An excerpt from
Deadly Beloved
The new Ms. Tree Novel
by Max Allan Collins



Oh, sure, Paretsky, Grafton and Muller get all the props for creating the modern female eye (just ask anyone in Sisters-in-Crime), and I don't mean to take anything from any of them, but come on! It's about time Ms. Tree and her creators writer Max Allan Collins and cartoonist Terry Beatty got some long-overdue respect from the mystery community.

Why has Ms. Tree been cold-shouldered for so long? Was it because she first made her debut in comic books? (In 1981, predating both Kinsey Millhone and V.I. Warshawski) Or because Max and Terry are men? Or was she just too cool (I mean hot) for the room?

Yet, the evidence lies before you. While most female eyes were making nice and trying to get a foot in the door, Ms. Tree was kicking it down and letting her .45 do the talking; the long-time missing link between 1980s-style female empowerment and 1950s pulp fiction; the long-lost love child of V.I. Warshawski and Mike Hammer .

I mean, look at the facts. How many other P.I.s have been institutionalized? Had an afterlife experience? Tracked down a killer while pregnant? Gone mano a mano with the mob? Watched her husband murdered on her wedding night?

In a medium supposedly reserved for adolescents, Ms. Tree regularly dealt with uch hot-button topics as homophobia, devil worship and child pornography, not to mention "women's issues" such as date rape and incest. And not just dealt with them, but dealt with them in an unapologetically mature and honest fashion, asking some pretty damn hard questions that aren't easily answered by either end of the political spectrum. And all this is in a comic book!

Now Ms. Tree has returned at long last, with all its pulpy goodness intact, brought to you by the good folks at Hard Case Crime.

Deadly Beloved is her first full-length novel in prose form and a brave new retelling of her origin; one sure to win her a whole new readership. To which all I can say is, "Bring it on!"

.

......The motel near the airport seemed retro at a glance, with its ‘50s deco neon sign and squared, one-story U of rooms making a courtyard around a swimming pool covered for the winter. But really it was just old.

......This was December, cold, but not yet snowy. Judging by the cars in the lot on this late evening, the motel was at about fifty percent capacity.

...... The kind of honeymoons that happened here were usually not attached to actual weddings and seldom required spending the night.

...... And yet that was where my new husband Mike Tree had arranged for us to spend the first night of our marriage. He explained it by saying he wanted to be near the airport, as if his apartment—our apartment, now—on the North Side was a world away from O’Hare.

...... Not that I was questioning this decision, still a little high on wedding reception champagne, as Mike pulled his red Jaguar into the lot, the pricey vehicle adorned with soap-scrawled JUST MARRIED wishes (he’d stopped to remove the shoes and tin cans from the tail).

...... He was stone sober where I was giggly, but even without the bubbly I’d have had an awkward time of it, climbing from the sports car in my wedding gown. Mike helped me out, then got two small bags from a trunk heavily loaded with suitcases. We were headed for a week in Nassau, leaving at five AM.

...... I carried my bag and he carried his, arm in arm as we made our way to the motel room door, where he set his bag down and removed the bag from my hand and set it down, too, then gave me a look that consisted of his mouth hiking at left and an eyebrow arching at right.

...... “What?” I asked.

...... He held his arms out, palms up.

...... “You gotta be kidding me,” I said, and laughed.

...... “So I’m a traditional slob,” he said. “Sue me. Come on....”

...... Laughing some more, I consented to this nonsense, cooperating as he lifted me up into his arms.

...... What followed was worthy of a silent comedy as he held me like a load of laundry while trying to maneuver with the key in his right hand, getting the door unlocked despite his satin-wrapped cargo.

...... Finally we made it inside, into a motel room that had surely seen its share of happy couples, if rarely married ones; but we had to be among the happiest, laughing our asses off as he carted me over and dumped me unceremoniously on the bed. Should have busted the damn thing, but at a motel like this, one thing that was likely to be kept in top-notch working order was the bedsprings.

...... The door was still open, sending a slant of reddish neon light into the room; Mike was cast in that devilish shade as he went out to get the bags from just outside the threshold he’d so recently carried me over.

...... Then he closed himself and his wife—me—inside the wonderfully drab little room.

...... He gestured with an open hand to the furnishings that would have made any Sears showroom circa 1980 proud, including a matador print above the bed, the sword in the red-vested hombre’s grasp having a less than subtle phallic tinge.

...... “Do I know how to treat a woman,” he said, “or do I know how to treat a woman?”

...... He looked a little like a maitre d’ or maybe a classed-up bouncer at the kind of restaurant where gangsters went to die face-down in their pasta.

...... “What is this place?” I asked. “Where you stake out cheating spouses?”

...... “What this place is...” Mike was undoing his tuxedo pants. “...is close to the airport.”

...... “You said that before.”

...... He was stepping out of the pants now. “Five AM’s gonna come early.”

...... “Sure will. Right after four fifty-nine AM.”

...... He kicked off his shiny shoes. “Who’s wearing the pants in this marriage anyway?”

...... “Not you!”

...... And he was looking pretty silly, in his boxer shorts and tuxedo jacket, the tie loose like a bad lounge singer doing Sinatra or Darin.

...... He said, “Tomorrow night, we’ll be in our honeymoon suite in Nassau. And I guarantee you it will be twice as nice as this.”

...... I shook my head, laughing harder at that than it deserved; with me, if champagne’s involved, I’m an easy audience.

...... “Fair enough,” I said.

...... I got up off the bed—the spread was blue and nubby, perfect for a teenage girl’s room in 1972—but doing so wasn’t easy, because of the tight-fitting wedding dress.

...... “Help me out of this,” I asked, turning my back on my husband.

...... “Uh,” he said, right behind me, “what do you women do with these things, once you’re done with them?”

...... I glanced over my shoulder at him. “If you mean, what do ‘we women’ do with old wedding dresses, well, we put ‘em in a trunk and don’t take ‘em out till the next wedding comes along.”

...... “Really.”

...... “Really.”

...... “Well, you’re never wearing that thing again.”

...... And I saw him grinning but not in time to stop him as he ripped the dress at the shoulders.

...... I wheeled, both shoulders bare, and stood looking at him, astounded and indignant and, goddamnit, amused.

...... “No you didn’t,” I said.

...... His head tipped to one side. “I’m pretty sure I did.”

...... He took me in his arms, firmly but not quite roughly, and kissed me.

...... I kissed him back, the lovable brute, and was still in his embrace when he dropped with me to the bed as if we were one, and I squealed and fought, but not much, as he fumbled and yanked and tore and finally worked what was left of the dress up over my legs and the old-fashioned garter belt that held up the sheer white nylons, exposing white panties.

...... If Norman Bates had been watching through the matador’s eyes, we’d have been a sight, I’m sure—Mike in his shorts and half a tux, me in the disarrayed remains of my wedding gown; but we were having too much fun to give a damn about how we looked, kissing each other feverishly in between laughter, which was turning increasingly lustful.

...... Then he was climbing on top of me, and what happened next is as obvious as it is none of your business.

* * * * *

...... A single lamp was on in the dreary little room, on Mike’s nightstand.

...... He was in black pajama bottoms now, sitting up in bed, on top of the sheets and covers and the nubby blue spread. He was smoking a cigarette, reading one of half a dozen Nassau brochures that were spread over his tummy.

...... I was in the black top of the same pajamas, wearing the white panties that were the sole survivor of my wedding outfit, and was almost asleep, curled up next to the big lug.

...... “Turn that out,” I said sleepily but not grumpily.

...... “I’m planning our itinerary.”

...... “Plan it tomorrow. Please don’t smoke. Bad for you, baby....”

...... He stabbed his cigarette out in a glass tray that hadn’t been on that nightstand more than twenty-five years. The bedsprings told me he was getting out of bed before I noticed him doing it.

...... I looked over at him with half-lidded eyes.

...... He glanced back. “Thirsty,” he explained.

...... “ ‘Cause you smoke! Duh.”

...... “That’s why I love you.”

...... “What is?”

...... “You worry about me.”

...... And he leaned over to give me a peck on the cheek.

...... Then I put a pillow over my head, to block out the light, as he went out.

...... About thirty seconds later, I removed the pillow, sat up, and reached over and shut off the nightstand lamp. The room was dark now, mostly, some of that red neon-tinged light slanting in from the door, which Mike had left ajar.

...... But I was happy. The light was no longer on my face, and I was quite confident he’d leave the light off when he returned, out of deference to his bride. I was just drifting off when the gunshot exploded the silence.

...... I sat upright, and another shot blammed.

...... Then I was off the bed but not out the door, no, I detoured to Mike’s bag, even as another gunshot split the night, and goddamn it, another.

...... Mike’s .45 automatic was in my hand as I quickly pushed out through that already-ajar door.

...... I saw the horrible tableau at once.

...... To the left of our room, down a couple of doors, Mike was sprawled on his back on the pavement near a Pepsi machine, his bare chest puckered with entry wounds and blood pooling beneath him, glistening with neon reflection.

...... Hovering over him was an unshaven, long-greasy-haired, wild-eyed lowlife in a leather biker jacket and frayed jeans and with a big, honking revolver in his hand.

...... I thought I recognized him—Hazen, Something Hazen...a punk Mike put away a long time ago, for killing a stripper with a wrench or some damn thing.

...... He hadn’t noticed me yet, busy leaning over Mike’s body, ranting. “Son of a bitch! Son of a bitch! I said I’d shoot your ass and I did it! Son of a bitch!”

...... “Mike!”

...... Hazen turned and saw me running at him, a wide-eyed apparition in a black pajama top with my husband’s gun in hand, ready to shoot the evil fucker to Kingdom Come.

...... And he started to flee, shooting back at me as he did, tossing off two quick rounds.

...... I didn’t bother ducking. He was firing wildly, the shots landing on either side of me, one kissing concrete, another thunking into a parked car. I ran and I aimed and I shot, the .45 report twice as loud in the night as his revolver.

...... But I didn’t hit him, either, and he ducked behind a car, one of half a dozen parked along this row of motel rooms.

...... I wasn’t quite running now, more striding, and it was cold out but colder within: frozen with shock and rage, I was moving in a straight line toward the son of a bitch....

...... Then Hazen popped out to take a shot at me, but he didn’t get it off, because I shot first—damn!—narrowly missing him.

...... But I was almost on top of him now, and he went scrambling out from behind his car to the next one down, and again tried to pop up and shoot at me.

...... My shot nicked his ear and he howled and ducked down behind a parked car.

...... Two cars between me and him.

...... Fuck it.

...... I got up on top of the nearest parked car and my bare feet made burps in the metal as I stalked across the hood of one, then hopped to the next, and when Hazen popped up from behind the next car down, he had me looking down at him and I was smiling something too terrible to really be called a smile as I pointed the .45 at his ugly head.

...... His revolver swung up, but it was way too late.

...... The .45 split the night and Hazen’s skull and he flopped back in a cloud of blood mist.

...... I gazed down at the dead piece of shit, flung onto the sidewalk, his eyes wide open and looking back up at me, but not really.

...... Somehow I climbed down off the car. When the pavement was under my feet, I started to run, to run back to my husband, sweeping past various motel rooms, people in underwear or pajamas in doorways, peeking out cautiously, but I barely saw them.

...... I was busy screaming: “911! 911! Now! Now!”

...... Then I was kneeling at Mike’s side, bending to him, holding him in my arms and soothing him and cradling him, unaware of the blood I was getting all over myself, praying he could hear me, knowing he could not.

...... He was dead. My husband was dead. No question. No getting around it.

...... “Bad for you,” I said to him softly. “Bad for you.”

Copyright © 2007 by Max Allan Collins.


Iowa's Max Allan Collins is he mystery genre's renaissance man. you name it and he's done it -- comic strips, comic books, cards, short stories, novels, critcism, film, even movie and TV tie-ins and novelisations. He's been a president of The Private Eye Writers of America, won their Lifetime Achievement Award, and won or been nominated for numerous Edgars and Shamuses for his large (and constantly expanding) body of work, both for fiction and non-fiction. And he plays in a couple of rock bands. My guess is he hasn't slept since about 1953 or so...

He's also created several series characters, most notably comic book P.I. Ms. Tree and historical private eye Nate Heller. He's co-written, with James L. Traylor, what must surely stand as the definitive defense/critique of the late Mickey Spillane and is currently involved in preparing and completing (for publication) several novels Spillane left behind.

But the scary thing about Collins isn't that he's so prolific, or even that he works in so many madia. Nope. What's really really scary is how consistently, frighteningly good he is.

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"And I'll tell you right out that I'm a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk."