Clutching at Straws

Clutching at Straws

by J. L. Abramo


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Clutching at Straws by J. L. Abramo

The follow-up to the award-winning Catching Water in a Net...

Lefty Wright had it all figured. In fact he was doing the math as he crawled into the deserted house through the kitchen window. Get to the bedroom, crack open the wall safe, grab the envelope, fifteen minutes. One thousand dollars a minute. Nice score.

What Lefty neglected to factor in were the unknowns. And when the police nab him red-handed and discover the dead body of a prominent Criminal Courts Judge stuffed beneath the bed, Lefty finds himself charged with first degree murder with no shoes, no one believing in his innocence, and one phone call. He calls Jake Diamond.

In his second outing, Diamond attempts to prove Lefty's innocence while investigating a recent kidnapping and a fifteen year old homicide which may or may not be related to Lefty's dilemma. From San Francisco to the avocado fields of central California to the sound stages of a film shoot in Denver, Diamond's suspects seem to have one thing in common; they are in no condition to talk by the time Jake gets to them.


"A worthy successor to Catching Water in a Net, Abramo's second in the San Francisco based Jake Diamond series is a clever and well-crafted detective novel, gritty enough to satisfy hard-boiled readers but not so dark that it will put off more traditional mystery fans." -Publisher's Weekly

"This workmanlike second entry in the Jake Diamond series finds the San Francisco PI searching for the real killer of an unpopular local judge after one of Diamond's clients, an accomplished burglar having a very bad night, is fingered for the murder. Although the story is light on action and suspense, it's comfort food for PI fans." -Booklist

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781946502117
Publisher: Down & Out Books II, LLC
Publication date: 06/05/2017
Pages: 294
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.66(d)

About the Author

Joseph Abramo is a longtime educator, theater producer and director, a stage and screen actor and an arts journalist. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Abramo now lives in Columbia, South Carolina. His first novel, Catching Water in a Net, was w inner of the 2000 St. Martin’s Press PWA Award for the year's best first Private Eye novel.

Read an Excerpt


By J.L. Abramo


Copyright © 2003 Joseph L. Abramo, Inc.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0312308493

Chapter One

Lefty wright slipped the rusty blade of his trusty paint scraper between the frame and sill of the kitchen window and finessed the latch open. He slowly raised the window, squeezed through, and shimmied like an alligator across the sink. When his palms reached the linoleum he went into a perfect handstand, which he would have held longer if not for the sore rib. He gracefully and silently tumbled into an upright position. Once inside the house he stood motionless for a full minute, infinitely patient, listening.

Lefty had found the two bundles of cash exactly where he had been promised they would be. Five thousand dollars in twenties and fifties under a flat stone on the ground below the window. A down payment. He had stuffed the cash into his inside coat pockets before entering the house.

Known as a top-notch second-story man by his peers, and a two-time loser by the courts, Lefty had been relegated to ground-floor entries since falling from a dry-rotted cedar balcony a few weeks earlier. He favored his right side as he moved quietly through the kitchen and into the dining area. Always the pragmatist, he decided to go directly up to the bedroom, knowing that was where he would find what he'd come for. He could quickly inventory the street-level rooms on his way out.

Lefty had been watching the place on and off since Saturday morning, noting the stuffed mailbox and the newspapers on the lawn. He hadn't seen a light come on or go off in the residence, and nothing seemed changed when he arrived now, just before ten on Sunday night. He had planned to arrive earlier but consoled himself with the fact that the tree-lined street was deserted at this hour. He had been assured that the sole occupant of the large home was not due back until late Monday evening. Lefty Wright was not one to be overconfident, but he couldn't help feeling that the odds that he was alone in the house were very good.

He pulled out his penlight, slid the tiny beam toward his feet, and moved slowly toward the carpeted staircase. Halfway up the stairs, he stopped and stood motionless again, listening.

After a silent count to sixty he continued up, a broad smile occupying the entire lower half of his face.

For the next thirty minutes, the house would belong to Lefty Wright.

At the landing, Lefty slipped off his Doc Martens and introduced his thick wool socks to the plush wool carpet. The bedroom door was open and he slipped into the room. The painting was directly ahead of him on the wall above the chest of drawers, where he had been told it would be.

The painting, an original by one of the lesser French impressionists, was fairly valuable itself. But artwork was nearly impossible to fence, and Lefty Wright was more interested in what he expected to find behind the painting.

He removed the painting, leaned it against the foot of the dresser, and looked at the safe. There was nothing safe about it. He had cracked tougher boxes when he was eighteen. He placed his ear close to the tumbler and began rotating the dial.

Twenty seconds later he was in.

The safe was unusually bare. A pair of diamond-studded monogrammed cuff links and a small collection of coins, neither of which interested Lefty. A heavy, nondescript gold chain and a Smith and Wesson chrome-plated .38-caliber snub-nose revolver, which he couldn't resist. They went into the right front pocket of his coat. And the gray metal document box.

He removed the metal box and placed it lightly on the top of the chest of drawers. It was legal sized and approximately nine inches deep. He pushed the small latch and the box popped open. He quickly went through the papers and found the nine-by-twelve-inch envelope he had been told to look for. He laid the envelope on the dresser top, closed the metal box, and returned it to the safe.

Lefty had been instructed to leave the envelope on top of the dresser, for which he would earn himself an additional ten thousand dollars. As he reached down to his feet to pick up the painting, he made up his mind to improvise, in the event that he would be compelled to bargain for the balance of his payment.

He pushed the safe door closed, but did not spin the dial to lock it.

Lefty pulled out his Swiss Army knife and removed two of the staples that held the paper backing to the wooden picture frame. He lifted the envelope off the dresser and slid it between the backing of the painting and the canvas. Then he rehung the painting.

As he was about to leave the room he caught sight of the Rolex lying on the floor at the opposite side of the bed.

Lefty had a weakness for fine timepieces.

He crossed to the far side of the bed, and his foot struck an object on the floor. He glanced down to his feet and gasped.

Suddenly there were beacons of light streaming into the room from the street, accompanied by a harsh siren. Lefty had stumbled upon the head of a man whose contiguous anatomy lay under the large bed, and the instantaneous commotion from below had Lefty believing for a wild moment that the head had been rigged to some bizarre sort of silent burglar alarm.

Twenty minutes later Lefty Wright was handcuffed in the backseat of a San Francisco Police Department cruiser on his way to the Vallejo Street Police Station.

Two hours later Lefty Wright was booked for murder and locked behind bars.

He had been stripped of his most prized article of outer clothing, a tan knee-length London Fog slicker, along with its contents, five thousand dollars in legal tender, a chrome-plated pistol, a gold chain, a dime store penlight, a Swiss Army knife, and a rusty paint scraper.

His shoes had been left at the scene.

Lefty's adamant demands for a telephone call and a Pedro's Burrito Supreme went unheeded. He eventually assumed as comfortable a body position on the jail cell mattress as possible. When he woke to discover that he had actually slept through the night, it was his sole pleasant surprise.

After which he was rudely subjected to another interview session with two detectives, who differed only in theory from two detectives who had grilled him the night before and paid even less attention to his pleas of innocence. Then Lefty was at last allowed to make his constitutionally guaranteed phone call.

He called me.

Chapter Two

Autumn in San Francisco.

Late September, early October is my favorite time of the year in San Francisco. In terms of weather, September is the mildest month. Most of the tourists are gone and that is a great blessing. In July and August they're as thick as Buddy Holly's eyeglasses. The kids are back where they belong, the nine-week challenge of trying to find a single square inch of ground not infested by swarms of loud and reckless adolescents is finally over. Unless you're insane enough to venture anywhere near a school. I can hardly imagine a better place to be in early fall.

Though I admit, I'll take Paris in the springtime.

I had recently made it past my fortieth birthday fairly intact and I was possibly involved in a budding romance with my ex-wife. As I headed to the office on the first Monday in October, I was feeling pretty cozy.

I remembered in the nick of time that Darlene wouldn't be back at her post until the following morning.

Darlene Roman is my right hand; I can barely tie my shoes without her. She runs the office. Her boyfriend is L. L. Bruno, a defensive lineman for the 49ers. Darlene had taken off to Colorado for the weekend to watch San Francisco lose to the Denver Broncos. She had decided to stay the extra night to help pump up Lawrence Lionel for the upcoming game against Oakland.

I was fairly certain I could squeak through one day without her, but I wasn't about to venture into an empty office with no coffee waiting. I stopped at Molinari's Deli on Columbus Avenue for a couple of large cups to carry up. My office sat two flights above the deli, and on a warm day when the wind was just right I could identify the daily lunch special from my desk chair.

"Buon giorno, Angelo," I said, using one of the few acceptable Italian expressions I had learned from my grandfather, "let me have two large black coffees."

"How's the elbow, Jake?"

I had taken a hard line drive to the elbow while playing first base in a softball game the weekend before. The ball was caught on the fly off my elbow by the second baseman. I was credited with an assist.

"It only hurts when I do this," I said, lifting my arm over my head.

"So, don't do that," Angelo said, trying to sound like Henny Youngman.

He sounded more like Walter Brennan.

"Did you hear about Judge Chancellor?" Angelo Verdi asked as he poured.

"He take another bribe on a parking ticket case?" I asked.

J. Andrew Chancellor was the most noted criminal courts' justice in northern California, if not in the entire state.

"He took a six-inch kitchen knife in the chest," said Angelo. "I hope whoever stabbed him wasn't aiming for the heart, since he doesn't have one," I said. "Is he going to live?"

"Not anymore."

"Oh," I said.

"The story is he had just arrived home from a weekend at his cabin near Mill Valley and bumped into a house thief. Can you believe that, the judge killed without premeditation? That'll wind up in Ripley's Believe It or Not!"

"They catch the thief?" I asked.

"Right there in Chancellor's bedroom. The "Good Morning San Francisco" news guy said that the perp was trying to stuff the judge's body under the bed when the heat showed up."

"How did the cops get there so fast?" I asked. "They must have had a week's notice."

"At least a week," Angelo said. "Lucky break though. Their list of suspects would have been longer than their log of unsolved cases. You're probably relieved that you won't have to tell the police where you were last night."

"And how. I'd almost rather take the rap than admit that I took my mother to see a Sandra Bullock movie."

"What's with the coffee, Jake, Darlene get stuck in Denver? I can't believe that Chancellor bought it that way" he went on. "It's like a guy who just negotiated a minefield getting hit by a bus on the other side. I threw in a hard roll."

Angelo Verdi was a master of the non sequitur.

"Darlene said she was staying the extra day to lick Bruno's wounds. I've been trying not to picture it," I said, grabbing the deli bag and heading for the door. "What do you think about the Giants and the Athletics in the World Series?"

"I don't know if I could handle the excitement," Angelo Verdi said. "The last time they played each other, in the eighty-nine series, an earthquake postponed game three for ten days. I'm making sausage and peppers for lunch."

I was halfway down the hall from the stairwell to the office when I heard the phone begin to ring. I had taken to walking up the two flights to the office lately, partly because I understood the benefit to my cardiovascular system and mostly because the elevator had the knack of absorbing the odors of whoever slept in it the night before. For some indefensible reason I decided to try to catch the phone call.

As I fumbled for my keys the deli bag dropped to the floor, landing neatly in a standing position.

I managed to get the door unlocked and grabbed the receiver of Darlene's desk phone in the middle of what may have been the fifth ring.

I had intended to greet the first caller of the month with the standard salutation, "Diamond Investigation, Jake Diamond speaking," but he didn't let me get the words out.

"Is this Jake Diamond?"

"Diamond Investigation, Jake Diamond speaking," I said. Give me a chance to slip it in and I will.

"This is Lefty Wright. You can call me Al."

"What can I do for you, Al?"

"Find out who really killed Judge Chancellor," he said.

The conversation consisted of a good amount of incoherent babbling on his side and exhortations to calm down from my end. If Lefty hadn't mentioned the name Sam Chambers in the midst of his jabber I would have done the smart thing.

I would have vehemently insisted he locate a good lawyer. And fast.

Sam Chambers was an old buddy and fellow movie bit-player currently residing at the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo on an armed-robbery conviction. To say that any friend of Sam's was a friend of mine might be stretching it, but the mention of Sam as a personal reference did warrant my consideration.

From what I could get out of Lefty on the telephone, he had helped Sam out of a tight spot at the Men's Colony a few days before Wright was released. Another inmate had provoked Sam into an altercation, which didn't take much, and the guards were on both of them within seconds. They were about to shackle the two for a trip to solitary when Lefty called one of the guards over and whispered into his ear. The guard let Sam and the other convict off with a warning.

"What did you say to him?" I asked Lefty.

"I told him he could have my autographed Mo Vaughn poster when I left."

In return for the assist, Sam offered Lefty the only thing he really had to give: the green light to call me if Wright was ever in a jam himself. It didn't take long.

I told Al that I would be down to see him at Vallejo Street as soon as I could, since we were getting nowhere on the phone.

I placed the receiver down, my impression being that Lefty Wright was innocent. The notion wasn't based on what he had said, most of which was unintelligible, but in the way he had sounded. The kid was clearly frightened to death. One of the things I have learned in this business, and in my personal experience as well, is that it's a lot scarier being accused of murder when you're not guilty.

It was at that point in my presumptive analysis that I remembered the coffee in the fallen paper bag, started toward the hall to pick it up and saw the dark brown liquid seeping into the office from under the door. Then I noticed the doorknob turning and instinctively ducked behind Darlene's desk.

"Sorry about that, Jake. Not a great place to leave your breakfast," said Vinnie Stradivarius, tracking in Italian roast and talking through a mouthfull of buttered hard roll. "Luckily this bread didn't get too soggy."

"Glad to hear it, Strings," I said.

I moved past Vinnie into the hallway to fetch a mop from the janitor's closet.

Vinnie just stood by watching me clean up the mess. I finally accepted that I was going to have to ask.


"Yeah, Jake?"

"Would you do me a favor?"

"Sure, Jake. Anything."

"Would you run down to the deli and grab a couple of coffees," I said, as nicely as possible. "And when you get back you can tell me what you're doing here so early."

Seeing Vinnie Strings awake before noon was a rarity.

"I figured you could use the help, with Darlene not back yet."


Excerpted from CLUTCHING AT STRAWS by J.L. Abramo Copyright © 2003 by Joseph L. Abramo, Inc.
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Clutching at Straws 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
J. L. Abramo is such a good storyteller! I was never borded. Daisy
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Enjoyable read. I thought of the ending as "throwing everything but the kitchen sink". Too many surprises In
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Junk in here
Guest More than 1 year ago
Lefty Wright loves his work, and Lefty knows a piece of cake when it's offered. Fifteen grand in cool cash to get into a safe that he could crack with both arms tied behind his back. The house is empty, the wall safe is in an upstairs bedroom, and as Lefty slips in through a kitchen window he figures to be out again in less than twenty minutes. Instead, fifteen minutes later, Lefty finds himself face down on the bedroom floor, his arms handcuffed behind his back, surrounded by police, and nose-to-nose with a prominent San Francisco Criminal Court Justice who's dead body lies underneath the bed with a large knife in the chest. Lefty tries convincing the SFPD that the Judge was stabbed and stashed before he came on the scene, but no one is listening. The police are too excited about cracking a high profile murder case in record time to pay attention. When Lefty Wright finally gets his one phone call, he calls the one person who he hopes will hear him out. Jake Diamond. In his second outing, the easy going private investigator attempts to prove Lefty's innocence while investigating a recent kidnapping and a fifteen year old homicide which may or may not be related to Lefty's dilemma. Traveling from San Francisco to the avocado fields of central California to the sound stages of a film shoot in Denver, Diamond's suspects seem to have one thing in common; they are in no condition to talk by the time Jake gets to them. J. L. Abramo has provided a fast-moving, humorous escapade which more than meets the expectations promised by his first award-winning Jake Diamond novel, 'Catching Water in a Net.'
Guest More than 1 year ago
'Clutching at Straws', J. L. Abramo's follow-up to 'Catching Water in a Net', takes Jake Diamond into new territories, geographically and emotionally, the returning reader learning more about Diamond as Jake learns more about himself. Jake's client, Lefty Wright, is a small-time burglar charged with murder. Only an idiot would fail to recognize Lefty's innocence, so why are the San Francisco police and District Attorney behaving like idiots? The question becomes as important to Jake's investigation as his attempt to clear his client. Diamond's search for answers takes him across California and across the Rocky Mountains, running up against a wall of puzzles, dark secrets, cover-ups, blind ambitions, revenge and the gray areas regarding degree of guilt and appropriate punishment. Returning to help in the cause are Joey Russo, Vinnie Strings, Sonny the Chin and Jake's irrepressible associate, Darlene Roman. Abramo's blend of pulp, noir and smart humor proves once again that a mystery novel can be a tribute to the classic Private Eye yarn without taking it all too seriously. 'Clutching at Straws' is a fast-moving, entertaining ride, while at the same time a heartfelt examination of the responsibilities of parents and their children. The reader could hardly hope for more, beyond the wish for the speedy arrival of the next Jake Diamond installment.
harstan More than 1 year ago
Vic Vigoda hires Lefty Wright to steal a package from the safe of Judge Chancellor. Lefty grabs the job as the pay is great, $15K for under fifteen minutes to perform an easy heist. However when Lefty enters the bedroom with the safe, the murdered body of the judge greets him. Almost immediately two cops charge into the house and arrest Lefty for killing Chancellor..................... Lefty knows he is already in deep trouble, but adding to his woes is that the DA is running for office and sees this case as an easy media victory to further his ambitions. Lefty asks San Francisco private investigator Jake Diamond to learn why Vic would set him up to take the fall. Jake makes inquiries, but mostly concentrates on who owned a valuable Rolex found near the body. As he tries to learn the identity of the owner, he wonders about the motive. As he digs deeper into the case, bodies pile up as someone is bumping off anyone remotely related and potentially able to provide information that could free Lefty......................... Though readers will need a calculator to keep score of the corpses, fans of action-packed murder mysteries will enjoy this tale. The story line is loaded with non-stop hyper energy, as the audience will compute the correlation between alcohol drinking and homicides. Fans of mass homicide investigative tales will want to follow Diamond as he steps over bodies while making the rounds of the streets of San Francisco....................... Harriet Klausner