A friend of mine who bought our second thriller novel asked me if I was a fan of Raymond Chandler. I admitted that I wasn’t and didn’t know about his works because I never considered myself much of a detective noir guy. I had skipped over some of the classic crime thriller authors, but I shortchanged my reading experience.
As indie authors of the Tom Stone Detective Stories, Lon and I dig up facts and the works of other authors to give you a complete crime fiction, thriller and suspense reading experience. Be sure to check out our Crime Books page and dive into the adventures of Detectives Tom Stone, Jake Sharpe as they track down drug smugglers in and around Los Angeles.
A few years ago I read Dashiell Hammet but also knew I needed to be up to speed on authors like Raymond Chandler. Not only is he considered legendary with the creation of Private Investigator Philip Marlowe but his stories also take place in and around Los Angeles and the old glamour days of Hollywood.
Who was Raymond Chandler?
He was a former oil executive who lost his job during the Great Depression and turned to writing pulp fiction. Amazing, huh? That seems so simple but imagine trying to make a living from writing pulp fiction in the 1930s with no Internet and no self-publishing options for indie authors.
Names and reputations often outlive and outlast a person’s actual life and Raymond Chandler is no exception. He was born in 1888 in Chicago and died in 1959 in San Diego. Imagine the world that he lived through and the changes he saw from childhood to the end of his life.
He was born in what I think of as the explosive age of inventions that saw horses and blacksmiths replaced by cars and mechanics. Unthinkable world wars took place and he died as the U.S. and Soviet Union engaged in a race into space.
He also lived during a time that crime investigations and technology were changing.
Forensic specialists in the early 1900s were self-taught and it wasn’t until the 1930s that universities started offering courses and degrees in criminal science, according to an outline of forensic science history through the New York State Police website.
In 1950, Cal Berkeley created a department for forensic science and the American Academy of Forensic Science was formed in Chicago.
Chandler lived through those changes, but I’m not sure how much impact it had on his writing. His stories are timeless like all great storytellers.
Chandler and Hollywood
Chandler’s Philip Marlowe character was brought to life on the big screen by Humphrey Bogart. A wonderful achievement. It seems that Chandler worked and lived during the most glamorous era of Hollywood. He viewed Tinseltown with more skepticism than he did favor.
“I have worked there a little over two years, which is far from enough to make me an authority, but more than enough to make me feel pretty thoroughly bored,” he wrote in a 1945 article for The Atlantic. “That should not be so. An industry with such vast resources and such magic techniques should not become dull so soon. An art which is capable of making all but the very best plays look trivial and contrived, all but the very best novels verbose and imitative, should not so quickly become wearisome to those who attempt to practice it with something else in mind than the cash drawer.
The making of a picture ought surely to be a rather fascinating adventure. It is not; it is an endless contention of tawdry egos, some of them powerful, almost all of them vociferous, and almost none of them capable of anything much more creative than credit-stealing and self-promotion.”
Did he think too highly of writers and not highly enough of producers calling Hollywood a “showman’s paradise.” Showmen make nothing, he said, but they exploit what others have already made.
“For the basic art of motion pictures is the screenplay; it is fundamental, without it there is nothing. Everything derives from the screenplay …”
Getting Started with Chandler and Philip Marlowe
The book Trouble is My Business is a good introduction to Chandler. His introduction itself is worth reading as he details writing for pulp fiction thrillers and crime stories. He notes the timelessness of crime fiction:
Their characters lived in a world gone wrong, a world in which, long before the atom bomb, civilization had created the machinery for its own destruction.
And then you have to appreciate the opening paragraph:
Anna Halsey was about two-hundred and forty pounds of middle-aged putty-faced woman in a black tailor-made suit. Her eyes were shiny black shoe buttons, her cheeks were about as soft as suet and about the same color. She was sitting behind a black glass desk that looked like Napoleon’s tomb and she was smoking a cigarette in a black holder that was not quite as long as a rolled umbrella. She said: “I need a man.”
Don’t miss out on reading Raymond Chandler and the array of so many memorable characters and situations.
Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 8 of our first novel, a novella really, where Detectives Tom Stone and Jake Sharpe begin finding clues that lead them to a vending machine at a bar on Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood
Stone took the hammer and screwdriver, found the mechanism on the side of the machine, and hammered at it. The door swung open.
The middle shelf was full of candy bars lined up alongside potato chips, single wrapped large cookies, and bags mixed with pretzels and peanuts. The two shelves above and two of the shelves below were nearly empty. Stone grabbed one of the bars and tore off half the wrapper. He turned to Yaro. “What’s your arrangement with this guy?”
Yaro looked unconcerned. “He gives me a hundred dollars a month just to keep the machine here. I guess that’s a lot in the vending world.”
Stone broke open the candy bar. Nothing.
“I’m just dying to know what it is you’re looking for, Detective. I mean, do you have a search warrant?”
Jake looked around. “I wouldn’t worry about that if I were you. It doesn’t look like Daisy, with her Daisy Duke shorts, is old enough to serve liquor. Do we need to check IDs?”
Yaro smiled. “I was just wondering what you’re after.”
“Tainted candy,” said Stone.
“E-coli?” asked Yaro.
“Something like that.”
“Come on, Stone. This is going to take all day. I’ll organize this.” Jake pulled out a sheet of paper from his pocket. He wrote down the letter and number from the row and pulled out the corresponding snacks. “When we find the other machines, we’ll see if there’s a pattern.” He reached in and grabbed a handful of the snacks and laid them out on the table. He tore open two candy bar wrappers and broke open the chocolate. The insides were soft and looked normal. Stone grabbed another candy and nothing looked unusual when he opened it.
“You need help?” asked Yaro. He smiled and raised his eyebrows like he was amused by the spectacle of a couple dozen bars lying ripped open on the table. Before Stone could tell him “no” he reached in the machine, grabbed a bar and ripped it open. His eyes grew wide. “Hey.” He dropped it on the table like it was poison. “What’s that white shit in there?”
“How about that?” exclaimed Jake.
“We’ll bag this one up,” said Stone.
Jake took a bag with a colorful picture of peanuts on the bright red packaging from the same row. C9. He ripped it open and emptied it on the table. Nuts scattered along with a tiny bag with what looked like white powder inside. “Damn.”
Reading is a great escape, but also a thought-provoking endeavor
Several years ago, I read a Janet Evanovich novel, Naughty Neighbor, and thumbed through it, enjoying the humor and the situations. It was a mostly light-hearted story which resonated with me because I took more to light fare than heavier, weightier reads. Naughty Neighbor was about a pig in a witness protection program, but overall it was more of a romance than a sleuth story.
As Evanovich wrote on Goodreads, “before the time of [Stephanie] Plum, I wrote twelve short romance novels. Red-hot screwball comedies, each and every one of them.”
Now that I’m on my way to co-writing our sixth Tom Stone crime – thriller novel, I’ve really come to the realization that writing crime fiction isn’t just a game or a light-hearted affair.
Now don’t get me wrong.
I joke a lot and Lon my co-author and I have quite a sense of humor. I threaten to livestream our editing sessions, but he doesn’t think it’d be such a good idea.
We have quirky characters and plenty of light-hearted scenes. But this is one thing I feel absolutely passionate about–human life is precious, and crime robs families of their dignity. Crime also robs the criminal.
The more I write, the more that I want to bring out this truth.
I’m also dealing with the theme that preventing crime involves a personal interest taken in others.
Our detective hero, Tom Stone, gravitates to a boy in foster care in Book 1 Tom Stone: A Nitty Gritty Christmas. During a party when he and Jake are handing out gifts to the kids in a group home facility, he sees Andrew as a loner who can’t sit still and envisions him well into the future.
Stone knows that even though he and Jake are handing lots of popular toys, something critical is mission in Andrew’s life. A family. Stone knows the logical destination is a life in and out of jail for the boy—unless someone steps in and becomes a friend and gives Andrew at least a semblance of family life.
We also touch on this theme in our newest Detective Tom Stone short story,
A man named Davey agrees to pick up a young man he knows, JoJo, who’s getting out of county jail after a two-week stay.
JoJo’s familiar with the system and life on the streets.
JoJo has Davey stop for a pack of cigarettes and a gang-related shoot-out ensues. JoJo is wounded and Davey fights for his life.
While writing thriller novels or crime-related stories was new to me just five years ago, I’ve been able to draw on my life as a foster dad and adoptive dad and work with those on the streets.
It’s tough. It’s inconvenient helping others and I’m certainly no saint but personal and family involvement is one of the most necessary crime prevention techniques available today.
Make a commitment to help a child or adult. Tutor, become a mentor volunteer for their school or if they’re starting a business. Consider becoming a foster parent or even adopting out of foster care if appropriate. I know that’s a call and requires special people.
But it’s worth the effort and the time that’s invested in someone else’s life.
Meanwhile, Lon and I hope you enjoy each of the Tom Stone novels. They can be read as part of a series or as stand-alone reads.
A moment of terror gripped Delgado. A flashback to the gunfire inside the submarine shook him. Ordered to stand on the deck and wait for his execution added to the torment. Survival instincts took over and he dove from the submarine into the cold ocean. It was a miracle he was still alive. Why him?
He shook off the guilt as he paced the sidewalk outside a motel in North Hollywood plotting steps to his revenge. He looked at the time on a flip phone that the police gave him. The department also used a voucher to pay for his housing. He was told the courts and federal agencies approved the arrangements made through the LAPD.
Delgado thanked them and told them that he had family in the LA area who were hoping to see him. He explained they were going to pay him for working so he could make some money while waiting for the legal system to let him go home. Stone raised an eyebrow, but knew it would be cash under the table and decided to let the comment slide.
He slipped Delgado an additional twenty out of his own pocket, wished him well, and said that he would be in contact again soon and not to go too far away. Too many questions still needed answers.
Delgado was glad the cops accepted his explanation. He was going to make some money all right. What they promised him. But he didn’t care about a few dollars. He just wanted to play their game, get close, and kill those responsible for murdering his son.
Delgado wanted to be in the quiet of his fishing village as a gleaming white BMW pulled to the curb. A window slid down and a man pulled out a smartphone, matching a picture on it to Delgado.
“Delgado?” “Si.” He spoke in Spanish. “Get in.” “Where we going?” The man gave a simple directive, “Entra. Ahora.”
Delgado hesitated, looking at the man’s barrel chest. “Amigo,” the man gave a winning smile, “we don’t have all day. Mi nombre es Roger.” Delgado opened the door and slid into the back seat. “Quite an adventure you had,” said Roger.
Delgado nodded his agreement and shut the door. The back seat had just enough room for his legs. The car was sporty but not large. As soon as the door closed, they pulled away from the motel.
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A few minutes ticked by and a door opened. Out she walked. Stone had seen her at both the hearing and a seminar that the police held on diversity and community policing.
“This is a surprise. What can I do for you?” She stayed rock steady, just like she had been when Stone had given his testimony and she walked effortlessly in front of him and the judge throwing doubt on his investigation.
“I just had a few questions to ask you about the case. Off the record.”
“Okay.” Her eyes shone through caramel-colored skin that looked smooth. “Come on in.”
But she was tough. In court, she had confused all his statements to make it seem that darker forces were swallowing up Angelino and making him succumb to their directives.
Stone followed her into her office, she closed the door and queried him. “So, off the record?”
“Yeah. Don’t worry. No recording devices or anything like that.” Stone settled into a chair with a vinyl back and metal arms.
“Your client’s a community hero.”
“I appreciate you being to the point, Detective. Congratulations to him.” Alisha settled behind her desk.
“Yeah. Just like he did the candy.”
Alisha shrugged. Her expression was blank and yet her eyes had a jewel-like quality. Attractive.
“So how was Angelino picked for that sweet little project to infest the neighborhood with marijuana?”
“I don’t know. Have you asked him? Detective, I represented him in a case. And that was it.”
“Were there some little agreements made in the judge’s chambers?” asked Stone. “I wonder why the councilman picked him as a deserving minority to get that funding?”
Alisha raised her eyebrows. “Sounds like an intriguing news piece. Maybe you should take up journalism and investigate.”
“So how do you do it? Just play the game of setting a criminal free?”
“You’re welcome to try and find fault in the legal proceedings, but I don’t think that would be a good use of your time. Your supervisors wouldn’t want you to waste taxpayer money on a worthless pursuit. Would they, Detective Stone?”
“Why don’t you ask them for me?”
“Because I have more important things to do.”
“Your client was distributing cocaine using candy and because of that a child died.”
Alisha didn’t flinch. “And the judge dismissed the case because of lack of evidence.”
“That may be. But—”
“I don’t think this discussion’s going anywhere.”
“For once, I agree with you.” Stone stood and Alisha matched his movement. “But I’m going to be looking and scrutinizing the son-of-a-bitch and when he lets his guard down, I’ll nail him. I just hope it’s before another child dies.”
“And I will make sure my client is properly represented in line with the law and ethics of courtroom conduct. And I do hope that you will not be harassing him in any manner.” Her tone was as clipped and terse as Stone’s.
Heat raised from his toes up through his arms and into his heart. Maybe this woman was as dangerous to society as were the criminals she represented. But, man, did she have alluring eyes.
Stone turned to the door. “Later, I’m sure.”
He turned back. “What?”
“I wish justice was more clean and clear. But it’s not. I want to make sure everyone is treated fairly. The pauper along with the prince. And whether we agree with it or not we have to follow the rule of law. I hope you feel the same way.”
“I do. But I like putting criminals behind bars.” Stone released some tension when he flung the door open and slammed it shut behind him as he walked out. The funny thing was, he agreed with everything she said. And, damn, he needed some coffee now.
While Lon and I prep our 5th novel for release, Tom Stone: Subterfuge, we’ve created a couple of crime fiction short stories that are free to read. This one is taken from a true experience I, Don, have had of knowing a young man in San Bernardino who calls me his Dad. He has no other family.
I picked him up when he was released from jail and wanted me to drive him back to his neighborhood–not a home, but a place, a general area of Highland, California, that he lives in while roaming the streets.
Davey Bledsoe stretched his legs along the tile floor of the county jail’s waiting area, fought off another yawn, and thought of the various ways he could die: being shot, stabbed, or poisoned. What about a bomb being dropped on him or a truck filled with explosives running him over? Not realistic.
But those options were more exciting than sitting in the glare of fluorescent lights at nine P.M. and waiting for someone who was erratic and impulsive. JoJo, a young man who had known Davey since he was a kid, found himself in and out of jail more times than a coffee drinker wandered in and out of Starbucks.
What about death by boredom?
Boredom, Davey concluded, would be the absolute worst way to go. Just sitting on a wooden bench while one minute after another ticked away on the clock with the brain eventually shutting down, his body decaying and slowly cutting off his oxygen and blood supply.
Waiting was torture. The only reading material were notices on the wall telling visitors what kind of clothing was prohibited during visitation and to arrive at least thirty minutes ahead of time. Davey read the sentences left to right and then, just for variety, right to left.
But he promised to be there for JoJo who had no one else to call family. And now here he was. Waiting for JoJo’s release.
He had cancelled a date night with his wife and told his kids that he couldn’t watch a movie, either. Then he gripped the steering wheel while moving slowly past a traffic accident on the 210 freeway.
Suddenly, an intercom got his attention and he snapped back to the present moment. “Excuse me, sir?”
Davey turned and glanced through the tinted plexiglass where a sheriff’s deputy spoke through a microphone.
“You’re waiting for JoJo Richards, correct?”
“Yes, I am.”
“We’re doing the final paperwork and then he’ll be out. Probably another hour.”
“Okay, thank you.”
The deputy clicked off the mic and turned back to a panel of monitors.
A metal door to one side of the deputies’ control station clicked and a long-haired man holding his baggy jeans up with one hand walked out, struggling for any semblance of dignity. A man, a former inmate, who was just released and headed back to the streets. Either they didn’t allow belts, he lost it when he got arrested, or he never had one in the first place.
Stats clicked through Davey’s mind, mercilessly teasing him with the time he was giving up:
Driving from home to the jail … one hour
Waiting for JoJo… two hours and counting
Taking JoJo out to eat on the way home … another hour
Letting the stats roll was worthless. It was better just to close the eyes, clear the mind and — click.
Davey sat up. The metal door opened and, finally, out walked JoJo in black sweatpants and sweatshirt. Six-feet tall, rail thin.
“How’s it going?” Davey got up and put an arm around the young man.
“It’s cool.” JoJo patted Davey on the shoulder and the two men walked out of the lobby and to Davey’s car, a four-door Nissan sedan bathed in the glare of parking lot lights.
JoJo had been in for ten days this time.
“They take a while, don’t they?” Davey unlocked the doors.
“Yeah, it’s all the paperwork.” JoJo got in on the passenger side.
They buckled up and when Davey pulled out of the parking lot and onto the street, JoJo got animated. “Now I can tell you what happened.”
“My boy and me were just sitting, chilling outside these apartments where his mom lives — you remember the woman I told you about — the one who feeds me?”
“That’s where we was, celebrating that I got my stimulus check, and then this guy we know, he shoots off a gun, just showing us how it works.”
Davey waited at a red light, a few blocks from the freeway. “He shot off a gun at an apartment?”
“Yeah. He’s done it before and it weren’t a big deal. But this time, he did it and someone called the cops.”
“And you were sitting there?”
“Yeah. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I hadn’t done nothing, like I told you on the phone. Just drinking a can of ice tea. Then the cops pull up and they said I resisted arrest and other bullshit.”
The light turned green and Davey headed toward the freeway.
“Where you going?” asked JoJo.
“Getting you a motel room near us.”
“No, man. I got to get my backpack. Turn up here.”
Davey turned right on H Street, headed north, and saw a familiar pattern developing.
“You said you wanted out of San Bernardino for a couple of days.”
The street was dark with boarded up store fronts and dimly lit government buildings sitting empty for the weekend.
“I got to stay in town so I can get my backpack in the morning. It’s at my friend Mikey’s house. You met him once. His mom’s holding it for me.”
“Last year it was the same thing,” said Davey. “You got out on November fourth. Remember? I picked you up, dropped you off at the county building, you said you’d call — “
“Just drop it. Can you pick me up in the morning, by, let’s say, eight?”
Plans changed fast with JoJo and he always had a reason.
It was already 10:30 at night.
“No way, JoJo. Why can’t you get your backpack tonight?”
“Cause Mikey’s mom is asleep by now. She’ll get all pissed off at me if I wake her up.”
Davey figured he should be the one pissed off. Why were inmates released so late at night?
“Get me a room at the motel, you know, the one I stayed the other week?” JoJo didn’t give up.
It was the Good Night Inn, a squalid hive of activity that was shockingly overpriced.
“I can get you a motel closer to us.”
“Aw, man. Cut the shit.”
“Hey, I’m sorry, Davey. The Good Night’s just down the street from her place. Then you get me in the morning.”
“That means I got to make two trips. That’s four hours of driving, plus waiting time.”
Davey wanted to talk to JoJo in a different place and get his head cleared so he’d grasp the benefits of a program where he could enroll and get his life together.
Impossible. A couple were run by the county, others were faith-based.
JoJo said programs had too many rules, like jail. He said the county programs were worthless and although he believed in God, the church-based programs didn’t fit his lifestyle. Meaning, he knew the streets and that’s where he lived.
Davey glanced right and left while driving, wondering where they were going.
“Turn here,” said JoJo, excited. His voice always had an edge.
Davey turned the wheel sharply right.
“Stop here.” JoJo motioned toward a plaza, home to a Jack in the Box, a Dollar store and some boarded up windows. “The smoke shop.”
“You need cigarettes, huh?”
Davey pulled into the lot.
Suddenly, JoJo rolled down the window. “Yo, Benny.” He recognized someone.
Trying to tell JoJo that he shouldn’t spend money on cigarettes was about as pointless as telling a dog that it shouldn’t pee on a fire hydrant, or telling a hummingbird not to flap its wings. The habit was ingrained and now part of his nature.
Davey parked in front of the smoke shop and JoJo jumped out of the car, slammed the door, but instead of dashing into the smoke shop he hustled toward a white, sporty-looking car.
“Where you going?” shouted Davey.
“Shhh,” JoJo turned around, looking stern. “You ain’t from around here. You got to keep quiet. That dude has a tent. Maybe I can stay there.” He then swaggered off to the car.
Davey glanced at his phone. Time was marching on.
The motel was down the street a couple of blocks. A month earlier, Davey had driven out with JoJo’s nine-year-old daughter for a quick visit with her dad. They had met at the Circle K near the freeway. It was several blocks to the north.
JoJo made his way back from the car and headed inside the smoke shop.
Now it was clear. Davey understood JoJo’s world.
He lived in a radius of several blocks east, west, north and south in a neighborhood of decaying plazas, fast food restaurants, the county services complex — and he was constantly homeless. JoJo knew people who would put him up for a night here and there or feed him and keep his backpack.
Life was different for this thirty-something man than it was for Davey’s other kids, all adopted out of foster care at different ages. Including JoJo’s sister. That’s how Davey and his wife came to know JoJo who they met when he was eleven years old, living in a group home.
Inside the smoke shop, JoJo reached for something on the counter. Maybe a pack of cigarettes. The man behind the counter looked angry and almost insulted and grabbed back at whatever was on the counter.
JoJo reached again, grabbed at something and hurried out and jumped in Davey’s car.
“Come on, get out of here.”
“What’s happening?” asked Davey, about to turn on the key.
The man who was behind the counter ran out to JoJo’s side of the car. He had a mustache and was balding.
“You pay now.”
“I told you, old man, I will. Relax.”
Davey glanced at JoJo. “You didn’t pay?”
JoJo was angry and glared at Davey. “I told you to get the hell out of here.”
“I’m sick of this,” yelled the man. “You always taking my shit.”
“That’s right,” said JoJo. “It’s your shit. That’s all it’s worth.”
“What’d you take?” asked Davey. This was a different code to live by. Davey started the car.
The man grabbed for the door handle, opened it and demanded money. “You always stealing from me.”
Suddenly, a shot rang out and the man stood, frozen, and then crumpled on the ground.
“Shit,” yelled Davey.
A man came from the white car and ran across the parking lot.
“What’d you do that for?” JoJo shouted at him.
“He was going to call the cops. He did that last week. And you and I got a deal. Get out of here.”
JoJo got out while the man lay on the ground moaning.
Davey reached for his cell phone.
“Let it go, man,” shouted the gunman.
“Oh, dear God,” Davey trembled. He could see the wounded clerk trying to move. “I got to call an ambulance.”
“Forget it, boss.” The gunman aimed his weapon.
“Not my dad.” JoJo knocked the gunman off balance and a shot went off. JoJo grabbed the gunman’s wrist and wrenched the gun. It fell to the pavement and so did JoJo, falling on top of it, blood pouring from his side.
The gunman kicked at JoJo and tried to move him off the weapon, but Davey took a breath, leaped out and punched the gunman in the back of the head, knocking him out like animals fighting and clawing for survival.
He hit the pavement hard, didn’t move, and Davey wondered if he had killed him.
JoJo was groaning and holding his side. He pleaded. “Help me, dad.”
Davey grabbed his phone and called 9–1–1. But the sirens had already sounded by the time he was talking to the dispatcher. Someone called. Thank, God.
A police cruiser’s lights were flashing with the siren wailing.
The terror had only lasted a few minutes but in that time there were three people laying on the pavement. The squad car pulled up and a cop got out, hands on his sidearm.
Davey put his hands up, weakly. His wife and kids were at home. JoJo’s daughter was in her mom’s low income apartment, probably playing video games.
“I’ll you what happened,” Davey offered.
“Arms out.” The cop searched him, checked the others for weapons, found the gun under JoJo and called for medics.
Another squad car squealed up and officers got out. They started basic first aid and then more sirens filled the night. In a few minutes, the paramedics were on the scene treating JoJo, the clerk and checking the gunman for a pulse.
Davey was terrified. He had never hurt anyone. No one.
And then, the medics got a stretcher and put the gunman on it. He was moving.
He practically crumpled to the pavement from relief.
As the chaos subsided, a cop motioned for Davey. “He wants to see you.”
JoJo was wrapped in bandages. His side red. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know that would happen.”
The medics slid him into the ambulance and the doors closed. They sped away with sirens blaring and quiet descended onto the plaza. The action was like a volcanic eruption, or a hurricane of fear and needless terror.
“So, can you tell me what happened?”
The policeman took a pad from his pocket. “Okay, start talking.”
“Mind if I sit?”
Davey slumped on the curb.
He described picking up JoJo at the jail, explained that he was the only family JoJo had, even though they weren’t related by blood or adoption, and then his voice faded as he recalled the events and emotion swept over him as he realized JoJo was a man and not a kid at the group home.
Time was ticking away.
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In this crime short story, we touch on justice and decisions that go into deciding how to treat suspects. Life’s circumstances can overwhelm us in many ways and so often it seems too easy to get caught in a downward spiral.
Enjoy this short story that we originally published on Stone Cold Crime Stories, our publication on Medium–you’ll also find our background work turned into articles like Don Simkovich’s personal experience on jury duty and Lon Bixby thinking he found a dead body in Burbank.
MASSAGE AND MURDER
She stood in a figure-flattering dress, her face glowed beneath a soft light bulb. Fire danced in her eyes as she stood inside the door frame. She looked like the perfect date, except she was pointing a gun at my chest.
“This kind of a welcome can’t be good for business.” I had pushed the door open but didn’t realize that she was on the inside, pushing back.
“We’re closed. I was trying to lock up.” Her hands clutched the handgun and her legs were just wide enough to steady her petite body.
“Timing is everything, isn’t it?”
She looked familiar and I might have seen her before since I visited the Kitty Corner Bar, just off Lankershim Boulevard, to catch a cold draft and watch games on the big screens.
“I’m an officer of the law,” I replied, with one hand reaching inside my jacket. “I’ll prove it if you don’t shoot me first.”
“Move nice and slow.”
I didn’t dare take my eyes off her and she wouldn’t peel hers away from me. The bar was empty except for a silhouette huddled at a table in the far corner. That was the woman I was interested in. I reached inside my blazer and pulled out my badge.
“Detective Tom Stone, LAPD.”
“What do you want?” She wasn’t impressed.
“First put down the gun and I promise that I’ll stand right here. I won’t move.” I wondered if anyone else was lurking in the dark. Sniffling, like muffled crying, broke the otherwise quiet interior.
She lowered the gun and I kept my promise with my legs braced and feet fixed firmly.
“There was a shooting two blocks away. Witnesses said they saw someone run here and duck inside.”
“I don’t know anything about it.”
I searched her eyes. Solid and cold. “And I don’t know much more than that. Except some guy was shot at the Bangkok Massage Studio, and now he’s fighting for his life at St. Joseph’s Hospital.”
“Like I said, I don’t know anything.”
I looked hard through the darkness and saw the silhouette of a petite woman move from the table and toward a doorway on the far side of the bar.
“Maybe she does.” I called out to her. “Excuse me — ”
And then she was gone.
I dashed around the pistol-packing hostess, banged against a table, and headed toward the hallway, under a sign that read Restrooms. There was another door, a rear entrance to the bar, but I didn’t hear it open. Down the hallway on either side were two more doors: Guys, Gals. Both were shut.
The woman who greeted me scampered behind.
“Choices. Which one?” I asked.
The hostess’ eyes scanned the ladies’ room door.
I tried the door, but it was locked. “Tell her to come out.” I wasn’t desperate enough to break into a woman’s restroom. “What’s your name?”
“Help me out, Sara, will you?”
“Help you out?”
“Yes, me. And your friend, if she is a friend. What’s her name?”
“Emily. And why does a tough cop like you need me to help you out? Go ahead. Bust in there and drag her out.”
“That’s not what I’m here for.”
“You don’t want to arrest her?”
The question made me curious. “Why do you ask?”
“Isn’t that what cops like you do? Arrest people?”
“Only if we have to.” The closed door made me think I would have to.
Witnesses at the Bangkok Massage Studio included the girls who were working there and a couple clients who were hesitant to talk. They heard a scream, some thumping, a man yelling and then a shot. The struggle took place near a room that was closest to the back door.
I studied Sara. “So is Emily a friend of yours? Is she one of the girls working here with you?”
“I own the place and she’s a friend.” Her eyes were defiant and her rigid body language confirmed that her thoughts were like bricks and she wanted to hurl them at me. “I have a lot of friends.”
I nodded toward the ladies’ room. “Is she one of them?”
Sara looked annoyed. “Give me a minute.”
She produced a key, unlocked the door and entered the restroom.
I leaned against the opposite wall. Reports from the shooting filtered in. The man was shot in the chest. He had lost a lot of blood by the time paramedics arrived. But my mind was sifting the pieces and seeing what fit. He was heavy. Loud. And a few of the girls at the massage parlor said they knew him.
The door opened and Sara came out. “Emily’s wondering if you’re going to arrest her.”
“Right now, I don’t know if she’s done anything that’s worth an arrest. Has she?”
Possibilities sped through my mind. If the man matched the picture that was forming in my mind and the woman had struggled and screamed, that sounded like he was the aggressor. I didn’t yet know who owned the gun. Since they were in a massage parlor, it didn’t take much imagination to figure what he wanted and she didn’t want to give it to him.
Sara kept her mouth tight lipped, stepped inside again. “Emily?”
A car engine started and I charged out the back door as a four-door sedan squealed out of the back parking lot. A woman was driving away.
Now, I’d have to hunt for her and I wasn’t looking forward to it.
“I know where she lives,” said Sara, sticking her head out the back door.
“I’ll show you.” She had the look of a gambler, ready to roll the dice.
“Then let’s go.”
“I’ll meet you out front.” She closed the back door and locked it. I hurried around to the front and met her on the sidewalk where she slipped her handgun inside her purse.
“Nice of you to join me.” I motioned to the department’s car, opening the front door for her.
“Why not?” She climbed in the passenger seat while I hurried to the driver’s side. “I figure you’d hunt her down, maybe sooner than later and I’d hate for you to make some scene with all kinds of squad cars pulling up to her building and terrorizing everyone inside.”
I started the Crown Vic and pulled onto the nighttime street, heading south toward the freeway.
“Or it might not be that dramatic. I’d get Emily’s info from the massage parlor, check employment records, maybe even run your name and see what turns up.”
“Yeah, that, too.” She sounded like she was shrugging it off, but I got the feeling she didn’t want me digging around. I changed my tone and tactics.
“So you know her well enough to know where she lives?”
“Are you friends?”
“I care about her, just like I care about other girls like her.” Sara pointed to the left turn lane toward the 101 South.
“What other girls like her?”
“The ones trying to survive.”
I pulled up to the light, waited and headed south.
Sara continued. “She’s been trying to get on top of life, but it keeps knocking her down. But you don’t care about that, do you?”
“Someone was shot and it’s my job to find out why. Just like I’m curious as to why you felt the need to have your handgun tucked into your purse.”
“I never leave home without it.”
“Fair enough,” I said, “just make sure it stays in there.”
She nodded with a slight tip of her head.
Late night on the freeways in Los Angeles gave a sense of freedom. During the day, so many cars clogged the lanes that you had to crawl and the road was nothing but a tease.
Sara looked out the window. “Take the Alvarado exit.” She spoke in a monotone like she had seen this situation before, maybe even lived it out herself.
I drove in silence with the lights of downtown Los Angeles shining in the background, looking very much like a movie set. The sight was definitely romantic, unless you were one of the thousands wondering how to pay rent.
The Alvarado exit was in full view and it struck me that beneath the overpass was one of the most densely populated homeless communities in the city. I headed down the on-ramp.
“Take a left.” Sara sounded drained.
I hit the left turn signal and when the light turned green, headed onto the street, past a dense collection of cardboard shacks and pop up tents.
“Up ahead, on the left.” Sara pointed to a motel. The sign read Hourly, Nightly, Weekly.
I pulled into the lot and stopped a few spaces from Emily’s car.
“Let me go in first,” Sara sighed, her purse slung over a shoulder.
“That’s not proper procedure, just like I shouldn’t be having you ride with me.”
She paused, wondering what I’d say next.
She got out, headed along the first floor, past a stair well and stopped at a door, knocked, waited a second and then stepped inside.
I kept an eye for several minutes and got a report on my phone. The shooting victim was in the Intensive Care Unit, struggling to breathe. Sara reappeared in the doorway and motioned to me. Behind her, a woman who looked like Emily ushered a child, a boy, out the door and down the walkway to another room where the door opened and he went in.
I got out of the car, patted my holster, and headed to the motel room. Sara waited just inside the door and Emily sat on the edge of the bed, wiping away tears.
“I told Emily to talk to you. That it’d be okay and you’re just here to help.”
Sara was the mother hen, it seemed.
A sense of pain clouded the atmosphere.
“How do you know each other?” I asked, glancing from Emily to Sara.
Sara answered. “A friend referred her when I needed help at the bar. She’s been working a few shifts a week for me, a couple months now.” Sara leaned against the wall.
I directed my next question at Emily. “And you also work at the massage parlor?”
“I’m here to find out what happened tonight. I just need you to tell me what occurred.”
“Yeah, sure.” Emily was quiet.
“By the way, was that your son I saw just now?”
“Yeah. I don’t want him to know anything.”
I could understand why. The kid was too young to have that in his mind.
Emily sat with her arms in her lap, but when she wiped away another tear I saw bruising just above her wrist.
The kids’ schoolbooks and some toys were piled in a corner, and a chair covered in clothes was near the bed. “May I sit?”
“Sure.” Emily looked at the worn carpeting.
I pulled up the chair. “Emily, where you at the Bangkok Massage parlor tonight when a gunshot was fired?”
Sara rolled her eyes and filled the room with a disgusted-sounding groan and sigh.
“I’m going to listen carefully to everything you say, but first I want you to hold your arms out like this, please.” I turned my palms toward the ceiling and Emily copied my movement.
An ugly, dark streak was easy to see from her wrists to her forearms. Deep purple. Fresh bruises were spreading.
“Can you tell me how this happened?”
Emily struggled to hold her emotions in check as she described how the man started undressing and wanted her to get naked and do him a favor.
“Why do you think he called it a favor?”
“Because he had seen me three times already in the past month and claimed that he was my regular. He had always talked real sweet to me and wanted more than just a rubdown over his back, I could tell. But I never did. I said the rules didn’t let me, so I couldn’t.”
“And he accepted that?”
“No. Once, he laughed right in my face. Said he knew what the real rules were. The last time, he gave me a big tip after the session and said that he’d be back, and that next time I better relieve all his stress, and make him… happy.
“How’d that make you feel?”
“Scared. When he came in tonight he had a look — ”
I waited as the tears welled up. “A look? Why didn’t you refuse to go in the room with him?”
Emily huffed. “I guess you’ve never worked there. You don’t have a choice. You do what you’re told. Besides, he always got his way because he spent plenty.” She looked away, clearly embarrassed. “He reached for me — ”
“He was rough and yanked me close. I told him ‘no’ but he grabbed my ass, my breasts, tits, whatever you want to call them. I pushed him away and then he was mad.” Emily was quiet. “I need the money.”
“He offered you money?”
“No. I work there because I need the money. A lot of the men are nice, usually don’t say much. He could be nice. Funny. But it was like he flipped. I got scared and started pulling off my dress, but then stopped. I was like, no way.
“Then what happened?”
Fighting back tears, she looked to Sara who encouraged her to continue.
“He came at me again, grabbed me here — ” she pointed to her forearms — “and it hurt real bad. He was holding so tight that I couldn’t pull away.”
“Did you call for help?”
The question triggered something inside Emily and she stiffened, shed a few tears, and then stopped. “I was afraid. Embarrassed. Didn’t want to the manager to think I was a problem. I didn’t know what to do. I was, like, freaking out.”
“Why didn’t you run out the door?”
“I tried and that’s when he pulled out the gun.”
“He had the gun?”
“Yeah. It certainly wasn’t mine. It was his and he was in a frenzy. Extra horny? I don’t know, maybe. I totally lost it, lunged for his arm and that’s when the gun went off. I was so scared that I ran.”
“Why’d you go to Sara’s bar?”
Emily glanced at Sara. “I was scared out of my mind, hers is the only safe place around here. Do you get it?” She sat upright, like a shot of adrenaline zipped through her. “I don’t shoot people. He pulled a gun on me. He was going to rape me. I’m not going to let anybody do that to me again.”
Memories became too much for her to bear.
“I get it,” I assured her.
Emily, drawn by the need to make money, was a victim in a bad place with a bad customer. Giving her a moment to compose herself, I stepped outside and thought through the next steps I’d have to take. Text messages showed the man was struggling to breathe and his organs weren’t cooperating.
Emily would need a lawyer to navigate the courts and prove that he was the aggressor, the bad guy. It shouldn’t be too hard, but it would be scary knowing that when life’s tide is rolling against you then it’s hard to catch a break.
While questioning her I thought about her being a single mom, a young single mom who was just trying her best to survive and raise her son, give him a good life. Which she never had.
I had come face to face with too many women like Emily.
From an early age she was the victim of abuse, followed by one bad relationship after another. Her last one was the worst, but she knew for her son’s sake that she had to get away, break that cycle, and she did. They left in the middle of the night with only the clothes on their backs. They had nowhere to go and lived on the streets until she met Sara. Now, she’s working two jobs, paying for a room at the motel, saving a little money, and getting back on her feet.
She didn’t want anybody to know that she worked as a masseuse at the Bangkok Massage Studio, didn’t want that to follow her and her son, so she’d been working under a fake name and social security number. She always wore a wig while working there, never met the owner, and barely talked with the other workers. They didn’t know who she really was. As far as they knew, she was just another undocumented worker passing through to make a few bucks.
While I soaked in what Emily was telling me, I got another text. The man had died. He was a real creep. A loner and convicted felon. Criminal history a mile long; everything from domestic abuse to rape to robbery. Preliminary reports said his death appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound. There were no signs of struggle on the man, no bruising and no money was taken. It wasn’t a robbery gone bad.
It was an accident. Emily was only defending herself, the gun went off, and she got scared and ran. It was cut and dry, and I believed her.
I went back inside and stood at the foot of the bed. A deafening silence filled the room as I studied her, long and hard. I had a decision to make. Bring her in for questioning, put her kid in Child Protective Services, and, no matter how the trial turns out, hang the weight the legal system around her neck for the rest of her life.
Or — my mind churned with what else I could do —
File a report that nobody knew who the masseuse was. She had fled into the night without a trace, and disappeared with no leads.
I choose the latter, and stepped out of the room — closing the door behind me.
For more crime stories, look for the release of our 5th novel, Subterfuge, in mid-October.
Visit our Crime Books page for summaries of our Tom Stone Detective Stories.
Wrapping the tie around his neck felt like vindication for Anthony Angelino. Professionals wore ties. Businessmen. Every ounce of feeling good reflected in the bathroom mirror was critical to attack the flashbacks from the previous weeks and months that hit hard and often.
He had sat in his jail cell one day after another. And then finally the ruling came from the judge. Not enough evidence to stand trial. Damned right. His lawyer made her case to the judge that the D.A. was presenting circumstantial crap. She had certainly earned her money, but the last few months heightened his anxiety as he sought to erase his reputation among the inmates as a man who poisoned children.
When his lawyer visited once every few weeks and explained the step-by-step progress she was making, it was like watching water drip from a faucet one drop at a time. He wished he was thinner so he could have slipped through the bars and on his way to freedom, but that’s how the courts worked. Meeting scheduled with the judge. Case presented. Sounded promising. The cycle continued as he slept fitfully in his bunk, wondering if there would be a middle-of-the-night assailant. The exercise yard, dining hall, and even the restroom had the feeling of a death trap.
Men were bored and wanted entertainment, and they had scores to settle from grudges that were carried in from outside the prison walls. No one would mind if he was used as a pawn in a power struggle.
Strategically, Angelino engaged in enough small talk with the right people to show he wasn’t some kind of molester or a man who preyed on innocent children. Though the minds he encountered were warped and twisted, the moral code that kids were off limits still remained.
Tom Stone: Sweltering Summer Nights is available on Amazon
We’re dealing with narco-subs and three men who carry a tremendous amount of deceit in their hearts and lives. Detective Tom Stone and his partner Jake Sharpe along with Detective Brian Kilbraide find their way through an array of clues and a trail of smuggling to stop an illegal cocaine trade on the seas.
Excerpt from Book 1 Tom Stone: A Nitty Gritty Christmas
The van was no more than sixty feet away. He raised his gun. A dumpster sat to the left and would give cover for an excellent view of the driver’s side. He sprinted. The all-too-familiar pop, pop, pop of shots broke the quiet, whizzing near his ears and pinging off the dumpster. Stone hit the wooden deck, rattling his bones, as another shot hit the dumpster.
He realized that the space around the van was quiet and that the shots had come from behind him. He took cover behind the dumpster with the van to the left and the parking lot spreading back to PCH to the right. Stone listened intently but only heard normal nighttime sounds: a distant foghorn, the faint chatter of night fishermen at the end of the pier, a barking of a seal, and a cord flapping against a flagpole. A feeling of vulnerability descended on him. Stiffness crept through his knees and up through his thighs. He shifted to his left to loosen his cramping leg and a voice made him freeze.
“Put down the gun, Detective.” The tone was confident smartass like a modern day gangster. “Put it down now.”
He heard a racking sound and wanted to turn and fire but set the gun on the deck instead.
Scattered debris looked a grenade had been detonated.
The car was a late model BMW that slammed into a light pole, a tall reinforced steel kind.
Stone’s first thought was that the hand of God had reached down from heaven with a giant butcher knife and split the hood in two. Glass from the windshield had popped out and was lying in a crumpled heap around the sidewalk. Two fire engines had lights flashing and the paramedics were on the scene treating a woman lying prone. A girl sat next to her wiping away tears.
Men and women wearing jackets with CSI emblazoned on the back were carrying out their investigations. The car that had been hit in the right rear bumper was sitting off to the side. A bus stop shelter was toppled and a trash can had been hurled into the side of the Dollar Plus Discount store. Cowboy met his fate at maximum velocity.
“Damn.” Stone muttered and looked up. The whirring propellers of news helicopters were overhead. “God, that’s irritating.”
“What?” Jake yelled.
Annoyed, Stone motioned toward the copters.
Monty Tusco walked up to Stone. Her cross-fit competitions kept her fit in a way that Stone admired. An ambulance was parked nearby and what was presumably Cowboy’s body lay covered on the ground. “Good to see you Tom. So you want a look?”
Stone inhaled. He didn’t say anything but walked toward the sheet. Nothing at all was pleasant about seeing a man who had taken chunks of glass shards to the face and had lost half his flesh to road rash, even a man who acted like a sworn enemy.
Monty glanced around to make sure the coroner wasn’t watching and lifted the cover. “Looks like a scene from a slasher movie, doesn’t it?”
Stone paused. The trail of blood flowing from Cowboy had soaked the fringes of his coat.
Monty raised her eyebrows and grinned. “Cool, huh?”
“I wonder about you sometimes.” Stone shook his head. Monty’s humor was as grim as the deaths she often witnessed. The medical team placed the body on a stretcher and slid it inside the vehicle. Another life torn by inner chaos, screaming on its path to extinction. There was enough carnage in Los Angeles to keep the coroners busy throughout the year whether it was Christmas or Easter, Kwanzaa or Passover.
Detective Tom Stone and his partner Jake Sharpe battle wanna-be drug lords and a crime syndicate in Los Angeles–with the help of their friends.