Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from Joe David Rice’s recently released thriller/mystery novel, A Nasty Way to Die, his second novel and follow-up to last year’s An Undercurrent of Murder. Both are part of his Randy Lassiter and Leslie Carlisle mystery series.
I knew something was wrong half a block before I reached J.J.’s house. While my best friend could make no claim as a master gardener, he’d always maintained his property in good shape if for no other reason than to mollify a nearby pair of widows with too much time on their hands. But there were enough fallen limbs and branches on his front lawn to fill a wheelbarrow many times over. A severe spring thunderstorm had hammered Little Rock a couple of days earlier and wreaked havoc throughout the city. Only one yard on the entire block still showed ill effects: J.J.’s.
I pulled my pickup to the curb, got out, and stopped in my tracks. Up close, it looked even worse. The zoysia grass stood about shin-deep, the flowerbed bordering his driveway needed a major overhaul, and his privet hedge seemed to have been fertilized with anabolic steroids.
Picking up two candy wrappers and a crumpled cigarette pack from the sidewalk, I made my way to the deep front porch running the width of his house. As I climbed the worn concrete steps, anxious thoughts filtered through my mind. The house appeared vacant. A wrinkled flyer from a commercial window-washing outfit hung from the doorknob. After ringing the doorbell, I peeked in the mailbox. Empty. I rang again and eyed the porch. It hadn’t been swept in a while. The sole tracks in the gritty dust ended at my feet.
Unless he’d left in a big hurry, J.J. would have called. That’s what I told myself as I cupped hands around my face and gazed through the picture window. The dark living room appeared unchanged—a floor-to-ceiling bookcase on the far wall, stone fireplace to the right, and massive leather sofa opposite. J.J.’s antique roll-top desk and a companion captain’s chair completed the furnishings. Except for a potted ficus tree next to the window, I saw no signs of life. And even it looked unhealthy; an assortment of withered leaves lay scattered on the hardwood floor beneath the plant.
Like a peripatetic peeping Tom, I circled the house and peered into every window displaying the slightest hint of a crack in the curtains. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
The rear half of the property mirrored the front, desperate for attention. After depositing the handful of trash I’d collected into J.J.’s otherwise empty garbage can, I stood, dumbfounded, and stared across the expansive backyard. The overgrown lawn resembled a pasture, soggy leaves and pine needles filled both birdbaths, and at least a bushel of pine cones blanketed the driveway leading to the detached garage.
When I turned to leave, my addled brain began to function again and I remembered a key stashed deep in the recesses of the glove box in my truck. We had exchanged house keys years earlier, soon after J.J.’s move to Little Rock. He checked on my home during those rare occasions when I traveled on extended trips, and I did the same for him. A crash course on houseplant stewardship and aquarium maintenance had been part of the arrangement.
With his house key gripped in a sweaty palm, I returned from my Toyota and climbed the grimy steps to the back stoop. The key slid into the lock and the kitchen door swung open. Inside, I immediately noticed the smell. Musty. As if the place had been abandoned for days.
“Anybody home?” I eased down the long hallway and flipped lights on at every chance, stopping first at J.J.’s bedroom. The bed had been made, more or less, and there were no dirty clothes to be seen. A thin layer of dust covered his nightstand and dresser, but everything looked in order, much to my relief. The same was true for the rest of the house. No jimmied windows or doors, no ransacked rooms or closets, no bloodstains. But no J.J. Newell either.
I walked back to the den, drawn by the gentle gurgle of J.J.’s aquarium, a 50-gallon tank of tropical waters far removed from coral reefs and mangrove bights. A slimy film of algae coated much of its glass walls, but what I could manage to see unnerved me. The fish population had been reduced by three-fourths, and the few survivors looked weak. I searched without success for J.J.’s pair of prized angelfish. Several flimsy skeletons littered the sandy bottom, picked clean. A miniature saltwater catfish, the sole scavenger of the lot, provided the only healthy exception to this dismal picture. He swam about with vigor and stirred up tiny clouds of sediment while nosing among the brittle bones. I sprinkled some food onto the water and watched as the remaining fish darted back and forth like frenzied piranhas.
Pulling myself from the aquarium, I made another pass through J.J.’s home, hoping I might have overlooked something. A faint but peculiar smell in the hallway teased my nostrils. I followed my nose into the laundry room where a large load of damp towels had soured in the washer. I tossed a cup of detergent on top and started the machine. What could have caused J.J. to have left his laundry unfinished?
For half an hour, I tended to my friend’s houseplants. Some had wilted and would recover, but others had already given up the ghost. I then treated and added two gallons of water to the aquarium and was about to leave the den when my eyes locked on a guitar propped against the sofa. What’s that doing here? I wondered. To the best of my knowledge, J.J.’s musical talents were pretty much equal to mine. Non-existent. But it was a handsome thing, and the brand—Gibson—was one I recognized. A beginner’s guidebook to chords lay on a nearby end table, all but hidden under a small stack of sheet music. The piece on top—Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”—caused me to momentarily freeze.
Baffled, I returned to the kitchen. A swarm of gnats circled above a bowl of mushy apples. I tossed the fruit into the backyard, figuring the squirrels and birds would solve that dilemma. I then examined the refrigerator, and my nose again recognized a problem. A dull layer of mold hid what remained of a pint of raspberries. Those disappeared down the disposal, but the subtle smell didn’t go away. I rechecked every shelf and drawer and soon discovered an expired carton of milk stored in a compartment on the refrigerator door. About to gag, I poured the thick, lumpy liquid down the drain and then backtracked to the laundry room where I heaved the load of towels into the dryer.
The unexpected jangling of the telephone made me jump. I lifted the receiver on the third ring, took a deep breath, and said, “Hello.” My pulse raced.
After a brief hesitation, a timid female voice asked, “J.J., is that you?” The woman sounded nervous. Maybe frightened.
The line went dead. I stared at the phone, the same land line that had gone unanswered time and again when I’d called over the past two weeks. I wished J.J. owned an answering machine or one of those caller ID gadgets. But my independent friend had never been one to embrace technology. More than once I had kidded J.J. that he was the last man in America without a cell phone.
“And I sure don’t want Fritter or Spacebook,” he’d said earlier this spring.
“That’s Twitter and Facebook, not—”
“I don’t need them either,” he had replied with a dismissive wave of his hand.
My heart still pounding, I spotted a remote control for the garage door, one of J.J.’s few concessions to technical paraphernalia. I stepped onto the back porch, pushed the button, and watched as the large door lifted. Before it reached the halfway point, I realized J.J.’s classic Jaguar convertible was gone. I fingered the device once more to close the garage and was about to lock the house when the ringing of the telephone again startled me.
“Hello,” I said.
“Professor Newell.” Another female voice. “I’m Natalie Yee at—”
“Excuse me,” I said, interrupting. “This is Randy Lassiter, one of J.J.’s friends. He’s . . . uh . . . unavailable right now.”
There was silence at the other end of the line.
“May I take a message?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “Thank you very much. J.J. missed his last appointment with us and he’s scheduled to be here late this afternoon. I’m calling to confirm.”
I paused a moment and tried to collect my wits. “You may have to fill me in a bit,” I finally said.
“I’m with the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Arkansas Children’s Hospital,” she said. “We have a program called Child Life where adults volunteer to hold infants — and J.J. has always been one of our most dedicated and reliable participants.”
“Hold infants? What do you mean?”
Ms. Yee shared a light chuckle. “You’re by no means the first to ask. Our hospital screens and trains adults to hold newborn babies, providing them with warmth and comfort and soothing voices. The results have been nothing short of miraculous.”
“And J.J. does this?”
“Oh yes! He’s one of our original volunteers—we call them ‘the cuddlers’—and he’s never missed one of his sessions. Until week before last, that is.”
An image of a tiny baby nestled in J.J.’s brawny arms filled my mind. I’d known him half my life and had no idea he participated in such a program. Were there other secrets to be uncovered?
“Mr. Lassiter, are you still there? Can you pass my message along to J.J.?”
I had to clear my throat. “Yes, I’m still here. And . . . uh . . . when I see J.J., I’ll tell him you called.”
“Do you think we can count on him later today?”
It was a question I didn’t want to answer. “I’m afraid not,” I said. “I don’t believe I can reach him in time.”
“I understand, but thanks for your help. And please give me a call if you’d like to volunteer. We need more folks like J.J. Newell to get these precious newborns out of bassinets and into human arms. As I’m sure you know, he’s a very special man.”
“He is that,” I said with a sniff. “A very special man.”
I placed the phone’s receiver in its cradle, leaned against the kitchen counter, and wiped away a tear trickling down my cheek.
J.J. had bought the craftsman-style bungalow half a dozen years ago after moving to the city from Baton Rouge. He must have inspected 25 houses before a desperate seller accepted his low-ball offer on what his weary agent charitably called an “extreme fixer-upper.” Ever the perfectionist, J.J. had devoted most of his first summer in Little Rock to a steady stream of do-it-yourself home improvement projects. He jokingly claimed to be on a first-name basis with the entire staff at Home Depot. He scraped and sanded layers of old paint, cut and laid tile, replaced siding, glazed and caulked windows, and even built a deck. Repainted in beige—or antique champagne, to use real estate jargon—with a rich burgundy trim, the house was a showplace. Or at least used to be.
On the way back to my truck, I encountered a young man on the sidewalk. “It looks like you need some professional help,” he said.
I stopped and looked him hard in the eyes. “I beg your pardon.”
He met my stare with a practiced smile and then handed me a business card. “Your yard,” he said. “I have the best lawn service company in town.” He gestured over his shoulder to an extended-cab pickup with a trailer full of mowers, blowers, and edgers parked in front of my Toyota. Two tanned college-age young men leaned against the hood. “My men and I can make this property sparkle. Guaranteed.”
Following a quick round of negotiations, I shook the youthful entrepreneur’s hand and gave him one of my cards. “Please send the bill to this address.”
I turned and stared at J.J.’s empty house. When I shut my eyes, I recalled the tour he had given me the day the deal had closed. Located in the city’s old but chic Hillcrest neighborhood, his home occupied a large corner lot a few blocks north of War Memorial Stadium. “Perfect for the Arkansas-LSU football games,” he’d said before we reached the front door. It was also near enough that we sat on the front porch and eavesdropped on concerts on occasion, including a standing-room-only performance by the Rolling Stones in the same stadium earlier in the spring. The acoustics were lousy, but parking spaces were guaranteed and J.J.’s beer selection couldn’t be beat. And I never had to wait in line for his restroom.
The roar of a two-cycle engine brought me back to reality. I sidestepped a roiling cloud of bluish smoke, gave my new friend behind the lawnmower a nod, and climbed into the truck. I wished for enough time to check with some of J.J.’s neighbors, but a moody, high-maintenance client was scheduled to arrive at my ad agency in fifteen minutes. Punctuality was one of her few good traits. That and she paid her bills on time.
I’d known James Joseph Newell — called J.J. by everybody — for years, and we’d been close—almost brothers—after his move to Little Rock. We often talked by phone and saw each other a couple of times a month. He had never left town for any length of time without letting me know.
My mind searched for a reasonable explanation. But my heart knew otherwise.
On the drive back to my office, a flurry of random, disjointed thoughts fought for recognition. As I remembered a pivotal conversation J.J. and I’d had years earlier, a smile worked its way across my face. I had just set up shop as Lassiter & Associates, the newest addition to Arkansas’s already overcrowded advertising scene. J.J. resided in Baton Rouge at the time, wrapping up his Ph.D. in zoology. While he’d gone to Louisiana State University for graduate work following our days together at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, I had settled in Little Rock to undertake a less formalized continuing education program of my own design. Hopping from one ad agency to another every six months, I filed away a wealth of experiences — good, bad, and awful — and somehow managed to survive the 70-hour weeks expected of junior employees. After two long but memorable years in the trenches, I submitted my final resignation.
I then threw caution and common sense to the wind, acquired a ragtag collection of secondhand office furniture, and opened my own agency. Located on the wrong end of a semi-fashionable street near the city’s Amtrak station, my quiet one-room workspace overlooked a world of winos and wannabes. I didn’t have a single client, but I could claim a spiffy logo, a fancy telephone, and an irrepressible urge to be my own boss.
The first call on my new phone came from Baton Rouge. “Randy, I’ve got some good news,” J.J. said.
Something was up. Always before he had called me at home in the evenings to take advantage of cheaper rates. “Let me guess . . . Your tests from the Health Department came back negative?”
“Go to hell,” he said with a laugh. “It’s official. I got the degree and—”
“Congratulations!” I interrupted. “Shall I address you as . . . Dr. Newell?”
“How does Professor Newell sound? I’ve accepted a faculty appointment.”
This sounded serious. I slid my crossword puzzle to the side, certain that I had the rest of the week to work on it. “Don’t tell me you’ll be in a position to influence the lives of young, impressionable students?”
“It’s a full-time job.”
I noticed a hint of excitement in his voice. “Let’s hear the sordid details,” I said.
“The biology department is small, but it’s in an up-and-coming institution.”
“And where might that be?”
“The University of Arkansas Little Rock.” He paused for a moment. “I’m scheduled to move next week.”
READ MORE: An Undercurrent of Murder