A circus-performer-turned-PI takes on “murder and intrigue from New York to Iran” in this “well done, suspenseful” unconventional mystery (Newsday).
With a genius IQ, a past career as a circus acrobat, and a black belt in karate, criminology professor Dr. Robert Frederickson—better known as “Mongo the Magnificent”—has a decidedly unusual background for a private investigator. He also just so happens to be a dwarf.
When his former big-top boss asks him to find a missing Iranian strongman, Mongo is plunged into a three-ring circus of murder, espionage, and international intrigue. And when Mongo’s own brother—police officer Garth Frederickson—gets involved, the detective must fly to Iran, a country on the brink of a revolution. Now he’s searching for two missing men, from Tehran to the ancient city of Persepolis, playing a game of a cat-and-mouse with forces far beyond his control. And unlike his days as an acrobat, this time, if he slips up, there’s no net . . .
With a fearless sense of fun, author George C. Chesbro continues the adventures of “one of the most appealing creations in the detective world” (Publishers Weekly).
City of Whispering Stone is the 2nd book in the Mongo Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
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My ex-boss looked uncomfortable and out of place on the campus — an unkempt genie who'd popped without warning from the bottle of my past. Dressed in baggy pants and an ancient, patched sweater, Phil Statler was a jagged memory of my former world waiting for me on the sidewalk.
That memory loosed a swarm of others which buzzed around inside my head like angry flies. My mind suddenly shifted gears, catapulting me back down into the sawdust belly of an animal with a thousand eyes. Lights came on; the animal laughed at the stunted figure in Center Ring. I went into my act, hurling my body through a maze of trampolines, springboards, ropes and bars; the animal gasped and clapped its hands. When I finished, it cheered; but as always, the echo of that terrible laughter remained as a reminder that for me the price of being taken seriously is a good performance.
Statler spotted me. He stretched out his arms, grinned and shuffled forward with a rolling gait not unlike that of one of his trained bears. "Mongo!" he rasped, pumping my hand. "Mongo the Magnificent! How are you?"
Knowing Statler, I couldn't be sure whether he was asking about my health or my skills. The pleasure I was experiencing at seeing him again came as a mild shock. He smelled of circus, but I didn't know whether the odor was in my nose or in my imagination; I suspected I smelled the same to him. "I'm fine, Phil," I said, still groggy with memory. "And you look great, as if you'd just stolen an act from Ringling Brothers."
He scraped his fingers over a gray, two-day stubble of beard and shook his head thoughtfully. His teeth were his own, but uneven and tobacco-stained. His face was florid, marbled with broken veins. Even the colors of his pale, watery eyes didn't quite match. He wasn't an example of classical beauty; but he was honest, and he was fair. He was also crafty — maybe the best of the vanishing breed of modern-day circus men. But he plied his trade only with other professionals; Phil Statler didn't run games on rubes.
"Talent's gruel-thin these days," he said in a tone that was uncharacteristically soft, almost sad. "Ain't like it used to be; ain't much competition, even at the bottom, and the few good acts left are going stale. They don't compete against themselves the way you did. Hell, even when you can patch together a good show, the people won't come out. The spirit ain't the same, if you know what I mean."
The circus was a dying institution, I thought, a faint chuckle in the throat of a world gnawing on its own entrails. Kids no longer ran away to join the circus; now they shot dope, or returned to live on the land in garishly painted buses, or picked up a gun. Not all — certainly fewer than in the '60s — but still enough to make a difference. There were too many cold, hungry people in the darkness outside the tents, men and women with neither tickets nor talent. One day, perhaps, when the more obvious and persistent warts had been burned off the face of the country, there would again be a time and place for clowns and trapeze performers.
"How long are you in town, Phil?"
"Two weeks. We open at the Garden tomorrow." He looked at the palms of his gnarled hands, then gestured at the buildings around us. "You really teach here?"
"Sure. They tell me I'm an assistant professor."
"I heard you were some kind of doctor."
"No black bag. I have a Ph.D. in criminology."
"I also heard you hire out as a private detective."
"Yeah, but business isn't exactly booming. There are days when I'm not sure the world is ready for a dwarf private detective."
He laughed shortly. "So? Why do you do it?"
"My brother claims I overcompensate."
"Monkeyshit, my friend. You just happen to be a dwarf with a King Kong ego." His grin faded. "How come I had to learn all about you secondhand, Mongo? As far as I know, I always treated you square. I thought we were friends. A man wants to leave when his contract's up, that's his business; it's just that you seemed in a pretty big hurry."
"I'm sorry I haven't been in touch, Phil. I was running. I didn't say anything to you because ..." My words trailed off, smothered by guilt. I owed Phil Statler, and I could find no way to tell him how I'd loathed every minute of my life with the circus. "There's no excuse, Phil," I finished lamely. "I'd earned my degree in the off season, and I had an offer to teach. The detective business came later."
Statler shrugged his massive shoulders. "Well, like I said, it ain't none of my business. I was afraid I'd said or done something you took personal."
"No, Phil. It was just bad manners on my part."
"How about coming back, pal?" The sudden offer took me by surprise, and Statler took my silence for indecision. "Knowing you, a few years haven't taken away that much. A little work and you'd be back in top form, a headliner again. Uh, I might even be willing to discuss a percentage deal. I'm betting your name will still draw crowds."
"Forget it, Phil," I said quietly. "I don't perform in a ring for anyone anymore. I like being plain Bob Frederickson, and I like my work. It's great seeing you, but if you came here looking for a circus performer you've wasted your time."
"Well, you can't blame a man for trying," Statler said with a shrug. He took a cigar from the pocket of his sweater and lighted it. It took two matches, and I was grateful for the pause. "Actually," he continued, flicking a stray piece of tobacco off his lip with the tip of his tongue, "I need a private detective. I want to hire you."
He didn't smile. "No, I'm not kidding. If you don't want this job, just say so."
"I'm all ears."
"Come on, then. I have to get something out of my car."
We cut across campus to the visitors' parking lot, where Statler retrieved a large manila envelope from the glove compartment of his battered pickup. Then we went up to my office, where Statler took an eight-by-ten-inch publicity photo from the envelope and placed it on my desk. "I want you to find this man for me," he said.
The photo was a head-and-shoulders shot of a man with the kind of thick, muscular neck that takes years of hard, patient training to develop. His eyes were bright, small and mean: tiny black periods bracketing a huge paragraph of a nose. It was an intelligent but closed face, seemingly devoid of emotion. He had a full head of thick, curly black hair. Something about the man seemed vaguely familiar.
"There's a puckered scar on his right cheek," Phil said, tapping the print with his forefinger. "The photo's been retouched."
"Ornery-looking fellow. Who is he?"
"His name's Hassan Khordad." Statler produced a folded paper from the envelope and flattened it out in front of me. "That's what he looks like, and this is what he does."
The paper was a typical circus flyer — bad art, but good publicity. A reasonable likeness of Hassan Khordad was pictured straining beneath a wooden platform supporting four half-naked dancing girls. The large central illustration was ringed by a series of smaller ones which depicted Khordad performing a variety of juggling stunts with two huge, paddle-shaped blades. The act looked unusual, and very impressive.
"Headliner?" I asked.
He nodded. "We needed a star, and Khordad filled the bill. I spent a lot of money building him up. Then last month he took off on me."
Suddenly I knew why Khordad looked familiar. "Iranian?"
"Yeah," Statler said. "Persian, Iranian, I guess it's the same thing. How the hell did you know?"
"He just looks Iranian."
"Looks Iranian? Except for Khordad, I wouldn't know a Persian from a Pakistani."
"I have an Iranian friend here at the university, and my brother's into a heavy number with a veritable Persian princess. They do have a look about them. Where'd you lose yours?" "Chicago, two weeks ago. March fifteenth, to be exact."
"He just took off?"
"Not exactly. We were scheduled to go on to Atlanta the next day. Khordad asked me for permission to skip the last show. He claimed he was having trouble with the Immigration people; something to do with his residency permit. Said he had to go to New York to straighten it out. What could I do? By that time he represented a heavy investment that would go right down the tubes if he got tossed out of the country. He was only supposed to be gone a couple of days, so he just took a small bag. When he didn't show in Atlanta I figured he'd found more trouble than he'd bargained for, so I called the Immigration people. They claimed they'd never heard of him."
"Have you talked to the police?"
"Sure," Statler said. "But we're circus people; you know how much looking the police are going to do."
"Chances are he'd still wind up with his name on a list. That could be some help if he got busted or ended up in a hospital."
"Maybe, maybe not. An Iranian strongman isn't some rich man's missing daughter." He coughed and looked at his hands. "Besides, I don't want the police sticking their noses in too far."
"Maybe he doesn't need the attention. If he is in some kind of trouble with the government, I don't want to be the one to blow the whistle on him."
"All right, Phil, so you're missing an act. Persians are very chauvinistic; maybe Khordad got homesick. Why throw good money after bad? Spend it on another muscle man."
Statler grunted. "You're not going to get rich off that kind of sales pitch."
"I like to think I look after the best interests of my clients. I'd love to take your money, but right now it seems to me you'd be better off using it to buy another act."
Statler shook his head. "There aren't any more acts like this one. Khordad wasn't just a muscle man; he had class. And that routine must have taken him ten years to develop. That's why I spent a few grand promoting him, building him into a headliner. If necessary, I'll spend a few grand more to find out what happened to him. If he's in trouble, I'll see what I can do to help him out of it."
"And if he's not in any trouble?"
"Then I'll damn well give him some. He broke a contract. If you find out he's just shacking up with some broad, I'll run him out of the country personally."
"That's clear enough." It was pure Statler. Phil would break his back to help one of his people out of a jam; take advantage of him, and he'd break yours. "Where'd you pick him up?"
"Two years ago at the winter camp in Florida. He'd written me a letter —"
"He speaks and writes English?"
"Better than I do. He said he wanted to organize his own national circus back in Iran — I suppose something along the lines of the Moscow Circus. He claimed he had his government's backing, but he needed administrative experience. He wanted to learn the nuts and bolts of putting together a circus. He had one of the best acts I've ever seen, and I hired him on the spot. He was under contract to me for three years. He left a year early."
"Had he ever taken off before?"
"Not without permission. Last October he went back to Iran for two weeks. He was invited to some big blowout for that king they've got over there."
"Yeah, that's the guy."
I stared at the picture for a few moments, then shoved it back across the desk. "I'll be honest with you, Phil. I still think you should save your money and wait to see if the police turn up anything."
"What's the matter? You can't get away from here?"
"I can make arrangements, but that's not the point. This kind of thing can get expensive. You say he left Chicago two weeks ago to come here to New York. He could be anywhere now — even back in Iran."
"I don't think so. He wouldn't leave all his equipment behind."
"Even so, Phil, New York's a big place. Someone like your man has no roots here. It could take months just to find someone who knew him, if anyone knew him."
"I know he had a friend here."
"In New York?"
"Here, at this school. That's why I waited until we got to New York, and that's why I want you." He grinned crookedly. "I can't wait to see Mongo the Magnificent do his new private-detective act."
"You inspire unbounded confidence. What makes you think Khordad knew somebody here at the university?"
"He had a visitor a few months back, in Cleveland. Fellow came to the stage door asking to see Khordad. He had a permanent pass — you know: the kind we give to all the performers for their friends. Johnny asked to see some identification, and this guy showed him a student I.D. card from this university. It stuck in Johnny's mind because Khordad kept pretty much to himself. As far as we knew, he didn't know anybody in this country."
I reached across the desk and pulled the photo back toward me. "Did you tell that to the police?"
"Sure. It didn't make much difference. They figured like you did: he got homesick."
"Does Johnny remember this friend's name?"
Statler shook his head. "It was foreign."
"What did he look like?"
"Late twenties, maybe. He was wearing dark glasses and a hat, so Johnny didn't get too good a look at him. Johnny says he thinks the guy's skin was olive, like an Indian's."
"Or a Persian's."
"Maybe. What about it, Mongo?"
I shrugged. "If you're determined to spend your money, I'd be a fool to send you someplace else. I'll give you my special ex-boss rates, but you're still not going to like them. A hundred a day when I'm on the job."
"Done," Statler said with a grin. "We'll be at the Garden for a week, and I'll leave a number where you can reach me after we leave."
"How about a drink, Phil? There's a good bar just around the corner."
"Another time, Mongo. We've got a matinee at two. Hey, why don't you come around and catch the show? Johnny and the rest of the crowd would love to see you."
"Give me a rain check. I want to see if I can get a line on your strongman's friend."
The last time I'd been in the Statler Brothers Circus was as a performer — a gifted freak who'd become a headliner. I wasn't ready to go back yet, even to visit. Perhaps Phil understood. We shook hands and he walked out of the office, closing the door quietly behind him. It occurred to me that it was April Fool's Day; I hoped it wasn't significant.
After checking in the university directory, I cut across campus toward the building housing the offices of an outfit calling itself the Confederation of Iranian Students. I took my time. Statler had struck a few raw nerves and I was preoccupied with ghosts. Phil was a shrewd man, and there had been an unspoken thought behind his words throughout our conversation: regardless of my academic qualifications, I didn't belong at a university; I belonged in a circus. I didn't believe it, but it bothered me that Phil might.
The circus had been good to me, had fed me and even brought me a measure of fame. But there'd been complications; Nature had compounded the irony of my birth by endowing me with an I.Q. that on a good day, so I was told, hovered a notch or two above the norm. I'd also been told I was ambitious. Being a smart, ambitious dwarf can get tedious, and my drives and frustrations eventually landed me on a series of psychiatrists' couches. That phase of my life lasted as long as it took me to discover that the average psychiatrist was more neurotic than I was.
Books came next. Eventually I earned my doctorate in criminology — no doubt as a means of scratching some perverse psychic itch. Meanwhile, the university and I had made the mutual discovery that I was a good teacher, and that had led to an offer of a teaching position. My satisfaction lasted about a month; teaching had provided me an escape from the circus, but it wasn't enough. I hadn't been able to stand the security. I'd longed for the blood and sweat of the marketplace. Six months after I'd accepted a teaching position, I had my private investigator's license and a downtown office which, exactly as in the movies, consisted of dirty windows, a desk, two chairs and an answering service. Occasionally I even had a client.
My brother, Garth — like me a refugee from the flat, golden landscapes, warm people and deadly boredom of the Nebraska corn belt — tended to find all this postcircus activity faintly amusing. He could afford to, since he wasn't suffering the disastrous effects of a recessive gene three generations old. A strapping six feet two inches tall, Garth was a lieutenant in the Plainclothes Division of the New York City Police Department.
Excerpted from "City of Whispering Stone"
Copyright © 2017 George C. Chesbro.
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.
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