Words to Die For

Words To Die For by Bill Capron

 

 

 

 

It’s been twelve years; it was before the paper publishing killing Kindle era, that K-T boundary separating the age of dinosaurs from the age of mammals; lest we forget, it was a different time.

I don’t usually go back to the beginning to reconstruct the scene of the crime, so to speak. I’m not made that way. Once I get the answer, I’m usually satisfied; and I can know too much; and there’s no way I can know it all. But there are times when you can only know if you’ve reached the end by looking again at the beginning – and Mary has crossed my path enough times since to be eerie – so you have to spin it in your head. It’s like making a movie.

I’m a private investigator. People tell me I can’t know too much, but what do they know. Most of us would be friendless if we knew what other people thought of us; I have friends because I don’t know too much. But Bob Mastern was no friend, and I needed it all. Go figure.

So I did what I do. I accumulated facts, sifted and sorted and rearranged them; I talked again to some of the principals, found the missing pieces. Then I constructed what may be too ephemeral to be the truth, but it gets me to the right answer if I add in the testimony of the guilty, a new crime scene walkabout, an active imagination and the gift of hindsight.

Life is not a third person event, so I don’t try to source other people’s motives. I mean, I’m not them, and I haven’t a clue. But Bob Mastern was a third person kind of guy. I’m normally a ‘what’ kind of guy, but I couldn’t make him real without trying to understand ‘why’. And considering the pain he caused, I wanted to know the why.

I’m a first person guy, but Bob’s story is utterly third person.

 

 

In the Beginning

 

Sunday, January 3rd

 

Bob Mastern labored most of his adult life in the dark mine shafts of his mind. After ten million words of finished manuscripts and countless short stories, all he had to show for it was thirty thousand dollars in advances and kill fees. He waited tables, drove taxicabs, built houses; he collected unemployment and welfare. He subjected his family to the hardships of his failed dream, and blamed them for the vast wasteland of his talent. He was a man who rode words hard and put them away wet, usually long after they died.

On the wall behind him was framed his last rejection letter from Fred Farrow of the Dark Matters imprint of Seldom Publishing:

 

Dear Bob,

I probably know you better than any writer I’ve never met, otherwise I couldn’t write so candidly. I know you through your plots, such impressive conceptions, but, alas, poorly fleshed. If you would let me match you with a rewrite specialist, okay, a ghost writer, I’m sure we can get it ready for press; but of course you’d rather throw it in the garbage! Bob, I’ve seen eleven of your manuscripts in ten years. I still remember that first advance. It was a great plot; your killing it was a crime. It was such a good plot that I’ve read every one since. They are like tasty morsels buried in the cod liver oil. Bob, you can’t write. That said, find a way to make money from what you do best; plot.

Sincerely, Fred Farrow

 

Mastern saw the writing on the wall; literally. The two-by-four upside the head from Farrow made real an idea that had bounced in his brain for years; it was one of his plots, long ago written, rejected, filed and forgotten. Farrow hadn’t the slightest idea how Bob would combine equal parts of skill, greed, extortion and lifelong envy into a success he could never attain with his own words.

Mastern lifted his eyes from the page of Jerry Kostel’s new best seller, Color Me Dead, to watch the slow dance of two sailing yachts on Lake Washington. The temperature was a frigid forty-one and the breeze a gusting twenty knots; a thin slanting drizzle lent a surreal substance to the wind. The boats alternately filled, tacked, emptied and gibed their sails in an exercise designed to hone the sailors’ skills.

Beyond the boats and stretching up the other side of the lake were the estates of the Microsoft millionaires, blessed as Seattle’s gods of technology. He could almost hear the kerchink, kerchink as the change filled their pockets, steady and never ending, like owning a grocery store, mundane but profitable. Bob Mastern was different; he was an artist who made his fortune crafting exquisitely complex objects. And while the nouveau riche strained for the limelight and spent fortunes to show the wonder of their cleverness, he was shadowed and nameless as he enriched himself off the talent of others.

Bob Mastern lay the book open on his chest and lifted the forties style cradle phone; he dialed a number.

“Hi, can I talk to Jerry Kostel … Oh, hi, Jerry. I didn’t recognize your voice, you must have a cold. It’s Bob Mastern.”

There was a long pause; “What do you want, Bob?”

Mastern’s smile was smug; Kostel heard it in his voice; “Say, I’m finishing Color Me Dead. I wanted to compliment you on the story. That opening paragraph, well, it blew me away. It’s like what Yogi Berra said, ‘deja vu all over again.’ Jerry, I can’t resist a good plot,” a dead space; “and this is the best.”

Mastern heard Kostel fidget.

The author fought to keep his voice calm; “The money was deposited by your guy, right, Bob?”

“I don’t know, Jerry, I haven’t checked yet. Me, I wanted to talk to an old friend.”

Jerry Kostel let a reluctant fearful belligerence tinge his voice; “You don’t have friends, Bob, so I’ll ring off. Don’t call me, I’ll call you.”

Mastern’s smile hardened, a cold edge sharpened his voice; “Don’t you worry Jerry, when I want you, I’ll call. And, you’ll answer.”

He pressed the receiver and dialed another number; it was busy. He placed the brass phone back in the cradle. Mastern rested his head against the cushion of the soft leather recliner; a satisfied smile formed on his lips.

At first it was tough stepping on people he barely knew, but nastiness was a learned skill, and he developed it to an art form. Sure Kostel was mad, like the French were mad at the Americans for saving their sorry butts in two world wars; too bad.

He closed his eyes and the smile smoothed his face to formlessness. His lips parted and he snored in little bursts as a dreamless sleep overtook him.

Click.

Mastern kept his eyes shut, controlled his breathing. From a writers’ workshop titled ‘The Sounds of Crime’, he recognized the revolver being cocked. He wanted to bravely spin out of the chair and scramble to the pistol he kept in the kitchen, much as he would have written it. But real fear glued his real butt to the chair. He tried to peek out without opening his eyes.

The killer rocked; the barrel of the gun crossed back and forth over Mastern’s heart. When Mastern’s eyes squinted, a reflex squeezed the trigger to fill the room with a deafening explosion.

The book jumped on Mastern’s chest; a single spurt of black blood shot through the hole and rolled down the front cover. His body quivered for a moment and was still; the blood drained out his back and pooled under the soft leather cushions. Mastern’s eyes opened wide and his jaw dropped as if starting a surprised “Oh!”

The murderer wobbled on shaky legs towards the motionless Mastern; the eyes focused on the blood streaked book; the lips moved; “Color you dead, bloodsucker.”

 

January 10th

 

Bob Mastern was a precursor of the ‘it’s all about me’ generation. Not the royal me, of me and mine, but the singular me, of me, myself and I. Even his wife and daughter were no more than clingy possessions demanding his time. But he had no love to give them. It wasn’t that he hated them, because he didn’t. He needed them to absorb the blows life delivered him. He blamed them; they were the in situ reason for his failure. While he was writing, he could never let them go, because then he’d have only Bob Mastern to blame. When he stopped tilting windmills, they became disposable.

Bob Mastern didn’t spend a lot of money on a lawyer; the tenement-like high rise with dirty halls marked businesses on the way down. The office was dingy; the furniture old and scarred. He had been bounced from his third law firm and was midway down a long road to an alcohol-blotted oblivion. His suit, stretched too large, was shiny at the elbows and knees; he didn’t notice. He was the kind of down and outer Mastern befriended, because one day he’d be useful, and cheap.

Mastern got to know the lawyer while working as a short order cook in the greasy spoon 24 hour breakfast joint on the first floor of the same building. He often helped the attorney recover from a binge; Bob Mastern, friend in deed. And from this second rate lawyer Mastern extracted a third rate billing, but, as is the wont of the irresponsible poor, he demanded a first rate product.

Attorney Cash Bennett did good work for Bob Mastern.

His legal assistant Daisy placed a pot of coffee on the table and left the room; she closed the door behind her.

Bennett waited patiently for the other four to seat themselves in the meeting room. Mary Mastern Martin, the daughter, brought a cop with her; the fifty year-old homicide detective, Patrick McMahon, at six-nine, two-sixty, occupied one end of the table, completely.

Mary sat with her husband Rory, to the lawyer’s right. She was beautiful, he was handsome. She was demure, he was angry. She was sweet, he was mean. They were turned from each other like repulsing magnets.

Bennett smiled before he spoke to her; “Mrs. Martin, it’s nice to meet you at last. Your father had nice things to say about you.”

Rory moved into the table; Mary leaned away. He pointed a belligerent chin at the lawyer. “Forget the soft soap bullshit, Bennett. We’re not friends here. When we’re done, we’re not going off together and getting social.”

Rory turned a hard stare on the other two at the table. “I know why the cop’s here. My goody two shoes wife has to keep them informed. But who the hell is she.” He stabbed his finger across the table. “This is supposed to be for family, not some tart the old man picked up in a bar.”

The pretty woman on the other side of the table shifted in her seat but did not back down. “I’m Karen Kold. I was invited here by Mr. Bennett. I represent the Golden Plots, the largest mystery writers’ association in the Northwest. Mr. Mastern was a member.”

Rory wavered under the pressure of her gaze; “Well la di da to you

Kold’s anger tinged her words; “And I don’t know why I’m here, Mr. Martin,” her face calmed suddenly, dismissively; “and I’ve never met Bob Mastern.”

“Yeah, right.” Rory returned his attention to the lawyer. He muttered, “Crock of shit, that’s what I think.”

Bennett’s smile was gone. He was going to enjoy putting the screws to the bastard. “She’s here because Golden Plots was named in the will. I told you and your wife this yesterday. If you want to be obnoxious, Mr. Martin, you can wait in the other room.”

Rory stiffened, but said nothing.

Bennett nodded his apology to Mary and continued, “Your father prepared his will about a year ago. He wrote the first draft himself; we worked to tie up the loose ends. In his words, he wanted it to be ‘unbreakable by that slime ball son-in-law of mine.’ We did our best.” His smirk to Rory was challenging, derisive.

Rory held his tongue, but the flush lit his face to the hairline.

Mary’s voice shook a little as she came to the support of her husband; “They didn’t get along, but it can hardly be blamed on Rory,” she argued.

The lawyer placed a loose ten pages before him. “Be that as it may, let me read the short statement that comprises his bequest. The rest is legal mumbo jumbo, by lawyers, to lawyers, for lawyers. You can read it at your leisure.”

There was a rustling as four bottoms shifted on the hard wood chairs.

Mary said, “We’re ready.”

Bennett turned to the third page with its highlighted paragraphs in the center. He lifted the page and snapped it with both hands; he read;

 

“This is the last will and testament of Robert R. Mastern, although I expect this will not be the last that will be heard from me. This is the first step to the end of my life.

“To my not so loving daughter, Mary, whose only concern is herself and that good for nothing money leeching husband of hers, I leave one hundred thousand dollars to be dispersed at two thousand a month until it has been consumed. She cannot collect a penny until she is free and clear of Rory. If this creates a legal nightmare for her, community property being what it is, so be it.”

 

Rory shifted in his chair and muttered, “Son of a bitch,” but he did not leave his seat.

The lawyer smiled continued,

 

“To the Golden Plots Association I leave the balance of my fortune …” The lawyer let his eyes travel around the table; “at least, and probably well in excess of, five million dollars.”

 

Rory exploded from his chair and grabbed the sheet from the lawyer’s hands. “No way! He wasn’t worth squat!”

The lawyer flashed a vicious grin. He waited for the reality of the fortune to sink in.

Rory blurted, “Whatever he was worth ought to be Mary’s for putting up with that bastard for thirty years.” He cast his eyes about looking for support. He pointed an accusing finger at the lawyer; “And how much for killing her mother!”

Mary rose up and wrapped her fingers around Rory’s arm, commanding and pleading at the same time; “Rory, no, stop it! It was his money. I never wanted it, and I still don’t.”

Rory shoved her away; she bounced against the table before landing hard in the chair.

He turned his anger on the lawyer, shaking a finger in Bennett’s face; “If you think you can get away with this, you’re mistaken. I’ll break that will and get what I’ve got coming to me!”

Bennett shrugged; “I think you got what you had coming.”

The lawyer snatched the piece of paper from Rory’s hand and leaned aggressively over the table. A hint of alcohol trailed his words; “If you think you can break the will, go ahead, Mr. Martin.”

When Rory brought his fist back to take a swing at the lawyer, the detective caught his arm like he was a small child. Rory turned and bolted through the door; his absence left an uncomfortable silence.

The detective slid back into his seat and all eyes returned to the lawyer.

Bennett smiled at the woman on the left and returned his attention to the paper. Unsurprised, unperturbed, he continued,

 

“This endowment, yes, I like that word, this endowment is to be used to create an award category, the Bob Mastern Plotsman Award. The award is to be given to as many as three writers who have written a best seller in the previous year, but only if their best sellers were separated from their previous best seller by more than five years. It’s an award for perseverance.

“The award of fifty thousand dollars is grossed up for taxes. I have prepared a full description of the rules for selecting the award winners, and I have an inaugural list of winners for the first Golden Plots Award banquet following my death. This list will only be known to the Golden Plots Board of Directors who are responsible for insuring its secrecy, as well as the writers’ attendance. Although the current winners are from the Northwest, there is no restriction on future awards. Interest and earnings can be used by Golden Plots for any legal business purposes, but only in the operation of the organization. I hope the Golden Plot Awards one day rivals the Edgars.

“Any monies not accepted by the Golden Plots shall be given to the US Government as a gift.”

 

Bennett turned his attention again to the woman on his left; “Ms. Kold, any questions?”

Karen Kold was pale. She rose from the table. “Excuse me.” She bolted from the room.

The detective leaned out the door and watched Karen Kold disappear into the first door on the right. The cop reported, “She’s in the bathroom.”

Mary Mastern Martin shifted in her seat. She was beautiful and calm, except for the hands that writhed like an animal in her lap.

When Karen Kold returned, Bennett asked, “Is everything all right, Ms. Kold?”

Karen apologized, “I’m sorry. I think it was something I had for lunch.” She returned her attention to the others. “It’s such a surprise.”

She turned to Mary. “I feel like we shouldn’t accept it, but it seems Mr. Mastern has tied our hands.”

Mary tilted her head and smiled. “It’s all right, Miss Kold, really.” To everyone she said, “You’ll have to excuse my husband, he’s a little distraught by all this. Rory had expectations, and my father let him down. I think it’s a family trait.” She took a deep breath and spoke directly to Karen Kold; “Unlike Rory, I have no expectations. I am glad he didn’t leave it to me. I did not love my father. I didn’t like my father. He was a cold, horrible man. I don’t need his money. I don’t want it. If you, Ms. Kold, can use the money for good, that may be my best revenge.”

Bennett stood with Mary; he handed her a folder. “You might want to have your lawyer look at the entire document.”

Mary did not take it; she said, “Mr. Bennett, you can send it to my husband. It may be important to him, but I’ll have nothing more to do with it. I’m going to get my father out of my head.”

 

Saturday, March 6th

 

“I’d call this quite the upgrade, from the VFW last year to the Four Seasons, and for the same price,” the octogenarian author of three teenaged mysteries commented. “I wonder who died and left them money,” she joked.

Her young bearded table companion bent to her ear and whispered, “Someone did die. We find out who tonight.”

The Four Seasons Grand Ballroom was opened to its full breadth. The muted pastels softened the bright lights that did their best to dispel the darkness from thirty-three days without the sun. The previous year’s crowd of two hundred, mostly writers from the Northwest, had swelled to over a thousand, with the big names at the premier tables. It was a testament to the power of money and aggressive short term marketing.

The air buzzed with excitement as those who wanted mingled with those who had; it was an event of starkly divided haves and have nots; it was a meritocracy of the successful, and the rest. But those present understood the too often singular event of getting published. Selling a manuscript was an accomplishment of, to the uninitiated, seemingly mythic proportions; that an editor would read your work and decide to publish it; reduced to a single word, it was awesome.

It had cost Karen an arm and a leg, but the top editors in mystery were seated at tables placed strategically at both ends of the banquet area. It was they who were besieged by the nameless horde of sanguine writers. The great unpublished wanted to know what they thought, how they decided, what style of writing was in; these Solons were the kings of publishing, bestowing their gifts of acceptance on a multitude of beggars and wannabes. Until a writer was published by a traditional publisher, he was like a homeless person on the median strip hawking newspapers; nobody.

The average mystery publisher received thousands of queries, outlines and manuscripts a year, more than they could ever adequately review. The dismissal of an author’s hundreds of hours of sweat and dreams was often an editor’s five minute perusal and rejection; but it was the start of the distilling process of making good books. For hopeful writers, editors are the keepers of the gate.

In fact, it was the necessity for distilling that created the author’s bane and salvation, the agent; they occupied the tables between the editors and authors, much like real life. They were besieged; finding an agent was only slightly easier than finding a publisher, and for access to the major publishers, it was a prerequisite. The writers’ lament goes, ‘you can’t get a publisher without an agent, and an agent won’t touch you if you’re not published’.

The business of art was like every other transaction in the business world; buyers rule and sellers grovel. And the sheer magnitude of sellers to buyers made the groveling a horrible sight to see.

At the back edge of the banquet floor were the trade publications’ jaded editors and journalists. They’d eat the food, take notes, and write up the event for newspapers, magazines and journals. They appreciated their positioning near the exit for that quick trip to the garage or taxis before the herd of writers, known and unknown, hit the pavement. But the buzz had reached even the hardened veterans.

In the center of the first row was a reserved table with sixteen chairs, dubbed the Mystery Table. Karen Kold and a reluctant Mary Mastern Martin held forth with the ten writers and four spouses. The authors had no idea why they were there, so they made small talk from their fishbowl location. They were the center of attention, at least at the secondary level, once any self-respecting artist got beyond his or her own work.

Mary told Karen Kold no, but Karen pressed her, said it wouldn’t look right if there wasn’t someone representing the family. Of course, Rory was out.

Two tables back from the mystery guests, the writers were joined by an incognito Detective Patrick McMahon, out of place among the gray haired ladies from a local writing club. Every so often they tried to make conversation, but the big man’s attention was elsewhere. He had an earpiece and they thought he was deaf; after a while, they gave up.

Karen Kold got the detective a seat because he asked; but she wouldn’t have approved the microphone he’d placed on the flower arrangement, the one he listened to as the wizened ladies gabbed on around him; so he didn’t ask. If the murderer of Bob Mastern was to be caught, McMahon needed a break; his case was going nowhere and this was a last unplumbed, albeit unlikely, circle of suspects.

Mary Mastern Martin made eye contact with the detective; she pulled on her ear to show she knew it wasn’t a hearing aid. Her flat smile was a little reproachful.

He smiled back and shrugged his shoulders. Next to the animated, boyish Karen Kold, Mary looked too feminine, too composed. McMahon didn’t understand the woman any more than the others like her he’d met in his years of dealing with life’s bottom feeders; why would such an intelligent, beautiful woman put up with a feckless, mean philanderer for a husband?

The detective was as vulnerable as any male to her sad eyes, her straight smile which conveyed myriad inflections with a variety of tiny twists at the ends, her unflaunted beauty. Mary replaced her lousy provider of a father with an equally worthless husband. Maybe she thought men were that way, that it was the price of male protection. If she were McMahon’s daughter, Rory Martin would be long gone, the cop’s size eighteen boots imprinted on his skinny butt. But then, if she’d been his daughter, she never would have married him. Yeah, right, like his own daughter hadn’t married Rory’s twin.

Karen Kold moved to the dais. She tapped the microphone; in her soft alto, “Testing, one, two, three. Can you all hear me okay?”

A murmur of assent greeted her, followed by a subdued hum of whispers and lowered conversations. She said, “I’d like to welcome you all to the third annual Golden Plots Awards banquet.”

A smattering of applause rose up.

Karen slowly turned her body to scan the ballroom. She raised her voice; “How many of you attended last year’s shindig,” a pause; “at the VFW?”

More than a hundred hands cut the air; a sharp whistle hushed the crowd.

She had been hired since that event, but she’d imagined it. She waved her arm to take in new setting; “What a difference a year makes.”

The applause raised a notch.

Karen jumped into the first item on the agenda; “It’s obvious to one and all that something at the Golden Plots has changed. We owe this grand development to the largess of one man. He is probably unknown to you writers out there, but better known to the hard working editors who’ve been in this business for a long time.”

The room went silent. Then someone yelled, “So who is he, already?”

Karen laughed; “That man was Bob Mastern, a man who knew the low points of writing, a man who hawked his manuscripts for thirty years without success. Yes, Bob Mastern understood better than anyone how hard it is to get published. After all those years, all those words, he never experienced the joy of seeing his books in print.”

A tentative applause died quickly; many there knew the circumstances of his death.

Karen put feeling into her voice as she played out a scenario she imagined; “Bob Mastern loved authors, loved the success that was never to be his. Now his gift will help other writers. Mr. Mastern died tragically this past January. His will established the Mastern Plotsman’s Award. These awards are to be presented each year to three mystery writers who have overcome long dry spells between successful books. These tax prepaid awards of fifty thousand dollars …”

A round of applause crescendoed as the audience got to their feet. Karen raised her hands for quiet, but the clapping continued for almost two minutes, in diminishing waves.

Karen asked, “How many here have suffered writer’s block?”

A forest of hands went up.

“How many are in the midst of one right now?” Fewer hands rose; authors did not so readily admit to a current case of the writer’s version of impotence.

“I know it’s not easy producing a best seller. I am told it’s tougher in some regards to follow it up with another. Bob Mastern believed that for a writer to attain his full potential, the plot had to be up to the storytelling. That is why he chose this venue for the award. He put it this way in his will, ‘You can’t write your best stuff when the plot stinks.’ We at Golden Plots couldn’t agree more!”

A strident “Here, here!” rose from crowd.

Karen Kold glanced down at the mystery table; she was greeted by a mix of broad smiles and smoldering gazes, nothing in between.

She beckoned to Mary; “I’d like to introduce you to Bob Mastern’s daughter, Mary Mastern Martin.”

Everyone clapped as Mary made her way to the stage.

Karen took Mary’s elbow and turned her to face the crowd. “Mary will present the checks to the ten inaugural winners of the Plotsman Awards. Mary, can you say a few words about your father?”

Mary’s enigmatic smile wavered; Karen told her nothing about speaking.

She stepped up to the microphone. “Thank you, Karen. Please bear with me, but I wasn’t prepared to say anything.” For a moment she gathered her thoughts; “Not selling is the toughest thing any author can do. I know because I was the daughter of a non-selling author. My father performed the most menial of tasks to let him do what he loved, write.” She paused for a sporadic applause. “I don’t think he understood what that meant to his wife and daughter. Yes, I was the daughter of an unsuccessful writer. We lived hand to mouth as he made his uncertain way through life. If I could have changed that, I would have. I can only say, don’t let failure dominate your lives. Some people are not meant to be writers, and some families are not meant to be the families of writers.”

There was a rising murmur of incredulity; Mary talked through it; “My father made his fortune after he gave up writing. I don’t know how, I don’t know when. He decided the best way to use that fortune was to help writers who attained an excellence he never found.”

There was a smattering of applause as Mary stepped back from the microphone.

Karen reached for a lighter tone; “I want you to know how hard it is to get ten authors who’ve won something to attend a ceremony without telling them why they’re there. Some had plans to be here, others … well, you know what I mean. It was a logistical nightmare, but the rules say the author must be here to receive the prize. And we did it.”

There was a crescendo of jealous chuckling interspersed with applause.

Someone blurted, “On with the show.”

Karen took the microphone from its stand; “Yes, on to the show!” She pulled the cloth covering a small table of books; she lifted the top book. “Our first award winner is Bob Robards whose best selling Marry My Daughter ended a dry spell of almost ten years.”

Robards rose from the table, a tall, gray, wrinkled seventy year-old with a ramrod straight back. A standard of polite applause was established as he made his way to the stage.

As he accepted the check from Mary Mastern, his only comment was, “I knew your father,” and he returned to the table.

Karen continued, “Next is Caspar Weiner who is here with his lovely wife Rara. Caspar’s latest book, Killed by Them All, has been made into a movie which will be released in the summer.”

He accepted his check, pumped his arm for all to see, and returned to the table.

“Our third winner, a mainstay in the Seattle mystery writing community, Marietta Grimsly, has been honored for The Senator Takes a Life. This book was on the best seller list for almost a year. The movie version won two Oscars mere months ago.”

The thirty-eight year-old Grimsly very much fit her nickname of ‘Squirrel’ as she scrambled up the stairs. Her five-one, hundred-and-fifty pounds quivered as she shook Mary’s hand, then nodded to Karen. She looked like a thief as she made her way back to the table.

“Our fourth winner is Pastor John, in attendance with his wife Imelda. Like Bob Robards, Pastor John spent ten years off the lists before resuming his Reverend Wills series with The Reverend’s Holiday.”

Pastor John barely acknowledged the standing ovation. He was known to most of the writers there, but before the last novel, many had thought him dead.

“Our next winner is Peter da Silva. His book, Death by Boredom reprised his first protagonist from twenty years earlier, Hammering Harry Handsome.”

The short dark haired Portuguese bounced up the steps. He was reported to write ten hours a day and smoke five packs of cigarettes. His term without a successful novel had aged him, but he waved his check in the air as he made his way down from the podium.

Karen Kold caught her sneeze as da Silva’s tobacco odor hung on the stage. She lifted the book with its signature lacquered yellow coffin. “Our sixth winner is Martin O’Brien. His second book, He Took It With Him, was published six years after his first. It has already been translated into six languages.”

O’Brien’s dark glasses hid dilated pupils from his recent trip to the men’s room; it was no secret to Patrick McMahon, he could tell a cokehead from a hundred yards.

“Richard Duncan throughout the seventies wrote the acclaimed Standish mystery series. In the nineties he restarted his career with a new hero, Standish Junior and I Coulda Been … Alive.”

The applause was long for a writer who helped define the genre. He gave Mary an overly familiar hug after she handed him the check. Karen shook his hand to preclude the same treatment.

“Bobby Dearborn is here with her husband Fred. Bobby took a six year vacation from writing to raise a family. Last year she returned to the spotlight with Call Me Irresponsible, introducing a new heroine about whom we hope to hear much in the near future.”

The again pregnant Bobby looked like she’d rather be anywhere else. Her husband’s smile was tight, as if he didn’t like her getting all the attention.

Karen held aloft the film poster for The Big Sleep, with the title of the next book overlaying the original. “Ilsa Ivers’s and her husband Rik have gotten the greatest of news. Ilsa’s book, On Monday I Died, will be made into a major motion picture. The details of the blockbuster deal will be announced next week. Let’s all wish them well.”

The thunderous reaction from the audience brought a skull-like grin to Ilsa’s face. Like Bobby Dearborn, she’s rather be anywhere else.

As Ilsa left the stage, Karen said, “I don’t think Bogart and Bacall will be starring in On Monday I Died, but I hear the cast is big time.”

There was more applause; Ilsa stood to take another bow; she grimaced at the flower arrangement.

Karen held up the last book. “Our final winner is Jerry Kostel, whose genre detective, Guy Flambeau, solved his first crime ten years ago. His new book, Color Me Dead, was one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had in years.”

Kostel took his check, then kissed Mary on the cheek and shook Karen’s hand.

Karen said, “Let’s have a round of applause for our award winners.”

The standing ovation went on for two minutes, forcing the table to stand and acknowledge it, if only to end it.

~               ~               ~

While Karen Kold continued with the program, the mystery table was caught up in an uncomfortable silence. There was no friendly banter between happy winners, few congratulations, more frowns than smiles. The detective wondered why; they should be the happiest people in the room, instead, they were the most subdued.

One of the old ladies at the table asked him, “So how long have you been writing, Mr. McMahon?”

He answered, “I’m thinking about starting …”

The commotion at the mystery table caught him by surprise. He saw Ilsa Ivers grab Marietta Grimsly and yank her back into her chair. In his earphone he barely made out, “Sit right here. You can make it through the next thirty minutes.” Ilsa’s hand left stark red marks on Marietta’s splotchy pale skin.

So much for excitement; it was another dead end. A rich man died. It wasn’t that there weren’t people who hated him, but alibis were overflowing and, when necessary, solid. So, despite an unexpected reticence among the award winners, there were no obvious reasons for murder, and without obvious reasons, the captain wasn’t going to spend the resources.

McMahon watched Karen Kold as she finished the program. When he returned his attention to the mystery table, seven of the winning authors were gathering their things and making their various paths to the exit; they couldn’t get out of the banquet hall quickly enough.

Mary Mastern whispered in Karen’s ear when she returned to the table. The two women stood and touched cheeks. As Mary headed for the door, she ignored a journalist who tugged at her sleeve.

Pulling out the chair next to a confused Karen Kold, the detective asked, “What’s with them?”

She shrugged thin shoulders; “Got me. If I won the fifty thousand, I’d feel great. Add to that a best selling book, I’m walking on air.”

A publisher tapped Karen on the shoulder, introduced himself and gave her his card. As she reached back for her purse, she saw the detective’s hand resting against the flower vase, a fingernail under the edge of a dime sized patch.

“I hope that’s not what it looks like.” When McMahon said nothing, curiosity overrode irritation; “Did you learn anything?”

He shook his head; “No. It was sort of my last chance. The case goes into a waiting for more information status.”

Confusion crinkled her brow; “What’s that?”

He answered, “The dead file.”

 

Monday, March 8th

 

Cash Bennett arranged the stamped envelopes on his desk. To no one in particular he said, “I wonder if this is the right thing to do.”

His legal assistant, a tall black girl, Daisy Adams, assumed he was speaking to her. “I think you should throw those letters in the trash, Cash. I don’t know how Bob Mastern made his money, but he wasn’t a nice man. We shouldn’t help him hurt people from the grave.”

Cash pursed his lips together at a particularly acid thought. He reminisced; “I knew Bob for fifteen years. Can’t say I ever really liked him. If the family was at home starving, and he needed more paper, he’d buy the paper. Melba might as well have been a single mother for all the help he gave her raising Mary.”

Daisy was a single mother. “All the more reason to dump the letters.”

Cash recalled the past; “Once in a while Bob would come up here to write, especially if there was something going on in the house. It was before your time. He’d lug that old typewriter in and plop down his notes, right here, and start typing. It was unbelievable to watch the words flow from his fingers, so smooth, for hours on end.”

Daisy had met Mastern three times; she didn’t like him; she never saw any of his work. “So why couldn’t he sell?”

Cash laughed, both at and for his long time acquaintance and sort of friend; “Oh, Daisy, he wrote so smooth, but it read so rough. I mean, his outlines had tension flowing from the pages. It was easy to believe they could be some of the great stories of all time, but by the time they’d made it to paper, they were junk.”

“So why didn’t he go to school, or something?”

The attorney chuckled; “Because he was an artist. Where he saw Van Gogh, everyone else saw Walter Mitty?”

“Walter who?”

“Sorry, Daisy, before your time; he was another dreamer wannabe. Suffice it to say, the only person who thought Bob Mastern was an artist was Bob Mastern.”

Daisy asked, “So, do I send the letters?”

He gave her a look like what do you mean? “Of course we send the letters; we don’t know that any harm is intended.”

Daisy shook her head; “Not exactly, but you have letters to those seven Plotsman Award winners, and two letters to be hand delivered to the tabloid grocery shopping rags in five weeks. I can’t see any good coming of it. I mean, we’re not stupid, are we?”

Cash Bennett looked her straight in the eye and said, “Daisy, we’re lawyers and we do what the client ordered.”

He picked up the letters and headed for the door, not trusting the less jaded Daisy to post them.

 

Chapter 1 – Monday, April 12th at 8am

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