Have no fear when Mom is on the case!
When the Reverend Chuck Candy is found shot to death three days before Christmas, there's only one person in all of small town Mesa Grande, Colorado who can solve the case: Mom. Chief Investigator of the Public Defender's office Dave asks for her help in clearing an innocent man charged with the reverend's death--and Mom leads him to discover a web of unlikely connections and sinister intentions.
"Mom, dispensing advice along with her pot roast, is invaluable. This book is carefully plotted, leaves ample clues, yet manages several surprises." -- Publishers Weekly
About the Author
James Yaffe is an English professor and writer-in-residence at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, where he lives with his wife and three children. A transplanted New Yorker, Mr. Yaffe first introduced Mom and Dave in the pages of Ellery Queen Quarterly Magazine.
Read an Excerpt
Mom Meets Her Maker
By James Yaffe
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1990 James Yaffe
All rights reserved.
Wednesday, December 21
In a town like the one I live in, there's one thing you can always be sure about — when it's Christmas.
The reminders begin weeks, in fact months, ahead of time, and they quickly grow fruitful and multiply. Christmas music fills the airwaves just as the Halloween pumpkins are starting to turn rotten. Announcements for Christmas sales pop up in the stores before the last crumpled leaflets of Fall Clearance Sales have been swept away. The day after Thanksgiving, every cloth turkey, chocolate turkey, Kodachrome turkey, or any other form of turkey effigy has disappeared from every shop window, and been replaced by Santa Claus.
As I got back to my office after lunch that Wednesday afternoon, Christmas was still officially five days away, but there could hardly have been a local throat down which it hadn't already been thoroughly stuffed. I've made it clear by now, I hope, that it was putting me in a lousy mood.
My office is part of a suite that belongs to the public defender. Excuse me, "suite" is a euphemism. In fact, it's an outright lie. Ann Swenson, my boss, and her staff — her secretary-receptionist and her chief and only investigator, myself — are squeezed into three tiny rooms on the top floor of the courthouse, in the back. The district attorney and his staff occupy most of the second floor, with air conditioning, desks you could stretch out and take a nap on, and magnificent views of our local mountains, including the world-famous peak that sticks its fist up above the rest, like some militant at a rally.
Our respective budgets are pretty much proportional to our office space. The public defender has one aging investigator, plodding along on his tired feet at all hours of the day and night; the district attorney has so many investigators that they're constantly tripping over one another. The district attorney's annual expenditure for coffee and doughnuts comes to pretty much the size of my whole salary.
I never got to my little cubicle to check my mail that morning. Ann's secretary, Mabel Gibson — a sweet little whitehaired lady who just became a grandmother, a role she had been rehearsing for all her life — leaned across her desk and gave me one of her loud whispers: "She's in there with some people. She wants you."
Mabel's eyes were gleaming. After all these years, she still finds excitement and romance in what we do. It's kind of touching, actually.
I knocked on Ann's door, and found her office full of people. That is, three people in addition to herself, but that's enough to make Ann's office look like a subway car in rush hour. There were no empty chairs, so I gently braced myself against a wall while Ann performed the introductions.
Closest to her desk were a couple who looked to be in their middle sixties — a tall broad-shouldered, heavy-featured man, with thick gray hair and immense bags under his eyes; a little woman, also gray-haired, who seemed to be half his height. Her eyes had no bags under them, but somebody had smudged dark charcoal rings around them. Neither of these people, or so it seemed to me, had been doing much sleeping for awhile.
"Mr. and Mrs. Meyer," Ann said. "Abe and Sarah."
Abe nodded at me with a grunt.
Sarah gave a little sigh. "I know your mother," she said. "We met once or twice at Friday night services at the synagogue. She isn't there too often. She has such an active social life, doesn't she?"
I couldn't disagree with that. When Mom finally moved to Mesa Grande last spring — after I'd been trying for over a year to persuade her that it was no life for her alone in a New York apartment — I was a little worried she might find time hanging heavy on her hands. But just the opposite was turning out to be true. Within a month, she seemed to have half a dozen circles of friends, none of them overlapping with any of the others. To me, twenty years her junior, her social life would have been exhausting.
"And this is Roger," Ann said, "Mr. and Mrs. Meyer's son."
He was tall and dark-haired, with a thin earnest face, black horn-rimmed glasses, and slightly unruly hair, which seems to be a requirement of his generation. He couldn't have been more than twenty-one or twenty-two. Abe and Sarah might have been his grandparents; he must be the child of their old age. Given what their own names were, how had they resisted the temptation to call him Isaac?
He stood up and shook my hand, and then he asked me if I'd like to take his chair. "I don't feel much like sitting anyway," he said. "I'm sort of fidgety."
My God, a kid with manners! I thought they'd all been rounded up years ago and sent off to rudeness camps, behind barbed wire, to be trained for modern society.
I thanked him and took the chair.
"The Meyers are here," Ann said, "because this office will be handling Roger's case."
"We were going to get a lawyer," Abe Meyer said, in his deep, guttural voice. "We couldn't afford it, it could use up all our savings, but we were going to get one. Then we went to the rabbi at the synagogue — Rabbi Loewenstein, you know him? — and he told us we should go to the public defender. It's free. I said to him, if it's so cheap, there must be something wrong with it —"
"Abe, Abe!" said his wife, rolling up her eyes a little.
"That's all right, Mr. Meyer," Ann said. "It's a natural reaction. Everybody has it."
"Exactly," Meyer said, giving his wife a look. "So the rabbi answered me, this is one case where free means the highest quality, where you'll be getting something for nothing. He said you've got a good record, he could give me the names of plenty of satisfied customers.
"He also told us you've got a genuine New York policeman working for you." Meyer turned his gaze on me. "And this, I admit, made me feel better about the whole proposition. I'm from New York myself. Born in Brooklyn — Bensonhurst — and didn't leave till I was twenty, when my uncle gave me a job in Detroit, which is where I met Sarah and where Roger was born and also our older child Jennifer, and it's less than four years since we left there and moved here."
Obviously he could have gone on forever telling us his autobiography, with details, but Ann interrupted him. "Roger is facing a serious situation," she said to me. "You probably read about it in the paper this morning."
"I didn't get a chance to look at the paper this morning," I said, not explaining that it's because I'm always in bed half an hour after my alarm goes off, so I'm always gulping my breakfast and rushing downtown to get to work on time. It's one of the penalties of having had a wife for twenty years and then being forced to live alone: you got used to an active personalized alarm clock who wouldn't take no for an answer, and now you have to adjust to the passive mechanical kind.
As this thought passed through my mind, I could almost hear Mom's voice in my ear. "So you know how to cure that problem, no? Do you think this town is populated only by people of the male sex?"
But maybe, before I go any further, I'd better explain about Mom and me, and what we're doing in this unlikely town, in the shadow of these improbable mountains.
* * *
I was born and brought up in New York City — God's country, or anyway the place He had the most fun creating — and for thirty years, until I moved out here, I worked for the New York City Police Department, in the Homicide Squad. I even made inspector before I was forty, which as far as I know is still a record.
Then my wife died, and New York lost its charm for me; waking up to its dreariness every morning, I could hardly believe that it ever had any charm in the first place. So I came out here to Mesa Grande, this middle-sized paradise in the foothills of the Rockies, to become the chief investigator for the public defender's office.
My only real regret about making this move was my mother. I didn't like the idea of leaving her back in New York. I urged her to come with me, but she was absolutely firm about refusing the offer. She liked her little apartment, she had her friends, the supermarkets would be terrible where I was going, and anyway she couldn't really believe that human beings actually lived and thrived west of the Hudson River.
It was a year or so before Mom changed her mind. I should have known all along, of course, that she'd change it. In the old days, back in New York, when Shirley and I came up to the Bronx for Friday night dinner, I always told Mom about my latest unsolved murder case, and between the chopped liver and the strudel she always managed to solve it for me. These exercises were among the greatest pleasures of her life, and she looked forward to them all week.
With my exodus from the city, her homicidal connection was cut. She became restless, dissatisfied, at loose ends. "It turns out I'm just like your Papa," she told me. "I took him once to the Catskills, for a vacation at this big resort. The food was delicious, the fresh air couldn't be healthier, but after the first day Papa spent all his time sitting on the porch, moving his fingers up and down, cutting imaginary pieces of cloth."
Then, last March, Mom came out to visit me, and experienced an amazing revelation. Out here in Mesa Grande, there were plenty of murders for me to investigate. "Isn't it wonderful!" Mom said. "People kill each other just as easy in the Southwest as they do in the Northeast! It gives you a nice feeling that human nature will never change!"
And so, she decided to settle here for good. Not such an easy decision for a woman in her seventies to make. After all, to put it in Mom's own words, "I've been a born New Yorker since I stepped off the boat at the age of seven."
For this reason, I always welcome interesting new cases that have unusual features in them. How else am I going to keep Mom from being bored?
And this brings me back to Roger Meyer's problem, which Ann was now describing to me.
* * *
Abe and Sarah had come to Mesa Grande four years ago, when Abe retired from his job as a jeweler with a big Detroit manufacturing firm. Abe chose Mesa Grande because he had been stationed here briefly during the war. (We're a big military town, surrounded by an Army training post, an Air Force base, and something hush-hush that has to do with missile defense.) Abe was a kid in his twenties then, but he fell in love with the mountains and the clean air and the open space, and he determined, like a lot of other people have done before and since, that he would spend his retirement years here.
Thirty-five years later he did it. His daughter was grown and married, with children of her own, and his son, who had come along as a late surprise, was getting ready to go off to college: it was the perfect time to move.
So the Meyers used a large chunk of their savings to buy a one-story house in the east of town, the Fairhaven section which wasn't as densely built up yet as some other sections. Their house was on a street that had only one house next to it and none across from it. In their new house they had been living happily for nearly four years — growing some flowers in front and some vegetables in back, living simply but not uncomfortably on Social Security and Abe's pension from the jewelry firm, enjoying the fine evenings on their front porch, making friends and keeping busy through activities at the synagogue, and looking forward every year to vacation visits from their son Roger, who had a scholarship to Yale, and occasional appearances by their daughter and grandchildren, who ordinarily lived in Southern California.
Not a bad way to end your life, I thought, if you've been working hard for most of it and prefer not to go out in harness.
And then, a month or so ago, the Meyers' paradise turned into hell. A man named Chuck Candy — the Reverend Chuck Candy, the minister for a local church known as the Effulgent Apostles of Christ — had moved two years earlier into the house next to theirs. No problems arose at first. The Meyers didn't see much of Candy and his wife, but when they ran into each other, they exchanged the time of day in friendly enough fashion. The Candys had a grown son and grandchildren who came to visit every Sunday, and the kids were a little noisy occasionally, but not to the point of being really annoying.
As a matter of fact, the Meyers rather enjoyed the sounds of children's voices. "It took us back to the old days," said Sarah.
"And as long as they're not our kids," Abe said, "so if they cry we don't have to do anything about it!"
Late in November, there was a flurry of activity at the Candys — sounds of hammering, sawing wood, pickup trucks coming and going with the names of plumbers and electricians on them. This went on for three or four days, and one night, while the Meyers were washing up after dinner, a blast of music suddenly assaulted them, loud enough to rattle their windows. It was a Christmas carol, played by a brass band. "Little Town from Bethlehem," Abe said. "If that's how loud they play for a little town, I don't want to hear any songs about a big town."
More carols followed, and pretty soon the Meyers realized that the music was coming from the Candys' place down the street. They went out to look, and found themselves confronted by a house that had been turned into something resembling the Christmas display window of a metropolitan department store: lights, flickering on and off in five different colors, had been set up all across the roof, the front windows, and the porch; reindeer, elves, and Santa Clauses, making appropriate ho-ho noises, were gathered on the lawn, around a statue of the Virgin and Child, outlined in bright garish orange neon, also flickering on and off, with a small fountain of water shooting up from behind the Virgin's head. And surrounding it all was that music, coming out of loudspeakers on the roof, so thunderous that the Meyers, even halfway down the block, had to raise their voices to talk to each other.
"Shouldn't we ask them to turn it down a little?" Sarah yelled.
"They just put it up," Abe yelled back. "They don't have it adjusted yet. As soon as they realize it's so loud —"
"But if we point it out to them, they will realize."
"Come on, come on," Abe said. "They're celebrating Christmas. We don't want to spoil people's Christmas for them. Tomorrow it'll be better, believe me."
Tomorrow, though, and in the days that followed, it got progressively worse. Not only did the music remain at the same explosive level, but our local newspaper, The Republican-American, ran an article, in its Lifestyle section, about the Candys' "spectacular and artistic display of Christmas spirit," as a result of which people started showing up from other parts of town to take a look at the show. And they brought their children and their mothers-in-law and their cars with them. The sound of honking horns mingled with brass renditions of "Come All Ye Faithful" from sunset to one in the morning.
Since only a few cars could park in front of the Candy house, the others lined up all along the street or simply cruised back and forth, blocking the Meyers' driveway, making it impossible for them to escape for an hour or two. Heavy feet used their front lawn as a shortcut, trampling down Sarah's beautiful delphiniums. Candy wrappers and soft drink cans were everywhere. So, every few days, were pools of vomit. The faithful were coming all right, and some of them brought their own Christmas spirits with them.
Abe Meyer complained to Candy, and the reverend just chuckled and told him he would feel better about it all if he'd only relax and get into the spirit of the season.
"Christmas is a time of joy and celebration," Candy said. "Celebrate, celebrate. What do you say you let these cares and cankers drop from your shoulders and join these good people in love and worship? Oh, my mistake, you practice a different form of worship, anyways so I've heard. Well, that's the greatness of this country. Religious freedom. We folks wouldn't think of interfering with your religion, so I figure you folks'll understand that ours is just as sacred to us."
After a week of it, Abe Meyer called the police. He was told that nothing could be done. The Candys weren't breaking any laws — not even anti-noise regulations, which in fact applied only between one A.M. and seven A.M., and the Candys were always careful to turn off the music at one A.M. precisely. As for the lights and the ho-hoing figures and so on, a man was allowed to decorate his house any way he pleased. His neighbors might think he had lousy taste, but in a free country taste was up to the individual. And if people chose to come from miles around to gawk at his bad taste, that was up to them; no policeman could interfere with them. The constitution guaranteed them the right to gawk.
And then, four days ago, Roger Meyer came home from Yale for his Christmas vacation. He saw what was happening to his parents, their sleepless nights, their jumpy days. He called up Candy and pleaded with him to stop. He called the police, took his anger all the way up to one of the assistant district attorneys, and got the same runaround from everyone.
So yesterday around noon Roger stamped down the road to the Candy house and rang the doorbell. Candy opened the door for him, and the two of them harangued each other in the entrance hallway. After a few minutes, Candy pulled a gun out of a drawer in the hall table and ordered Roger out of the house. In another moment, Roger was grabbing Candy's arm, trying to take the gun away from him. It went off. Fortunately the bullet didn't hit anyone. Meanwhile, Candy's wife had phoned for the police, and right after Roger left the house a squad car pulled up. On Candy's complaint Roger was arrested for trespassing, disturbing the peace, and assault with a deadly weapon.
Excerpted from Mom Meets Her Maker by James Yaffe. Copyright © 1990 James Yaffe. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Prologue: Mom Praying,
Wednesday, December 21,
Thursday, December 22,
Friday, December 23,
Saturday, December 24,
Epilogue: Mom Praying,
About the Author,