Sunday, July 7, 2019

Beginnings: Your Turn to Die


This last week was capped by a two day arts festival where I was part of a group of over 20 Michigan authors, meeting with people to talk about our work, selling and autographing books.  It was a very hot and humid. While sales were not as strong as they’ve been in the past, it was still an opportunity to connect with other authors and readers.




One of the brightest spots of the weekend occurred on Saturday. A young lady named Melanni stopped to visit. She explained that we’d met last year and she was intrigued with “Why 319?” but wasn’t able to buy one at that time. She’d bought a copy from Amazon and loved it.  Melanni was in the midst of reading it a second time and was looking forward to the sequel.  

Then with a shy smile, she asked if I’d be willing to autograph the copy, since she’d brought it with her. It my pleasure to sign that book, along with the copy of “Your Turn to Die” which she also purchased.   Comments like that go a long way for an author when you’re working on getting the story right and fighting through countless rounds of revisions. 



Today marks the conclusion of sharing my beginnings.  “Your Turn to Die” is the second novel in the Jefferson Chene series.   Along with the return of Pappy Cantrell, Kozlowski, Ted and the others, there are several new characters that I hope you’ll enjoy meeting. 



Prologue

It didn’t look like the kind of morning for murder. The mist burning off with the sun revealed a gregarious crowd, struggling for some semblance of order. Green and brown camouflage fatigues, plastic goggles and leather boots adorned many of the participants. Some were clothed in sneakers, jeans and sweatshirts, mostly black or dark in color. Others wore heavy plastic helmets that covered the face. From a distance it looked like a raiding party from Selfridge ANG base.

Up close was another story. These were not the lean, mean physiques of true military men and women, but the various shapes of weekend warriors, seeking a little fun and games. Much of the clothing was worn and mismatched, probably from an army surplus supplier. The group was quickly separated into four divisions, designated by colored armbands. An elaborate version of capture the flag was about to begin. But one participant was after much higher stakes.

The sun was quickly warming the area when the target was spotted. It took him a while, since he didn't want to get too close and risk being recognized. Surprise was going to be a major part of his game.

As luck would have it, he was part of the black team. The plan was to defend against blue and attack yellow. But his target was on the red squad. As the players dispersed, he drifted toward the trees, keeping his quarry in sight.

With patience, the target would be eliminated before noon.

This was the first of four rounds scheduled for today. According to the rules of engagement, if a paint pellet struck you, you were eliminated from that series. Those hit were instructed to head back to the neutral area, where cases of beer, soft drinks and bottled water were already chilling under ice. Deli platters would be offered between the second and third rounds of play. After the final rounds, the grills would be fired up and a feast would be served. Since each squad used the paint colors to match their armbands, one inept soldier could be a splattered rainbow by the day's end.

During the initial round, he kept to the sidelines, trying to elude any potential attackers and maintain visual contact. With less than twenty minutes remaining in the game, a warrior from the blue team sprang from a low tree limb and nailed him with a shot to the stomach. Instinctively, he flinched and clutched his gut. After a moment he smiled, then wiped the smear of paint on his fatigues and headed for the neutral zone. He had lost sight of his quarry, but was unconcerned. Patience would be its own reward. If he struck too soon, the target may be discovered before he could make his escape. And that was not part of his plan.

At the neutral zone, he pulled a Vernors from the ice then leaned against a picnic table. On the far side of the area he spotted his man, a large blotch of yellow paint adorning his neck and right shoulder. His eyes never left the target. The man was slumped on the ground, breathing heavily, with his back braced against a tree. Sweat beaded his face. He pulled off his hat, wiping his face with his bare hands. The camouflage shirt and pants were also darkened with sweat, which seemed odd, since the temperatures were in the low seventies.

A whistle sounded repeatedly, signaling the end of the first round. The rest of the players straggled in and received their assignments for game two. Some switched to other teams, but many remained where they were. After all, it was the game, not the enemy you faced, that counted.

This time, the target was going to be engaged. Black was to defend against yellow and attack red. That was precisely what he had in mind. As the battle began, he slipped over to a cluster of willow trees, adjusted his equipment and made his way slowly through the low hanging branches. The game went on around him. His eyes remained narrowed and focused. Nostrils flaring, he was searching for the scent of his prey. His ears were attuned for the slightest clue of his target. He checked each area cautiously before moving on. 

There! 

He was just up ahead on the left. The man was making this too easy. He had isolated himself from the group. Now he had straddled a fallen log and was holding his head in his hands. The hunter gently lowered the bulky paintball gun to the ground. From one of the cargo pockets of his pants, he removed a revolver. From another, he pulled out a long metal tube. Deftly, he fastened it to the muzzle of the gun. Then he moved closer, still cautiously checking his surroundings before taking even a single step. He was less than ten feet away when the target looked up.

“Go away. I don't want to play today.”

“This game's for real.” He brought the gun up and extended it toward his quarry.

“What kind of paint gun is that?”

“I don't play with paint, Morrissey. I use the real thing.”

Morrissey raised the goggles from his face and squinted at the hunter in the sun-dappled shadows. Recognition finally registered. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“Taking care of business.” 

“Okay, shoot me and get it over with. I feel like shit anyway.”

“Where are the jewels?”

The man squinted in an effort to focus. “What are you talking about?”

“I want the jewels. Diamonds and rubies and emeralds. Tell me.”

“Just get it over with.”

“Tell me!” He moved close and pointed the gun just below the target’s belt buckle. “I want the jewels. You owe me that much. And more.”

Morrissey shook his head. “Go to hell.”

“You first.” He pulled the trigger. There was a soft coughing sound as the gun fired. As a precaution he dropped to his knees and clamped a hand over Morrissey’s mouth to muffle any noise. Morrissey struggled, clutching at his groin.

“Diamonds and rubies and emeralds. Tell me now and I’ll end this quick.”

Morrissey continued to moan beneath his gloved hand. He knew the chances of getting the information from the wounded man were slim, but it was worth a try. He shifted the gun to the right side of the Morrissey’s chest and fired again.

Morrissey jumped as the bullet slammed into him. A crimson spray coated his shirt. The shooter glanced around, making sure no one else had entered the shelter of the trees. He’d doubted the jewels even existed. They were secondary to everything else. He rocked back on his heels and got to his feet. Morrissey was gasping now, blood forming little bubbles on his lips. He lowered the gun until it was close to the dying man’s forehead. Steadying his hand, he squeezed the trigger one last time. Morrissey was gone.

He picked up Morrissey's paintball gun and fired a red pellet at his own left leg. The killer jumped in surprise at the pain of the impact at such close range. The paint was a brighter shade than the stain spreading on the ground below the body. Satisfied, he turned away and out of the willows toward the neutral zone.

“Game over.” 

Chapter One

Graymaker propped one elbow on the bar and studied me over the rim of his Salty Dog. “You know what you need, Chene? You should spend some time with a very qualified, experienced psychologist.”

I leaned against the cooler and let my eyes wander over the thinning crowd in the saloon. “Like I'm going to take advice from anyone drinking gin and grapefruit juice?”

He wobbled on his stool. “Don't knock therapy. You could work out a lot of your problems with a good head doctor.”

“What makes you think I've got problems?”

Graymaker grinned and slugged down half of his drink. “C'mon, Chene, I've known you a long time. You've been with the state PD ten years and now you're back here tending bar. You must have problems.”

Cissy, a skinny brunette with the high squeaky voice of a cartoon character came to the waitress stand to get a drink order filled. Two draft beers, one rum and Coke and a frozen margarita later, I returned to my position across from Graymaker. 

“Just because I'm helping Ted out doesn't mean I've got problems.”

He shook his head slowly and pushed his empty glass across the counter. “It goes deeper than that. Probably all the way back to your childhood. Want to tell me about it?”

“Sounds like you're trying to drum up business. Having trouble making your malpractice payments or are you behind in your alimony again?”

The old man shook his head and wobbled again. “My practice is thriving. But I can spot the signs of someone who needs to resolve matters in their personal life. You're a textbook example. You can't commit to an emotional relationship. You have a problem dealing with people in authority. That's just for starters.”

“I have plenty of relationships, thank you very much.” Abandoning my spot against the cooler, I began to wipe down the mahogany bar with a towel.

“We're talking about the opposite sex.”

My eyes landed on a petite blonde across the room. “My favorite kind. I enjoy the company of women.”

“One night stands are not relationships.”

I flicked the bar towel a few centimeters from his knuckles. “Maybe I'm just more selective than you at finding the right woman.”

“No need to bring my divorces into this.” Graymaker waggled a forefinger at me. “We are talking about you.”

“You're the only one talking. Course, you do enough for both of us.”

Ted appeared on the stool beside Graymaker. “I miss anything?”

I shrugged. “Graymaker is trying to drum up new patients. He's getting so desperate he wants to analyze me.”

“Forget it, Gray. The guy's got enough problems without getting hooked up with the likes of you.”

“I don't have any problems.”

Ted and Graymaker stared at me. I poured Ted a cup of coffee and turned my attention to a trio of late arrivals at the opposite end of the counter. The two cronies were awaiting my return.

Graymaker pounced. “You were saying?”

“I have normal relationships. Friends. People I enjoy spending time with. People I have feelings about.”

Ted snorted into his coffee mug. “Name six.”

“What the hell is this? Analyze Chene night? I've got better things to do--”

“Name six,” Ted repeated, in case I'd forgotten the subject.

“Six?”

Ted and Graymaker were taking turns, like a couple of geriatrics watching a tennis match. “Yeah. Six. Half a dozen people you have feelings for.”

“Ted. McDonald. Kozlowski. Cantrell. Frank Powell...”

“Dead guys don't count,” Ted interrupted.

“Why not?”

Graymaker raised his eyes toward the ceiling. “You can't even name six live people. Let's not start into problems saying farewell to the dead.”

The antique ship's clock behind me chimed out the hour, sounding as loud and welcome as the gong at the end of a round at a boxing match. I nodded at the two old timers and headed for the open hatch on the end of the bar.

“Where you going?” Graymaker called.

“My shift's over. I told the old coot beside you I'd cover until eleven. He's closing. Maybe you two can analyze each other for some laughs.”

Before either one could respond, something caught my attention. The flat screen television that was up on the far corner went from the highlights of the earlier Tigers game to the evening news. The banner across the bottom read “War Games Murder” in six-inch type. I snagged the remote from under the counter and moved to the corner of the bar, closer to the screen, cranking up the volume as I went. One of the anchors was already into the introduction when he threw the focus to Olivia Sholtis, the reporter at the scene.

“We have just been informed that the victim has positively been identified as Kyle Morrissey, the successful entrepreneur behind a number of businesses throughout metro Detroit. While the police investigation has only begun, it will be a difficult undertaking. According to the operator of the war games, over a hundred people participated in the event today. Morrissey was a regular at these games, where people from all walks of life engage in mock battles using paint guns to simulate military weapons. Morrissey’s body was found only a short time ago.”

She did a quick interview with the guy who operated the games. No one from the local sheriff’s department was willing to get in front of the camera. I lowered the volume as Olivia threw it back to the anchor.

Ted was behind the bar now. He cocked a raised eyebrow at me.

“Does that look like a case for you?”

I shrugged. “Too early to tell. But if it’s complicated, we may get the call. You know this guy?”

“I met Morrissey a couple of times. He was a hustler. A pretty sharp businessman, he started out buying up those old theaters around town, fixing them up and drawing people in. He’d show classic films, bring in some minor Hollywood types for plays and such. I heard he was doing the same thing with bookstores. He liked to get his name in the papers.”

“Where did you meet him?”

Ted thought for a minute while pulling a couple of drafts for another waitress. Without being asked, he poured another Salty Dog for Graymaker. Ted held the cocktail in one hand and extended his other, palm up to the shrink. He grumbled for a moment before he gave up his car keys. Only then did Ted relinquish the drink. The psychiatrist made a rude remark about Ted’s heritage before taking a healthy slug of the concoction, slurping kosher salt off the rim.

“Probably at one of those charity events. He was big in the local communities. When he reopened the old Shores Madrid Theater, he donated the proceeds from the first week to cancer research. He sponsored a Little League and a Pee Wee hockey team as well. The guy spread it around.” He narrowed his gaze at me. “What makes you ask?”

“Curiosity. It goes with the territory.”

“Maybe it was an accident.”

I didn’t say anything. It was late. If I started speculating, Ted and Graymaker might see it as an opportunity to return to the earlier conversation. The last thing I wanted was to be interrogated by them. I waved two fingers at them and headed out. As I exited the bar I couldn’t hold back a grin. There was someone I definitely had feelings for, but I’d been keeping that to myself. I wasn’t quite ready to have her suffer through the scrutiny of Ted and his cohorts. We’d met three months ago when I was investigating her roommate’s murder. When we started dating, a little piece in the back of my mind kept me cautious. Losing someone close to you could easily cloud your judgment. I was reluctant to move too quickly with Simone. The last thing I wanted was for her to suddenly realize that we would never have met if her roommate was still alive.

Home was a small square house on a dead end street about five miles north of Ted’s saloon. It was on a narrow canal that flowed into Lake St. Clair. The place had three good sized bedrooms, a roomy kitchen and a small living room with a working fireplace. Out back was a three season room that overlooked the canal. I’d found it a couple of years ago when the housing market crashed. It was a foreclosure that needed a lot of work. While I’m comfortable with cleaning and painting, I left the serious projects for professionals. There’s a one car detached garage that backs up to the seawall for the canal. As I swung into the driveway my lights reflected on Simone’s car. There were a couple of lights on low in the kitchen. I locked the car and came through the side door.

“I’m out back.”

“Need anything?”

“No, I’m good now.”

The storm windows were up and a nice breeze was flowing in from the lake. Simone was reclining on the cushions of a rattan sofa, a thick novel in her hands. She marked her place with a length of ribbon and closed the book. I started to walk past her toward one of the matching chairs. She reached up and caught my hand. Dropping the book, Simone swung her feet to the floor and stood. Her arms went around me. I watched as she tipped her head back, offering me a kiss. No one would ever confuse me with Casanova. But I’m not one to pass up a kiss from a beautiful woman. 

“Did you like my message?” she asked timidly.

“Yeah, it was a pleasant surprise.”

Simone was supposed to be gone all day with family obligations. I hadn’t expected to see her. An hour ago she sent me a text, asking if it was okay if she stopped by. Swamped behind the bar with patrons, my response had been an exclamation point. I didn’t have time to elaborate. Simone lives in an apartment out in Berkley, about a forty-minute drive from my place in St. Clair Shores. It was only a couple of weeks ago that I’d given her a key. This was the first time she’d used it.

“Should I ask about your day?” she whispered.

“No. Tell me about yours.”

“It was mother-daughter stuff. A couple of nice meals, some shopping and plenty of conversation. We’re thinking about a week in Paris in September, after the summer tourists are gone.”

“Sounds like fun.”

Simone pressed her cheek against my chest. “You could go with us.”

The idea of a family vacation took me by surprise. I’d met her mother twice. The reception was a little strained both times. I doubted she’d warm up to me during a trip to France. But as Graymaker guessed, I have issues with relationships.

After being in the saloon for eight hours, the summer air felt invigorating. Taking her hand, I guided Simone out the back door and down to the seawall. Leaning against the garage, I pulled off my boots and socks. The water level in the canal was down enough so I could dangle my legs over the edge and only my toes would get wet. She gave me a curious look.

“I am not going skinny dipping.”

“Neither am I. But it’s peaceful out here and the breeze feels good.” I settled on the dock and lowered my legs. The cool water splashed over my feet.

She was wearing a tailored pair of navy shorts and a white silk blouse with short sleeves. The blouse had tiny darts of green and gold throughout. Simone hesitated before stepping out of her sandals. As she sat beside me, she leaned her head on my shoulder. I caught a whiff of perfume. The water splashed up her leg and she gave a little start.

“It’s freezing.”

“Lake Michigan is colder. Lake Superior still has ice cubes in it.”

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” In the starlight I could see her eyes. They twinkled with their own power.

“Well, I will do my best to keep you warm.”

My arm was around her waist. I was leaning in for a kiss when my phone rang. It had the insistent tone signifying it was work related. Simone recognized it as well. Quickly she darted in and pressed her lips to mine.

“Chene,” I said, answering the line but refusing to let her go.

“Y’all see the news?” Cantrell’s rough country voice scratched my ear.

“The war games bit?”

“Yeah. That un’s ours now.”

“You got a plan, Pappy?”

“Nah. Meetcha all at Lil Nino’s at eight. Y’all can work it out.”

“You call the squad?”

“Yup.”

“Later, Pappy.” He was already gone.

I turned and flipped the phone in the general direction of my boots. Simone had a look of curiosity on her face. I could feel a tremor of tension in her body as it rested against me.

“A morning meeting. Seems like we have a new case.”

She relaxed slightly. “I thought you might have to leave right away.”

“No, it will keep.”

“I’m getting cold.” She pulled her feet from the water and pressed them against my jeans.

“Maybe we should go inside.”

“I seem to recall a comment about keeping me warm.” 

“It’s a standing offer.”

Her eyes sparked with laughter but she struggled with what I guessed was a look of disappointment. “Well, I suppose that will have to do. Come along, Jeff.”

Gracefully she swung her legs up onto the seawall and rose.

Images of warming her swept through my mind.


Since Chene’s romantic relationship with Simone is continuing, it seems fitting to include a photo of what she might look like.




Here are some links where you can find "Your Turn to Die"




Music this week comes from Carlos Santana.

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