Small-town lawyer and private detective Sam McCain is enjoying a cocktail party, dancing with a lovelier specimen than his five-foot-five-inch frame usually attracts, when the hostess confronts him with a problem the likes of which Good Housekeeping has never seen. There is a corpse in the backyard gazebo, and the party is definitely over.
The murdered girl was the twenty-year-old daughter of the town’s Cadillac dealer, a troubled young woman with a self-destructive streak. The police focus their investigation on her drag-racing boyfriend, local bad boy David Egan, whom McCain agrees to defend. When Egan dies in a freak car accident, the case seems closed. But examining the hot rod shows a cut brake line—and a motive for a killing far more complicated than good girl gone bad.
About the Author
Gorman’s other series characters include Robert Payne, a psychological profiler, and Leo Guild, a bounty hunter of the Old West, but his best-known character is probably Sam McCain, a gentle young sleuth of the 1950s, who first appeared in The Day the Music Died (1998). Besides writing novels, Gorman is a cofounder of Mystery Scene magazine.
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Everybody's Somebody's Fool
A Sam McCain Mystery
By Ed Gorman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2002 Ed Gorman
All rights reserved.
Around eleven that night, the hostess broke out the Johnny Mathis and the Frank Sinatra, and everybody quit talking about their kids and their jobs and their mortgages and their politics, and got down to some serious slow dancing out on the darkened patio in the warm prairie night of summer 1961.
It was like all those groping, grasping ninth-grade parties we'd always had in some kid's basement, where the mom was gracious and the old man cast an evil eye on anybody who danced too close with his sweet blooming daughter.
The difference now was that we were adults, or rumored to be, or hoped devoutly to be. Andre Malraux once asked an old priest if he'd learned anything from sixty years of hearing confessions and the padre said, "Yes, there's no such thing as an adult." He was probably on to something there.
There were only three single women there that night, and only one single guy. Me.
I took turns dancing with all three of them and all three of them said pretty much the same thing when I slid into their embrace, "Gosh, McCain, you always make me feel so tall." And then a giggle.
There's nothing worse than being insulted by people who don't mean to insult you. At five-five a guy can be awfully sensitive about short jokes.
Back in high school the only girl I wanted to dance with was the beautiful Pamela Forrest, the girl I'd loved since grade school. But since she went out with older boys, I didn't get to dance with her very often.
As I saw it, my prospective dancing partners were divided into three groups. Girls who were shorter than I was and therefore good for my public image; girls who were fun to dance with no matter how short or tall they were; and girls who didn't mind a little dry-humping in the darkness. There weren't many in the last category, at least not many available to me, anyway, but when you came upon one you immediately fell to your knees sobbing in gratitude.
Tonight, I was hoping I'd find a girl who, at twenty-five, had moved beyond the dry-humping stage. The best bet was Linda Dennehy, who was divorced and worked as a nurse in Iowa City, well known to be the capital of all great-looking girls in our state. I mean, you had girls there who'd been to Paris and London walking around in heartbreaking Levi cut-offs openly reading Kerouac and Ginsberg. I spent as much time there as I could.
Linda was a little bit drunk and a little bit sentimental. She smelled good, too. Very good. "You ever wish you could go back, Sam, you know, to when we were in high school?"
"All the time."
"I thought it was going to be so neat. You know, growing up and going out on my own."
I paid all the attention I could. The feel of her flesh beneath her silk blouse and silk slip made certain parts of my body more alert than others. There was a bonus to her slender but very female form. I liked her. Always had. She was one of those quiet, decent girls who, oddly enough, looked better with eyeglasses than without them. Nobody paid a lot of attention to her back then is what I'm trying to say. But on hayrack rides and at skating parries and on Fourth of July starburst keggers, we'd drifted together sometimes, friends and maybe a little more, but never enough little more that it ever went anywhere.
"You still have your ragtop?"
"I sure do."
"I don't suppose you'd feel like going for a ride?"
"I sure would."
"I have to tell you something, though."
She didn't finish the sentence, leaving me to wonder what she wanted to say but didn't quite have the courage to. (A) I have to tell you, though, that I'm three months preggers. (B) I have to tell you, though, that I somehow picked up a venereal disease. (C) I have to tell you, though, that if I meet somebody who's taller than you, I'm going to dump you in a minute.
"Tell me what?"
She put her arm around my neck and kissed me. She had a very soft mouth and a very deft tongue and I have to say that I went a wee bit cuckoo standing there on that patio. Not only hadn't I had sex in some time, I hadn't had any companionship. And right now in that shadowy darkness, I felt as if Linda was the best friend I'd ever had.
"God, I can't believe I did that, Sam."
"You don't hear me complaining, do you?"
"It's—embarrassing." She glanced about. A few of the other couples had taken note of our kiss.
The song ended.
"I need to go to the bathroom first," she said. "Will you wait here?"
"I'm nailed to the floor."
I watched her walk away, a pleasing sight indeed. Slender but not without some elemental curves. We'd grown up in the Knolls together. That's the section that the proper citizens of Black River Falls try to forget about. A lot of tiny, rusty shacks and hundreds of scrubby little kids doomed to live out the same kind of grim, gray lives of their parents and enough violence to inspire the daydreams of a dozen generals.
Even by Knolls standards, Linda's father was a bastard. My dad and a lot of other dads took turns hauling his drunken ass off his fragile little wife, whom he seemed to enjoy beating up on the front lawn of their shacklike house. When he was very drunk, it'd take a couple of dads—maybe even three of them—to put the monster down because he was not only big, he'd once been a good amateur fighter.
Linda would hurl herself upon him, screaming, literally tearing hair out of his head, scratching his eyes, biting his shoulder—anything to stop him from smashing punches again and again into her tiny mother. On summer nights, long after her old man had been laid low by one of the dads and lay passed out on the front stoop, I could hear Linda crying into the night. She couldn't seem to stop herself. If she had friends, I never saw them or heard about them. She liked to fish, God did she like to fish, and growing up, before my dad started making enough money to move us into town proper, I always saw her down on that old deserted railroad bridge, so solitary in her T-shirt and jeans it'd break your heart that way your little sister could break your heart. And if you approached her, she'd jump up and run away.
Her father was dead now and her two younger brothers were driving for a trucking company. She'd gotten a scholarship to nursing school and had done well for herself. Her drinking tonight surprised me. The few times I'd seen her at social affairs she'd always made a point of drinking nonalcoholic things.
I went over and poured myself a little bit of nonalcoholic punch myself. My dad and I share the same ability to get absolutely stoned on three cans of 3.2 beer, so I generally stay away from alcohol.
A hot August breeze came and ruffled all the pines that surrounded this expensive fashion plate of a house. Two vast stories done in a mock-Plantation style. The Coyles' house. Jack Coyle was a lawyer who'd inherited a good deal of money when his father, also a lawyer, died recently. He'd also inherited the family manse. In a town of 27,000 like Black River Falls, the Coyles passed for royalty. They were nice, unassuming folk with a pair of twin girls everybody said should be in TV commercials, they were so damned cute.
I didn't like Jack Coyle. In the old days I would've felt class anger. He'd gone back east to school—Yale—and clerked for a Supreme Court justice and had come back here to become the dominant lawyer of his generation. He was in his early forties. He'd had all the breaks.
My class resentment aside, I didn't like him for a specific reason. A few years ago, when I set up my own practice, I asked him if I might drop by and ask him some questions. He was nice enough—his wife and I were longtime school friends—until a secretary walked by his open door. He stopped talking to me and snapped at her to get in there.
She came in, all right, and he laid into her with the fury of a drunken brawler. This was 11 a.m. and he was quite sober. She'd forgotten to give him a message—or she'd garbled a message she'd given him—I could never figure out which it was.
Right in front of me, he ripped into her not only professionally but personally. How stupid she was. How slow she was. How irresponsible she was. And how fat she'd gotten. How her clothes always looked sloppy on her. And how irritating it was that she was always running off to the john.
And I had to sit there pretending to be invisible and deaf.
His rage seemed endless. And her inevitable tears—every once in a while she'd glance at me in her shame and humiliation—only seemed to make him angrier.
No matter how she'd let him down, she didn't deserve to be treated like this. And especially with me sitting there.
When it was over, he said, "What a stupid cow of a bitch. Five years ago she was a good-looking woman. Then she had two kids and let herself go. That's what I should do with her—let her go. I'm just too damned softhearted."
I almost laughed out loud. I mean, given what he'd just done to that poor woman—and he could still see himself as "softhearted." He was about as softhearted as Himmler.
But here I was drinking his liquor. I leaned against the patio wall, watching the dancers and remembering them as they'd been when we were all in school together, remarking to myself on all the usual ironies of why the A student was still a bag boy and how fate or the gods had conspired to turn the portly drab girl into a knockout babe and what kind of small but significant social courage it must take for the guy with the clubfoot to get out there and dance, fast or slow, without ever seeming self-conscious, and to hell with what anybody might think.
A fragile hand touched my arm. Jean Coyle. Somewhat prim but very pretty. She'd been our class valedictorian. She wore a dark cocktail dress and had short dark hair. She was one of those women who could look dressed up in a work shirt and worn jeans. She was the good catch of her generation in our valley—good family, good education, a socially skilled wife for a prominent man. Jack Coyle was fifteen years her senior. But his powerful presence—he had a kind of tanned country club virility, and the graying traces of black Irish hair only added to it somehow—narrowed the age difference.
"Hi, Jean. I was going to look you up before I left, to thank you for tonight. I had a good time."
"Thank you, Sam. I hope everybody did."
I nodded to the dance floor. Everybody was in passionate embrace. "Sure looks like it."
"I wonder if you'd come with me for a little bit."
Some women might have made a naughty joke of the request. Jean wasn't the type. If she wanted you to go somewhere with her, it was for a perfectly legitimate reason.
Just then, Linda came back.
She thanked Jean, who looked uncomfortable with Linda suddenly. "Would you mind if Sam helped me with something for a few minutes?"
"No. Not at all."
"Be right back," I said.
Linda touched my arm. "I'm looking forward to that ride." The way she touched my arm, portending all sorts of things, was far sexier than if she'd kissed my neck. It was sweet and sexy at the same time. It's never fun to realize what a pitiful grasping creature I am. She touched my arm and my Midwestern mind was rhapsodic with romance.
As Jean led me through the elegant house that just missed being a bit too showy, she said, "I hate to drag you into this, Sam. I was going to call Cliffie but he's such an idiot."
I laughed. "Our Cliffie? The chief of police? I guess I never noticed that he was an idiot."
Her smile was forced.
We went out the front door and around the side of the house. There was a white gazebo on the west edge of the lawn. It glowed in the moonlight.
"This is getting pretty mysterious," I laughed.
"It shouldn't be. It's in your line of work, Sam. You have a private investigator's license and everything, I mean."
"What kind of work is it, Jean?"
She said, "There's a dead girl in the gazebo."CHAPTER 2
The gazebo conformed to the classic pattern, octagonal in shape, fretted with Victorian touches, and just wide enough to hold a glider and two sitting chairs comfortably.
Jean had brought a small flashlight along and handed it to me just before we reached the gazebo.
The girl, who was familiar to me in some way, was tucked into a corner of the glider. She was dressed sorority girl-style, black flats, a dark wrap-around skirt closed with a large golden safety pin, a summery white blouse. Death was obvious but not disfiguring. Though her dark-haired head was pitched at an uncomfortable angle on her shoulder, her posture was perfect, even prim.
The eyes were closed. She'd possessed the kind of austere, important beauty that only the rich boys and the top jocks had a chance with. She had the looks of all the ethereal troubled girls in F. Scott Fitzgerald novels. I imagined she was twenty.
The wound was on the side of her head, the blood lost in the texture of the hair. I didn't want to touch her to see how wide and deep the wound went. Blunt instrument trauma, presumably.
I said, "We need to call Cliffie."
"He's such a boob."
"Yeah, he is. But he's also the chief of police and this is a crime scene."
"The Griffins are such nice people."
"The Griffins? He's got the Cadillac dealership?"
"Yes. You mean you don't know who the girl is? It's their daughter, Sara."
"That's who she is. Was she invited to the party tonight?"
"Lord, no, Sam. She's a sophomore in college. Way too young for our crowd." She bit her lip. "I just wonder what she was doing here."
"Did you tell Jack?"
"I haven't had a chance yet."
"How did you find her?"
She made a perfectly childish and perfectly fetching face. "We had a tiff. Jack and I. The usual marriage thing. I just went for a little walk. Needed air."
"Did you see anything else?"
I nodded to the two-lane asphalt road about a long city block from the gazebo. "You didn't see a car or anybody on the road over there?"
"No, I'm afraid not."
For some reason—professional nosiness, probably—I wanted to ask her what she and her husband, Jack; had been arguing about.
"I need to call Cliffie. And you need to make sure that nobody leaves. Tell them what happened and tell them that they have to stay here at least until Cliffie gets a chance to take down their names."
"My God," she said, "I can't believe it."
"I'm actually going to let Cliffie Sykes set foot in my home."
After she left, I spent five minutes looking over the grass that stretched to the road. And found nothing. Then I went to the road itself. The other side of the asphalt was farmland, soybeans. I didn't find any notable tire tracks on either the roadside or the two-laner. I assumed that the girl had been killed elsewhere and then carried from a car parked on this road. Somebody had gone to a lot of trouble.
Everybody drifted into the front yard. About half brought their drinks. A woman cried; a man said that it was about time somebody dealt with the crime wave we were having in town. I wasn't sure what crime wave he was talking about. A Shell station had been broken into last night. Maybe that's what he had in mind.
There are three things you should know right away about Clifford Sykes Jr., the first being that when his family of rednecks came up here from the Ozarks a few generations ago, they lived not in the Knolls, which was sort of the official slums where I grew up, but on a sandy bend of the river where they bred babies, filth, and stupidity. Cliffie's grandfather tried to bring the Klan up here and even managed to burn a cross in a field until several of the men in town, including my dad, went out there with shotguns and ball bats and persuaded all the fat drunks hiding in sheets that the Klan was not wanted in these parts.
The second thing you need to know about Cliffie is that he hates me because I work for Judge Esme Anne Whitney, whose folks came out here with a lot of Eastern money in the previous century and pretty much built the town. It was almost never mentioned that this branch of the Whitney family had to leave New England rather suddenly when several major papers mentioned a major bank fraud case being brought against the Whitneys' most infamous black sheep, Esme's father.
Excerpted from Everybody's Somebody's Fool by Ed Gorman. Copyright © 2002 Ed Gorman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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