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The River Murders
By James O. Born
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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around January 7, 2020. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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Malevolent: Mitchum has never been more desperate. One by one his loved ones have become victims of carefully staged attacks. There’s only one way to stop the ruthless mastermind intent on destroying everyone around him — to go on the most dangerous hunt of his life.
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& James O. Born
My moody mongrel, Bart Simpson, kept watch from the warm backseat. He rarely found my job interesting. At least not this job.
I was next to the loading dock, folding newspapers for delivery. A surly driver named Nick dropped them off for me every morning at 5:50 sharp. What he lacked in personality he made up for in silence. I always said hello and never got an answer. Not even a "Hey, Mitchum." It was a good working relationship.
Even with the wind off the Hudson, I could crack a sweat moving the heavy bundles of papers. I used the knife I had gotten in the Navy to cut the straps holding them. My station wagon sagged under the weight of a full load. My two-day-a-week afternoon gig in Milton didn't strain the shocks nearly as bad. I usually dropped Bart off at my mom's then. My dog was as close to a grandchild as she had, and they could both complain about me.
In the early morning gloom, I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye and reacted quickly, turning with the knife still in my right hand. It was an instinct I couldn't explain. I was raised in upstate New York, not Bosnia. But I relaxed as soon as I saw Albany Al, one of the few homeless people in Marlboro, standing near the loading dock, a dozen feet away.
The older man's whiskers spread as he grinned and rubbed his hand across his white beard. "Hello, Mitchum. They say you can never sneak up on a Navy SEAL. I guess that's true."
I was past the point of explaining to people that I was never an actual SEAL.
When I took a closer look at the old man, I realized he wasn't ready for the burst of arctic air that had descended on us. "Al, grab my extra coat from the car. It's too cold to be wandering around dressed like that."
"Go ahead. My cousin usually wears it, but she didn't show today. She's a wuss for avoiding the cold."
"I wondered where Bailey Mae was. I was hoping she had some of her coffee cake."
Then I realized the older man hadn't come to keep me company. He'd wandered over to snag some of Bailey Mae's famous coffee cake, which she handed out like business cards.
I said, "I miss her cake, too."
The old man said, "I can tell." He cackled as he rubbed his belly, but he was looking at me.
I patted my own belly and said, "It's my portable insulation." Maybe I hadn't been working out as hard as usual. A few warm days and some running would solve that.
The old man continued to cackle as he walked away with my coat.
When I'd finished my route, I headed over to my office off Route 9. At least, my unofficial office. I always hit Tina's Plentiful at about 8:15, right between the early breakfast crowd and late risers. The old diner sat in an empty strip mall that hadn't been updated since 1988. A couple of framed posters of the California coast hung on the walls. No one had ever explained their significance, and none of the customers seemed to care. The place had the best Reubens and tuna melts in upstate New York, and they treated me like family. Maybe it was because one of my cousins worked in the kitchen.
The lone waitress, Mabel, named by a mean-spirited mother, lit up when I walked in. Usually I sat in the rear booth to eat and see if I had any pressing business. There was never much pressing in Marlboro. Today I headed toward the counter since there wasn't much going on and it would make it easier on Mabel.
Mabel was a town favorite for her easy smile and the way she took time to chat with everyone who came into the diner. As soon as I sat down she said, "Finally, a friendly face."
I gave her a wink and said, "Is the world not treating Miss Teenage New York well today?"
"Funny. You should cheer me up by taking me to the movies in Newburgh one night."
"Only if my cousin Bailey Mae comes with us."
"So you understand it's as friends and not a date."
"Am I so terrible? You've had some tough breaks and I'm a lot of fun."
I couldn't help a smile. "Of course you're not so terrible. You're also so young. And I'm not going to be the guy who holds you back from all the suitable young men in the area." That was as much as I wanted to say today.
Before she could answer, I glanced out the wide front window and saw my cousin Alice, Bailey Mae's mom, hustling across the street toward the diner. She is a year older than me and was only twenty when Bailey Mae was born. She is a good mom, and the rest of us help. Her usual smile was nowhere to be seen as her long brown hair flapped in the wind behind her. She yanked open the door and rushed right to me.
"Mitchum, Bailey Mae is missing."
Suddenly, the day got colder.
I spent a few minutes trying to calm Alice down as we started to check some of the places Bailey Mae liked to hang out. Bailey Mae hadn't been to school that day or to the library or to the sad little arcade where she sometimes played out-of-date games. Alice had gone to sleep early the night before, after her shift at the bottling factory in Gardnertown. Bailey Mae usually came home about eight o'clock. She's a smart fourteen-year-old, and a quarter of the town is related to her.
We wandered around town, asking a few questions. No one thought it was unusual, because I am the unofficial private investigator for the whole area.
Mrs. Hoffman on Dubois Street hadn't seen Bailey Mae but took the time to thank me for finding her son, who had been on a bender in Albany and didn't have the cash to get home.
After nearly an hour, I tracked down Timmy Jones, a buddy of mine from high school who now worked for the Ulster sheriff's office.
Timmy raised his hands, showing his thick fingers, and said, "I spoke with your cousin Alice already. We're making a few checks, but Bailey Mae has wandered off before."
I knew she sometimes got frustrated and left the house, but she usually ended up at my house or my mom's house. I said, "She's a good girl."
"No one's saying she's not. But we can't just call out the troops every time a teenager is out past curfew or mad at their parents."
"Bailey Mae is more responsible. She wouldn't do something like that."
Finally Timmy said, "Okay, we'll get everyone out looking for her. But get your family involved, too. There's more of them than there are cops in the area."
Bailey Mae has always been my favorite relative, and I have plenty to choose from in Marlboro. After I rounded a few up and explained the situation, the look on my cousin Todd's face said it all: they were worried. Bailey Mae is the family's shining light. Todd is a self-centered dick, and even he was concerned enough for our little cousin that he closed his precious auto repair shop to help search.
I pulled Alice aside and hit her with some simple questions about what was going on around the house, what the last thing she said to Bailey Mae was, and whether they'd been fighting. The usual.
She said, "I told you everything. There were no problems. I haven't been drinking and she hasn't been angry. The only thing that's new is that she's been hanging out with Natty a little bit."
That caught me by surprise. I blurted out, "Natty, as in my brother, Nathaniel?"
Alice nodded. "No real reason for it. He's nice to her and she likes his car. That's all I ever hear about. You know teenagers and cars. Just another crazy dream of hers."
"Natty shouldn't be anywhere near Bailey Mae."
Alice said, "He did his time."
"He always does. But he's still a drug dealer."
"Maybe by New York State law, but not the way I see it."
I purposely left Alice in Marlboro when I made my way down to Newburgh. My old station wagon sputtered a couple of times but got me there in about twenty minutes. Route 9 was open this time of day and I parked directly in front of the State of Mind Tavern, just past the I-84 underpass, the dive bar where Natty, my older brother, does business. I immediately spotted his leased sports car on the side of the dingy building. Natty had gotten tired of having cars seized every time some industrious cop stopped him and found dope inside. All it took was enough weight to be charged for trafficking and the car became part of the crime—and also part of police inventory up for auction. So now he switched out cars every year. The hot little convertible was near the end of its term.
As I opened the door, the bartender looked up through the haze. They aren't as strict in upstate as they are in the city, so cigarette smoke hung in the air. The smell of toaster pizza was permanently stuck in the discolored wallpaper. The bartender, who looked like he dined on steroids every day, gave me a cursory look and deemed me unworthy of an acknowledgment.
My brother, Nathaniel, or "Natty" as he's been called his whole life, is two inches shorter than me, at six feet even, and thin as a rail from a life of drugs, coffee, and cigarettes. I had no clue why he got called Natty while I've been called by my last name, Mitchum, since childhood. Only our mom calls me by my first name.
His head jerked up instantly. Instinct from his line of work. We have the same blue eyes and prominent jawline, but not much else in common.
I headed directly toward him when the bartender, who doubled as Natty's bodyguard, stepped from behind the bar to grab my left arm. Now he wanted to dance; a second ago he was too good to speak to me. A quick twist and thumb lock with my right hand dropped the ox to one knee in pain until the man understood how stupid his idea had been. Thank you, SEAL basic training class 406.
Natty stood up quickly and said, "Tony, no need for that. This is my little brother." He moved around the table to greet me, rushing past Angel, his semi-regular girlfriend, who once posed for Penthouse or one of those magazines.
I held up my hand and said, "Save it."
That brought Natty up short. "Why? What's wrong? Is it Mom?"
"Where's Bailey Mae?"
"Bailey Mae? I haven't seen her in a couple of days. Why?"
"She's missing and I heard she's been hanging out around you. You're a shithead so I came here first."
"How could you suspect me of doing anything to our own cousin? I love that girl. She's got dreams."
"We all do."
Natty stepped closer and said, "Look, Mitchum, I know you don't like what I do, but it's only a little pot and I don't force anyone into anything." He put his arm around my shoulder and started to lead me back toward the front door.
I stopped short and grabbed his arm. The bartender saw his chance at some payback, stepped forward, and took a swing at my head with his ham fist. It might as well have happened in slow motion, given all my years of preparation and the months of Navy training. It was almost an insult. I bobbed back a few inches and the big man's fist passed me. Then I swung Natty into him like a bag of potatoes, and they fell back into the barstools and got hopelessly tangled together on the grimy floor.
Another guy who'd been sitting at Natty's table grabbed a pool cue and stepped forward. In an instant I had my Navy knife out of my pocket and flipped open. I needed to blow off some steam and had just now realized it. As I'd expected, the jerk focused all of his attention on the knife, so I landed a perfect front kick in his gut, knocking him off his feet. To give the guy credit, he was upright and holding the pool cue again in a flash, his face beet red from the shock of being kicked and the momentary lack of oxygen.
Natty scrambled off the floor, his hands up, and jumped between me and the guy with the pool cue. Natty yelled, "Wait, wait!" He turned toward the other man and said, "Chuck, chill out!" He changed tone and attitude as he turned toward me. "Mitchum, just calm down and put the knife away. I want to help."
I had never heard my brother say that to anyone. Ever.
I had to fight the lunch crowd at Tina's Plentiful but somehow managed to grab my regular booth in the back. I needed to calm down and get some perspective before I even tried to get Mabel's attention. Contemplating fratricide is exhausting. At least it looked like I had one more relative in on the search. Natty had jumped in his hot convertible with his dullard girlfriend and raced back here to help our cousin Alice look for her daughter.
I needed thirty minutes to get my bearings, and the most efficient way to do it was to eat. I would need calories to help me during what could be a long day, so I gave Mabel my hand signal for one of their famous tuna melts. Her little wink let me know she understood.
The diner was busy and made a kind of relaxing noise. At least it was familiar and natural to me. After a few deep breaths, I looked up and saw an elderly woman from my route marching down the narrow space between the counter and booths, headed right for me. She lives on Robyn Drive and her name is Lois Moscowitz. I know most people's addresses and whether they get the local paper, the New York Times, or the Wall Street Journal. This one is the local-only variety. She never broke stride until she plopped down in the booth across from me.
"Hello, Mrs. Moscowitz."
"Mitchum, I need help." She had that cute, friendly local accent that made it clear she had never lived in the city.
I said, "I'm kind of booked up right now."
"But you're the only one who can help me."
"What's wrong?" I looked up at the pass-through to the kitchen and stared lovingly at my tuna melt, which had just landed.
"My husband is missing."
There were a lot of excuses I could make, but once I looked into those lonely brown eyes, all I could say was, "I'll take the case." I had to. I was the town's unofficial PI. It was part of the job description. I knew enough people were looking for Bailey Mae at the moment that I wouldn't make much difference, and this woman needed me right now.
Like a mind reader, Mabel had already wrapped my sandwich to go, tossed it across the counter to me, and blew me a kiss as I followed Mrs. Moscowitz out of the diner.
She sat straight and dignified in the passenger seat of my station wagon as Bart minded his manners and didn't try to force his way to the front. I didn't trust the little bugger enough to leave the sandwich back there, but it was good to know I had my buddy close by.
Mrs. Moscowitz didn't say a word as we drove north on Route 9 toward Milton. She didn't have to say anything; I knew where we were going.
I turned off the road and back toward a small private drive with a view of the Hudson. She glanced around but still didn't say anything as I brought the station wagon to a stop. I scurried around the front of the car to open her door. The private cemetery covered about two acres and had a lovely picket fence around the border, with a narrow, winding road that cut through the property in a seemingly random route.
The gravestone closest to the asphalt road had a simple inscription: Herman Moscowitz. Devoted Husband.
I stood close by in case I needed to grab her, but all Lois Moscowitz did was stare at the inscription. It could've gone either way.
Then Mrs. Moscowitz turned to me and started to laugh. Loudly. She wrapped her arms around my shoulders and gave me a hug, laughing the whole time. I needed the hug as much as she did. She was suddenly a different person. Younger, animated. As I drove her home, she chatted about her hobbies of knitting and skeet shooting and asked about my mom.
When we got to her tidy two-bedroom house, I pulled in the driveway and ran around to open the door for her again. She tried to give me a five-dollar bill and some change from her purse.
I kept refusing until she said, "How's an investigator going to stay in business if he doesn't charge people for his time?"
I finally took the cash, then waited until she was safely inside.
I hadn't even gotten back into my car when Timmy Jones, my buddy from the sheriff's office, pulled up in his marked unit. The cold wind blew his thinning blond hair in a swirl around his wide head. The look on his face told me he had news. It didn't look like good news.
My mind raced with all the possibilities: Bailey Mae had just been found dead at the foot of a cliff, or her body had washed up on the shores of the Hudson. I'd done a good job of tamping down the darker visions of what might have happened to her. Pretty much the whole day had been spent either looking for her or avoiding thinking about what might have happened to her. That was one of the reasons I'd helped Mrs. Moscowitz. I was good at avoiding tough issues. The private investigation business was my main means of not dealing with my own emotions. If I was distracted by something else, I couldn't dwell on the past. On dead fiancées. On missed opportunities. On my screwed-up family.
My stomach did a flip-flop as Timmy slowly walked around the front of his patrol car and then up the short driveway to face me. The frustration of his silence made me bark out, "What is it?" My voice couldn't hide the dread I felt.
Timmy started slowly, looking for the words. "My partner and I were knocking on doors, asking about Bailey Mae near her house." He paused and ran his hand through his hair.
"Timmy, get to the point," I almost snapped.
"Sorry. The old couple down the street from your cousin Alice's house, the Wilkses, were found dead inside their own house."
"Dead? From what?"
"They'd been shot."
This made my head spin. I even had to put my hand on the hood of my car to steady myself. "Shot? Bob and Francine Wilks have been shot?"
Timmy just nodded and mumbled, "In the head."
This was just too bizarre. I spoke to the elderly couple every day. If I didn't see them while I delivered the paper, I'd run into them at the diner or Luten's grocery store. Something didn't add up. All I could do was look at my friend and say, "Let's go."
My mind was still racing as I followed Timmy, driving at his normal, conservative pace. Shit like this just doesn't happen in Marlboro. Maybe in Poughkeepsie or even Newburgh. But not here. What the hell was going on?
I was anxious to get to the crime scene but realized I needed to be with Timmy to get past any of the other cops, so I chugged along behind him. I figured I might be of some help. I'd been through a number of forensic and crime scene schools in the Navy. Since then I had been through more than a few similar classes at Dutchess Community College. I probably understood these things better than the local cops, who never had to deal with them. At least when I was a master-at-arms in the Navy, I'd seen a few crime scenes on base. And I knew the local cops' weakness: They didn't want to call in the state police unless it was absolutely necessary.
Timmy knew my background and got me past the yellow crime-scene tape and the disturbingly young patrolman who was standing guard. I got a few odd looks from the other cops, and the only detective on the scene completely ignored me as she silently made notes in the corner.
The bodies were still in place as someone from the coroner's office took photographs. They were sitting right next to each other, as if watching TV from the ancient plaid couch they probably bought in the seventies. Single gunshots, probably from a 9mm, had left holes near the center of each of their foreheads and had caused just a trickle of blood to run down each pale face. It was neat and probably quick and professional.
I glanced out the window and saw that the sun was starting to set. Where had the day gone? Then I noticed it. I moved toward the kitchen, careful not to disturb anything, and stared for a moment until Timmy eased up beside me.
He said, "What is it, Mitchum?"
I nodded toward the counter. "That's one of Bailey Mae's coffee cakes." I leaned over and touched it, then broke off a corner and popped it in my mouth. "It's fresh. She was here."
It was after midnight when I finally left the Wilkses' house. The sheriff's office was still there collecting evidence and taking photographs. In fairness, I didn't have to prepare and document a criminal case. All I wanted to find out was who shot the friendly older couple and where Bailey Mae fit into all of it. That was what kept me there so long: I had been looking for other clues that pointed to where Bailey Mae was and what had happened to her.
Who says nothing ever happens in Marlboro? It had been a long, hard day.
After I snatched a few hours' sleep, I was preparing to deliver my papers early again. It gave me some normalcy and allowed me to be out in the town in case I saw something that could help.
Even Nick, the guy who dropped off the bundled papers, was interested in our sleepy little town for a change.
The husky teamster said, "I heard about your cousin. I'll keep an eye out."
I was stunned. I had been starting to think he didn't even speak English.
Then he pointed at the front page of the first paper strapped in the bundle and said, "Shame about the old couple, too. You guys need to get your shit together." Then he was gone.
He was also right. One of the reasons I stayed in Marlboro was because of the atmosphere. It is a nice place to live with nice people around. Even if I am related to a bunch of them.
By the time Bart and I were rolling in the loaded station wagon, a sleet storm had made the roads a crapshoot and visibility shitty. I had never seen the weather turn so cold and ugly this early in the year. It matched my mood about Bailey Mae's disappearance.
No one was out this morning as I cruised the streets slowly, tossing papers to some houses and walking them up to the front door at the homes of really old or infirm people. It hurt to drive past the Wilkses' house and not throw a paper. The yellow tape was still up, but the house was dark and no one was around.
Even the diner was nearly empty because of the weather as I hustled in through the driving sleet. Bart, as usual, elected to sleep in the back of the car.
- On Sale
- Jan 7, 2020
- Page Count
- 448 pages
- Grand Central Publishing