Having endured the seedy world of tabloid journalism at the Weekly Galaxy, ambitious reporter Sara Joslyn has finally moved on to Trend, a hip New York magazine.
But news is news, and Sara is immediately sent to Branson, Missouri, the capital of wholesome entertainment, to cover a sensational celebrity trial. Embattled country music legend Ray Jones is accused of a brutal kidnapping and killing. Making—and mucking—matters worse, Sara’s sleazy former colleagues from the Weekly Galaxy have also infested the town.
Sara is surprised by how much she enjoys a bit of pure, proud Americana—as well as the ruggedly smooth Ray Jones. But when he’s suspected of a second homicide, Sara realizes there’s more to the story. And that someone decidedly unwholesome is getting away with murder in the heartland.
“The action is jet-fast, and the satiric commentary on country western stars and fans is wonderfully wicked.” —Library Journal
“Lots of ingenious twists and turns.” —Booklist
Praise for Donald E. Westlake
“Westlake has no peer in the realm of comic mystery novelists.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“No writer can excel Donald E. Westlake.” —Los Angeles Times
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About the Author
Westlake’s cinematic prose and brisk dialogue made his novels attractive to Hollywood, and several motion pictures were made from his books, with stars such as Lee Marvin and Mel Gibson. Westlake wrote several screenplays himself, receiving an Academy Award nomination for his adaptation of The Grifters, Jim Thompson’s noir classic.
Donald E. Westlake (1933–2008) was one of the most prolific and talented authors of American crime fiction. He began his career in the late 1950s, churning out novels for pulp houses—often writing as many as four novels a year under various pseudonyms—but soon began publishing under his own name. His most well-known characters were John Dortmunder, an unlucky thief, and a ruthless criminal named Parker. His writing earned him three Edgars and a Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Westlake’s cinematic prose and brisk dialogue made his novels attractive to Hollywood, and several motion pictures were made from his books, with stars such as Lee Marvin and Mel Gibson. Westlake wrote several screenplays himself, receiving an Academy Award nomination for his adaptation of The Grifters, Jim Thompson’s noir classic.
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Sara drove out of the wilderness. Inside the purring air-conditioned Buick Skylark, a rental from the airport, she rolled southward from Springfield through the tumbled Ozarks, more a furrowed plateau than a mountain range, on toward the new home of country music, forty miles away: Branson, Missouri.
The early-afternoon sun stood high in the hazy sky ahead, beckoning her on. The road at first was wide and flat, two lanes on either side of a broad median, but as she plunged deeper into the scrubby hills it curved and twisted and rose and fell like life itself. Soon it narrowed from four lanes to three, and sometimes two. Often she was stuck behind campers and mobile homes, sometimes behind pickup trucks, occasionally behind larger older American cars; whenever a passing zone appeared, she whipped on by, leaving the American flag decals and NRA decals and half-scratched-off Desert Storm decals and comical bumper stickers — I'm so tired I'm retired — in her wake, and kept driving south.
All around her, the Ozark hills mounded like hairy bellies, scrub grass clinging tenaciously to the hard, stony ground, as though she were steering the Buick across a mastodon with mange. In clumps on the sunlit tan landscape, there were trees, gnarled and twisted and shallow-rooted and dark of leaf and branch, hunched like covens of malevolent witches, watching her progress, cackling as she sped by.
Deciding to steep herself in local color — she was an investigative reporter, wasn't she? — Sara switched on the radio and immediately heard, "... favorite from Ray Jones, one of Branson's own," in a young and twangy voice.
Ray Jones — the reason she was here. Think of that. There's an omen for you.
According to the background material she'd read in the plane — two planes; change at St. Louis — Ray Jones used to be a major country-and-western star, a singer-songwriter with a long string of hits and a large following. But it had been ten years since he'd made the charts with a new record (tape, disc), and, in fact, his career had now reached the point where collections of his greatest successes were offered for sale on late-night TV. Like a number of similar entertainers, men and women with a hit-making past and a residue of loyal fans and continuing name recognition but with no recent or likely new successes to keep the career fueled, Ray Jones had opened his own theater, sensibly enough called the Ray Jones Country Theater, down in the new home of old country music: Branson, Missouri.
This was all a brand-new world to Sara Joslyn, intrepid girl reporter of New York's Trend magazine, but that's what investigative reporting is all about, isn't it? New worlds.
"We wish old Ray the best in his current trouble ..."
Oh sure. His current trouble, old Ray, was that he was on trial for a particularly gruesome sex murder; it would take a good old boy to wish him the best, wouldn't it? I should be taping this, Sara thought, but it was already too late. The disc jockey was introducing the song: "Here's one of Ray's biggest hits — 'Baby, Would I Lie?'"
"You're kidding," Sara told the radio. A bouncy country intro began, the up-front drums and electric guitars elaborated by a subtle background of trombone-saxophone riffs.
"Turn that fucking thing off."
"But it's you, Ray."
"I've heard me," Ray Jones said, and shuffled the cards.
It was a gravelly voice, smoky, whiskey-flavored. It was a barroom-brawling voice, a woman-cheating voice, a drunk-tank voice:
I know you've heard I've got a wife and family, Waiting for me down in old Tehachapie, But I am telling you that there's no strings on me. Baby, Baby, Baby, would I lie?
"Yes," Sara said.
I know you've heard I drink and toke and gamble some, I've got enemies will say that I am just a bum.
"Count on it," Sara said.
But with you by my side, I know I'll overcome. Baby, Baby, Baby, would I lie?
It's a put-on, Sara thought, but then she thought, I bet it isn't.
When we met at the Poker Bar, You admired my guitar; I admired your new car. You were heaven-sent. Sometimes I might've done wrong, Been in places I didn't belong, But if your love for me is strong, You know I will repent.
It's too blatant to be a put-on, Sara thought. With that voice, that honky-tonk music thudding along in the background, it's supposed to be taken seriously. Do the fans take it seriously? What do they think it's about? Is this irony, or is it real? Does Ray Jones know?
I know you've heard I did some time in Yuma jail, And when I left, some girl got stuck to pay my bail; But with you, babe, I know I'm never gonna fail. Baby, Baby, Baby, would I lie?
"My God," Sara said, and the sign by the road said Branson in seven miles.CHAPTER 2
Ray Jones looked at his hole cards. "Not my day," he said, and folded the seven of spades. Then he got to his feet and crossed his living room to look out the glass doors and beyond the wooden-railed terrace to the golf course. Thirteenth tee. Makes sense.
It hadn't been Ray's day for quite a while, all things considered. First the cock-ups in building the theater on the Strip, then the breach-of-contract suit from those bastards in Nashville, then the IRS, and now this murder trial. Some parlay.
Ray still wasn't sure it was right to let his songs play on the radio during the trial; seemed disrespectful somehow. Seemed as if he wasn't taking that poor bitch's death seriously. But every one of his advisers — and Ray Jones, it seemed to Ray Jones, had more advisers than a horse has flies — every last one of them had told him to let the songs play on, trial be damned. Each one for his own separate reasons.
Warren Thurbridge, for instance, his trial lawyer, criminal attorney with all that silver hair, said, "You're going to have a sequestered jury, Ray, since it's a capital case. For the length of the trial, those people will not have radio, TV, newspapers, nothing from the outside world to confuse their judgment. And what you want is for those jurors to enter into that cloistered situation with your songs circling in their minds."
"'Baby, Would I Lie?' 'The Dog Come Back'? Are you sure?"
"You just keep twinkling at them, Ray," Warren Thurbridge advised.
Jolie Grubbe, his regular lawyer, the hardest fat woman alive, the one who did his contracts and divorces and was handling this current problem with the IRS, had her own reason. "You pull your songs," she said, "it looks like embarrassment and remorse, and that translates as guilt. If you aren't guilty, don't act guilty."
Well, that was part of the problem. The situation wasn't quite as simple as Jolie thought, but he couldn't very well go into a song and dance on the subject, could he? Not even with Jolie Grubbe.
Chuck Wagner, his manager, took a different tack: "There's twenty-six theaters in Branson, Ray, and half of them got a superstar on the inside: Willie Nelson, Mel Tillis, Loretta Lynn, Moe Bandy, Andy Williams. Doin two shows a day. Plus all those Baldknobbers and Presley families and Foggy River Boys that was here before you headliners ever showed up. You got to let the people know you're in town, Ray."
"The trial will tell them."
But Chuck shook his head, pointed at the surrounding hills, and said, "That's over in Forsyth, in the county seat. These tourists here don't know a thing except Branson and the lakes." He pointed in another direction. "Stuck in traffic out there on the Strip, taking forty minutes to go half a mile, they got their radios on. You want them to hear you, Ray, and say to one another, 'Let's go see that boy.' "
"If they ever get out of the traffic."
Cal Denny, Ray's oldest friend and closest crony, the nearest thing in the world to somebody he'd trust, had a typically Cal reaction: "You got to sing, Ray," Cal said, bony face all wide-eyed with astonishment. "What you got there's a God-given talent; you got to give it to the people. It don't matter what happens anywheres else."
With a twisted smile, Ray said, "The show gotta go on, right?"
But one of the great things about Cal was that he was so honest, so straight, so simple, so dumb. That's how he'd survived all the years, all the hassles, all the storms that had raged through Ray Jones's life, so that today he was Ray's oldest friend, they having met forty-two years ago in fourth grade in Central District School 6, Troutman, Georgia. And that simple honesty made Cal take Ray's showbiz question at face value. "Yeah, you gotta go on!" he said. "And you gotta let the radio say you're here. You can't disappoint your fans. You got people there, you got families, drove hundreds of miles to see you, Ray; they been plannin this trip all year."
Which was probably true, too.
Milt Lieberson, Ray Jones's agent, a fat fellow who was somehow stuck halfway between frog and prince, had flown down from L.A. to offer still another argument: "Airtime translates into record sales," he pointed out, "which translates into royalties. And you have never in your life needed money more than you do right now."
Well, that was true enough. And the thought of money led inevitably to thoughts of the prick from the IRS, Leon Caccatorro, the nerd in gray wool, weighing in with the official point of view: "The government wouldn't want you, at this point, Mr. Jones, to do anything that might interfere with future earnings."
"I bet the government wouldn't."
"The government would prefer you to carry on your career as usual," said Leon "The Prick" Caccatorro, "regardless of any other legal problems you may face."
Other legal problems. Charged with murder one, kidnapping, aggravated assault, rape, sodomy, and a few other little indictments placed like scalloped potatoes around the edge of the plate. Here in a death-penalty state: poison gas in Missouri, the pellet under your chair. Some legal problems. It took a prick like Leon Caccatorro to phrase it in just precisely that bloodless way.
Well, despite this mountain of problems, Ray Jones's music would, it seemed, continue to be pumped out over the airwaves; wise, down-home, cynical, sentimental, playful, good-ole-boy: whatever the customer will take. Will take to his or her gnarly little heart, no matter what the outside world — the world outside country, that is — says that bad boy did this time.
Here's what the outside world said Ray Jones had done, this time. According to the indictment, on July 12 of this year, at approximately two in the morning, Ray Jones had driven his Acura SNX sports car out of Branson on Route 165, south past the turnoff to Porte Regal, the home/condo/golf course complex in which Ray owned this nice three-bedroom two-story woodbrick-stone place right off the thirteenth tee, had continued on south, and just before the bridge over Table Rock Dam, he had turned off onto the small road leading down to the Shepherd of the Hills Fish Hatchery, parking near the edge of Lake Taneycomo, with the imposing hydroelectric dam just up to his right. Accompanying him had been one Belle Hardwick, a spinster of this parish, thirty-one years of age, a cashier at the Ray Jones Country Theater on the Strip. As the indictment would have it, a disagreement had occurred within the automobile, causing Ray Jones to strike out, breaking the nose, cheekbone, and two fingers of the left hand of Belle Hardwick. Whether Ms. Hardwick had then attempted to leave the vehicle by her own volition or had been pulled from it by Ray Jones was a matter not decided upon in the indictment; in any case, with her on the ground beside the car, states the indictment, Ray Jones proceeded variously to rape and sodomize Belle Hardwick, in the course of which he broke two of her ribs and one large bone in her upper right arm. Then or shortly thereafter, Ray Jones also attempted to strangle the woman, who remained alive, though probably comatose, despite his efforts. He therefore then dragged her down through the brush and weeds to the bank of Lake Taneycomo, thrust her into the water, and held her down until she drowned. After an ineffectual effort to keep the body submerged by entangling it in roots and wedging it with branches, Ray Jones had returned to his car and driven on home to Porte Regal, where he had disposed of his muddied and bloodied clothing in some fashion, then gone to bed.
Here's what Ray Jones had to say in response to all that: He said it was bullshit. He said anybody in the world could screw Belle Hardwick for a kind word and a drink, and the kind word was optional. He said he was home alone in bed asleep at two that morning. He said his Acura SNX sports car was kept out in the driveway with the key in the ignition, and a dozen of his cronies and pals knew that's where he kept it, and sometimes one or another of them even borrowed the car. He said he had trouble enough without this bullshit.
Here's what the state of Missouri and the county of Taney claimed to have in terms of evidence: the woman's body; a statement from the guard at the entrance to Porte Regal that at approximately 2:30 that morning he had waved to a person he had assumed to be Ray Jones (but couldn't be absolutely sure) entering the complex behind the wheel of the Acura SNX he knew damn well was Ray Jones's or he wouldn't have let it in; blood on the seat and mud on the floor of the car in question, and the blood matched that still inside Belle Hardwick; tire prints at the murder scene that matched the tires on Ray Jones's Acura SNX. Additionally, there was the evidence of an insomniac neighbor of Ray Jones who, while warming milk at her kitchen stove at 2:40 that morning (by the clock on the stove itself), had noticed lights on downstairs and upstairs in the Ray Jones house, had heard guitar music, and had further smelled smoke, maybe from a fireplace, although it was a particularly hot and muggy night, even for Branson in mid-July, weather conditions that had created the insomnia in the first place. (The burning of the incriminating clothing was implied.) Also, there were witnesses who had seen Ray Jones and Belle Hardwick speaking together earlier that evening at the Ray Jones Country Theater. (Unfortunately, whatever additional evidence of a liquid or viscous nature there might have been to place Ray Jones at the scene and in the victim had been dissipated by the actions of Lake Taneycomo in the five hours the late Belle Hardwick had floated in its attractive waters before being found by three elderly fishermen shortly after seven the next morning.)
Here's what Ray Jones had responded to all that: that the dim-witted old broad next door couldn't find her ass with both hands. Her banker son in St. Louis owned the house and came down to play golf on weekends, and he'd parked his senile old mother there because it was cheaper than both an alarm system and a nursing home. She had the wrong night, that's all, if she actually had gone spying at almost three in the morning and seen lights over at his place. As to the sound of guitar playing, when he did make music at night, it was to try out new material or new arrangements and he always videotaped himself in his living room and dated the tapes, and the tapes were right there in that closet under the stairs and the cops had seen them all and there were none for the night of July 11 to 12. As for the fireplace, he'd used it a total of two times, both of them the first week he'd owned the house, only to discover it had been built without regard for the niceties of fireplace construction, such as where you put the throat and the smoke shelf, and the correct balance of height and width and depth of opening, so that the damn thing smoked enough to cure a turkey. If somebody had taken his car and misbehaved in it, he was sorry, but glad anyway they'd at least brought the car back. As to talking with Belle Hardwick at the Ray Jones Country Theater, she was an employee of his; he talked to his employees all the time. So what?
So the indictment. Starting day after tomorrow, jury selection.
In the meantime, life, if that's the word he was looking for, went on. The feds, principally in the person of Leon "T P" Caccatorro, had groused and fidgeted about the $2 million bail but grudgingly admitted it was better for all concerned, including the government of, by, and for the people, that Ray Jones remain outside earning rather than inside tarnishing his reputation with the wrong kind of jail time. (Drunkenness, brawling, wife beating, drug taking but not drug dealing, hitting a cop after a speeding stop — all could produce the right kind of reputation-enhancing jail time.)(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Baby, Would I Lie?"
Copyright © 1994 Mantra Productions, Inc..
Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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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