Featuring Right Now: A Question of Fire

AQOFCover_Kindle_220This is one of my older books, but still very much a favorite of mine and many readers. It was the third complete novel I wrote, though not the first one I sold to a publisher.  In fact, it went through many rewrites before it became my fifth sale in 1991.

It came and went briefly back then, but I was able to get the rights back.  It was then contracted to a small-press publisher that went out of business a year or so after publishing it in ebook and trade paperback. Fortunately that publisher went out gracefully and returned all rights to their authors before closing down the business.

It has one of my favorite heroines, Catherine Bennett, who has an oddly skewed sense of humor, along with a warm heart and plenty of brains.

Blurb: When Cathy Bennett agrees to attend an important party as a favor for her boss, she knows she won’t enjoy it. But she doesn’t expect to end up holding a dying man in her arms and becoming the recipient of his last message. Bobby Stark has evidence that will prove his younger brother has been framed for arson and murder. He wants that evidence to get to his brother’s lawyer, and he tries to tell Cathy where he’s hidden it. But he dies before he can give her more than a cryptic piece of the location. The man who killed Bobby saw him talking to her and assumes she knows where the evidence is hidden. He wants it back and he’ll do whatever it takes to get it, including following her and trying to kidnap her. Cathy enlists the aid of attorney Peter Lowell and Danny Stark, Bobby’s prickly, difficult younger brother, as well as a handsome private detective to help her find the evidence before the killers do.

You can read the first chapter here, but below is a peak at some of the more interesting interaction between her and lawyer Peter Lowell, who is initially hostile to her but comes to understand and admire her throughout the story. (Warning: this is a pretty long excerpt, but captures a lot about the characters of Cathy and Peter.)

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Saturday morning dawned bright, cheerful, and clear, an ironic day for a funeral.  Cathy found the church easily.  She took a seat near the back of the simple, unadorned, brick building and watched the others filter in.  She recognized no one until Bobby’s family entered.

Danny had gotten a haircut and some sleep, but it would take more than that to remove the gauntness.  The suit he wore had probably fit him a year or two ago.

A small, pregnant girl in a dark blue maternity dress came into the church and sat directly behind the family.  Only Danny turned to greet her.  She leaned forward to say something to him before settling uncomfortably on the bench.

Cathy had wondered if Bobby’s father would be able to attend, but only the three sat in the front row.  They probably weren’t sorry.  Right before the service began, Peter Lowell entered and, much to her surprise, sat next to her in the back of the church.

She wished he hadn’t; she tended to cry at funerals and preferred not to have witnesses to her loss of control.

The service was simple and affecting, though the minister clearly hadn’t known Bobby at all.  Predictably, she found herself reaching for a tissue before the preacher had finished his talk on the value of all living things in the sight of God.  She regained her composure by the time the graveside ceremonies concluded.

She was turning to leave when Lowell called after her.  She stopped and waited for him.

He looked subdued and serious.  “Are you working today?” he asked.

“This afternoon.”

“Do you have time for lunch first?”

Surprise silenced her for a moment.  She didn’t really want to spoil her meal by fencing with Peter Lowell, but he must have something important on his mind if he was willing to spend an hour or more with someone he disliked so much.  “I think I can find the time,” she answered.

“Good.  Would you wait for me?”  He walked away, and she watched him cross the grass to where Danny stood with his mother.  He said something to each of them briefly, then returned to her.  “You have your car here?”

“Yes.  Shall I follow you?”

He nodded.  They walked silently to the parking area.  Cathy got in her Honda and backed it out into the lane.  Lowell drove an old, beautifully-preserved Datsun 280Z.  It wasn’t what she expected him to own; a BMW seemed more his style.  She followed the Datsun and parked beside it when he pulled into the lot next to a Chinese restaurant.  She was familiar with the place: moderately expensive, but the food was worth it.

Lowell got out of his car, locked it, and held the door to hers while she unfastened her seat belt.  “I neglected to ask if you like Chinese.  There’s an Italian place up the road if you prefer.”

“I like Chinese.”

The restaurant was cool and dim, with low, pop-Chinese music playing softly.  Lowell said nothing until they’d both ordered the lunch special: wonton soup, eggroll, moo goo gai pan, rice, and shrimp chow-mein.  The waiter poured hot green tea for them both, then left.

Lowell cradled his cup for a moment.  “You talked to Mrs. Stark yesterday.”

Cathy looked up at him, measuring his purpose.

“I read the newspaper,” he said by way of explaining.  “What did you think of her?”

“There’s not much of her left,” Cathy answered, trying to be fair.  “She’s had a hard life; I felt sorry for her.  Her sister, however—”

Lowell nodded.  “I thought Mary Sue would be there.  Never a good word for anybody.”

“She allowed as how Bobby might actually have made something of himself.”

“Now that he’s dead.”  Lowell sipped cautiously at his tea.  “She never said anything good when he was alive.”

“She wasn’t complimentary about Danny.”

“I’d bet not.”  He sighed and studied the ripples in his cup for a few silent minutes.  When he looked up, the lines in his face relaxed fractionally.  “I know you’re wondering what this is all about.”  His bright, sharp green eyes searched her face.  “I talked to the police yesterday.  A thorough search of Bobby’s apartment turned up nothing but a stash of crack.”  He weighed her reaction.  “You already knew.”

“About the crack?  Yes.  I talk to the police, too.  I figure it must have been planted,” Cathy added.  “But the police have decided they were right all along, and Bobby was up to his old tricks.  They discount the likelihood he was telling the truth about finding evidence Danny was framed.”

Lowell nodded unhappily.  “They certainly haven’t been able to find anything that looks like his evidence, and from what I can tell, they’ve been pretty damn thorough.”

“Do you believe it exists?” she asked him.

He was silent until the waiter had deposited steaming bowls of soup in front of each of them.  “I’m pretty sure Bobby knew or found something, but I wonder if it would really prove as conclusive as he thought.”  Lowell’s eyebrows, a few shades darker than his hair, drew together in a brief frown.  “Still, as you pointed out, I can’t afford to overlook anything where my client is concerned.  And there are a few aspects of this thing that bother me.  Somebody went to a lot of trouble to kill Bobby, and there are only two explanations that make any sense: either Bobby really did have evidence that threatened someone else; or he’d gotten too deeply involved with his old cronies again.  Patty swears Bobby hasn’t been using anything or dealing, and I believe her.  I met with Bobby twice in the last month, and I never saw anything to make me think he was backsliding.  I know he talked with some of his old contacts to get information, but that he was involved in any other way I don’t believe.”

Cathy considered his words for a minute.  “Is it possible he accidentally tripped over something he shouldn’t have while he was digging for information?  Something unrelated but potentially dangerous for him?”

“Possible, yes,” Lowell conceded.  “But I don’t think it likely.  Bobby knew the turf; knew what he wanted to know, and what he definitely didn’t need to know.”

“Which leaves you with your first possibility: Bobby really did have something.”

“Yes,” he agreed.  He spooned a dollop of soup, but stopped before it reached his mouth and looked at her again.  “The night Bobby died, somebody broke into the apartment he shared with Patty.  Actually, it was early morning, probably between three and four.  Patty was asleep at the time and wisely decided to remain ‘asleep’.  The intruders were searching for something.  She finally rolled over, made noise or something, and scared them off; but she thinks they planted the drugs at that time.  She’s sure the bag wasn’t there before.  The police arrived shortly after she got up the next morning to tell her Bobby was dead.  Later, they made their own search and found nothing but the crack.  She packed her things and moved back to her parents’ house.”

A waiter appeared to clear away the used dishes and deliver the rest of their lunch.  Cathy picked up an eggroll and tried to absorb the implications while she nibbled.

“Whoever killed Bobby, or had him killed,” she speculated, “knew exactly what he’d found, knew it was dangerous, and knew it was still around.  So they planted the drugs to discredit him and give themselves time to search.  Whatever it was, Bobby hid it well.  ‘In the air?’  There’s a funny kind of irony about that.”

Peter Lowell watched her in a way that suggested he was actually seeing her as a person and not just as a newspaper reporter.  “So there is a logical brain in there,” he said.  “I suspected there was, but began to doubt it after you told Danny you believed him on the basis of nothing more than his flimsy story.”

“Suspect logic yourself, Lowell.  I believed Danny before I ever heard his story.  I believed Bobby when he told me Danny was framed.  A man doesn’t lie when he knows he’s dying.”

The tightening of Lowell’s facial muscles suggested he hadn’t come to terms with Bobby’s death yet.  His voice remained even, however, when he pointed out, “He can be deceived.”

“Bobby knew his brother better than anyone else,” she reminded him.  “He was so convinced by what he found or learned that he took a huge risk to see it delivered as quickly as possible  I think he knew he was holding the tiger’s tail.”

“Conceded.”  Lowell had the grace to smile slightly and her estimation of him rose a notch.

“In any case,” she continued, “I’m not sure his story’s unlikely any more.  Something sure as hell is going on, and a lot of people are eager to get their hands on whatever he hid.  A man named Ed Hammond, a private investigator, came around to talk to me on Thursday.  He claims Bobby was working for him as well as trying to clear Danny.  Hammond can’t or won’t say for whom he’s working, but he dropped hints that it had to do with some big-time narcotics operation.  Apparently, he convinced Bobby that helping him might benefit his brother as well.  Seems like maybe it did, too.”

“It didn’t do Bobby any good,” Lowell answered bitterly.  “Did this Hammond say what it was he had Bobby working on?”

“He says he can’t tell.”

“How far do you trust him?”

Cathy wished she had a good answer to that question.  “I don’t know.  He knows something about this whole mess and he seemed upset by Bobby’s death.  He wants to find the evidence pretty badly, too.”

“Hammond might bear some investigating himself,” Lowell speculated.  “Do you know how to get in touch with him?”

“I’ve got a telephone number.”

“Would you let him know I’d like to meet with him?”

“Sure, but I don’t think you’ll find him helpful.”

The lawyer shrugged.  “Probably not if you couldn’t charm it out of him.”

“Damn it, Lowell—”  She broke off, counted to three, and started again.  “Now that you’ve brought the discussion down to a personal level, I’ve got a question.”

His face shut down into blank impassivity.  “You can ask, but I don’t promise to answer.”

“Fair enough.  The night Bobby was killed, you disliked me before we’d even met.  When Dr. Carrington introduced us, you looked at me as if I were something that had crawled out of a hole.  What did I do to earn that?”

His face hardened; his eyes looked like chips of green ice.  “Three things,” he answered.  “You’re a woman, a flirt, and a newspaper reporter.”

She all but choked in astonishment.  He didn’t pull any punches.  “I can’t deny the first and the third,” she said, when she found her voice.  “But you’ve got to be kidding about the second.  Besides, you were angry before you knew I was a reporter.”

“True.  The first two were enough.  The third filled the straight.”

“I don’t believe this,” she said.  “I’m a flirt?  You’re out of your mind.”

“When I first saw you, you were doing something that looked very much like flirting with Gary Terril.  He’s a married man.”

“I’m aware of that—”

“His wife is my cousin.”

“I see.  You saw me laughing with Gary Terril and pegged me for ‘other woman’ status.”

“Every attractive woman Gary meets falls into that category.  Women are drawn to him like iron shavings to a magnet, and Gary’s powers of resistance don’t exist.”

“You sound jealous.”

“God help me,” Lowell answered coldly.  “It infuriates me that Lydia is constantly having to chase around after him to be sure he doesn’t make a fool of himself.”

“And you blame the women, of course.  That’s rather a chauvinistic attitude, don’t you think?”

His fingers tightened around the teacup he held.  “They get fifty percent of the blame.  How much equality do you want?”

“So I’m fifty percent to blame for Gary’s charm?”

“For not resisting Gary’s married charm.”

“Consider this then, Mr. Lowell.  When I met Gary at that party, I’d never seen him before, and he doesn’t wear a ring, so I had no way of knowing he was married. Plus he’d just rescued me from a terribly embarrassing situation.  At the risk of incriminating myself, I admit I found him attractive and enjoyed talking with him, but I didn’t flirt with him or any other man there.  I was at the party on business—newspaper business—which I admit I bungled badly.  But I plead innocent to charges of flirting.  I don’t think I know how.”

“Every woman knows how.  It’s part of the genetic information.  You expect me to believe you weren’t giving Gary encouragement?” he accused.

“Of course I was; he’s pleasant and attractive and I didn’t know he was already claimed.  I felt pretty foolish and humiliated when I found out, too,” she admitted, while staring at her fork.  She didn’t look up at him until the silence had stretched into discomfort.

“I’m sorry,” Lowell said, sounding surprisingly as though he meant it.  A slight wash of pink stained his face under the light tan.  “All right, Miss Bennett, I plead guilty to jumping to hasty, and perhaps unwarranted, conclusions.  I apologize.”

A grudging apology beat none any day.  It was all she was likely get and more than she’d expected.  “Good, that’s one down,” she said.

“I beg your pardon?”

“We’ve disposed of my being a flirt.  I’m afraid the charges of being a woman and a newspaper reporter are harder to deal with.  May I point out on the first count that I bear no responsibility for the fact I’m female?  I was born that way.  We’re not all alike, you know, any more than men are the same, and I resent being classified as beneath contempt because some woman treated you badly.”

His eyes narrowed.  “What do you know about it?  Have you been digging around in my personal life?”

“Jumping to conclusions again, Lowell.  I don’t know anything about you, except what I figure out for myself.  It sticks out a country mile, you know.”

“It does?  How long is a country mile?”

“What?  I don’t—”  It took a few seconds to absorb his question.  It took even longer to absorb the fact that he’d asked it.  She hadn’t suspected him of possessing a sense of humor.  “I haven’t any idea,” she answered.

The ice chips in his eyes started to melt.  “All right, I find myself in the awkward position of having to apologize again.  If this keeps up, I’ll be down on hands and knees groveling before I’ve finished the moo goo gai pan.  I concede the point and we’ll dismiss the first as an improper charge.”

“Well!  Two down.  For the third…  I’m afraid I have to plead guilty and ask why it’s a crime.”

“I’ve had a couple clients who weren’t helped by being tried and convicted in the press before they ever got to court.”

“I see.  So it’s guilt by association and not much I can do but plead no contest.   Let me see if I can think of some mitigating circumstances…  I like to eat, and bills for rent and electricity keep showing up in my mailbox?  Or, with my training and background, nobody else would hire me?  Pretty weak, I admit.  So what’s the sentence?”

He smiled and the effect nearly unbalanced her.  Not just that he could smile, but to see how the lines of his face relaxed into astonishing charm and the warmth glowed in his green eyes.  “Help me clear Danny, and I’ll dismiss any and all charges,” he offered.

“You really want my help finding what Bobby knew?”

“You have a good mind and access to resources that might be useful.  You believe in his proof and want to find it as badly as I do.  And since you’re determined to pursue this…  You still intend to?  It would be wiser and safer for you to get out of it completely, you know.”

Cathy drained her tea and he poured more for her.  “Yes, I’m going to pursue it,” she stated.  “I know it’s dangerous, believe me, I know.  I hope by now they’re convinced I don’t represent any threat to them.  But even if…”  She considered how to put her feelings into words without getting mawkish.  “Oh, hell, this is going to sound sloppy and ridiculous, but it’s the truth.  I can’t help thinking about Bobby and how he died.  It haunts me.  I’ve got to try to accomplish what he wanted, to get Danny off the hook.  And find out who killed him.  I can’t not pursue it.”

“I see,” Lowell said.  “In that case, I think I’d rather be working with you than tripping over you all the time.”

“And I thought lawyers were supposed to be tactful.”

“This is Saturday.  I’m off duty.  And speaking of tact, are you going to tell me what happened at that party?”

“What do you mean?”

“You said Gary rescued you from an embarrassing situation.”

“Oh, that.”  Cathy felt herself blushing at the memory.  “Not on your life.”  She finished the last of the food on her plate.  “So, where do we begin?”

The gleam in his eye suggested he hadn’t given up, but he went along with the change of subject.  “I’ve arranged with Danny and Patty go to the apartment this afternoon.  Not that we’re likely to find anything the police and the intruders missed, but we shouldn’t take anything for granted, either.  Patty wants to pick up some things and she’s afraid to go back by herself; I’d also like to ask her some questions.  Can you arrange to be free to come along?”


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One Response to Featuring Right Now: A Question of Fire

  1. I was surprised when saw this article. I`d like to read more