Robert J. Schneider
At exactly noon on a mid-September Tuesday, Monica McCool the thirty-three year old receptionist for the Pringle-Luna Literary Agency walked into her boss's office and announced a visitor.
"I have no scheduled appointments today," replied Lana Luna, proprietress and sole owner of the literary agency despite the Pringle portion of the agency's name. Barely a year ago the slim, thirty-five year old brunette inherited the agency after her uncle Ron Pringle's untimely death. Prior to that sad event Lana had worked as a research assistant for a mid-size investment company. Her love for her favorite uncle and her love of literature had persuaded her to leave her former lucrative but boring position to try and make a go of her uncle's literary agency. Lana's vague notion of how a literary agency conducted business and even vaguer notion of how one actually made money from it was of little concern when she gave notice to her boss at Robicheau & Devane.
Monica answered, "He's a walk-in. He wants to hire a detective."
"Didn't you tell him we are not a detective agency?"
"I'm only the receptionist/office manager, you're the boss. You should tell him. Besides, things are slow around here. You're not even covering my salary. Find out what he wants. Maybe you can make some money. His name is Michael Calabrese. He's single and he's good looking...and not that much older than you."
Lana did not appreciate Monica's smart mouth and occasionally disrespectful manner but she had grudgingly come to like and depend on her. At first Lana did not even think she needed a receptionist to say nothing of an office manager. After finishing her second day in the office Lana realized that Uncle Ronny's literary agency seemed to only have two author-clients: One was a female romance writer who had authored two books that Ronny managed to sell to Harlequin. Her next seven efforts were rejected by every romance publisher in the country. The other author-client was a reclusive man who wrote, well quite frankly, violent, pornographic novels in a style best described as Mickey Spillane revved up several notches, How her uncle had sold one of his detective novels to a new mystery imprint of a well known publisher was indeed a mystery to Lana. Comparing the published book to the dozen or so manuscripts in the author's office files convinced Lana that Ronny had heavily edited that one effort.
"Very well, send him in," Lana said to Monica, hopefully in a cool and reproachful manner.
The Pringle-Luna Literary Agency really could not afford Monica's salary but she was efficient in her own way, and surprisingly, she had a knack of finding near-sales worthy manuscripts in the slush pile.
When Michael Calabrese entered her office Lana immediately noticed that he certainly was a handsome man, probably around forty, blond hair and hazel eyes. After she introduced herself but before he could begin talking Lana said, "I'm afraid there has been a mistake, Mr. Calabrese. I'm not a detective. This isn't a detective agency."
Her visitor replied, "But the sign down the hall said to see you with any questions about I. I. I."
"Yes, well that's the building owner's idea. You see, International Investigations Inc. seems to have suddenly and mysteriously abandoned its office suite at about the same time I took over the lease of my uncle's literary agency space and . . ."
"You mean you can't help me? They can't help me?"
"I'm not a licensed private investigator. I am a literary agent. As I was explaining, the landlord asked me to, well, show the former offices of I.I.I. to prospective tenants. The sign directing you here is a bit misleading i suppose."
Michael Calabrese said, "They have ads all over the place: Yellow Pages, White Pages, Internet . . ."
"Yes," Lana interrupted. "Apparently I.I.I. paid for the ads and the office lease in advance. My responsibility is to show you their office space if you are considering leasing it. I have the keys right here." He looked so downhearted and disappointed that Lana just couldn't sent him away. She softened her tone by saying, "Why don't we walk down the hall and look over the space. It's quite nicely furnished. We'll sit down there and you can tell me about your problem. Maybe I can offer some advice."
Monica McCool gave Lana a smug look as she and Michael Calabrese walked past the reception desk. Lana led Michael down the hall toward the former office suite of International Investigations Inc. At the far end of the hallway could be seen the only other tenant of the 12th floor. The Mena Employment Agency was a bustling office with people constantly coming and going. Lana's receptionist was technically an employee of the Mena Agency. Anna Mena, the dynamic and somewhat pushy owner of the employment agency, had managed to talk Lana into contracting for a receptionist the first day Lana took possession of her Uncle Ronny's office. Monica McCool showed up the next day and Lana could never seem to summon the courage to send her back.
Lana unlocked the detective agency's office door and after they both found comfortable chairs in the lavish conference room Lana asked, "Mr. Calabrese, why do you need a detective?"
After a moments hesitation Michael replied, "My father killed my mother and then killed himself. This happened two weeks ago in their house in Queens. The police dropped the investigation after a few days. To them it was cut and dry. Husband looses it, hits his wife, she falls, hits her head on the coffee table, dies, then he gets a gun and shoots himself."
"Do you think the police made a mistake?"
Lana thought for a moment then asked, "So, you accept the police conclusion of what happened but you want to hire a detective to , to perhaps find out why your father killed your mother?"
Maybe it was just an accident?"
Michael quickly answered, "I believe that it was an accident. But he definitely did hit her. Slapped her most likely, hard on the jaw. She fell back and struck her head on the coffee table. The blow from the coffee table is what killed her according to the autopsy. It seems that after my father realized my mother was dead he went up to his room, got a handgun, came back down to the living room and shot himself in the head. What I want to know is why my father hit my mother? I never saw him strike her, ever."
"Were you close to your parents?"
"I thought so. I didn't live with them, not since I graduated college and started working in Manhattan almost twenty years ago. I'm a partner in a wine distribution business. I talked with my parents at least a couple times a month and visited them at least once a month. We got along well. In fact, I spoke to them just two days before the, err, the tragedy. Nothing seemed wrong."
"Do you have any brothers or sisters?"
"No. I'm an only child."
"Are you married?" Lana asked.
So, Monica was right thought Lana. "Any other close relatives?"
"Only two. One is my aunt, my mother's sister, who lives in California. Then there's my father's cousin. She lives out on Long Island. No close relatives other than my two aunts, although technically I guess that my father's cousin is actually my first cousin once removed, but I've always called her Aunt Eda."
"Tell me about your mother's sister in California."
"My mother and I used to visit Aunt Katherine about once a year. My father was not a flier so he never accompanied us to California. When I was older I sometimes visited Katherine on my own. But then her health began to suffer and our visits became less frequent. I've not visited her since she sold her house in Malibu and moved into an assisted living facility in Pasadena two years ago."
"Does she know of your parents' deaths?"
"Called and informed her the next day. She was devastated, of course. She can no longer travel due to her poor health. I'm to visit her as soon as I can take time from work . . . probably in a week or two."
Monica asked, "What about your father's cousin on Long Island?"
"I called my Aunt Eda right after I finished talking with Aunt Katherine. She was also devastated. She was my father's only close living relative. We visited her often when I was young. I know that my parents, especially my father, talked to Eda regularly. I have occasionally visited her over the years. Oh, I almost forgot, Eda has a daughter. Alexandra is probably now in her mid-thirties, lives way out on Long Island. Alexandra is my second cousin, to be specific."
"Did your parents have close friends?"
"They mostly kept to themselves. They were friendly with their original neighbors but as houses were sold and new people moved in my parents were cordial to their new neighbors but not especially friendly."
Lana looked into the man's eyes and said, "Well then, Mr. Calabrese, it would seem that you were the closest person to your parents. If anyone could know or possibly guess the cause of this horrible event, it would be you."
He looked back into her eyes, "That's just it Miss or is it Mrs. Pringle-Luna . . ."
"Actually it's Ms. Luna. Pringle was my uncle's name. He was the former owner of this literary agency. He died about a year ago. I kept his name on the agency and added mine after I inherited it. Why don't you just call me Lana."
"You can call me Michael. I've driven myself crazy trying to figure out what happened. Why he did it? Why he hit her? I can't come up with anything."
Lana knew she should simply console Michael for a bit, speak about the loss of her own parents and uncle, and then send him on his way. She just couldn't bring herself to do that. After a few seconds Lana said, "Things are a bit slow at the agency just now. I'll look into your case. Since I'm not a licensed private detective i can't charge you a fee."
"We'll work that out later. When can you start?"
Lana thought for a moment then said, "Right now. We will go out to your parents' house and see what we can discover."
Michael said, "Good. The police released the house a few days after the. well, when they were finioshed."
"I understand," Lana said. "Do we take a cab or the subway?"
"The subway ride to Flushing is only about forty minutes but we can better talk in a cab. I have a meeting later this afternoon. We should have enough time to look things over and get back to Midtown before my 4:30 meeting."
Lana questioned Michael further during the half hour cab ride. She learned that although his father, Tony Calabrese, was a good father and a loving husband with no recent record of violence, he had spent about a year in prison for taking part in a robbery nearly forty years ago. He had protested his innocence at the time but was convicted and sentenced along with two others. Tony Calabrese claimed that he was just asked to drive a truck by two friends from his old neighborhood. Ha had no idea that his friends were planning to rob a warehouse. The robbery was botched and a guard was shot. The guard eventually recovered but they were all convicted of armed robbery. His so-called friends did not back up Tony's claim of innocence. There was a trial and eventually all three went to prison. Soon after, one of the friends was knifed in prison and made a deathbed confession admitting that Tony was just a dupe. Once the guard fully recovered, he also confirmed that Tony was not involved with his shooting. The other friend finally admitted that Tony was not privy to the robbery plan. Tony was released, became a teamster and was never in any further trouble with the law.
"I don't really know many details about what happened back then," said Michael. "My father was arrested just after my mother became pregnant with me. It must have been hard on her since she had no family nearby. By that time her older sister Katherine had left New York to become an actress in California. My mother, her name was Maureen, eventually went out to live with my aunt in Los Angeles. In fact, I was born out there. Not California though. I was born in Norway."
'Norway!. How did that come about?"
Michael answered, "My little joke. Norway is a small town in Oregon. Apparently my aunt had some time off and decided to drive up the Pacific Coast with her pregnant sister, my mother, along for company. My aunt had convinced my mother that this might be her last chance for a vacation for years. They must have mis-timed my mother's due date or else my mother went into labor early. She started giving birth to me in the car. luckily my aunt found a small hospital, really just a clinic, in a tiny Oregon town called Norway. I've never been back there but I looked the place up on maps at various times. Norway is about fifteen miles south of Coos Bay and North Bend, which are two of the larger towns in the Coos County area."
"I'm unfamiliar with the West Coast in general and Oregon in particular,' said Lana.
"It's a sparsely populated region on the Oregon coast roughly eighty miles north of the California border. I was born there and some days later we all returned to Los Angeles."
Lana thought that this might be a good time to discover Michael's age: "When were you born?"
"April 1st 1969. A few months later my father was released from prison and my mother took me back East. My mother and sister grew up in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn but when we returned to New York it was to an apartment in Woodside, Queens. I don't remember anything about that place. When I was about four years old my parents bought the house in Flushing. That's where I grew up and that's where parents lived until, well until two weeks ago."
The cab deposited them in front of a modest house not too far from the Number 7 elevated subway line. It was an old neighborhood but the detached houses were well kept. At one time the houses must have been identical but over the years the owners had re-modeled, repainted and otherwise changed their appearances. The neat little front lawns all had fences of different types. Each house had its own driveway leading to a small garage at the back of the property. Michael unlocked the front door and allowed Lana to enter first.
"I hired a company to come in and clean up. Although I have emotional attachments to the house I don't want to move back. I'll sell it eventually but until I know for sure what really happened I'll . . . well, I just don't want to sell right now."
Lana walked around the living room, studying every object and piece of furniture. After a while she turned and faced Michael.
He pointed to a spot on the carpet. "It happened right there. My mother was found lying between the couch and the coffee table. My father was found in front of the television set, a bullet through his head."
"What time of day did it happen?" Lana asked.
"Just after two in the afternoon. Both my parents were retired. It was raining that day. The TV was turned on. This is a quiet neighborhood. Neighbors heard the gun shot and called the police. A patrol car was here within minutes. I was notified about an hour later. All the doors were locked. There appeared to be no break-in."
"Was there a note?"
Michael shook his head and said, "No note. Only my father's fingerprints were on the gun. He didn't have a license for it. I never even knew he owned a gun. The only fingerprints in the house were theirs and mine."
Lana looked over the television set. She examined the VHS/DVD player on the shelf below the set. She turned the power on and pushed the button to open the DVD disc compartment. It was empty. She opened the tape player door and noticed it contained a tape. She pushed buttons until the tape extracted itself. She turned and showed it to Michael.
"The police examined it. I played it. Just some old game shows, back from the Sixties or Seventies. My father was a big fan of game shows. He was always watching Game Show Network on cable."
Lana asked, "There was nothing special or unusual on the tape?"
Andrew answered. "Nothing but three half hour episodes of a show I never heard of. Must not have lasted long."
Lana examined the homemade label. It read "Wordmasters, episodes 104-106, 12/68". She inserted the tape into the player and started it up. She then fast-forwarded through the tape, stopping at various intervals to view something of interest. Just as Michael had described, it showed episodes of a show unknown to Lana. Wordmasters seemed to be a combination of The Price Is Right, The $100,000 Pyramid and Let's Make A Deal.
Contestants were chosen from the audience to compete for prizes by solving word games and puzzles.
"You watched these shows all the way through?" Lana asked.
"No. I looked at the first show and scanned through the second. It seemed to be a silly sort of show. I don't know why my father even had it on tape. He usually preferred the more intellectual kind of game show. Password and Jeopardy were his favorites along with some others from the Fifties like What's My Line, The Word's the Same and, well he also liked You Bet Your Life."
"Do you mind if I watch it?" asked Lana.
"Not at all but I do have to get back to my office for a meeting. Why don't I show around the rest of the house? It shouldn't take long. Then you can take the tape back with you and watch it later."
Michael escorted Lana through the rest of the ground floor and then took her upstairs. Nothing unusual was revealed by the furniture, knickknacks and family photos that decorated the Calabrese home. One small photograph pictured two young girls. Next to it stood a larger photo of two young women, They were very pretty strawberry blondes, obviously sisters, enough alike to possibly be twins.
Michael said, "Both photos are of my mother and her sister. They looked alike. My mother was a year or so younger and a bit shorter."
Lana pointed to the shorter girl, "So, this is your mother?"
"Yes. Her name was Maureen. Maureen O'Day back then. The other girl is her sister Katherine. You might better know her as Kay."
"Kay O'Day! I used to watch her in The Harpers. She played the single sister-in-law who lived with the Harper family. I liked that show."
"I liked it, too," Michael added. "It was my aunt's first big acting break. She later went on to that detective series in the Eighties."
"Calhoun, PI. I liked that one too. Kay played Calhoun's loyal secretary."
"It only lasted three seasons," Michael added. "Aunt Kay did a lot of guest shots after that: Dynasty, Dallas and a whole bunch of half-hour sitcoms. She even did a Seinfeld episode and some small movie roles here and there."
Lana said, "Come to think of it, I haven't seen her on any shows recently. Did she retire?"
"Not voluntarily," Michael replied. "She loved to act. Her health started going downhill a few years ago. She'd like to go back to work but she has bad arthritis in her legs and some other problems. I guess that's why she sold her house in Malibu and moved into an assisted living facility."
After a moment Lana asked, "Had your father's health or demeanor or habits changed recently?"
"No, nothing that I noticed. He did take up a new hobby of sorts."
"In addition to the game shows?"
Michael replied, "Well, I wouldn't call game shows his hobby. He just enjoyed watching the old ones when he could find them on TV. I was surprised he had a show like Wordmasters on tape. As I mentioned, he usually preferred shows from the Fifties or early Sixties. Wordmasters seems to be from the late Sixties."
Michael brought Lana to the room that was formerly his childhood bedroom. Now it seemed to be his father's den or study. He pulled from a desk drawer an accordion folder stuffed with papers and said, "My father became interested in genealogy about six months ago, right after he attended a lecture on the subject at the local library branch."
Lana said, "It's a fascinating subject. There a plenty of websites that can help research your family tree."
"My mother didn't mind the game shows. She'd watch along with him. She didn't like him spending a lot of time on the ancestry stuff. I enjoyed listening to my father talk about his genealogy research. Discovered a lot about his relatives, traced some all the way back to Italy."
Lana asked, "Could your father spending so much time on his hobbies have caused some conflict with your mother?"
"There were some minor arguments over that but it was mild stuff, nothing major. The only time I heard them really argue recently was when my father found a place the would do DNA tests for seemingly cheap prices. She claimed it was a waste of money that could be spent on more important things."
Lana asked Michael a few more questions as they went downstairs and outside for a cursory look round the back yard and garage. After agreeing that nothing more of importance was left to see, Michael locked up the property. They began walking to the nearby subway station since hailing a cab would probably be fruitless at this hour. They caught a local so about forty-five minutes later Lana got off at the Grand Central Station stop and walked back to her office building. Michael continued on to the Times Square stop.