Chicago private eye Cat DeLuca, founder of the Pants on Fire Detective Agency, catches liars and cheatsand, from time to time, killers.
Cat’s brief marriage to runaround Johnnie Rizzo was a bust. But it gave her the mad skills she needed for her agency. She doesn’t investigate for insurance companies and she won’t find your long lost Uncle Harry. But if you’re in Chicagoland and you suspect your partner is stepping out, give her a call.
Cat comes from a long line, and big family, of Chicago cops, stretching back to the day when her greatgrandfather gave Al Capone protection and a truck to move bootleg whiskey. Most DeLuca men are straight-up guys. Some are flexible, like Ferrari-driving Uncle Joey. But Cat’s Poppa stands above the rest, a man of integrity who one day took a bullet when on duty and became a hero. So why, after someone kidnaps Captain Bob’s dog and claims to have evidence of cop corruption, do Captain Bob and Poppa not only deny the accusation, but order Cat to leave it alone?
Long ago when they were partners, the two cops responded to a hit-and-run that claimed the life of one of Bridgeport’s most beloved citizens. Daniel Baumgarten, owner and proprietor of Baumgarten’s Jewelry was killed in the street outside his shop. The unsolved death was relegated to a dusty cold case file where it was almost forgotten. Until now.
Meanwhile Cat’s romance with FBI Agent Chance Savino still gives her goose bumps. Her Mama’s latest scheme to marry her off involves a romantic cruise, insane amounts of champagne, and a hijacked priest to tie the knot. But saving Poppa and Captain Bob comes first.
There Was a Crooked Man is another funfilled, surprising page-turner. It’s a story of greed and betrayal. And the utterly astonishing things we do to save the ones we love.
About the Author
K.J. Larsen, AKA Kari, Julianne, and Kristen Larsen, co-write the Cat DeLuca Mysteries. Their debut novel, Liar Liar, was awarded Library Journal’s Best Mystery, 2010. There Was a Crooked Man is the fifth novel in this fast-paced series. The three sisters live in Chicagoland and the Pacific Northwest, with a shameless menagerie of dogs, cats, horses, and one misbehaved rabbit.
Read an Excerpt
There Was a Crooked Man
A Cat DeLuca Mystery
By K. J. Larsen
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2016 K. J. Larsen
All rights reserved.
A fierce wind blew off the lake, rattling the catwalk beneath my feet. I hovered fifty feet in the air on a sketchy billboard marked for demolition by the city of Chicago. Shimmying up this godforsaken structure hadn't been one of my smarter moves. But then, being a hotshot detective doesn't mean you have good sense.
I was armed with spy-eyes, a long-focus lens camera, and a Snickers bar. From my vantage point, I had a bird's-eye view of trendy shops and old-time bars in this South Chicago neighborhood. Bridgeport has a funky, friendly vibe and a history rife with gangsters and shady politicians. There's a strong sense of community here and you know your neighbor has your back. If he thinks you want to kill yourself, he's right there cheering you on.
My gaze swept the street below and froze on Johnnie's Grill and Sports Bar. The proprietor, Johnnie Rizzo, is a study in brute testosterone and charm. He's got ravishing brown eyes that suck women in. I was close enough to pitch a rock through his window.
I fell crazy in love with Johnnie the summer I worked at his restaurant. It happened in the walk-in cooler, pressed up against the wall, wedged between a slab of beef and five-gallon buckets of condiments. Johnnie had slow hands and fast fingers. We were married before my feet hit the ground.
A few months into marital bliss I planned a surprise for Johnnie. I sashayed into the cooler all dolled up in high heels, a faux leopard fur coat, and my birthday suit. And there was Johnnie, thrust between the hanging beef and the five-gallon condiments. And a ditzy blond waitress.
Same wall. Different ketchup. Different cow.
That was the day my feet hit the ground and stayed there.
It wasn't long before I discovered I'd married a serial cheater.
My marriage was a bust but it rocket-started my career. Chasing Johnnie Rizzo's cheating ass gave me mad skills. I earned my PI license and launched the Pants On Fire Detective Agency. I don't investigate for law firms or insurance companies and I won't find your lost Uncle Hal. But if you're in Chicagoland and you suspect your partner is stepping out, give me a call.
My name is Cat DeLuca, PI, and I catch cheaters.
* * *
I turned my back on Johnnie's Grill and Sports Bar and set my sights on the brownstone apartment across the street. The wind off the lake clawed at me and the old, wooden bones beneath me shuddered. I said a couple Hail Marys, aimed my spy-eyes and counted the panes of glass. Four floors up, four windows over. Apartment 4B. That's where the "other woman" receives her mail. And an eighteen hundred-smacker Laura Ashley loveseat.
My client, Dorrie Gillet, discovered the charge on her husband's platinum Visa. It was a stunning truffle microfiber loveseat viewed through my binoculars. She'd hired me to track down the loveseat, but I suspect she was more interested in the buns that warmed it.
Dorrie's husband, Sheldon, shows all the signs of a middle- aged cheater. He traded his Prius for a Camaro. He buys gifts she never sees and his little blue pills disappear like candy. He's definitely not rising to the occasion at home.
Last month Sheldon blew a bundle of their savings on a hair transplant. Dorrie showed me before and after pictures. They were amazing. He might have George Clooney hair now. But his face still screams Elmer Fudd.
"I suspect Shelly is cheating on me," she said bitterly.
Seriously? I glanced at the photo of Elmer again. "Have you talked to him about it?"
"He laughed at me. He said I was imagining things."
That's what they all say.
Her lips pursed in an angry line. "Sheldon is a church deacon, for God's sake. I told our pastor he's catting around. I said, 'Shelly's going to hell.'"
"What did your pastor say?"
"He said Sheldon's experiencing a mid-life crisis. That God wants me to forgive him."
I didn't trust myself to respond. I whipped out my Dr. Pepper Lip Smacker and smeared my mouth.
"When hell freezes over," Dorrie said. "That's what I said to the pastor. I told him God wants Sheldon to keep his pants zipped."
I tucked the Lip Smacker in my jeans' pocket. Her eyes had a hard, terrifying glint. I almost expected her head to start spinning.
"I've been a good wife to that man."
"What do you want from me?"
"I want you to find out where that loveseat was delivered." "Okay."
"And then torch it."
I smiled. "Sorry. I don't —"
"But you know someone who does." One crazy eye winked. "And I want hard evidence that I can slap in Sheldon's face. One photograph of the lying bastard to prove I'm not bat-shit crazy."
That could take more than a photo. Or maybe not.
I considered her cray-cray eyes thoughtfully. Perhaps she wasn't so bat-shit after all. Dorrie Gillet's life, as she knew it, was unraveling. She felt betrayed. She was pissed off. But mostly she was scared shitless.
In this business, I meet people on their very worst days.
I touched her hand. "I'll find out the truth about your husband. And I'll get your photo. My 8 by 10 glossies will clear or convict him."
She found a tissue in her bag and blew her nose. It sounded a lot like a foghorn.
"I am a just Christian woman."
"And I will choke the thankless fornicator in his sleep."
Dorrie slapped a wad of cold hard cash on my desk. "We never had this conversation. I was never here."
And just like that, Poof. She wasn't.
* * *
I had been stalking the thankless fornicator for days and he'd been on his best behavior. But that ship was about to sail. Today I followed Sheldon after work to his lover's brownstone. Her name is Michelle and she's a sous chef at a French bistro in Hyde Park. She likes retro furniture and peppermint patties. She props an insane number of stuffed toys on her bed. She wears baby-doll lingerie. There was a home pregnancy test in her waste basket. Negative. And the loveseat is amazing.
I know this because I broke into Michelle's apartment when she was at work. I got her address from the delivery guys at Walter E. Smithe. They remembered the loveseat, all right. Maybe because they hoisted it four miserable flights up a narrow, sweat-box stairway without so much as a tip or a thank you. I gladly gave them both.
I was in Michelle's apartment when I decided to climb the billboard for my photo-op. The structure is mildly treacherous but it's a straight camera shot to Michelle's bedroom window. I waited in my car for Sheldon to enter his lover's apartment. Then I crossed my fingers, made my peace with God, and jumped the yellow police tape.
I aimed my long focus lens camera at Apartment 4B across the street. Michelle's menagerie of stuffed animals had been moved to three shelves. Elmer Fudd sprawled on the bed alone, head propped on a pillow, wearing a pair of stars and stripes bikini briefs. It appeared another little blue pill had been activated for takeoff.
Sheldon had the soft, undeveloped body of a guy who was never into sports and spends too many weekends on the couch. He may have been captain of the debate team in school but he would've been the last kid picked for sports. He didn't have a lot of body hair, just a few honey-gold tufts around his man-breasts.
"Come on," I whispered.
As if on command, Michelle emerged from the bathroom in a soft pink baby doll and white fishnet stockings. She had long black hair and skin like caramel. She may not have Sheldon's generous breasts but she's an attractive woman in her own right with firm, wide hips and a round, shapely caboose. She danced for him slowly, gliding around the bed with an easy, sensual motion. Her fingers explored her skin and she danced as if she was making love to her body.
I focused the camera lens.
Her hips sashayed seductively and her arms were fluid as melted butter. She stripped for Elmer, removing her spaghetti straps slowly, one by one, until all she wore was a delicate gold anklet with diamond and ruby hearts.
Elmer Fudd's eyes bulged. He appeared as if his face would explode.
His eyebrows darted up and down and beads of sweat dribbled from his George Clooney hair. He watched her dance until he couldn't contain himself a moment longer. Then he pulled her on the bed and kissed her hard before pushing her onto her knees. Michelle's long black hair draped the stars and stripes, and the rocket's red glare. And then Chef Michelle served up one of her French specialties.
I smiled. "Say Brie."
Click. Click. Click.
A hefty gust of wind blew off the lake and the billboard's wooden frame shuddered beneath me.
"It's a wrap," I said.
I took a bite of my Snickers and tucked the camera and binoculars into my shoulder bag. A shrill voice squawked from the street below.
"Jumper! We've got a jumper!"
Jumper? My eyes swept the surrounding rooftops. Nada.
I looked down at the street where a small crowd was gathering. My heart sank. They were yelling at me.
"Jump! Jump!" An obnoxious guy chanted. A small chorus of doom joined in.
"I'm a city inspector!" I shouted but no one heard. They were having too much fun yelling at me.
"Hold on, Dearie!" an old woman called. The cops are on their way!
I began retracing my steps to the ladder, carefully negotiating the catwalk. A crowd of looky-lous poured out of Johnnie's Sports Bar. They heard there was a jumper and they were pumped for a bloodbath.
I moved quickly, making my way to the ladder. An all-too- familiar voice called to me. My feet froze and my stomach lurched.
"Kitten, stop!" Johnnie Rizzo bellowed. "I know you love me! Don't jump! You can get over us!"
"Ha!" I blubbered. I was stunned by the enormity of that man's ego.
Johnnie wailed. "I'm not worth it."
"Captain Obvious has arrived, ladies and gentlemen!" I shot back.
"Come down, Kitten! You don't want to die!"
"I'm not jumping, fool!"
I scanned the crowd. Phones were held high in the air, videotaping. I groaned. My foiled suicide attempt and my Johnnie Rizzo heartbreak would certainly hit YouTube, if not the evening news.
"All right," my ex cried, "I'm coming up for you."
Johnnie Rizzo is terrified of heights. His offer was enormously brave. And, I reluctantly admitted, rather sweet.
"Go, Johnnie, go!" The bar crowd chanted. They were louder than the Jump mob. Johnnie sucks people in. They love him.
"No, Johnnie, no!" I yelled, scampering for the ladder. "I'm coming down!"
Johnnie's two hundred pounds might easily bring this billboard to its knees. I reached the ladder and began descending the steps.
The ladder brought me most of the way down. The final twenty feet I slid down a pole.
The nice people cheered. The Jump! crowd booed. And the Go Johnnie Go bunch dissolved into the restaurant to freshen their drinks.
Sirens screamed. The cops were on their way.
Before my feet hit the ground, Johnnie caught me in his arms. He was trembling and his eyes were wet.
"Thank God," he breathed. His big brown eyes searched my face and he locked onto my eyes with his. I shuddered. He was sucking me in.
Damn those eyes. I took a breath and pushed him away. "I wasn't going to jump.
"Of course you weren't." He didn't believe me for a moment. "Okay, Kitten. You got what you wanted. You have my attention."
"I wasn't trying to — arrrgh!"
I looked down the street. Flashing lights barreled down on us. Sirens screamed.
"For God's sake, Cat, get some help. See a shrink or something. If money's a problem, business has been good. I've got what you need."
"You're such an egotistical jackass."
I hightailed it toward my car as the first patrol cars screeched to the curb. My crazy Cousin Frankie jumped out first, hand on holster, always ready to shoot someone.
"Hi, Frankie!" I waved.
"Cat!" His head jerked side to side. "Did you see the jumper? Where did she go?"
I pointed down the street. "She ran into Johnnie's."
Frankie roared into his radio and a mass of blue swarmed Johnnie's Sports Bar and Grill.
I looked over my shoulder at Johnnie. He shook his head and dragged a hand through his hair.
"Not cool, Kitten."
But his big, woman-sucking eyes were smiling.CHAPTER 2
I put the billboard in my rearview mirror and drove to Tino's Deli. Tino is one of Bridgeport's most intriguing residents. He's an ex-spy and his current relationship with the government is just one of his many secrets.
Tino met me at the door and threw his big bearlike arms around me. "Ah, Caterina. You didn't hurl yourself off the billboard, after all." He winked. "Unless you can fly."
I didn't ask how he heard. Tino knows stuff. You just accept it. If you think about it too much, it gets creepy.
I made a face. "The crowd was vicious. Some wanted me to jump."
"Give me names. I'll poison their sausage."
"They were the McDonald's crowd."
"They're getting a slow poisoning already."
Tino's eyes danced. "Whose bedroom did you intrude upon up there? Was the woman a beauty?"
"You know I never click and tell."
"Can I see your dirty pictures? Just a little peek?"
"Nice try." I gave his arm a playful slap and searched the display case. "Am I too late for tiramisu? I was hoping to get some for tomorrow night."
"Ah. Savino's coming for dinner." Chance's lust for tiramisu is legendary. "I have some in back. Made fresh this morning."
Tiramisu is a creamy, Italian, mocha-trifle that's heaven in your mouth. It tantalizes your tongue with an explosion of chocolate and liqueur.
Tino brought the dessert from the kitchen and I drooled like Pavlov's dog.
"It looks divine."
"If you want, I have a nice bottle of Sambuca for a nightcap."
"Sambuca's an aphrodisiac. Savino will be late for work tomorrow."
He opened a white paper bag and placed the tiramisu and the Sambuca inside. He added a handful of sausages.
"For Inga. Your mama came by for some this morning. But in this life, you can't have too much love. Or too many sausages."
I hugged him and my fingers barely touched behind his back. Tino has put away a lot of sausages since his spy days. He's a bigger target than he once was. But he keeps an eye over his shoulder and he drives a bulletproof car.
His dark eyes glinted. "A birdie tells me your first anniversary is next week."
I frowned. I hadn't told anyone.
"Spill it," I said.
I groaned. "If Mama knows, everyone knows."
"Pretty much. What is this anniversary you celebrate? Not your first date, I think. This is the day you and your FBI agent sealed the deal?"
My cheeks felt hot.
"Ah. Amore. "
He opened a bottle of Chianti and breathed deeply. The rich, fruity fragrance filled my nostrils.
"To a long life and good health." He splashed wine in two glasses. "Due dita di vino e una pedata al medico. "
It was an old Italian saying, one my Nonna toasted every day. I raised my glass to her.
"A little wine kicks the doctor out the door."
* * *
The year I lost two hundred pounds of runaround Johnnie Rizzo and launched the Pants On Fire Detective Agency, Uncle Joey fixed me up with a brick bungalow. The house is on a large, corner lot with a spray of maples and a patio garden in back. I fell in love with it at once. Uncle Joey negotiated the sale and I got it for a song. When I asked why it came so cheap, he said I didn't want to know. Trust me, when Joey tells you that, you usually don't.
Uncle Joey is, in the long tradition of DeLuca men, a Chi- Town cop. Ever since my great-grandfather, Officer Antonio DeLuca, conspired with Al Capone to bootleg whiskey, the DeLuca men have protected and served the good citizens of Chicago. They raise families in Bridgeport and hang out at a cop bar called Mickey's. Most are honest cops and a few have deep pockets. But Uncle Joey is special. He drives a red Ferrari and wears tailor-made Italian suits. He's got the Midas touch.
I'm not saying my uncle's a dirty cop. I like to think he's resourceful. Uncle Joey has friends in low places. I'm not privy to their hijinks and I don't ask him how he turns copper to gold. It's not my business. And even if it was, I wouldn't say anything. If there's one thing we DeLucas understand, it's how to keep our big mouths shut.
I'll probably never know why my house was a steal. On an eerie night when the wind howls, I wonder if one of Joey's badass friends buried a body in the basement. Or maybe deep in the garden beneath the blood-red roses. That's when I light a candle, burn a little sage, and remind myself that before I moved in, Father Timothy doused the crap out of the place with holy water. Then I rest in peace.
Excerpted from There Was a Crooked Man by K. J. Larsen. Copyright © 2016 K. J. Larsen. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
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