Following is an excerpt of the opening pages of “Fantasy Camp”, a murder mystery set against a musical backdrop. Our hero, Charlie Cleff, is an ex music business insider turned Private Investigator, a character inspired by an encounter I had in line at the DMV in Petaluma, CA! I plan to take the knowing eyes and ears of this character into a series of musical worlds, which I then plan to have lots of fun describing.
In “Fantasy Camp” Charlie is drawn into a small-town music scene, where a local singer has been murdered. The singer happens to be Charlie’s ex-girlfriend, and also the ex-wife of Charlie’s ex-boss. Besides that, the case is pretty straightforward.
“Charlie, it’s Roscoe.”
“Roscoe... wow.” I squinted at the pre-dawn light coming through the drapes.
“Hey Charlie! Been awhile, huh? Listen, I know it’s early, but Base needs your help. He asked me to call.” I smiled. Roscoe’s voice was so New York I could smell the River. “’ay Chollie!”
“Base have a new stereo he needs hooked up?” It looked like the sun was just about to crest over the Richmond hills.
He snorted. “No, I mean help from your other area of expertise.”
I yawned. “Hell, Roscoe, I couldn’t find a brick of hash these days if my life depended on it.”
Another snort. ”Your other other area of expertise.”
“Is Base in trouble?”
“Not Base, Charlie, it’s Cyn.”
Roscoe cleared his throat. “Charlie, I hate to tell you. Cyn is dead.”
The light off the Bay flooded my room. It hurt my eyes. “Fuck…”, I stammered, “listen Roscoe, let me get some coffee down my throat. I’ll call you right back.”
“No problem, man. Hey Charlie, I’m really sorry.”
I hung up the phone and sleepwalked through the kitchen, the living room, the bathroom. I performed functions in these areas: switching on the coffee maker; letting the cat out; urinating. But my head was wrapped in cotton and my eyes stung. I went back to the bedroom and opened the drapes. The light streamed in. It was another perfect morning. I sat on the bed and wept.
“OK. First off, Charlie, you gotta know I know this is touchy, all right? What happened between you and Cyn and Base was a long time ago, but…”
“Never mind that, Roscoe. I appreciate your concern. Just tell me.”
“So you know Cyn has been living up in Sonoma County, right?”
“Wine Country. Anyway, she and Base had worked things out ok, back to being friends, and…”
“How did she die?”
“Right. Sorry. Cyn was murdered, Charlie.”
My eyes reasserted their presence. ”How?”
“Blunt force, we think. Sheriff’s office hasn’t released anything, but Isaac’s spoken to someone.”
“Isaac… Christ, old home week… when?”
“Looks like it was sometime night before last, in her home. A newspaper thrower spotted her through the window in the wee hours.”
“Is Base a suspect?”
“I’ve got Base on a small hall tour of Europe. 3500 witnesses in Malaga can vouch for his whereabouts that night.”
“Why would someone want to kill Cyn?”
“No clue, my friend. Base is hoping you can root out some stuff the Sheriffs may miss, and maybe should miss, you know…”
“Was Cyn into anything heavy?”
“We don’t think so.”
“So Base is mostly worried about some shit splashing up on his reputation.”
“C’mon Charlie. People don’t change that much. He loves her, just like you do. He loves you too, man…misses you.”
“Sure. He misses me, his hair, the packed stadiums, the women he could actually get back then. I’m part of his sunny nostalgia.”
“Best road manager he ever had. Says it all the time. Whaddya’ say, buddy? Will you look into this for us?”
“Have Isaac find somebody in LA.”
“Base trusts you. I trust you. Isaac trusts you. It isn’t wrong for us to want to protect the brand, Charlie. It’s part of our business. But there’s a lot more heart than head in this, for all of us.”
“Look, you cynical jerk, things change. Life isn’t fair. Winners and losers trade places. But sometimes what’s good for all is good for one. We need you. And you may need us.”
“Jesus… hey Roscoe, remember Base’s polaroid?”
“Man, don’t remind me. I’d wake up in a cold sweat, worrying did I remember to look under his bed in the last town before we checked out.”
“He loved to shoot the graffiti over urinals. Remember the pic we taped up in the front of the bus?”
“Vaguely…what did it say?”
“Eat shit. 700 billion flies can’t be wrong.”
“Charlie, it’s Isaac.”
“Sorry our first conversation in ten years is on this subject, man. I always meant to call.” Isaac’s Brooklyn drawl evoked a snake slithering across sunbaked sidewalk, distinct from his partner’s clipped cadence.
“Oh, me too.” I said, “Always a cat to wash or an appointment with a shaman.”
He chuckled. “Same old Charlie. So I have a contact in the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office. They’re pretty transparent, with the caveat that we don’t go public with any details until they do.”
“Detective Angela Negri,” he read, and gave me a number. “Strictly business, this one, but like I say, she’s pretty open. Big fan of Base’s music too, which never hurts. She’s expecting to hear from you.”
“Is it still blunt force?”
“She didn’t deny it. Listen, they need a positive ID on Cyn, Charlie. I can fly up this afternoon, or there are some girlfriends up there, but…”
“I’ll do it.”
Detective Negri was waiting for me outside the Sonoma County Courthouse. She was small and trim, dressed in khakis and a navy blue polo shirt. She had a shiny black ponytail, an open intelligent face, brown eyes that clearly didn’t miss a thing, and a shiny little pistol on her hip. She held out her hand.
“I’m Angela Negri. Thanks for doing this.”
“Pleased to meet you. Charlie Cleff.”
“Mr. Miller’s people speak highly of you.”
“We have nothing to lose by including you, and hopefully some insight to gain.”
“I appreciate it.”
“Shall we get this over with?”
She opened the door for me. “Is this your first visit to a morgue, Mr. Cleff?”
“Charlie. And no, I’ve had the pleasure on a few occasions.”
“Really. In your capacity as a P.I.?”
“No actually, during my time in the music business. Road managers are the go-to guys for all kinds of unpleasantness. Band members OD, light rigs fall, ex-wives get murdered. Somehow the managers and lawyers are always indisposed.”
“It’s nice to be needed.”
We rode the elevator down in silence. The basement corridor was awash in green fluorescent light. Even outside the door, the competition between chemical and biological smells was stiff. I shivered as we stopped. She hit the buzzer.
“Morgue.” a man said.
“Evan, it’s Angela. Miller ID.”
“Entrez-vous.” A heavy lock clicked.
The young man in the lab coat was smiling too big, as is common among those who work daily with death. Mortuary operators, homicide cops and EMTs are all prone to it. It can come off smarmy and they know it, but they take that risk to put the bereaved or the accused just bit more at ease. Not a bad impulse.
Evan led us to a gurney with a sheet over it.
He pulled the sheet back gently. I could feel Negri’s eyes on the side of my face. Evan stepped back.
“Is this Cynthia Miller, Mr. Cleff?” Negri’s voice was soft.
“Thank you. We’ll give you a moment, if you’d like.”
I nodded again.
Aside from the bruising coloring her face and the shaved edge of the wound peeking around from the back of her head, Cyn looked lovely. Her auburn hair had a touch more gray, and her skin more of the coarseness of age, but her cheeks, her lips, her forehead, were full and proud. She’d always worn a childishly defiant look when she slept, and she had it still.
I stroked her cold cheek and let a hot tear fall on her neck. “Love you always, Cyn.” I said.
I turned to see Negri staring into my eyes. Hers were moist as well. Evan bowed slightly as I walked past.
I wanted to punish someone.