Burn is the 9th book in the Fred Carver Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
About the Author
For over forty years, John Lutz (b. 1939) has been one of the premier voices in contemporary hard-boiled fiction, producing dozens of novels and over 250 short stories. His earliest success came with the Alo Nudger series, set in his hometown of St. Louis. Tropical Heat introduced Fred Carver, a Florida detective whom Lutz followed in ten novels. More recently, he has produced five books in the Frank Quinn serial killer series. Lutz is a former president of the Mystery Writers of America, and his many honors include lifetime achievement awards from the Short Mystery Fiction Society and the Private Eye Writers of America. He lives in St. Louis.
Read an Excerpt
By John Lutz
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1995 John Lutz
All rights reserved.
He looked a lot like the serial killer Ted Bundy, only older. Mid-forties, probably. Carver's age. He had Bundy's all-American, amiable features, complete with neatly arched eyebrows and small, chiseled nose turned up slightly at the tip; the same innocent blue eyes and a mouth always ready to smile, even when things were going bad. As they must be, or Joel Brant wouldn't be in Carver's office.
Brant sat down and raked his fingers through his dark, wavy hair, which was going gray at the temples. He was wearing pleated blue slacks and a gray sport coat over a white shirt without a tie. A thick silver neck chain winked in the light among dark chest hair where his collar parted.
"Morgan recommended you," he said. He looked worried; the sincere blue eyes held secret pain.
"I know," Carver said. "Vic called me about you." Vic Morgan's recommendation was the only reason Carver wanted to touch Brant's problem. Morgan was a retired vice cop, and a more savvy judge of human nature than a roomful of psychologists. He believed Brant, which went a long way with Carver.
"The police won't believe me," Brant said.
"You sure? Maybe they're just doing their job. A complaint's filed, and they go through a certain procedure."
Brant shook his handsome head. The neck chain glittered. "No, I can tell by their expressions they don't believe me. I suppose you can't blame them for that, though. I mean, it's the times, the way things are right now on the news and in all the magazines. Like the whole society's gone mad." He absently rubbed a finger along the chain where it disappeared beneath his collar. A nervous habit, maybe. "I doubt if you're going to believe me."
"You don't have to make me believe," Carver said. "You only have to make me curious."
Brant dragged a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket. Camels. "Mind if I smoke?"
Carver noticed Brant's hand was trembling. "Smoke away," he said. He wanted Brant to relax and talk freely. Besides, the smoke didn't really bother him. He smoked cigars himself sometimes after meals.
Brant stuck what appeared to be the last cigarette from the pack between his lips, then fished around in a pocket and withdrew a silver lighter. It took him three tries to get the lighter to work, then he sucked in enough smoke to burn away half an inch of the cigarette. He threw his head back and exhaled toward the ceiling. For several seconds he watched the smoke spread out up there, then lowered his gaze and looked directly at Carver. His eyes were calm now, but one corner of his mouth twitched slightly before he began to speak.
"I'm what could be described as a reasonably successful businessman, Mr. Carver. My company, Brant Development, is a small construction firm specializing in residential real estate. You might have seen Brant Estates, our newest subdivision, off the highway west of town."
Carver nodded. He recalled driving past the spread of neat, medium-priced homes that were perched like a goal and a promise on the edge of the poorer section of Del Moray.
"I'm a widower," Brant went on. "My wife Portia was killed six months ago by a drunk driver. I'm not what you'd call a womanizer—in fact, I hardly have any social life at all. I spend most of my time working. After my wife's death, I got into that habit to try forgetting my grief." An expression almost palpably sad passed over his features, as if gravity had given them an extra tug. "I'm still doing that, I suppose, still trying, still not forgetting. So I was damned surprised when this thing started. At first I thought it was some kind of sick joke, then it continued and I knew the woman was serious."
"And the woman is?"
"Marla Cloy is her name. A month ago she called the police and accused me of stalking her. She told them I'd even parked across the street from her house and watched her through binoculars. She described my car and gave the police the license number." Brant leaned forward earnestly, like a salesman trying to close a deal. "I was nowhere near her house at that time nor any other, Mr. Carver."
"Where were you?"
"At home by myself. I can't prove it, though. How many people can prove when they were home minding their own business?" Brant decided he needed more smoke. He inhaled, exhaled, then studied the ceiling again for a second or two, as if there might be answers floating up there in the carcinogenic haze.
"Was your car parked in the street?" Carver asked.
"In the condo garage, out of sight. With the foliage around my unit, it's even out of sight from most of the neighbors when it's parked in my driveway."
"You should park it in the street from now on," Carver said. "Make sure it's at least possible someone can verify it was there if the woman makes the same kind of accusation again."
"I thought of that," Brant said. "At first I didn't do it because I didn't see why I should have to change my life just because some crazy woman decided to persecute me."
"She says you're persecuting her."
"I hadn't even seen her when she made her original accusation," Brant said angrily.
"But now you have seen her?"
"Yes. You can understand why I was curious. I drove past her house, trying to catch a glimpse of her. I mean, the way I was figuring it at the time, she and I had to have some connection for her to be doing this to me. I thought if I found out what the connection was, I could talk with her, straighten all this out. But when I saw her come outside to put her trash bags at the curb, I didn't recognize her at all. I'm sure we've never had any previous contact."
"Did she see you when you were watching her that time?"
Brant looked disgusted. "I don't think so, and that time is the only time I've seen her, even though she's called the police several times claiming I've been harassing her, threatening her." Brant clenched his teeth and hissed through them in exasperation. "I seem to be getting the same reaction out of you that I got from the police."
Carver gazed out his office window, across Magellan to where a knot of teenage girls stood waiting for a bus. Beyond them, through the spaces between the buildings, he could see the blue-green Atlantic shimmering in the bright Florida sun. A tall, skinny teenage boy stood about five feet from the girls, who began giggling and jostling one another, and one of them playfully hit another with her purse, which was on a long strap. On the backswing she'd struck the boy. Carver was sure it had been on purpose. The girl turned around and apologized, and she and the thin boy moved away from the other girls and began to talk, tentatively exploring the fringes of one of life's great mysteries.
The tension between the sexes was usually what kept Carver busy, and here it was again, in the person of Joel Brant.
"What's this Marla Cloy telling the police about you other than that you're stalking her?" Carver asked.
"She's saying she's never seen me before, didn't even know who I was until the police told her my name after tracing my license plate number. She says I must be fixated on her. Some men are obsessive that way about certain women, Mr. Carver, but I'm not one of them." The finger touched the neck chain again. "Women's brains are wired differently; usually they aren't that way."
"But you think Marla Cloy is?"
"I don't know. I have no idea why she's doing this to me. That's why it's driving me nuts. She's ruining my reputation and might even get me jailed, and I don't have the slightest idea why. Do you realize how that feels?"
"I can imagine."
"I doubt it. I don't think anybody can know unless they're the target. After what she did last week, I was afraid it would somehow get into the papers. I've not only got my reputation to consider, but my business could be affected if any of this madness becomes public knowledge. I can tell you I don't shop at Newton's Market anymore, not after the way they stared at me at the checkout counter the last time I went in there."
"She did something last week at Newton's Market?"
"I stopped in there to pick up some groceries, then I drove home and was just finishing putting them away when the doorbell rang. It was the police. Marla Cloy had filed a complaint. She claimed I threatened her in Newton's parking lot with a knife when she was loading her groceries in the trunk of her car."
"The police arrest you?"
"No. They couldn't. There were no witnesses to this alleged crime. Marla Cloy told them I'd made sure to stay near a parked van where I'd be shielded from view, and I'd held the knife down low out of sight. She said I told her I'd been watching her and I was going to kill her and there was nothing she could do about it. She must have put on a real convincing act, the way the cops were looking at me, as if I was scum and they wanted to shoot me down right there."
"Maybe you read that into it."
"I don't think so, Mr. Carver. These days when a woman makes an accusation against a man, everyone believes her,"
"Sometimes," Carver conceded.
"I've been notified her attorney's asked the court for a restraining order to keep me away from her under penalty of law. The court will probably comply, making me seem even more like a monster."
"Not many requests for restraining orders are refused," Carver said. "From the law's point of view, it's a better-safe-than-sorry way of operating."
"I'm not obsessed with Marla Cloy," Brant said with barely suppressed rage. "I know absolutely nothing about her and I don't want to harm her."
Carver knew what Brant did want, but he preferred to hear it from Brant. To some extent, Brant was right. Carver had listened to him and wasn't sure he believed him; sympathy automatically gravitated toward the woman.
But he'd made Carver curious.
"I can't get any help from the police," Brant said, "and if I probe around myself for the truth, it will only be interpreted as further harassment and will make things worse for me. So I came to you. I want you to look into this and find out who Marla Cloy is and why she's falsely accusing me." Pain and outrage flared again in his guileless blue eyes. "I want to know why someone would do something this vicious and ruinous to a complete stranger."
"Maybe you're not complete strangers."
"Then what are we to each other?"
Carver decided it was a question worth answering.CHAPTER 2
"I've got no answers," Beth Jackson said after Carver had told her about Brant's visit to his office.
They'd finished lunch in his beach cottage north of town, and now they sat in the shade on the plank porch, gazing out at the sea and drinking expensive gourmet coffee that smelled good to Carver but tasted like ordinary coffee.
Beth was wearing a white halter and yellow shorts and headband. The colors looked strikingly pale against her dark skin. Her long, bare legs were crossed and a white leather sandal dangled precariously from the big toe of her right foot. Carver's cane was resting against the arm of his chair, and his bad leg was propped up on the porch rail. Beyond the rail and the tan crescent of beach, the sea rolled and gulls screamed and circled gracefully above something dark and indefinable floating a long way from shore.
"I think I believe his story," Carver said.
"You would, being a man."
Carver didn't like her saying that. He wasn't a knee-jerk male chauvinist. Not anymore. "It's not impossible that a woman would take advantage of the political climate and falsely accuse a man of stalking her."
"Why would she do that?"
"Could be a lot of motives."
"Brant said she doesn't even know him."
"No," Carver corrected, "he said he didn't know her."
"A difference without a distinction," Beth said. "He told you he thought they were strangers." She stared out at the ocean, the sun highlighting her prominent cheekbones, her dark features that hinted at nobility. Crow's-feet had formed faintly around the corners of her brown eyes. She looked like a high-fashion model put out of work by character lines.
Carver took a sip of coffee, savoring what the package said was its chocolate-cinnamon aroma. "Your reaction might be exactly what Marla Cloy is counting on. She wants to be seen as the typical helpless female victim being threatened and stalked by the typical compulsive male sexual psychopath."
"There are a lot of female victims and male psychopaths out there, Fred."
Carver couldn't deny that. "What would you do if a strange man was stalking you?" he asked.
She glanced over at him with a dark ferocity that let him know she understood the game he was playing. She didn't view herself as a victim and she didn't see why so many women cast themselves in that role. She'd said so and written it in Burrow, the local alternative-press newspaper that employed her. Carver was on dangerous ground, using her own words to snare her.
"I'd swiftly deball the bastard," she said calmly. "But then, maybe this Marla Cloy is an old-fashioned girl who doesn't like the sight of blood."
Carver thought he'd change the subject. "What are you working on?" he asked. She'd been sitting on the porch, hunched over her Toshiba laptop computer, when he'd parked beside the cottage.
"Story about how the Everglades is going all to hell ecologically, and the rest of Florida's going with it if we don't do something soon."
"Plenty of interest in that," Carver said.
"Gonna be one giant Disney World if people don't act."
"Good for tourism." Carver couldn't resist the jab.
"So long as the tourists don't mind bringing bottled water."
"Was the Everglades article Jeff Smith's idea?" Smith was Beth's editor at Burrow.
"Smith's been fired," she said. "Clive's doing most of the editing himself these days." Clive was Clive Jones, Burrow's publisher and managing editor. "Burrow is downsizing, as Clive puts it." Beth tossed the remains of her coffee out over the porch rail. The sun caught it in the instant before it was claimed by gravity and transformed it into a glistening amber arc that hung in the air as if time were momentarily suspended. Splash! "That doesn't keep him from spending half the day riding around on his Yamaha motorcycle, though."
"He's the boss," Carver said. "That's life."
"Humph!" Beth said. "Life's what happens to you while you're making plans." She stood up slowly, a tall, tall woman against the blue ocean. "There's some chance I'm gonna be downsized, Fred."
"Hard to imagine."
Whatever the gulls had been circling had disappeared, and they'd flown in to shore to strut in the fringes of the foamy white wash of the surf.
"I could use what comes out of this Brant investigation," Beth said. "A story like that might make the difference in whether I keep drawing a steady paycheck or become a freelance."
"Every other time Jones has threatened to fire you, you've dared him to go ahead and do it. Why are you so afraid of losing your job this time?"
"I think he might mean it this time."
Carver figured there had to be something more to it. Beth had been on and off Jones's hit list several times since she'd been at Burrow. It had never seemed to make a dent in her serenity. But he knew when not to press.
"What if it turns out that Brant's the one being victimized?" he asked.
She shrugged. "Then that's the way I write it. It's a good story either way it breaks."
"I admire your journalistic integrity," he said. "I'll keep you clued in."
She smiled, suddenly sweeter than the heady aroma of the chocolate-cinnamon coffee. "Do more than that. Make me part of the investigation, Fred." She really did want this story, no matter who was being victimized.
When he didn't answer immediately she bent low and kissed him on the forehead, then the lips. He felt the warm flick of her tongue, and the brush of her fingers on his shoulder.
"Maybe there is something you can do," he said, feeling like a victim.
Excerpted from Burn by John Lutz. Copyright © 1995 John Lutz. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The story of a client who was accused of harrassing a women he didn't know didn't really catch fire. I had a hard time believing any of the motivators at the end. It became a rather plodding book that provided more of a fizzle than a burn by the time Mr. Lutz brought it to a close.