"The Killing Club" is a little mystery novel with a real twist. The book is "co-written" by "One Life to Live" soap opera character Marcie Walsh, played by actress Kathy Brier. On the soap opera, the book is part of the plotline, as the Marcie Walsh character -- a receptionist at a police station -- is penning her own mystery novel.
"The Killing Club" is co-authored by Michael Malone, a former "One Life to Live" head writer and now a crime and mystery novelist. The book follows a spunky young detective named Jamie Ferrara, who investigates the murders of several of her high school friends, who, years earlier, formed a club in which they planned the fictional murders of people who made their lives miserable.
Chapter One: Jamie
Here's the idea, Christmas comes but once a year. In Gloria, New Jersey, it comes for five months. Red-nosed reindeer are running across the roofs as soon as the ghosts come off the porches. Christmas trees get dragged out to the curb, dumping a trail of tinsel and needles, after the Valentine candy goes on display at Solly's Drugs. In Gloria, the good parents hide Santa's loot in the crawlspace by late September and they're still paying for it in July.
I'm Jamie Ferrara, Jovanna Lucia Ferrara. No kids, not married, less than a year to go before I'm 30. People don't think my family's Italian, both sides, because I have blue eyes and strawberry blonde hair. But my family's stayed 100 percent Italian since they first came to this harbor town. They were here when the mayor changed its name from Deep Port back in 1927. Gloria was the mayor's wife's name. The high school where we all went was named after her too, Gloria Hart High School. We figured the mayor must have really loved his wife, although from her picture in the hallway it was hard to tell why.
A lot of us who went to Hart still live in Gloria, even if we're always saying that someday we're going to leave. I'm one of that any-day-now set. For me, there're not many strangers here. So driving along River Street, I knew Pudge Salerno was headed back from the Planning Board meeting when I saw him park his new Lexus in front of his family restaurant. I knew the Virgin Mary and Joseph had gone to Dockside Tavern to warm up when I passed the gazebo on Etten Town Green. They'd left a sign hanging on the manger wall: "BACK IN TEN MINUTES." There was no one left guarding the wooden Jesus in the crèche but two plywood shepherds, a plastic camel and a cow. No one was going to steal him either; he had a bicycle chain around his belly.
It was a Friday, early December, bone-cold, dirty snow frozen in lumps in the gutters. A nasty wind was flapping through that one crack, right at the back of my neck, in the canvas top of my Mustang. I admit it, a 1968 Ford Mustang Shelby GT-500 is not a practical car. But I like my convertible, and life is short. I was about to be reminded of that lousy fact.
I'd been in court all day, testifying for the state in an aggravated assault case, and now I was headed for a birthday dinner with Rod Wolenski, chief of detectives at Gloria Police Department, GPD. Rod moved to town five years ago from Philly. He's my boss. For three years, he's been my fianc&ecute;e too. The same everybody that disapproves of my Mustang -- and that's various relatives, including my older brother -- thinks a three-year engagement is two years too long. In Gloria, girls from Italian families get married before they're 30, even if the girls are detective sergeants who love their jobs. Especially if the girl could marry a good-looking man from a Catholic family (even if not Italian) who was not out of a job, not an alcoholic and not already married to somebody else. Seven months 'till my deadline.
I was a little early for our reservation at the Inn so I headed west, away from downtown and the river, and drove to a mid-Nineties subdivision called Glen Valley (there was not much glen, and no valley in it). I wanted to take a look at what Ben Tymosz had done to his house this year. I'd been thinking about Ben today because of an odd phone call from him that afternoon. I'd known him since we were teenagers but had never been close and I don't think I'd said ten words to him in the last couple of years. So his phoning and making a formal appointment to come see me in my office the following morning had felt odd; especially since he wouldn't tell me what he wanted to talk about.
Even in Gloria, Ben is famous for his Christmas show; it spreads from his roof down across his yard, covering the small lawn in plastic icicles, wreaths, reindeer, elves, nutcrackers, Victorian carolers, giant candles and peppermint sticks, all rigged to blink in waves of red, white, blue, green, orange, red, white, blue, green, orange. It's about as tasteful as an Atlantic City casino, and uses about as much electricity.
So when I first saw the sky, I didn't think fire; I thought, wow, Ben's really outdone himself this year. He was always a believer; we were already in fifth grade when he socked Garth McBride for saying there was no such thing as Santa Claus. Now Ben played Santa for the Rotarians in a plastic igloo in Appleton Mall. Shopping with my nephew Clay, I'd seen him there a week ago, telling a long line of kids that if they were good, they'd get what they wanted. Clay, 13, had laughed, "Yeah, sure." In Ben's case, it was had to argue with Clay's pessimism: Ben had wanted to go to college on a football scholarship and had never made it. He'd wanted to live in one of the big houses on the river and never got there. "Just not good enough," he used to tell us, and nobody had argued with him.
Turning into Glen Valley, I could see the smoke, then smell it. Once I hit Windsor Lane, I knew it was Ben's house on fire. When I saw how bad it was, my hands went hot on the wheel. Our big red ladder truck and the pumper had pulled up onto the lawn. Black and whites blocked off the street. Neighbors stood watching from the sidewalks. EMS was in the driveway and two paramedics were lifting a gurney with a body lumped on it into the back of the van. Half the bright yellow two-story clapboard colonial was a charred shell. Firemen were still hauling out wet sooty furniture. Everything was steaming in the frozen air.
I drove past a brand new black Mercedes sedan, still with its dealer plates, across the street. The guy who owned it was talking on his cell phone in the driver's seat. I recognized the aggressively handsome profile of Barclay Ober, who'd built Glen Valley, and wondered why he was there.
Nearby, my fiancé Rod was walking the chief of police to his car. Even in a New Jersey suburb, there was something about Rod's way of walking that made him look like he was headed through an open stretch of dusty sagebrush to lasso a wild horse. Chief Waige depended on Rod. But Rod gave everybody that feeling -- that you could lean on him and he wouldn't fall over.
The chief drove away as I got close enough to shout out the window, "Rod! Is it bad?"
He nodded, hands hunched in his suede jacket pockets.
I called again, "Goddamn. Is it Ben?"
For our date at the Inn, I was wearing a short dress under my parka, and I was tripping in the hard snow in red Ferragamo knock-offs that spend most of their time in a box on my closet shelf. It was a rare enough sight for my fellow GPD detective Danny Ventura to grab the flattened fire hose, shake it at me from between his legs and whistle. "Hey, Jovanna Lucia, you're a girl!"
"Give it a rest, Danny." I threw him the finger. It didn't mean as much with my padded gloves on.
He made a kissing face. Danny Ventura and I had gone out once, years ago when I first joined GPD. Once was enough. He was good-looking in a sleazy sort of way. He was a good detective too, though not a smart one, but dogged and observant. Everything else about him-well, let's leave it at that.
Rod told Danny to back off. Danny did. Rod is his boss too.
"How did this happen?"
"You catch it on the radio?" Rod pulled me under his arm and hugged me. He's lanky, but as solid as a tree. He's close to a foot taller than I am.
"No, I was just driving by. How bad is it?"
"Bad." Rod still wears his hair longer than the current style. Most people in Gloria are a little behind the times. I could smell the smoke in his hair when he said, "Ben's dead."
I'd figured somebody was, from what was on the gurney. "Oh Jesus. Megan and the girls?"
"No. We couldn't find anybody else in the house. Haven't reached her."
He walked me over to the front walk, guiding me out of the snow patches into which my heels were slipping. "Looks like he fell down his basement steps, went down probably because some fuses blew. Kicked over a gas can. I'm sorry, baby. I know you two go back."
"God, Ben?" I watched the bulk of the body bag sliding through the white doors. "Ben Tymosz? In a basement? I still think of Ben three feet off the ground."
As I said it, I shot back through a dozen years, and hunched on the sidelines of scruffy football field in a rainy December. I was pointing a beaten-up zoom lens at a teenager with Tymosz on the back of his jersey. He was twisting his thick body high in the air in the end zone, his pockmarked face earnest, his big hands red and raw around the football. Touchdown!
"HART HIGH SCHOOL CHAMPS!" flapped the banner over Main Street until that April, although the truth was, we lost that final game. And, like I say, Ben didn't make it through college. And he hadn't been very good at selling insurance either. And we'd run out of things to talk about and had lost touch.
I felt bad about it all, standing there looking at the sign Ben had stuck in his lawn for his daughters: "SANTA, STOP HERE. KATHIE AND KRISTIE HAVE BEEN GOOD ALL YEAR."
"Not sure I follow you, three feet off the ground." Rod had that puzzled look he gets sometimes when I forget that he can't be as inside my head as I am.
"Football. Ben was the running back for Hart High. For a big guy he could jump."
He nodded, hugged me again, headed me toward the blackened house.
"So what's Barclay Ober doing here?" I pointed at the Mercedes across the street. Barclay was a local, around my age, but rich, really rich. He'd married my sister.
"Ober called it in." Rod and I looked at the man in the hundred-thousand-plus car as he finished his cell phone call. "Said he was driving by, dropping his son off at a friend's, saw flames shoot out of the basement window, Ben's car was in the drive, so he called 911."
"He didn't try to get in the house, do something maybe?" I don't like Barclay Ober. My sister Gina would have been 31, like Barclay, two years older than I am, but she'd died a week before her 26th birthday. Cancer. My nephew Clay, her son, was 8 years old when she died. We had to drag him out of my dad's attic to take him to the funeral. I found out Barclay was cheating on Gina the last year of her life.
I looked at the burnt front door, hacked off its hinges, thrown over the juniper shrubs. Rod said, "Barclay tried to get in but it was locked. He broke a window and was about to crawl through, when the whole thing just blew. With the wind, it went fast."
"Yeah? So he sat in his Mercedes."
"Okay, well, let's give him a break, Jamie."
I headed toward the car. Barclay saw me and waved like we'd run into each other at the beach. But then he drove quickly away, though I suspected he knew I was coming over to talk to him.
Nobody had been able to reach Ben's wife Megan. The woman next door said the two Tymosz girls had gone to a birthday party with her daughter. The neighbor was going to take them over to Ben's mother's house until we could find Megan and tell her the news.
The house stank of burnt furniture. I recognized most of the volunteer firemen dragging it out of the living room. There were too many stuffed chairs and couches, most of them velour. Too many knickknacks. Framed family photos. Dozens of kitschy clocks (one of a lighthouse, one of Betty Boop). Assorted teddy bears now wearing Santa hats. A burnt spruce tree, 10 feet tall, ornaments and lights melted to the branches, lay on the wet carpet of the pine-paneled family room. Already at its base, piles of wrapped presents, safe in fire-retardant metallic paper. A recliner in front of a huge television. Dinner on a tray on the seat. Sausage and pepperoni pizza.
I looked down into the black hole that had been the basement. The bottom of the steps and most of the rail were burnt completely away.
I asked Rod, "Are you here because they suspect something?" As chief of detectives, he headed all divisions, including arson. "Insurance? Fire got out of hand?"
"No. Just checking. Looks like an accident." If things had to go wrong, Rod preferred them to be accidents. He'd come to Gloria after ten years in Center City Philadelphia, where over the years he'd headed a police crisis negotiation team, and served as a field training officer (teaching new recruits), and then worked at the job that burned him out and brought him to a small town where he had some distant relatives. He'd been running a South Philly youth bureau (dealing with criminal offenders 17 or younger). Just hearing his stories was rough.
Our volunteer fire marshal came over. He had a report ready to write up about what they figured had happened to Ben.
One of the giant stars on the Tymosz roof blew, shorting out the reindeer lights. Inside, the house went dark. Ben lost ESPN from the overload; according to the neighbor, the lights blew almost every Christmas. He felt in the dark, lit a couple of holiday candles, headed for the basement circuit breaker box, tripped on something at the top of the stairs, fell, kicked over a can of lawnmower gas. He was knocked out and the fire had a field day in the combustible junk heaped against the basement walls.
Rod signed off on how G.V.F.D. (Gloria Volunteer Fire Department) was going write up its report and then the marshal went away.
I didn't like the theory. "Why wouldn't he get a flashlight?"
Rod shrugged. "Maybe he couldn't find one. Those dumb Christmas candles were all over the place."
"You're going with accident?"
"I didn't tell you this, but Ben called me out of the blue yesterday, wanted to talk to me tomorrow."
"He didn't say."
"Accident. Jamie, rein it in." As Rod looked up at the burnt-out ceiling, the tilt of his face let you see the little bit of Lenni Lenape Indian in his wide cheeks and strong nose. It was a good face. Robert Wolenski was a thoughtful, fair-minded man, and that's not a bad thing in a chief of detectives. But if he always thinks everything's an accident for as long as he can, I figured I'm paid to consider the other possibility. I tell him it seems like a reasonable basis for a marriage.
"Hello there, Jamie. You gotta be cold." It was Gert Anderssen, our GPD medical examiner. "Watch your step in those silly shoes." Gert's 60, and six feet tall. She still has the blue-eyed gaze and broad-shouldered body you can see in her old photos. She didn't wear silly shoes 40 years ago either, when she transferred to U. Penn from a college in Sweden and by the next spring had won the national women's heptathlon. She was a really good medical examiner -- sharp, patient, creative, and had somehow managed to hang on to kindness after a lifetime of cutting open dead bodies.
She tapped the back of her head. "This was not the inhalation. This was the cranial blunt force." Gert has never lost her accent with its singsong shifts in pitch and she sounds like an old Greta Garbo film on my dad's old movie channel. She looks like an old Greta Garbo too, except with cropped white hair and wearing blue jeans. Gert's been having an affair with Chief of Police Warren Waige for decades. For decades most of Gloria has figured she was a lesbian because of her athletic ability. I liked her more than I did Chief Waige.
"What?" I asked Gert as we walked back into Ben's front yard. The ambulance had left, and so had the pumper and some of the neighbors who'd been watching from across the street. "Ben's feet went out from under him and he hit the edge of a step?"
Gert smiled tolerantly. "That is reasonable. But I am going to my home now, then so goodbye."
As she strode off, swinging wide of Danny Ventura, he called to her, "Hey, bah-dah-boom to the chief tonight," but not so Gert could hear. She wouldn't have known what he meant anyhow. Or if she did, she'd ignore it.
The scream was so loud, it startled even Rod, who wouldn't twitch if a cat landed on his back. Ben's wife Megan, whose car was pulled up onto the sidewalk, with its door flung open, fell to her knees, pounding her head into the dirty snow. Her scream went on so long it was like it pushed all the air out of her. Danny Ventura was leaning over the blonde woman, trying to help, but believe me he's the last person I'd want to get that kind of news from. Megan shook him off and started yanking at her hair, rubbed her heavy make-up and mascara in it. There was a lot of the hair, bleached and permed. And there was a lot of Megan now; just in the last six months she looked to have gained ten pounds. My dad -- not always the most tactful man -- had asked her at this year's Halloween parade if she was supposed to be Jayne Mansfield. Megan had no idea who Jayne Mansfield was.
Rod knocked Danny out of the way and hauled Megan to her feet. Then he just held on, till she wore herself out and her voice hoarsened to a whisper. "Goddamn, Ben, I'm so fuckin' sorry!"
There was something weird about the way she kept telling her dead husband she was sorry, but I figured she just felt guilty because she hadn't been home when it happened so maybe she could have saved him. Except where had she been? Exercising at the new gym in Appleton Mall, she told us. I wondered why somebody married would wear so much make-up, a sleazy sequined blouse and big blinking Christmas bell earrings, just to drive home from a workout in a gym.
I told Megan how sorry I was, but I had to ask her if she knew why Ben had wanted to talk to me tomorrow, why he'd said it was important. Her face first looked horrified, then shut completely down. "I got no idea," she told me.
While Rod took Megan to Ben's mother's house to pick up her daughters, I headed back to downtown to tell Pudge Salerno that his best friend was dead. As for Rod's birthday dinner at the Inn, we'd do it another night.
"It's okay," Rod said as I kissed him goodnight. It's what he says every time I put off setting a wedding date.
Rod knew me. The only thing on my mind now was finding out what that "important" thing was that Ben had planned to say to me.
Excerpted by permission from "The Killing Club," by Marcie Walsh and Michael Malone. Copyright © 2005 Gads Hill LLC and Babcock Productions, a division of Hyperion Books.