As a columnist for the St. Louis City Gazette, Francesca Vierling is a six-foot-tall beauty with brains and a talent for finding unusual and interesting subjects. The colorful people of her city provide her with all the inspiration she can handle, and her readers love her smart, streetwise style—even if her stuffy, less-than-appreciative bosses never seem to.
Her work suddenly becomes all too personal when two of her favorite local characters die one after another. And for Francesca, there are too many odd ends for both deaths to be a coincidence. Driven by grief, anger, and the specters of her own past, she sets out to find out why the men were murdered, even if everyone else thinks she’s chasing shadows.
But there’s one person out there who knows for certain that Francesca is onto something. That she’s getting close to revealing a secret they’ve already killed to keep. And that if she keeps digging, they’re going to have to kill Francesca too…
Note: The author has made some minor revisions to the original text for this edition of the book.
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Newspapers have always used the language of death and violence. We kill a story. We spike it. Or bury it. We keep old stories in the morgue. Reporters complain that editors slash and cut their copy. Now, with the new computers, we’ve added more deadly words. We can abort and execute. For us, the pen really is mightier than the sword. But we writers are mostly mild types, content to take out our fury in back-stabbing.
That’s why, when the killing started, I knew no real newspaper person was behind it. They would never take those words literally. They wouldn’t kill my readers. When I look back now, I blame myself. I should have paid attention to what the two women told me that cold gray February day. Maybe those people would still be alive. Or maybe not. I didn’t take the time to find out. I was struggling with the most violent newspaper word of all.
Let me introduce myself: Francesca Vierling, columnist for the St. Louis City Gazette. Six feet tall. Dark hair. Smart mouth. Dumb enough to write for a newspaper when anyone with any sense was getting out of the business.
It was three o’clock in the afternoon on February eighth, three hours from my final deadline, and I still didn’t have a column. Instead I was sitting in a dark bar in South St. Louis, and a woman was holding my hand. Gina had long silver earrings, a nice set of laugh lines, and a purple fringed top. She had the courage not to dye her reddish-brown hair, now that it was going gray. I liked that. Not that I like women. Don’t get me wrong. Gina was holding my hand because she was a palm reader. She was also the owner and bartender at a joint in my South Side neighborhood called the Crystal Ball Bar. Like most neighborhood bars, Gina’s had hot dog nights, baseball nights, and two-for-one happy hours. But her place had a little something extra. Free palm readings one day a week. Gina read the palms herself, just like she barbecued the dogs on Hot Dog Night.
The Crystal Ball Bar had been designed back when saloons were the working folks’ social clubs in this old German neighborhood on the city’s South Side. For a quarter, the customers bought a beer and sat in the most luxurious surroundings they would probably ever see. The Crystal Ball had a twenty-foot oak bar, a mirrored back bar, and cozy dark booths lit by the golden glow of tulip-shaded art-glass lamps. The luxury was long vanished. The bar was covered with cardboard racks selling aspirin and Alka-Seltzer and beef jerky. Even in the dim light, you could see that most of the customers were retirees who could barely afford the price of a draft, or worn-out hookers and run-down vice cops. The place smelled of Pine Sol and stale cigar smoke and the booths were harder than a bill collector’s heart.
To me, it felt like home. I grew up in bars like these. My first words were “orange soda.” Writing any column about a bar was an easy out when I was under pressure. Two columns had gone dead on me in thirty minutes. One subject was out of town, so I couldn’t check a vital fact by deadline time. Another column went belly-up when the guy who said his children were unjustly taken away from him turned out to have a conviction for assault and battery. He beat up his wife when she wouldn’t let him take their son one weekend. So much for the story of a hardworking divorced dad denied his rights. I rushed down to the Crystal Ball on Palm Day.
Gina said she would read my palm, but she wouldn’t take any money for it. She never did. She didn’t think it was right to make money off something she said came naturally to her. I didn’t feel that way about writing, but I admired Gina just the same.
“If conditions aren’t right, I won’t be able to do it,” she said. But she was a kind person who recognized a desperate woman—me—and she ushered me into the first booth by the door, where she could keep one eye on my future and another on her customers. She closed her eyes, and pulled her concentration into herself, the same way I’d seen athletes do. Then she turned my palm over and looked at the lines on it.
“You have a very old soul,” Gina said.
“I’m not surprised. The rest of me isn’t getting any younger,” I said. I’d just turned thirty-seven. It was traumatic.
Gina ignored the wisecrack. She was taking this very seriously. Her long earrings swayed like chandeliers in an earthquake as she studied my palm. “You have a long lifeline,” she said.
“That was probably true. The women in my family lived into their nineties. When my grandmother died at seventy-three, instead of the usual ninety-three, the family carried on like it was a crib death.
“But there will be an abrupt change soon,” Gina said. She pointed to a spot where my lifeline zigzagged. “I see much turmoil and crisis.”
“I work for a newspaper. There’s always turmoil,” I said.
“This crisis could end your career,” she said.
I could feel my palm sweat, even though I didn’t believe a word she said. I just needed a column.
“I see you in Washington.”
“D.C.?” I said, hopefully. Finally, after fifteen years, I was going to get some national recognition for my work.
“Missouri,” she said.
Oh. Washington, Missouri, is a town fifty miles outside of St. Louis, best known for a sausage shop and a bakery. I go there every October because Jim Hanks, a vet friend who lives there, has his annual nut fry. Doc Hanks is the Lorena Bobbitt of the bull world. Whenever he castrates a bull, he freezes the testicles, then in October dredges them in flour and fries them in deep fat. They taste like mushrooms. The best part is watching the guys at the fry. They drink a lot of beer and keep their legs crossed. After about four beers, they start downing nuts at a great rate, with silly smiles on their faces.
But no matter how late Doc Hanks’s nut fry lasts at the local VFW hall, I never stay in Washington more than a weekend.
“What am I doing in Washington?” I asked.
“It will be your refuge when your world collapses. In your time of crisis,” Gina said. “I’m sorry I can’t help you any more, except to tell you to be very careful in the next few months.”
I was always careful. I loved the city neighborhood where I lived, but I could get mugged walking to the supermarket.
I came away with the impression that Gina was a decent person who honestly believed in what she was doing, but I hadn’t seen a bigger load of garbage this side of the city landfill. Take refuge in Washington? Ridiculous! St. Louis was my city, and I knew it better than she knew my palm. If I ever needed help, it would be right here in my hometown. Oh, well. At least I had a column.
I thanked Gina, grabbed my purse, felt around with my foot for my shoes (I’m one of those women who slip off their shoes the minute they settle in), and went outside to see if someone had ripped off or ticketed my beloved blue Jaguar. Most reporters drive a modest Honda or Toyota. Not me. Modesty is for those who need it. I loved my fifty-two hundred pounds of blue flash. A used Jag costs less than a new Buick, but god, it goes fast.
There is one drawback to owning a Jaguar. You have to listen to a lot of lectures. “Jaguar, huh?” they’ll say. “You might as well own two—one to drive while the other one’s in the shop.” I bought one from the vintage years, ’86 to ’88, and it was the most reliable car I ever owned.
I stepped over some gray rags of last week’s snow and slid into the Isis blue leather seats. The car started up with a low sexy growl. I turned up my FuzzBuster and poured on the gas. I had to get back downtown to the newspaper office.
The Crystal Ball was twenty minutes from the newspaper office. That’s what I liked about St. Louis. It was convenient. Everything was twenty minutes from everything else. If it wasn’t, we didn’t go there. Another thing I liked was the city air. On the South Side, it had that sharp-sour smell of fresh-brewed beer. This part of the city was perfumed by the Anheuser-Busch brewery. If the stuff tasted as good as it smelled, I’d be in a detox ward.
My good fortune was holding. There was a parking spot in front of the building. I found some quarters in the bottom of my purse, fed the meter, and ran into the lobby. It looked like someone had overturned a junior high. Young teens, with that wet, newly hatched look, were everywhere. They giggled and poked and picked at their zits and picked up everything on poor George’s desk. George is the perpetually worried security guard.
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