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Murder: Take Two
Sample Chapter

PROLOGUE

     “Jubal, Rae-rae, Ghita,” the boyish voice called.  He brushed a floppy curl back from his face so he could see the cats better in the predawn light.  They lifted their heads, not at the sound of his voice, but at the smell of the food he brought.
     He pulled the small wagon over the trip, then waited for the opening whoosh of the gate in front of him.  Instead, a sound came from behind, and he turned in time to see the gate he had just crossed whoosh down and clang shut, trapping him in the large and otherwise empty cage.
     Remembering the right buttons to push was so hard; I must have made a mistake, he thought.  Landon didn’t like it when you made mistakes, so when he finally heard the whoosh of a gate opening, relief washed over him.  He turned to the gate at the front of the cage, but it was still shut.
     While he puzzled over this mystery, a six-hundred-pound tiger stepped through the newly opened gate on the left.
     Breakfast was served.

 CHAPTER ONE

     Fat, languid drops splatted on the taut skins of the dozen or so umbrellas surrounding the open grave on a gentle slope in a cemetery just a few miles northwest of Los Angeles.
     Funny thing about rain.  On a sweltering August afternoon in Miami, a half-hour cloudburst feels like a bracing splash of Jean Naté after a steamy shower.  A New York City downpour is nature’s car wash, sluicing off the top layer of grime on buildings and sidewalks, flushing tons of urban scunge down into the sewers.  And anything short of a flood-producing deluge in Kansas is welcome as a layer-down of dust and provider of beverage service for thirsty stalks of corn.
     Los Angeles rain is just liquid depression.  The parched months of June through October gasp for it but get no relief, proof of the old saying that you can carve a city out of the desert, but you can’t carve the desert out of the city.  LA rain perversely dumps its payload in December, January and February, honing that suicidal edge ever-present in the shortest, darkest, coldest months of the year.
     The late January funeral of Sol Fein was presided over by an unusual team of clergy:  Rabbi Michael Goldberg and Father Daniel Flynn, two men who had not met before that day.  Sol had gone peacefully in his sleep, and it was only after his passing the truth came out: he wasn’t Jewish; he had been born to Italian-Catholic parents and christened Gianni Salvatore Fierro ninety-four years earlier.
     When Salvatore came back from World War II and tried to break into radio comedy writing, he found the all-Jewish fraternity closed, so he legally changed his name, then pounced on the opportunity to crash the party when television started looking less like a passing fancy and more like the future.
     Sol (nee Sal) had attended a synagogue in Encino the requisite twice a year to keep his ultra-reform Jewish alter-ego believable, but it was at a tiny church in Canoga Park where he did his infrequent communicating with God.
     Maureen O’Brien walked over to the large tray of long-stemmed roses as the service officially ended, picking up a red bloom and stepping to the edge of the open grave.  Sol had always called her “the daughter of my heart,” and began teaching her the mysteries of comedy when she was barely three years old.  And so it was with exquisite timing and misdirection that she held out the rose, while pulling something else from inside her coat and dropping it into the rectangular hole.
     Both clergymen gasped when the rubber chicken flopped onto the brass-fitted mahogany casket, but a sputter of relieved laughter ran through the crowd of mourners.  Maureen stepped back, still holding the red rose, as her father took her place graveside.  From under his coat, Charlie O’Brien pulled a partially inflated Whoopie Cushion.  Holding it between his hands, he quickly popped his palms together, birthing a plaintive quack-fart as a salute and farewell to the man who had been his mentor and friend, who had given him his first sitcom job, and who had helped him raise his daughter.
     The flabby rubber bladder plopped onto the coffin alongside the limp chicken, bringing another round of chuckles, then an old man’s voice piped up from under the canopy of umbrellas.  “Sol Fein never met a fart joke he didn’t like.”  This was followed by murmurs of confirmation and a second reedy male voice.  “You mean he never met a fart joke he didn’t steal.”
    
A-a-and, they’re off, thought Charlie.  He and Maureen had conspired to lessen the ache of loss for these elderly mourners by sidetracking them into schtick so familiar it was comforting.  Even Ethel Rosen, Sol’s “younger woman” for the last fifteen years of his life, edged her walker to the side of the grave and addressed the coffin.  “I’d throw myself on your casket, Sol, but I can’t afford the broken hip.”
     As the jokes flew fast and hard, the two horrified clergymen withdrew, leaving only two “civilians” at the service, Maureen’s business partner, Blake Ervansky, and Blake’s fiancée, Jane.  They had only met Sol Fein twice, once at Thanksgiving and again at Charlie’s New Year’s Eve party, but they had been charmed by the still-sharp old man, and were happy to answer Charlie’s call for younger, able-bodied people to assist the mourners in and out of the four stretch limousines that now idled a short distance away.
     The stand-up routine petered out after a few minutes, standing up being a challenge for most of those present, so Charlie waved at the line of limos.  All four drivers got out in the now-pouring rain to assist Charlie, Maureen, Blake and Jane as they loaded their frail passengers into warm, comfortable transportation for the short ride to the small restaurant Charlie had bought out for the wake.
     In the general confusion of loading up, of putting wet umbrellas into trunks, of trying to collect and properly stow walkers, wheelchairs, and oxygen tanks, no one noticed a fifth limousine as it approached on the narrow cemetery road, stopped briefly alongside the Fein mourners then slowly pulled away.
     Blake got Jane tucked into the last limo and shut the door.  Charlie and Maureen were assigned the first and second cars, which were just pulling out, so Blake ran to his, the third in line.  But just as he reached it, he spotted something on the ground where Maureen’s limo had been until a moment ago.  He darted ahead and scooped up a cell phone, leaving behind the red rose that had been next to it.  Blake dropped the phone into his pocket and splashed back to his ride.


The bustle and confusion
of the load-up replayed at the restaurant as the four limos decanted their cargo, so it was another few minutes before Charlie looked around for his daughter.  When he didn’t see her, he allowed five more minutes for a possible ladies’ room stop before approaching Blake.
     “Have you seen Maureen?”
     “Not since we were loading up.”
     “Who else was in the second car with her?”
     Blake remembered lifting up an elderly woman and getting her settled into the car before Maureen told him she could handle the rest.  “I know Ethel was there, and a couple other girls whose names I’m not sure of.”
     “Thanks.”
     As Charlie crossed to Ethel Rosen, Blake went back to help Jane fill plates at the lavish buffet and deliver them to the tables.  Arriving mid-joke, Maureen’s father waited patiently until Max Keller got to the punch line.
     “—so the crab says to the starfish, ‘Hey, I can’t get that drunk every night!’”
     Even those who had heard it before laughed, needing the pressure release to keep their tears at bay.  Charlie leaned down to Ethel Rosen.  “Hey, Eth, did you see where Maureen went when she got out of your limo?”
     “She wasn’t in mine.”
     “But I saw her go around and open the door just as my car was pulling out.”
     “Oh, the door opened all right, but then it closed, so we figured she was going to ride with someone else.”
     The sick feeling in Charlie’s gut showed plainly on his face, and Ethel laid a fragile, spotted hand on his arm.  “Charlie, is everything all right?”
     “Yeah, don’t worry.  I’m sure she’s around here somewhere.”
     He turned away, pulling out his cell phone, then hit speed dial one.  He heard the familiar ring—the theme song of his TV show The Brothers Gunn—but when he glanced around the room and saw Blake pull a phone out of his pocket and answer it, Charlie’s heart sank.
     “Hello,” Blake said into the phone.  No answer, and before he could say anything else, Charlie was next to him.
     “That’s Maureen’s phone,” he said.
     “I know.  She must have dropped it getting into the limo because I found it right after she pulled out.”
     “She wasn’t in the car, Blake.”
     “Then where is she?”
     Charlie seemed about to say something, then abruptly changed tack.  “This is really important.  Tell me anything you can remember in the moments before you found her phone.”
     The anxiety in Charlie’s voice told Blake what he needed to know about the seriousness of the situation.  Charlie was usually the most laid-back, easygoing guy in the world.  “Okay, when I left her, she was getting Ethel settled in the second limo.  I went back to the last one to give Jane a hand, and when she was loaded up I headed to my own car.  I saw Maureen close the right-hand door on hers, then walk around to get in on the other side.”
     “Did you actually see her get in?”
     Blake closed his eyes for a few seconds, trying to bring the picture into focus.  “No.  But I’m sure I heard the car door open and then close.  Your limo was pulling out when I closed the right-hand door on mine.  Then Maureen’s pulled away while I was running around the back of mine to get in the other side.  That’s when I saw the cell phone.”
     “Think hard.  What else did you see?  Even if it doesn’t seem important.”
     “There was a rose on the ground next to the phone.”
     Charlie remembered Maureen had held onto her red rose after tossing the rubber chicken into the grave.  “Did you see anyone else?  Anyone who didn’t belong to our party?”
     “No.  The cemetery was pretty empty because of the rain.”  Then Blake suddenly remembered.  “There was another limousine.  I mean, not one of ours.  It passed very slowly going in the other direction.”
     “Did you notice if it stopped?”
     “I wasn’t looking.  I assume the driver slowed down because the road was narrow and he didn’t want to hit anyone, but I can’t say for sure the car stopped.”
     Charlie deflated.  “It stopped,” he said to himself.
     “What the hell’s going on?  Where’s Maureen?”
     “Not here, and not now,” Charlie said, turning away.

     Maureen did not try to engage either of her captors in conversation.  She knew they would have been instructed to say nothing, so she sat—wedged in between their muscled bulks—and waited for the next scene in this stupid little play.  She hoped Blake had found her phone; it wouldn’t give Charlie complete peace of mind, but at least he would know she was alive and that she’d be coming back.  Eventually.
     She glanced to either side.  They looked like dumb thugs in dark glasses and cheap suits, but they had made the grab flawlessly, and she knew the kind of skill you needed to grab someone without an attention-drawing kerfuffle.  I guess when your neck is wider than your head, Maureen thought, you have only two choices, defensive linebacker or this.
     The limousine rolled to a stop near a parked gray sedan.  The driver of the sedan got out, pulled his coat up over his head, then made the short run to the idling limo.  As soon as he slid into the seat across from Maureen, he tossed his wet coat aside, reached up to rap his knuckles sharply on the closed privacy panel, and sat back while the limousine pulled away.
     The man’s thin-lipped smile had no hint of warmth as his eyes locked with hers.  “So, Maureen.  How are you?”
     “Fuck you and the snake you rode in on.”
     “Dear me.  One would think you’re not having a good day.”
     “You snatched me from a funeral.  A funeral!”
    
“What did you expect?  You don’t return my calls, you ignore my texts.”
     “That’s because I don’t want to talk to you.”
     “Well, in the words of Mick Jagger, you don’t always get what you want.  Oh, I’m sorry.  Is the reference before your time?”
     “I know who the Stones are.”
     “Excellent.  Excellent.”
     She glared at this nightmare from her past, a man she had worked for but whose real name she had never known.  His nom de guerre was Lionheart, as unsuitable a handle as possible for such an ambulatory puddle of slime.  He hadn’t changed much in the four years since she last saw him.  The telltale tufts of his latest crop of hair plugs sprouted across his crown, failing to blend into the thinning natural hair with even a glimmer of verisimilitude.  The overpowering smell of the breath mints he favored filled the car.  “I’d like you to do a small job for me, and then I’ll whisk you back home posthaste.”
     “A job.”
     “The usual.”
     “I don’t work for you anymore.”
     “True, true.  And I remember what you said to me when you quit.  ‘Lionheart,’ you said, ‘my dear, dear friend and respected employer, I really and truly can no longer do the work.’”
     “That’s what you remember me saying?”
     “Well, I might be a little fuzzy on the endearments, but I’m very sure you said you were unable to continue doing the work.  So, imagine my surprise when I read you had shot a man to death a few days after Christmas.”  The thin lips stretched into an even wider nonsmile as he watched her seethe.
     “That was a righteous kill to save two police officers.  The man I shot had just murdered his own sister and put a bullet in a detective.”
     “Those sound like compelling reasons.  Once again you prove you are willing and able to snuff out a life when the cause is just.”
     “The answer is no.”
      He nodded slowly, as if lost in his own private thoughts.  When he looked into her eyes again, his “smile” was gone.  If it had been anyone other than Lionheart, she might have said his eyes were filled with sorrow.  Or a shred of humanity.
     “Please say yes, Maureen.  Please don’t make me turn over the next card.  I promise you I have the winning hand.”
     “I’m not afraid of you.”
     “I know that,” he said.  “You should be, but you never were.”
     “The answer is still no.”
     Lionheart sighed.  “Okay, here’s the flop.  Let me tell you a story about Charlie O’Brien.”
     Maureen felt as though she had taken a punch to the gut, and her response was immediate.  “If you threaten my father,” she said quietly, “I will kill you.  Right now, right here, before your meat puppets can even get their earplugs out.”
     Lionheart was impressed.  She had rightly figured out that his “aides” could hear nothing of their conversation, an extra security precaution he had only begun taking recently.  He was smart to have chosen her; she was the best of the bunch.
     “Maureen, Maureen,” he said, shaking his head and putting the smile facsimile back on his face.
     “You think I’m joking?  As long as I keep my body poised as if we’re having a friendly chat, they’ll never know I’m about to strike.  And when I do, as you well know from the training you put me through, I will kill you in two seconds.”
     “Then we’ll both be dead in three.  And just think what that will do to this lovely upholstery.  What do you think, fine Corinthian leather,” he asked disingenuously, brushing his hand over the seat next to him.
     “Read my middle finger, the answer is no.”
     “First, let me assure you I have no intention of threatening your father.  I’m going to threaten you with what I know about your father.”
     “It won’t work.”
     “No?  All right, if you won’t fold, I’ll show you the turn card.  Once, when Charlie was younger—but certainly old enough to know better—he was involved in an ugly incident for which the statute of limitations will never expire.”
     “You’re bluffing.”
     “I do not bluff.  And if you ever decide you want to see the river card, just run the name Rhonda Whiting by your father and watch his face.  Spoiler alert.  Afterwards your relationship with Charlie will never be the same.  Think of it as the Pandora’s Box effect.”
     Lionheart reached into his pocket and took out a roll of eucalyptusy-reeking hard candies.  He popped a fresh one into his mouth, then extended the roll toward Maureen.  “Mint?”
     She glared at him, her insides a roiling pit of conflict.  Could he really have something on Charlie?  And if so, would her continued refusal put her father in danger?  Lionheart watched as she weighed her options, detecting the precise moment when she chose to throw herself on the grenade to save her father.  Maureen slumped back against the seat.  “What’s the job?”
     Lionheart smiled, this time for real.  Winning always made him happy.  “Do you like the beach, Maureen?  Well, of course you do, you’re a California girl.  I have a jet fueled and ready to take you to a place of sun and sand.  Sadly, though, no ocean.”
     The Middle East, Maureen realized.  Again.
 

 

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