. Everyone gravitated toward the folding table except Leon and me.
“Really guys?” I said. “It was months ago and all the dead body cooties have washed off.”
My mother came down and sat next to me in the round portion. “You have a lot to explain,” she said, under her breath.
As we sat down, Leon took a small, black mobile phone out of his pocket and set it on the table next to his setting.
“What is that?” I asked.
“Mobile phone. It’s for work. Insanely expensive. Four hundred dollars last month.”
“But work is paying for it.”
“Well, they pay for the phone itself and all my business calls.”
“How much of that four hundred was personal?”
“All of it.”
My rent was only five-fifty. The phone at the store with three lines only cost a hundred and twenty-five.
“I’m going to be a lot more careful this month,” Leon said, as though we’d all just scolded him. “Cross my heart.”
Marc began placing soups; Louis was right behind him with another tray. As briefly as possible I told my mother the story of Wilma Wanderly and the blue-spangled dresses. When I was done, Marc and Louis were seated in front of their soup.
“See, that still sounds like a movie to me,” Deborah said.
“It sounds dangerous,” my mother said. “You have no plans to ever get involved with anything like that again, I hope.”
“Not unless Joanne’s son turns out to be murdered,” Leon said.
“Even then. We shouldn’t get involved.”
“I agree,” I said. “I’ve had enough of murder.”
“Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a little speculation,” my mother said, making me uncomfortable. It always started with speculation—and then it didn’t end well.
“Her son overdosed,” I said firmly.
“In that case, the question is was it accidental or did he do it on purpose?” Leon asked.
“Did he have a reason to kill himself?” Rob asked, then added, “By the way, the soup is wonderful.”
“Oh, it is. Delicious,” my mother said.
“Nothing Joanne said would lead me to believe he had a reason to kill himself,” I told them.
“But then is suicide a reasonable thing?” Tina asked. “I know we try to make it seem reasonable, but I think it’s usually anything but. Did she say he was troubled?”
“She implied that he used to do drugs, heavier drugs than marijuana,” I told the table.
“I don’t think doing a little of this and a little of that means you’re likely to kill yourself,” Leon said, taking a spoonful of soup.
“If your mother knows about it, then it’s probably not a little of this and a little of that,” Louis pointed out.
“So he had a problem with drugs,” I said. My soup was half gone. It was delicious, sweet and savory at the same time. “Louis, what is in this soup?”
“Oh yes, I’d like to know too,” my mother said.
“Carrots, apples, onions, garlic and chicken stock.”
“If he had a problem with drugs, then I guess he was troubled,” Deborah assumed. “Which means he could have killed himself.”
“But right before his mother arrived? That seems awfully cold,” my mother pointed out. “If it was deliberate, I think he’d have done it after her visit, not before he even got to see her.”
That left us quiet for a moment. It did seem awfully inconsiderate if he’d killed himself before his mother’s visit, but then suicide was not a considerate act, or least not usually.
“And as far as we know there was no note,” I said. “I think the police would have told Joanne if there was.”
“Well, I’m voting for accidental,” Leon said. “As long as we’re sure it’s not murder.”
“It’s not murder,” I said, flatly.
We were done with the soup. Marc got up and began to clear the bowls. Louis started to rise and Marc said, “Sit down. I can do the salad on my own. You need a break before you carve the turkey.”
Louis sat back and took a big gulp of wine, “Okay.” Then to us he said, “I love it when he gets all dominant-like.”
“Why aren’t you with your family, Louis?” my mother asked, ignoring his risqué comment. I was thankful we’d moved on from suicide.
“My sister is in Texas,” Louis said. “My mother takes turns. We’ll have her at Christmas and then next year at Thanksgiving.”
“And Marc, what about his family?”
“They’re in Brentwood. Not on speaking terms.”
“They don’t like that he’s gay?”
“No, they stole most of the money he made as an actor. Marc’s touchy about things like that.”
“As well he should be,” my mother said. “I could never steal from Noah.”
“You stole my U of M sweatshirt.”
“You left it behind. And you never wore it.”
“Well,” Tina said, “my sister is livid that I’m here and not with her. But every time I go to her house she’s livid about something anyway and then we fight the whole time. If she’s going to be mad at me I’d just as soon not be there.”
“Oh my you all have such complicated relationships. Not at all like Grand Rapids.”
“That’s not true, Mom,” I pointed out. “The only difference is that in Grand Rapids everyone pretends to get along. They don’t really know they have a choice.”
My mother ignored the slight to our hometown.
“I saw something interesting in the news today,” Rob said out of nowhere. “A panel the Republicans set up to investigate whether the Reagan campaign worked with the Iranians to steal the presidency from Carter—”
“Oh honey, let’s not talk about this.” Then Debra explained, “He gets this way with a little wine.”
“But it was in the newspaper just yesterday. The same people who committed the crime cleared themselves.”
“But wasn’t Mr. Carter terribly unpopular?” my mother asked.
“He was unpopular because he couldn’t get the hostages out of Iran. During the campaign he was negotiating to get them released, but Reagan sent people over to make sure it didn’t happen. That’s why they wouldn’t release them until after the inauguration. It’s also why the whole Iran-Contra thing happened. Reagan had to pay them back by selling them arms.”
“Oh Rob, please stop.”
“She asked a question.”
Honestly, I didn’t pay much attention to politics. I had no reason to believe that Bill Clinton was going to be much different than George Bush. Leon came to the rescue by saying, “Do you know you can buy your own copy machine for a thousand dollars?”
“What do you want with a copy machine?” Louis asked.
“I don’t know. I could xerox my junk and hand it out at the bars as a calling card. That’s what the mail boys do at work.”
“Other people talk about things they read in the newspaper,” Rob said, before going into a major pout.
“Not everyone enjoys conspiracy theories,” Deborah whispered to her husband. “They’re an acquired taste.”
Marc came out with a tray and began handing us our salads.
“Now what is this?” Tina asked.
“Field greens with blue cheese, bacon and cherry tomatoes, with a raspberry vinaigrette dressing,” Louis said.
“Oh, it looks wonderful.
Marc set the plates down and zipped back into the kitchen for more. Then my mother said, “If Joanne comes down, don’t anyone say anything about suicide. And definitely don’t say anything about murder.”
It’s Thanksgiving, 1992 and Noah Valentine is late picking his mother up from the airport. When he arrives he discovers that she’s made a friend on the flight whose also waiting for her son. When the woman’s son doesn’t show up, they eventually take her home for breakfast with neighbor’s Marc and Louis. Soon after, they learn that her son has overdosed—or has he? Noah and his motley crew investigate over the holiday weekend; which includes a fabulous dinner, a chat with a male stripper, a tiny little burglary and some help from Detective Tall, Dark, and Delicious.
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