Why would a man hang himself twenty-four years after beating and choking his wife to death?
Tallahassee private investigator Sydney Brennan crisscrosses north Florida to reconstruct a tragic family history when she’s hired to investigate a murderer’s prison cell suicide. But by following in his murdered wife’s footsteps, does Sydney risk sharing the woman’s fate?
Following are the first two chapters of Back to Lazarus, the first book in the Sydney Brennan Mysteries series, now a FREE ebook!
On some level, I always associate suicides with Superman.
Truth, Justice, and the American Way. Wasn’t that the opening of the old Superman series, the one in black and white? My brother and I used to watch the reruns on TV when we were children. We’d lie flat out on our bellies, propped up on our elbows, dead to the world until the end of the episode. By then the loops of my grandmother’s cheap red-orange carpet would have carved deep grooves in our arm and elbow skin that tingled as they plumped and came back to life. It was our grandmother who told us once (or more likely, several times) that the actor who played Superman had killed himself. She was a reliable source for any sort of Hollywood scandal from the last 50 years. According to Gran, the actor lost touch with reality, began to believe that he truly was Superman. He jumped off a building—a skyscraper, no less—thinking he could fly away, and died when he found that he couldn’t. I don’t know if he was wearing his super suit at the time.
Noel Thomas’s story began with the same ending, though the means weren’t so dramatic. She sat in my office, slim black purse on the floor next to her, hands folded on her lap, and calmly related that her father had killed himself. She wanted to know why.
We sat in silence long after the sound of her steady voice had faded from the room. Finally I asked, “Was anything unusual going on his life? Had he been behaving differently in the past few months?”
“I’m afraid I won’t be able to answer any of your questions, Ms. Brennan. My father actually committed suicide years ago, and we weren’t what you would call close.”
I waited, willing her to speak, but that’s a skill that hasn’t improved since I first tried it on a dog at age six. The dehumidifier in the corner started its low rumble, then began beeping the shrill alarm of saturation it repeated daily. It took effort for me to not flinch at the sound, but Ms. Thomas seemed unaffected. “How long had it been since you’d seen your father?”
“I don’t know. A very long time. I was a child. I—” She paused, her gaze dropping as far as the surface of my cluttered desk.
“Ms. Brennan, when I was six years old my father killed my mother. He beat and choked her to death. I’m told that he was found hanging from a homemade noose in his cell. I want to know why he waited so long to do it.”
I sat with my carefully cultivated non-expression, absorbing her words. Ms. Thomas stared at me aggressively, daring me to speak. But what was there to say? For most tragedies, even the most sincere words are meaningless. When we’d sat in silence long enough, her eyes and the hard line of her lips began to soften.
The tension became less palpable, and I slipped off my shoes with an audible sigh to clear the rest of it from the air. My “sensible” black flats were nearly as uncomfortable, but not half as sexy, as comparable heels. They’d tortured me all day because an attorney (currently heading up my shit list) asked me to be available for some last-minute negotiation. His civil case started tomorrow, and the information I’d found was his ace in the hole. He must have been successful because he’d called at 3:00 to say he wouldn’t need me after all. At least I hadn’t worn pantyhose.
My toes spread luxuriously, I slowly got to my feet and walked to the kitchenette area. Such a lofty title for a dorm fridge and a sink, but there’s just enough counter space for a hot pot. I puttered around, making hot sweet black tea with milk. I could use a cup, and suspected Ms. Thomas could as well. When I returned with the mismatched but fortunately not chipped cups of hot tea, Ms. Thomas had slipped off her own shoes. Had she worn them all day since church, or put them on specially for me? She smiled, a little self-consciously, and thanked me. Settling into my chair, I held the cup in both hands, closed my eyes and let the steam condense on my eyelids. Only the warm glow of my desk lamp against my closed eyes kept me from drifting away. I opened them when I knew I was ready to listen, and hoped she was ready to talk.
“I prefer coffee to tea, but I’ve found that having a coffeepot close to hand is dangerous for any flat surfaces in my office, not to mention my nerves.”
Ms. Thomas sipped her tea, nodded appreciatively, but didn’t respond to the patter. Instead she launched directly into her story, reciting the facts of her life with no more emotion than if she had read them in a novel. Based upon the formality of her speech, it was a 19th century British novel.
“I’m the only child of Vanda and Isaac Thomas. As I said, I was only six when my mother was killed, so I remember very little of my childhood with them. We lived in a town called Hainey, about 60 miles west of Tallahassee. My mother and father had moved there when I was born, running from I don’t know what. I’m not sure what my mother did, if she had job, but she wasn’t a stay at home and cook type. In fact, she wasn’t at home much at all. My father did something involving physical labor, not an office job. I remember him coming home close to dark, wanting to take a shower. I always thought he smelled sweet, like the outdoors, but he wanted to be clean. Sometimes our neighbor, Miss Johnson, would babysit for me until he came home.”
She paused for another sip of tea, glancing briefly at the nearly blank legal pad on my desk in front of me before resuming her story. “When I was six years old, in October of that year, my father killed my mother. Apparently he had a habit of beating her, and for some reason that night things just got out of hand. He was arrested immediately, and I never saw him again. My father was an only child, so I went to live with my mother’s relatives, grandparents and an aunt and uncle at different times. I don’t recall ever meeting them before that.”
“Did your family ever talk about what had happened?”
“No. They would talk about my mother occasionally, about what a vibrant young woman she had been, funny stories about her getting into trouble as a child, but my father was rarely mentioned.”
“What about during his trial?” I asked.
“Not even then. I didn’t know anything about his trial until years after his conviction. I’m not sure how I found out about it, but it wasn’t from a family member. Again, it was not a subject we ever discussed. Then it was years after his conviction that he killed himself, and I didn’t know he was dead until very recently.”
Ms. Thomas picked up her tea again, waiting for me to say something, but I could have told her she’d be waiting for a while. (Except that would have required me to speak.) Now that she’d started, I wanted to see what she would say to fill the silence. She set her tea down, untouched, and turned it so the handle was perfectly parallel to the edge of my desk.
She reached for her tea again, then pulled her hand back to rest on her lap in a movement almost fidgety coming from her still form, and finally spoke.
“You must be wondering why I’m here, why now. I can’t really explain it. I wish I could. My alarm went off for work Friday, just like every other day, and I got out of bed, and I just suddenly wondered. Why? Why did he wait so long? So I called your number this morning, not that I expected you to answer on a Sunday.”
And what did it say about me that I was here on a Sunday? But I was here to analyze a potential client, not myself. “Ms. Thomas, what do you remember about that night, the night your mother was murdered?”
“Nothing.” She paused, and I knew she was resisting the urge to fiddle with her tea cup again. Instead she reiterated, “Absolutely nothing.”
“What about the physical abuse, or even verbal abuse? What are your recollections of that?”
“Again, nothing. But its ongoing nature was confirmed by several people.”
Yes, but which people? The family, of which she had no prior memory? She either saw the direction my thoughts were taking or had an equally suspicious mind.
“I’m certain the individuals in question were not related to my mother.”
“When was your father’s trial? What was he convicted of?”
“I don’t know. I have the impression that he was convicted the year after the murder, but I don’t know why. Maybe that’s what I assumed.”
“Are you sure that he even had a trial?”
“You mean could he have pled guilty instead?”
I nodded, and her head tilted in response. I couldn’t read her expression, but it seemed this was a possibility she’d never contemplated.
“It’s conceivable, but I don’t know.”
“When did your father die?”
“I’m not sure. Again, I have an impression it was four or five years ago, but I don’t know why.”
“How did you learn of his death?”
“It was an odd coincidence, really. A woman mentioned it in line at the grocery store several months ago. An elderly woman—I didn’t know her name, but she looked vaguely familiar. She obviously knew who I was, knew intimate details of my life, and I was embarrassed to admit I didn’t know who she was, or even the context of our acquaintance. And I didn’t want to prolong the encounter.”
“How did she know he’d died?”
“You know how small towns are. Gossip becomes deeply imbedded oral history in no time.”
I leaned back in my chair, considering what she’d said, what she hadn’t said, then returned my bare feet to the floor with a jarring slap. “Ms. Thomas, I’m not a psychologist, and I’m not a psychic. I don’t know if I can get you the answers you’re looking for.”
The corner of her mouth curled. “I realize that, Ms. Brennan. I don’t know that the answers can be found, but I believe you’ve got as good a chance as anyone else.”
Noel had come prepared, handing me a typewritten memo in a manila envelope. By the time we reviewed it, we’d settled into first names, as I now knew more about her than anyone else not related by blood. (“Noel—it’s spelled like a man’s name, but my mother wasn’t proficient in French.”) It contained the basic facts she’d just related, as well as contact information for her relatives and for herself. She didn’t know any friends of either of her parents in Hainey, but said her relatives may be of some assistance. They lived farther west, just on the Florida side of the Florida/Alabama border in Alastair. It looked like I was going to be spending some quality time in the Panhandle.
She may not have been exactly lying, but I was sure Noel wasn’t telling me everything. Her grocery line encounter was conveniently vague, and her explanation for her sudden motivation to know the truth seemed forced. Having never actually encountered one before, I didn’t put much stock in alarm clock epiphanies. Although to give Noel the benefit of the doubt and a well-worn cliché, stranger things have happened, as her family history was ample evidence.
Family history. That’s something I wasn’t looking forward to. A murder victim’s family is seldom a cooperative source of unbiased information on the murderer. This was going to involve a lot of tip-toeing around sensitive family members, trying not to offend while gathering useful information, something my cloddish feet (and mouth) find challenging.
With that thought, my eyes strayed involuntarily to a pale blue envelope on my desk. I recognized the handwriting, if not the surname or return address. It had come three days before and lay on my desk like an undetonated bomb, all other correspondence removed from its blast radius. I had yet to find the courage to open it, but it had never been far from my thoughts. I still couldn’t read it, but that night I gripped the expensively textured paper tightly in my hand and shoved it in my bag to take home with me.
Meeting Noel steeled me to do it. Ironic, isn’t it? No, perhaps synergistic would be a more accurate term. Or synchronistic? Because of Noel, I was able to begin to face my own past, to pick up that letter and eventually read it. And it was because of my past that I agreed to take Noel’s case. Not that I knew it at the time. In fact, a lot of rationalizations went through my head that evening, reasons to work for someone who wasn’t being honest with me or with herself, agreeing to do what probably couldn’t be done.
I told myself that I have a fondness for four walls and a pathological dependence on my exterminator to keep the worst of the six-legged creatures at bay in this insect Eden, neither of which comes free. And that was true. I told myself that part of me ached for the little girl who lost everything so many years ago, and yet kept living. I wanted to help her, this girl who’d grown up alone, a stranger to those who raised her, to the truth of her past, and to herself. Her story was so tragically unique, and yet felt so familiar to me. And that was also true, but uncomfortable.
I settled on a much more cynical justification, one that didn’t require introspection and confirmed the identity I’d chosen for myself. Sure, my eyes glaze over in the supermarket checkout line, and I aspire to maintain my speed when passing flashing lights and wreckage. But a recent run of background checks and record searches had bored me senseless, and I’m only human. The Thomas family drama was too much, too many blanks to be filled in. It was like being handed the meaty part of a really good novel, only to have it snatched away before you could finish. I simply had to know the whole story of Isaac and Vanda, and I wouldn’t stop digging until I did.
At least that’s what I told my spunky investigator self as I headed carelessly out the door toward home, a bit of someone else’s mystery to occupy my mind. It was a lot easier than admitting I wanted to fix Noel’s broken family because my own was beyond repair. Some things just can’t be fixed.
Home. Such an odd-sounding word, like a Sanskrit syllable chanted to bring one peace. I’ve certainly never had that kind of mythical or spiritual attachment to my surroundings. After years of living here, Tallahassee still doesn’t feel like home, but neither does anywhere else I’ve been. I have gotten used to the city though, and perhaps that’s as settled as I’ll ever be. It grows on you, like the kudzu in neglected lots or the mold in your closets. Sometimes I think growing is what Tallahassee does best, although I fear the concrete and asphalt expansion may soon outstrip the organic. For now, if you go to the top of the new capitol building and look out over the city, lush green treetops still hide most of the human habitation. It’s not nearly as pretty when you get to ground level, but then what is?
With the exception of portions of downtown, the architecture of the city isn’t much to look at. My own modest house sits in one of the many wooded residential areas of Tallahassee. Typical of the neighborhood, it was built in the 1950s, plain brick with not enough windows and only one bathroom, but it’s comfortable. There’s a beautiful magnolia tree in the back whose broad shiny leaves and stately southern presence contrast nicely with the azaleas and camellias milling about in the shade. For a few months a year, their bright flowers bring a touch of Las Vegas to the back.
My front yard is a patch of lawn with a hodge podge of plants, appropriate in a city that can’t decide if it’s really north Florida or south Georgia. A 20 foot palm tree and some young palmettos face off in the corners closest to the street, and flowering trees and shrubs are flung randomly about the lawn. One of my neighbors has blueberries in the spring and figs in the early summer, while another has a gorgeous live oak, the kind you see draped with Spanish moss in every southern postcard. Incidentally, despite postcard tropes to the contrary, Spanish moss isn’t restricted to live oaks, at least not in Tallahassee. Silvery tendrils drape the trees indiscriminately, palms withstanding, making odd tinsel in a city that sees no snow.
In the dim street light, I could see that my teenaged neighbor Ben had been hard at work in my yard. I hoped the camellia nubs would grow back from their military cut. At least my personal favorite, the pampas grass, had been spared. The mass remained shaggy as ever, a slightly asymmetrical accent to my mailbox. In his destructive frenzy, Ben hadn’t quite made it to the curb with the snarls of vines and trimmings. Instead he’d left it in my driveway, so I pulled alongside the curb and parked on the street.
I knew something wasn’t right before I’d even stepped up on the curb. My door was apparently unlocked—ajar, to be exact—because a dim bar of light ran vertically in the doorframe. Now what? I could run across the street and ask to use Mr. Ginley’s phone to call… someone. I couldn’t even think of anyone. Certainly not the cops. I probably just forgot to lock the door this morning and one of the neighborhood cats snuck in. And if I went to Mr. Ginley, he’d start asking me again about my personal relationship with God. Mr. G means well, but 10 PM is a little late to be worrying about salvation.
Slipping my purse strap over my head and across my chest to keep my hands free, I advanced on the door. Since I hadn’t parked in the driveway, the intruder may not even know I’d returned. If there was an intruder. I paused on my front step. If someone lurked inside, was surprising him really a good thing? My eyes scanned the darkness for a weapon. Ben had left my shears on the front step, but 12 inches of pointed metal was a little more than I wanted to commit to, even if they were frightfully dull. Instead I picked up a freshly watered, six-inch terra cotta pot of impatiens and crept inside.
The light from a small table lamp kept me from tripping over my furniture when I entered, but was too weak to travel much beyond a three-foot radius. I stopped for a moment to let my sight adjust, but ended up seeing more with my ears than my eyes. The sound of movement in the kitchen ahead of me seemed ridiculously loud to my straining ears, but the nature of the noise was unclear. The refrigerator door was open, its bulb the only illumination in the room. Unfortunately the bar style counter blocked my view of whatever was scrounging in my refrigerator. I slipped around the counter and raised my pot. At the last moment, a squatting figure turned and looked up at me.
It was too late to stop—my arms were already arcing down. I managed to hold onto the pot, but the flowers and muddy soil dumped out onto the kitchen floor. “Jesus, Ben, you scared the shit out of me!”
He grinned up at me. “Sorry, Syd. It was getting late, and I was worried about the fish. I came over to feed ‘em.”
It really was getting late, even for Ben, and it was rare that he let himself in when I wasn’t at home. He probably had a fight with his mom, not that he’d ever say.
“So the fish drink Barq’s and eat Doritos? No wonder Bruce looked so bloated this morning.”
Ben stood, stretching his legs to his full height. 5’ 9”? 5” 10”? He must have grown an inch since yesterday. By the time he got his license next year, he wouldn’t be able to find a car he could fit in. Ben turned to close the refrigerator as an afterthought. Then he noticed the mess on the floor. “Ohh, man. I just planted those.”
“Yeah, well, no offense, kid, but I’m not a big fan of impatiens. Or anything else bubble gum pink. Give them to your mom.”
“Yeah, right,” he said. He was already squatting again, trying to scoop soil, leaves and petals back into the pot. I couldn’t see his face.
“Just leave it, Ben. I’ll get it later.”
And I would. I’d put the pot in the windowsill where he could see it every time he raided my refrigerator. Warning or warm and fuzzy message? It would depend on my mood. I reached for the soda, chips, and a folding laminated chart next to the phone.
“C’mon. Let’s go out back and feed the mosquitoes. What’s our constellation of the day?”
Amateur astronomy was our latest kick. Before that had been field guides of birds, trees and shrubs, and reptiles. We’d learn one or two items a day, more as an excuse to sit in the back and hang out than out of any motivation to better our minds. We’d spend as many days or weeks as it took to master the backyard, our little chunk of the world. Reptiles hadn’t taken long—with the exception of sunning anoles they’re uncooperative little buggers—but there was an astonishing array of plant life, most of which I’ve since forgotten. (I can’t remember people’s names either, so I don’t think the funky vines were offended.) We’d soon finish astronomy. Tree branches above us kept us in perpetual shadow and blocked our already limited view, although in our neighborhood, the humidity and cloud cover did more to obscure the night sky than the lights of the city.
When we’d gotten one under our belts, fudging a little to make the constellation fit what we actually saw in the sky, I tentatively approached the subject I knew he didn’t want to discuss. “So, Ben, what brings you over this time of night?”
Even in the dark I could feel the suspicion of his gaze. “I told you. It was getting late, and I thought Jackie and Bruce might be getting hungry.”
I grunted noncommittally, nodding my head as I rocked up and back on a plastic lawn chair, its formerly straight legs buckling and bending. Ben should feel some responsibility toward Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. He’s the one who convinced me I needed some other living beings in my life, helped me pick out the fish (our compromise between ferrets and sea monkeys), and gave them the spectacularly nimble names they can never hope to live up to. Bruce and Jackie were a good choice, pretty and calming, something to talk at that has a heartbeat (I think) without being demanding. But they don’t exactly bark or beg or even do somersaults when they’re hungry. I sat rocking, counting my breath. When I got to ten, I spoke.
“So, Ben, what brings you over this time of night?” His head turned in my direction, but he didn’t respond. “Fight with your mom?”
Ben lived alone with his mother. I had some vague notion of teenage angst and familial discontent, but I didn’t know how they manifested their brand of dysfunction. All I knew was that when he wasn’t with his friends, Ben spent a lot of time with me, and I suspected his mom spent a lot of time with someone else. Or various someone elses.
“Back off, Syd.” There was an edge to his voice I didn’t often hear, and I don’t think he did either. It was gone when he spoke again. “I got my dose of Oprah this afternoon.”
“On my TV, no doubt.”
“The boys were looking depressed. I thought they might feel better if they saw how bad the air-breathers have it.”
I laughed before I could stop myself, and we passed the danger zone. He told me about the latest prank on his “fascist” math teacher, then drifted off into cafeteria adventures and who was caught making out next to the deep fryer by the grease stains on the ass of her jeans. I finally kicked Ben out around 11:00 PM. He had school the next day, and even if he didn’t need to sleep, I did. Or so I thought. My active brain had other plans. I told myself I’d had caffeine too late in the day, but I really didn’t want to go to sleep. I was afraid of my dreams.
I made use of my insomnia by going online to check out newspaper archives. Most didn’t go back to the time of Vanda’s death, but I still thought there might be something. I was sorely disappointed. Apparently the small town domestic killing hadn’t held the media’s attention. Nothing piqued my own interest until nearly 4 AM. There was no coverage of Isaac Thomas’s case, but there was a short article on his death. He committed suicide by hanging, just as Noel had said. The article didn’t say what kind of “homemade noose” he had fashioned, only that he had been found during a routine early morning head count. I wasn’t familiar with the prison, but I did have a stroke of luck with its location. In a state littered with prisons, Isaac Thomas had been serving his life sentence for the 1980 murder of his wife in the Panhandle, near all of my potential witnesses.
My subsequent searching brought up nothing else, not even an obituary, so I downloaded the single article and printed it before shutting the computer down. Noel was coming by my office again tomorrow, and I wanted to have a copy to show her. My eyes and mind were losing their focus, but I forced myself to label a folder before heading to bed for a few hours. A disorganized person by nature, I love the illusion of organization that a labeled folder gives me. As I slid the article inside, my dry, fuzzy eyes caught something on the printed page that had escaped me on the computer screen—the date. Isaac Thomas had committed suicide on October 12th, 2002, not four or five years ago as Noel had said, but less than two. Why was my client lying to me?