The outrageously inventive third novel in what Booklist hails as “the superb Artie Deemer Series”
Artie Deemer’s dog Jellyroll, the star of stage, screen, and retail packaging, is getting death threats from a pair of crazed stalkers. So the twosome and Artie’s live-in lover Crystal, a professional pool player, flee to a remote island off the coast of Maine, only to discover that their hideaway is over-run with an assortment of colorful killers…and that there’s a huge storm rolling in. And that’s only the beginning of their troubles.
“Careening between over-the-top humor and edge-of-the-seat suspense, Don’t Explain is a delightful ride,” San Francisco Chronicle
“Straw Dogs meets Lassie,” Booklist
“Artie's third outing is jammed fuller of malice than a holding pen,” Kirkus Reviews
About the Author
Dallas Murphy is the author of the acclaimed three-book series Lover Man, Lush Life, and Don't Explain, about the reluctant sleuth Artie Deemer, who lives off his dog Jellyroll, star of screen, TV, and dog-food boxes; and the stand-alone crime novel set in Florida, Apparent Wind. Lover Man was nominated for an Edgar for Best First Novel and named a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times. Murphy has also written nonfiction books about the ocean, including Rounding the Horn, To Follow the Water, Plain Sailing, and, most recently, To the Denmark Strait. He lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
An Artie Deemer Thriller
By Dallas Murphy
Brash Books, LLCCopyright © 1996 Dallas Murphy
All rights reserved.
Without pressing engagements of my own, I watched Crystal dress for her tournament. She was sitting on the edge of the bed, drawing on a pair of black panty hose, smoothing them up her thighs, snapping the top against her belly. At that point, propped limpidly on an elbow, I wondered whether or not I could release the front toggle clasp of her bra with my teeth. It was a mere fantasy that arced across my consciousness unbidden. I never intended to try or even to mention it, and certainly not before a tournament when she needed to focus.
"What?" she asked.
"You were looking at me funny."
Crystal Spivey, the woman I love and with whom I live on a full-time basis, is a professional pool player. She is ranked about eighth in the country, depending on whose ranking you read, but lately she's not been hitting them very well. She's not been staying down on the ball, she's been backing off some shots, particularly those requiring low cue ball. It's psychological. I hope it's not something I've caused, say by creating in her anxiety about oral assaults on her lingerie.
"Funny? What do you mean funny?" I asked innocently.
"Leeringly. You were leering," she insisted.
I try never to leer. Or to appear to leer.
"I can't hang around to be leered at. I have to go earn some money," she said.
By stressing the personal pronoun, she was alluding to the fact that I earn none, that I live entirely off my dog. Jellyroll is a star of stage, screen, and retail packaging. Now part of the pop-cultural fabric of this nation, Jellyroll got his start as the R-r-ruff Dog, spokesdog for R-r-ruff Dogfood, a position he still holds. His smiling full-color countenance can be seen on boxes by the dozens in the Pet Needs aisle of every supermarket in North America. His sweet, trusting temperament and keen intelligence are reflected openly in his face, and the motion picture camera loves it. That face has made me financially untroubled. Though Crystal lives with us, she supports herself, keeping her finances separate from Jellyroll's, because that's how she wants it. Something about self-image, but sometimes I suspect she wants to maintain the right to needle me about my absence of personal ambition.
I admit that I am intrinsically unemployable. Maybe once I was employable, once I had promise as something or other, but no longer. Without a famous dog, I don't know where I'd be. I nominally manage the charitable funds my lawyer and I established with Jellyroll's money, but I maintain a shadowy anonymous stance as a philanthropist so people don't bug me, don't invite me places.
"So let's hear the details?"
"Of the naughty things you were thinking about me."
"... It's embarrassing."
"Of course it is. Come on."
I told her.
"Let's see if you can." She peeled off her shirt and put her hands behind her back —
I moved into what seemed an efficacious position. I didn't know how to go about this thing, but succeed or fail, the sides of Crystal's breasts would nestle against my cheeks, how bad could it be? But the phone rang.
Crystal said she had to answer because her start time hadn't been fixed yet. She was playing in a local tournament in a Brooklyn room that belonged to a friend of hers named Ronny. Ronny was delighted to have Crystal Spivey play in his tournament. She was warming up for the Southern Belle Nine Ball Festival in Memphis the following week. "It's Shelly," she said, offering me the receiver.
"Hello, Artie," he said, "just calling to see how — you know, if everyone's all right." Shelly was Jellyroll's agent, had been for years, but Shelly didn't make social calls.
"Fine, Shelly, why?"
"Oh, nothing, asking, that's all."
For a big deal maker, Shelly was pretty transparent. "Is something wrong?"
"Naw, not a thing."
I let him dangle.
"Well, a small matter. Probably nothing. Probably just one of those things. I got some mail. You know, kind of nutty mail. From a fan. Just a harmless eccentric, you know the type."
"What did it say?"
"Well, it implied certain threats to Jellyroll. Now take it easy. I knew you'd take it like that. That's why —"
"Shelly. Tell me."
"What?" said Crystal in the background.
I motioned for her to come listen. I hugged her head close to the phone.
"Well, a couple weeks ago I get this note. The note's written on the back of a bowling sheet. You know, a score sheet, lines and boxes, strikes and spares, from a bowling alley called Hi-Desert Bowl in Yucca Valley, California. That's way out in the desert near Palm Springs. I looked it up." Shelly was upset, but he tried to fake it. His voice quavered, and that scared me. "I'm sending it to you. I got a messenger on the way."
"What did it say?"
"Well, it didn't exactly say anything. I mean it didn't directly threaten Jellyroll. That's why I didn't do anything about it at the time."
"At what time, Shelly?"
"Hell, you know today. Today everybody's nuts. I got nuts for clients, present company excepted, of course. That doesn't mean they're dangerous ... not all of them. Today I got another bowling sheet."
Crystal and I pronked straight up in the air when the downstairs buzzer went off. Jellyroll began to bark wildly.
"Hang on, Shelly. I think the messenger's here."
"Make sure that's who it is," Shelly cautioned, sending chills up my back.
I peeked out the view hole. The messenger wore lime-green spandex pants, Doc Martins, a black leather vest with no shirt, black gloves with silver spikes on the knuckles, motocross shin guards, and a metal-flake purple motorcycle helmet with a black visor that covered his entire head. Nothing of his face was visible. Over his tit was a tattoo I couldn't decipher.
That's the trouble with having psychos on your tail — you just never knew. But since most bicycle messengers saw themselves as knights in some stupid post-apocalyptic road game, and since we were expecting a messenger anyway, I opened the door and took what this one offered. The bicycle messenger's tattoo said "Tough shit, Shirley."
"Thank you," I squeaked, signing his clipboard in return for the manila envelope with Shelly's logo.
"It's here, Shelly. We'll call you right back."
"No, I'll hang on."
Jellyroll knew something was up.
I mutilated the envelope trying to get the damn thing open. There were three score sheets inside. They were each folded in quarters. I spread them out on the bed side by side. Jellyroll jumped up and walked on them, trying to get our attention because he was insecure in the changed mood. I gently told him to get down, and he placed himself between our legs, joining us as we examined the score sheets:
"It's Cool Inside!" said a puffy snowman in icy letters along the top of the first sheet. This was the one Shelly spoke of — the Hi-Desert Bowl in Yucca Valley, California.
There had been two "players." They printed their names in Magic Marker, all caps: PERRY and DICK. Instead of a score, they had drawn graveyard crosses in every block on the fucking sheet. I could see through the cheap newsprint that something had been Magic Markered on the back, a cartoon of some sort, but I wanted to see the fronts of all three sheets together before we turned them over. I guess I thought I was looking for clues to their psychology, for something that said they were harmless cranks.
The second one was from Del's Bowl-More in Alasosa, Colorado. Del's logo consisted of an empty pair of two-stepping cowboy boots drawn against a bowling ball backdrop. There was some bullshit about their bar and grill being the Best in the West. The bowlers were the same, PERRY and DICK, and their names were printed in the same block letters with the same felt tip pen, by the same psycho.
"Are you looking?" prodded Shelly.
"Just a minute, Shelly."
The third and last score sheet was from Rock & Roll Bowl, Starkweather, Illinois. "Smoking permitted." The same pen, the same print, the same players.
Then we turned the sheets over. We knew we'd find the scary part on the back.
It was a big and crude cartoon of a TV screen with a talking head. The balloon from his mouth said, "All Hollywood mourns tonight. One of its own is dead ..."
The same TV set appeared on the second score sheet. The talking head said, "The R-r-ruff Dog has been killed by an ax-wielding assassin."
The third said, "Live from our studios, we'll bring you an exclusive interview with the assassin, when we come back —"
Crystal swept them off the bed. They floated to the floor.
"When, Shelly? When did they come?"
Shelly said the first came a week ago. Three days later the second arrived, and this morning the third.
"Why didn't you tell me sooner, Shelly?"
"Look, I didn't want to upset you over nothing before I learned a few things. I took some steps, however —"
"Shelly, were they postmarked from these places? Alamosa, Starkweather, where the fuck else —?"
"No," said Shelly, "They were postmarked Los Angeles. All three of them."
I had to sit down. I sat on the bed. Crystal put her arm around me and continued to listen in. Jellyroll, ears down, looked from one of us to the other and back again. He knew.
"Artie, here's what I've already done. I've already done a couple of things. I've hired a guy, a private cop. I've hired him to trace these assholes." He lowered his voice conspiratorially. "You didn't hear it from me, but there are ways to handle this situation. The stalker situation. My man says you nip it in the bud early. Early is key. You don't let the stalker get stronger by feeding off your fear. You know what I'm saying? The earlier the better. Don't let the stalker get into a routine. Whatever his routine is, you don't let him get into it."
"What do you do?"
"Something so he goes away. Something strong, Artie, something devastating. It's not my area. But it's my man's area."
Crystal asked, "Does most of his fan mail come to you? Most of his fans wouldn't know who his agent is, would they?"
"It's a curious thing you ask," said Shelly. "I asked myself the same question. The answer is no. Most of it goes to the R-r-ruff idiots or to the movie idiots, whatever idiots are appropriate, since Artie stopped answering it."
Yes, I used to answer fan mail to my dog, but that was a long time ago. I'd pretend that he was writing, and I'd sign a cartoon paw print at the end. The apparent emptiness in the lives of his correspondents, those over ten, at least, was the reason I started and the reason I stopped writing.
"But I don't keep Jellyroll's representation secret," Shelly continued. "Somebody could find out if they wanted to."
"But a person in the business would already know," I said, because that's what Crystal was getting at. "Maybe somebody's playing a joke on you. Or me."
"Who'd do such a thing as a joke? If they're in the business, they know I'll find out who it was, and they'll be exposed as flaming assholes. Jellyroll is the hottest thing on four legs in America today. Nobody fucks around with power like that unless they're totally nuts. Or unless they're out to milk it for publicity. There's a lot of ink to be had stalking the cutest dog in the world. I don't think anybody's ever stalked a dog before, but the principle's the same, I guess. I got people looking into it, Artie."
"What about the police?"
"Well, it gets a little funny when you get in that area."
"What do you mean, funny?"
"I discussed that with my man. He points out that certain states have anti-stalker laws. This is one of them. Stalking itself is a crime in those states. But that doesn't do any good unless you know who the stalker is. An estranged husband, for instance. Also that law doesn't even so much as mention dogs. Some psycho could kill him — God forbid, I'm just saying — and not even go to jail. Which is why my man says you got to take private action, so to speak. I'm going to leave that up to my man entirely. But there's another problem about involving the police. The chance that publicity itself will create a killer out of some otherwise complacent psycho. Say your entertainment press got hold of this. 'The R-r-ruff Dog: Stalked.' That kind of heavy media onslaught can produce what my man calls the copycat factor. Picture all the crazy assholes sitting on their thumbs and rotating in front of their TV sets. You don't want to give them any ideas, Artie. You know what I mean?"
"Yes," I muttered weakly.
"You let my man take care of everything, Artie."
"... Okay. Thanks."
I had intended to accompany Crystal to the tournament, leaving Jellyroll home, but I couldn't under the circumstances. And it wasn't only me. Crystal insisted I stay with him.
I ate some leftover Chinese that wasn't any good when it was new. I listened to Coltrane's Ascension, thinking it met my mood, but I couldn't handle its relentlessness. I wanted female vocalists. I took my place in my morris chair by the western window and looked out across the Hudson River, dead flat at slack tide, the yellow sodium lights of New Jersey undulating on its thick surface. Traffic had congealed on the parkway. A flashing ambulance was trying to get through, but nobody would move aside. Etta James sang "Let the Good Times Roll."
Jellyroll liked this — listening — or at least he was used to it. This is how we used to live, long solitary listening hours, the history of jazz, before Crystal came into our lives. Jellyroll circled in his Adirondack Spruce Bough Dog Bed and flopped on his side. He sighed, stretched, and flexed his paws with contentment. Everything was fine now. Whew.
But I couldn't let it go. I assembled the bowling sheets side by side. I wanted to study them for clues. I returned to the names. Three bowling alleys, the same names.
Perry and Dick. Who were Perry and Dick? The stalkers were actually named Perry and Dick? Or was it some kind of twisted hint, a psycho signature? I remembered Shelly's phrase: feeding off our fear, growing stronger on it. Was that what they were doing with this Perry and Dick bullshit? Or was there something to learn from it, thereby increasing our own strength. We had no strength. Who would you kill? Everybody who looked weird? I was gasping for air.
I called Wayne, a friend of mine who worked at the used books and video store on the corner. Wayne was the sort of guy who knew things. Hollywood was his specialty, but he knew some history, and he read serious fiction.
"How's it going, Wayne?"
"Oh, well, bad news. My uncle disappeared."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"Well, it's not like we didn't expect it."
"You expected him to disappear?"
"The man's a genius, but he couldn't handle the structure."
"What structure was that?"
"So he tended to make things up, and this made them very edgy. Who could blame them for that? Lies are their business."
You can get in too deep with Wayne. "Hey, Wayne, do the names Perry and Dick mean anything to you?"
"Perry and Dick? In what capacity?"
"I'm not sure. Any capacity you can think of."
Crystal came home an hour later. That was too early for an amateur tournament. They can go on forever — unless you get eliminated, and Crystal had that eliminated look about her.
"I lost in the first round. No, no, I didn't lose. That's not accurate. I got stomped. By a beginner. I was supposed to be the centerpiece of the tournament, give it some weight, Ronny said. I got stomped in the first round by a beginner."
"You couldn't concentrate." I invited her to sit on my lap. Jellyroll came over to comfort her, too. She sat. Jellyroll put his snout on her hand.
"Ronny couldn't even look me in the eye. I told him I had the flu."
"Was she really a beginner?"
I hugged her. Jellyroll and I cosseted her for a while, then the phone rang.
"Artie. Wayne here."
"I thought of something. Perry and Dick. In Cold Blood. Truman Capote."
My heart sank — not that Perry and Dick —
"Killed those Clutters, those salt-of-the-earth Clutters. Tied up those Clutters and killed them one by one with a shotgun, for no reason. This was the pinnacle of the senseless-killing school of New Journalism. Largely a sensationalized and discredited genre today, this piece was a knockout. Perry and Dick were top-drawer psychos. They hung them in the end. Nobody minded. Fair movie, too, real grim black-and-white. Robert Blake and Scott Wilson. Why do you ask, Artie?"
Excerpted from Don't Explain by Dallas Murphy. Copyright © 1996 Dallas Murphy. Excerpted by permission of Brash Books, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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