Thrilling Detective is really pleased to present the following excerpt from what's shaping up to be one very promising private eye novel-in-progress.I if Jack can maintain the mood through a whole book, it's gonna be one hell of a read. See if you don't agree...


Truth Is The Perfect Disguise
An excerpt from a novel-in-progress

by Jack Curtin


ONE

........I gave a head fake to the right and waited until the guy guarding me, who still hadn't figured out that I was left-handed, leaped awkwardly in that direction, then put up a jump shot over him as he came down. It felt good leaving my hand but rattled wildly off the front of rim. It was my eighth shot and eighth miss of the night. Disgusted, I waved for a substitute and staggered over to the sidelines to join wiser men than I who had already foresworn rumbling up and down the hard asphalt court in the humid August heat. After accepting such condolences as were offered, I wrapped a towel around my neck and settled in to wait for another loss to be put on the books.

........Watching aging white men play a young man's game badly is an unlikely spectator sport, but this particular playground had a cachet stretching back to the days before good professional players became automatic millionaires merely by dropping out of college. Back then, not yet victim to the mindless arrogance of too much money, pros and would-be pros would participate in amateur leagues during the off season to perfect their games in hopes of more playing time or, more likely, hoping to be able to hang on for one more winter to the best gig they would ever know. Watching summer league games under the lights had become something of a local habit as a result. That time was long past, but the habit persisted and we always drew a decent sized crowd whenever we played. In fact, the audience was often more interesting than the game and my attention gradually shifted from the court to the clumps of onlookers standing or sitting on the lawn around the playground court.

........I felt him before I saw him, absurdly out of place in his coat and tie among the weekly regulars. James Francis O'Brian himself--professional Irishman, professional Catholic and all-round pain in the ass--a man who most certainly had not arrived at this less than convenient suburban playground by accident at nine o'clock of a Wednesday night. I wasn't entirely surprised to see him. I definitely wasn't happy to see him.

........When O'Brian realized I'd spotted him, he moved slowly around the court and came over to stand beside me. His hand moved tentatively then stopped, as he decided not to offer it. A wise decision. Instead, keeping his eyes on the court rather than meeting mine, he spoke a single sentence out of the corner of his mouth like a gangster in a bad movie. "Father Jack wants to see you."

........I recalled the story which had been splashed all over the front pages that morning. "I'll just bet he does," I said.

TWO

........"Nobody drives on campus without a permit."

........There was no way the guard at the gate wanted to let me onto the campus. It would make his night, maybe his whole week, if he could force me to turn around and park in the lot across the street so I would have to make the long walk back up the entry drive. Chances are he'd give me a hard time again when I got to him on foot. It was like I'd never been away. Twenty years, and still the same old bull.

........"I have an appointment with Father Hanlon."

........"Nobody told me nothing about no appointment."

........He looked at me skeptically. Not entirely without reason, I suppose. The university was less than a ten minute drive from the playground and all I had done--after somewhat childishly but with great satisfaction hanging around until O'Brian left, so he would have to wonder if I would accept the command from on high--was throw on cutoff sweatshirt over my tee shirt and shorts. I was still damp with sweat and an unlikely candidate to meet with anyone of any import at ten at night, much less the best known and most respected university president in the entire Philadelphia area. Not that it would have mattered if I'd been in a three piece suit. Guys who ended up in jobs like this guy had enjoyed making things difficult for anybody and everybody, as if that somehow made their own miserable lives more tolerable. For all I know, it did.

........"Look, call the office. He'll tell you it's okay."

........"No reason to call the office. 'Sides, Father ain't there this time of night. He back in the monastery."

........"Just call. See if anybody answers."

........He shook his head. "No need."

........It wasn't like I really cared if I got on the campus or not, I told myself, even as I belied that comforting lie by taking a more direct approach. A bully would always understand bullying. "Look, friend, I'm either driving up this driveway or turning around and going home. Either way, I won't be here two minutes from now. And if I go the wrong way, you can bet your ass you won't be here tomorrow."

For a moment I thought he was actually going to get physical about this whole silly business, but instead he spun around and went to the booth. He picked up the phone and dialed. Talked. Listened. Wasn't at all happy about what he heard. He came back out and, without looking at me, lifted the gate.
........
........
He stood scowling in the roadway, shrinking in my rearview mirror as I drove up the campus, moving slowly between the dark old stone buildings where the wisdom of the ages was imparted to a new generation which increasingly did not care and could not learn. At least this guy was black, rather than one of the alcohol-reddened Irishmen who manned the barricades during my youth. Progress of a sort.

THREE

........In my day you could drive all around the campus once you got past the gate, but the eruption over the years of enough new structures to accommodate vastly increased enrollment had cluttered up what had once been a sprawling green enclave. Now there were barriers tossed in some undecipherable pattern across most of the roads and paths which stretched from here to there. I wended my way through the maze, taking some consolation in the fact that it was dark so I wouldn't have to deal with the question that always plagued me on my rare trips back to this realm of my wayward youth: why in hell didn't they at least try to make the architecture of the new blend in with the old so that there could be some sort of aesthetic balance to the place? We used to joke as undergraduates that the school's ultimate aim was to cover the entire campus in asphalt and ugly buildings. Who knew?

........I got as close as I could with the car, then parked on the grass next to the cemetery where they used to bury all the dead priests until they ran out of room. Now they're running out of priests. Possibly there is some logic to the universe after all.

........It was only a couple of hundred yards to the front steps of the administrative offices located in the second oldest building on campus, a Gothic monstrosity linked by an enclosed second story walkway to the even more monstrous monastery, the oldest building on campus. Walking that passageway, you crossed from a closed, cloistered world darkened by centuries of repression and blind faith into a modern world where the exchange of ideas and the explicitness of science held sway almost instantaneously. It took a certain kind of man to make that journey successfully day after day.

........A man like Jack Hanlon.

........The President's Office was on the south corner of the second floor. Dim night lights set at periodic intervals along the baseboard gave the stairwell and corridors an eerie feeling but provided just enough vision to enable me to make my way toward the light that streamed from the open office door like a beacon. That was an image I'm sure the present occupant of that hallowed place would appreciate, which meant it was one I never intended to share with him.

........The two of them were huddled in the far corner talking. They had to have heard me coming--even in sneakers my footsteps had echoed loudly down the empty hall--but neither looked up immediately when I entered. O'Brian had that sour look on his face which those who knew him well were all too familiar with, the look that he never let his friends in the press see. He appeared to be talking rapidly. Too rapidly, I'd guess. Hanlon was expressionless and seemingly attentive, though I be willing to wager he hadn't heard a word. As O'Brian finished whatever self-serving crap he was feeding his lord and master, they both turned my way, almost in unison.

........Jack Hanlon's face broke out into the famous smile that was as much a part of his success as his highly touted skills as a manager of men and money. I knew that smile well. He crossed quickly to greet me, hand outstretched. His was a hand I would shake, despite differences between us at least as great as those I had with O'Brian. I'd be hard pressed to explain exactly why this was so.

........"I knew you'd come," he said as if this was nothing unusual and we got together all the time. Putting his arm easily around my shoulder, he steered me toward the desk so smoothly and naturally that it almost felt like it was my idea. O'Brian hadn't moved at all. He just stood watching us, his eyes angry and bitter. James Francis O'Brian was the sort of person who'd tell you, with sad eyes and doleful tone, that he lived by the old platitude that you should hate the sin but not the sinner. In my case at least, he was congenitally unable to separate the two.

........Hanlon picked up a folder from the desktop and got right to it without preamble. "This is everything we know about the" He paused, searching for the right word. "the event you read about in the papers this morning. I'd like you to look into it."

........"And what makes you think I care what you'd like?" I almost winced as I said it. The words and tone were harsher than seemed necessary, even for me.

........But Hanlon didn't react, instead giving me the "Father Jack" serious look, the one he used when pressing a rich alumnus for money or a politician for a special favor. That look that said I've got you right where I want you. He paused briefly to let me feel its full impact.

........"You care, old friend," he said finally, "because this is your chance to get even with the Church, with the University and with me." He allowed the smile to light up his features again. "And your chance to bring Matt Riley down."

........Damned if he hadn't nailed it cold. I looked Jack Hanlon, once my best friend in the whole world, straight in the eye and smiled back at him for perhaps the first time in nearly two decades. "You silver-tongued devil, you," I said, and took the file from his hand.

Copyright (c) 1999 Jack Curtin



Jack Curtin has been a freelance writer in the comics and craft brewing trade press the last few years (said few years being the most recent in a freelance writing and editing career spanning three decades). Most of that writing has been non-fiction to date, everything from features and articles for national and local
(Philadelphia area) magazines and papers to corporate histories,newsletters and annual reports for businesses and institutions.

He began working more seriously on his fiction last year, and has already sold his first story,"After Billy Died," to Mystery.Net, the online mystery site which publishes new stories every week. Late last year, he entered the first three chapters of his crime novel-in-progress, Truth Is the Perfect Disguise, in a contest conducted by the Sisters in Crime section of CompuServe's Mystery Forum and took second place.

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Please direct comments on the above story and inquiries about submissions to the editor, or check out this page.
"And I'll tell you right out that I'm a man who likes talking to a man that likes to talk."

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