"Aaron Tucker isn't a detective. An aspiring screenwriter, freelance reporter, stay-at-home dad, and expert on consumer electronics, Aaron actually defies all traditional characteristics of a detective. He’s 5'4," and weighs less than Robert B. Parker’s leather jacket. And he doesn't have any investigative training. But he’s funny, down-to-earth, lovable, and resourceful. He has good and loyal friends, like Jeff Mahoney, the huge rental car mechanic who helps him out of tight situations, and Abigail Stein, his sexy wife, who happens to be a successful criminal lawyer, and whose advice comes in handy a time or two.So he’s baffled when the richest guy in his New Jersey town, Gary Beckwirth, insists that Aaron, and Aaron alone, investigate the disappearance of his wife, Mary Beckwirth, who has inexplicably vanished from their home in the middle of the night.Aaron refuses Gary’s desperate pleas, but once the editor of the town newspaper offers Aaron $1000 to write the story on Mary’s disappearance, Aaron finds himself agreeing to investigate, despite his lack of investigative reporting experience. When the disappearance becomes a murder, he has no choice but to keep investigating, no matter how unqualified he may be."
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For Whom the Minivan RollsAn Aaron Tucker Mystery
By Jeffrey Cohen
Bancroft PressCopyright © 2002 Jeffrey Cohen
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Do you like mysteries?"
Milt Ladowski sat behind what must have been, for him, his cheap desk. For me, the real- wood monster with five drawers would have been an unaffordable luxury, but Milt is a high-priced attorney, accustomed to private practice extravagance. In his part-time position as borough counsel for Midland Heights, New Jersey, however, he had to accept an office in nondescript Borough Hall, and the government-issued desk that came with it. To serve his community, in effect, he had to go slumming. Many are called. Few are chosen. Or was it the other way around?
"Yeah," I told him. "I love mysteries. I just got done reading the latest Janet Evanovich. Why, do you want me to write one?"
"No. I want you to solve one."
Well, that was a mystery in itself. You want somebody to solve a mystery, you generally don't go to a freelance writer. Nine times out of ten, you might want to consult, say, a private detective. Or a cop. Freelancers are more likely to be consulted when your goal is to publish a thousand-word feature about the dangers of cholesterol in the newspaper's Sunday health section.
"That's not really my line of work, Milt."
He nodded. "I know. But Gary Beckwirth insisted. He said to call you, and only you."
"Beckwirth? Which one is Gary Beckwirth?"
"Beckwirth. You know. His wife is managing Rachel Barlow's campaign for mayor."
I stared blankly at him. I follow municipal politics with the same enthusiasm I muster for the cricket scores from Bath.
"Their son Joel is a patrol kid at the middle school," he said, seeing if he could jog my memory.
"Oh, is he the one who busted Ethan for going to the bathroom without a hall pass?"
I remember everything that anybody has ever done to and for my children. The little Beckwirth son of a bitch hadn't even bothered to check with Ethan's teacher, and he'd practically forced my 11-year-old son to have an accident in the school corridor. After that fiasco, Ethan had come home and locked himself in his room with Pokémon Stadium for three hours, which is a half-hour longer than usual.
"You're going to take that to your grave, aren't you, Aaron?" asked Ladowski. "The kid did what he thought was the right thing."
"So did Lee Harvey Oswald. Okay, so that's Beckwirth. The father looks like some rich guy off a daytime soap, right? And the mother ..."
"Madlyn is the mystery. She's been missing for three days, and Gary's worried. She never goes anywhere without telling him, and then in the middle of the night, Monday, she vanishes right out of their bed."
My eye was distracted by a flier on Ladowski's desk that mentioned the start of the Recreation Department's little league baseball season. Both Ethan and Leah would probably want to play. And they'd both want me to coach. That's three nights a week, and Sundays, from early April until late June. I'd look like a member of the walking dead by the time the season was over. I don't remember my parents coaching me in anything. They took me to the games and watched me strike out a lot, but coaching ...
I was jolted out of my "Dad-of-the-Year" reverie. "I still don't get why you're telling me about this, Milt. Did Beckwirth go to Barry Dutton?"
Ladowski's mouth straightened out, making a horizontal line that perfectly displayed his displeasure. His face doesn't look so good when he's smiling, so you can imagine. "Our esteemed chief of police has made some inquiries. Gary and Barry don't get along very well."
"That's the title of a children's book, isn't it? Gary and Barry Don't Get Along Very Well, by Dr. Seuss?"
"You're very amusing."
"I'm a goddam riot, to tell you the truth, but I'm still not a private detective. So Beckwirth thinks the cops aren't doing enough to find his wife. So fine. So go out and hire yourself an investigator to, uh, investigate. And why are you dealing with this, anyway? Did the borough hire you to ask freelance writers why a woman gets out of bed in the middle of the night and doesn't come back? Our first two questions almost always are going to be: 'When's the deadline? And how much per word?'"
Ladowski didn't like the way this conversation was going, but he had expected it. He'd known me a long time. Hell, everybody in this town knew everybody else a long time. Half of them went to high school together. I'd been living here nine years, and they still considered me the "new guy." Nobody ever left Midland Heights. Except, it seemed, Madlyn Beckwirth.
Milt stood up, to better emphasize the difference in our height. In other words, he has some. I'm 5'4", and pretend I'm 5'5" when I want to intimidate someone. Ladowski, on the other hand, is about 5'10". But it's not like I notice height.
"Gary asked me to look into it because I'm his attorney, and his friend. I'm not handling this for the borough, I'm doing it for Gary. He's too upset right now to deal with people much. And he doesn't want a private detective. He wants someone who knows the people in this town and how it works. We don't have any private investigators living and working in Midland Heights."
"No, but we have more social workers, therapists, and shrinks per capita than any other square mile of property in the known universe. Come to think of it, a shrink would probably be a better fit for Beckwirth right now than a freelancer."
Ladowski sighed. He knew this was stupid, but his client had insisted. "He wants someone who can be ... discreet. And when he heard that you've been an investigative reporter ..."
Now it was my turn to sigh. Loudly. "Oh, come on, Milt, that was 20 years ago, and I only did it for six months. I wasn't even a good investigative reporter. I was rooting out bad cops for the Herald- News in Passaic, and I found exactly one. The rest of the cops were so impressed with my work that they refused ever to speak to me again, and I ended up losing my job because I got scooped by two other papers on a regular basis. I'd hardly call that a stellar investigative record."
"Gary heard the word 'investigative,' and that's all he needed," Ladowski said. His voice was calm, but he was eyeing the window with the definite thought of throwing himself or me out of it. Luckily for both of us, it was a first-floor office. The borough, thank goodness, couldn't afford a view for Ladowski, either.
"This is stupid, Milt. I'm not a detective. I don't solve mysteries. I read them. I write newspaper and magazine features about electronics. You want to know about new DVD players, I'm your guy. You want to find a missing woman, you go to the cops or to private detectives, wherever they live. I can't help Gary Beckwirth."
Ladowski did the last thing I'd have expected him to do. He smiled.
"Fine. You go tell him that."
Chapter TwoI walked out of Ladowski's office feeling a little light-headed. I had stepped into an alternate universe, where the word "investigative" was enough to get you invited to dig into people's private lives and unearth God knows what. Maybe Madlyn Beckwirth had left her husband. Maybe she was sleeping with someone else. Maybe she left because he was sleeping with someone else. Maybe she had gotten up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and her Fascist kid had sent her to the street for peeing without a hall pass. In any event, it was none of my business, and I was happy to leave it that way.
All that left my mind when I caught a glimpse of a woman leaving Borough Hall. Short dark hair. Well-fitting tan linen suit. Navy silk blouse. And legs. I'm not even going to tell you about her legs. Think about the best legs you've seen this month, add a couple of exclamation points, and you'd be getting close.
Clearly, this woman needed investigating, and since I was now considered an investigator, at least by some, it was my duty to plunge right in. Maybe there was an upside to this investigator stuff after all. I doubled my step, and caught up with her just outside the door to the street, at the top of the stairs.
"And why aren't you in Livingston today, where you belong, Ms. Stein?"
Abigail Stein turned around to face me, her large brown eyes hiding their delight behind a transparent mask of annoyance. At least, that's how I like to think about it.
"Some clients have taken exception to the Midland Heights police, who, the last week of every month, ticket every car they don't recognize. I'm here filing a brief," she said. "Like that's your business."
"You'd be amazed what some people think my business is," I told her. Best to lend an air of mystery.
"I'll tell you about it over dinner. I've been thinking of asking you to marry me, and this might be the night."
"You're married," she reminded me.
"If you're going to get hung up on details ..."
"It's been nice seeing you, Mr. Tucker. But I have actual work to do, and you have to go write your little stories." This time, there was definite amusement in her eyes. I spent a few seconds getting lost in them.
"They're screenplays. And I bet you'll have dinner with me when Spielberg comes by just to have a bite."
"I'll check my calendar," she said. "Ask your wife if you're free that night."
"I'll do that," I told her. "See you later."
"Not if I see you first." She walked away, and I couldn't stop watching. Did I mention she has really great legs?
Chapter ThreeGary Beckwirth opened the door to his house after checking through the peephole to see if it was me. It was me, so he let me in.
About six months ago, Beckwirth and his wife had moved into what the kids in town call "The Castle." The site, way back when, had been a farm, where corn and tomatoes grew, and there was a beautiful farmhouse. Midland Heights' first structure, it was affectionately known as the "White House," and served as both fixture and landmark.
Because the original four acre tract, owned by Midland Heights' founding family, was one of the largest undeveloped pieces of land in Central New Jersey, it could not be subdivided. But when the last member of the farm owner's family, known not so popularly around town as the "Mean Old Man," died, his will stipulated that the farmhouse be torn down. An outcry from the town's citizenry (and an effort to get the site listed as a National Historic Landmark) failed to prevent the bulldozing of the elegant structure.
When Gary and Madlyn Beckwirth moved into town with passels of money, the site had lain dormant for a number of years. They quickly bought the land (rumor had it for as much as $1 million), and, though it took a few years, built on it an enormous fake mansion to out-fake practically every fake mansion ever known to man.
It was huge and brick, and it had two rounded protrusions, one on each side, that suggested towers. If there had been a moat and turrets for pouring boiling oil on invading Visigoths, I wouldn't have been surprised.
The Beckwirths' regal estate also boasted a swimming pool, a tennis court, and for all I knew, Beckwirth's own version of the Pirates of the Carribean in the backyard. The front door was only about 15 feet from Hayes Street, but the other three sides of the house were so far removed from the neighbors, the Beckwirths could pretend they had no neighbors—this in a town so overdeveloped the guy next door usually yells "gesundheit" whenever you sneeze.
Beckwirth and his wife, despite their atrocioius taste, were clearly doing quite well. But I had no idea how they made their money. And my mind still couldn't summon an adequate picture of Madlyn Beckwirth.
Her husband, standing before me, was a shade under six feet tall. And, as I'd remembered, he was unusually handsome. But, if that supermodel on TV could keep imploring me not to hate her because she was beautiful, I couldn't really hold it against Gary Beckwirth that he looked like he belonged on one of the classier Aaron Spelling shows—one without any of Aaron's kids in the cast.
He had those blue-green eyes that women tend to melt into a puddle over, and dark brown, almost black, hair, fashionably coiffed. Normally, you could see the dimple in his chin, but he hadn't shaved in a couple of days, and the dimple now looked like a belly button with hair growing out of it. And he still looked better than me.
He embraced me and hugged me tightly to his chest (which was roughly as high as I reached), and began to sob. I was gasping for breath, because he had my nose buried in his shirt.
"Thank God you've come," he wailed, as my eyes widened from lack of air. "I was afraid, so afraid ..."
I gave the front door a backward kick with my left heel so the neighbors wouldn't think Gary and I were having an illicit liaison. Then I raised my hands to his shoulders, and gently pushed away, normalizing the flow of oxygen to my lungs. "Gary," I gasped. "Nice to meet you."
He ushered me into a living room that could have come out of the 19th century. In fact, I'm not sure it didn't. Every piece of furniture was an antique, every rug an Oriental. The room was devoid of televisions, stereos, computers, or any device other than lamps requiring electrical power. If they'd been able to get gas jets up and running there, they likely would have gotten rid of the lamps, too. The Beckwirths probably had a home theatre set up elsewhere, but this was the main room, and they kept it this way so they could tell their friends they never watched TV, and then sneak off to catch Nash Bridges when nobody was looking. Was I being judgmental?
Beckwirth managed to control his weeping until we were inside. He actually had coffee in a silver urn on the coffee table, and poured me some without asking. I don't drink coffee, but I mimed taking a sip and put the cup down as he composed himself.
"I don't know how much Milton told you ..." he began.
"He told me that Madlyn hasn't come home in a few days," I offered. "And you're worried. That's certainly understandable, but ..."
Beckwirth nodded, and ignored the "but." "That's why you've got to help me, Aaron. You're the only one I could think of."
I was the only one he could think of? I could think of dozens. In fact, I'd sooner go to the dry cleaner for help than a freelance writer. At least he'd know whether she took her clothes with her. What the hell was I supposed to do about the guy's wife leaving him? Pitch a story to Redbook on ways to lose those last 10 pounds before running away from your husband?
"Can you think of any reason Madlyn might want to ... take a few days off without telling you?"
It took him a couple of seconds to absorb what I was saying. "You think she went away on purpose?"
"I don't think anything. I haven't the slightest idea what happened. I'm just asking."
For a moment, his face darkened, his eyebrows lowered, and his voice gained authority. This must be the Beckwirth his employees saw. "My wife did not leave me, Aaron. She was taken away against her will."
This time it took me a moment. "She was kidnapped?"
"Exactly. She was kidnapped. And I want you to find out who did it, and why, and get her back."
I pretended to take another sip of coffee. Lord, that stuff smells great, but it tastes foul. "Gary, this really isn't my line of work. What you need is ..."
"Don't tell me about the police, Aaron," Beckwirth said with a voice that must cause young stockbrokers, or whatever the hell he is, to tremble in their boots. "I've spoken to our esteemed chief of police, and he's barely raised a finger. The lazy bastard sends out a fax to other police departments and thinks that's going to get my wife back. An affirmative action appointment if ever I saw one." Barry Dutton is African-American.
"If you think the police aren't doing enough, Gary, get yourself a private investigator."
Beckwirth smiled his best "aren't-we-all-friends-here" smile and leaned toward me. "I've got something better. I've got you."
"I'm not better. I'm worse. I write articles about cellular phones for a living, Gary. If my wife didn't have a full-time job, I would be considered indigent." I figured the allusion to money would impress him.
Once again, I had underestimated the depth of Beckwirth's fantasy life. "You know investigation, Aaron. You're an investigative reporter."
"Was. I was an investigative reporter. I used to be a teenager, too, but that doesn't mean I can come up with a cure for acne."
Excerpted from For Whom the Minivan Rolls by Jeffrey Cohen Copyright © 2002 by Jeffrey Cohen . Excerpted by permission of Bancroft Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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