In his impressive and confident debut, Michael Wiley delivers a thrilling tale about how greed and revenge play out on the streets of Chicago.
Private eye Joe Kozmarski has just been asked to clear his childhood friend Bob Piedras of murder. Bob's latest girlfriend, a young Vietnamese American beauty, has turned up dead in an airport hotel. No one is very surprised; she had a taste for hard liquor, drugs, and stripping in front of a camera. And Bob has a history of violence. But Bob's boss, retired judge Peter Rifkin, is convinced Bob is innocent and thinks Joe is the one to find the real killer.
But Joe's life is complicated. He hasn't spoken to Rifkin for fifteen years—ever since his father, now dead, found out that the judge had double-crossed him. The dead woman's brothers, a pair of tough guys, are bent on being the first to find and punish her murderer. On top of that, Joe and his wife have separated, and his mother has dropped his eleven-year-old nephew on him. But the more obstacles Joe encounters, the more determined he becomes to see this case through.
With its vividly realized characters and page-turning story line, The Last Striptease won the 2006 St. Martin's Press / Private Eye Writers of America contest, which has accomplished its mission of finding amazing new talent in what has become a long tradition of excellent crime fiction.
About the Author
Michael Wiley teaches literature at North Florida University and is currently working on a second Joe Kozmarski mystery. He lives in Jacksonville, Florida.
Read an Excerpt
The Last Striptease
By Wiley, Michael
St. Martin's MinotaurCopyright © 2007 Wiley, Michael
All right reserved.
North Dearborn, a couple blocks off the Gold Coast high-rises, is a high-priced neighborhood, full of forty-year-old guys fresh out of divorces from suburban wives. Guys with good money from good jobs or okay money from okay jobs and dreams of an easy life interrupted only by vigorous sex after years of cutting the backyard grass every summer weekend. If they’ve got money, they buy a Jaguar or a Mercedes convertible, which they keep in a garage. If they don’t, a scooter or a moped, which they keep in the front vestibule of their apartment building. But after a couple months, their sports cars stay parked in the garage, and their scooters and mopeds collect dust in the vestibules, and most of the year is winter in Chicago anyway, so the guys work their good jobs or their okay jobs, then go home and climb upstairs to their apartments and cook a microwave dinner. Afterward, they go to bed early or they walk out to the bars on Rush Street and get drunk with other guys like themselves.
I know because I looked at apartments in the neighborhood after Corrine and I split up. I didn’t rent because I didn’t like what the neighborhood told me about myself. Sometimes denial is good. For me, it’s dessert every night after a microwave dinner.
I try to avoid thearea, but on a warm Monday night in September, I sat in my car across the street from a store called Stoyz. Lots of neon, about a third of it dead, and a front window covered with a chrome finish, so you could see your reflection from outside. The kind of place you would think would get run out of a high-priced neighborhood, except it served a need.
A man named Ahmed Hassan ran the store. Mr. Hassan had stopped paying child support, and my lawyer, Larry Weiss, who also represented Hassan’s ex-wife, asked me to track him down and deliver a court summons. Sometimes when business is slow, I do favors for Larry. Sometimes when business gets too fast and lands me in jail, he does favors for me. No money exchanged. Business was slow, so the court summons and a photograph of Hassan sat on the passenger seat. It was chiseler work. Not what I do. But here I was, and I’d been to plenty of places like this before.
I watched the storefront. A glowing red sign advertising Stoyz jutted out from the brick wall above the door. A smaller purple one advertised cigarettes, videos, magazines, and accessories. More red said the store was open. The chrome window faced the street like a stone drunk who wouldn’t tell you what was inside his head no matter how many times you slapped him. But I figured Hassan was in there behind the counter.
A white van was parked in the dark outside the store, and a deliveryman in a brown jumpsuit, work gloves, and a yellow baseball cap was unloading boxes from the back. I would wait until the guy finished the delivery and left; then I would present the summons to Hassan. No reason to rile Hassan by making it public.
The deliveryman stacked three boxes on a dolly, balanced a fourth on his shoulder, and backed the load into the store through the door. On the neon sign, the purple z in the word magazines flickered; soon it would burn out. Then the other letters would burn out, one by one, until the store sat in total darkness. And then, if we were lucky, the store itself would disappear, taking Hassan with it. The world wouldn’t be any worse off.
A sheet of newspaper blew across the street, tumbling like the ghost of an animal that hadn’t lived in this city for 150 years. Or like a tumbleweed. And I was John Wayne or Gary Cooper or whoever. But I heard no twanging Western music.
I heard a gunshot. It exploded dully inside the store.
The newspaper came to a rest in the gutter.
Two more gunshots exploded.
The deliveryman ran out. No boxes, no dolly. He ran scared. His muscles didn’t move him as fast as he wanted to go. He scrambled into the white van, and it skidded from the curb. The van clipped the bumper of the car parked in front of it and disappeared down the street.
I grabbed my cell phone and punched 911. Before the dispatcher answered, I had my Glock out of the glove compartment and I’d checked the clip.
“Gunshots,” I shouted, and I gave the dispatcher the address of Stoyz.
“Who is shooting?” she asked. Calm, like I was reporting a lost cat.
Halfway out the car door, I didn’t bother to answer.
“Please stay on the line,” she said.
I threw the phone on the passenger seat and ran across to the store.
Only one person was inside. A tall man, fat as a potato. He groped along a display case, head down, smearing the glass with blood. He passed a closed cash register. He passed a door, open to a supply room. He had on white khakis and sleek black Italian loafers. His shirt was sky blue silk, stained with sweat and blood. His head was round and heavy and shaved bald. Even with his face against the glass, I recognized him as Ahmed Hassan.
He stopped moving, and his muscles tensed, his fingers digging at the display glass like the hookahs inside could save his life. A spasm shot through his body and the glass shattered. The wooden legs gave way, and the case collapsed to the floor under him. He fell, soft as a bag of potatoes.
He needed help quick, but I didn’t like the door open to the supply room behind him and the chance that the shooter was in there.
I ducked behind the display counter, waited, listened to silence, moved to the supply room door. A bullet had splintered the door frame. I swung my Glock into the room and followed it. Except for some metal shelves holding cleaning supplies and electronic equipment, the room was empty. A steel door stood open to an alley behind the store. I closed and bolted it.
Hassan was moaning. I went to him and turned him onto his back. He had two neat puncture wounds where he’d taken bullets: one in his neck, one in his chest. The wound in his neck pulsed blood like a fountain. Broken glass jutted out of cuts on his face. Blood pooled in his eyes. He didn’t blink. He was already beyond seeing.
“Mr. Hassan,” I said.
He didn’t answer. He was beyond hearing, too.
“Who shot you?”
I tried again. “Who—”
He grabbed upward blindly and got my arm, didn’t let go.
I would stay with him, letting him clutch my arm, until the cops or an ambulance arrived. If he died before they came, I would let him die holding on to someone. A stranger was better than no one.
“Patti?” he mumbled.
Patti, his ex-wife, was suing him for child support. Did she shoot him? Or was he already half out of this world and regretting what he’d left unloved and uncared for? Maybe if he survived, he would start paying child support without a judge telling him to. I tried again. “Who shot you?”
He didn’t answer.
His grip on my arm weakened. His hand fell to the floor like it had to, like everything has to, and he didn’t lift it again. He lay there, breathing hard. Another spasm passed through his body. The blood pulsed slowly from his neck. Nothing I could do unless I put a tourniquet around his throat.
And then he was quiet. I listened anyway. Sirens howled in the distance. Copyright © 2007 by Michael Wiley. All rights reserved.
Excerpted from The Last Striptease by Wiley, Michael Copyright © 2007 by Wiley, Michael. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This
"A stylish and savvy page-turner of a noir-nuanced thriller . . . a riveting debut."— Chicago Tribune
"If Michael Wiley's goal was to write a murder mystery that would keep readers up past their bed time, he has succeeded. Wiley has turned out a first novel that has an absorbing plot and believable characters. The writing...is strong and seamless."—Florida Times-Union
A Message from the Author
"I like to watch," says Peter Sellers to Shirley MacLaine in the movie Being There. He means he likes to watch TV. But she misunderstands.
Me? I've written a mystery novel about watching. I hope you like it.
Here's the story of how I came to write the book.
In the late 1990s, after seven years in Manhattan, I moved back to Chicago, where I grew up. My wife and I found a little eighth-floor apartment with giant windows facing east and south. The east windows looked across a parking lot toward another building with giant windows. The south windows looked across a narrow side street toward an old high rise with little windows, but lots of them.
I was teaching occasional classes at DePaul University and writing a book about late-eighteenth-century poetry, while my wife worked long hours at an office and did a lot of traveling -- which meant that I had plenty of time to look out the windows at the windows that looked into mine.
Two windows in the facing buildings especially interested me: a big window across the parking lot, behind which a woman, who seemed to have a schedule much like mine, spent long hours every day painting in her underwear; and a small window across the street, next to which a woman had positioned her bed, where she bedded a series of men early in the evenings with the shades open and the lights on.
Chicago is an icy city in the winter, and even the warmest apartment gets cold, but underwear was my neighbor's painting uniform, four seasons of the year. Why underwear, I didn't know, but I was intrigued. Apartments in old buildings with little windows sometimes have broken shades, but the lamp switches generally work, so I couldn't help thinking that my other neighbor was showing off. I didn't know why, but again I was intrigued.
Being a well-mannered midwestern boy, I never waited outside their apartment buildings to ask my neighbors why they painted in their underwear and put on shows seen in few places outside Amsterdam and Bangkok's Patpong district. I finished writing my book, turning to the windows no more than 30 or 40 times a day, and eventually my wife and I packed and moved to Florida, where I now teach.
Then, at a polite distance from my former neighbors, I wrote a novel about an art student who likes to have sex in front of others. And, since the novel is a mystery, someone kills her.
I hope you like it. --Michael Wiley
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
During a surveillance project, Chicago private investigator Joe Kozmarski sees a murder that he calls in over 911. His former police crony, Bill Gubman follows up on Joe¿s call, but is shot by the killer who escapes. --- When his employee Bob Piedras is suspected of killing his girlfriend, Le Thi Hanh, former judge Peter Rifkin asks family friend Joe to investigate the judge assumes Piedras is innocent although he and Le had a public argument. Joe does not like these types of cases in which a friend with a presumption hires him because the truth may not be what the person wants, but a$15K retainer supersedes any doubt. Besides Joe has a grudge with the Judge, who was forced to retire for behavior unbecoming a court official. As Joe makes inquiries, Le¿s angry violent brothers follow his every move because they plan their own form of justice including keeping a PI straight anyway necessary. However, the toughest project is his eleven year old nephew who has been dumped on him to straighten him out, but the lad insists on doing field work instead of schoolwork. --- Joe is terrific in this bruising (to the characters that is) action-packed urban noir. The story line is fast-paced as it seems everywhere that Joe goes a corpse either greets him or follows after him. Readers will appreciate his joy ride of Chicago even as his wise guy not precocious nephew insists on leading the investigation. --- Harriet Klausner