The first installment of the Jake Legato PI series is available at Amazon for only 99 cents!
He we are, Copperheads! Your chance to launch into the Jake Legato PI series has arrived! The adventure begins with this novella (only 99 cents on Amazon!). Look for Book Two in August!
Check out an excerpt:
After a quick stop in the men’s room, Legato found the office, knocked twice and heard an uneasy chirp. “Yes?”
“I’m here for the interview?”
“Come on in,” she said, voice relaxed now.
The detective in Legato had Cicely pegged seconds after strolling inside. She was the girl every guy sat next to in high school but never noticed. A sweetheart, eager to please. Always does her homework and yours too if you ask nicely. Yearbook committee, school dance planner, honor roll. But you forgot her name days after graduation.
He took a seat, gave her timid hand a shake. “Jake Legato, nice to meet you”
“I’m Cicely Russo, the manager here,” she answered, eyes aimed at the desk. She forced a grin and asked, “So, what do you think of Bootsie’s so far?”
“I could handle working here, if that’s what you mean. Don’t know much about it.”
“Not much to know, I suppose. It’s a… strip club,” she said, kind of embarrassed by it all. “I got in touch because Andy told me you needed a job.”
“Yeah, tells me he’s had enough of Minnesota weather and would love to get back to San Diego.”
With Cicely reaching into a stack of resumes, Legato stole a glance. Her thick, jet-black eyebrows reminded him of the olive-skinned Greek girls from Astoria he’d see working in diners and run-down family owned coffee houses.
But Cicely gave off a different vibe. Her Maria Callas eyebrows slashed against pale Minnesota skin like skid marks in the snow. And she seemed to be hiding behind somebody else’s face. A gawky introvert in disguise.
“Legato. That’s a nice name,” she said. “Puerto Rican? Dominican?”
She lifted her gaze from the papers, eyes narrow. Maybe aimed at his wide nose – or focused on his mocha-tinted skin. “Italian? Really?”
He choked back a groan and answered the question she was too polite to ask. “Half-Italian, half-black.”
Cicely grinned the awkwardness away. “Andy speaks highly of you. He says you’re a good friend. Somebody he could always trust.”
“I like to think so.”
But her face curled a little, signaling more awkwardness on the way. “He also says you left the police force under… complicated circumstances.”
“You could say that.”
“Could you tell me more?”
“I could. Or I could tell you about growing up in a Brooklyn neighborhood with bars on the windows and a school with metal detectors at the door.”
“That’s nice, but what I wanted –“
Legato leaned forward, time for the sweet talk Big Trick recommended. “What you want is somebody who speaks the language your customers understand. Am I right? Somebody who can keep this place safe even if that means slapping around a little. I’m guessing that matters more in this place than a spotless record.” Playing the tough guy New Yorker role to a Minnesotan was always an option. Sometimes it even qualified as sweet talk.
The lady fought off a schoolgirl’s blush and said, “Can you start tomorrow?”
“What time do you need me?”
“Ten in the morning. We’ll train you for a while, start you as soon as you’re ready.”
Legato reached for a handshake, but three bangs at the door froze them both.
Cicely’s eyebrows lifted. “Yes?”
A woman’s voice aimed for a scream, but couldn’t get there. “The police need you! It’s… they need you.”
She gathered Legato’s papers. “Just a second, Tammy. Jake, I look forward to –“
Three more knocks, louder, almost angry. “Cicely, it’s… Please!” Now the voice was soaked in sobs. Cicely raced to the door, opened it to find somebody crouching there like her legs had given out. A stripper clad in a robe, crying.
Cicely kneeled, mouth open, gasping. “What is it, Tammy?”
Tammy sputtered words that almost made a sentence. “Cassandra. Because the… police and. They called and she’s…”
Cicely turned to Legato, her face now slack. “We’ll… talk tomorrow,” She gave him a flaccid handshake then repeated, “We’ll talk tomorrow.”
Knowing a thing or two about the delivery of bad news, Legato recognized her shattered look. And he knew that too many words was always a bad idea at those moments. “Thank you,” he said, warm hand on her shoulder, another move he’d learned from his detective days. Contact always made the news less awful.
But Cicely pulled away from the contact, shuddering, eyes scanning the hallway for answers. And Tammy didn’t move at all.
So he slipped away, took a seat at the bar and nodded to Big Trick. “Whiskey, neat.”
And he drank. With every sip, the tortured squeals coming from Cicely’s office slowly faded into somebody else’s problem.
Legato tried to piece everything together. Was Cassandra a dancer? Was she dead now? And who killed her?
He was detecting again, a habit he needed to break. That’s why he had to take off, pull himself away from the bar – even if it meant leaving behind a half-full glass of whiskey on a night he really needed it.
San Matteo is a moneyed suburb just outside of LA, the kind that stays safely hidden away on the coast until something horrible or impossible happens there. This is where Alice’s lover resides. From the moving bus it blurs into a streak of broad strokes like a Monet. But when the bus stops the place unfolds itself more like a Norman Rockwell: idyllic, warm, oppressively charming.
As night falls I find a home in the bushes, with plenty of time to ponder nothing and everything. My head is mostly filled with images of Alice. That reluctant half-smile that precedes every kiss. The toss of her hair and the shake of her shoulders that somehow passes for dancing. That elusive step back she would take at the wrong time, every time. When I wanted to hold her, taste her, keep her to myself.
The machete isn’t a tool designed for precision. I wouldn’t recommend it for gall bladder surgery or peeling an avocado. But when you long for that sense of completion that comes from a lopped-off limb tumbling to the earth you can’t go wrong with eighteen inches of sharp Honduran steel. The machete gets things done. That’s why I’m fearless now, motionless, ready to spring from the shadows and do what needs to be done.
And the lovers seem ready as well. Ready to taunt me with the fragrance of clandestine romance. They traipse hand-in-hand from the garden to the small pond by the back door. I catch them in mid-conversation, wooing away:
“… I’m serious, Alice. I couldn’t imagine wanted anybody’s kisses but yours.”
“It’s just a game. A what-if, a hypothetical.”
“And I could choose anybody?”
“Anybody past or present. Dead or alive. Megan Fox, Marilyn Monroe. Anybody.”
“Anybody? And I get instant immunity?”
“No questions asked.”
“No thanks. I’ve got all I need in you.”
“Liar. But thanks.”
“A young Harrison Ford.”
“Like Star Wars young or American Graffiti young?”
“I’m joking! You know it’s all about you. Jesus Christ!”
A young Jesus Christ? Like carpenter days, before the crucifixion?”
“Will you just shut up and kiss me!”
He cradles her face and delivers this:
“Gladly. From now until the end of time. Every minute of every day.”
It would probably make me sick if I could feel anything right now.
They turn – wide-eyed with panic – upon hearing a stir in the bushes. Did I stumble unknowingly? Did I clumsily tap a branch or place a foot wrong?
Whatever the reason, the time to strike is now.
I charge, machete raised, and the nightmare is cranked into motion: screams, flailing arms, faces twisting into rubbery masks of horror. It is the sweetest kind of chaos. It is victory.
But the first swing sails over the intended target’s head and lands nowhere. I stumble, giving them a head start, a line to the back door. They dash inside with a speed they never before felt necessary.
But not speedy enough. They struggle to slam shut the door, and I beat it down, with purpose, with anger. They are mine.
First is the man – not planned that way, just his lousy luck. He catches a stab to his collarbone and meets the floor with a dull thud. I yank back my weapon and provide another slice to his abdomen, and why not. His reply: the longest, saddest squeal I’ve every heard. Then nothing.
And Alice has scrambled away.
The house couldn’t be quieter, placid even. Where could she be?
The kitchen pantry? I rip the door open: nope.
Bathroom closet? Empty.
Bedroom? Not a soul to be found.
There’s breathing down the hallway. One more closet to check. I kick it down:
And she has a gun.
“Um… don’t come near me?”
The snub-nosed revolver flutters in her hand like it may as well be a remote control or a Rubik’s cube. She’s not ready to use it. Maybe she never will be.
“Don’t come near me?” She repeats, but it still sounds more like a question than a command.
“Do you love me, Alice?”
This shouldn’t be a tough question, even after all the lies and this explosion we’re in the middle of. But as she looks at me she seems to find the eyes of a stranger. This is bad. So I repeat: “Do you love me?”
No vocal reply, but she’s nodding now.
“If you love me, give me the gun.”
She shakes her head ‘no.’
She looks away for a second. That’s all I need.
The first swipe takes off her right hand and sends the gun spinning to the floor. If it ever landed I never heard it. All I can see and hear is that mouth melting into a horrified wail. She boasts the bulging eyes of comic strip character when meeting a second swing. Maybe I just imagined it but she seems liberated as she drops to the floor. Like a prisoner pardoned from a nightmare.
I almost want to join her. Almost.
But right now there’s a strange kind of beauty racing through my veins. Maybe it’s the rawness of it all. The carved up bodies of this love-hungry couple, their faces frozen in terror, their stillness. Nobody can tell me what I’m seeing and feeling and smelling isn’t real.
Not even those bastards at the clinic with their pseudo-psychological bullshit, calling me ‘delusional’ and telling me that Alice was just a voice on the radio, a pop singer residing a million miles away, not my life, my love, my reason for being.
But I know the truth. I heard those promises she floated my way with that lilting soprano. I heard those pledges of undying love.
And nobody can take that away from me.
I originally had The Sweetest Kind of Chaos published at Beat to a Pulp. Check them out if you love masterfully written tales of noir!
Tomorrow’s Lunch Break Crime Read: Oedipus Shrugged.
Parking a few blocks away seemed like a sensible move at the time. In theory Sarah would escape detection as she dipped through the shadows towards the house on foot.
Then she creeps past the bushes of a neighbor’s home and raising nary an eyebrow of suspicion – she’s good at this. Almost there now, nothing stopping her save for the dodgeball game next door. Damn kids, shouldn’t they be in bed or at school or something at this hour. She’ll have to wait in the shrubbery, head tucked to her chest, body impossibly still. She checks her purse – everything there. Soon it will be time to strike.
But for now all she can think about is the first lie she’d ever been told. It came from Fourteen-year-old Kevin Shears:
“Cynthia Germain and me broke up weeks ago.” A week later, Kevin would take Cynthia to the homecoming dance.
A year later, it was Trevor’s turn to become a liar:
“C’mon, honey! It’ll be fun – something for us to watch alone. I won’t let anyone else see the tape, I swear.”
This drunken college frat boy with a camcorder and an over-active libido could be very persuasive. So Sarah slipped into the Wonder Woman garb and believed him. The first surprise was that those Amazonium bracelets made her wrist chafe. The second surprise sent her down like a five-year-old tumbling from her tricycle.
And there would be more. More lies from boyfriends, college professors, bosses, neighbors, friends, enemies, strangers:
“No, I don’t have any kids.”
“Honey, you have to trust me. There’s no other woman in my life. Honest.”
“Um… those shoes are my sister’s – she visits from time to time.”
“No, I wasn’t looking at the waitress’s ass!”
“I’m self-employed right now.”
“I’ll call you.”
“She’s just a friend!”
“I love you too.”
And then there would be Daryl:
“There is nothing I want more in the world than to be with you and only you.”
By the time she got to Daryl, Sarah had had enough. Enough with lies, enough with liars, enough with waiting for men to stop being men and start being honest and forthright and true. She was known to be temperamental, a feisty little firecracker when crossed the wrong way. She had given Kevin a kick to the crotch when she learned about Cynthia, had set Trevor’s porn collection ablaze when the truth came crawling out, but this is miles beyond feisty. This is breaking and entering. And if all goes according to scheme, it will be murder too.
All is quiet now, so she dashes to a side window, opens her purse to find the wire cutters. She is stunned that it is so easy. She clips and claws her way inside in seconds. Greeted by the cool of a hardwood floor, she stays squatted for a while, collects her thoughts. This is not like the movies at all, she concludes. This is too easy, too comfortable. How do burglers ever get caught? she wonders.
She slinks into the kitchen with the strides of a stalking puma, opens the refrigerator, enjoys the rush of cool. After a look around, she grabs a container of lemonade. She glares at it, eyes narrowing, lips curling into a sinister grin. After a sip she decides it could use another ingredient.
She yanks the ziplock of strychnine from her purse, opens the lemonade container and empties the powder into it. With the aid of a nearby spoon she blends the powder into the innocuous sea of bright yellow. She takes a final gaze at her handiwork then returns it to the refrigerator, poised behind a can of beer and a half-finished piece of pizza, just waiting. With the flight attendant wifey crossing the Atlantic for the weekend and the kids safely away in summer camp, the extra-strength lemonade will wind up in nobody’s belly but Daryl’s.
And then comes a clack up the driveway, high heels – this is not Daryl. Sarah freezes.
More clacking, and a clumsy set of keys seeking the keyhole. She has to flee, has to find a way out. The window she slipped in through? Too risky – too easy to be spotted by this person coming in the front door.
The back door? Maybe, but what about the lemonade? She can’t just leave that and let anybody – like the lady now opening the front door – drink it. Or can she?
It’s too late, the choice has been made for her. The door is swung open, the footsteps muffled now by carpet. She’s inside. Nothing to do now but take cover.
Sarah scampers into the pantry, swinging the door shut quietly – or so she tries. It creaks. The footsteps halt as if panicked, alerted. Then they start again, into the kitchen. Sarah spies her through the keyhole of the pantry door. She’s sweeter, less hostile than the harpy-in-training Daryl had described, but then who knows what rage lurks behind that painted on stewardess smile that she seemingly sports even when alone. She opens the refrigerator door, reaches for the lemonade. Bad move.
Now she needs a cup, and ice too. Sarah screams on the inside, ready to spring from the pantry, ready to stop this madness. But good luck explaining all this to the police.
Then the phone rings in the living room so the glass goes down before she can pour herself a death by poisoning. And Sarah can breath again. The harpy-in-training slumps out of the kitchen, answers the phone with an exhausted growl: “Yeah?”
Sarah could flee now, she could scramble to the back door and run free. But what about the lemonade?
She had to pour it out. No sense in killing this innocent woman for Daryl’s sins.
In the other room the phone conversation went on. “Yeah, I remember what you told me, that’s the problem –”
But saving her won’t be easy. First she has to open the pantry door – another squeak, this one not noticed in the midst of more heated words on the phone. “… and what, like my needs don’t mean a goddamn thing? Like my world could just explode and it’s my problem, huh?”
Then a few steps to the counter where the glass of lemonade sits. But she is no ninja. Her glides are more like stomps on the sticky linoleum. But they get lost in the rattle of a soliloquy:
“High maintenance! Because I need to feel loved and needed and wanted every once in a while? Because I need to be reminded of why I fell in love you? Because I need to feel like I mean something more to you than a… than a…”
Sarah becomes a statue, unable to take another step in this silence. Come on, lady! she thinks. A concubine! A whore! A domestic servant! Anything!
“But the thing of it is…”
Sarah halts again as the harpy-in-training is unable think of what the thing of it is. But soon enough she is onto something else:
“What I need from you is devotion. I need for you to be for me what you are to you poker buddies and your softball teammates and your…”
Another pause. Sarah scoops away the glass, reaches for the refrigerator door and grabs the container.
“Yes, I think so…”
And down the drain goes every drop of the toxic lemonade – but with an oceanic splash.
“And I also think –” She stops cold. “Can I call you right back?” She hangs up cautiously, quietly.
Sarah slinks back into the pantry, pulls the door shut – another squeak. Another suspicion-raising bump in the night.
Footsteps again, coming to the kitchen, slowly. One at a time. The harpy-in-training fumbles with something in her purse, then draws it: a gun.
“Hello?” she calls. She doesn’t want an answer. She wants to convince herself that she didn’t really hear anything, then she’ll go upstairs take a valium and a nap. She’ll laugh about it later with the hubby over a drink and Netflix. By then Sarah will have scurried off into the night. No need to panic, Sarah tells herself. She almost believes it.
Her gun is extended now and she circles around like somebody who’s seen too many damn cop movies. With the gun still extended she moves to the living room, then down the hallway.
Sarah spies the living room window, the one she came in through. Now! she tells herself. She’s a stewardess, for God’s sake. She can’t be a very good shot. Now!
Sarah sprints for the window, but stumbles. The harpy-in-training turns, aims, mistakes the sprint for an attack, takes two shots. Sarah leaps for the window – She’s a stewardess, for God’s sake. She can’t be a very good shot.
But these are not the frantic, random shots of a stewardess, his wife. These are the shots — one through Sarah’s abdomen, one through her chest – of a federal marshal, his other mistress.
And so it ends with another lie. How nice.
Tomorrow’s Lunch Break Crime Read: The Sweetest Kind of Chaos
We’ve got nothing in common. She’s young enough to be my daughter. The names that mean everything to me – Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Otis Redding – are, to her, ancient history, ghosts of hit parades past. And I call her Nineteen because I don’t even know her name.
Apart from that she’s perfect. Because she calls me every night at exactly three minutes to midnight – about an hour into my late night shift at WSOL – and we swap secrets in the dark like lonely co-conspirators.
I know about the kidney-shaped birthmark just above her ass.
She knows about how I always hated hunting with my dad but did it anyway, because that’s just what a man does.
I know about the crush she had on her physics teacher.
She knows about my delirious first night back from the army: the marriage proposal to Stephanie. Stephanie’s surprise for me (she was pregnant by another guy). The decision I made for us both (put it up for adoption). And the special place in hell that surely awaits me for casting that kid off to a life without a mother.
Tonight, she’s in a mischievous mood:
“What if you came home one night to find your beloved bride gone forever?”
“What do you mean ‘gone’?” I ask.
“I mean, whatever you want it to mean – packed her bags and left, missing, belly up on the living room carpet.”
“Some nights, I wouldn’t know whether to weep or celebrate.”
“I vote celebrate.”
“Really. We’d be free. Free to go off together and start a new life. Free to be what we were meant to be.”
“Spoken like a true nineteen year-old. Idealistic, naïve. Living in an opium world without side effects.”
“This is simple, trust me. I can make this happen.”
This is the way we talk. We talk this way because it’s reckless and fun. We talk this way because it stabs a gaping wound in the bellies of our mundane lives. This dangerous game give us something to cherish, a secret to keep. I tell myself it doesn’t really mean anything really.
My wife Stephanie finds the note. It was nestled in the wedge of her car’s door but clearly meant for me. It puzzles her and I pretend to be in the dark as well:
The day is soon upon us
We will be free
I try to explain to Stephanie that radio DJs get all kinds of delusional fans and she nods her head like a kid being talked out of her milk money. There’s a distance at the dinner table tonight, a quiet that circles us like a vulture. The danger isn’t fun anymore.
The phone rings the same time it always rings, but I leap out of my body’s wrapping just the same, pick up the receiver – a child with something foreign and frightening in his hand – and answer:
“What if I told you things will be happening tomorrow?”
“Stop this,” is all I can say.
“It’s too late. The wheels are in motion.”
“This is getting crazy.”
“No, it’s getting perfect.”
“What does that mean?”
“Oh, come on! You know exactly what that means. You know that feeling of two people meant to be joined forever. That feeling that nothing else makes sense in the world without the other.”
“Yes, I feel that way about my wife.”
“Bullshit! Are you forgetting who you’re talking to? I know everything about you two: separate vacations; sex every eight weeks; arguments over everything and nothing; no kids, no passion, no hope of things getting better.”
“Just stop it!”
“There is no stopping it, Mike. It’s done.”
I slam down the phone and tell the invisible audience they’ve been listening to something from Etta James.
Once Wilson Pickett floods the airwaves, I vow to contact the police. Eventually. No sense setting another dust-up in motion over something that will probably turn to be a out to be a hoax, a cruelly unfunny joke. I skulk home chanting *there’s nothing to worry about* and almost believing it.
I don’t like guns. As a kid, I hated having those clunky hunting rifles shoved into my mitts and told I should love it. I hated that I hated it and I hated whatever that said about me. But I step inside Ray’s Firearms, endure the country music screeching from the speakers above and purchase a snub-nosed revolver because that’s just what a man does.
As far as the radio station knows, I’m at home fighting off the worst flu of my life. But really I’m sitting in my car in the parking lot of Ray’s Firearms, motionless as The Delphonics wash over me and remind me what it was like when the world kind of made sense.
On the drive home, every hooded face becomes a menace, every unfriendly glance a reason to reach for the revolver in my glove compartment. I lurch into the driveway and just when breathing seems like a good idea again, I’m slapped into wide-eyed alertness by my screaming cell phone. This would be a wonderful time to have my evening interrupted by a telemarketer. But no.
Something in her voice sings with too much joy, too great a sense of achievement. So before stepping out of the car, I reach into my glove compartment…
“How are you?” I ask, hoping to stall her. Maybe fish out information.
“I’m wonderful. Just waiting for you.”
The revolver feels cold in my hand, like a dead thing awaiting a burial.
“Why are you waiting for me, Nineteen?”
“Don’t be silly. You know we can’t do this thing without you.”
I tuck the gun into my pants, clumsy like an unrehearsed actor on a cop show, step out, up the driveway…
To the door.
“What thing are we doing?”
She sighs, like we’ve been through this a million times. Maybe in her mind we have.
I open the door to a silence that bangs at my eardrums.
“Have you ever been lonely, Mike?”
But her voice isn’t only coming through the cell phone. She’s inside the house.
“Answer me, Goddamnit!”
I try to follow the voice but find only Stephanie tied to the living room chair. Her face is frozen in mid-scream. She breathes in panicked spasms.
Something happens to your insides when you see the face of a loved one twisting into something horrific, something unrecognizable. Everything ugly and unpleasant and annoying about them floats away and you’re left with an urgent need to act. A need to save that rare bird from being shot from the sky.
Nineteen charges in from the shadows, gun drawn, eyes enlarged with rage.
“Answer me,” she demands. “Have you ever known real loneliness? The feeling of being incomplete, unfinished?”
“I haven’t,” I reply. I have no tricks, no exit strategies.
“Well, I’ve never known anything else.”
She wraps an arm around my wife, draws her closer. Her hand dangles for a second. Not quite enough time for me to make a move.
So I wait. Because she has to drop her guard and make herself a target at some point.
“You have no idea what kind of emptiness I have inside.”
She’s crying now, unhinged, spiraling into madness. But make no mistake, she is going to shoot my wife. So I have to act.
Maybe she sees the bulge below my untucked shirt. Maybe she doesn’t.
“What I’m about to do is the best for all concerned,” she says.
She steps into a corner, slams a wall.
“I hate that this has to happen, but I just want to make myself whole. That’s all.”
My hand darts to my waist, into my pants. I’m pretty fast for a novice.
But she’s faster. She turns and sends a bullet to my ribcage before I get the damn thing settled into my hand.
I curl to the floor with a whimper and an angry thud.
She yanks Stephanie up by the hair, pulls her away, outside…
I can move only in the tiny steps of wounded pray. I crawl to the window to watch my wife’s body – drained of everything but a pulse – tossed into the backseat of her car.
As they motor into the horizon, I hear nothing but crying – I don’t know whose. Maybe my own.
I’ll live. But it looks like I’ll have to live alone – for a while at least.
The police are baffled. They don’t understand why this happened, why a middle-aged woman was kidnapped by a teenager she’s never met. But they don’t know what I know. They haven’t added up the clues: Nineteen’s obsession with my marriage; her longing for completion; Stephanie’s child given up for adoption nineteen years ago. They’ll be coming to my hospital room to question me in a matter of minutes. This is going to be awkward.
It already embarrasses me to consider how far off the mark I was about Nineteen. Here I was casting her as a femme fatale, a dark-souled siren, hell-bent on digging her claws into a smart, sophisticated older man and dragging him into her world of tumult.
Turns out she was just a lonely nineteen year-old who wanted her mom back.
Tomorrow’s Lunch Break Crime Read: Liar’s Lemonade