Jackson Parkby Charlotte Carter, C. Carter
It is the
From the acclaimed author of the Nanette Hayes mystery novels comes a thrilling new series featuring an unforgettable trio of sleuths. By turns gritty and gracefully written, Jackson Park is a compelling novel of noir suspense—a fast-paced page-turner that is also a glimpse inside Black life in Chicago during a pivotal moment in American history.
It is the Spring of 1968. After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the city of Chicago is a powder keg ready to explode. Against this tense backdrop, there is Woodson and Ivy Lisle, an elegant couple living in a shabby chic apartment hotel in Cook County’s Hyde Park. Both are proud patriarchs of a large, extended family, which includes their twenty-year-old grandniece, Cassandra, a college student standing at the crossroads— and on the brink of a troubling mystery involving the missing granddaughter of an old family friend.
Fearing for the girl’s safety, Woody, Ivy, and Cassandra begin a determined investigation. What they uncover is a chilling link to an old murder case. Now a shattering secret of the past threatens all who try to expose it.
Read an Excerpt
Just how good was the good life for us over there in Africa? It kind of makes you wonder.
Long before there was a South Side of Chicago, I mean. Long before the Afro pick or the Negro spiritual or George Wallace. Before the martyred students at the lunch counters and under the quicklime. Before heroin and tap dancing, before the Harlem Renaissance and before the nightmare of the real Gone with the Wind.
To hear the poets tell it, we were all kings and princes. But I don’t think I was. I think I was an ordinary Joe—make that Jill, as I am a girl—and I was probably just as fucked up and out of it as I am today.
But what’s the use of that kind of speculation? The point is, they came and got us. Royal lineage or no, it was the cotton patch, the missy’s kitchen, and the massah’s bed.
And so the slave called Solomon Lisle begat the one called Edmond who begat Arthur who begat Harold and Leland—and oh, there was an awful lot of that going on over the course of some two hundred years. Ultimately, in the American belle epoque, my great-uncle Woody was begat.
Most of the Lisle men sired offspring at will. Woody’s lovely wife Ivy wanted babies so much, she did everything short of visiting a witch doctor. They tried and tried, but she was unable to have children. Be careful what you wish for, the saying goes. They wound up with me.
Despite that little joke that fate played on them, they nourished and loved me, and now I’m almost twenty. They even pop for most of my tuition at Debs College, where I’m an English major, making me the inadvertent token in that augustdepartment.
Debs College looks more like an office building than a university. Situated in the middle of the Loop, its campus is the whole of downtown Chicago, and for a quad we have the splendor of Grant Park, as commodious a place to sit and think as any that I could imagine.
So why in hell am I in the underlit, smoke-laden student hangout bar, whimsically named the Yacht Club, making lists on a paper napkin of the names of Woody’s forebears?
I’m half drunk and I’m stalling, that’s why. I have to go and see a goodly number of the clan at the annual Lisle family gala, being held tonight at the Parkway Inn. I’m already forty minutes late.
Hard to believe: MLK is eight days dead. And here I am on a barstool trying to recall the names of some distant cousins who live in Joliet. It seems so strange. But then, everything has taken on a kind of unreality since they murdered Dr. King.
My friend Bobby Vaughan came in and took the stool next to mine.
“Hey. I couldn’t get a booth,” I said. “It’s packed in here tonight.”
The Yacht Club was in fact crowded every Friday evening. In addition to the usual mix of customers, downtown office workers tended to come in on Friday to celebrate week’s end with communal pizzas and too much to drink.
Bobby ordered a beer.
“How come you’re here, Vaughan? No hot date on a Friday night? That doesn’t sound like you.”
“I’m getting together with somebody—later.”
“That’s more like it. A midnight rendezvous. Have fun.”
He laughed indulgently. “Don’t get carried away, Cassandra. We going to a movie at seven-thirty. Seven-thirty ain’t midnight.”
As unlikely as it was, Bobby was my closest friend, emphasis on friend. Not that I wasn’t happy with that—I was, I loved him—but sometimes I let myself wonder if he’d ever look at me in a different way. I told myself all the time: if you were normal, he might. If you weren’t so goddamn odd looking, he might one day look at you the way he looks at the girls he sleeps with.
I should say “the sisters” he sleeps with, shouldn’t I? Except I knew more about Bobby Vaughan than he thought I knew. His sex life was not limited to black women, no matter how quiet he kept that.
I had no business wondering about that stuff, though. Bobby was tall and strong and as handsome as the wild chestnut mount in a girl’s illustrated story book. He attracted more female attention than he could have handled in three lifetimes.
I never had that kind of problem. Men have a habit of looking right through me. I’m carrying about twenty pounds more than I need. I’m not ugly, exactly, but I have a face devoid of any lovely planes or angles and my red hair, which I wear in a fat braid down my back, is neither kinky nor romantically curly; it is simply unruly. Nearsighted, I wear rimless spectacles, which, thanks partly to John Lennon, have become fashionable. I remember looking over at another student one day during chemistry class. He was drawing caricatures of various people in the room, including the professor, an almost freakishly tall young white man the students had nicknamed Bird Boy. I was featured on the sketch pad as well, as a barn owl.
“You know how many names I have so far?” I asked Bobby.
“Names, Bobby! Are you listening or not? Aunts, grandparents, cousins, in-laws, whatever. Any relative I can remember ever meeting.”
“Damn, Cassandra. You really are crazy, you know that? What the fuck are you doing that for?”
“Think about it,” I said. “I’ve only mentioned it six or seven hundred times.”
“Oh yeah. Right. You got that reunion thing coming up.”
I ordered another beer, drank it quickly.
And then I erupted. “Jesus Christ! He’s barely in the grave. Why the fuck does this show have to go on? Who cares about a stupid family reunion now? I wish they had burned down the fucking Parkway Inn.”
“Take it easy, girl. My family can be a drag, too. But I don’t hate them.”
“I didn’t say I hated them, did I? I don’t hate them, I hate everybody.”
My tears came in a sudden torrent. Uncontrollable, wrenching sobs. People were staring. Oh Jesus, were they staring. What did they think? I knew I was humiliating Bobby, but I couldn’t help myself. I hurt.
He sat there speechless as a brick. He’s never going to forgive me, I thought. But then he reached over and pulled some paper napkins from the dispenser and handed them to me.
In another moment I quieted. Then I attempted to apologize to him, “Sorry. I’m so sorry. Must be some kind of delayed reaction.” My voice was so low I’m sure he didn’t hear a word.
“It’s okay. You’re okay now,” he said at last. “Get another beer and drink it slow.”
“No, no, I can’t. I have to go. I’ve got snot on my face, right?”
“You do not, girl. Go on ahead. I’ll see you later.”
I climbed down from the bar stool and was out of there like a shot. I didn’t even say so long.
I caught the southbound “B,” the Jackson Park line, at the Harrison Station. Those scary electric sparks popped beneath the wheels of the car, flared up, and burned out like fireflies. I used the train’s greasy window as a mirror. I double-checked the snot situation and then put on a little of the lipstick I’d been carrying in my purse since tenth grade.
Besides the weight and the glasses and the long-out-of-date shade of lipstick, I am going on twenty and I’m still a virgin. It makes me sick.
The train emerged from the tunnel onto the blackened elevated tracks that cut through the South Side, straight on to the Jackson Park terminus. End of the line, no joke. I often tried to imagine the scraggly area as the glorious pavilion it had been in 1893, at the World Columbian Fair. They called it the White City, which amused me no end.
The el snaked along past old buildings with blown-out windows, leaning into the rusty curves like an old speed skater. One day, I always thought, one day this goddamn train is going to fall and I’m going down with it. I’d have given anything to be back in the Yacht Club with Bobby rather than heading to the family party.
I had been in the Yacht Club last week, too—the day after King was assassinated. Usually that dive pulsed from ten a.m. to closing with students, teachers, shoppers, and blue-collar drunks. But that afternoon, the day after the murder, Bobby and I were two of only a handful of patrons. We sat next to each other, talking low, not talking at all, swallowing tears and no-name brown ale.
“Martin was no longer effective,” Bobby pronounced. “But that didn’t stop him from being beautiful. He was still beautiful.”
Somebody, clinging to the shadows in one of the booths at the rear, kept feeding coins into the jukebox. Over and over, they played the same two songs—“The Midnight Hour” and “Ode to Billy Joe.”
Whenever I felt I had no place else to go, I set out for the college. Bobby and I had decided, independent of each other, to come to school that day. It was as if everybody else knew instinctively to stay behind closed doors. Ivy and Woody were sitting numbly in their bedroom with the TV on when I slipped out.
That April day had been pleasantly bright and quiet, like the end of the world. I rode downtown virtually alone on the Michigan Avenue bus. No traffic. Stores shuttered. The occasional passerby with a death mask for a face. Doom in the air.
The corridors of the college were deserted; all classes canceled, said the handwritten note on the main entrance. I stood in the deserted lobby feeling, and I knew, looking, utterly lost. I sent up a prayer of thanks when Bobby appeared on the stairs. He looked sleepless, unwashed. Without speaking, we left the building and turned into the Yacht Club next door. One pitcher of beer after another. One cigarette after another. We made bitter jokes and used the ugliest curse words we knew. We stayed in the bar drinking all day and into the night.
If the novels and movies hadn’t been lying to me, Bobby and I were supposed to spend that night together. Both of us hurt and furious, paralyzed and mourning. If there was ever a time for us to go off somewhere and make love, that night was it. But we didn’t. By nightfall the city had gone up in flames. North Side, West Side, and South, the dense, rotting neighborhoods burned. The ghettoes—that dumbass word that so rankled and yet was indisputably appropriate—they burned. As if the bloody Negro past itself were being incinerated.
Eventually the fires were quelled and city life started again. So did school. In lit class we picked up Emma Bovary right where we left her; I went back to my standard lunches of grilled cheese sandwiches and sweet rolls in the cafeteria; and the much adored history professor, Daniel Bluestein, lectured us on Emma Goldman and gave high marks to the paper I wrote on the Soviet underground press.
“Cass. There you are. Come here and hug me. Don’t you look . . . ah . . . devil may care.”
It was only then, when Aunt Ivy used that phrase, that I remembered: I should have changed before coming to the party.
I was in a washed-out floral Indian print top, my trusty bell bottoms, and big, road-soiled work boots. Ivy wore a navy blue frock at exactly the fashionable length, just above her dimpled knees. At age—what?—fifty-six? fifty-eight?—she was a size eight with a minuscule waist, gorgeous skin, slender arms and hands, and beautifully tapered legs without a single visible mark, let alone a varicose vein.
She brushed a few wild strands of hair back from my face and planted a loving kiss on my brow. Then she interlaced her fingers with mine and just stood there looking at me while I blushed helplessly.
Ivy’s eyes were gray—kind, but strangely opaque. When I was little I thought she could see in the dark like the patchy old tom cat to whom my grandmother would occasionally toss a scrap of food.
Ivy and Woody were not the typical mom and dad. I didn’t have many friends whose parents could be a source of comparison, but it didn’t take me long to realize just how different Ivy and Woody were. Not knowing thing one about raising a kid, let alone a melancholy preadolescent, they were constantly improvising. They spoiled me rotten in some ways. It was glorious. Getting over on them became so easy I got bored with it.
Ivy, with her infallible manners, unfailing tact, and matching good taste, made a lady of me, more or less. At least I’d know how to behave like one if the situation ever arose.
She took my arm and walked with me into the main room. Ordinarily dozens of decked-out relations, young and old from near and far, would be half in the bag and seriously partying at this stage of the annual get-together. Tonight, I could count the attendees using my fingers and toes.
The hall was like the waiting room at a cancer clinic. No one dancing to the live music that Woody had arranged at no small cost to himself. Nor were there any welcoming smiles on the few faces I did see.
“Not very festive, is it?” Ivy said. Tears gathered at the bottom rims of her eyes.
“Why go through with it?” I asked, trying not to sound too testy. “I mean—” I stopped there and gestured at the huge, underpopulated room.
“I know. But we decided it was too late to call it off. Besides, it might be the best thing, Woody said, to have the whole family together at a time like this. People need to know they still have family, something to count on even when the worst thing in the world happens. We may be laid low but we are not afraid. We’re going to move forward, no matter what.”
A stirring speech. But if those words had come out of my uncle’s mouth, I was Lois Lane. No, those were her sentiments. Bet on it. She had convinced Woody to go ahead with the plan, and convinced herself of that rah-rah-we-shall-overcome bullshit.
“Have something to eat, Cass,” she said. “Unless you’re on a diet.”
“I’m not on a diet, Ivy.”
I checked out her weird eyes again. She wasn’t crying and she didn’t look afraid. She looked grief stricken and maybe a little crazy. Before I could speak again, she turned on her heel and walked off.
I made a circle around the buffet table, taking in the bounty: turkeys, hams, chickens, rolls, cornbread, every variety of white and sweet potato known to man, macaroni and cheese, fresh tomatoes, collards, fruit cobblers, coconut, chocolate and yellow cakes, cheeses, melons, berries, candies.
I had a sudden flash of memory. When I was thirteen or so, I got up very early one morning and stole into the kitchen. We had had a cream pie for dessert the previous night and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Ivy switched on the light and caught me reaming out the pie plate with my finger. I felt like the worst kind of pervert.
An old man in his wheelchair propelled himself up to the table just then. The young girl walking alongside him fixed a plate and handed it to him. They rolled away again, all without saying a word. Not very festive. Ain’t that the truth.
My big white plate was still empty.
“So, Cass, I see you made it.”
I gave Woody a quick kiss. “Yeah, here I am.”
He always smelled of lime-scented aftershave, tobacco, and laundry starch. Tall and bony with features sharp as granite, he could easily be riding shotgun on the running board of one of those old cars in a James Cagney movie. Dark and sexy in a pinstripe suit. Slicked-back hair with none of the gray that now streaked through it. Someday, I’m going to ask Ivy how close she came to fainting the first time he kissed her.
They say that as you lay dying—if you’re lucky, that is—you kind of relive all the beautiful things that graced your life. In my delirium, I’ll be taking a walk on a Sunday afternoon with my Uncle Woody.
He never set foot in church, so he and I used to go exploring on Sunday until it was time to pick up Ivy from Calvary Methodist. After the three of us enjoyed a lingering lunch someplace, we’d walk home through the deserted University of Chicago campus.
Uncle Woody had the same awestruck respect for education that so many elder blacks did. And like them, he had had little formal schooling himself. The very definition of a self-taught man, he’d no doubt picked up his insistence on life’s finer things from his early experiences as a waiter, valet, chauffeur, and so on, to a series of wealthy white men now long dead.
Grandma Rosetta told me that Woody’s sophistication arose from his work as a Pullman porter. But Ivy said that was nonsense, Woody had never been any such thing.
My grand-uncle Woodson Lisle had also been a collector for a colored mobster, a bootlegger, a hired hand for generations of dirty Chicago politicians, the mastermind behind the booming policy racket, the moneyman in a long-established illegal betting parlor.
So it was said.
There was no way, really, to separate the apocrypha from the reality and Woody never confirmed nor denied any of it.
Back on the streets of the neighborhood where Woody was born and raised, he was still talked about. Though he and Ivy had long ago moved out and up to the Bellingham Apartment Hotel in Hyde Park, people from the old neighborhood still sometimes brought their burdens to his door.
He was their last and sometimes only hope for raising money for a wayward son’s bail, sending a young girl down South for the term of her pregnancy, obtaining a bank loan for house repairs.
“Your aunt’s not happy,” he said. And that was about the extent of his comments on the party.
Made sense. There didn’t seem to be a lot else to say. This was obviously the least well attended family do in the reunion’s twenty-year history. As dumb an idea as I thought it was to have the party, I was sorry for Woody and Ivy. They’d gone to a great deal of expense.
Eventually I did help my plate. I could barely taste the food, though. So I scraped it all into the nearest bin and went over to the open bar where I asked for a beer.
Feeling a tug on the back of my shirt, I turned to see who it was. Well, now, this was another record breaker.
“Hero,” I said. “What are you doing here?” I didn’t mean that the way it came out. Uncle Hero was a family member, but I wouldn’t expect to see him here even in the best of times.
The sunken-eyed man stood there taking me in, a shy kind of smile on his lips. “How you doing, Cass?”
“You looking good.”
“Thanks. You look—it’s great to see you, too.” Okay. So there. We’d lied to each other.
Richie Lisle—known around the old neighborhood as Hero—was Woody’s nephew, the son of Woody’s oldest brother. In all the years of the Lisle reunions he had never once attended. More or less a contemporary of my mother’s, he’d known me since I was a baby, and at one time I had hopes for him as a kind of big brother. That didn’t work out. Now that he was grown, he and I had an uneasy, arms-length relationship. Even so, I pitied him for what his life might have been.
He had served with distinction in Korea, earning enough ribbons and stars to fill a pawn shop display case. We all knew the story of how, bleeding and hobbled, he rescued two fellow marines without regard for his own life.
But when that war ended he came home to Chicago, to Forest Street and the hundred others like it, and then life really got tough for him. For a while, Richie the hero wasn’t allowed to pay for a drink. He began college on the GI bill but soon dropped out. His running buddies were no longer the young men he’d grown up with in the neighborhood but slick characters that his mother never ceased warning him against. Eventually Hero stopped inviting his friends into his parents’ home. He had become a ferocious consumer of heroin.
It took the all-too-common toll on his faculties and wrought some changes that no one could have predicted. He survived through petty theft and housebreaking, a gig here and there washing dishes or bellhopping at downtown hotels. But mostly he lived off his elderly parents. They nursed him when he was junk sick, pretended not to notice as he pilfered goods from the house. They attended to him, visited him in prison, rushed him to hospitals, prayed for him, and then they died within eight months of each other.
Desolate at the passing of his mother and father, Hero cracked up and was soon sent away to the state facility at Kankakee. He returned to the neighborhood overmedicated and haunted looking. The rumors circulated about what kind of horrors he had undergone. He’d been lobotomized, some said. Others maintained the doctors in the crazy house had weaned him off heroin, but he wasn’t a man anymore.
Woody assumed responsibility for Hero. Scared and berated him. Put him to work as a messenger, driver, cleaner—whatever circumstances dictated—swabbing the halls in one of the small apartment buildings Woody owned or waiting behind the wheel for him while he collected rents or dropped in on one of the wealthy black politicians.
Hero was good-looking when he was a young man. I remember that. A small, wiry build, handsome, swift, coffee-colored, lovely brown hair. I searched his face for the last bits of recognizable life.
“You seen Woody, Cassandra?” He was fidgeting.
“A few minutes ago, I did.”
“Where he at now?”
“Maybe the men’s room. What’s going on?”
“Somebody need to see him. They got a problem can’t wait.”
“Mr. Jackson, from around the way.”
Woody was walking toward us by then, poker-faced.
“What is it, Richie?” he said. He always called Hero by his real name. I hope never to hear Woody say my name in that tone, which wasn’t one of hatred but stony disdain.
“Woody, Mr. Jackson’s outside waiting for you.”
“Which Mr. Jackson is that?”
“Clay Jackson from over on Forest.”
“What does he want?”
“He says it’s an emergency.”
Woody gestured with his head and Hero led the way out of the room, down the stairs, and outdoors. Uninvited, I followed them.
Clay Jackson was probably not that much older than Woody, but it sure looked like life had been a lot harder on him. His back was bent, his hair snow white.
“Good evening, Clay. Long time.” Woody touched the older man rather tenderly on his shoulder and used his other hand to fish his cigarettes from his jacket. “Richie tells me you have an emergency.”
“It’s Lavelle, Mr. Woody. My granddaughter. I can’t find her nowhere.”
“You mean she left home—ran away?”
“No. She don’t run nowhere excep’ wit those niggers burned down the dime store last week. She was mostly home with me after they did it. But then my neighbor say he saw the police arrest her. He say she was on the street and wasn’t doing nothing wrong. They just pick her up real fast, put her in the car, and cut out.
“I been trying to find her ever since. Wanna know where they got her so I could see ’bout her bail. But they tell me they don’t have record of arresting no Lavelle Jackson. By now they done let go all them niggers burning and looting and acting a fool. But no Lavelle. Why would they keep her? Why they act like they don’t know who she is?”
“When did this neighbor see her get picked up?” Woody asked.
“Four days ago. Something happened to her, Mr. Woody. I can feel it. They did something to Lavelle.”
Woody watched the old man, who seemed to grow even more upset once he stopped talking.
“All right, Clay. You come inside a minute. Catch your breath, sit down and have a drink. I want to ask you some more questions. Richie can run you home when we’re finished.”
Woody held the door and allowed me to enter first. Then he guided Mr. Jackson through. We waited for Hero to step in as well.
“That’s okay,” he mumbled. “Ima wait for y’all down here.”
He was speaking to Woody but not looking at him. Instead his eyes followed the stream of traffic on South Parkway.
Uncle Woody stationed Mr. Jackson on a bench near the pay phone. I’d Bogarded my way into the conference downstairs. But I wasn’t bold enough to crash this discussion. Reluctantly, I began to walk back into the banquet room.
“It’s all right, Cassandra,” Woody called to me. “Stay.”
I didn’t have to be asked twice.
“Clay, who was it that saw Lavelle being arrested?”
“Moe Pruitt. He live on the corner, second floor, right across from Pleasant’s. That’s where it happened.”
Pleasant’s Corner Grocery. Another artifact of my childhood. It was where I’d buy my candy when Grandma gave me a dime. Forest Street residents bought all their necessities at Pleasant’s. It sounded as if the rioters had spared it.
“And what did Moe say exactly?” Woody asked.
“Say he saw Lavelle come out the store. Soon as she turn the corner a cop come out of nowhere and push her into the squad car.”
“Did she fight with him? Scream?”
“No. Moe didn’t say that.”
“Clay, what kind of girl is Lavelle? You said she was running with the looters last week. Is she in with any of the gangs? She been in trouble with the law before?”
Jackson didn’t answer. He clearly didn’t want to meet Woody’s eyes.
“Do you want to find her, man?” Woody said sharply. “You want my help finding her? ’Cause if you do, you better answer me. And answer me straight. Understand?”
The old man nodded. “I don’t know everything Lavelle get up to. I tried to tell her, so many times. ‘Watch who you go round with, girl.’ I say, ‘Lavelle, a woman can’t run the streets like the men do. These niggers out here use you up before you twenty-one years old.’ But I can’t keep up with her. I’m too old. She might get up to trouble but she ain’t a bad girl. I’d know if she was really bad. She don’t have neither mother nor father living. Just me. And I’d know.”
“So she has been in trouble.”
“Once or twice.”
“What for? She got a record?”
My uncle’s earlier kindly manner had dropped away. He was all business now. “What for, goddammit? Prostitution? Shoplifting?”
“Yeah, bof of those.”
Woody lit another cigarette. “Give me Moe’s telephone number.”
“He don’t have a phone.”
“Any particular nigger Lavelle was running with?”
“I don’t think so. If she do, she don’t bring him around.”
“Did she ever talk about her friends? Mention any of their names?”
“There mighta been somebody named Luther, I think. He called the house a couple of times.”
“No last name?”
“No. Just Luther.”
“What about girlfriends?”
“She sometime went out to see a gal she went to school with—June Barker.”
“The Barker house is that old white one in the middle of the block,” I said.
“Um hum, that’s right,” Clay confirmed. “June be Coleman Barker’s granddaughter. God rest his soul. You and me and Barker come up together, remember? You was a couple of years behind us. My brother—”
Woody stopped him midreminiscence. “The Barker girl, does she live in the white house now?”
Woody was being curt with Mr. Jackson. But I understood why. The old man had to be reminded to stick to the facts, like they used to say on Dragnet.
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Her mother abandoned Cassandra to her grandmother, who did her duty but had no love to give to the young child. When her grandmother died, her great-uncle Woody and his wife Ivy took her in and treated her like the child they wanted but could never have. The Isle¿s took Cassandra out of the ghetto that was Forest Street and moved her into their upscale apartment hotel in Cook County Hyde Park. During a family reunion, a man who lives on Forest Street drops by to beg Woody who has a lot of political and criminal connections to help him find his missing granddaughter who was last seen at a local grocery store. When Woody and Ivy go to the store where the granddaughter was last seen, the owner gives them a ring she left behind. That piece of jewelry is tied to a murder case that took place years ago, one in which many people felt the wrong man was convicted. As Woody, Ivy, and Cassandra delve further into the two cases, somebody is out to keep them quiet at any cost. The protagonists are black, the year is 1965 eight days after the assassination of Martin Luther King. Riots have erupted in Chicago and the national guard is called in to restore order. Charlotte Carter gives her readers a fine sense of place and time through a strong descriptive story that seems common for that era. Told from the perspective of a twenty-year-old college student, the audience learns how blacks felt about their position in society back them. JACKSON PARK is the first installment in what looks to be a great new series. Harriet Klausner