Description & Excerpt
San Diego private investigator, Jason Duffy, travels to Scranton, PA in January after his Uncle Patrick’s best friend is murdered. He learns that Patrick and the victim were members of a rock band that nearly made it to the national scene in the early 1970s, and were about to play a reunion concert in their hometown when the murder occurred.
The investigation leads Jason back to an “almost anything goes” era that is exacting a huge price more than 40 years later. To mix & master this musical mystery, Jason fills in for the murdered guitarist and soon finds himself struggling to avoid filling in a cemetery plot.
Someone doesn’t want that reunion concert to happen and is willing to do anything to cancel it forever. The case teaches Jason how easy it is for all of us to fall victim to our assumptions. It’s a lesson that could exact a tuition that may never be paid back.
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Louie Amanesco was a creature of habit. In spite of the fact that a light snow was falling when he left work, he still drove six miles up Route 307 to his favorite watering hole for a couple of beers with the regulars. Upon exiting the bar an hour later, flakes were still falling at a steady pace. He used his combination brush and scraper to dust snow off of his windows.
Another of his habits included driving 10 miles an hour over the posted speed limit, even on snowy January evenings. His workday as superintendent for the family’s construction business had been as uneventful as every other one since the housing bubble burst. His wife of 25 years had left him as soon as his income could no longer support her shopping addiction.
There were no pressing matters awaiting him at home. He had no children or grandchildren to check on. Sure there was a 12-pack of beer in the refrigerator, although a hot toddy seemed more attractive at the moment. But Louie couldn’t bring himself to ease off of the accelerator as snowflakes blew through the barren trees of Northeastern Pennsylvania. He wondered if maybe he would be considered a thrill seeker or just a guy in his late 50s who was set in his ways.
Cresting a rise by Lake Scranton, Louie spotted three deer crossing the road at the bottom of the hill 200 yards ahead, making their way toward the lake. Slamming on the brakes would have sent his SUV out of control. Louie laid on his horn while flashing his high beams on and off as fast as possible. The two larger deer showed Louie why they managed to survive hunting season, which had just ended a few weeks earlier, by trotting out of harm’s way. But a yearling doe froze in her tracks and stared directly at him.
The outside lanes of the four lane highway displayed uncovered paths where tire friction had left a final modicum of safety for stragglers still making their way home. The yearling straddled the uncovered paths. Louie tapped the brakes lightly and felt the rear end slide a few inches to the right. The passing lane was covered by about two inches of powder. If he changed lanes he would not only have to deal with the traction issue, but also hope that the deer remained perfectly still because he would be passing directly in front of her.
The pitch of the hill was more severe as he was now about 80 yards from impact. He tapped his brakes again and slid once more. The instant he regained traction he steered into the passing lane. At 40 yards he refocused on the yearling in time to see a large buck leap over a rock and onto the highway. Louie knew that the brakes were no longer an option. Whatever was going to happen was out of his control.
The buck smashed hard into the yearling’s butt, propelling her all the way across the highway. The buck lost his balance and skidded forward. Louie turned the steering wheel a couple of inches toward the far right lane, just in time to avoid the back legs of the buck. When his tires found purchase on the blacktop tire paths he cut the wheel back and regained control. He stroked his salt & pepper goatee and let out a deep breath as the SUV decelerated on the flat stretch at the bottom of the hill.
Louie made a right at the light onto Lake Scranton Road, and a left onto the Elmhurst Boulevard. His family earned huge profits prior to the housing market crash, transforming the more remote sections of the winding Elmhurst Boulevard from a deathtrap for young drivers with more balls than brains, into an upscale custom home paradise for those who valued huge lots and much privacy. The close call with the deer had his heart racing and his mind on doubling the liquor in his hot toddy.
Louie’s house wasn’t immediately visible from the road. Two three-foot stone pillars, topped with ornate light fixtures, marked the entrance to his driveway. The lights were on a timer, so he had no trouble emptying his mailbox to the right of the driver’s side pillar. He then dropped the SUV into 4-wheel drive and climbed the hill to his beautiful Tudor home. It was one of his few possessions that survived the messy divorce with Rose.
After parking in the garage and entering the house through the kitchen door, Louie placed his briefcase on the kitchen table and hung up his coat. He considered departing from his routine of immediately checking email, but decided it would be best to take care of that before erasing his close call with Bambi & friends with a double shot of Wild Turkey. So he put on a heavy green sweater, unlocked the French doors to the backyard, walked around his covered pool, and unlocked the door to his home office.
Turning on the lights, Louie was startled to see a familiar face in his favorite wing chair. “What the hell are you doing here?”
Louie’s guest removed a Sig Sauer P220 Compact. “Open up the wall safe, Louie, and you won’t get hurt.”
“The wall safe? Are you kidding me? You’re not going to fire that thing.”
At the flick of a finger the intruder turned on the pistol’s tactical light and laser option, illuminating a red dot on Louie’s green sweater.
“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas all over again, Louie. Now, unless you want me to add a whole lot more red to that sweater I suggest you open the wall safe.”
“There’s nothing of value in there. You should know that.”
The intruder stood up. “I didn’t ask for an inventory or an argument. Either open the safe right now or I’ll blow a hole through your kneecap. If that’s what it takes to show you I’m serious, then so be it.”
Louie had nothing to hide in the safe, so he opened it up. The intruder walked behind Louie and nestled the gun into the soft spot at the base of his skull.
“Take a close look out the back window.”
Louie turned to his right and felt the gun remain pressed against the back of his head. He tried to think of what could possibly be in the safe to warrant this behavior. It was the last thought to ever cross his mind.
Returning to work after a two week Christmas vacation was very difficult this year. I usually only take off for one week, but after four months of grueling work on my first serial murder case, my psyche and my girlfriend both needed more time. Watching Kelly get ready to greet her second graders put my funk on hold for a few minutes. But once she departed it dawned on me that I had no active cases waiting for me at the office, and I would probably have to stalk a cheating spouse or pour over the financial records of a businessman suspected of embezzlement. It reminded me of the time my old club band warmed up a headliner for the first time. Playing in front of a Saturday night audience of over 10,000 people was a tremendous rush. Playing in front of 12 drunks and two hookers the following Tuesday night captured my current state of mind.
The cloud lifted briefly when I walked into my office and was greeted by my administrative assistant, Jeannine Joshlin. She spent the holidays with her boyfriend (and my former band mate) who had been on the road touring for five months before returning in mid-December. Her enthusiasm was not contagious.
Once the formalities were out of the way I asked, “Any messages on the machine?”
“Just one – from a Mrs. Vincigura. She said something about her husband’s behavior at his company Christmas party.”
“Damn!” I shouted, and Jeannine’s seven-month-old German shepherd barked from under her desk.
“Maybe you can talk with her and let Cory do the field work if she wants a full investigation,” she said.
Cory is my part-time photographer and stakeout specialist who suffers from Tourette’s syndrome and, along with Jeannine, used to be clients of mine when I worked as a counselor at an outpatient mental health center for two years before starting my private investigator’s training. He was originally hired specifically for this type of assignment.
I reached out and Jeannine handed me the pink message slip. “Let’s hope she got tired of waiting for me to call her back.”
“The call came in yesterday, on New Year’s morning,” she said.
“Wonderful. A cheating husband and a New Year’s resolution rolled into one. Was she bitching about him watching football games, too?”
“Aren’t you Mr. Grumpypuss this morning?”
Wishing I had sworn off divorce cases as my New Year’s resolution, I reluctantly called Mrs. Vincigura. She turned out to be a sixty-something know-it-all who interrupted me incessantly. I tried explaining the changes in California divorce law that took place since her days as a legal secretary in the 1970s. But Mrs. V. insisted that she was the expert on the subject, and that my job was to shut up and help “take her husband to the cleaners” in divorce court. Since arguing with her simply invited more interruptions, I quoted her a rate that was quadruple my usual charge, and I asked for a $10,000 retainer, fully expecting her to insult me and hang up.
Instead she said, “You better be worth it, hot shot. I’ll be there with a check at 2:30.”
She hung up before I could think of another way to keep her retched demeanor out of my life.
I received a call from my mother at 11:00 AM. “How about ringing in the New Year by having lunch with me?”
“Don’t you mean lunch with us?”
“Now that the holidays are over, your father has been making up for lost time mourning O’Malley’s death at Casey’s Bar.”
“Will that be our luncheon conversation?” I asked.
“I do have a special reason for inviting you today, but it has nothing to do with your father’s tradition of grieving with Guinness.”
“I’ll head over now. I have a 2:30 appointment coming in.”
My parents live on the outskirts of the Little Italy section of San Diego. If America’s Finest City had a Little Ireland section I have no doubt that I’d be heading in that direction. My father is a retired San Diego Police Detective, and affiliates himself almost exclusively with the law enforcement branch of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick. My mother was cutting hard rolls when I entered the kitchen.
“You sounded a little stressed on the phone, Mom. What’s going on?”
“I’m using leftover turkey from Christmas. I hope you don’t mind.”
Mom’s not one to jump right into the main topic. I gave her a kiss on the cheek.
“It looks delicious. Does Dad know I’m here?”
“Bob Kerrigan picked him up before I called you.”
“I know how he gets after a cop buddy dies. I’d offer to have a talk with him, but I think we both know it wouldn’t do any good.”
“That’s not why I asked you to come over today, Jason. Have a seat and get started on your sandwich. Would you like a cup of tea?”
“Tea sounds great, Mom. It’s barely into the 50s out there. I hate the winter.”
“I know, son. Can you imagine how difficult it is for your poor Uncle Patrick in Northeastern Pennsylvania? I spoke with him last night and his porch thermometer read 14 degrees.”
“He stuck a check for $20 in my Christmas card again this year. I thought you were going to tell him that I’m fully grown and gainfully employed.”
“It’s Patrick’s way of telling you that he loves you, in spite of the fact that he hasn’t gotten along with his brother since the 60s.”
“How is he doing?”
“Not well, Jason. Not well at all.”
“Is he still grieving for Aunt Megan?”
The tea kettle whistled and Mom held the string on an Irish Breakfast tea bag while pouring. She wrapped the string around the cup handle and tucked the green paper label underneath before adding a dollop of milk.
“I’m sure that five years seems like a very long time to you, but Patrick and Megan were closer than any couple I’ve ever known. He’ll grieve until he meets up with her in heaven. But that’s not the source of his pain right now.”
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Patrick’s best friend was murdered last Thursday night,” she said, and blessed herself.
“That’s terrible, Mom. Do the police have any leads?”
“Patrick said that he was found in his home office under an empty wall safe. Apparently the Scranton Police have assigned a rookie detective to head up the investigation.”
“I don’t see Uncle Patrick being best friends with a bum. Why the low priority?”
“There’s a serial killer running around the area and their Homicide Division is focused on catching him,” she said.
“What makes them think he wasn’t murdered by the serial killer?”
“He’s called the Society Page Slasher. All of his victims have been women who have appeared on the Society Page of the local paper within a month of their deaths. All of them had their throats slashed. Patrick’s friend was shot in the back of the head.”
“I imagine Uncle Patrick will be running his own investigation,” I said.
“Patrick is an insurance investigator. His specialty is the recovery of stolen property. He’s never worked a homicide investigation in his life. When he called last night he asked if I thought your father might be willing to bury the hatchet and help him out.”
“What did you tell him?”
“I told him about O’Malley, and how he wasn’t able to help you with your last case because he was beside himself with grief. I didn’t want to tell him that his brother hasn’t uttered a kind word about him in our 34 years of marriage.”
“I’m surprised Dad didn’t give you a hard time about keeping in touch.”
“I didn’t really have much contact with Patrick until Megan died. She was one of the kindest, most generous women I’ve ever known. She and I made a few attempts over the years to try to get those two to reconcile. Megan once told me that the biggest arguments they ever had involved those reconciliation talks. We finally gave up on them, but kept our friendship very much alive.”
“What would you like me to do?”
“I know you have clients here, son. Maybe you could give Patrick a call and be a sounding board. Offer him some advice on how you would proceed with the investigation. If you think your father could lend a hand, ask him as if you were asking about one of your own cases.”
“I’ll be glad to do that, Mom.”
She wrote down Patrick’s home and cell phone numbers on a slip of paper. “Please remind Kelly that I was sincere when I offered to help chaperone her second graders field trip to the Wild Animal Park.”
“I will, Mom. And, I’ll let you know how it goes with Uncle Patrick.”
Mrs. Vincigura looked every bit as formidable in person as she sounded on the phone. She was built like a 50s Buick with a black helmet of hair, and enough platinum around her neck to plate a front bumper. I stood and extended my hand.
“Sit down and listen up, young man. I’m going to tell you all about that no good philandering husband of mine, so pay attention.”
Instead of arguing with the woman I reminded myself that I had priced in a huge asshole tax. So I folded my hands on the desk in front of me and assumed a state of mind that my college friends and I called AEM. It stands for Automated Educational Mode. We used it when we were stuck listening to lectures by boring professors who considered their every word a priceless commodity. On the outside we appeared interested and even jotted the occasional note. On the inside we were somewhere between daydreaming and recovering from the previous night’s revelry.
Mrs. Vincigura was quite content to drone on for a half hour without a break. At long last she asked, “What do you think?”
“The man sounds insufferable. I don’t know how you put up with him.”
Satisfied that I was appropriately sympathetic, she forked over the hefty retainer. “How do you propose we catch him in the act?”
“Before we get into specifics let me ask you a question. Why now? He’s obviously been carrying on behind your back for years.”
“It was that horrible Christmas party. Right after the formal dinner his boss led him into a conference room, gave him a big bonus and told him he’d be sorely missed on the sales staff when he reached mandatory retirement age at the end of the month. Vinnie gave me the news and the check right away. Before my purse was snapped shut he was making eyes at Doris Dyer, who was the event coordinator and a member of our country club. I don’t care what he did out on the road, but I’ll be damned if he’s going to make a fool out of me in front of my friends at our country club.”
“Do you really want the photos to use at a divorce action, or are you thinking of blackmailing him into behaving at the club?”
“I don’t feel the need to explain myself to the help, Mr. Duffy. Do what I tell you and we’ll get along just fine. If not, I’ll find someone else who will.”
I spent the next half hour hammering out the details of our contract. It was worded so that I could technically have Cory do most of the surveillance work, and to minimize future contact with Mrs. V. By the time she departed I was drained.
I called Cory and explained his assignment. You’ll rarely hear me recount Cory’s exact words because his Tourette’s syndrome makes it difficult for the uninitiated to focus on anything but the obscenities. Cory is a bright guy in his early 40s whose photography skills are astounding. I once saw him capture the image of a perp in the back seat of a car that was flying past us at 70 mph. Usually Cory has to limit his field work to the back of his van, which is why he will be spending several evenings in the parking lot of Vinnie’s country club.
I decided not to call Uncle Patrick last night after getting home from the Belvedere Heritage Country Club at 7:00 PM. It was 10:00 PM on the East Coast, and if Uncle Patrick handled his grief anything like my father he would be well into his cups by that hour. Shortly after Kelly departed I made the call.
“Uncle Patrick, this is your nephew, Jason. I’m very sorry to hear about your loss.”
“Thanks for calling, Jason. I haven’t heard from you since Megan died. I appreciated the sympathy card.”
“I wish I could have been there for her funeral, but it happened during finals week when I was finishing college.”
“I know, Jason. Don’t worry about it.”
“My mother said you could use some help investigating your friend’s murder. Did she tell you that I’ve been a private investigator for the past two years?”
“She did indeed. Congratulations on continuing the Duffy career path, such as it is.”
“Uncle Patrick, I−”
“Jason, call me Patrick. You’re 28 years old. It’s not like we have a longstanding tradition to uphold. When you call me uncle it just reminds me of all of the family gatherings that we missed out on.”
“OK, Patrick. Mom tells me that you’re a wiz at finding stolen property, but are a bit out of your element on a murder investigation and could use some help.”
“I was hoping your father might be willing to set aside our differences after all of these years, and come out here to give me a hand,” he said.
“There are two things that Dad is not particularly good at: dealing with the death of a friend, and letting go of a grudge. Mom said she told you about his friend passing recently.”
“She did. I hope your generation breaks the tradition of 100 proof mourning, as well as never ending grudges.”
“I understand you did your fair share of breaking with tradition in your day,” I said.
“Too much for your father’s liking, I’m afraid.”
“Why don’t you tell me about what happened to your friend and I’ll see if I can offer any suggestions?”
Over the next twenty minutes Patrick gave me the long version of what my mother told me over lunch. He felt he owed it to his friend to find the killer and see that he’s brought to justice.
“Louie and I were in a band together back in the day. We almost broke out of Scranton and hit the big time. But a couple of bad breaks shot us down and eventually broke up the band. After about seven years of sulking, we started getting together once a month to relive the glory days.”
“What instrument do you play, Patrick?”
“I play lead guitar and Louie played rhythm.”
“I play rhythm myself.”
“Your mother told Megan about your career for years. She shared every detail with me. It was my only connection to your family. When Megan died, so did my lifeline to California. The last I heard, you had just graduated, were getting a job as a mental health counselor, and still playing in Tsunami Rush.”
I said, “The counseling gig lasted for two years. I couldn’t take the political bullshit that went with the job. I kept playing with the band until I left the counseling job to start my apprenticeship with a local PI.”
“Do you still play at all?”
“Our lead guitarist is now with Doberman’s Stub. But I get together with the other guys about once every couple of months.”
“Your mother tells me you just finished a big case. I’ll bet you’ve got a lot stacked up on your plate now that it’s over.”
“Nothing terribly important.”
“Jason, can I hire you to come out here to Scranton and help me find out who killed Louie?”
Uh-oh! I didn’t see that one coming. Unpaid phone consultant – fine. Spending January in the great northeast made Mrs. Vincigura decidedly more appealing. My pregnant pause must have hit 10 centimeters.
Patrick said, “I know what you’re thinking. If you come out here to help me it will put you in the doghouse with your father. I don’t want to be responsible for getting another family grudge going. Forget I asked.”
“My grudge with Dad started the day I got my first guitar. If Aunt Megan was really keeping you up on things, you should have known that.”
“It’s been a tough five years since I lost her, Jason. You’re right; she did mention it, but only once. After she saw how it got me riled up she must have filtered the news. I’m sorry. I got the impression from your mother that Jim helped out on your cases once in a while.”
“The Cold War started winding down when I left Tsunami Rush. Dad was a big help on a couple of my cases. But I certainly don’t feel obligated to carry his grudge into the next generation. Let me see how soon I can get a flight out of here and I’ll get back to you.”
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