While recovering from a gunshot wound, John Marshall Tanner meets a woman worth fighting for
John Marshall Tanner left most of his blood in a vacant lot on Twentieth Street, along with the body of his closest friend. Tanner and Charley Sleet shot each other at the same time—a tragic finale to a long friendship that left Sleet dead and Tanner bleeding out on the sidewalk. The EMTs saved Tanner, but he isn’t sure he wants to be alive. The uncertainty doesn’t last long though, and soon he will find a reason to live—and to die.
While he recuperates in the hospital, Tanner befriends Rita Lombardi, a strawberry picker from Haciendas who is recovering from corrective surgery on her clubfeet. Rita leaves the hospital walking tall, but soon after, she’s murdered in her hometown, unforgivably guilty of promoting unionization. To avenge her, Tanner will hunt for the killer as long as the blood keeps pumping in his veins.
Strawberry Sunday is the 13th book in the John Marshall Tanner Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
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A John Marshall Tanner Mystery
By Stephen Greenleaf
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1999 Stephen Greenleaf
All rights reserved.
They call it exsanguination.
That's when you lose so much blood that your body stops functioning — the brain ceases to process, the heart arrests, the lungs quit pumping, and at some point they pronounce you dead. By the time they got me to the hospital, exsanguination was a distinct possibility — I'd lost nine pints of blood, almost half the allotment for a man my size. Another point or two down on the dipstick and I'd be in a coffin down in Colma. They told me later that if I'd been Roman Catholic they would have administered Last Rites.
As it was, they tried to save me with some slightly less exalted emissaries who go by the name of surgeons. I was alive because I'd had the good fortune to be shot on the side of Potrero Hill just opposite San Francisco General Hospital, which is where the ambulance took me, which put me in the hands of one of the great trauma teams in the country. They would never claim that they were the only ones in the world who could have saved me that night, but that was probably close to the truth.
The reason I was bleeding was a gunshot. The bullet had taken out a chunk of my spleen and kidney and had nicked the renal artery on its way through as well. All of them are gorged with blood and all of them leak like a sieve when you cut them. Hence exsanguination.
Most of my blood lay puddled on the ground in a scruffy vacant lot on Twentieth Street east of Illinois Street down by the bay. The lot was next to an abandoned powerhouse that served as the de facto headquarters for a group of rogue cops who called themselves the Triad. There was a lot of Triad blood in that lot as well, but the cops who died that night didn't bleed to death, they died far more expeditiously, courtesy of a bullet in the back of the head.
The person who shot the cops and also shot me was a man named Charley Sleet, who'd spent most of his life as a detective lieutenant in the San Francisco Police Department. Charley didn't shoot me because he wanted to kill me, he shot me because he wanted me to kill him. The reason I didn't want to kill him was that Charley was my best friend. As it turned out, I shot him anyway, partly accidentally and partly on purpose, but not before Charley shot the two ringleaders of the Triad in cold blood. The bottom line was, I survived but Charley didn't. That was the way Charley had wanted to end it, for reasons having to do with courage and honor and friendship and essential things like that, but for me it was the beginning of what would surely be a lifelong nightmare.
Charley was dead because I'd shot him in the heart, not because I was a great marksman, but because his heart was such a big target. Impossible to miss, really, because Charley Sleet was the best man I'd ever known, the bravest and kindest, the most energetic and altruistic person on the planet or at least the portion of it that was familiar to me. It's certain I will never know his equal and will never find solace for the fact that I'd killed him, even though he wanted me to, even though he was already dying from a disease that would have felled him eventually anyway. The best I can hope for is to find a way to live with it. Which was what I'd been doing for the past six weeks, when I wasn't busy trying to stay alive.
I'd been in surgery for nine hours, in Intensive Care for ten days, and was into my seventh week of recovery in a semiprivate room on the third floor of the west wing of the giant hospital. There'd been the initial wound and then there had been complications — some sepsis and some staph — so I was laced with a variety of medications, plenty of everything except for the pain. The pain filled me like water fills balloons, occupied me, expanded me, and warped me to the point that it was all I could think of, all I could remember or project, all that I prayed to be delivered from — I went from being afraid I would die to praying I would die quickly to being terrified that I would have to live with such towering waves of pain forever. I made so many bargains with a God whose existence I seldom admit to in normal times that my conversations with Him sounded like a shopping trip to the Casbah, haggling over a hand-loomed rug.
A bargain had finally been struck, on terms that would presumably not be fully known till Judgment Day — the pain had subsided and the sepsis and staph had vanished as inexplicably as when they first appeared. Now for the first time I was going to be allowed visitors. I had on clean jammies; an aide had trimmed my hair and shaved me and helped me take a shower, then changed my limp sheets. Such as I was, I was prepared to receive my public.
The first person to come calling was Ruthie Spring, one of my oldest friends, widow of the detective who'd first schooled me in the trade almost twenty years ago. Ruthie is a former combat nurse and sheriff's deputy who is now a private investigator herself as the heiress to her husband's agency. As usual, she arrived in a hail of curses.
"Damn it all, Marsh, I thought those white-coated faggots'd never let me in here. They act like you're a frigging rock star coming off a smack habit and I'm in hire to the Enquirer."
I laughed at Ruthie's outfit as much as at her outrage. She was dripping with a variety of silver jewelry in the shape of stirrups and lassos and horseshoes and such and was wearing a suede suit cut like a barrel racer's. After her first husband, Harry, was murdered, Ruthie had married money in the form of a guy named Conrad. Conrad thinks Ruthie likes horses. Ruthie can't seem to get it through his head that she regards horses the way she regards telemarketers.
"The only thing I've got in common with rock stars is I'm pierced in too many places," I said.
She regarded my IV and my oxygen tube and nodded. "Heard it was bad. Which figures, given it was Sleet who drilled you. Looks like you been rode hard and put up wet."
"Thanks a lot."
Ruthie reddened at the possibility that she'd insulted me. "But you look real good, Sugar Bear. Losing a pound or two won't hurt you a bit. Going to come through this just fine, long as he didn't shoot off your pecker."
"Still intact in that department."
Ruthie swooped toward a chair, dragged it to the bedside, and sat down and crossed her legs. Her boots were made out of some species that was probably endangered; her suede pants were flared at the bottom the way mine had been in the seventies. Ruthie was one of a kind.
She glanced at the door to make sure it was all the way shut, then thrust a hand into the depths of her massive handbag of hand-tooled pink leather. "Got some twenty-year-old unblended in here, Sugar Bear. How about I pour you a stiff shot?"
"Too early for that, I'm afraid."
"Hell, it's almost three o'clock. Most of Texas has been drunk for two hours."
"I meant in my recovery. Some of my holes are still holes — wouldn't want it to leak all over the floor."
Ruthie shrugged and walked to the closet. "It'll be in here when you need it."
She fished in her bag again. "How about some Oreos?"
Ruthie had come armed with my primary nutritional passions. "I think I'd better stick to hospital food awhile longer."
She looked at me as though I'd gone mad. "Must not be as bad as they say."
"The food? It's worse."
Ruthie regarded me with skepticism. "You're going to be back to normal at the end of this, aren't you, Sugar Bear?"
"No permanent damage?"
"Not that they know of."
"So you'll get back whatever it was Sleet took out of you."
I resisted the temptation to ask what Ruthie thought that was. "So they say."
Something in my face must have told her I was running down in terms of social voltage. "Well, I'll be toddling off. Just wanted to let you know me and Conrad are thinking of you."
"Appreciate it, Ruthie. You guys are still good, right?"
"Hell, yeah. Take more than a frisky husband to bring me down. Long as they keep making lubricants, I'll be the best little wife in Pacific Heights."
I laughed. "How old are you anyway, Ruthie?"
"Sixty-three come next month."
"That's hard to believe."
"Tempus seems to fucking fugit whether you give it permission or not."
I looked around my cheerless room. "I sure as hell hope so," I said.
Ruthie walked to the window and looked out. "Going to miss that chunky bastard."
"Sometimes it seemed like the only one in the world who made sense was Sleet."
"Lots of times," I agreed.
"He didn't buy into the nonsense, know what I mean? Cut straight to the chase. Ever damn time."
"That he did."
"Remember once I asked if he'd seen some big-assed Hollywood movie and he said, 'Why would I want to pay good money to watch people slaughter each other?'" Ruthie turned to face me. "The sumbitch went out with a bang, though, didn't he?"
I tried to grin. "Tell me about it."
"Papers are full of crapola about the cops he took down. Public servants risking their lives for the city — usual bleeding heart bullshit. From what I hear, they stole everything in town that wasn't nailed down."
I nodded. "They were pretty bad apples according to Charley."
She cocked her head. "You're not in any trouble yourself, are you? For capping Sleet, I mean?"
"Don't know yet, Ruthie. Someone from the D.A.'s office is coming by later. Been trying to see me for three weeks."
"Maybe you better have Hattie on hand when they get here."
The reference was to the best criminal lawyer in the city, a friend of mine for a lot of years, a man even the D.A. himself held in awe. I couldn't afford a tenth of Jake Hattie's normal rate, but since I'd done him some favors, usually I didn't have to. "I'll think about it," I said.
Ruthie waved toward the trappings of the room, the ungodly gadgets that were going to keep me alive come hell or high water or any inclinations to the contrary should they arise, provided I could pay the tab. "You're insured for this shit, right, Marsh? It ain't coming out of your hide?"
"I'm covered for most of it, I think. Deductible and co-payments will add up to something, I imagine; I'm not sure how much."
"Let me know when you find out."
I smiled. "I can handle it, Ruthie."
"I know you can. But Conrad has more money than anyone but that goofy Gates boy and all he's doing with it is buying a bunch of expensive toys."
I laughed. "What's the most expensive thing he's got?"
She raised her arms in a model's preen. "Why that would be me, Sugar Bear. Sayonara, or whatever it is the dagoes say."
"I think that's ciao."
"Speaking of which, think I'll go get me a double bacon cheeseburger, seeing as how Conrad ain't around to hassle me about cholesterol. Last thing I want to do is live forever, know what I'm saying, Sugar Bear?"
After I told her I knew what she meant, Ruthie flounced out of the room as dramatically as she'd entered it, leaving behind several eddies of air and the strong scent of lavender and a warm spot at the precise coordinates of my heart.
An hour later, the poker gang arrived en masse. Clay Oerter, the stockbroker, was in the lead, followed by Al Goldsberry, the pathologist, and Tommy Milano, the restaurateur. Clay was dressed for the office, which meant a three-piece suit cut and sewn in London. Al was dressed for the office as well, which was in the basement of a different hospital than the one I was lying in, which meant chinos and polo shirt and Nikes. Tommy was dressed like Tommy, which was an eclectic blend of longshoreman and litigator — the shoes on his feet were straight from Milan and the shirt on his back was from Indonesia by way of Kmart.
"Hey, Marsh," Clay began as the others fidgeted nervously behind him. "You look great, man."
"I do not."
"Yeah, but you will. Right? Hundred percent in a few more weeks."
"On the outside, at least. Hi, Al. Hi, Tommy."
"Good to see you, Marsh," said Al.
"Me, too," said Tommy. "I brought some of that bread you like, I don't know if you want it or nothing, but I thought ..." He reached under his coat and hauled out a two-foot baguette.
I felt like the godfather accepting tribute from the neighborhood. "Put it in the closet next to the scotch," I said. "And thanks."
"I didn't bring anything," Al said sheepishly.
"You didn't have to."
And suddenly there was a silence that encompassed all of us, because the fifth member of the poker group had been Charley and our thoughts traveled toward him like metal toward a magnet.
"I miss the dumb galoot," Clay said finally, getting it out on the table where it belonged. "Even his stinking cigars."
"Me, too," Tommy said.
"Me, too," I said.
"We know there was nothing you could do, Marsh," Al said. "We know he forced your hand."
"Yeah," said Clay.
"Yeah," said Tommy.
"So don't go feeling guilty. Okay?"
When I shrugged, it hurt from my groin to my Adam's apple. "Easier said than done."
"Look at it this way," Al advised. "If Charley didn't want it done, it wouldn't have gotten done. What I mean is, you're good, but you're not Charley."
"I'm not Charley," I agreed.
"Charley wasn't Charley, either," Clay said. "He killed all those people, I guess — the cops; the guy in the courtroom. But that wasn't him. That was the tumor."
"Yeah," said Tommy. "That was the fucking brain tumor."
Then, involuntarily and unconsciously, they all looked at me as if I suffered from some of the same, a growth in my skull that had made me a monster, loosed demons no one knew I had, made me a man to beware. I must have looked like shit.
"Any of you guys go to the funeral?" I asked.
"Yeah," they all said.
"It was nice."
"And lots of flowers."
"Lots of cops, too, I imagine," I said.
They looked at each other and fidgeted. "Not all that many," Clay muttered.
"Not enough," Al added.
"Some guys in plain clothes. A few uniforms. But no cycles and no white gloves."
"So nothing official," I said.
Clay nodded. "Nothing official."
"He killed those two cops," Tommy offered in explanation, ever the mediator.
"Three," Clay corrected. "The one before, then the two the night he died. According to the papers, the inquiry's still open. They must have figured they couldn't honor him since he might be a cop killer."
"Is that bureaucratic bullshit or what?" Al said angrily. "Charley wouldn't have killed those guys unless they were scum."
"Yeah," Tommy said. "Scum."
"They talk to you yet?" Al asked. "The cops?"
"Docs wouldn't let them in. But some assistant D.A.'s been trying to get in to see me."
"You'll tell them how it was."
"Yeah. Tell them Charley was just doing what had to be done."
The silence returned. I didn't know how to break it without starting to cry.
"I looked at your chart at the desk," Al said finally. "You're doing great. In case you don't believe what they're telling you."
"So when you getting out?" Tommy asked.
"End of the week, if nothing goes wrong."
"That's great," Clay said. "Maybe we'll stop by over the weekend. Deal a few hands of stud if you're up to it."
Clay was always ready for a game. "That'd be great," I said, then inadvertently glanced at the clock.
Clay took the hint even though I wasn't sure it was one. "Well, we better hit the road. Good to see you, Marsh."
"Don't be a hero," Al said. "Take it easy till you're back all the way."
"You did what you had to do. No reason to get down about it."
"So take care."
"You guys, too," I said.
"We will," Clay said. "And maybe we'll catch you on Sunday."
They filed out of the room, friends who would do anything they could do for me as I would have for them, but nonetheless as relieved as I would have been to have done their duty by their fallen comrade and be on their way to less unnerving environments.
After they were gone, my day nurse peeked in. Her name was Gertie. She was tall and gruff, as stiff and as pointed as jackstraw. "How you holding up?"
"Want me to call off the parade?"
I shook my head.
"That district attorney said she'd be here at four unless someone told her she couldn't. Said it was important," Gertie added, then looked at me more closely. "I can head her off if you want me to."
I shook my head. "If they're going to try to lock me up, I might as well know it now."
Excerpted from Strawberry Sunday by Stephen Greenleaf. Copyright © 1999 Stephen Greenleaf. 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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