Projects

Inspiration comes from many directions (the daily news is a constant source) which frequently spawns ideas for a poem or an essay, or an idea that will work in one of my short stories or novels. Despite the occasional detour, I’m currently focusing on three projects:

1)  A collection of poems and prose titled, COYOTE MOON Horsin’ Around in the Poetry Corral. As the title implies, many of the poems reflect a Western/Cowboy tone, while others draw their inspiration from current events, or something I hear, say, or observe that indicates, “There’s a poem in there.” Regardless of the theme, most of the poems rhyme, and all relate a story.

Here’s one of my favorites:

LONG LOST BILL

It’s said that the man was a drifter, and that he’s a-driftin’ still

That trail-worn, lanky cowboy, who was known as Long Lost Bill

My grandpa told me ‘bout the man, said he worked with Bill for awhile

Said “That cowpoke was polite as he could be, though he seldom cracked a smile

“Ol’ Bill rode ‘round on a flea-bitten mare. Yep, Lucy was the critter’s name

A homely ol’ nag that plodded along, with a droopy red tail and long mane

“But get her ‘round cattle that horse sprung to life, the pair worked best all alone

I never saw a man any finer with a rope, astraddle that rust-colored roan

“Ol’ Bill was renowned for his cattle call. His yodel harnessed many an ear

A calmin’ sound on dark stormy nights that sang ‘cross the prairie so clear

“Yep, he and Lucy would ride ‘round the herd, his voice driftin’ on the stiff breeze

Them bawlin’ cows would settle right in, save for one calf’s snot-nosed sneeze

“’Cept durin’ chores Bill shuffled about, his boots just a-draggin’ the dirt

A floppy ol’ Stetson crowned his head, ‘bove a sweat-stained red woolen shirt

“Bill’s chaps and hands bore many a scar from cattle drives over the years

Trophies he’d earned from a back-bustin’ job he accepted with nary a fear

“He’d perform any task he was asked to do. Hell, he didn’t even mind ridin’ fence

Out on the range, not a soul for miles. To his pards Long Lost Bill made no sense

“Bill never stayed long in any one place, but he worked most the spreads in these parts

Some folks suspected he was dodgin’ the law, or escapin’ a pure broken heart

“Or maybe it was both, no one knew for sure ‘cause Bill kept mostly to himself

Never seemed to care ‘bout anything much ‘cept a picture, ‘bove his bunk on a shelf

“A sweet blond gal grinned from the wooden frame, her eyes just a-sparklin’ bright

An’ before turnin’-in Bill would whisper soft words, then kiss that sweet lady each night

“Then one mornin’ Bill’s bunk stood bare, he an’ Lucy had just disappeared

The only reminder they’d been there at all was the photo that Bill so revered

“When Long Lost Bill died, as the story goes, he was prayin’ on bended knee

But ‘cause of bad deeds he’d done in the past, St. Peter ignored his last plea

“Legend has it Lucy passed that same day, to the end a loyal old steed

Some say she croaked out of love for Ol’ Bill, others claim ‘Nope, rotten feed!’

“It’s said Bill and Lucy still roam the vast plains, their spirits like a wavering mist

Dust devils puff as Lucy’s hooves drag the ground. Crisp air gives Ol’ Bill one more kiss”

Now I know a good story is a yarn told well, and this one I hold as first rate

Though I’ll admit I’ve often pondered about Bill and Lucy and their penitent fate

And I think of Grandpa, who’s now gone as well, and this tale that I always deemed tall

‘Til a wind whips up ‘cross the wide open range and beckons Ol’ Bill’s Long Lost call

Woo-hoo, oodel-oh-ti-yo––Yodel-odel-ay-a-ti

*This poem was inspired by the Tex Owens song “Cattle Call” and was selected as the Cowboys and Indians Magazine online Poem of the Week for September 15, 2010. – GRM

2) The first Detective Ike Barney novel titled, IF DADDY ONLY KNEW. This and future Ike Barney stories are based on characters developed within my seven-part, short-story series. In IF DADDY ONLY KNEW, although Homicide is never fun, Ike’s life seems to be settling down, until he learns that the serial killer who murdered his wife five years ago is back in town. As Ike investigates the Lucifer Killer’s current victims, it becomes clear that LK is out for vengeance. But why? His personal challenge to Ike represents a game of winner takes all, with Ike’s new love, Arielle, as Lucifer’s ultimate target.

Here’s a taste of of what Ike is up to:

»  1 «

Detective Ike Barney

September 8, 2014

I stood beside the headstone that bore my wife’s name, Helen Elaine Barney. I’d come there again to talk to a soul who could no longer respond. Or could she? I was no longer sure. Unsure about a lot of things since Arielle Matson had entered my life. Entered? Hell, she dominated it. And that’s what I had to explain. What I had to justify to Helen.

“Sorry, Babe, it just happened. Something clicked. Next thing you know––poof––we’re sleeping together, then moving in together. Something I never thought would happen again. But you gotta understand, Helen, it’s more than just shackin’ up and going halvsies with the utilities. We care about one another and share our lives. That’s why––”

From my jacket pocket, my cell phone chimed the opening riffs to “Sweet Home Alabama.” I’d advised co-workers at the district office not to bother me for an hour. Senior homicide detective or not, I needed time alone to set things straight with Helen. To sense she approved, so I could move on with my life.

I grunted. “Can’t get a minute’s peace, even when you beg. Then again, it might be Arielle.”

The air felt thick as a sauna, minus the steam. Clouds laden with moisture hung dark and low in the sky. I pulled the iPhone from my jacket and eyeballed the screen. “Dammit. What could be so friggin’ important they can’t manage without me? What’ll they do when I retire?”

The last question surprised me. Even after twenty-eight years with the St. Louis County Police Department, most of them in Homicide, I wondered if I’d ever retire. I glanced at the sky and then gazed at the headstone. “See what you missed out on?”

The polished granite slab remained rigid and cold. Today would have been our twenty-fourth anniversary. I stared at the dates etched into the stone as my phone boogied toward voice mail.

Nearly five years had passed since Helen had been taken from me. December 2009, the year I learned to hate Christmas all over again. Then Arielle came along and set me straight.

First impressions had initially put me off, yet there was something about her ginger-headed attitude and enticing smile that also drew me in. A witness at first, Arielle’s status changed to suspect, then to best friend, and now roommate and lover.

I inhaled deeply, held the air for a moment, and then released it in a cheek-bulging huff. “I’m sorry, Helen.” After turning from Helen’s grave, I shuffled through the late morning dew toward my unmarked sedan and fell on my ass. “Shit!”

Sitting on the Dodge Charger’s bucket seat, I stared at the spent Starbucks cups and unlucky lottery tickets that littered the passenger side floorboard. Between wet pants and the clutter, the new-car courtship was over. The Charger was definitely mine. At least I’d cut back from vente to grande-sized coffees. Powerball tickets once a week instead of twice. The heap to my right, however, verified that the resolution to moderate was a recent decision.

I reached for the ignition but remembered the unanswered phone call that interrupted my graveside confession. Checking the recent-calls list revealed the culprit. The message was brief. “Ike, it’s Rudy. Call me ASAP.”

After poking the call-back and speaker icons, I waited for a response.

“Medical Examiner, Denozzo speaking.”

“Thought I told you guys to leave me alone for an hour this morning,” I said.

“I recall your request but thought you should know about our latest guest in the morgue.”

“Who notified you about the vic?”

“Detectives Ryan and Physter.”

“Why aren’t you talking to them?”

“Captain Pauly said you needed to––”

“What’s so special it couldn’t wait another half hour?”

“Not sure how to tell you, Ike.”

“Then why did you call?”

“I…”

“Look, Rudy, I know it’s not Arielle. She texted me forty-five minutes ago.”

“You’re right, Ike. It’s not Arielle.”

“Now that we agree on something, how ’bout you break it to me like usual?”

Denozzo sighed and then launched into a variation of a well-patterned monologue. “The victim is a white female. Brown hair, brown eyes. Twenty-four years of age. Five-foot six-inches tall and one-hundred twenty-three pounds. Initial ID indicates the victim’s name is Roberta Larson. Distinct ligature marks around the neck indicate strangulation leading to asphyxia as probable cause of death. Further, contusions about the head and torso indicate she was beaten prior to her death––most likely with a blunt object other than a fist. Additional ligature marks and abrasions at the wrists and ankles indicate she was bound while being tortured. A pelvic examination indicates sexual assault––possibly pre and postmortem––but there’s no trace of semen. The killer either wore protection or used an object other than his anatomy.”

“Sounds like we’ve got us a real sicko.”

“That’s not all,” Denozzo said. “It appears Roberta Larson was a cop.”

“How do you know?”

“Though she was naked when found, Officer Larson’s uniform name tag was placed in her mouth. Distinct marks on her neck indicate she was likely Tasered, possibly with her own weapon. She also matches the description for a BOLO issued two days ago through the County Police. Her department is sending someone to identify the body before we contact next of kin. Fingerprints and dental records––DNA if she’s on file––will further confirm her identity.”

“Let me know the outcome.”

“One more thing troubles me, Ike––been troubling me for years. Officer Larson’s body was found in a roadside ditch on Hollowell Road, covered with a satin shroud, and an inverted pentagram drawn on her abdomen.”

Although Rudy Denozzo was uncertain whether the significance of his last remark was fully transparent, it hit me like a sledgehammer to the gut.

Denozzo continued. “It’s the same guy that killed Helen, Ike. The Lucifer Killer is back.”

3) The 1950s Randal Murphy P.I. series. In the soon to published novel, DEAD LEGENDS On the Heels of the Earl, Valerie Haynes, a gal Murphy once adored, sways into his office. Valerie’s husband, Paul Jenson––a guy Murphy once loathed––has vanished, and she wants Murphy to find him. The Jenson name triggers a flashback to the death of Paul’s father, prominent, St. Louis banker, Aaron Jenson. Coincidence or clue? Handwritten notes warn Murphy to back off or else, so he digs deeper. A failed money-laundering indictment links Paul’s east-side mobster boss, Vince Bartelli, to Aaron Jenson, plus the prospect of a police coverup. Bullets flying at the Jenson mansion draw Murphy and Valerie closer––much closer. Determined to end this case, Murphy travels to Paul’s last-known whereabouts, where the local sheriff shares proof that Paul Jenson is dead. Case closed? Murphy isn’t convinced. A late-night jingle verifies Murphy’s suspicions, and that the real danger still lies ahead.

— From DEAD LEGENDS: On the Heels of the Earl:

– 1 –

Incentive

 

October 20, 1951

In the waning daylight north of the city, a solitary figure dressed in black crept from the private slip that held St. Louis Bank president, Aaron Jenson’s small yacht, Easy Money. Staying in the shadows within the private marina, the dark shape inched toward a utility shed and took refuge inside. Now sitting in the darkness, the cautious individual knew it was a matter of time, a waiting-game until the banker arrived and the next phase could be completed.

Nearly an hour passed before footsteps and intermittent chatter disrupted the unsettling silence. The individual in hiding tensed, snuffed out a Lucky Strike into a gloved hand, and stuck the extinguished cigarette into a jacket pocket. Pressed against the shed’s interior wall, the lone figure listened intently, but the voices outside spoke softly. Was one of them the intended target? One voice was more feminine, her muffled tone sounding vaguely familiar.

“I’m still confused as to why you thought this was a good idea,” she said. “We could have celebrated in a hotel, where it’s warm.”

A man’s voice replied, “It’s just a brisk fall night, my dear. Perfect for a moonlit cruise on the Mississippi, you’ll see. Besides, the boat will be in drydock soon. This was the last time I could get it prepared for the occasion.”

The covert individual smiled then muttered, “That’s definitely Aaron Jenson––the liar. His original guest list was supposed to include his banking cronies, plus several hookers to provide entertainment. What happened? Why just the single woman?”

As the footsteps and voices faded down the marina, the concealed individual slowly stood behind a dingy window, raised a pair of high-powered binoculars, trained them on the couple, and became the observer.

Aaron Jenson and his companion stepped aboard the Easy Money. After seating the woman near the helm, he stood before the control panel and nodded, then fired up the engine and proceeded to back the yacht from the dock.

The notion of the woman being familiar was confusing. The observer focused on her, but between her hat, long coat, and the thick scarf wrapped around her neck that concealed most of her face, she was never fully visible. The dirty window didn’t help either. “Damn shame,” the observer said. “But that’s what you get for associating with a crook. As long as the old man’s onboard, my troubles will soon be over.”

Apparently satisfied with his performance guiding his craft from the slip, Aaron Jenson offered a patronizing smile to his only passenger and swung the Easy Money’s bow toward the main channel. With the engine at idle speed again, he carefully shifted the propeller drive from reverse to forward and then cranked on the throttle.

“Here we go,” the observer mused.

A thundering explosion ripped through the yacht and lit up the marina and the Mississippi River shorelines. Wood and metal shards sailed beyond the fireball. Craggy bluffs above the muddy water captured the blast and echoed it downstream. Fuel-induced flames encircled the wreckage and danced atop the river’s undulating surface.

Momentarily blinded by the tremendous flash, the observer winced, blinked a few times, then stepped aside, opened the shed door, and stared through the binoculars once more, scanning the inferno—back and forth. Aaron Jenson’s charred, facedown body finally bobbed into view. His severed arm floated near the edge of the fire ring. Farther to the right, the banker’s companion drifted clear of the flames, her face scorched beyond recognition.

“Well, sorry about the woman, but the SOB who coaxed her to her death will never interfere with anyone again. And I’ll be in the clear.” The observer snickered then quietly eased from the shed, closed the door, and slipped into the night.

– 2 –

Something’s Missing

June 13, 1952

Friday, the end to a bastard of a week––like all my weeks lately. On top of that, it was the thirteenth. Things couldn’t get much worse. Then came a soft rap on the door, and she stepped in.

The tall brunette swayed across my office. A black, broad-brimmed hat sat cocked atop her head above a gauzy veil. The combo shadowed dark glasses and hints of an Esteé Lauder complexion. A rosy fragrance wafted in behind her, a pleasant addition to the hot, stale air that perfumed my office overlooking Olive Street.

The leggy dame paused and stared as I eyeballed her contours. I’d been working on my needlepoint––a gimmick to busy my hands while I focused on a case. If I had one. But the cross and headstone image from my last job only bolstered my crappy mood. When I rose from my chair, the needle jabbed under my thumbnail. I cursed and ditched the canvas under my desk.

She broke the awkward silence. “Was that needlepoint you were working on?”

I stopped sucking my thumb. “Just something from my last case. So how––”

“Are you Randal Murphy the private investigator?”

“Right on both counts.”

“May I sit down?”

“By all means. Have to pardon the mess, I’m between apartments.”

Her nose twitched as she scrutinized my steamy quarters and approached the client’s perch opposite my desk. Her silky, white top matched a skirt that hovered at her knees. An enticing slit emphasized one side. Her entire outfit conformed to her body like the skin on a hotdog—currently my favorite entrée.

She placed her clutch bag on my desk, traced both hands around her fine bottom to smooth her skirt, then gracefully adorned the chair. As she crossed her legs, the snug-fitting garment rode up her thigh and exposed supple skin. Her features teased assorted memories. The woman’s fragrance battled the ripe blend of eastside stockyards, Peabody Coal, and downtown St. Louis traffic that crept past my window, while the oscillating fan atop my file cabinet did its best to keep the muggy stench at bay.

I tucked in my shirt, sat on my squeaky swiveler, and realized—except for the occasional burlesque at the Grand—the dame’s presence was the greatest pleasure I’d had in…well, entirely too long. But the contrast between her spotless appearance and my office’s crusty chaos slapped my wandering mind. I hoped the cushion she blessed with her derriere wouldn’t stain her attire.

“So, what can I do for you, Miss…?”

“Mrs. My husband is the reason I’m here. He’s missing.”

I hesitated. Something about the dame seemed familiar, but nothing clicked. Wonder if she bought in to my story about the needlepoint?

“Mr. Murphy?”

“Hmm? Oh…sorry. So, how long’s your hubby been gone?”

“He left nearly six weeks ago.”

“Six weeks! Why didn’t you contact me sooner?”

“Allow me to explain. After we married, four years ago…”

While feigning interest, I scanned the woman like a surveyor. When she noticed and tugged on her skirt, I caught up with her husband’s biography.

“…a lawyer, who worked as a legal consultant on both sides of the Mississippi.”

“Worked?”

“Please,” she said, “let me finish. Initially our marriage seemed ideal, until my husband began spending more time out of town on business.”

“What kinda business?”

“I’m not certain, but he frequently traveled with one particular client.”

“Any idea where?”

“The east coast and the Colorado Rockies.”

“Anywhere else?”

“None that I’m aware. Twice I accompanied him and his client to Colorado for skiing—to the Aspen Mountain Lodge.”

“This client have a name?”

“My husband called him Mr. B.”

“Know anything else about him?”

“Although courteous and generous, the man acted suspiciously. As if there was little anyone was entitled to know about him.”

“How ’bout his business location?”

“It’s across the river. I haven’t a clue what it is, but it must be very lucrative.”

“Why’s that?”

“After our last ski outing, my husband dismissed his remaining client and––”

“Only two clients?”

“That’s right.”

“Uh-huh. Go on.”

“He phoned from the east coast shortly after arriving.”

“Where on the east coast?”

“New Jersey, I believe. Said he’d be a week or so to tie up loose ends, and that I needn’t worry.”

“Know about those loose ends, or who he met?”

“I only know that Mr. B prompted the visit.”

“Your hubby phone again?”

“Yes, twice.”

“And?”

“The first was lip service, reminding me not to worry. He phoned the following week from Colorado––supposedly there to investigate options toward opening a ski resort for Mr. B. He planned to stay a few days to enjoy the last good snow. I took him at his word, but—”

“Haven’t heard from him since?”

“No. By June, ski season should be over. I’m afraid something awful—”

“Contact Mr. B, or the resort?”

“I…found the numbers in my husband’s desk at home. I called both twice, but neither his client, nor anyone at the resort claims to have seen or talked to him in weeks. I don’t know whether he’s been injured, kidnapped, murdered, or just shacking up with some bimbo. Regardless, I must find out, so I can get on with my life.”

The woman’s face tilted toward the linoleum. Genuine distress? Anger or tears? I couldn’t tell. Either way, I needed more info. Then the phone rang. I let it jingle.

She raised her head. “Shouldn’t you answer that?”

“Probably my landlord.”

From her silent, gauzy stare, I gathered my client thought me rude.

“Just be a minute.” I picked up the receiver and swiveled toward the window. Dirty dishwater skies loomed over the city. “Hello? Yes, Mr. Beihlman… I know, but Lady Luck’s not been kind. First the apartment, then the DeSoto crapped out and… I’ll bet you do. Say, I’m with a client… No, I’m not joking… Look, I’ll be over by seven and… Promise… Right. Gotta go. Bye.”

A kind-hearted old Jew, Julius Beihlman helped set up my business, sent clients my way, and carried me when things got slow. Unfortunately, overdue rent again had stretched his good nature paper thin.

I spun around. “Sorry ’bout the interruption.”

“Gambling debt?”

“Sorta. Talk to the local police about your husband?”

“Yes, but they became condescending. Told me not to worry, my husband would turn up. When I persisted, the detective took my information and assured me he would file a missing-persons report.”

“How long ago was that?”

“Three weeks. A detective phones regularly to keep me from calling him. Each time it’s the same story. ‘Nothing new to report. Don’t worry, ma’am, he’ll turn up.’ A private investigator who’d work exclusively for me seemed the better option.”

“Uh-huh. Remember the detective’s name?”

“I’ve talked with two. The first filed the report. Since then, another detective calls with updates.”

“Got their names and numbers? I’ll need to chat.”

“I have that information at home.”

I leaned back. “Why’d you pull my name outta the hat?”

“To be honest…I was desperate.”

“Desperate for a P.I., or to find your husband?”

“To find my husband, of course. I didn’t know anyone in your profession and received no recommendations.”

“So, you…?”

“Your phone listing reminded me of someone I once knew. Thought I’d feel more comfortable.”

The dame’s reasoning was lame as a two-legged mule. The account of her husband’s disappearance wasn’t much better. If she called Mr. B, why didn’t she know his real name or anything about his business? And if her bankroll matched her appearance, she could afford any P.I. in town. Why me? Though all were reasonable questions, promise of a paycheck aroused my curiosity. Her ample curves aroused more. “You call the Colorado cops?”

“The detective here said he would. I trusted him to do so.”

“I see. Any reason to suspect foul play, or adultery?”

“I’m not sure.”

“’Bout which one?”

“Both. I’ve heard gossip from society tattle-tales about Mr. B. Those rumors, however, were never substantiated.”

“Old hens do like to cluck, don’t they?”

“Quite. To avoid further criticisms, I confronted my husband and begged he consider a different client.”

“And?”

“He insisted I never interfere with his business activities. Until now, I didn’t. But his abruptness frightened me.”

“And the other issue?”

“If you mean my husband’s infidelity, the topic deserves suspicion.”

I glanced at my watch. If I didn’t skedaddle, I’d be hard-pressed to make Beihlman’s on time. Disappointing the old gent again wasn’t an option. “Look, your case interests me, but can we finish this conversation later? As you probably overheard, I’ve gotta make an appointment and presently find myself afoot.”

She tilted her head. “If you promise to accept my case, I’ve a car waiting downstairs. We can talk in back.”

The woman’s words floated from her mouth like an angel’s whisper––as if she was seducing me. But that was nuts—more like wishful thinking. At any rate, tight on time and damned sure I didn’t want to lose the first client in months, I accepted her offer and motioned toward the door. “Sorry. It’s after six. We’ll have to take the stairs.”

“Fifteen floors? The elevator operator told me he’d be available until seven.”

“Really? Let’s give it a shot then. By the way, if I’m to locate your husband, I’ll need his name.”

My request dangled like a cobweb from a ceiling I couldn’t reach.

DEAD LEGENDS’ twisted climax opens the door to the completed sequel, titled: TARGET FOR TWO.

A bullet interrupts Randal Murphy’s wedding. Was it the undiscovered killer from his last case or somebody new? Murphy’s first  lead introduces him to a “retired” Mafia assassin. Following a second sniper attempt, two more odd fellows enter the picture, each bent on knowing Murphy’s whereabouts.  The ex-Mafia man knows them both and offers to assist. But why? And why have the cops tapped Murphy’s phone?

— A taste from TARGET FOR TWO:

– 1 –

Altarations

 

Saturday, June 13, 1953

My hard-luck days as a private detective were over. At least, that’s what I thought.

Colorado sunshine winked through the pine and aspen trees. Following briefly exchanged greetings, and snide remarks like “miracles never cease,” guests meandered toward rows of metal chairs that fanned out across the flagstone patio at Thunder Basin Lodge. A single aisle divided the seating arrangement––one side for friends of the bride, the other for pals of the groom––me, Randal Murphy, PI.

Processional music began plinking from an upright piano. No pipe organ, but we weren’t surrounded by the St. Louis Cathedral either. The pre-ceremony chatter hushed to whispers as the maid of honor step-pause, step-paused to her position at the arched, twig and timber altar. The minister filled in the gap between us. My best man, St. Louis Police Detective George Baker, stood by my side. T’was a shame me lifelong pal, Father Michael John Patrick O’Shaunessey, couldn’t make the affair––something about an audience with the Pope taking precedence. Then again, didn’t me posing at the altar border on divine providence? At least Father Mike would have arrived with a flask of Jameson to douse the butterflies in my gut.

The background music stopped and switched to a more specific tune. Melody Decker, an angelic vision in white, emerged from the lodge’s rear entrance and floated down the aisle. Her wolfdog, Thunder, heeled tightly at her side. Due to the loss of Mel’s parents years before, the canine served as father of the bride. His white collar and bow tie seemed a tad out of place, but Thunder didn’t seem to mind.

My eyes surveyed Mel from her billowing gown to the gauzy veil draped from atop her golden hair. It was the first time I’d seen her in a dress—with make-up—and probably the last. Her image captivated me.

Reverend Wilson parted his Bible to commence the dearly beloveds. I winked a well-here-we-go grin toward my mother and sister seated up front, then leaned back to gaze at my bride-to-be.

A shot cracked from the northwest. The bullet grazed the bridge of my nose and nailed the preacher square in the forehead. Crimson splotched Mel’s bug-eyed face and her pristine gown. Reverend Wilson crumpled onto the handmade altar and smashed it beneath him.

Polite whispers turned to shrieks as I dove toward Mel to shield her. Thunder bolted toward a rock outcropping as Mel and I hit the deck. Folding chairs clanked as guests scattered and ducked.

Although off-duty, my best man whipped out his snub-nosed service revolver then hovered over his wife, and my mother and sister. Man-mountain Sheriff Buck Turner did likewise with his spouse. Prepared to return fire, both men ordered everyone to “Stay down!” and then scanned the area.

My pal, Sam huddled over his family, his dark-chocolate skin nearly white as Mel’s dress. Army buddy, Lester Smithfield, corralled his herd and glared at the horizon. Smitty and I had endured combat in Europe together, but with his wife and daughters now at risk, he seemed more than pissed to be under fire once more.

A second shot exploded amidst the boulders, along with hollers and yelps, both human and canine. Women and children screamed. Chairs clattered again. Baker and Turner stared to the west and repeated their directives. “Stay down!”

The crowd quieted then completely hushed as Thunder staggered toward the lodge. Collar and bow tie askew, Thunder’s fur was matted with blood.

Bridal gown be damned, Mel tossed me aside like a bad penny, then scrambled to her beloved pet’s aid. So much for wedding vows and a honeymoon. My good intentions toward life-changing marital bliss had prompted a funeral instead––maybe two.

Back on my feet, I stared at the dead minister and tried to make sense of the disaster. Betting the preacher was innocent, the target had to be me. The question was, why? Had the unknown shooter from my last case returned to fulfill a contract? Was he a lousy shot or was I just that lucky? Would Mel ever forgive me?

I stared at the red splotches on my tux and wiped the blood from my wounded nose. My mother’s and sister’s whimpering and wide-eyed glares grabbed my attention. “Sorry. Welcome to my world, guys. What’s left of it.”

I searched the area for Mel but came up empty. Then her pickup roared down the gravel road fronting the lodge. With her cook’s son behind the wheel, Mel huddled with Thunder in the truck bed. Her veil blew from atop her head and settled to the road.

“Crap. Sorry, Mom, I gotta go.”

– 2 –

 

Some Things Never Change

 

Monday, June 15, 1953

Some folks can dive into a pile of manure and emerge like spring rose petals. Not me. Once again, my life was crap, and I was responsible.

Ol’ Sol’s morning rays poked through the hazy, St. Louis skyline like a young lad stretching his arms before leaping out of bed. Slouched in my squeaky swiveler, feet propped on the bay window’s sill, I gazed from my office like a mindless patient inside the loony bin on Arsenal Street.

Despite the Boulder County Sheriff’s request for me to stay put in Colorado, I’d recovered Mel’s wedding veil and then drove straight through to St. Louis and my office sanctuary––my home sweet home. Leaving my bride-to-be behind with no explanation was a rotten thing to do. But the shooter that missed me and ruined our nuptials would surely try again. The farther away I got from Mel, the safer she’d be. Besides, if someone was after me, working from my home turf would be to my advantage.

After another pull of Jack & Java, I stared at my wardrobe––the same one I’d worn since Saturday. A ceremonial shroud for wedding vows that never occurred. Coffee and whiskey dribbles complimented crusty blood spatter on the once expertly starched white shirt. Starched shirt. Quite the contradiction to my prior lifestyle. Then again, everybody’s a friggin’ hypocrite when it serves their purpose.

Increasing ambient light revealed similar untidy decorations on my tuxedo trousers. Between my bloody outfit and the ugly scab growing on my schnoz, it was clear why gas jockeys along Highway 40 had stared like they did.

The telephone rattled behind me, but I let it ring ’til the clown on the other end decided he’d had enough. Fifteen minutes later, the interruptions continued with banging and hollering at my office door. Apparently, wallowing in self-pity was no longer permissible.

A familiar voice accompanied another knuckle dance. “Murphy, I know you’re in there. Open the door.”

As I’d done with the phone, I ignored the latest annoyance, downed the last swallow of false hope, and allowed my eyelids to drift shut. The booze was supposed to help drown my woes. Sadly, the caffeine kept them from sinking. The hammering continued.

“Murphy, it’s George. Open up.”

Though Detective George Baker was my only real pal, for now solitude was the more desirable companion. Unfortunately, Baker disputed my view. His size-twelve wingtip coaxed the latch to splinter and the entry to swing wide. Opaque glass showered to the floor as the door slammed against the wall.

I faced my intruder. “Hafta pay for the damages.”

“Dammit to hell, Murphy, why didn’t you answer?”

“Prefer to be alone.”

“Don’t pull that Gretta Garbo crap. I’m a friend who gives a damn––your best man, remember?”

“Yeah, yeah. By the way, the price of glass includes gold lettering to clue everybody who wants to butt into my life exactly where to start.”

Baker huffed. “Don’t forget the latch, and the cracks in the plaster from the doorknob.”

“Max is not gonna be happy.”

“Who?”

“Never mind. Why the grand entrance?”

“To find out whether you’re among the living.”

“Well, now ya know. See ya later.”

“What about Mel…and your mom and sister?”

“Tell ’em I’m fine.”

“Jesus, Murphy, that sauce ain’t gonna help. Just rots your insides.”

“Kill me or cure me. Right now, I don’t care.”

“Maybe I can change your mind.”

“Good luck.”

George huffed again. “They got the rifle that killed the minister.”

“And screwed up my wedding. Who’s they?”

“Boulder County Sheriff found it. Now the feds have it.”

“The FBI?”

“Your buddy, Agent Jefferies, got wind of the excitement and decided to lend a hand.”

“Really? He thinkin’ connections to Bartelli?”

“Just ’cause that mob bum is inconvenienced doesn’t mean he can’t communicate. Because of Jeffries’ background with you and the Denver crew, he convinced the sheriff that the FBI should join the party.”

Mafioso thug Vince Bartelli had played a key role in my last big case. In the end, justice had prevailed—except for an anonymous triggerman Bartelli had surely hired who was still on the loose. Waxing me was most likely Vince’s idea of compensation for life in a cell. Then again, he wasn’t the only man I’d pissed off in recent years. Regardless, the life of anyone near me was also in danger.

George persisted. “Also thought you’d like to know the vet that treated Thunder—”

“How’s Thunder doing?”

“The vet said the bullet passed through the right side of the dog’s chest and out below his left shoulder. Shattered some ribs and punctured a lung. Said the pooch lost a lot of blood, and it’s still touch-and-go. Told me most dogs wouldn’t have survived.”

“Thunder ain’t most dogs.”

“The vet also said he found a piece of human skin wedged between the canine’s teeth, which means—”

“Which means our killer’s missing a chunk of his hide, prob’ly from one of his hands or arms.” Good boy, Thunder. “Got any leads?”

“Not so far. The rifle was a modified Mauser, most likely set up for hunting.”

“Or sniping. What about prints?”

“Clean. Musta worn gloves. Jeffries mentioned the rifle’s sportsmen stock was made for a lefty.”

Pondering the info George gave me, I said, “The bullet trajectory you described for Thunder’s wound would coincide with a left-handed shooter…who’s likely missing skin from his right forearm. Should make it easier to track him down.”

“If the shooter was treated by a hospital or doctor. Otherwise…”

“Right. The fact that the Boulder County Sheriff found the rifle also points to a sloppy hitman. Pros’ favorite weapons are like extensions of their souls. Even in retreat, they wouldn’t leave ’em behind.”

“Unless the rifle was a decoy.”

“Kinda doubt it. Special-built hardware ain’t cheap… and it’s usually traceable.”

“This mean you’re back in the game?”

“Never dropped out, just needed motivation and time to think. How’s Mel?”

“Mel? Uh…last I knew, she was holed-up at the vet’s. Won’t leave Thunder’s side.”

“Figures. Even if we’d completed the ceremony, not sure who Mel would have honored more.”

“You got it better than you think, Murph. By the way, how’s your schnoz?”

“I’ll have a scar. But not near as big as the one I left in Mel’s heart.”

“Like I said, pal, you’re better off than—”

“Okay, okay. My leaving Colorado was wrong. But somebody’s gunnin’ for me. If I stayed, I’d be risking that Mel could end up like her minister. Couldn’t live with myself if that happened.”

Baker nodded.

I sighed. “How’s my mom and sister?”

“They’ve got a flight back to Miami this afternoon.”

“They the real reason you bulldozed my door?”

“Told ’em I’d make sure you were okay. Supposed to give ’em a call as soon as I found out.”

“Your status updates include Mel?”

Baker nodded again. “Said I’d let her know, too. Your mom’s flight is supposed to leave Denver at two-thirty.”

I glanced at my clothes. “Need a shower and shave, and clean duds. Give me a lift to the downtown Y?”

“Sure, but—”

“Thanks. Just be a minute.”

In my powder room, I choked down a few St. Joseph’s, petitioned the aspirin god for relief, then rinsed my face. After scrounging a change of clothes from the closet and a file cabinet drawer, I pointed toward my abused entry. “Let’s go. And never mind about calling my mom. I’ll give her a jingle after we get back––which reminds me, I still need to phone Father Mike.”

“Called him this morning. He said you’d be around when you were ready.”

“Just like a big brother, aren’t you?”

“What friends are for.”

“Right. By the way, how come you brought your .38 to my wedding for Crissake––you and Buck Turner? Good thing Buck’s screwy deputy wasn’t there to add to the commotion.”

“Can’t speak for the sheriff or his deputy, but whenever you’re involved, I know calm ain’t the by-word.”

“Thanks, buddy, pal, friend o’ mine. C’mon, time to catch a killer.”