And All That Madness, sample chapter
"Casey, I just found out. Georgia Valentine didn’t kill herself. She was murdered.” Dee’s excited voice echoed in my ear.
I’d been doing background checks for my bread-and-butter client, the Barton-Lehman law firm, and had a hard time switching from the byzantine pathways of cyberspace to Dee’s fantasy world.
“Dee, what are you talking about?”
Dee’s tone had a touch of sarcasm. “Georgia Valentine, you heard of her, right?”
"Yeah, along with Duke Ellington and Miles Davis.” I replied in kind. Georgia Valentine was America’s first and most influential female jazz singer, known not only for her unique approach to songs, but also for her drug addiction.
Dee said, the irony gone. “You know she died of a heroin overdose?”
“Who doesn’t? But I thought you said ‘murder’?”
Dee sighed. “I did. This letter of hers, someone found it, says she was clean when she died. Someone else gave her that shit.” She paused for emphasis. “Someone killed her.”
“Right. And Marilyn Monroe was murdered by the Kennedys, Elvis really isn’t dead, and JFK was shot by, fill in the blanks.” I scoffed. People hated to think their idols died by ignominious means, so they invented conspiracy stories.
"Now, Casey, listen to me. This is for real. This musician, name of Bobby Walton, just passed. They went through his things and found a letter from Georgia. She wrote him she was off drugs. But get this, she told him someone was out to get her and she was scared.”
“Scared? Of what?”
“That someone was gonna do away with her.”
I got up from my desk, holding my phone to my ear, and headed for the kitchen. I needed some coffee to deal with this conversation. “Why would anyone want to do that?”
Dee sighed. “I don’t know. But Georgia lived in a fast world, working in clubs owned by gangsters, hanging with drug dealers, being with low-life men. It could be anybody.”
I grabbed my coffee beans from the cupboard and shook some into the grinder.
“But history says -”She snorted. “Screw history. What do those people know? They didn’t live the life.”
Dee Jefferson had been a singer with the King Basington Orchestra at the tail end of the Big Band Era, struggled through the lean years after the Beatles took over, and ended up owning a jazz club in San Francisco’s North Beach. I lived a few blocks away in Chinatown and considered her club my second home.
I held the little grinder close to my body to muffle its sound. “But, Dee, be reasonable. Don’t you think if someone had killed her, people would know about it? It’s an accepted fact she died of an overdose. Which is not hard to believe, given she was an addict.”
“What’s that noise?” She sighed. “You and your coffee. Well, some people do doubt she done it herself. They think it was murder. I’ve heard those rumors for years.”
I put the ground coffee into my espresso maker and turned it on.
“Really? From whom? Were they reliable sources?” I sounded like a television pundit, for crissake.
“Yeah, other musicians, cats who knew her, worked with her.”
I stared at my espresso machine, willing it to hurry up. “But how come these rumors never surfaced? How come the critics -” Her harrumph sounded in my ear. “Dee, you can’t ignore the facts. Everything ever written about Georgia Valentine says the same thing. She died of a self-administered overdose, period.”
Dee let out a sound that can only be described as derisive. “Maybe they never had the evidence to prove anything different. But this letter -” She trailed off.
I took a deep breath. “Dee, let me ask you a question. What’s your interest in all this? Why would you want to open this can of worms?”
She was silent for a few moments. When she spoke, she used a softer tone of voice. “I guess it’s ‘cause of what Georgia Valentine meant to me and other black women. She came into this world with three strikes against her, poor, black, with a teenage mother and no father. But she had talent and rose up. Way up. Sure, she took drugs, mainly to cope with all the shit that went down then. The po-lice hounded her, hoping to bust her. She spent a year in jail and then couldn’t work in New York. She gets clean and instead of getting some credit, some creep shoots her up and she fell back into the gutter again. She’s gone down in history as someone who gave in to drugs. Forget all her success. That bugs me more than I can say.”
My coffee was ready. I poured it into a mug and carried it over to my chair by the window. I’d rarely heard Dee so poignant
. “Okay,” I sighed. “Tell me more about the letter.”
Dee spoke rapidly. “Like I said, it was in Bobby Walton’s trunk, in his attic. They found his letters and other stuff. His son didn’t even read nothing, just turned it over to the New York Jazz Society. And Freddy, you remember him from the cruise?”
She took a deep breath, while I murmured my assent. “Well, he belongs to the Society and, when he heard about the trunk, he went through it and found the letter. Georgia’d written Bobby for years, but he only kept this one letter. Probably because of what she said about a threat.” She paused. “Anyway, Freddy’s not sure what to do about it. He remembered you, how you found the Countess when she went missing from the ship, so he wants your advice.”
I took a sip of coffee. “I see.”
No matter how crazy I thought her idea, I owed it to her as a friend to treat it seriously. “Okay, I would say the first thing to do is authenticate the letter, see if it was really written by her.”
"Well, Freddy says it’s definitely from her, the things she said -”
I used my professional tone of voice. “Nevertheless, if you are really serious, this is what you have to do.”
“Okay, I got it. But how do we do it?”
The phone pressed against my ear, I gazed down at the scene below, buses, cars and people moving purposefully along Stockton Street. “First you get a piece of her handwriting the law will accept, a written contract, for example, and then get a handwriting expert to compare it with the found letter.”
“Okay, that sounds simple enough. How do I find a handwriting expert?”
“You’ll have to find the right person to ask.”
We were going around in circles. “Get an expert.”
I expected her to ask “Who?” again and we’d be doing our own version of the old Abbott and Costello “Who’s On First?” routine.
But she fooled me. “I know what I need.”
“A private detective.”
Oh, oh. I should have known. Last year, she asked me to look into the supposed suicide of a friend of hers and it turned out to be serial homicide. Then while we were on a cruise, she recommended me to find a missing passenger. And just a few months ago, she involved me in finding the guy who was stalking and murdering young jazz singers.
And here she goes again, trying to get me involved in another homicide. Only this time it was a fifty-year-old cold case involving one of the best known icons of American culture. Jesus, I’d never be out of work so long as Dee is around.