He’s tough and smart. She’s tough, smart, and 12.
Houston, 1961. Texas’ slickest politician has lost his presidential bid to a good-looking naval hero from Massachusetts but gained the Senate gavel. And if President Kennedy wants to put a man on the moon, LBJ wants to put Houston at the center of the moon mission. Sleepy backwater Houston finds itself short on air conditioning just when things are heating up.
In a seedy downtown office, a well-dressed out-of-towner hires P.I. Harry Lark to tail two D.C. visitors looking to build NASA a space center, but his client turns up dead in Harry's office. Meanwhile, Harry’s twelve-year-old daughter Dizzy is running a lost-and-found out of a suburban garage when she's hired to find a missing father who’s supposed to be dead and buried.
Find out why Jani Brooks of Romance Reviews Today calls Bayou City Burning “a terrific mystery loaded with humor, lots of excitement, and fascinating, well written characters” and rates it “a Perfect 10 book.”
Read an Excerpt
I was sitting at my desk reading the Post when the light changed and I looked up to see a man standing in the doorway. The rain hammered against my windows and the air conditioner was grinding away at my back and I thought, not for the first time, that someday somebody was going to get the drop on me and I wouldn't even hear it coming.
This bird could have been the one, too, because he had a slight shoulder bulge in his otherwise well-tailored gray pinstripe suit — the kind of bulge that was supposed to draw your eye and strike fear in your heart. His display handkerchief was silk and light blue and showed some style. The suit meant that he was no cheap torpedo, and if he'd financed it with the heat he was carrying, I'd need to be cautious. A well-dressed button man is still a button man. He had brown hair cut close, a hairline that was older than he was, and eyes with lids like blackout shades. The fear he was supposed to inspire was undercut by the oversized white handkerchief he was dragging across his sweaty, bright red forehead.
"Jesus! How do you stand it?" he said.
An out-of-towner. I made no comment. I didn't even offer to take the dripping raincoat he had draped over one arm. This was another mark of the outsider: somebody who didn't know that when it rains in Houston in the summer, you strip down, you don't wear another layer.
His eyes made a tour of my office. It was a short tour.
"You Harry Lark?" He pocketed the handkerchief.
"That's me," I said.
"Where's your secretary?" He angled a thumb over his shoulder toward the outer office. Two rings winked at me, a diamond and a signet.
"She must've stepped out," I said noncommittally.
Jeanie had "stepped out" about six months ago when I'd traded her salary for a set of braces for my son. I liked to keep up appearances, though, so I hung an old sweater from the back of Jeanie's chair and sprayed it with perfume from time to time — mostly rejects from my daughter's Christmas gift exchanges. I filed some things on Jeanie's desk instead of in the wastebasket and kept a page in the typewriter.
But what did he care, unless he was worried about witnesses?
I nodded at the wooden chair in front of my desk and angled a packet of Winstons in his direction. "What can I do for you?"
He slung his raincoat over the arm of the chair. It dripped small dark stains onto the rug. He took a cigarette and we lit up. Then he settled back in the chair and grimaced. I studied his tie, waiting for him to speak. It was the same slate gray as the suit and thin as a razor blade.
"I need some information about an event that's taking place here next week," he said. "In town, I mean." He waved his cigarette in the direction of the window and grimaced. The grimace told me that he'd never consider promoting Houston from a backwater berg to a city. His voice was flat and forgettable — the kind of voice that could have read the daily stock report.
"And what would that be?"
"Two men are coming down from Washington, DC. I want to know what they're doing here, where they go, who they see. Pictures, too."
"What's the beef?" I said.
"Let's say that I suspect these men of conspiring to defraud taxpayers by engaging in certain underhanded practices that stand to damage my business interests and those of my associates." He was looking at Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was hanging on my wall, when he said it. If Ike didn't like this story, he didn't say so. I didn't like it, but I was in hock to a certain orthodontist, so I refrained from comment.
"Let's say that," I said. "And you would be Mr. —?"
"Smith." His gaze returned to me and his eyelids dropped to half-mast over the cigarette smoke. "My name is Smith."
"Well, Mr. Smith," I said, "I get fifty dollars a day plus expenses."
"Isn't that a little steep?" he said.
I shrugged. "I have to pay for the air conditioning." Besides, his suit told me he could afford it.
He gestured with his cigarette. "And I suppose all the other private dicks in Houston have to pay for air conditioning, too."
I grinned. "You're welcome to go ask them."
I left it up to him to imagine spending the hours between now and his departure time sitting in a Houston office without air conditioning instead of cooling his heels in a lounge near the airport. I felt sure he was doing it, too.
"Yeah, all right," he said.
My marks were Philip Miller and John Parsons. Their work had something to do with space research.
"What kind of space research?" I said, frowning. "You mean for business expansion?"
"Hey, that's right." He pointed the cigarette at me. "Business expansion. But the business is space — outer space."
My phone rang. The voice on the other end was accusatory. "You were supposed to pick me up ten minutes ago for the orthodontist."
Since he'd become a teenager, my son Hal addressed me in one of three tones of voice — bored, superior, and disgruntled. He'd found it harder to manage since he'd acquired a mouthful of metal and rubber bands, but not impossible.
I pretended to check my desk calendar and make a notation. "Yes, that's fine," I said. "I'll be there."
"I'm going to be late for the orthodontist," Hal said.
"That's all right. Happy to help out. Thanks for calling." I hung up and raised my eyes to my visitor. "Where were we?"
"I don't know anything about that," I said.
"I don't, either," he said. "But there's business involved, and a lot of money. That's all you have to know."
The two men were due to arrive the following Tuesday at Houston International. He didn't know the time or the flight, but he gave me photographs of the men. The photographs looked like my kind of photograph — stuff taken with a telephoto lens when the subject didn't know he was being photographed.
He glanced out the window next to the one with the air conditioner. City buildings gleamed in the rain but there wasn't much else to look at except the Weather Ball on top of the Texas National Bank, which blinked to show that precipitation was expected. It didn't matter to him; he was blowing town anyway, the sooner the better.
He counted out four twenties and laid them on my desk. "That enough to get you started?" he asked. I nodded. He told me he'd come back in a week at the same time.
He was already swabbing the back of his neck with the wet handkerchief as he stood up.
"What if I have to get in touch with you before then?" I said.
"Save it." He turned his back and headed for the door.
I stood at the window and watched him emerge from the building downstairs, his raincoat over his head like a pup tent. The Chinese laundry on the first floor was kicking up a lot of steam and he gave it a wide berth, stepping gingerly to keep his Italian leather shoes out of the puddles. Then he disappeared around the corner, so I didn't get to see his car, if he had one. It was probably a rental, anyway. I had already decided that tailing him at this point was a losing proposition. He'd paid me enough to start the work he wanted me to do, but not enough to give me the trouble of tailing him. Besides, I had a date with my surly teenaged son.
I pocketed the twenties and hoped that my daughter's teeth all stayed as straight as a drill sergeant.CHAPTER 2
I was resting my dogs on a military footlocker, perusing a Flash comic book, and listening to B.D. squawk about the heat. I had a side conversation going with Mel about whether I'd rather be the Green Lantern or Flash, though I didn't much care about being either one of them. What I really coveted was Wonder Woman's bracelets and Lasso of Truth. But when you're pinching your reading material from your brother's strictly forbidden comic book stash, you can't afford to be choosy.
"I wish you'd just shut up about it," Mel said to B.D. "It's May. In Houston. It's supposed to be hot. It's been hot every summer since I was born, and that's thirteen summers."
"Thirteen for you," I said. "Twelve for me and B.D." Not taking a side, just clarifying.
"But look, y'all," B.D. complained. "The crayons liked to melt all over our business cards. And I can't color inside the lines with my eyes full of sweat." For the millionth time, she slipped the bandeau off her head and pushed back her hair with it. Her blond ponytail was wilted. "And it's only Maaaaaaaay!"
I sympathized. If I didn't watch out, I'd come away with Flash imprinted upside-down on my sweaty knees like a tattoo and when my brother Hal saw it, he'd know I'd been sneaking his comic books and the jig would be up.
Mel sighed. "Well, I know what you mean," she said. "I'm fixin' to march down to the barber shop, Dizzy, and ask for a haircut like yours." She tried to shape her dark curls, but they sprang from her head like Medea's snakes in my mythology book. She wore her hair in a Raggedy Ann, cut short across her neck, but she still had about five times as much hair as I did. I ran a hand over the short brown hair on my head and felt it stand up like possum fur, which was why my brother Hal sometimes called me Pogo.
"Lucille," B.D. said, speaking to my tabby cat, who was stretched out full length on the garage floor, snoozing. "I don't know how you can stand to wear that fur coat."
"At least it's not raining," Mel offered. Lately we'd been plagued by storms that flooded the ditches at one end of the street and sent tidal waves all the way down to the circle at the other end, where crawdads fetched up when the water receded, beached and confused.
"Not yet," B.D. said.
"Let's see the cards," I said, to take their minds off the heat.
B.D. handed me some and I peeled them off her fingers. Mel studied them over my shoulder. At the top, they said, "Looking for Something?" Some of the cards were lettered in Mel's neat round printing and some in my loopy handwriting. Under that was B.D.'s drawing of an eye behind a magnifying glass, the kind Sherlock Holmes used. Under that was the name of our business, Spring Branch Lost and Found, and our business address — my garage.
"This eye looks kinda bloodshot." Mel pointed.
"My pink Crayola slipped," B.D. said, "so I had to fill it in."
"Looks kinda like Harry's," I said.
"It does," Mel agreed.
In defense of my parents, I want to point out that my mother was the only parent in our group who had allowed us to open a business in the family garage. It's true she'd been pretty distracted lately, getting ready for her trip to England, and probably also true that she was thinking along the lines of a Kool-Aid stand. My father Harry, who better understood our line of work, wasn't required to voice an opinion since he didn't live at home anymore, and had no official say in the commercial use of our garage, but he'd voiced one anyway, which he usually did. He said we were setting up as the neighborhood pawnshop, and he was all for it. "Just don't take any hot ice, girls," he'd told us.
"I'm serious, y'all," B.D. moaned. "I know where I can find a lost fan on the Danners' breezeway."
"It's not lost," Mel said.
"It will be once I fetch it here," B.D. said.
Billy Wayne Abbott showed up then and I was glad for the diversion, even though he was dumber than a box of rocks. We saw him coming up the driveway, adjusting the ball cap on his head like he was signaling a base runner. Billy Wayne was a pudgy kid. If you dropped him off a water tower, I suspect he would have bounced, filled up the way he was with hot air and ego.
He stopped outside the garage door, hands on his hips, and squinted in at us. "Y'all find my kickball?"
"What's it look like?" B.D. said.
His mouth hung open as he looked at her. "What you think it looks like, Cootie? Looks like a kickball."
B.D. gets teased a lot on account of her last name, which is Cooter. She gets it way worse than I do, even though my given name is Desdemona, because the average Texan doesn't know Shakespeare's Desdemona from Miss Hogg County or the Azalea Queen. Which is fine with me, because I've read the play my mother wrote her dissertation on, and the only worse name she could have given me was Iago.
But if you pitched to B.D., you'd better be prepared for a line drive up the middle that could drill a hole in your gut. "We might have a kickball," she said, "but how do we know it's yours, Abbutt? If you can't describe it, we sure can't hand it over."
"How'm I s'posed to describe it?" He said raised his voice in frustration. "It's a kickball. If Dizzy found it in the Maynards' yard, it's mine, and y'all know it."
Everybody knew it. Most everybody was there when he kicked it into the Maynards' yard, and everybody also knew he was too yellow to climb the fence and face Bevo, the Maynards' Great Dane. So I did it later. Bevo was a pal of mine, seeing as I regularly took him something from the ice cream truck. Harry always said, "You pay to play."
"What you got for us?" I asked.
"I got a nickel," he said.
"Don't waste our time." I went back to my comic book.
He sighed, reached into his back pocket and brought out his collection, but then he just held it, fingering the rubber band.
"Show us what you got," Mel said. Baseball cards were her department. If Mel died young, she'd arrive at the Pearly Gates — or wherever it was Jewish people went — in a good position to negotiate.
"Uh-uh," he said. "I ain't showing you what I got." He raised the cards to his chest as if we were playing Go Fish. "Tell me what you want and I'll tell you if I got it."
Mel rolled her eyes. "Okay. Clemente, Ford, and Cepeda. Juan Marichal."
"Marichal. Rookie pitcher for the Giants."
He slipped off the rubber band and studied his pack. A furrow of concentration split his forehead and channeled the sweat down his nose. "I can give you Clemente."
"And?" Mel said, holding out her hand.
He took a step back, clutching his cards. "And what?"
"Don Zimmer? Johnny James? Dick Farrell? Zolio Versalles?"
He gave her a sly look. "I got James and Farrell."
"Okay," she said, "you can have your kickball in exchange for Clemente, James and Farrell."
He handed over the cards and I retrieved the ball from the air conditioner box where we kept the sports equipment — or where we would keep it, when we found some more to keep.
He tucked the ball under his arm and retreated a few steps, grinning at Mel. "That just shows what you know. That Johnny James card has a mistake. He's wearing the wrong hat."
"Billy Wayne, they all have mistakes," Mel said. "Zimmer, James, Farrell, and Versalles. That's going to make 'em more valuable someday, you wait and see. We'll wave to you from our limousine while you're pedaling your bike down Long Point Road."
His face fell. But then you could see him turning it over in what passed for his mind, and refusing to believe he'd been had. "I'll wait and see," he said at last. "But I bet I got a long wait."
"He is so aggravatin'," B.D. said as we watched him retreat down the driveway. "If he wasn't so full of himself, he might could squeeze some brains in there."
A few other kids saw the sign at the end of my driveway and stopped by out of curiosity, but the only one who had lost anything was Billie Jo Skelton, who told us she'd lost one of her favorite barrettes at the beach.
"Y'all got any barrettes?" she asked. She held up a thumb and forefinger. "It was this big and it looked like a candy cane, 'cept it was a bow."
I opened my mouth to give her a geography lesson but B.D. cut me off. "Sugar, we don't go as far as Galveston." She gave me a look that was supposed to remind me about our customer relations talk.
Mel said gravely, "Somebody else has that territory."
Billie Jo frowned. "Then how will I find it?"
"Maybe you should check the Yellow Pages under 'lost and found,'" I suggested with a straight face. "Or even under 'barrettes.' Look for a company with a Galveston address, and give them a call. They'll recognize it from your description."
"Oh," she said. "Okay."
Our last customer of the day was Pammy Crowder. She looked around with her hands on her hips and said, "Y'all don't have much stuff."
She was right, of course. We were just getting started. And since we spent our weekdays in school, that left only the weekends for scavenging. The blue law meant we couldn't open the store on Sunday, and Saturday temple for Mel and Sunday church for B.D., along with the family meals afterward, made serious dents in the time we had to search for new merchandise.
"We need more inventory," B.D. said when Pammy had departed.
"In three more weeks," I pointed out, "it will be summer, and then we'll have all the time in the world. Harry always says to bide your time."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Bayou City Burning"
Copyright © 2019 D. B. Borton.
Excerpted by permission of Boomerang Books.
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