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Cockey's new mystery finds Hitch up to his ears in murders, and the latest clues point to a Baltimore nightclub. Following his nose, Hitch uncovers a host of nefarious goings-on as well as some downright strange characters, including a felonious artist, a Miles Davis wanna-be, an Ida Lupino look-alike, and one very irritated dance instructor. Put them all together, throw in a bag full of cash and an incriminating Polaroid, and you have another surefire, humor-laced hit from one of the freshest voices writing in ...
Cockey's new mystery finds Hitch up to his ears in murders, and the latest clues point to a Baltimore nightclub. Following his nose, Hitch uncovers a host of nefarious goings-on as well as some downright strange characters, including a felonious artist, a Miles Davis wanna-be, an Ida Lupino look-alike, and one very irritated dance instructor. Put them all together, throw in a bag full of cash and an incriminating Polaroid, and you have another surefire, humor-laced hit from one of the freshest voices writing in the mystery world today.
Apparently I was the first person Shrimp Martin called after Lucy Taylor shot him. It was a Saturday afternoon. Early June. The sun was high and I was low. I had a wicked toothache and I had just gotten off the phone with a guy named Roger, who was taking my regular dentist's calls while my regular dentist was away at his vacation house in Jackson Hole, poor guy. Roger sounded gung-ho to see me. He was going to fit me in that afternoon, between a root canal and an extraction. Well, good for Roger. Me, I had no gung-ho at all, just the sore tooth. Just before we hung up, Roger had asked me quite earnestly how my gums were. I didn't know how to answer that question. I was still pondering it when the phone rang.
"Sewell and Sons."
The voice on the other end was raspy and hoarse. Like someone whispering and gargling with glass at the same time. "Who's this?" it rasped.
The voice croaked again. "Who's ... this?"
"You called me," I pointed out. "Sewell and Sons Family Funeral Home. Now. Your turn."
There was a pause. I leaned back even farther in my chair and recrossed my legs, which were up on my desk. Lately, that's where they had been spending a lot of their time. Up on my desk. Not a lot of people were dying these days. My aunt and I were suffering a beginning-of-summer drought. Currently we had only one customer on ice, down in the basement. Mrs. Rittenhouse, from around the corner. Shakespeare Street. Her next-of-kinwas due by any minute to drop off a dress for the viewing. A fact that was about to make this phone call all the more interesting.
A hissing sound was coming over the phone, like air going out of a balloon. I asked again. "Who is this?"
"Ssssssssss.... Shrimp Martin."
Shrimp Martin. Nightclub owner. Blatant self-promoter. Borderline sleaze. A legend in his own mind.
"Shrimp? This is Hitchcock Sewell. What's up? What's wrong with your voice?"
"Lucy," he croaked.
"Lucy?" My heart iced. Nine out of ten people who call me at work are calling to talk about a corpse.
"Lucy. I got that part. What about Lucy?"
"She's ... not ... here."
I switched ears and glanced out the window. Sam and some kids from the neighborhood were hosing down the hearse. Actually, the kids appeared to be hosing down Sam. Who didn't appear to be minding much. Sam's just a big kid anyway. Two hundred and ninety pounds worth.
"Shrimp, why don't we start this whole conversation over? I'm not looking for Lucy. I didn't call you, okay? You called me. So what's up?"
Shrimp sighed again. He sounded irritated. "Who's this?"
Now I was getting irritated. "I told you. It's Hitchcock Sewell, Shrimp. What the hell is going on?"
"Lucy," Shrimp said again. "She's gone. She ... left me. She—" He interrupted his own sentence with another groan. This one stretched out in sort of a singsong fashion, almost a humming. It sounded as if Shrimp was channeling a tone-deaf drunk. Which was the conclusion I was beginning to reach. Not that Shrimp was channeling, but that he was definitely coming to us from the Land of Liquor.
"What do you mean, she's gone?"
Aunt Billie had just stepped into my office. She was holding a rat by the tail, at arm's length. Presumably dead. If not, then faking it nicely.
I palmed the mouthpiece. "Shrimp Martin says that Lucy Taylor has left him."
Billie sniffed. "Lucy Taylor has a brain." She leaned sideways and dropped the dead rat into my brass spittoon. I don't spit. I use it to keep the door propped open. And, apparently, for storing dead rats.
"Mrs. Rittenhouse is all done," Billie announced. "Pretty as a picture. I'm just waiting on her dress."
At that precise instant, the front door opened. I could see a pair of arms wrapped around a blue chiffon number. Well, I call it chiffon. I don't really know these things. It was blue. I made the "voilà" gesture (one-handed version) and Billie floated out to the lobby to do her thing. Shrimp was still gurgling into the phone.
"I'm sorry, Shrimp. I missed that. What were you saying?"
He sounded strained and defeated. "Lucy," he mumbled again. For a man who was refusing to come to a point, he was driving one home nonetheless.
"Yes. Lucy. You just said that she left you. When, Shrimp? When did Lucy leave you?" I was beginning to overenunciate, the way you do when you're trying to get through to a foreigner. Or a child.
"Half ... hour."
"A half hour ago? Jesus, Shrimp, come on. A half hour isn't really an awfully long time."
Billie was coming back into the office. She showed the dead woman's next of kin—granddaughter—to the chair in front of my desk. The young woman plopped down into the chair, the blue dress bunched in her arms like a bag of groceries. I held up a hand to indicate that I'd be right with her. Shrimp finally got to his point.
"She shot ... me."
"She what?" I don't even remember it happening, but my feet were suddenly on the floor and I was standing at my desk. The phone felt tiny in my hand, like it was a child's toy. My sore tooth exploded with pain. "What are you talking about?"
Shrimp wheezed, "Lucy ..." I sank slowly back to my chair as Shrimp struggled to locate enough air to conclude his short sentence. "... shot me."
"When, Shrimp?" I said, cocking an eyebrow at my guest. I noticed that there was a smudge mark on her cheek, the ripening of a fresh bruise. "When did she shoot you?"
Shrimp's answer was depressingly deadpan. "Right before ... she left."
There was a pause, then he added, "I think I've lost a lot of blood."
And the line went dead.
"Shrimp? Shrimp, are you still there?" I did what they do in the movies. Rattled my finger up and down on the little jiggywazzits where you hang up the phone, then I hung up the phone. The young woman in front of me was shifting the dress in her lap. Her hand emerged from underneath it and she set something blue and ugly on my desk.
"How's he doing?" she asked.
I steepled my fingers and lighted my chin on the tippy top. Undertakers have a knack for being able to draw their faces into a blank. That's what I did. Then I reached down with my index finger and swiveled the barrel of the little pistol so that it wasn't aiming directly at me. We're also not idiots. Then I resteepled.
"Well Lucy, I wouldn't say he's sounding terribly chipper. If that's what you're asking."
Lucy Taylor and I go way back. She's an old friend of mine and of my ex-wife, Julia. We were kids together. The three of us grew up within rock-throwing distance of each other down here in the Fell's Point section of Baltimore, which is where all three of us still live. I mean that literally by the way, the rock-throwing distance. When I was twelve and Lucy was nine I beaned her just above the right eye with a rock as she was stepping out the front door of her father's house on Shakespeare Street to take out the trash. I wasn't aiming at her specifically; I was having an especially bad day and was just throwing rocks indiscriminately at the world. Poor Lucy. It is so like her to have this sort of thing happen. Crazy girl was just born to fall into puddles. Anyway, when I beaned her she went down like a small sack of potatoes and I got her up the street to Hopkins as fast as I could. The doctors patched her up with a few stitches then gave me a lecture about how I might have blinded my little friend and should be more careful in the future and all the rest of it. Lucy didn't hold it against me. She knew I had been upset that day and she was completely understanding. But still. I felt terrible, of course, and I doted on Lucy for weeks afterward. I took her to the movies, I plied her with banana splits, I sneaked her down to the basement of my aunt and uncle's funeral home and let her see a dead body. (Let it never be said that I can't show a girl a good time.) I even badgered Julia to badger her parents to let me open a tab for Lucy at the Screaming Oyster Saloon; any old time she wanted, Lucy could go into the Oyster, saddle up to the bar and drink Coca-Colas to her little heart's content. Lucy Taylor loved her Coca-Colas, and in practically no time she was making the trip to the S.O.S. three and four times a day, sometimes more. She'd climb up on the barstool and plant her pointy elbows on the bar and pull nonstop on the twisty straw, then sing out for a refill. I didn't really have the cash to pay my tab, nor did I have the heart to suggest to Lucy that she maybe slow down a little. It seemed to make her so happy, knocking back free Cokes at the Oyster. I offered to Sally, Julia's mom, to do some chores around the place if that would help any, and Sally's response was to hang her large head—no doubt to hide the grin—and ask me only that I'd promise to come visit her and Frank and Julia once they got shipped off to the poorhouse.
One other thing. Julia swears to me that Lucy Taylor was always the way she is, which is something of a hard-luck Harriet. She says that Lucy came into this earth with her fall-in-a-puddle karma firmly in place, that it was already evident well before I cracked her in the head with a rock. As proof, Julia recalls Lucy at age seven, daydreaming so hard on Christmas day that she walked right off the end of the pier and into the harbor. Or a year later, when Lucy went chasing after a stray cat and ended up getting stuck in a drainage pipe and had to be set free with a pickax. And it's true, the general take around the neighborhood has always been that Lucy was a sweet and generous girl—indiscriminately kind (which is what leads a person like Lucy to a person like Shrimp Martin)—but that she was simply born with a card or two already plucked from her deck.
I'm a sucker for a gal in a uniform. This one's name tag identified her as Nancy. Nancy smiled as sweetly as an angel as she plunged a needle into my arm.
"It's very good of you to offer a blood donation, Mr. Sewell. We're in one of those low phases. People just aren't donating the way they used to." Nurse Nancy nibbled on her lower lip as she pulled back on the plunger, sucking the life force out of me. "O negative. We can always use O negative around here." She smiled up at me as she flicked free the knot on the elastic around my arm.
"All done. You might feel a little woozy for a while. We recommend that you don't drive until you've rested and had something to eat."
"Perhaps you'd care to join me," I said, rolling the sleeve of my muslin shirt back down over my elbow. "The Hopkins Deli makes these gargantuan sandwiches. Do you get breaks around here?"
She shook her head. "We don't leave the floor." She labeled the vials of my blood and stowed them in a small Styrofoam carrying case.
"I could get a sandwich and bring it back," I said.
"The sandwich you describe sounds too big to carry."
Big grin. "I'm a packhorse. I can manage it."
Small smile. "Thank you. But no thank you." She zinged open the curtain that had secluded us from the rest of the world. There it was, just as we'd left it. Cradling my blood, the nurse stepped away silently on her white rubber shoes.
Shrimp Martin was still in surgery. When I had arrived at the hospital I had been told by one of the EMS workers who brought him in that Shrimp had been found unconscious in his living room, lying on top of the phone. He had lost a lot of blood, as indeed he had hypothesized to me over the phone. I sensed a touch-and-go vibe. I could probably get away here with pretending that it was the news of how much blood Shrimp had lost that prompted me to offer a donation of my own. It wasn't. It was Nurse Nancy. The uniform. Something perversely sexy about all that starched white. She wore a blond bob and a shy smile and had seemed enthusiastic about taking me up on my offer that she go at me with a needle.
Soon after my blood donation, I got a report. Shrimp was stabilized. They were still working on him, but he was going to survive. He had taken a single bullet in his stomach. It apparently ripped sideways, right to left, and meddled with a few important organs before exiting directly through his left kidney. In all senses, the kidney was shot, and so the doctors were removing it. One of the emergency room surgeons had emerged from behind a pair of automatic doors—his green smock smeared with blood, his hands wrapped in prophylactic—to let me know about the kidney.
"We're going to perform an emergency nephrectomy," he said. He seemed to want to know where I stood on nephrectomies. I stood nowhere. "He'll live a normal life," he added. Apparently this guy didn't know Shrimp.
The doctor excused himself and went back into the operating room to nephrect. A uniformed policeman came off the elevator and beelined for the nurse's station. I beelined into the stairwell. I wasn't in the mood for chatting with the police. Not yet anyway. I pictured poor Lucy slumped in the chair in my office and the Papa Bear in me simply came out. I just wasn't ready to turn her over. Besides which, my tooth was pulsing with a disco beat by this time and I was feeling very cranky. Cops don't generally like cranky. So really, I was doing this for him, too. I went round and round and up and up and up, and came out on a quiet floor. I strolled to the end of the corridor and gazed out a window onto a gravel rooftop several stories below. Two guys in green overalls were smearing tar around some sort of vent, a bubble-shaped aluminum thing with fan blades. Two pigeons on a nearby exhaust chimney were watching them. A blimp was floating, off in the distance. Pimlico racetrack. I remembered. The Anniversary Stakes were today. Technically, I should have been finding a TV. I had a hundred bucks in the Screaming Oyster pool. A horse called Tango Wallop. I'm not really a horse guy. It was names from a hat. Simple bar betting. Tango Wallop's odds were middling to crappy, which was probably why I wasn't scaling tall mountains and fording great seas in search of a TV set.
Eventually I found my way back to the emergency room. The uniformed cop had left. Shame. It occurred to me that I should be hitting the phones, but I really wasn't sure whom to call. I knew Shrimp had a sister. I had met her once down at the club. A big soft overweight girl who cornered me for three years one evening and melted both my ears on the subject of tarts and strudels and hot-cross buns. The Martin family, so I learned, has been running the extremely popular Mabel's Bakeries for several generations, ever since Great-granddaddy Martin opened the first shop down on Preston Street a century or so ago. As I recall the tale, Shrimp's refusal to follow in the footsteps of his father and his father's father's father had resulted in the sister now being groomed to take over the bread and pastry dynasty when the time came for Daddy to step down. Apparently there was bad blood between Shrimp and his father as a result of this bucking of tradition. The sister was clearly both fond of her brother and thrilled to be next in line to run the bakery dynasty. Standing there in the hospital I could conjure her face and her soft doughy presence, but I couldn't snag the name.
I found a phone out in the waiting area and called Billie to let her know that Shrimp was pulling through. I asked her if Lucy had shared with her yet her reasons for taking a shot at him.
"I can't get a peep out of her, Hitchcock. She's just sitting over in the corner staring out the window. I gave her some Coca-Cola and we put some ice on that cheek. She's looking like a very sad raccoon."
"Put her on the phone, will you?"
While I waited for Lucy to come on, I snagged a young doctor who was passing by and asked him what he'd recommend for a sore tooth. He recommended Tylenol. Just like they say on TV. Billie came back on the line and told me that Lucy didn't want to talk.
"Did you tell her that Shrimp is going to pull through?"
"What did she say to that?"
"Very little." Billie's voice lowered. "What about the police, Hitchcock? I believe they like to be told about these sorts of things."
"They know," I said. "A cop has already been here."
"What did you tell him?"
"Well ... I didn't actually speak with him. I want to give Lucy a chance to snap out of it first. This is going to be rough on her. It's the least we can do."
"I suppose we can plead ignorance," Billie mused. "I mean, I am so tragically daft, after all."
"Loopy as a loon," I said.
"There you have it."
"As spacey as Sputnik."
"If you will."
"The queen of the senior moment. Voted most likely to—"
"Okay, young man, you've made your point."
We hung up. I called Roger and left a message with his answering service that an emergency had come up and I wouldn't be able to come in this afternoon after all. Shrimp was just then being wheeled out of surgery. The bloodied surgeon gave me the rundown. Shrimp had pulled through. He'd be in the hospital for a few days at the very least. Henceforth, he'd be filtering all of his toxins through his remaining kidney but the doctor assured me that this should pose no real problem. I returned to the waiting area and dropped into one of the molded plastic chairs. And slumped. The damn tooth was pulsing, more like Morse code now. The TV set in the corner by the ceiling was showing a red-haired chef waving her arms through volumes of smoke and crying out "I live to feed!" I was too lazy to go channeling for the Anniversary Stakes. Tango Wallop didn't stand a chance anyway; I could kiss that Franklin bye-bye. I picked up the only magazine on the glass table in front of me, but decided I wasn't really motivated to learn how to put the zing back in my marriage. A hundred and one ways. My marriage with Julia had lasted exactly one year. We had relocated the zing simply by bagging the marriage. I doubted the magazine was going to offer this sort of advice. I settled in and gazed up at the chef. For no reason that I was able to discern, she had donned a red clown's nose and was wielding her spatula like a microphone.
I tuned my thoughts back to Shrimp Martin. Shrimp, Shrimp, Shrimp ... Hell, I didn't even know the guy's real name. Why in the world he would have called me instead of 911 was something that I had not yet worked out. It wasn't as if old Shrimpster and I were backslapping buddies. I had only met the guy several months previous, the night that Shrimp's and Lucy's orbits had first crossed. Julia and I had taken Lucy over to Shrimp's nightclub as part of Julia's campaign to help poor Lucy bounce back from her latest romantic misstep. A little music-soothes-the-soul therapy. As it happened, the tactic blew up in our faces when the club's torch singer had opened her set with "I'll Be Seeing You" and Lucy beat a tearful retreat to the women's room. "Old familiar place," Julia noted wryly. A few minutes later—still no Lucy—a bucket full of ice and champagne had arrived at our table, followed by an unctuous fellow in a white dinner jacket, bad skin and a fox-in-the-henhouse smile. Shrimp Martin. I recognized him from his numerous suck-up poses with club patrons and local celebrities in the photographs that were tacked up on the walls just inside the club's front door. I had already noticed a chubby guy with a camera prowling about. Clearly, the nightclub owner had Julia Finney in his sights. Aside from being arguably the sexiest woman on the Eastern seaboard, Julia is also a highly successful and celebrated painter. She's been hung all over the world. It was abundantly clear that Shrimp was a major hobnobber. While Shrimp jimmied elaborately with the champagne cork, Julia had preened and cooed and made such big can-you-believe-this-jerk eyes at me that I thought the lovely brown bulbs were going to fall right out of their sockets. Shrimp finally wrestled the cork from the bottle, losing half the bubbly over his wrist. It was just then that Fate had trotted forward, dressed up this time as Lucy Taylor. Eyes red and childlike from her bathroom crying jag, a big gooey smile grew on Lucy's face as she approached the table. "Champagne? Oh, I love champagne!" And the smooth operator holding the bottle hadn't missed a beat, grabbing hold of the empty chair and sliding it back from the table. "My compliments," he crooned as he tucked little Lucy into the table. And then he introduced himself. "I'm Shrimp Martin," he said, giving a slight bow. "Mi casa es su casa." Lucy summarily beamed and blushed and handed over her tiny paw to the next mistake in her life. "Lucy Taylor," she chirped. "Nice casa."
"Lean in folks!"
Flash! The chubby photographer captured the moment.
A phone freed up. I dug out another quarter. I had a date that night that I wasn't particularly looking forward to, but the prospect of trading it in for a hospital vigil seemed a worse bet. I really did need to get someone else to come down here and take over the Shrimp vigil. I called Julia's cell phone. I hate cell phones. Julia loves them. You tell me, was that marriage not doomed?
"Where are you?" I asked when Julia answered, which in the era of cell phones is the greeting that has replaced "Hello." Julia, it turned out, was way the hell out in the county. Our connection sounded aquatic.
"I'm at the Manor Tavern," she burbled.
"What are you doing way up there?" I asked.
"Ha ha. I needed to get out of the city, Hitch. It's too darned hot."
I scanned for a song lyric quip but found nothing. "How did you get out there, anyway?" Julia doesn't drive. Generally, she takes taxis. Or she is squired.
"His name is Tom," she said.
I nodded sagely. "His name is Tom."
"He is a gentleman and a scholar."
"He's a polite professor?"
"Oh. You're having problems with your phone?"
She giggled. It sounded more like a gurgle. "Not anymore."
"Jules, this still doesn't explain why you're out in the county."
"I told you, I wanted some fresh air. Tom was fixing my phone. He had his repair truck. He offered to take me for a drive. He's gorgeous, Hitch. Male. Blue jeans. Tool belt."
"Jules, listen. We've got a situation here. I'm at Union Memorial. Shrimp Martin has been shot and—"
"He's been what?"
"Shot. You know. Bullet? Entry wound? The—"
"Holy Jesus. How's Lucy? Does she know? Is she there?"
I took a deep breath. "Here's the thing. Lucy is the one who shot him."
I had to pull back from the phone. "What? Lucy shot him? Jesus Christ, Hitch! Where is she? Is she under arrest? Oh God ... this is so Lucy."
"Slow down. She's with Billie right now," I said. "Everything's fine. We're going to pretend that we were too scattered to think about calling the police right away. Billie's keeping an eye on her. She's pretty much in shock, I think."
"Shrimp's going to live, by the way. I know that was your next question."
"Oh, Shrimp Martin is an idiot, Hitch. Someone was bound to shoot him sooner or later. So come on, tell me. What happened?"
"I really couldn't get anything out of Lucy. I have to guess it was some kind of accident. Here's the thing. Can you get your stud muffin to run you back into town? I need you to get over to Billie's. I think you're the person she needs to see."
"Of course. I'll come in right away."
"I also need to get someone to baby-sit Shrimp down here. I've got a date in a few hours."
"Date? It wouldn't be with that dancer, would it?"
"Your enthusiasm is underwhelming."
I grumbled. "We'll go to a restaurant and she won't eat. We'll go to this big dance performance she has choreographed and I won't get it. Do you hear the theme of 'unfulfilling' running through this?"
"What about afterward? Have you two knocked knees yet?" Julia has been racking up euphemisms for sex for as long as she has been racking up sex itself. Ergo, she's got a ton of them.
I told her that I didn't know if "yet" was the right word. "Dead end" was pretty much written all over this one.
"Hitch, is there really any reason for you to even go on this date? Why don't you call her up and give her the perfectly acceptable excuse that you have been called to the hospital bedside of a friend in need?"
Excerpted from THE HEARSE CASE SCENARIO by Tim Cockey. Copyright © 2002 by Tim Cockey. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted January 27, 2002
At Baltimore¿s Sewell and Sons Family Funeral Home, mortician and wannabe private detective Hitchcock Sewell receives the call from nightclub owner Shrimp Martin during a slow period in which Death takes a vacation. Shrimp, barely able to speak, mumbles that before Lucy Taylor left him she shot him. Later Shrimp is found dead. <P>The police have one prime suspect Lucy. Though he believes Lucy shot Shrimp, Hitch refuses to accept his childhood friend as the murderess. He begins an investigation using his most incognito vehicle, the hearse. His inquiry leads Hitch to Pete Munger of Munger and Associates private investigation company who has been hired to find Shrimp¿s missing stepbrother. The amateur and the licensed agree to partner their resources to uncover the truth about a murder (or two) and a missing person. <P> The third Hearse amateur sleuth tale is a weird case that contains Tim Cockey¿s all over the place sense of humor as the hero is parts reverent, parts street smart, and parts corny. The who-done-it entertains the audience thanks to a strong secondary cast that propels the plot forward and enables the fans to better understand Hitch. Fans of amusing amateur sleuth stores will want to read THE HEARSE CASE SCENARIO and the previous two novels due to Hitch, who knows that sooner or later he will get his man or woman. <P>Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.