Impulse

Impulse

Frank Smith, famed writer of murder mysteries, boards Southwest Airlines heading from Phoenix to Baltimore. His goal is his 50th class reunion at Scott Academy, but behind him he leaves ...

About The Author

Frederick Ramsay

Frederick Ramsay was raised on the east coast and attended graduate school in Chicago. He was a writer of mysteries ...

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Frank Smith stepped to one side at the top of the escalator, turned and studied the passengers behind him struggling with their luggage on the moving stairs. He inspected each in turn looking for tell-tale signs, for any indication that one or two might be following him. But they all seemed painfully normal. None appeared even remotely interested in him. He resumed his march toward the security check point. Sky Harbor, Phoenix’s busy airport, teemed with men and women, many more than he would have expected on a Wednesday morning. He glanced backward once more and marginally increased his pace. He muttered to himself for his foolishness. If Ledezma or anyone else, for that matter, wanted to know where he was going, he would only have to step up and ask. Four years of suspicion and guilt had made him paranoid.

The whole idea was ridiculous, of course. No one chased anybody through airports anymore. No more O.J. Simpson careening through crowds to get to a plane on time. It was O.J., wasn’t it? Time and circumstances changed so many things, memories dim, and O.J. has been reduced to the quintessential persona non grata in the civilized world.

He reached the security check point and joined the hundred or so men and women standing in the sixteen ranks of a serpentine line waiting for their turn to show an ID, a boarding pass, and be handed off to one of four screening stations. He had  a brief Mel Brooks moment as he inched forward a few feet at a time—a movie scene, two men tearing through the airport, one in hot pursuit of the other. The first drew up at this slow moving line and stepped in. Then the other man joined it four or five places further back and together they moved slowly forward, two feet at a time…shuffle, shuffle…shuffle, shuffle. Finally, the first cleared the x-ray and screening, and resumed his mad dash through the airport. The second followed a moment later, hopping on one foot as he struggled to get his shoe on. Frank smiled and looked over his shoulder one last time.

# # #

The plane was nearly full, but he managed to get a window seat. He’d used his computer to print his boarding pass the night before and had made a point of being one of the first to board. He wanted to scrutinize the other passengers as they made their way between the seats, dragging their carry-on luggage down a cramped aisle scant inches too narrow to allow that to happen. A damp man in a rumpled suit squeezed into the seat next to him. He stowed his laptop and what appeared to be lunch under the seat in front of him. Frank squirmed around in his now more confined space. He wished he could have flown first class or at least business, but this trip did not qualify for a tax break and Southwest didn’t offer first class seating anyway. He envied his row mate’s foresight. He should have packed a meal. Now he would have to resign himself to a narrow seat, a bag  of peanuts, and a snack pack. They’d dueled for the best elbow position on the common armrest. During the course of this unacknowledged combat, his seatmate recognized Frank. The good news, he’d been awarded the best spot. The bad news, he had to engage in a conversation he’d sooner have avoided. The man turned toward him with a too familiar look.

“Let’s say you’re a murderer….” Frank flinched. “…How do you do it? I mean, I bet you must get that question all the time.” For a split second, Frank wondered if it were possible this man had, in fact, followed him on the plane, if his question was more than idle curiosity. He decided to play it straight and see.

“I do, get the question that is. Well, in my opinion, murder, real murder, is ordinary and boring. Most of them are committed by desperate, angry, or demented people who’ve slipped out of control and are acting on impulse. Typically, they leave a trail a mile wide and they are almost always caught. The few who do get away with it are either lucky or someone or something interfered with the process. No, murder is pretty dull stuff.”

Frank knew better—knew that the vast numbers of murders were never solved, that in Los Angeles alone, the last time he looked, something like 8,000 murders were unsolved and the number grew daily. The process, as he’d called it, bogged down more often than not, because there were many more killers than there were homicide detectives to catch them. LA had more cops in its internal investigation unit than on the street as detectives.

“It’s means, motive, and opportunity,” he replied, trying to look deep and wise, and at the same time not appear pompous. “If I were plotting a killing, for example, I would find a way to mask all three and then do it. The last thing I want is for those characteristics to stick out and attract the notice of a detective. Otherwise, it’s ‘find them and book them’…dull stuff.”

“That’s it?” His companion pushed back a pale lock of his comb-over and looked disappointed. “I mean, I would think anything as important as killing another human being is pretty serious stuff and involves all sorts of—”

“No, that’s a common misunderstanding. In real life, murder is almost always mundane. It’s rarely planned, premeditated, or thought out.”

“But in books…I mean, I read a lot of mysteries…yours for example, and the murders are so elaborate and, well, elegant.” “I don’t write about real life. I write fiction. You wouldn’t buy, much less read a book that accurately described most of the killings that cross a police blotter every day. Writers like me make up complicated and sometimes very shocking ones, serial killers, hatchet murderers, and the gorier the better. We describe autopsies with horrific precision. Don’t ask me why, but people seem to be fascinated with the graphic details of that process. Watch CSI some evening. Anyway, we’re in the entertainment business, not the truth business.”

“Oh. Well then, what if you had to solve a mystery? I mean with all the times you’ve written about them, I bet you could solve a real one. Do police departments ever ask you to?”

“Never.”

He did not mean to sound abrupt. This man could not possibly know what had happened and asked a perfectly reasonable question. Why wouldn’t people who studied and wrote about crime be good at unraveling them? Why indeed? Because writers solved their crimes backward. They always knew who done it before they did it. He’d toyed with solving one once or twice, a long time ago, and thought he might like to again someday, but not today, not here, and certainly not under the present circumstances. He picked up the brochure from his lap and turned toward the window, hoping to signal an end to the conversation. The man looked crestfallen. He had a three by five card and a pen at the ready. Frank smiled and signed the card, Best wishes, Meredith Smith. The man nodded his thanks and left him to read his brochure.

He turned and stared out the window. The ground fell steadily away. In the early morning light, shadows etched the desert floor, giving texture to shrubbery too far away to see clearly. Among the shadows he could make out longer ones, some branched, attached to thousands of saguaros which looked like Gumbys marching northward toward Sedona and red rock country. They would never make it. Fifty miles out I-17 they would come to an abrupt halt, their northward migration from Mexico stopped by temperature and altitude.

Soon the morning heat would send columns of air shimmering across the expanse below, distorting the shapes, tricking the eye into seeing things that weren’t there. And somewhere down in that dead, brown Arizona desert lay the bleached bones of his wife, missing now for four years and presumed dead. Another of those murders he’d so blandly dismissed moments before, one that went unsolved. No motive, no body, no suspects—except, of course, the most logical one, the one always favored by the police—him.

The plane leveled off, its engines settled into a low whine, and it turned its nose east toward Baltimore.

Chapter Two

Brad Stark inspected the twelve watercolors on the walnut paneled wall. He’d seen them a hundred times, when they were raw and fresh in Albert Magarry’s art classroom. That would have been before Magarry had been discovered by the art world and left the school for better, or at least more exalted company. Next, for several years they hung in the school’s art gallery, and now they adorned the walls of the headmaster’s outer office. Mixed in with them and set at regular intervals along the walls were plaques extolling the headmaster for services rendered to a plethora of worthy causes, organizations, and institutions. He thought they looked like Stations of the Cross and wondered if the boss might not perform some private ritual in front of them from time to time. He inhaled the scent of freshly cut roses bunched in a Waterford crystal vase. The headmaster’s office always had fresh cut flowers. He didn’t know whether that came about because the headmaster or his secretary arranged for them to be delivered. The latter picked up the phone, murmured something Brad couldn’t make out, and looked up at him.

“He’ll see you now, Mr. Stark.”

He nodded to the secretary and pushed open the heavy mahogany door that separated the headmaster from the world. More than a metaphor, he thought. Darnell, Doctor Felix Darnell, had assumed the headmastership of Scott Academy after a career that included teaching posts at several private schools and dean of a prestigious prep school in Massachusetts. His chief attraction at the time seemed to be his doctorate. A month after his installation as the school’s twelfth headmaster, it came to light that the degree was not a Ph.D. or even an Ed.D., but a D.Litt.—an honorary degree bestowed on him by an obscure university in northern India which had a reputation for selling them to rich or ego-needy Americans. Nevertheless, Darnell used the title that came with it and insisted staff and students do the same. In his favor, he had a talent for administration and fund raising, the chief attributes needed for a headmaster in this day and age. But he was not a naturally warm and friendly man,   a fact which distanced him from his students and annoyed his faculty. Brad served directly under him as the Academy’s Chief Development Officer and Alumni Secretary.

“Dr. Darnell, we need to talk about Frank Smith,” Brad said, without waiting for an invitation to speak. Darnell liked to control conversations and expected his visitors to respond to his cues regarding both the content and direction of any interviews he had. Brad knew this, but today chose to ignore the protocol. Alumni would be arriving soon and he had work to do. Class gifts to be totaled and, hopefully, increased in size with the right amount of gentle pressure—one-third charm, one-third guilt, and one-third luck. He did not have time to fence around with Darnell. The headmaster waved his hand in the general direction of a crewel-upholstered wing chair, inviting him to sit. Brad knew from experience that the cushions in that chair were exceedingly soft and he would sink into it, allowing Darnell to look down on him. Power games. He remained standing.

“Which Smith are we talking about? We have many Smiths.

The phone book’s full of them.”

“Frank Smith, Franklin M. Smith, here for his fiftieth.” “Okay, Frank Smith. What about him?”

“Well, this is the first time he’s communicated with the school in any way since he graduated. He’s never attended a reunion, never responded to any of our fund raisers, and never completed an update for the directory. Nothing, until now.”

“I can’t see that’s so odd. Many graduates disappear. They drift away, don’t recognize the value of the experience they had—”

“Frank Smith is the son of one of our more distinguished former faculty members, Doctor Charles Addison Smith.” Brad laid an emphasis on doctor. Smith’s degree was earned, a Ph.D., a relative rarity for a prep school in his day and one the Academy touted all the years he taught there. “He taught English and retired when he hit sixty-five.”

“Oh, yeah, the ascetic looking guy hanging in the teacher’s lounge.”

“His picture, yes. We should move it, by the way. It was painted from a photograph. He refused to sit for a real portrait.”

“Really? Why not?”

“We kicked his other son out of the Academy. The kid committed suicide later that year and Dr. Smith was never the same after that.”

Brad finally sat and scanned the office. Darnell had it built as part of his agreement to accept the headmastership. With the paneling, oriental carpet, and custom desk and bookcases, Brad guessed a six-year full-boat scholarship could have been offered for what it cost.

“Why’d we bounce the son?”

“Not sure. Record says ‘for behavior unbecoming a cadet.’ When we functioned as a military school we were a much more rigid institution. That’s all they ever put in the record.”

“Do you know why?”

“Just rumors, and even if we knew, there’s nothing we can do about it now.”

“No, I suppose not. Still, it would be good to know since he’s coming. He might bring it up. Find out for me, will you? Someone ought to know, one of the old-timers, maybe.”

Darnell fiddled with an ornate letter opener, turning it between his fingers, sending a splash of light darting around the room’s dark paneling. Brad thought he could make out Presented to Doctor… on the haft.

“Did you have him?” he asked.

“Who? Dr. Smith?”

“Yes, who else are we talking about?”

“No, he was long gone before my time. According to the year books they used to call him ‘Jolly Cholly.’ I think in the end it was more like ‘Angry Addison.’ He took what happened pretty hard.” “So the problem with Frank Smith is…? I assume you came in here to fill me in on a problem,.” Darnell said, sensing, Brad guessed, a chance to assume control of the conversation.

“Frank Smith is an author of a couple of dozen mystery stories. You may know him as Meredith Smith—”

“Meredith Smith is a man? I read her…um…his stuff all the time. Great story teller, and there was the TV series based on his Episcopal minister detective—what was it called?”

Collars. Smith taught English like his father. Ended up in Phoenix at some prep school out there. Then his books hit and the TV show went big time for three or four years—I think  it’s still in syndication on PAX. He’s made a lot of money but we haven’t been able to squeeze a dime out of him. That’s the problem. My guess is he’s been angry at us all these years, but he’ll be on campus this weekend and I thought you’d—”

“I’ll have a word. No, let’s put him at the High Table at lunch next to Elizabeth Roulx. She’s our English maven now and she’s a reader. I’ll have her butter him up. Then I’ll pitch him and you can close. Anything else?”

“No, sir, that’ll do it. Well, there’s his portrait, we should hang it in the dining hall so he can see it, Smith, that is…and—”

“And? Please don’t tell me you have another problem?” “Dexter Light. He may show up again. Unlike our    Frank Smith, he loves reunions.”

“Loves a free lunch and a chance to embarrass us, you mean. God, I’d have thought his liver would have exploded by now. Give me a heads up if he comes on campus. And then call security.”

“Yes, sir.”

Brad left the office complex and stepped into the bright sun- light. He wandered over to the quadrangle. From there he could see the progress made for the next day’s festivities. The big tent was up. Men from the rental company unloaded folding chairs from a van parked nearby. Women in aprons laid table cloths on the trestle tables under the tent. The temperature hovered in the low seventies. The heavy humidity that would characterize the area later on had not yet arrived, and it promised to be a splendid weekend. Sunlight streamed through old maples, dappling the tent and the grounds. By Friday night there would be four bars, two long tables laden with catered food and desserts, and best of all, no rain. At least none predicted. A reassuring bit of news, although they said of the area, “If you don’t like the weather in Pikesville, wait an hour.” Still, he felt safe enough.

He returned the greeting of a half dozen students moving from Old Main to Armiger Hall, smiled at a gaggle of kindergarten students like goslings following their teacher to the art gallery. A cloud drifted across the sun, the day went gray. He pivoted ninety degrees and his eyes focused on Old Oak Woods a mile away, down the hill past the chapel. His smile faded. For the hundredth time since he’d arrived at Scott, he asked himself why. Why had he come back? Of all the places in the world  he wanted to settle, Scott Academy would have to be near the bottom of his list. Yet here he was.

The invitation to join the staff at Scott had been wholly unexpected. He’d been active in the Pittsburgh Alumni chapter and raised some serious money for the school. He supposed that must have played into their decision—that and the school’s peculiar habit of bringing back “names.” His father had been a popular teacher there at one time. At the time, he wallowed in what he thought of as an unappreciated life, and so the offer gave his sinking ego a boost. The call had tugged at him, but not enough to overcome its dark side. He had no desire to face memories that haunted him even at the remove of more than two decades; memories that crept in the small hours of the night to rob him of his sleep. Then again, his job provided something of a push. He hated it. He’d never wanted to be a stock broker. He sometimes wondered if he even understood the concept. But his wife, Judith, had pressured her father to give him the job. Judith had a way of getting what she wanted, always, and crossing her inevitably ended in recriminations that might linger for months, even years. His options were limited in any event. An attempt at law school proved an expensive disaster. The only other job offer he’d received involved a two-hour commute only to manage the sporting goods section at a Wal-Mart. So, with no other real job prospects in sight, and in the face of Judith’s insistence, he’d accepted her father’s offer to join his firm.

They settled in Squirrel Hill and he sold securities. The past drifted farther away. He never felt really secure, and not exactly happy. But he soldiered on as a mediocre stock broker whose only sales came from referrals handed down to him by Judith’s father. His boss/father-in-law disliked Brad almost as much as Brad disliked him. Only Judith kept them in some sort of reasonable relationship. Days slipped by as each month flowed seamlessly into the next. Sometimes he felt like a sleepwalker wandering aimlessly and unconnected to the world around him.

Then one gritty spring afternoon, his father-in-law asked him to lunch, an unusual request on any day. They’d found a small eatery at Station Square, well away from the office. They ordered lunch and his father-in-law proceeded to fire him before his iced tea arrived.

“Bradford, I can’t carry you anymore. You haven’t built your business, you’re not earning out, and the rest of the sales force are unhappy—ticked off at me, in fact. Sorry, but you have to go. I’ll let it be your choice, resign or be fired. If you resign, your stock options and 401k stay in place. If I fire you, they’re off the table. Oh, and you’ll have to be the one to tell Judith. She’s my daughter and resident Princess, but I don’t have any intention of being within a mile of her or what she will do when she gets the news.” He showed a lot of teeth and bit into his bacon cheeseburger. Brad recalled with some small satisfaction the glee he’d experienced when a dollop of catsup dribbled down the old man’s chin and onto his white shirt.

So, he resigned and took the job at Scott. He did not tell his wife why, no way he’d do that. The single point he and his father-in-law had in common involved Judith’s volatility when she didn’t have her way. Besides, he told himself, once again, he had no other viable choice. For a while he even believed it. As for the memories—well, it had all happened a long time ago, a quarter of a century, for crying out loud, how bad could it be? Nobody remembered anymore, nobody cared.

Twenty-five years ago. Had it been that long? Teddy, Ned, Bobby, and Tom, all gone. When the memories slithered in to steal his sleep, he dreamed about Old Oak Woods, saw their ghosts dancing in the trees, forever young, beckoning him to join them. Not now. Not yet. He shook his head like a cow shaking off flies. He needed to focus. That was then, this was now. The sun emerged from the cloud. He didn’t notice.

Reviews of

Impulse

“At the start of Ramsey’s superb, perfectly paced stand-alone, Phoenix mystery writer Frank Smith heads for his 50th prep school reunion-at Scott Academy, near Baltimore-anxious about all the attendant grudges, passions, jealousies and nostalgia. More seriously, Smith must contend with the suicide of his brother, Jack, 50 years earlier; the disappearance of four teenage schoolboys during the 1980s; and, back home in Arizona, the relatively recent murder of his wife, Sandy, a crime for which he’s now the chief suspect. Ramsay (Artscape and Secrets ) treats these traumas in a manner at once intriguing and believable yet somehow breezy and joyous. Seldom in crime fiction does one meet lead characters as likable as Smith and his long-lost friend/new love interest, Rosemary Mitchell. Both are ‘pushing seventy’ but try to solve the various mysteries with the style, audacity and intelligence of a Sun City version of Nick and Nora Charles. Their senior viewpoint with commentary on various generations-‘Greatest,’ Boomers, Xers-makes for a perspective that’s at once tart, worldly and compassionate and that nicely balances the genuine evil in the air.”

Publishers Weekly (Starred review)

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