Dearly Departed

Dearly Departed

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by David Housewright

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A recording of a lost woman’s voice sends Holland Taylor on a wild hunt

The woman’s words send an icy chill through Minneapolis private investigator Holland Taylor: “If you are listening to this now,” she says, “it is because I am dead.” Speaking calmly, Alison Emerton explains that if she is missing, it is becauseSee more details below


A recording of a lost woman’s voice sends Holland Taylor on a wild hunt

The woman’s words send an icy chill through Minneapolis private investigator Holland Taylor: “If you are listening to this now,” she says, “it is because I am dead.” Speaking calmly, Alison Emerton explains that if she is missing, it is because Raymond Fleck killed her. Fleck, a convicted rapist, lost his job at a humane kennel after Alison accused him of sexual harassment and stalking. The threats began soon after, prompting Alison to buy a gun and record the tape. She vanished soon after, leaving behind her wallet, coat, and boots, on a night when twenty-three inches of snow fell on Minneapolis. Seven months later, her lawyer hires Taylor to find the missing woman. As Taylor digs into Alison’s past, he learns that Raymond Fleck was not the only person who wanted her dead.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Sleazy lawyer Hunter Truman sends cop-turned-Twin Cities PI Holland Taylor after a missing woman in Housewright's disappointing third novel. Alison Emerton has either been murdered by Raymond Fleck, a convicted rapist who was stalking her, or has left to start over someplace far from Fleck and her insensitive husband, a man clearly more concerned with collecting the insurance money for her presumed death than with grieving for her loss. Taylor is smitten by an alluring photograph of Allison and quickly becomes emotionally involved in the case. His search leads out of St. Paul to a lakeside town enveloped in a debate over Native American casino rights. Housewright's Penance (1995) won an Edgar for best first novel, and once again he shows a sure narrative touch through the voice of his engaging and quirky shamus. Yet the novel hits several wrong notes. An overly dogmatic antidrug tirade, an obvious final twist and a murky series of legal/business machinations over casino and water rights all detract from what has been a singularly pleasurable series filled with light crime tones. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
212 days after Alison Emerton disappears, her husband's attorney asks Holland Taylor if he'll start looking for her. Since litigation-happy lawyer Hunter Truman's closest prior approach to Twin Cities p.i. Taylor (Penance, 1995; Practice to Deceive, 1997) was to sue him, Taylor wonders why Truman's chosen him for this work—and why Alison's boorish husband Stephen seems so little concerned about Alison's reports that rapist Raymond Fleck was stalking her. When he starts to talk to the people who knew Alison best, though, Taylor gets the first inkling that this is going to be a chimera of a case, one as hard to hold onto as a greased pig. Fleck guilelessly admits his interest in Alison but says she returned it with interest. When Taylor attacks Fleck's alibi and gets the cops to arrest two different suspects, at least one of whom is obviously covering for the other, it ought to be a great day (even if it'll mark the last of Truman's $400 daily paychecks). But Taylor, still unsatisfied, suddenly gets a completely new idea about what happened to Alison, and takes off for the Wisconsin town of Deer Lake to dodge bullets, dish dirt about a new local casino, share drinks and conversation with its presumptive Native American owners, and follow Alison's loyal friends around very, very closely. Understated, literate, and tricky as they come, even if the last few surprises aren't up to the first dozen.

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Publisher: Road
Publication date:
Holland Taylor Mysteries , #3
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Dearly Departed

A Holland Taylor Mystery

By David Housewright

Copyright © 1999 David Housewright
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-3958-2


What I remember most was her voice. It was strong and clear and totally unafraid, even though the words she spoke gripped my heart with two icy hands:

If you are listening to this now, it is because I am dead.

At first I didn't want to listen. I did not know the voice, had never heard the name that went with it. But I knew the man who had invaded my office, who now stood in front of my desk, a stumpy index finger pressed hard against the play button of a cassette recorder, and it was all I could do to keep from knocking him to the floor and beating him about the head and shoulders. Hell, if there had been a wooden stake handy, I would have gladly driven it through his heart.

But that voice, that voice ...

* * *

Hunter Truman was a man who preferred what Winston Churchill called "short, Anglo-Saxon words," words usually reserved for those moments when you hit your thumb with a hammer or stub your toe in the dark. He used them frequently. Probably the only words he used more often were these: "I'll sue."

Truman was an attorney, a fact that might have pleased his mother but few others. He took bragging pleasure in the sixty-some civil lawsuits he had filed on his own behalf over the past ten years—more if you added all the spin-off countersuits. Most were frivolous. The rest were vindictive and vengeful. He didn't care if he won, only that he crushed his victims with legal fees— a problem he didn't have since he always represented himself. I hadn't known this several years ago when I met Truman, and although I was still struggling to make a go of my detective agency back then, I like to think it would have made a difference.

At the time, Truman had insisted that enemies of a client he declined to identify had attempted to run him down just that morning. He gave me a description of the car and the first three digits of the license plate, then hired me to learn who had driven it. By late afternoon, I discovered that the car was owned by a middle-aged couple living in the Kenwood neighborhood of Minneapolis but usually driven by their teenage daughter. I also discovered that while several people might have wanted Truman dead, no one was actually trying to kill him. And he had known it. He had merely wanted the information I provided so that he could sue the teenager's parents for one hundred thousand dollars in punitive damages for having an "out-of-control" daughter. The teenager's crime? She had flipped him the bird when Truman cut her off on a downtown Minneapolis street so that he could claim a prime parking spot in front of the Federal Court Building.

Armed with the information I had gathered for him, Truman dragged the parents through the court system, vowing that if they wouldn't control their daughter, then—bigod!—he would. Eventually he lost the suit and was ordered to pay the parents a two-hundred-and-fifty-dollar judgment. Meanwhile, the parents had burned several thousand dollars defending themselves.

I hadn't liked being used so badly. Nor had I appreciated his lying to me. But I probably would have forgotten all about the incident if Truman hadn't tried to pull the same crap a couple of years later—this time with me as his designated victim.

I had just worked a case involving credit card fraud. A man had been contacting grieving widows. He'd get their names from the obituaries and call them and offer to switch their credit cards from their husbands' names to their names. All they had to do was provide him with the credit card numbers and expiration dates. And soon they would start receiving bills for televisions, stereos, microwave ovens, and airline tickets that they hadn't purchased. I had been drawn into the case by an older woman who didn't think the authorities were giving it enough attention.

It turned out the caller was an inmate at Oak Park Heights state prison. He had been using a pay phone to gather the credit card information and then sell it to accomplices on the outside. When confronted with the crime, the inmate grinned and said, "Don't shoot, I give up." He'd treated it all like a hoot—and why not? After his conviction, he drew a sentence that was to be served concurrently with the sentence he was already serving. He didn't lose so much as an extra day of freedom. Meanwhile, the money gleaned off the scam was pulling interest in a mutual fund somewhere.

Only that wasn't good enough for Truman, who had defended the lowlife. Annoyed because he couldn't shake my testimony on the witness stand, he sought revenge by bringing me up before the Private Detective and Protective Agent Services Board, claiming I had abused my license, stating specifically that I had "engaged in fraud, deceit and misrepresentation while in the business of private detective." However, on the morning of the hearing, Truman withdrew his complaint—although not his claims—and the matter was dropped. But not before it had cost me several sleepless nights and the expense of hiring my own attorney.

When chance and the Minnesota Timberwolves put us at the same concession stand a few months later, I confronted Truman with a few well-chosen Anglo-Saxon words of my own and told him if I ever saw him again, I'd shoot him. He said he was going to sue me for defamation and assault but apparently found something else to become hysterical over because he never did.

Now he was in my office, and I found myself regretting that I'd stopped carrying a gun.

He set a battered briefcase on the floor, straightened slowly, and said, "I need your help." He looked it, too. I had never seen anyone who appeared as sorrowful or as dejected as Truman did outside a cancer ward. His hair was tangled from running his hands through it, and he had little patches of beard where he had shaved not too carefully. His eyes were bloodshot and tired. He looked defeated. It was because of that look that I didn't throw him out. But, then, I didn't invite him to sit down, either.

"Let me guess, the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility pulled your ticket," I said.

"Fuck, no. Why would they do that?" Truman answered without much enthusiasm.


Truman didn't reply. His eyes locked on an empty corner of my desk blotter, and for a moment he reminded me of a lawn ornament, one of those sad-eyed ceramic deer that people stick in their front yards.

"You have thirty seconds to tell me what you want," I said.

Truman's woeful demeanor didn't last long. "Thirty seconds, what's that shit?" he wanted to know in a voice that started low and increased in volume.

"Twenty-five seconds."

Truman must have figured out I was serious because at fifteen seconds he said, "I want you to find a woman for me."

"Try Lyndale and Lake Street; the girls who wave at passing cars are usually the most reasonably priced."

"Jesus H. Christ. This is serious."

"Five seconds."

In five seconds, Truman whipped a photograph out of his pocket and set it—ever so tenderly—in front of me. It was of a woman who looked like she should be advertising perfumes with dangerous-sounding names. She wasn't beautiful, exactly. Her hair was dark and so were her eyes, but her chin was too sharp, and her nose had a slight hook to it. Yet she had a presence, a confidence, that a camera could not diminish. Or perhaps the camera lent it to her—what did I know? I guessed her age at twenty-five.

"The police think she was murdered," Truman said.

That bought him an extra minute.

"What do you mean, they think?"

"Shit, the assholes can't find her body, and they can't find any conclusive fucking evidence of foul play."

I was puzzled and probably looked it.

"Listen to what I'm saying," Truman commanded. "The last time anyone saw her, she was leaving her office Halloween night. Remember that goddamn snowstorm?"

I remembered it well. Twenty-three inches of snow fell within twelve hours, and my snow blower wouldn't start.

"Her husband comes home, and she's not there. But here's the thing: Her car was in the garage, her coat and purse were on the chair where she usually left them, and the front door was open. I don't mean unlocked, I mean open."

"Maybe she went out for a pack of cigarettes and kept on going. It's been done before," I volunteered.

"In a snowstorm? Without her coat or boots? Without her fucking purse, her credit cards, her checkbook, her cash? Listen to what the fuck I'm saying! The cops thought she might have left, too, but changed their minds because nothing was missing from the house. No clothes, no jewelry, no nothing."

"Did the police sweep the house?"

"Shit, yeah. They didn't turn up jack. No sign of forced entry, no physical evidence, no witnesses. Christ, if they knew what the fuck was going on, you'd think I'd be standing here?"

I reached across the desk, grabbed a fistful of silk tie, and jerked it toward me. "You utter one more obscenity in my presence, I'll wash out your mouth with soap," I snarled. It was a good snarl, too—I practice it in front of a mirror.

He started to utter one of the seven words banned from network television, gulped when I yanked his tie, then nodded.

I released his tie. It's not that I'm particularly offended by obscene language. I've been known to mutter a few four- and seven-letter words myself. But Truman was beginning to annoy me, and since I didn't like him in the first place, I saw no reason to put up with his vulgarity.

"You're a straight shooter; I respect that," he told me. "A conscientious guy."

"Sure," I replied sarcastically to the hollow compliment.

"That's why I'm here," he continued. "I know you didn't like it when I dragged you in front of the board, but I was protecting the interests of my client; that's what lawyers do. If other people get hurt along the way ... Hey, don't blame me, blame the system."

"Get out of my office," I told him.

"No, listen, this is important."

"Hit the bricks, pal."

"Taylor, Christ, listen...."

"Truman, you're a jerk. A gold-plated, one-hundred-percent jerk, and I do not want to work for you. You haven't got enough money to hire me. You could be Bill Gates or Warren Buffett and still not have enough money to hire me. Go away."

"All I want is a minute—"

"You've had a minute."

"Taylor, c'mon, just listen to this," he said, producing a cassette recorder from the briefcase. He pressed the play button as I rounded my desk, reaching for him.

If you are listening to this now, it is because I am dead.

The voice stopped me. It was a woman's voice, and there was something about it, a characteristic I couldn't identify. It wasn't an accent, although it had an almost exotic resonance. And it wasn't the way the pitch of her voice rose and fell pleasantly like it was singing a ballad, something by the Gershwins. But there was something, a quality that I can hear even now....

If you are listening to this now, it is because I am dead.

I returned to my side of the desk. Truman took a chance and sat in the chair that I reserve for guests. He sighed with the effort, like he'd remembered too many things at once. I swiveled away in my chair, looked out my window at downtown Minneapolis, and listened....

"If you are listening to this now, it is because I am dead. (Long pause.) I realize that everything I'm about to tell you seems.... unlikely. But I am frightened, and I believe I have good cause. I am taking steps to protect myself. Unfortunately, there is only so much one can do and still maintain a life worth living. I am making this tape in case things do not go my way. (Long pause. Low barking of several dogs in the distance.) I am sitting beneath an oak tree on a knoll overlooking the pond as I record this. There's a mist rising off the pond.... Oh, sure, Larry, ruin the whole scene. (Loudly.) Larry just ran into the pond for a drink. You can't bring these guys anywhere near water.... I have three black Labradors. I call them Larry, Moe, and Curly Joe, although I couldn't tell you why—I've never been a fan of the Stooges. I usually take my babies for a run in the morning in the wooden area behind my house. What's the appropriate word for a small forest? Glade? Grove?"

"Grove," Truman answered.

"Stephen hates it here. But I love it. I told him if he wants to move he'll have to do it without me.

"(Deep sigh.) I suppose if I'm going to do this thing, I'd best get to it. To be official, Hunter ... my name is Alison Donnerbauer Emerton. I am twenty-seven years old. I am married to Stephen Emerton, and we live at 3747 Pioneer Trail in Hastings, Minnesota. I am making this tape for my attorney, Hunter Truman of Minneapolis, with the explicit instructions that he deliver it forthwith to the appropriate authorities in the event of my death...."

"Stop the tape," I said.

"Don't you—?"

"Stop it."

Truman hit the pause button.

"Why did she come to you with this?"

Truman shrugged. "I was her attorney."

"Did she pick you out of the phone book? What?"

Truman hesitated; he studied the palm of his hand as if the answer was written there. "I was her husband's attorney before they were married. That's probably why she called me."


Truman shrugged like he didn't want to commit himself.

"Go 'head," I instructed.

Truman pressed the play button.

"If I am dead, it is because Raymond Fleck killed me.... (Long pause.) Fleck is a convicted rapist who has been stalking me for the past six weeks.

"To begin at the beginning, I am a public-relations practitioner and marketing manager for Kennel-Up, Incorporated, a company based in Hastings that manufactures and sells conventional as well as electronic dog kennels. Raymond was one of the company's site managers. I was responsible for his dismissal from the firm for sexual harassment. I met him when I took the position with Kennel-Up last March. Prior to that I worked for a healthcare company. I took the Kennel-Up job partly because I love dogs more than doctors and partly because it pays better. I now make more than Stephen, which doesn't sit too well with him. But, let that go for now.

"(Deep sigh.) From the first, Raymond was too ... familiar. He held my hand too long after he shook it; he made periodic references to my appearance, telling me how attractive I was, how pretty my hair, how flattering my dress; he would linger at the coffee machine when I ventured for a cup. I am not an unattractive woman—"

"You're beautiful," Truman told the machine.

"—and over the years I've grown accustomed to this kind of treatment, so I let Raymond's behavior slide. That might have been a mistake. Perhaps he interpreted my silence as approval, even encouragement. (Brief pause.) I discussed the matter with Stephen. He wondered if my behavior and style of dress were leading Raymond on. He also suggested that I would be branded as a whiner or a troublemaker if I took the matter to my employers. Typical Stephen. However, when Raymond's behavior became even more objectionable, when he began to massage my shoulders or rub my back when our jobs put us in close proximity, when he began making pornographic references, I told Mr. Selmi about my concerns.

"Mr. Selmi is a great old teddy bear of a man. Everybody loves him. He started Kennel-Up in his garage when he was thirty-five. Now he's seventy-something and rich. Only I get the impression he wishes he was still working out of the garage.

"Anyway, Mr. Selmi seemed quite upset. He questioned Raymond in my presence. Raymond, of course, denied everything. Said it was all in my imagination. Even suggested that subconsciously I wanted him to do the things he described. Mr. Selmi asked me to leave his office, and he and Raymond spoke for a long time—several hours at least. Later, Mr. Selmi informed me that my problems with Raymond were over. But he was mistaken.

"Later that evening, I discovered Raymond's car parked in front of my house. I could see the burning tip of a cigarette behind the windshield. I called the police. I was impressed by how quickly the officers responded, but not by their kid-glove treatment of the man. It was as if they were afraid to offend him.


Excerpted from Dearly Departed by David Housewright. Copyright © 1999 David Housewright. Excerpted by permission of
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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