When a client dies in an apparent suicide, Florida detective Frank Carver suspects murder Donna Winship is an ordinary woman with a typical problem. No longer in love with her husband, she has taken to spending evenings and long afternoons with a new man. Fearful that her husband will learn the truth and be overwhelmed with jealousy, she contacts Fred Carver, an ex-cop turned PI, and asks him to tail her. Minutes after he agrees, Donna drives her car into a speeding tractor trailer. Dead on impact. The local police are happy to call it a suicide, but Carver is determined to serve his client, even in death. More bloodshed follows, as Donna’s husband kills himself and her lover disappears without a trace. No love triangle is simple, but this one could cost Fred Carver his life. This ebook features an illustrated biography of John Lutz including rare photos and never-before-seen documents from the author’s personal collection.
Torch is the 8th book in the Fred Carver Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
About the Author
For over forty years, John Lutz (b. 1939) has been one of the premier voices in contemporary hard-boiled fiction, producing dozens of novels and over 250 short stories. His earliest success came with the Alo Nudger series, set in his hometown of St. Louis. Tropical Heat introduced Fred Carver, a Florida detective whom Lutz followed in ten novels. More recently, he has produced five books in the Frank Quinn serial killer series. Lutz is a former president of the Mystery Writers of America, and his many honors include lifetime achievement awards from the Short Mystery Fiction Society and the Private Eye Writers of America. He lives in St. Louis.
Read an Excerpt
By John Lutz
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1994 John Lutz
All rights reserved.
Carver said, "you can trust me."
Donna stared at him across the table and said, "I know I'm not trustworthy, so why should I think you are?"
"Because Beth recommended me, and you can trust her. She's honest to the point of cruelty."
Donna Winship smiled. She was attractive when she smiled, but still not the sort to inspire men to fight. Her features were made more delicate by the middle-aged lines etched in them, like fine cracks in bone china. She had dyed blond hair cut shoulder-length and with a wisp of bangs; brown eyes like those of a frightened animal run to ground, gazing out from behind the bangs as if they were foliage meant to conceal her from hunters. Maybe that was the way she felt. She had a plump and pleasing figure beneath a business suit tailored to make her look crisply efficient, which was probably impossible. Carver guessed she was in her late thirties, but he knew he might be off five years either way. She looked like one of those average, not unattractive women used in commercials for weight control programs or tanning salons, the type the composite female TV watcher could identify with, just as the advertisers had schemed. You couldn't trust advertisers.
"I'm sorry I doubted you," she said. "The past month or so has made me suspicious of everyone."
"Beth said you wouldn't feel that way without good reason." Beth had also said Donna seemed to be under horrendous stress.
Donna nudged the olive below the ice cubes in her martini and took a sip. Her hand was steady enough. "Beth's a sweetheart."
After a night of especially exhausting lovemaking, Beth had convinced Carver that he should meet with her friend Donna. Donna was having problems and didn't want to go to Carver's office, didn't want anyone to know she'd consulted a private investigator.
Carver had hesitated, so Beth had gone about persuading him as only she could persuade. He'd pretended to be hesitant as long as possible, then finally agreed to meet Donna Winship that evening at the Happy Lobster on the coast highway and get the story from her. Beth had thanked him in her own special way.
Carver smiled. It was something, the way people used each other. It kept him in business.
The Happy Lobster had semi-private tables with pink tablecloths and a wide, curved window that looked out over the vast blue-green Atlantic, mesmerizing diners with its shifting, rolling planes of shadowed and glimmering depths. There were a few high clouds today of the sort that taunted the uninitiated with the promise of rain this time of year on the east coast of Florida. Dusk was beginning to settle in. The sky met the sea in a haze that obscured the horizon and that at sunset would darken and close like the fold of an envelope.
They were only meeting for drinks and conversation, but Carver had gotten a restaurant table so they'd have more privacy than the lounge provided. When Donna had walked in, he'd recognized her immediately from Beth's description and the blue dress she'd said she'd be wearing. Beth must have described him well, too, because Donna had put on a strained smile and made her way directly across the restaurant toward him. She had a nice, fluid walk; several male diners interrupted their chewing and glanced after her.
There followed fifteen minutes of drink sipping and tentative verbal fencing, much of it self-deprecating on Donna's part.
Feeling he had her confidence at last, Carver said, "Why do you say you're not trustworthy?"
Donna raised her dark eyebrows in surprise. They were barely visible beneath the dyed, wispy bangs. "Beth didn't tell you?"
"No. She thought you should. We're starting from scratch."
She gazed out at the endless Atlantic, then back at Carver, decision in her eyes. There was no sound for a while except the murmur of conversation among the other diners, the muted clinking of flatwear against china. The sea breaking on the beach below couldn't be heard through the thick glass. "I'm a married woman, Mr. Carver, the mother of a four-year-old daughter."
She seemed to expect Carver to comment on that. He said, "That's not a bad situation." For an instant he thought of his own daughter, living in St. Louis with his former wife in a world not meant to contain him.
"And I'm seeing another man."
"I no longer love my husband, and he no longer loves me. Mark made it clear months ago that our marriage was going to end."
"I suspect so, but I'm not sure. He simply became distant, refused to communicate. It's still that way."
"Is he abusive?"
"Only verbally, when he bothers to talk to me." She took a long pull of her martini and placed the glass back on its improbable lobster-shaped cork coaster. "We've become locked in a kind of war of nerves, if you know what I mean."
"I know," Carver said. "All happy marriages are different; unhappy marriages are alike."
She looked back at the sea and thought about that. He doubted if she believed it. There was something about her expression. The sea had depths; she had depths.
"Mark stopped giving me money," she said, still looking at the sea, "so two months ago I arranged for day care for Megan—our daughter—and got a job as a receptionist at an insurance company. I knew where the marriage was headed and wanted to provide for our future."
"Yours and Megan's."
"Exactly. No matter what Mark does."
Pieces were beginning to fall into place for Carver, but he said nothing, letting Donna talk.
She produced a lacy white handkerchief from somewhere and began wringing it between small, shapely hands with pink-enameled nails. "I'm not sure if Mark knows about Enrico and me. I'm not sure he'd care if he did know, except that despite our marital problems, he's very possessive of anything that belongs to him, including his wife. And despite all the strain on our marriage, I'm still his wife."
"Enrico Thomas, the man I'm involved with. We met two months ago when he came into the office to see about insurance. He didn't have an appointment, so he had to wait for almost an hour, and we began talking. The next day he sent me flowers. The next day he called. The next day we met for lunch. We've been meeting ever since, and for more than lunch. Mark would consider that wrong, since I'm still a married woman. He's ... very religious, a traditionalist. I don't think it's wrong; I think it's necessary." She sounded defensive. "Enrico gives me the air to breathe that Mark denies me. Can you understand that?"
"Sure. We all need oxygen to survive. But you're afraid Mark knows, or will find out."
"My husband's never laid a hand on me in anger, Mr. Carver, but he has with other people. He can be a violent man in a way few of his friends know about. His rage is old and deep in him and comes to the surface suddenly and unexpectedly. A few years ago I saw him beat up a man in an argument over who was first in line at a theater. Fifteen minutes later he was his usual calm self."
"Does Enrico know you're married?"
"I never told him I was, but I suspect he knows." A deep determination transformed her for a moment; her gentle eyes darkened and held the depths of the Atlantic, near as eternity on the other side of the window from martinis and lobster bisque. "I intend to keep seeing Enrico, Mr. Carver."
Carver rattled the ice in his glass. The waiter took it for a signal and looked inquisitive. Figuring what the hell, Carver held up two fingers, and the waiter nodded and glided away between the tables. "I'm not sure exactly why you want to hire me, Donna."
"I want you to follow me."
Carver considered. "You mean you want a bodyguard?"
"No, I simply want to be followed."
"What about the times when you meet Enrico?"
"Usually," Carver said, "my clients want me to follow someone other than themselves."
"Then I guess I'm not your usual client." She fished in her straw purse and withdrew a dark blue checkbook. She scribbled in it with a white plastic ballpoint pen, tore out a check, and laid it on the table in front of Carver.
He read it upside down and saw that it was for a thousand dollars. He didn't reach for it, though. Not yet.
Made uneasy by his hesitation, she said, "Beth told me your fees. I can afford you. I cashed in an old life insurance policy."
"It isn't the money," he told her.
"It's always the money," she said sadly.
"Money and love are always mixed together, like it's a law of nature. That's all I meant."
"I'd like to know more."
"There isn't any reason for that."
"I'd still like to know."
"Maybe when you trust me more?"
"Maybe," she said.
If it weren't for Beth he might have politely refused the job, then stood up and left. Wisely if unprofitably turned his back on somebody else's money and love and trouble.
Donna scribbled again with the white plastic pen, this time on a cocktail napkin.
"Here are my home and office addresses and phone numbers," she said, and laid the folded napkin next to the check. She was obviously bothered when he made no move to reach for either. Carver on the fence, sensing trouble on both sides. "Beth assured me you'd help," she told him. And he heard something new in her voice for the first time: barely controlled terror.
She stood up suddenly, as if her nerves simply wouldn't allow her to sit there any longer, talking to a virtual stranger about the dark currents of her life. "Will you help?" she asked, as if this might be his last chance and hers.
He sighed, then picked up the napkin and check.
He said, "You won't even know I'm around."
With a relieved smile, she said, "Thank you. I'm leaving now, but I'm going to meet Enrico at Riley's Clam Shop at ten o'clock tonight. Mark thinks I'm in Orlando, visiting my mother for the weekend."
"She's with my mother." With an abruptness that surprised Carver, her soft eyes brimmed with tears. "You don't think I like this, do you?" She seemed angry at him, as if he'd accused her of something. "It isn't easy being torn between two men, two worlds, with a daughter whose welfare I have to look out for."
"No one would like it," Carver said, still surprised by the sudden mood swing. Beth was right; her friend showed all the signs of being under tremendous stress. Something had gotten inside her skin and was pressuring.
"I'm a good mother."
"I never doubted it."
She sat back down, then clasped her hands tightly together and refrained from wiping away her tears, as if she didn't want to smear her mascara.
Carver reached across the table and gently touched the tense hands, trying to soothe her. "Take it easy. Things can always be made to improve."
She pulled her folded hands out from beneath his touch. "Sometimes they can never be made right again. Telling yourself otherwise is only naive and self-deceptive."
"If you love this Enrico, maybe he's your answer."
She shook her head. "I'd like to think so, but I'm not sure. I do love him, even though we haven't known each other long. But that only adds to the agony. I'm afraid I'm as much a traditionalist as my husband, Mr. Carver. The love I have for Enrico comes with a load of guilt. I mean, my God, I'm a married mother! I took my marriage vows seriously, even if Mark didn't, and now I'm the one who broke those vows."
"Marriage vows don't give a husband the right to mistreat or neglect a wife, Donna. And believe me, you're being too rough on yourself. You're not the first woman to have an extramarital affair. And you wouldn't be the first to have a good reason for one." He gave her what he hoped was a reassuring smile. "My former wife had good reason."
She looked at him curiously. "Did you mistreat her?"
"Not intentionally, but I backed her to the wall all the same, and the strain on our marriage made her look to another man for what she needed. After a while, I quit blaming her." He wasn't being completely honest, but he figured now was the time for a benign lie.
Calmer now, the moistness in her eyes almost back to normal, Donna got off a shaky smile and said, "Maybe you're right."
"I know I'm right."
She clutched her straw purse and stood up again. She seemed calmer. "Do you know where Riley's Clam Shop is?"
"Uh-huh. Driven past it. It's that place on Vista that looks like it's built out of driftwood."
She nodded. "Enrico and I meet there often."
"Meet him there tonight as planned, then," Carver said. "Don't look around for me. Don't even think about me."
She gave him a glance from beneath the bangs, a shy smile. "What Beth said about you is right."
"Oh? What would that be?"
"That you're a good man but it doesn't stick out all over you."
Carver said, "Until recently, Beth led the kind of life that didn't put her in contact with many good men."
Still smiling, Donna chewed her lower lip for a few seconds, then said, "Thanks, Mr. Carver," and turned and strode from the restaurant. The same men who'd stared at her when she entered watched her leave. A few women watched her, too, with what looked like curiosity. Maybe she was clouding up to cry again. Or barely suppressing a scream. She was a woman very near to an emotional explosion, Carver thought, and at times it showed.
After she'd gone, the waiter arrived with fresh drinks. Carver sat sipping his and watching the ice melt in hers.
About ten minutes had passed when he heard the shriek of rubber on concrete and a crash that shook the building.CHAPTER 2
In the corner of his vision Carver saw several gulls, wings flashing white against the darkening sky, take flight toward the open ocean. There was a hush, then a burst of activity and voices from the lounge, near the restaurant's entrance. The diners at the tables near the windows looking out on the highway had parted curtains and were straining to see something to the north. Carver got his cane from where it was propped on the chair next to his and levered himself to his feet. He could see people from the lounge streaming out the door now, and he followed after them.
There was still plenty of light left in the evening. And heat. He felt the hot gravel of the parking lot sear into the thin soles of his moccasins as he made his way toward the highway along with most of the people who'd been in the restaurant. Two men nearby were wearing white uniforms and tall white chef's caps. Someone tripped over Carver's cane, sending its tip dragging through the gravel, mumbled an apology and then hurried on ahead.
On the broad highway, near the mouth of the lot's driveway, dual strips of burned rubber blackened the concrete. Carver saw that they ran about a hundred yards along the highway, then, beyond the restaurant, veered across the yellow line and the adjacent lane.
In the tall grass beyond the shoulder, several hundred feet past the restaurant, a tractor-trailer lay on its side like a wounded dinosaur. It was obvious that the driver had slammed on the brakes and then skidded until the truck had hit the soft gravel shoulder. Probably it had jackknifed before overturning. The out-of-square trailer's doors had sprung open, spilling wooden crates of oranges onto the highway. Oranges dotted the foliage near the truck, and hundreds of them had rolled onto the highway.
Distant sirens were warbling in the humid air, and miles down the straight, flat highway vehicles were pulled to the side and red and blue lights flashed. Carver moved to the front of the gaping crowd from the restaurant. He could see the tractor now, a shiny blue Kenworth, lying on its side at a sharp angle to the trailer, its wheels and underside exposed in a way oddly obscene. A husky man in Levi's and a faded red tee shirt was seated nearby in the grass, a stunned expression on his bearded face. Half dozen people were clustered around him. He didn't seem to be aware of them, or to be seriously hurt.
There was another knot of people just to the right of the driveway, none of them speaking. Carver set the tip of his cane on firm concrete and limped over to see what they were staring at.
Something in him knew even before he saw the woman sprawled on the gravel shoulder. Dread jogged his memory and he glanced toward the parking lot to see again a barely noticed gray LeBaron convertible with its door hanging open, a straw purse visible on the front seat.
"... thought I saw her earlier in the restaurant," a woman's quavering voice said as Carver found an opening in the crowd and pushed his way to where he'd have a clear view.
He'd seen the woman earlier in the restaurant, too.
Excerpted from Torch by John Lutz. Copyright © 1994 John Lutz. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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