She stood just ten feet away as a frail older lady was murdered.
True, she didn’t know it was happening at the time. True, she was duped by a master con man. None of that matters. Knowingly or not, she was complicit. And she’s not going to let it happen again.
Now, ten months and five thousand miles away, in the earthquake-ravaged, oil-rich Anchorage of the 1970s , 27-year-old reporter Tana Chenoweth focuses on hard news by day and studies psychopathy by night.
But murder stalks her again. Spurred by conscience, informed by her studies, and armed with her reporter’s skills, Tana tracks down the killer – and she does it using the psychopath’s own tricks, techniques gleaned from The Psychopath Companion.
The Psychopath Companion is the first in a series set in Anchorage in the 1970s and featuring amateur sleuth/reporter, Tana Chenoweth. Next in the series is The Nightmare Companion, in which Tana infiltrates a dream analysis group to catch a killer.
Excerpt from The Psychopath Companion
“Blood,” Ian said, pointing to the icy asphalt surface. “Blood is about as hard as you can get, Tana.”
A scarf, evidently wrenched off and discarded in a struggle, was drenched in the stuff, and there was also a streak of red on a beige handbag, a thick smear coagulating in the zero temperature cold. But I knew my fellow reporter was not referring to congealed bodily fluids. Ian meant hard, as in news. The only kind I liked.
I squatted beside the purse. Gray hairs caught in the gold-tone clasp, as if snatched from the scalp in struggle. An older lady, then. I felt the familiar inward flinch.
“Keys,” Ian said, pointing.
Yes, several feet away, three keys on a blue Ford fob. There was a smear of blood on one of the keys, also.
I stood up.
“How did you find this?”
“Taking a short cut.” Ian gazed across the stretch of lumpy asphalt, dark grey under a lowering sky. “Across this infernal landscape.”
If not infernal, heading in that direction. Nine years ago, the Good Friday Earthquake had violently rearranged the topography of downtown Anchorage, dropping two square city blocks of the north side of East 4th Avenue thirty feet below the level of the south side. Exactly where we stood.
“You can have it,” Ian said. “And I’ll take…” The sweep of his arm encompassed not just the bleak parking lot but a set of weathered wooden stairs mounting three stories against a scraped wall of earth which had once been underground.
I knew what he meant. He wanted to trade this crime story for the 4th Avenue Uplift, the civic improvement development I was covering. He knew my penchant for hard news. And, as he said, you couldn’t get much harder than a violent attack in a city parking lot.
“It’s mine, anyway,” I said. I had the police beat, which Ian well knew.
“Let’s not split hairs, Tana my love.”
“Why do you want 4th Ave, anyway?” I asked. “It’s boring. Financial figures and meetings.”
Ian put his hand on my elbow and guided me toward the steps. “Lunches, my darling Tana. Drinks with muckety-mucks up there.” He jerked his head up towards the Anchorage Westward Hotel, towering over us. “Schmoozing for the story. All the stuff you hate. And I love.”
“You should have been born rich, Ian,” I said.
“There was a mix-up at the hospital.”
My right foot slipped out from under me on a patch of ice and I grabbed for Ian’s thick wool overcoat. His arm went around me. “Please, Tana. I give you a nice crime in return.”
I lifted my shoulders. “If Polly will go for it…”
Polly “Dade on arrival,” looked less like the editor for the state’s biggest daily and more like a New Yorker on her way to lunch – tight skirt suit, high heels, finely plucked eyebrows, brown hair piled on top of her head. Lipstick. To me, lipstick and print journalism didn’t go together.
From behind her desk, she looked at Ian, ankle cocked on a knee, long-limbed, tawny-haired, blue-eyed, nearing thirty like me, good-looking, his expensive wool overcoat open and spread over his chair like blue nubby wings. Then at me, perched on the edge of mine. Maroon skirt, my trademark black tights and knee-high boots. Variations on a theme, but basically the same old thing every day. I didn’t care about clothes. I cared about…
“Hard news,” Polly said, her smile not a little bit mocking. “You’d rather pick up whatever bits of crime and corruption that come our way than cover the biggest city project since they erected the Captain Cook.”
“Right,” Ian said. “She would.”
“Thank you, Ian,” I said. “I just could not find voice in the millisecond since Polly ceased speaking.”
“I reserve the right to switch you back,” Polly said. “But all right. Give Ian the stuff you’ve got, Tana.” And her half-spectacles were back on her nose and she was frowning down at the rough newsprint of a story.
Ian gave me a triumphant smile and a hard poke to the shoulder. “Better get back to your crime scene, Tana.”
But I didn’t have to go back to the scene. I’d called Merrill Fielding of Anchorage PD from a phone booth near the top of the 4th Avenue parking lot stairs and waited until the black and white showed up before, urged on, or might I say dragged by Ian, I returned to the newsroom. I knew when I got to the public safety building that Merrill would have a report on the contents of the handbag on his desk. And he did.
“Wallet with driver’s license and seven bucks, a quarter and a dime, pink lipstick, handkerchief, photo of a kid with gap teeth. Nothing else. Kind of a bare purse, if I know ladies,” Merrill said. He sat back, his belly falling between his spread legs.
Through the glass walls of his office I could see uniform cops passing in the hall, looking neat and military in black. Merrill never wore a uniform, perhaps by virtue of his position as public information officer for Anchorage PD. Or maybe it was because the crisp twill would have looked ludicrous strained over his stomach, which was approximately the size of a baby harbor seal. Today, as usual, he wore a short-sleeved pale checked shirt and khaki chinos.
“Name on the driver’s license?” I asked, pen poised over my notebook.
“Hortense Gunderson. Age 68. 1312 Maple Street.”
I looked up, frowning. “Where’s that?”
“With seven dollars, a quarter and a dime –?”
“I get it, I get it. Something wrong here. Can I look at the license?”
He tossed it across his cluttered desk. An amazingly smoothed-face grandma with heavy pancake make-up, pinked lips. Her hair was cut short and styled in one of those spray-jobbed “dos” ladies of a certain age pay good money for in beauty shops. She looked a little too plastic to fit my idea of a comfy, pillow-soft grandma, but still, an eagerness in the green eyes turned something inside me. Another elderly lady who’d looked at me, like that. Wanting something from me. And I…
“Did you call down to Seattle?” My voice was rough.
“Next of kin?”
I picked up the photo of the kid Merrill launched across his desk. A school picture, small. Plaid short-sleeved shirt. Gap tooth. Generic grandkid. “Grandson, at least.”
“What do you mean, no?”
Merrill hunched his bulk over the desk. “No Maple Street exists in Seattle. Maple Leaf, yes. But not plain old Maple. No grandson. As far as we can tell, no Hortense Gunderson.”
“But…there’s a driver’s license.”
“We’re checking on that, including, perhaps, some fake lamination.”
He lifted a meaty shoulder. “I don’t know.”
Huddled in my parka, I trudged across the mottled cement floor of the public safety building parking garage. The garage was ostensibly heated. This meant that car engines would start up again instead of the engine block freezing. It did not mean that the temperature would pass any criteria for warm.
I didn’t like public garages like this. Low-ceilinged, dimly-lit, depressing. You figured someone could jump out from behind any of the square columns or, like in the movies, a car would start up suddenly, and with squealing tires, bear down upon you and run you over.
Oh, for God’s sake. I simply wasn’t important enough to be murdered. Except maybe, by a certain ruthless killer in Florida and I had put a lot of space between him and me.
Unfortunately, there was far less psychic space between my present self and the image of me standing on that veranda at the edge of the Everglades. I was the idiot who had allowed a smooth talker to gain access to a helpless elderly woman. I was the idiot who had stood docilely on the porch while he murdered her.
Hard to live that one down, though people overtly expressed “sympathy.” They had even sent over a reporter from the Miami Herald to do a soft piece on “how I felt.” How I felt could have been expressed, then, only in language unfit for a family newspaper.
And how did I feel now? Well, cold was numbing, right? I had insulated myself in an environment in which people paid attention to the weather or didn’t live to tell the tale, in a job where I dealt, as much as possible, with facts, bare, pure, simple. People were quote-producers. I didn’t care how they felt and I hoped there was a matching lack of concern for me on their part.
At work, I carefully cultivated a semi-tough, one-of-the-boys attitude. Joking around was another form of insulation. I was five thousand miles away. Ten months had passed. Time, distance, humor and a boyfriend who seemed to respect my boundaries, perhaps to the point of disinterest. That and staying away from “people” stories – that was my plan and it seemed to be working.
Except in little pockets of time like this, walking back to my car, even driving when it wasn’t a life or death experience on the streets of Anchorage. Or just before sleep, when Giles, my boyfriend, was not with me. Then it would all come back and I would wonder who I really was, as an actor in the world. To be more precise, I wondered if it could ever happen again, what happened in Miami.