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Death Vows (Donald Strachey Series #9)

Death Vows (Donald Strachey Series #9)

3.6 3
by Richard Stevenson

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The ninth book in the Donald Strachey Mystery series.

Gay marriage in Massachusetts is a fine institution------except when it leads to murder, as it does in this taut, suspenseful Don Strachey private eye novel, the ninth in the classic series. Strachey and his loving foil, Timothy Callahan, are back in perfect form in this witty, ripped-from-the-headlines thriller.


The ninth book in the Donald Strachey Mystery series.

Gay marriage in Massachusetts is a fine institution------except when it leads to murder, as it does in this taut, suspenseful Don Strachey private eye novel, the ninth in the classic series. Strachey and his loving foil, Timothy Callahan, are back in perfect form in this witty, ripped-from-the-headlines thriller.

Editorial Reviews

Wayne Hoffman
This is Stevenson's ninth Donald Strachey novel, and his deliciously clipped style makes room for character and a heavy helping of humor without sacrificing pacing. The author is particularly adept at using snippets of rapid-fire dialogue to establish characters' personalities, which tend toward the sarcastic.
—The Washington Post

Product Details

MLR Press
Publication date:
Donald Strachey Series , #9
Product dimensions:
5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.48(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

"Mr. Strachey, may I ask, are you licensed to conduct investigations in the state of Massachusetts?"

"I am. New York and Massachusetts have reciprocal agreements on the licensing of private investigators."

"I'm delighted to hear it. I have every reason to believe that you are just the man to help me and Steven out. A dear friend of ours, Bill Moore, is planning to make a horrible blunder. He intends to marry a young man who is plainly not who he says he is, and who we are convinced is up to no good. I take it you are familiar with the rather socially advanced practice of same-sex marriage that the commonwealth of Massachusetts has pioneered?"

The man on my office phone had a voice that sounded as if it was wearing an ascot. Jim Sturdivant had apparently retained the plummy tones long associated with the American WASP upper classes but which now existed mainly in re-runs of eighties nighttime TV soaps.

I said, "My partner, Timothy Callahan, and I would do it ourselves if we lived over there in the Berkshires. Here in New York State we continue to be deprived of the well-known enduring features of legal marriage--adultery, divorce, excess kitchenware, perpetuating the patriarchy, and so on."

There was a pause--Timmy's voice was in the back of my head making little mewing noises over my driving away a potential client--and then Sturdivant said, "Steven and I have not taken the plunge either, much as we would love to. Our nuptials would entail certain family difficulties, which we would much prefer to avoid."

"Like losing a major inheritance, for instance? One of you is waiting for Grams to bite the dust?"

Another pause. Why was I doingthis? Maybe because I had worked nonstop through the hot, wet summer on four cases that had been both grueling and decently remunerative. One was the discreet involuntary relocation to Rochester of a blackmailer whose sexual peccadilloes turned out to be even stranger than those of my client, a used-car dealer who liked to hire hustlers in Washington Park, take them home to his garage, and spray them with new-car aroma from an aerosol can. It had been a rigorous July and August, and now, the Tuesday after Labor Day, it would have been lovely to take it easy for a week or so. But why the passive-aggressive needling of this inoffensive man who had called me at the recommendation of a mutual acquaintance?

A patient Jim Sturdivant said, "You are a keen observer of human nature, Mr. Strachey. And--I was warned by Preston Morley--something of a wiseacre."

"Thank you."

"It is not, however, 'Grams' who is the family obstacle. All four of my grandparents have long since passed on. In any event, that's another story. I am most concerned just now about our friend Bill, who is about to marry foolishly. More than foolishly--recklessly, stupidly, self-destructively. None of those terms is putting it too strongly. Barry Fields is a dangerous young man, and Bill is so smitten with him that he is utterly blind to everything but Barry's pleasant personality and physical charms. Which I have to recognize are both appealing, but that is neither here nor there. The man is plainly a cunning fraud."

I had the window propped open with an upended 1985 Albany phone book, and an invigorating cocktail of fresh late-summer air and diesel fumes wafted up from Central Avenue. The mid-morning traffic was heavy but moving in an orderly fashion, and the winos and crack dealers weren't hassling the nice people coming and going at the public radio station across the street.

I said, "What makes you think the guy is a fraud?"

"He tells this story of being from Colorado," Sturdivant said. "But what Barry doesn't know is, Steven has a brother in Denver and knows the state rather well. Barry said he was from Lamar and his father was a corn farmer. But Steven has a nephew in Lamar, which is wheat country. Steven let it go when Barry told the story, but it was the first obvious lie that roused our suspicions."

"Couldn't somebody in that town grow corn too?" I asked. "Timmy's Aunt Moira in Poughkeepsie is well known for her peonies, but she keeps a few petunias."

"There are just too many gaping holes in Barry's story," Sturdivant said. "Such as who his parents are and why they aren't coming to the wedding. First he said they had had a bad year on the farm with the drought out west and they couldn't afford to come. When I offered to fly them here as a wedding gift--a gesture that I must confess was more of a trap than a sincere offer--suddenly Barry's story changed. He said they were too ill to travel. When I asked what their illnesses were, Barry became confused and said he wasn't sure; it was something 'internal.' That's all he could remember, that it was 'internal.' Steven said he was relieved to hear that the senior Fields family members didn't have an external disease."

"He said that to Barry?"

"No, just to me. We've tried not to challenge Barry directly, out of deference to Bill."

"And what does Bill say about these inconsistencies in Barry's bio? I take it you've discussed this with him."

"Well, we've tried," Sturdivant said. "He shrugs it all off. Bill says Barry had a very difficult time with his unsympathetic family when he came out, and it pains him to have to talk about his earlier life. Steven and I both told Bill that reticence is one thing and fabrications are quite another. But Bill is so bedazzled by those red lips and those baby-blue eyes that he is unwilling to see the obvious."

"So Barry is a hot number?"

"He's attractive, and he is also smart and able. He's the assistant manager of the movie theater in Great Barrington, and he's expected to take over when the manager retires next year."

"Barry Fields sounds like a fairly solid citizen to me," I told Sturdivant. "You said he's dangerous. In what way?"

I could hear Sturdivant take a sip of something, maybe his mid-morning latte. My own espresso machine had been out of order for some decades, but I had picked up a cardboard cup of the exceptional brew from the Subway franchise up the block, and I watched two flies carioca around the rim.

"Well," Sturdivant said, "'dangerous' may or may not be going too far. But Steven and I have our well-grounded suspicions. Barry's last boyfriend, Tom Weed, also an older man, died under mysterious circumstances. And I know it's outrageous to think that ... The thing is, Tom was wealthy. And his strange death, combined with all of Barry's lies ... I guess you can see what I'm getting at."

"Yeah, I see it. How did Weed die?"

"Carbon monoxide poisoning. In his BMW. Three years ago last March, Tom arrived home in Sheffield after a dinner put on by the Supper Club, an agreeable men's potluck group we all belong to. He passed out in his garage with the engine running, supposedly. Barry had worked until nine o'clock that night at the Triplex and was home when Tom arrived around ten-thirty. The question is, why didn't Barry hear Tom drive in, and why did he not check to see what had become of him?"

"A fair question. What's Barry's explanation?"

"He says he dozed off in bed watching My Favorite Wife and woke up in the middle of the night with all the lights on. He went downstairs to see what had become of Tom and discovered him dead in the garage. That's Barry's story, at any rate. And the state police bought it."

"Why doubt it? Awful accidents like that happen," I said. "How much had Tom had to drink when he drove home? How far away was the dinner party?"

"About four miles, and I'll make no excuses for Tom in that department. Knowing his drinking habits, I'll admit he probably should not have been behind the wheel of a car. But that is very much beside the point. Barry is a self-described insomniac. He talks about staying up all hours watching Turner Movie Classics. Why did he fall asleep, altogether uncharacteristically, on this particular night?"

"Unless he chose to? Is that what you're saying?"

"It's a terribly harsh suspicion, I know. But Steven and I were not the only people left wondering. The entire Supper Club talked about little else for months afterwards. It was only after it came out that Barry wasn't in Tom's will--as Barry apparently thought he was--that the suspicions subsided."

I said, "And is Barry in Bill Moore's will?"

"Bill has no will. He mentioned this in passing to me once, and when I suggested he make one, Bill sloughed it off. He is a melancholy man who I think has had some sadness in his life--he's close-mouthed about what it might have been--and an important part of his makeup is a strong strain of fatalism. With no will, of course, Barry Fields will be Bill's sole heir when they marry on September twenty-sixth."

"And Bill is wealthy, too, like Tom Weed?"

"Bill took early retirement from some kind of federal government work--Commerce Department, I think--but there is some family money. I'm not sure how much."

So what was this? Was Sturdivant a meddling buttinsky with an overactive imagination in need of a lecture on manners from Dear Abby? Or could there actually be something dangerous, to use Sturdivant's word, about Barry Fields? It didn't sound that way. But I'd have to know more.

I said, "So what is it you're asking me to do, Mr. Sturdivant? You just want me to check this guy out? See if he's got a past your friend Bill should know about and be either worried or reassured about?"

"Please call me Jim. Yes, that's exactly how you can help. I want to know who Barry Fields really is. And once we know who he is, perhaps we'll know what he is. An uncertain young man with an unhappy past, as Bill has made himself believe, or a conniving con man--or even worse?"

"Jim, I do do background checks for people. Private investigators do this work routinely. It's usually not complicated. But I'm generally hired by the party most directly involved. The ethics here are a little ambiguous. Does Bill Moore know you're asking me to do this?"

Another sip of latte. "No, he does not. Bill is so irrational when it comes to Barry, he might well demand that I call off the sleuthing. But why should Bill's being unaware preclude your taking this on? I would be your client, and I would be the recipient of your report, and it would be up to me to either warn Bill away from Barry, or reassure him, or perhaps say nothing at all."

"I could do this much more efficiently," I said, "with Moore's knowledge and cooperation. And with me nosing around, both of them are likely to find out I'm doing a check on Barry."

"Oh, really? You couldn't do it discreetly? I thought that's one reason people hired private investigators. For their discretion."

This was all new to Sturdivant, who seemed entirely unaccustomed to dealing with persons of my racy calling. "Discretion is possible up to a point," I said. "But inevitably a friend or family member or co-worker gets wind of the snooping and mentions it to the subject. I would not be obliged to reveal your identity as my client. But my not disclosing your identity wouldn't really be fair to Bill or Barry. It would drive them crazy not knowing who was investigating Barry. It's not a position I would want to find myself in, and neither would you, Jim."

He was unfazed by my ethical qualms, which I was trying to find a way around but hadn't yet, and Sturdivant was not helping. He said, "I would certainly make my role known if it seemed necessary, but I seriously doubt it will get that far. One thing I should add, and it may make a difference to you, Don. There are actually two of them--two suspect young men."

"What do you mean?"

"Barry has a cohort who may be in this with him--whatever Barry is up to."

"And who would that be?"

"Bud Radziwill. He's Barry's age, around twenty-seven, and they arrived in the Berkshires together six years ago. They might once have been boyfriends--I'm not sure--and possibly still could be. The two of them are thick as thieves; that I do know. And Bud is as patently phony as Barry is. He tells people he is a 'Kennedy cousin.' He actually goes around announcing that! But, as you no doubt know, Lee Radziwill is Jackie's sister and acquired the Radziwill moniker by marriage to a Polish aristocrat she later divorced. There were two children, a son who died in 1999 and a surviving daughter, Anna. There were no 'Buds' in the Radziwill picture. In any case, it's preposterous to suppose that this fey--ditzy is another word that comes to mind--that this absurd young man is any kind of Kennedy cousin."

I said, "Timothy Callahan once met a Kennedy when Timmy was in the Peace Corps in India. This was some years ago, well before the tables turned and India was busy on the phone instructing Americans on how to make our computers function. Eunice Kennedy Shriver, JFK's sister, visited Timmy at his poultry development project in Andhra Pradesh. He fried her an egg, and she ate it. She told Timmy that a few days earlier Mother Teresa had fixed her an omelet that the nun guaranteed had been made with unfertilized eggs, so there was no chance Mrs. Shriver would inadvertently ingest a tiny fetus."

Sturdivant seemed to ponder this. He said, "Oh, yes. The Peace Corps."

"The farmers Timmy worked with produced unfertilized eggs, too. With so many vegetarians in their customer base, the farmers had to be able to assure everyone that their products contained no meat in any sense."

After a moment, Sturdivant said, "Is this a parable of some kind?"


"I was beginning to wonder if you were attempting to speak to me in code."

"Nope," I said. "It's just a Kennedy story. It's the only firsthand Kennedy story I've got. You're from Massachusetts, Jim. You've probably got dozens."

He sipped his latte again, or perhaps what I heard was not a sip but a sigh. Sturdivant said, "So I'm getting the impression that you are not interested in pursuing this investigation I have proposed. Our friend Preston alerted me that you pick and choose the cases you take."

One of the flies samba-ing on my coffee cup slipped and fell in. The other one flew off. I said, "You can pick your cases, and your friends can pick their cases, but you can't pick your friends' cases."

"Is this more code-talk?"

"No, just an observation."

"So, you'll not take the case?"

"No," I told him, "I will take the case."

"Oh. Excellent!"

I quoted my terms and Sturdivant accepted them. He told me how to find him in the Berkshires, and where Barry Fields and Bill Moore lived in Great Barrington.

"Don, why have you decided to take this on?" Sturdivant asked. "I had the impression you thought I was overreacting and perhaps a bit of a busybody. But don't you agree that there is at least room for suspicion here?"

"Maybe," I said. "I'll find out, and you can take it from there. But mainly I'm interested in collecting another Kennedy story. Timothy's been dining out on the one we've got for decades now, and it's time we came up with a fresh one. Even if Radziwill is a fraud--escaped embezzler Norman Seffenfeffer from Harrisburg, or whatever--it'll qualify as a Kennedy story, if only a faux-Kennedy story. And those can be replete with meaning about American life also."

Apparently this explanation did not inspire confidence in Sturdivant, who after a moment said, "Well, I'm sure you'll bring your full effort and all of your expertise to the investigation, whatever your interest in the situation."

"You're right. I will."

"Thank you."

We made a plan to meet in Great Barrington for dinner after I made some calls and did some Internet digging, and then rang off.

I phoned Timmy at his desk in Assemblyman Lipshutz's office down the hill at the Capitol. "I won't be home for dinner," I told him. "You're going to have to fix your own octopus a strascinasali."

"Well, I always do."

"I'm dining in the Berkshires with a client. The guy wants a friend's younger male fiancé checked out before they tie the knot later in the month. The client suspects a pecuniary motive, which of course is neither illegal nor unprecedented."

"No, lots of people think I hooked up with you for your four hundred shares of Pennsylvania Railroad."

I explained to Timmy how Barry Fields had raised suspicions about his past with his dubious biography and his murky connection to his last boyfriend's death by carbon monoxide poisoning. I told him, too, that Bill Moore was unaware that I would be investigating the man he apparently loved and was planning to marry, and predictably Timmy didn't like that.

"Why isn't Moore being told? That sounds sneaky and presumptuous."

"Sturdivant thinks Moore is so gaga over Fields--who is some kind of knockout looker and charmer--that he won't even consider criticism of the lad or discuss Fields' possible crass motives. Yes, Sturdivant is going behind his friend's back, but he thinks he has no choice. Moore may have some dough, and once the two marry, Fields will become his sole heir."

"This sounds treacherous, Don. Like some swamp of jealousy and petty intrigue. This Sturdivant sounds less like a concerned friend than a major troublemaker."

"Oh, a swamp of jealousy and intrigue. Timothy, has it slipped your mind what it is I do for a living? There are clients, and there are clients. Anyway, this guy is Hello Kitty next to some of the people whose fees I have accepted over the years."

"And lived to regret a few."

"This is true. There's another angle that's tantalizing, though. Fields has a pal who calls himself a Kennedy cousin. Says his name is Bud Radziwill. Sturdivant thinks Bud the Kennedy Cousin is also a phony, and the two of them are up to something."

Timmy laughed. "Bud Radziwill? Even if he's somehow genuine, he'd have to be a Kennedy cousin eight times removed. I knew a Mario Cuomo staffer once whose name was Alan Kennedy, and whenever he went into a bar he'd tell women he was a Kennedy cousin. Over the years dozens of 'amazing chicks,' as he described them, fell into his arms. He'd always say he had just come from a gathering of the clan at Hyannis Port. And of course what he didn't tell these 'chicks' was, he was a cousin of Wally and Angie Kennedy of Utica."

"Timothy, you have all these Kennedy stories, and I have none. I want to meet this Radziwill guy, and then I'll have a Kennedy story too. I hope you won't mind. JFK was your president, you Peace Corps types. I know you're proprietary about him."

"But, Don, you had your president too--LBJ. And you've got plenty of Johnson stories. Or johnson with a small J." He chuckled.

This was an uncharacteristically crude remark from Timmy, and snider than I was used to. I said, "The Vietnamese word for penis is eunice. Did you know this?"

He laughed and hung up, and I got busy.

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