Exclusive Excerpt: Dodging and Burning: A Mystery by John Copenhaver

Excerpt:

DODGING AND BURNING is a mystery set in 1945 about Jay Greenwood, a gay WWII photographer, and the photo he takes of a murdered woman’s body. When the body goes missing, the photo is the only proof of her murder. When he shows the photo to Bunny Prescott, the debutant who’s in love with him, and Ceola, the kid sister of his lover who is missing in the Pacific, the story becomes as much about the photographer as the subject of the photo.

Prior to this excerpt, Jay has asked twelve-year-old Ceola to look for her dead brother’s journal. She doesn’t fully understand why, but to please Jay, she’s willing to look. This is from Ceola’s perspective:

Mama’s grief ruled the house with an iron fist after your death, Robbie. Her first almighty decree was: All who live in this house must live in silence.

Papa ordered me not to play records or listen to the radio or make too much noise of any kind. I was even told to take off my shoes before entering the house. The quiet was hell. I curled up on my bed for hours at a time, yearning to hear the Andrews Sisters or Anita O’Day or The Shadow or anything for relief. Despite his dutiful enforcement of the rules, Papa was as much a prisoner of them as I was.

One night, he was taking in the news on the radio in the living room, like he did, and I was sitting at the top of the staircase, straining to hear, real happy for the distraction. Mama stormed into the room, and the radio clicked off. I heard her say, “I have a headache, Bob. I’ve already asked you to turn it down once.”

I heard Papa’s heavy footsteps, and then the radio came back on but louder—“World News Today. Brought to you by the Admiral Corporation makers of Admiral Radio, America’s Smart Set—”

She snapped, “Turn it off! I’ve had enough bad news for one lifetime.”

The radio went dead. Seconds later, I heard Papa trudge out of the house. He didn’t come back that night. Soon after that, he began spending evenings and weekends digging holes, planting trees, surrounding the house with a forest of saplings. Although it was intended as a memorial, it surely felt more like he was trying to wall us in.

Mama’s second decree was: When Robbie is spoken of, he must be spoken of in if-then statements.

Mama would carry your photo with her around the house, setting it in the kitchen while she cooked or propping it against a book in the living room while she knitted. If I entered the room, she would begin her usual litany of conditionals. “If Robbie had survived the war,” she’d say, “he would’ve lived in Royal Oak, to be close to his family. If he had survived, he would’ve married a nice girl—that Donna Smith or Rachel Richfield or the King girl—or no, not the King girl, she’s too easy with the boys.” She was certain whoever you would’ve married, the two of you would’ve had beautiful children. She even chose names for the ghost grandchildren—Robert Jr. and Mary Jane. Little Mary Jane had blond curls just like she did as a young girl.

“If he had returned from the Pacific,” the chant went, “he would’ve studied law, or maybe medicine. He certainly would have gone to UVA or Virginia Tech. He would’ve loved his community and, particularly, his church, where he would have become a lay reader. He would’ve joined the Kiwanis Club like his father. He would’ve set a good example. He would’ve taken care of us, as we got older. He would’ve held my hand when God calls to me in my last hour.”

Her third and final decree was: No one, under any circumstances, could enter Robbie’s bedroom or touch his belongings.

Mama made it into her own personal shrine to you. Her grief was greedy, claiming your stamp collection, your saved Dixie Dew bottles, your favorite red sweater with the hole in the sleeve, your Roy Rogers cowboy hat with gold trim, the bone-handled pocket knife Papa gave you when you were twelve, your baseball mitt, the pocket watch you inherited from Grandpa that was inscribed with Great Grandpa’s name (Terrence Henbone Bliss, 1854), and the broken-in deck of cards you used to teach me pinochle. All of them became holy relics.

For months, I thought that if I went into your bedroom, sirens would blast and police would rush in, seize me, and haul me off to jail, hands cuffed and hunched over in disgrace. Papa made me promise I would never, ever disturb your room. “If Mama finds out,” he said, “we’ll both be in terrible trouble.”

But the limbo of mourning became too much for me, and, in the worst sort of way, I wanted to claim something of my own from Mama’s police state.

About midsummer, I said to hell with the rules and started poking around. That’s when I found the stack of magazines under your nightstand and started sneaking off to read them. But of course, I hadn’t come across your journal.

Right after Jay had shown Bunny and me the hiding place in the tree, and Bunny had marched off in a tizzy, he said, “Cee, I have to know Robbie’s journal is safe. Please. Before anyone else finds it. It’s killing me.”

His blue eyes were on fire. It was the first time I’d seen him frightened.

I still wasn’t sure if I wanted to give him your journal, but I sure wanted to find it. I wanted to keep it safe. I suppose what I really wanted was to keep it for myself, because deep down, I wanted to know you better. So when I got home, I crept upstairs and down the hall to your room. Mama was running errands and Papa wasn’t home from work yet.

The door to your room was cracked—you remember, it was warped and never came to—so I nudged it open. The afternoon sun was peeking through the limbs of that old locust tree outside your window and throwing flecks of light across the floor. I hesitated, worried Mama might come home and catch me, but also worried I was doing something sacrilegious, like spitting in a baptismal font or walking across a grave. I moved forward on tiptoes. With each step, the floor groaned like demons calling out to me—What are you doin’, Ceola? You’ll get in big trouble. Mama and Papa will never forgive you. You’re desecrating the memory of your brother.

The slanted ceilings and dormer windows and sideways light gave your room a sadness I still feel when I’m by myself in the church sanctuary, fixing flowers or replacing candles for Sunday services. But those red cowboys galloping across the walls, lassos whipping through the air, herding and roping cattle, reminded me that it was your space, your sanctuary, not Mama’s. Between the windows, I saw your small, beat-up dresser with both of our initials carved into the side of it, displaying bits and pieces of your life, from school awards to postcards from Virginia Beach. Along the bottom of the mirror, you had wedged several school photos of friends, maybe there was even a picture of Jay—no, surely Mama would’ve seen it and thrown it in the wood stove.

I rummaged under your bed and riffled through your closet—nothing but sports equipment, schoolbooks, and dusty clothes. Underneath the neatly folded T-shirts and boxer shorts in your dresser, I found even more magazines—Dime Detective, Astonishing Tales, Weird Stories, and a stack of comics. I’d struck gold. Right there, on the floor, I fanned out this new treasure trove so I could see all of it, forgetting about how angry Mama and Papa would be if they caught me.

I picked up the comics and let the pages fall through my fingers, reading bits of dialogue and glancing at the pictures. The handsome fedora-ed detectives, holding their pistols close to their hips, spat phrases like, “It’s time to meet your Maker. I hope you’re wearing your best dress.” Or, “Baby-doll, you’ll make a beautiful corpse.” And the femme fatales, wrapped like maypoles in red and black satin gowns, every curl on their head as tight as a spring and eyes aimed like twin Colt .38s.

I can still hear you, clear as a bell, reading in a low voice so you wouldn’t draw Mama and Papa’s attention—It was a hot, damp, mean August day, and the city streets were crying black tears. Detective Rod Magnum leaned back in his chair, unbuttoned his collar, and drifted into an uneasy slumber. When he heard the click-clack of her heels and smelled her perfume through the open door, he sat up and straightened his tie. Sweet trouble was coming his way . . .

When you read to me, you always held out at the cliffhanger—a dame with a knife dangling over her head or the hero slipping from a crumbling ledge, some melodramatic climax or other—and made me beg for the ending. You loved to make me beg. I remembered you reading “A Date with Death” to me, but stopping just before the final page. Oh, I really wanted you to finish it! But it was just as well you didn’t. When you were finally done reading, we’d talk the stories over, going on about the parts we liked and picking at the parts we didn’t, our talks all out of joint if we thought the story was a cheat.

As I flipped, I caught a glimpse of something wedged between the fluttering pages of an issue of Dime Detective. I thought it was a paper doll, but then it was something I hadn’t expected—a male underwear model. You must’ve cut him out of a Sears catalog, trimming his outline, not sacrificing a finger or a flip of hair or a fold of fabric to the scissors. In other magazines, I found more cutouts of men, from smiling boys with their hands on their hips to cool customers trailing ribbons of cigarette smoke to muscle men, Charles Atlas sorts, flexing their greased biceps and sporting sculpted pompadours. I didn’t understand what they meant. How could I at that age? I just imagined you bent over magazines and catalog pages, tongue caught between your teeth, concentrating as you traced the outlines of these men with Mama’s sewing scissors. I knew they were secret, and I knew I wanted to keep them safe—and far from Mama’s and Papa’s eyes.

Blurb:

In a small Virginia town still reeling from World War II, a photograph of a beautiful murdered woman propels three young people into the middle of a far-reaching mystery.

*Nominated for a 2019 Barry Award and Lambda Literary Award*


A lurid crime scene photo of a beautiful woman arrives on mystery writer Bunny Prescott’s doorstep with no return address—and it’s not the first time she’s seen it. The reemergence of the photo, taken fifty-five years earlier, sets her on a journey to reconstruct the vicious summer that changed her life.

In the summer of 1945, Ceola Bliss is a lonely twelve-year-old tomboy, mourning the loss of her brother, Robbie, who was declared missing in the Pacific. She tries to piece together his life by rereading his favorite pulp detective story “A Date with Death” and spending time with his best friend, Jay Greenwood, in Royal Oak, VA. One unforgettable August day, Jay leads Ceola and Bunny to a stretch of woods where he found a dead woman, but when they arrive, the body is gone. They soon discover a local woman named Lily Vellum is missing and begin to piece together the threads of her murder, starting with the photograph Jay took of her abandoned body.

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More About Author John Copenhaver

As Ceola gets swept up playing girl detective, Bunny becomes increasingly skeptical of Jay, and begins her own investigation into the connection between Jay and Lily. She discovers a series of clues that place doubt on Jay’s story about the photograph. She journeys to Washington, D.C., where she is forced to confront the brutal truth about her dear friend—a discovery that triggers a series of events that will bring tragedy to Jay and decades of estrangement between her and Ceola.

https://www.dodgingandburning.net/

Copenhaver is the Barry Award- and Lammy Award-nominated author of the historical mystery Dodging and Burning (Pegasus, 2018). He writes a crime fiction column for Lambda Literary called “Blacklight.” He’s been awarded five DCCAH Artist Fellowships. He’s published in CrimeReads, Electric Lit, Glitterwolf, PANK, Washington Independent Review of Books, New York Journal of Books, and others. He chairs the 7-12 grade English at Flint Hill School and lives in DC with his husband. 

www.jcopenhaver.com
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