Pete Brady is in a bar on Magazine Street, halfway through his third Manhattan, when he gets a message from the New Orleans underworld. In response to Pete’s recent investigation into drug trafficking, they have sent him a message: slitting his favorite source’s throat, ear to ear. Even a Pulitzer Prize can’t get that image out of Pete’s head, and so he bolts, moving to desolate Troy, Louisiana, where he buys a failing newspaper and tries to turn it into a force for good. But death is not through with Pete Brady.
While tidying the graves in the local churchyard, a group of society ladies discover the body of Frieda Troy MacBride, gossip columnist, whose acid tongue has finally gotten her killed. As he struggles to keep his little paper from going under, Brady must unmask this small-town slayer before every writer on staff meets the same fate.
About the Author
Malcolm Shuman is an American author and archaeologist from Louisiana. After serving in the US Army, Shuman pursued doctoral studies in the field of cultural anthropology. He has been on the faculty of universities including Texas A&I and Louisiana State, and continues to work as a contract archaeologist. Shuman has also published fifteen mystery novels under various pseudonyms. He lives with his wife in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Read an Excerpt
A Pete Brady Mystery
By Malcolm Shuman
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1988 M. S. Karl
All rights reserved.
The editor of the Troy Parish Weekly Express dropped the receiver back into its cradle and heaved a sigh. The third call in the last half hour about church socials and club meetings. He scribbled hurriedly on his yellow pad and heard a chuckle from the chair on the other side of the desk.
"That's just business as usual," Emmett Larson said, exhaling a thick, pungent cloud of cigarette smoke. "Wait till you spell somebody's name wrong."
The editor fixed his visitor with a baleful glare. The visitor was in his mid-sixties, a thick man with an incongruously gold shock of hair and a pair of rimless glasses that had slid down to the end of his nose.
"I got that from the last issue," the editor said wryly. "How the hell am I supposed to know Jerden is spelled Jordan?"
I wasn't going to mention that," the old man replied. "But you'll learn. If you stay long enough."
"No if," the editor said. He was a tall, square-jawed man of forty with good-natured brown eyes and lines in his face that might have come either from a lot of laughter or a lot of sadness. "I didn't come here for a vacation."
"Well, that's good," Larson wheezed. "Because here comes your number-one pain in the bootie."
The editor's head swiveled just in time to see the front door of the little office open and a tall, thin woman with peroxided hair come in. He got up quickly, but saw from the corner of his eye that Emmett Larson had not moved.
"Good morning, Emmett," the woman said. In the light from the flourescent bulbs the editor observed that she had a hatchet face and that her cheeks were heavily rouged. "I hardly expected to see you here."
"Funny," Larson grunted. "I did expect to see you here, Frieda."
The gaunt woman turned to the editor, a talonlike hand outstretched and a smile cracking her face. "You must be Mr. Brady, our new Pulitzer Prize-winning publisher. I'm Frieda Troy MacBride. I write the social affairs column. I can't tell you how honored we are that a man of your distinction would leave New Orleans to come to a small town like Troy as our publisher."
Brady flinched and murmured a pleasantry.
"Of course, we don't have the big news stories—dope rings, and that sort of thing, like they have in the city—but don't let the little town deceive you." She leaned forward over the desk and inundated Brady with her sick-sweet perfume. "There are things that happen here that make the big city look like a Fred Astaire musical."
"And if he stays long enough," drawled Emmett Larson, "you'll tell him, won't you, Frieda?"
"No need to be rude," Frieda bristled. She turned back to Brady. "I don't mind saying, Mr. Brady, you'll have a job building up the circulation again." She shot Larson a poisonous look. "The ex-publisher offended so many people with his lack of civility that a lot of people in this parish just don't take the Express any more."
"And good riddance," Larson snarled. "Most of 'em didn't pay their subscriptions on time, anyway. All they wanted was free advertising."
"See?" Frieda demanded, brows arched. She touched Brady's sleeve. "By the way, Mr. Brady, since you and I will be working together ..." Larson's eyes rolled to the ceiling. "Do you mind my asking why you decided to leave the Picayune and come all the way up to the piney woods two hundred miles away to run a parish newspaper? I mean, at the very pinnacle of your career ..."
"I felt like I needed a change," Brady said quickly, his eyes going down to the welter of papers on the battered desk. "Something new."
"Of course," Frieda said sweetly, handing him two typed pages. "Well, here's my column for the next issue. I'm sorry I've taken so long to get over here, but I was out of town. But I expect we'll be seeing a lot of each other from now on. Are you married, Mr. Brady?"
He swallowed. "No."
Her smile widened. "Well. No matter. We'll have to have you to the house soon for coffee and cake."
She gave his hand a parting shake and Brady sat down gratefully as the door closed behind her.
Emmett Larson dropped his cigarette on the cement floor and ground it out. "One of the pleasures of doing business in Troy, Louisiana," he observed. "The dragon-lady. She's already sizing you up for her daughter, Annabelle. Poor girl. No wonder she's a little daffy, with a mother like that. The mister saw the light years ago, took out for parts unknown. Can you imagine living with a witch like that?"
Brady smiled. "I don't think it would be one of my favorite fantasies."
"And watch. That question about why you left New Orleans? I'll guarantee by the end of the week she's spread it all over town. You were fired because the stories you got the prize for were concocted, or something like that."
The younger man nodded quickly. It was not something he wanted to dwell on. Instead, he reached almost gratefully for the papers that Frieda had left on his desk.
"As for that," Larson advised, "take my advice and be very careful. You may have to go over it with a magnifying glass. I'll be glad to check it over until you get the hang of things."
"Thanks, Emmett, but it may help me learn the ropes if I do it myself."
"I don't think you understand what I'm saying. I mean you may wind up with a defamation suit." He reached for another cigarette, found he was out, and crumpled the pack. "Let me give you an example. Rowena Forbes, the librarian? Nice girl. Never hurt anybody. Spent her whole life taking care of her mother and tending that damned Cantrell Collection. Well, when poor old Addie Forbes had to be put in the hospital a few years back, right after Abner died, I got a nice little get-well item from Frieda. 'Cards and flowers may be sent to the fourth floor of Schumpert Hospital in Shreveport.'"
Brady frowned. "And?"
"The fourth floor is the psychiatric ward. Poor Addie had a bout with depression. She's okay now, but it was vicious and uncalled for. I was out of town, had a young fellow from the journalism program handling things that week, and he let it get through. Fortunately, Rowena wasn't the kind to sue, but I felt like hell. You should've seen Frieda gloat, though. It's a game with her, a petty and mean-spirited little game, and you can't ever let down your guard. People around here are afraid of her."
"Well, why fool with her, then?" Brady asked. "Sounds like she's more trouble than she's worth."
"She is, but nothing like the trouble if you cut her off. That's one thing you're gonna have to learn, Pete. This is a small town. One rotten apple can do a lot more damage than in a big city. Frieda comes from an old family. She was a Troy by birth, and her father was old Judge Troy, one of Huey Long's lap dogs. The family still has political connections. Better not stir her up. In the end, she and I ended up with a compromise. She'd submit and I'd drop out or change what I didn't like. Neither of us was perfectly happy, but it kept things on an even keel. My advice to you is not to rock the boat. You'll have all you can do until you hire a few more people to help you."
Brady let the pages fall back onto the desk. Why had he assumed that coming here would be all peace and tranquillity?
"Well," Emmett said, heaving his bulk out of the old wooden chair and hitching his suspenders, "enough advice. I didn't sell this outfit to you so I could come back as an unpaid consultant. And, besides, I seem to remember you've got an anniversary issue coming out. Those are always lots of fun." He guffawed, clapped his successor on the back, and stumped out into the morning sun.
Peter Brady, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for reporting, and new owner, publisher, and editor of the Troy Parish Express, swiveled in his chair and looked around him for the hundredth time since he'd come here a week ago. His eyes went from the bare plaster walls to the scratched metal filing cabinets in one corner; from the metal desk across the room, with its obsolete tabletop computer, to the stack of mail on a chair beside the door. He had left New Orleans because, every time someone referred to the Prize he had won, the image of Ozzie's dead face had floated across his mind, and he had wondered what slip, what shortcut in the rush to deadline, had cost Ozzie his life and purchased his own glory. But, of course, he knew the answer already and that was what hurt. So he had left the city where he'd been born, whose streets he knew like a part of his own body, and sought out a place where there would be no Dockerty hounding him for an expose, no Ozzies to be responsible for, no bars to drown his memories.
But now he was beginning to doubt his wisdom. At the Picayune he'd been a specialist in his own little world of crime reporting. There had been a separate department to handle advertising, another for art, and different staffs for daily and Sunday editions. Here, he was publisher, editor, and reporter, the only help coming from a rabbit-like woman named Mrs. Rickenbacker, who handled the accounts and served as a part-time receptionist, and a carefree college boy named Ripley Dillon, who scurried around after potential advertisers. Both his employees were tenuous at best—Mrs. Rickenbacker because of unspecified family obligations and Ripley because of a full-time college load. So, until Brady could afford an assistant, he would have to dig out the news, write it, make the paste-ups, and handle the public notices that were one of the economic mainstays of the operation. The only saving factor was that several years before, Emmett had reluctantly abandoned the printing operation and made arrangements with a press in Alexandria, seventy miles to the south. It meant a sacrifice in terms of privately commissioned printing jobs, but it cut personnel costs and simplified matters. It would be all Brady could do anyway to cover the news until he could find the money for an assistant or two.
Brady hauled himself up and went into the next room, where the old issues were filed in a row of metal cabinets. He opened the old refrigerator and took out a ginger ale. He took a deep swallow and tried to imagine that there was something else in the bottle to give the drink a little punch. Then he caught himself and set the bottle down hard. He couldn't afford thoughts like that. It had taken too long, too much out of him to get back to where he was now. He wiped his mouth and returned to his desk, determined to immerse himself in his work.
Last week's issue had come out yesterday, Thursday, but Emmett Larson had been right. The special anniversary edition was due in three weeks and that didn't leave much time.
Brady picked up the fiftieth anniversary issue, still dusty from the archives. TROY MARKS ITS FIRST HALF CENTURY, the headline read, and the story under it differed from the ascerbic style Brady had come to recognize as Emmett's. That was because it had been written not by Emmett, but by the previous publisher, before Emmett had even joined the paper. Well, the fifty-year-old story would be of value as background information, and there was also Professor Whiteside's parish history, which had been commissioned by the local historical society a few years ago. There was no doubt about it; the centennial would be important, if he was going to make a go of it here.
Frieda had been right about the flagging subscriptions. Even before buying, his analysis of circulation had left no doubt he would have to work hard to get back the fallen-away readers. After all, without readers, the advertising that actually paid for the operation would remain minimal. He felt certain that some readers would come back simply because they hadn't liked Emmett and were attracted by Brady's credentials. But others would have to be fought for, and the special edition was an opportunity to show them what he could do and how much he could learn about the town in a small amount of time.
The phone rang and he swore under his breath. Another request that he print an announcement about a ball game, or a meeting of the VFW. He picked up the receiver: "Express."
"Mr. Peter Brady?" It was a woman's voice, cool and matter-of-fact.
"That's right. Can I help you?"
"Yes. I think you can. I need to talk to you. My name is Kelly Maguire."
"Yes, well, what can I do for you, Miss Maguire?"
"I'd rather talk in person. You are the Peter Brady who just took over the paper, who won the Pulitzer for crime reporting?"
"Yes, I'm afraid I'm that Peter Brady. Well, if you'd like to come in ..."
"I know this sounds strange, but could we possibly meet somewhere else?"
Brady tapped his pencil on the table. "Sure, but I'd like to know what this is about ..."
"I'll explain when you get there. At the Hickory Inn, say, in an hour and a half?"
Brady glanced at his watch. It was eleven-thirty now and the Hickory Inn was on Highway 84, about ten miles outside of town. "Yeah, I can do that," he agreed. "But I'd really like to know ..."
"Thanks," she said quickly and hung up.
Brady stared at the telephone and then rose, hung the CLOSED FOR LUNCH sign on the office door, and started across the street for Folger's Café. He'd developed an aversion to mysterious phone calls. But, at least this time, he thought, there shouldn't be a dead body waiting for him.CHAPTER 2
The Hickory Inn sat at the junction of a main highway and a secondary road, surrounded by national forest. It was a log structure with a series of tourist cabins behind it. A neon sign in front promised ORIGINAL JAKE'S BARBECUE, but the almost empty parking lot implied that neither the cabins nor the barbecue were presently in great demand. Brady pulled onto the gravel and stopped in front of the door.
The woman on the phone had sounded young. There was a red Mustang next to a log truck on the far side of the parking area, and he wondered if the car belonged to his mysterious caller. Only one way to find out. He opened his door and went across the porch and through the doorway, into the restaurant.
"Yes, sir?" The waitress came forward. He blinked as his eyes adjusted to the dimmer light, but he could tell it wasn't the waitress's voice he'd heard on the phone.
"I came here to meet somebody," he said, looking around the room.
"You're Mr. Brady?" the waitress asked with a pine hills twang.
He nodded, surprised. "That's right."
"This way," she smiled and led him along a wooden railing to the far corner. And there, seated at a table, half-hidden by the shadows, was the woman.
"Mr. Brady," she said, and there was no mistaking her voice. "Thank you so much for coming." She rose to give him a hand, and he saw her face for the first time. She was mid-twenties, with coal-black hair and green eyes and skin the color of cream. She wore a frilly white blouse and a crimson skirt, and an almost indefinable scent of perfume stole out to tease his senses.
The waitress poured coffee into both cups and drifted away. Brady sat down.
"I have to admit, Miss Maguire, you've aroused my curiosity."
"I guarantee, it isn't intentional. But I thought maybe meeting with you away from your office would be best. I hope I haven't inconvenienced you."
"Well, not unusually so. But I do have a special edition to get out, plus next week's issue, so if you don't mind coming to the point ..."
She nodded, pursing her lips. "Fair enough." She leaned forward over the table and a wisp of black hair fell across her forehead. "Mr. Brady, let me start by saying that when I heard you'd bought the Express I was, well, surprised. I've read your stories for a long time. We studied them in journalism class. And then when you won the Pulitzer ..."
"I'm flattered, but ..."
"Please. I'll get to the point as fast as I can. I heard you'd bought the paper, and it just happened to coincide with my own plans to come back to Troy to live. I'm from here, you see."
Brady nodded and stirred his coffee. "And?"
"And, Mr. Brady, I want you to take me on."
The editor blinked. "Miss Maguire ..."
"No, wait. Before you say no, I have experience. I know almost everything there is to know about running a weekly, and I worked for two years on a neighborhood paper in Boston. Look, I have a scrapbook of my work ..."
And before he could protest, she was dragging a portfolio up from under the table. "I did a story on runaway kids and ..."
Excerpted from Killer's Ink by Malcolm Shuman. Copyright © 1988 M. S. Karl. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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