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Murder at the Mailbox
Murder at the Mailbox
Murder at the Mailbox
Ebook234 pages3 hours

Murder at the Mailbox

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars



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It’s two weeks before Halloween and the tricks have already begun in wacky Berkeley, California, when a woman dressed as a China doll is found twisted, bloodied, and dying against a broken mailbox outside the city’s grandest mansion. Turns out she's the socialite wife of a local predatory developer who challenges Clari Drake, former TV star turned has-been reporter, to find the killer. The kinky clues pile up like a basket of bad candy. An old newsroom nemesis, hashish-smoking homeless activists, and nutball neighbors pull back the curtain on the sexual exploits of wealthy Russell Street, forcing Clari to pursue a spanking good story into the darkest corners of the city everyone loves to laugh at. Join Clari Drake on deadline as she navigates the intersection of lust, betrayal, and … podiatry … in the People’s Republic.   

PublisherLaura Novak
Release dateSep 8, 2015
Murder at the Mailbox
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Laura Novak

I spent 30 years as a news reporter in television, radio, and print … including years reporting for The New York Times on business, arts, and health.  While my protagonist, Clari Drake, might not be up to any good, I try to be, especially when at work in the Berkeley Men’s Shelter every month.  If I’m not writing with a cat nearby, I am usually swimming or recycling anything in my path. 

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    Murder at the Mailbox - Laura Novak

    Wednesday, October 17th

    Berkeley, California, is the city everyone loves to laugh at. I get that, really I do. For some inhabitants it’s like every day is Flashback Friday. Tie-dyed shirts and tattoos never go out of style here. People’s Park is populated by the offspring of those who sat in during the late ’60s. There is no dearth of ire on ordinary civic matters or shortage of shade-grown fanatics who would recycle their chewing gum given their druthers. Every neighborhood is a Nuclear Free Zone, as if our enemies would take notice of the signs attached to telephone poles before annihilating the Left Coast.

    The concept of Halloween in Berkeley, then, is nothing if not redundant. Each day is dress-up-and-appear-weird day in the City by the City by the Bay. Every season is open season on the unpredictable and often outrageous. Anything is possible in the land of patchouli oil and incense.

    So seeing a woman sprawled against a mailbox on one of the toniest streets in the Berkeley Hills isn’t something that would normally send antennae shooting out of my skull. In fact, the most enthusiasm I could muster was, Zeppo honey, watch out for the homeless lady up ahead. Don’t trip on her feet.

    Should we give her money or a Luna bar? Zeppo asked, taking my one free hand while I locked the door to my purple Honda Fit with the other.

    Neither, I replied, pulling my coat closed against the nippy October night. We’re so close to College Avenue, she probably gets plenty of handouts.

    I had parked a brisk J-walk across from the shingle pile inhabited by dear Elspeth Waldron, the most authentic lotus flower in the People’s Republic of Berkeley. That she was 80-plus didn’t keep her from decorating her house on par with all of the mansions on Russell Street to make it Berkeley’s All Hallowed answer to Mardi Gras.

    For the next few hours, while I attended a protest on the use of ambulance sirens in proximity to a Tibetan temple, Elspeth was going to haul out her Halloween decorations with Zeppo so that the other two men in my life, Zach and Andy, could bond alone at home over falafel and fifth-grade math. Despite the full moon and fog, I had no premonitions that this night would be anything but normal on the Berkeley scale.

    Mama, what’s she saying? Zeppo whispered as we approached the curb, the woman’s one satin Chinese slipper caught in a perfect moonbeam. And why isn’t she wearing any underwear?

    The mailbox, against which I assumed the woman had conveniently found purchase, was tilted at a curious 45-degree angle, a convenient prop for a lunatic exposing herself. And look at all that blood! my five-year-old bellowed, pointing to the woman’s mouth, which was painted theatrically with dark red lipstick.

    It took seconds for my brain to catch up with my bulging eyes. I yanked Zeppo back onto the street with my body now blocking his view of the lady with the exposed private parts and a black China doll wig askew on her head.

    Run. Run to Elspeth and tell her there’s a sick woman out here. Go. Now! The panic in my voice and the shove I gave Zeppo obviously registered because I’ve never seen my rug rat run so fast in his little life. I waited a second to ensure Zeppo’s safety before turning back to the rag doll who had already convinced me that she wasn’t your run-of-the-mill Berkeley burnout in search of a cement crash pad.

    My … fan. The woman’s whisper pulled me back. Her stare was vacant. Her skin tone bloodless.

    Your fan? I squatted down to touch the cool, manicured hand on her lap partially covered by a cheap satin dress with dragon motif across the bodice. I lifted the lapels of the woman’s Burberry trench coat but found nothing inside. No purse was beside her. Sensing I was searching for something, the woman wiggled one finger on a hand bent backward as if asking for a high five from behind. It was then that I noticed her thigh bone poking through the skin. Stifling a rising gag reflex, I reached for my phone to dial 911 but my hand shook so hard I dropped it onto her bare leg, which spasmed in response.

    Loud … she croaked. The street was eerily still, no significant sign of life other than a feral cat darting over a stone wall.

    It’s too loud? I asked, wondering, medic that I am, if her eardrums were bleeding.

    Losh, she strained, her frustration palpable.

    Everything’s okay, I replied, resting my hand on her bloodied forearm so she knew I was still with her. I began giving our whereabouts to Berkeley Police dispatch, who informed me that a unit was already on its way. I wanted to ask how that was possible since I’d just dialed but the woman’s intact leg jerked to the sound of sirens in the distance.

    Shh. Lotion, she tried again through a gurgle of blood.

    I don’t see any lotion, or a fan, I said, gently tugging at her dress. Call me a lady. Say I tampered with evidence. But the poor woman’s costume was hiked up past her hoo-hah over a hip that appeared to have popped right out of the socket.

    Do you live nearby? Is there anyone I can call? I brushed chunks of tar from her face and sized up the situation. Pricey raincoat. Strands of blond hair peeking out from under a cheap wig. Expertly arched eyebrows and skin that had been polished to perfection. The cheap Chinese get-up wasn’t going to throw me off the scent. A wealthy woman from one of the best neighborhoods in Berkeley was, for whatever reason, already dressed for Halloween and slowly slipping away against a mailbox that had been knocked senseless as well. I needed to get answers before she entered another astral plane all together.

    Who did this to you? I pleaded, as the sirens grew louder and closer. I lay my own jacket over the woman for warmth. Her hands and feet began to curl inward. Her body was moving into a fetal position. I was losing her. Was it a car?

    Low … was all the woman said before her eyes stared straight ahead, fixed and bleeding. Her leg jerked one last time, then she was dead. And I was shivering so hard I fell over, my big old butt landing on her broken, twisted hand.

    Chapter 2

    My name is Clari Drake and for God’s sake, if this ever happens to me pull down my nightie before dialing 911. I could see all the way to China, as Grandma Thorsen might have said, what with her knees all bent up like that. And that’s the last thing I’d need in the last moment of my life: pubes on public display, which is silly of me to joke about but the shaking wasn’t going to abate for another five years, and the nausea was creeping up and over me as if I’d eaten every piece of candy that Zach and Zeppo haul in every Halloween.

    Allow me to back up. My formal name is Clarissa Thorsen Dyke, and this is your takeaway on me: I hail from Edina, Minnesota, and took my husband’s name of Drake so that the fair people of San Francisco wouldn’t make fun of my last name on TV where I was a hotter-than-hot and wholly heterosexual news reporter, ten years, fifty pounds, and one lifetime ago.

    My career ended with a humiliating accident on camera involving a fencepost in the Sierra Nevada that put me into labor before being airlifted to safety in the governor’s helicopter. The video of my ordeal was circulated to a national TV show that voted me biggest ass of the year. By then, I had the biggest ass of anyone, anywhere on television owing to the fact that I was pregnant. So, my career was shot to hell and I became a stay-at-home mom, eventually and inevitably itching for excitement.

    You see, I have this innate need to stir up shit and right wrongs, which last year resulted in my takedown of the power brokers at the posh private school my oldest boy attended. The place was all wrong for us, but that’s beside the point. I got the headmaster, the head of the Board of Trustees, myself, and my son, Zachary, tossed out on our buttocks - them for fiscal malfeasance and me for digging in their dirt. Hey, I can’t stand financial malfeasance, though I love saying those words. I felt I had no choice but to snoop around and take no prisoners. Problem is, I don’t learn lessons well the first time, such as you don’t mess with the big dogs, particularly when they are pedigreed and pampered Bull Terriers.

    Still, as radical as this may sound, Berkeley is a great place to raise children, especially ours, so we never pondered a move to the burbs for a better school system. Zeppo has a weird name that no one notices because his friends are Izzy, Cassius, Obadiah, and Otto. I have yet to meet a Chico or a Harpo, but in the event I do, their mothers will surely understand that I liked the name Zeppo, and that’s why I chose it for my second-born.

    Zach was the one who started it all. I liked how big Zachary Michael Drake sounded. And I liked it even more when we discovered upon his birth that said child with big name would be a short person who would get lots of stares from strangers. Zach was born with achondroplasia, which in medical terms means he is a dwarf or little person. It also means he’s the biggest person with the biggest heart that Andy and I know (next to his younger, but taller, brother, that is).

    And according to Elspeth Waldron, the aforementioned octogenarian librarian with a Pilates card and with a Buddha bobblehead on her Prius dashboard, taking on the entire Bidwell-Coggin School meant not only that I’d found clarity, but that my self-esteem was rebooted and my third eye chakra realigned. And the best gig I could get was a job at the Berkeley Bi-Weekly, an unimpressive radical rag stuffed into boxes outside piercing boutiques and smoke shops near the university. The paper, widely ridiculed as the Berkeley Bi-Polar, is managed by a skeletal staff of losers of which I am now proudly one.

    The publisher had already announced she would give the BBW one more quarter of mouth-to-mouth before she shut down the bleeder, making this my best chance to break back into the real reporting business and get my groove on. And while it’s a terrible thing to say, I didn’t want to do a story on a trumped-up protest. I wanted a juicy story. And it’s quite possible that a broken lady, a bent mailbox, and a fancy ZIP code were the perfect Halloween brew.

    But now, back to the sirens …

    Chapter 3

    I lifted my hand to my shoulder and laid it on what I expected to be Elspeth’s wizened claw. Snoop that she is, I knew she couldn’t stay inside her house one more minute and miss all the excitement while I sat on the curb with a paramedic’s blanket over my shoulders. Instead, my fingers intertwined with the fleshy but firm digits of a man. Ma’am, I need you to step over here and answer a few questions.

    I flipped my face up to the cop whose voice sounded hauntingly familiar. The next words out of my mouth were a non sequitur. Chas?

    Salt and pepper curls that were cute once upon a time, but that now framed crow’s feet and worry lines, covered my eyeballs and caused a momentary blind spot. Or was it just that I didn’t want to see him? But the unusual pair of green eyes the color of malachite made me before I could brush back my hair and stare my past in the face.

    Clari. The cop helped me to a standing position a few yards from where the woman’s body had lain. A smirk rose out of his dimples now nestled in a puffy but clean-shaven face.

    Chas, I stated as if I’d found what I was looking for.

    You said that already.

    Right. Oh my God. Chas. Man, of all the hit-and-run accidents in all the world, I had to run into Chas Oh at this one.

    The last time I saw Charles Sasaki Oh we were ankles-up/undies-down on the hood of a cop car in a dark alley somewhere South of Market in San Francisco. Chas was an able-bodied rookie, and I was a month shy of meeting Andrew Drake, who would steal my heart and salvage my single girl’s soul. But for a few fleeting moments following a few too many drinks, Chas earned the nickname Uh Oh. That is what the entire force called him once Internal Affairs began to investigate the reports of booty-on-duty. From where I stood now, it was unfathomable that Chas nearly forfeited his future on the front fender of a black-and-white.

    What are you doing here? he managed to ask through the chaos as first responders tried to resuscitate and intubate the woman. Fire and paramedic rigs flooded the area with lights. Police units blocked the street. The energy around me was overwhelming.

    "I was dropping off my son at a friend’s house so I could cover a protest downtown. What are you doing here? I persisted. Last I heard you were on the detective track at SFPD hoping to pop out babies with that buyer from Macy’s."

    Sharon’s good. I hear she and her husband like living in Fresno.

    Oh, I see.

    And you? You still with Randy?

    Andy. Yes. We’re good. Zach is now ten and Zeppo is five. I turned as if to introduce my little sidekick, but I could see him holding hands with Elspeth where she held court for neighbors gathering outside her house.

    That’s great, he said, the wistfulness I wished to hear not obvious.

    So, what are you doing at a road accident? You’re a detective.

    "Was, Clari. Was a detective in SF. Now I’m on traffic duty in Wackyville. Listen, we’ll catch up later. But before my colleague takes your formal statement, I need to know if you touched her body."

    Your body? I asked self-consciously, my eyes drifting from his earlobe to his collar.

    No. The victim’s.

    Oh, the victim! Well, sort of. I just pulled down her nighty to cover her girl parts. And with that goofy answer, Chas Oh of dubious European descent with a dash of Asian on his father’s side, and with a pistol in his pocket and a penchant for hot lady TV reporters, lifted my elbow in his hand and escorted me away from what was fast becoming a crime scene. Law enforcement had begun sealing off the area with tape. All entrances to the street were closed.

    So, for now, you’re treating this as a routine hit-and-run? I regrouped, reminding myself that I was a professional who could smell a story.

    Yup. My guess is she lived nearby and was walking the dog or getting the mail. It’s dark, especially at the end of this driveway. Easy to hit someone. We both turned to look up the winding driveway to the former Manson Mansion: home not of the LSD lunatic but of a gold miner who hit it big in ’49 that had fallen into disrepair until it was bought and renovated a few years ago. The iron gates were open, but the house itself was pitch black.

    Or not, I sniffed, the drizzling fog chilling me to the bone.

    Once we ID her and I can release the information I’ll call you. By the way, where are you working?

    The Berkeley Bi-Weekly.

    Say again?

    The BBW. My feet suddenly became fascinating.

    You’re kidding me, right? That’s the thing they give away in the box next to the real newspaper.

    Hey, that’s not fair.

    Neither is not returning phone calls, he said moving toward the thick of things. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a traffic incident to write up.

    I wanted to stomp my foot and claim I had no idea what he was talking about, but another officer approached to ask me about what I’d witnessed and Elspeth and Zeppo waved to me from the growing crowd surrounding them. It was time to focus on my child and how much he might have seen of the dying woman, or if Elspeth had any idea who she might be.

    I just wish I’d found her fan and lotion, I shouted to Chas’s ass as he gestured over his head that he’d phone me. Somehow it had not quite retained the shape I remember with my heels banging against it. His ass, that is. Not the phone.

    Chapter 4

    It wasn’t until after 9 p.m. that Zeppo let

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