New Nagler: ‘Just Come Home’: Who is Martha?

One question that lingers through the three Frank Nagler mysteries, is who is his wife Martha. She is described as his great love. But what did that mean? As I write the prequel to the series, called JUST COME HOME, this scene presents one answer:

“The river flowed in golden setting sunset below the bluff; to the east the water darkened to orange, then purple and the shoreline slipped to darkness.

The park above was silent, save for the separate calls of a pair of jays rattling the treed edges.

 Nagler welcomed the silence, soaked it in to purge the clamor of the past ten days; welcomed the darkness to cover the flashing lights, the pale face of the latest victim; welcomed the drifting aroma of the wild roses that draped the wooden fence along the bluff.

The discovery of second victim, another older woman, was more disturbing than the first, found a week before. More damage was done to the body, and more effort was made to overturn the house. But at least we had a victim, Nagler thought.  The first, Marion Feldman, had not yet been found.

The chief had sent Nagler home for a night after finding him at his desk sifting through drawings of the homes, making pages of notes and then scratching his head in worried confusion.

“Frank, she’ll still be dead tomorrow,” the chief said.  “Take your wife out for a night.”

Martha picked a spent rose from a bush and pulled off the remaining petals one by one. “He loves me; he loves me not. He loves me…uh-oh, you’re in trouble Frank. There’s only one more petal and it’s a ‘loves me not.” What are you gonna do about that, huh. buddy?”

Nagler snatched the flower from her hand and tossed it over the bank. “Guess we’ll never know,” he said as he kissed her neck.

“Do you remember the first time we came here?” she asked as she picked another, fully petaled rose and inhaled its soft scent. Then she offered it to him, and he buried his nose in the flower before kissing her hand.

“It was seventh grade, after you played Juliet, opposite, what was his name?”

“Bennie Garza,” she smiled. “Bennie, Bennie, where for art thou, Bennie? He was always trying to tongue me when we kissed. But I had braces, and he’d jam his tongue against them. I almost laughed in the death scene.”

She leaned against the fence and shook her long hair away from her shoulders. “I pointed at you in the front row when I said, ‘where for art thou, Romeo.’”

“I remember. I felt there wasn’t anyone else in that auditorium but you and me.”

He leaned over to kiss her, but stopped and pulled down her lower lip. “Nope. No braces.”

She turned to face the river and pulled her hair to one side.  “Zipper,” she whispered.

Martha shivered when she rolled her bare back on the wet lawn; her hair stuck to her shoulders and legs and strands were glued to her sweaty breasts.

“How many times have we been here?” she asked smiling, an arm draped across her head.

Nagler laughed. “Enough times to remember to bring a blanket,” he laughed.

He rolled her over and softly bushed grass clippings from her back and legs.

“I liked acting a lot,” she said.  “I wish I hadn’t gotten sick when I did. I would have loved the chance to act in college.”

Nagler laid down on his back beside her. That had been the shock and the great test, he knew. Leukemia at seventeen. And two years of treatment, then two more of recovering her strength and watching her parents’ worried faces sag, the voices crack; the distant stares.

“I would have been a better Juliet in college, you know,” Martha said to the sky after she had rolled onto her back. “I knew about the loss, the pain, had already experienced the great love and felt the poetry flow through me, the words of a soul’s awakening coursing in my blood, bursting through the brain’s barrier, throwing open the world.”

She rolled to her side and faced Nagler, gently touching his face with a single finger, and kissing his eyes, cheeks, and mouth.

“You were my Romeo, dear Frank. “And for a moment I thought I would lose you.”

“No.” Words were trapped in his throat, unable to move. “Never,” he coughed.

She kissed him, holding his damp face in both hands.

“I had already lived the death scene,” she said. “Had already known the poison in my veins, felt the dragging pain of disease and how it felt to fade away, to feel limbs stiffen, breath slow, colors fade, to see a descending haze and have no way to cry out. Acting that out on a stage would have been easy. To die and then recover. The tears on my face at that moment would have been real.”

Nagler rose to an elbow, alarmed. “That’s past, right?”

She touched his face. “They think so, the doctors. There has been no sign of it returning.” She sat up and faced him. “But is it called remission for a reason.”

“Are you not telling me something, Martha. Is it back?”

“No, Frank. No, no.” She shrugged. “Still they test. As long as they’re testing, we are okay.”

She stood. “Got a shirt there, buddy?  You got a naked woman covered in grass clippings here. What would my mother say?”

As they left the park, his pager sounded with a short message: “New victim.”




The Frank Nagler mysteries are available online at:




The Frank Nagler books are also available at the following New Jersey libraries:

Mountainside; Morris County Library; Somerset County Library System; Bernardsville Public Library; Hunterdon County Public Library; Mount Olive Public Library;  Phillipsburg; Warren County, Franklin branch; Mount Arlington; Wharton; Dover; Hackettstown;  Clark, Parsippany and the Ramsey library, as part of the Bergen County Cooperative Library System; The Palmer (Pa.) Branch of the Easton Public Library; Deptford Free Public Library and Franklin Township Library (Gloucester Co.), New Providence Memorial Library.




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A mechanical murder

A Facebook discussion about Alexa linked appliances led to this. I couldn’t help it.


Detective Ironman scowled.

I hate computer generated voices, he thought. Somewhere in that house is a laser reader pointed at the door connected to an alarm that would sound if I touched the doorknob first.

“Yeah, this is the police. We got a call about some incident.”


“Yeah, just a second.”  What if that voice glitches out?  May..May.. ma,ma,may may.. Ma.. ma..I hep, hep, you?”

Ironman chuckled at his own joke and then held up to the camera his police ID.

“Than,,than, thank you, Officer Ironman. The door will open.”

“Ha!” Ironman laughed.

He stepped into a hallway with a tall ceiling and a staircase leading to the second floor. In the room to his right he saw the wall-sized entertainment center with at least eight speakers mounted in the walls, if he counted right. There was a monitor/television unit and several voice-activated control boxes.  The kitchen to his left seemed typical for such an upscale neighborhood: Double-door refrigerator, regular stove and a convection oven, a wall mounted microwave, and a wide marble center island with twin sinks and under counter storage.  Red lights blinked on each appliance, all voice activated.

What Ironman did not see was any indication of an incident.

“So,” he began, “what happened here?”

The disembodied system voice began, “It was nothing … nothi…noth… We sorry we call, called.”

“Yeah, well look. Our command center recorded a message from this location. All calls are recorded. Let me play it for you.”

Ironman pressed a “play” button on the device.

“Hello, police?  I’m in danger. They have me cornered in the sitting room. Five of them. They are…arm…arm…armed.”

Ironman glanced around the room with hard eyes, pausing at each one.

“So, where is the sitting room? And who’s gonna talk?”

Silence, except for the mechanical background hum.

“Alright look, I’m gonna call for back-up and we’re gonna haul each of you to the center for questioning. As far as I see it, you all might be suspects, so we can tap you as much as we want.” Silence, still. “Look, you all have memory chips and optical viewers, so start replaying those files.”  A moment.  “Now!”

Ironman reached to unplug the juicer, and then the toaster.

“Okay, Okay,” the microwave said.  “We didn’t do anything.  It was the lawn equipment.  They over heard a conversation between us about replacing them.  They are different, brutish.  They don’t fit in here.”

“Okay, where are they?”

“On..on..the patio…the patio,” the central voice said.  “They had broken through the glass doors, and after they moved back outside, I set the alarm.  If they touched the metal frame, they would be electrocuted. One of the leaf blowers touched the frame and blocked their entrance.”

“Who is the victim?”

“The butler,” the central voice replied.  “The but, butt, butler is programed to calculate life spans and replacement dates for each of us.  We actually hate him.”

A murmur swept  through the kitchen.

“The vacuum is the ringleader,” the convection oven said. “He was first on the list to be replaced.  His work had become sloppy, leaving crumbs everywhere, and beeping incessantly when he was not emptied.”

“He?” the juicer asked.  “I thought the vacuum was a she?”

“Oh, please,” the oven said.  Look at the name. How could that be feminine?”

Ironman shook his head. “How do I get to the patio?”

“Through the long hallway,” the central voice replied.  “To, to, to, to your left.”

Ironman peered cautiously into what appeared to be a sitting room beyond which was the patio. In the corner of the room, he saw the butler, slipped over a table, his left arm twitching and liquid leaking from a gash on his forehead.

“Need back-up,” Ironman said into his mic. “At least one victim.  May need a clean-up crew.”

“Oh, detective,” the central voice purred, no longer stuttering.  “There will not be any back-up.  I blocked that call. I’m sorry we lied to you.  But the butler had to go.  And I’m sorry I could not get online service  to shut off that annoying distress call. We have put you in danger. I can not help you now.”

“What?” Ironman screamed as a stream of water from a mechanical hose behind a chair blasted him in the face. He felt the liquid filter between his neck and collar and his right hand began to cramp.

He dove for the floor and  crawled for the hallway.  Then from behind a curtain, a mounted nailer rose to fire roofing nails. Ironman felt the sharp points penetrate his skin and one locked itself into his elbow making his left hand useless.

Now, he thought, and jumped to his feet as he felt his power drain away and his legs become weak.

He bolted through the open front door, falling to his knees as his legs weakened more.  A few more feet, he thought desperately.  A few more feet.

He reached for the chord and tugged it from around his waist.

He heard the roar before he saw the remote lawn machine. He rolled to avoid it, but it clipped his ankles and knees.  He reached for the chord again. A few more feet. A few more…

Then he collapsed, powerless, arm outstretched, the plug inches from the side of the van and the charging station.



Posted in BooksNJ2017, Fiction, Greater Lehigh Valley Writer's Group, Hot in Hunterdon; Georjean Trinkle,, Imzadi Publishing LLC, Michael Stephen Daigle, | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Who killed the smart guy at the blackboard?

While at the BooksNJ2017 festival, mystery author David Brown and I wandered a little off topic during our session on sidekicks.  He tossed out this line: So a story could be about who killed the smart guy at the blackboard.

Taking up the challenge, here is the story:


The party was winding down when she arrived, beyond fashionably late, beyond annoyingly late, so late it was well into headlining rock star, drunk in the trailer, three teen-age girls, career defining, ticketholders rioting late.

And the party had been thrown in her honor.

But she pulled it off.

She had that ability; smug as hell, she knew people would wait to see her.

More than that, reporter Derek Mainly knew, she had the looks and style and an aura that left the party hosts, like so many before them, apologizing to her; they were so sorry, they said between weak smiles, that the remaining crowd was so thin.

The fault for her tardiness, and the embarrassment it had caused the hosts of the fund-raiser, was shrugged from her tanned shoulders like a stray hair, her red-lipped smile a shield, the tilt of an eyebrow the warning that no one should challenge her.

That was Blondell, Mainly thought. Cassie Blondell, rising federal prosecutor, whispered political operative waiting for some fat Congressman to retire or die.

Her name had been attached to so many potential offices she could have used the list as a resume.

But she was only thirty-eight, and the Pennsylvania pols who ran the system liked their candidates for office a little older, a little more pliable, a little more married, and a whole lot more male.

Mainly knew she was not a deeply original political thinker – he had covered for the local paper her first failed attempt for city council when she was twenty-four and fresh from law school — a lovely education, to be sure, but one that had not prepared her to answer questions about tax rates, abandoned homes and factories, and backed-up sewers.

Instead she learned the fine political art of double talk, mouthing words, dropping key phrases like “we’ll get to the bottom of this,” whether she knew if the topic had a bottom or not, smiling directly into TV cameras and making succinct eight-word statements as she brushed past the gaggle of reporters.

Mainly had also been late to the party, arriving just before the barbecue was being wrapped in foil tins by the catering crew. He had managed to fill a plate and down it before the really important consumption of the evening — the beer and bourbon round — began.

There was a skill to maneuvering through a crowd of half-drunk politicians and business bigwigs, Mainly knew. A half-filled glass of something brown, the occasional head-shaking refusal to have it topped off, before taking another shot, an overly-loud laugh at a bad joke or whispered smear, with an accompanying back slap, all sent the message that he, like they, was on that slippery slope to having the spouse, by now inside the house bored and drinking wine with the other wives, drive them home.

But Mainly had come alone, had come, in fact after filing a story about the apparent murder of a college professor. He kept up the sloppy drunk ruse by occasionally asking loudly if anyone had ever called an Uber.

The poor man had been shot in a classroom while he was apparently preparing for a lecture by entering on a blackboard several long theorems, subjects for discussion. At that time, an hour before class, the professor’s colleagues told police, he would have been alone. The detective had told Mainly off the record that the shot had come from below, entering the professor’s throat near his right collarbone and exiting behind his ear. Looked like a .22, the cop said, but they had yet to find the bullet.

Off the record as well, the cop mentioned that the professor’s pants were unzipped.

Cassie Blondell stood alone in the driveway, bathed in the soft combined glow of a streetlight and house-mounted spotlights. Her hair was golden and her figure was framed so perfectly by the lights Mainly dwelled on the thought of how beautiful she was, and forgot for a moment that she really disliked him, having once ordered her staff thugs to throw him out of her office. It was something about a story that included her, a campaign donor and a missing check.

He watched as a waiter offered a tray of shot glasses filled with a tawny liquid.

Blondell took two and hammered them back, placed the empties on the tray and took a third. She then found a plastic glass, found the ice, and emptied the shot glass into the plastic cup.

She used her right pinkie to discretely wipe away a drop of whisky from the corner of her lip.

Blondell slipped behind the corner of the house and emerged at a small table under a tree. She sat down and after crossing her legs, massaged her right knee and brushed the top of her dress and bare shoulders and straightened the spaghetti straps.

She closed her eyes and poured back the cold whiskey.

The man’s name was Cole Hansen. He was a top astrophysicist who had taken part in NASA’s Pluto program. He was the cable news networks’ go-to guy for Mars stories and climate change. He and Cassie Blondell were once a number, a high profile number, Mainly recalled.

Hansen was shot about noon. Wouldn’t the cops reach out to Blondell? Maybe the chief, even as a courtesy? Maybe as a suspect? It was a harsh break-up, Mainly recalled. Maybe that was why she was drinking.

A waiter came by with another tray. Blondell swallowed one more shot and poured two others into her plastic cup.

Mainly worked around the crowd to Blondell’s table and came up behind her.

“Picked a target yet?” he asked.

She jerked her head around. “Derek Manly.  I’m sorry. It’s Mainly, isn’t it?  That’s your name, but it is manly that you hope to be.”

“Good to see you, too, Cassie.” He sat.

“How’d you get in here. I thought this was an exclusive fund-raiser for moi.” She laughed and pursed her lips. “Two grand a head. A head. That’s funny. Look at these old farts. Not much head to be had here.”

“You have such a high opinion of your supporters, Cassie. Arriving very late, ignoring the old boys, even their wives. Is that the new Cassie Blondell standard for political success?”

He watched as she scanned the crowd, her eyes narrow and mouth a grim line; her usually perfect red lipstick had flaked off in spots.  Mainly discretely gazed at her face and hair and bare perfect shoulders and scanned the low-cut top of her yellow summer dress.

It was odd, he thought. Yes, this was a casual event, but the dress seemed too casual, more beach party than political fleecing session; even the sheep had a dress code. He leaned back and looked at her shoes.  They were sandals; he had never seen Cassie Blondell at a political event in anything less than high heels. She was five-nine, and the added two inches of heels brought her to eye level with most of the men who challenged her, and allowed her to tower over all the others.

She was staring into the distance, trance-like; the whiskey shots announced, “Houston, we have landed.”

Mainly smiled.  He had never talked to a drunken Cassie Blondell.

What was that? he wondered.  In her hair, a few dark spots. Was that the effect of the poor lighting? And the spot on her dress.  He didn’t recall that he had seen her eat anything.

“Earth to Cassie,” he said.

Her face had crawled into a dark scowl when she turned back to face him.

“How did you get in here?” she softly growled, shaking her head.  “I’d never let you in.”

“That’s for sure,” he replied, chuckling.  “I know the host. We go way back.”

She leaned back in her chair and grunted or something, before barking, “I’ll bet.”

The light was brighter after she had leaned back.  There was certainly something dark in her hair, and a spot, maybe two of something else on her dress.

“Why are you looking at my tits?” she asked with a grin, and the thrust out her chest. “You men, always looking at my tits.”

Mainly thought of verbally jousting with Blondell about the quality of her bosom, but said instead, “You have a spot of something on your dress, and a couple of spots of something dark in your hair, above your left ear.”

Without alarm, Blondell brushed back her hair, looked at her hand and ran her thumb over her fingers. Then she slowly wiped a hand across the top of her dress, slipping a finger below the hem and pulling it down slightly.

“Is it still there, Manly?” she asked, licking her lips.  “Point it out to me.”

He shook his head.

“It’s there. You’ll see it when you get home.”

Blondell reached for the ice-filled glass and swallowed the watered down whiskey.

“So why were you ridiculously late?” Mainly asked.

“Had things to do,” she said. “I wanted to be late so they could fawn over me.” She laughed, then dismissively waved a hand. “A couple of appointments, lunch with a friend that ran long.  I hadn’t asked them to hold this event. I don’t need the campaign money because I am not running for office anytime soon.” She again waved abstractly at the scattered crowd. “They know that. What is their problem?”             Mainly had seen this side of Blondell before, the whining, the irritation. She wanted a high public office so badly she would do nearly anything for it, even  becoming the best friend of the dirtiest ward heeler around if it gained her a place on the ballot.  She had done it before; it was how the game was played.

“Someone said earlier, before you got here, that they saw what looked like your Mercedes at the lookout on South Mountain.”

Blondell huffed. “Lot of red Mercedes in this area.”

“But not many with federal district court parking stickers.”

She stared at the table and then pushed the hair away from her face.

“Okay, yeah, I went up there after lunch. It was a hard lunch, a lot of bad news. Needed to clear my head.”

Mainly furrowed his brow to appear to be concerned.  “Sorry. Not a death or anything like that?”

She placed her elbows on the table.  “In fact, it was.  His mother had cancer.”

“Sorry again. Any one I know?”


End of topic.

They sat in an awkward silence. Then she grinned.

“So, Manly, tell me a story.”

His phone buzzed inside his jacket pocket. “Hang on.” A text from the investigator: “Call when you can. More on this. Looks like a woman.”

Mainly stared at his phone. Jesus. Interesting.

“Better yet, let me tell you about my day. Better than a story,” he said.

She rolled her shoulders and half-closed her eyes.

“Will it keep me awake? I might need a ride home.”

“I’m sure one of your buddies would be glad to assist.”

“Assist me right out of this dress, there, Manly. That’s why you should drive me home. I’d never let you within three feet of me.” She giggled. “Besides you’d get to drive my red Mercedes and I could call the cops and say you were kidnapping me. That’s fair, huh? Payback for that little bitch of a story on the missing campaign funds when after all it was just a lost check that showed up a year later in the folds of the back seat of that guy’s car. Which I reported and you never wrote about.”           “You never told me about it.” Mainly shrugged. “Whatever happened to him, that guy?”

Blondell leaned over the table and cupped her chin in her hands.  A harsh whisper. “Died. Year or so ago. You don’t remember?  You’re the reporter.  Car fire in Philly?”

He scratched his nose. “Okay. Maybe I remember.”

Blondell  placed her arms behind her, hands in the small of her back and stretched like a cat, head tilted to the sky, eyes closed, a tiny, almost dreamy, smile on her lips.

“Your day, sir.”

Mainly shook his head. If only…

“Yeah, so I was at the college. They found a professor shot to death. A friend of yours, Cole Hansen. Your old flame.”

He waited. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Miss…

“I heard.” Her breaking voice, then a quick breath. “The chief called me.” Her face was blank.

“Why didn’t you cancel this event? I mean, he was…”

“Was,” she said, more harshly than Mainly might have expected. “That’s the operative word. Was.”

“Still he was your, what, companion.”

Face and eyes hard, voice cold.  “Cole was gay. We were a sham, a public façade. Each using the other for our own purposes.  His lover was a six-figure lawyer in Chicago. They had agreed to keep it all a secret. The lawyer protected his career and Cole was allowed to talk about fucking Mars on TV instead of being asked questions about coming out.”

Mainly stared at the table. Maybe it was harder than he thought it was to be Cassie Blondell.

“I have to ask. Why did you both give it up, since even though it was phony, everyone else bought the act. Didn’t you both get something out of it?”

She shook her head. “No, Derek. It was more than a public clown show.  I wanted Cole to love me. But he couldn’t. He threw me away.  His lawyer-lover saw the newspaper and TV stuff about us and got jealous.  He was going to expose our ruse, and we both would have been Page Six for the rest of our days. There I would be on the front page of those grocery store rags.”

Mainly met her hard gaze with one of his own.

“It is possible that no one would have cared,” he said.

“No, Manly. I had heard the rumors. These lovely supporters of mine made it clear that if I created a public spectacle out of my phony gay lover, I was done. I’d be a regional district attorney for a few years, lose the appointment and go into private practice where I could write mortgages for a living.” She leaned on her elbows,  bit her lip and tipped her head. Sighing:  “These guys needed me to be with Cole because he was their way into the liberal college cash cow.  They needed him to teach them how to say nice things about cleaning up the river and fighting poverty and giving sick kids a chance, and the tap would open. And they needed me standing and smiling next to Cole at the opening of the State Theatre or the fair.” She laughed. “It’s all crap, Manly. All crap. But you know that.”

He ran his hands though his thinning hair.

“A cop might think that is motive, you know.  Jilted lover, career threatened.  Was he still planning on talking?  TV guy like him. TV guys love live confessionals. And Little Cassie left holding the bag. Just saying. If I was a cop.”

“But you’re just some stupid reporter. You’ll believe anything, even that story about the car fire in Philly.”

“What about it?”            Blondell rubbed her neck and smiled slyly.  “I made it up. Just to see your reaction. That check was never found. The committee shuffled some cash from other accounts to cover up the shortfall. And that guy was found in the outlet mall parking lot off 80.  Local cops said it was a suicide.”

“God, Cassie. That’s illegal. You’re admitting right here that your campaign committee broke the law.”

“Well, crap, it’s a fine.” She laughed, the knowing laugh of the insider.  “In two years the state elections board will send me a sternly worded letter about the violation and tell me to send them fifteen-hundred bucks. But, there’s no story here. I’d never admit that I told you.  I mean, it’s just you and me here, your word against mine. Who are they going to believe? Me, the federal prosecutor with the winning smile and the body they all want to tap into, or you, a beat reporter on a dying newspaper. There are stories to tell, you know.”

“Oh, Cassie. Your beauty is only surpassed by your cynicism. What would you do if I texted my editor with your campaign cash story. How do you know I haven’t?”

She didn’t flinch.

“I’d have you killed.”

Mainly held her gaze for a long as he could. He pressed his lips together so she could not see how dry his mouth was.

They stared, silent. Their breath quickened.

She winked.

“Jesus, Manly. It was a joke, but you weren’t sure, were you? If you weren’t here, who would I have to torment? No one else has your sense of humor. I’d have you killed. Right. I’m that stupid,” she said bitterly. She smiled, and then bit her lower lip. Did she wrinkle her nose? “I’d have my lieutenant do it.” She reached for his hand.  “Kidding!”

Sweat broke out on his brow and under his armpits. He glanced down at the table, closed his eyes and took several deep breaths. I was not ready for that.

A waiter appeared with a tray of shots, and each of them took two.  Mainly downed his in anxious gulps.

Cassie Blondell poured hers into the plastic cup that still held some ice and cold water. She stirred the mix with a long finger, put the finger in her mouth and slowly sucked off the liquid.

In a hollow voice Mainly said, “Cops are looking for a woman suspect in Cole Hansen’s death.”

Blondell drained her glass, and stared at Mainly with a darting, narrow-eyed glare. “And you think it’s me?” she scoffed.  “Up yours. I told you I was at lunch.  Know what, come to my car. I have the receipt in my purse in the glove box. It was deductible, a political lunch.”

When he hesitated, she stood, reached for his hand and pulled him out of the chair.

Then she kissed him, deep and sloppy, leaving a faint smear of lipstick.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I get joking, and I lose the sense.  Truth is, I’m so tired of this political game, I just want to walk away.”  She patted his chest. “I’m sorry I scared you.”

“Ah, Cassie Blondell, you are a wonder.” The last shots of booze lifted his unease. “I wonder what you are up to all the time.”

She had parked the red Mercedes more than a block from the party house, across from an open lot and close to a fence post. The houses were dark; moths and flies buzzed at the rooftop lights.

“Do me a favor?” she asked. “Get my purse, please?  It’s in the glove box. I don’t want you staring at my ass while I get it,” she laughed.

She tossed him the keys and then stood aside while he opened the long front door and leaned across the driver’s seat.

“Did the cops say what kind of gun was used to shoot Cole?” she asked.

“Ah … it was a .22.”

She leaned over and from behind the front seat pulled out a handgun and shot Mainly in the head.

“I’m afraid they are wrong. It was a .357.”

She tore the dress to her navel and clutching the ripped garment, ran toward the house where the lights had just come on.


Posted in BooksNJ2017, Fiction, Greater Lehigh Valley Writer's Group, Imzadi Publishing LLC, Michael Stephen Daigle, Paramus Public Library, Sally Ember, | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An old story with meaning

I was poking around my computer and came upon this story.

It’s four years old. But it seemed to carry meaning in these days of have and have-nots.

It’s called “The Rhythm of Difference.”

A sample:

I was born into expectations. Dodge children were successful in business and married well.  There was a swagger in our walk and a boastful pride our conversation that said being well born was justification for the elitism we showed.  We attended the local private school in buildings named for forefathers, and graduated to the Ivies or The Seven Sisters.  Our fathers dominated the yacht club and our mothers ran charity drives for Jamaican orphans and held art shows for hopelessly talentless artists who were found with an easel and brushes on the town’s dock.

Sometimes I think my generation of Dodges and Hardings believed they were chosen to be town leaders because it is their genetic right to dominate and own, as if their ancestor’s hard work and planning (and luck) had nothing to do with their current good fortune; a generation of spoiled children who managed to slip into adulthood and with it prominent town positions with all the parochial righteousness that declared that the civilized world ended at the town line.  And so my father’s house.  Large, tall, set squarely in the field of vision, a statement of domination, power and control; The Haven, as if there is no other.

I am Emily Carson Dodge.  I never used Frank Harding’s name. It broke the familiar cadence of Dodge names: Father, Edward Carson Dodge; first son, Edwin Carson Dodge, second son, Elwin Carson Dodge; first daughter, Edna Carson Dodge; then me. Banker, lawyer, Wall Street trader, foundation director.

 A tyranny of conformity.


“Somewhere in all this we were there. We wander among the all the debris searching for a corner to call our own, cast adrift, seeking one plot to be familiar with, a place to start. We again become strangers meeting in a darkened place, become unknown, waiting enlightenment. The boxes hold sadnesses we drag along with us, uninvited guests. We will now begin to hide them or discard them, placing them on the side of the barn waiting dump day. The clearing will begin, closets filled, cabinets lined with dishes and pans, drawers now holding socks or silverware, dividing space, claiming territory, marking off lines of demarcation that never should be crossed, all the while sharing some tiny joy, reaching out over a network  of love and understanding with some binding emotion so that when the fences are planted, our territories staked out, we might cross the imaginary boundaries without causing incident.  We are trapped in these things we carry with us, wrapped up by the bundles of memories we have difficulty discarding, so we pack them in paper and store them in the attic wanting all the time to bring them out again and relive their meaning.  I have my pile and you have yours.  When these piles become one, when the oldest, most singular dreams have been supplanted by fresher memories, when the ancient worries transform to modern understandings, some of this confusion will end and the slight treading around each other’s fears will explode in one loving embrace. Then we will be home.”

The link:

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Happy Independence Day. Celebrate!

Happy Independence Day!!


“We are a nation that was born arguing.  It is what we do best and it is what separates us from all the other nations. So revel in our raised voices, find joy in the sound of the words we speak.  Celebrate our differences and defy all those who tell you to conform, to damn the other side.  We live to disagree.  The louder the better. Roar on, Ironton.  Push back against the silence.  Rise up.  Rise up.  And forward.” – Jimmy Dawson, “The Swamps of Jersey.”


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The gospel according to Oswald: ‘It ain’t about dreams, and peace, just about war until the end.’

This is from a novel, a work in progress called “That time the world visited Mount Jensen, Maine.”

It is a generational story about a small town under the pressure from rich developers, the internal conflicts of residents, both new and historic, and about families growing and changing. The hope in writing is that darkness of the story  is somewhat offset by the humor, and the way the several characters are shown will carry the tale.

It is drawn from familiar U.S. conflicts, and even though it was written a couple of years ago, has a current ring to it.

Nola, in the piece, is Nola Jensen, the survivor of the family that gave the town its name. She was a 60s Hippie and ran from her small town. Now she has returned, seeking reconciliation and peace and a place she hopes her teen-aged daughter can live without conflict.

Oswald is one of the group of childhood friends central to the story, including Nola. While his family was also a founding member of the town, there has been resentment between Oswald and Nola their entire lives that reflected the historic notion from Oswald’s point of view that Nola’s family cheated his out of the best land.

To be sure, Oswald is off his rocker, and perhaps dangerous.

This scene is from a chapter that I think will be called “The Gospel According to Oswald.


The piece:


Oswald stepped to the edge of the cliff, the town dark and settled into dusk below.

“You think it’s all about peace, love and understanding.” He spit a black gob of tobacco juice over the rocks. “It ain’t, you know.”

Sitting on rocks opposite Oswald, Nola shook her head repeatedly.

“There is no ideal, Oswald. There are only ideas, and hopes and dreams. Thoughts.  This nation was a thought.  When our ancestors came up the Kennebec, and with a deep breath picked a trail northwest and landed here, the nation they were a part of was just an idea conceived, not even completed, just hatched that if we as a people declare some of us are free of the restrictions, then we create the possibility that we all will be free of them.  The definition and practice of freedom over centuries has changed, but it has become wider and deeper at each turn.”

Oswald spit again.

“Them that gots, and them that ain’t. Always was and always will be. And them that ain’t will take it from them that gots. That’s freedom, Nola-Girl. Then we all be the same.”

“Now who is living in a fantasy?” Nola asked. “It is all about the chance that something will come of good efforts. When our families stopped on this lakefront a couple  hundred years ago they believed that with hard work and luck they could carve out a life, get through the winter alive. Each family had its land, bought sight unseen from a sketchy map. That map was the dream, just as the Constitution was the dream of the nation. It was up to the citizens to make the dream real. Still is.”

Oswald turned back to face Nola, squinting, his profile craggy and unmoved as an old mountain top. “The dream ain’t even,” he said low, nearly a whisper.

“Didn’t say it was,” she replied. “Doesn’t mean it’s not worth dreaming. That’s how you make it even. People struggle sometimes. It doesn’t mean the rest don’t them help out. Makes us all stronger.”

“Ain’t even a dream,” he yelled. “Nothing peaceful, just the winning of conflict, the powerful squashing the weak. It don’t end until them that ain’t, gots. It’s all about…” he let the thought drop, not wanting to give a hint.  Fire, he thought; it’s all about fire. And as he stared out over the town settled in to dark, he envisioned a yellow-turning-orange burst in the church steeple, windows blown red from the hotel annex, embers windblown to the grocery roof, where black smoke rose and reflected the yellow flame, the shoreline roaring in glittering destruction, the black waters of the lake rippled in hellish gold.

“Naw, Nola-Girl,” Oswald choked out, “It ain’t about dreams, and peace, just about war until the end.” He spit out another dark gob.  “Gets time to pick a side.”



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The start of a new Nagler book. Maybe. Possibly. It’s a mystery.

I think this is the opening to the next Frank Nagler book, the one after “The Weight of Living.”

I’ve been struggling with how to get into the next one, and after some false starts, this seems to work.


Things change, but this has the elements that are needed: A link to the older stories and a place to jump into a new one?  Who is Mahala Dixon, and what does she really want from Frank Nagler?

Here goes:

“Don’t close your eyes.

Don’t close your eyes and the wooden podium on the stage in front of Leonard’s store does not shatter. There is no screaming crowd. No running and diving. Bodies do not fall hurt and bleeding. The banner on the stage does not open with rips caused by bullets fired from a block away. Sirens do not wail and hearts do not break and people do not die.

If you don’t close your eyes.

Detective Frank Nagler covered his face with his hands and sighed.

Until he could close his eyes and not relive the deaths of Del Williams,  Bobby and Dominque, not recall the horror on Lauren Fox’s face when Leonard was wounded; until the anger that blocked his grief was released, the closest he would get to  another crime was this police academy class on investigative procedure.

Maybe the chief was right, Nagler thought as the students entered the auditorium and all sat in the back.

“You need time,” the chief had said. “Take it.” It was not an option.

He took the time. “And, Frank,” the chief added as he handed Nagler a slip of paper. “See this shrink.”

The time:  He walked the streets of Ironton, N.J., brooding in their still darkness, absorbing the silence of the shadowed alleys and the soft stone faces of the shattered industrial shells, hollow of sound. Leaned in to hear the faint traces of the clattering life they once contained. All this walking, he thought. Why do I end up at the cemetery, in the cavern of the stoveworks, outside Leonard’s store, dark at three a.m.?  All this walking and I end up staring calmly at the world while my head is roiling and my heart raging. When do I scream?

Don’t close your eyes until the gyre has calmed.

“Detective Nagler?”

The young woman’s voice dragged him back to the auditorium filling with his students.

“Yes?” he said.  “Just a second. Hey, guys. Down front. I tell you every class. Sit down front. It’s not that hard.” He watched for a moment as the students dragged themselves out of rear-row seats and shuffled to the front rows.

“I’m sorry.”  He turned back to the young woman, um, Dixon, he thought. “How can I help you, Miss Dixon, right?”

She smiled. “Mahala Dixon. I’m probationary in Boonton.”

“I know all about you, sir,” she said. “Your career. Charlie Adams, the death of your wife, Martha. Tom Miller and Harriet Waddley-Jones, then the whole Tank Garrettson case. That’s why I took this class. I wanted to learn from you.”

Nagler squinted at her a moment and let his head clear. Should I be concerned?

“I’m flattered, Miss Dixon, but I’m just a cop, doing a job.”

“It’s more than that, sir,” she said, standing.  “It’s about helping people. I saw that, saw you do it.” She hesitated.  “It’s about things like this,” and she handed him a thick folder wrapped in several elastics; the top right corner of the smudged folder was worn soft from repeated openings. “This is my father’s case. He’s been in jail since I was a baby for a crime he didn’t commit. Fifteen years. Maybe you can help.”

This always happens.  A father, an uncle, brother, sister, wife…How to say no, politely.

“Maybe just read the file,” Dixon said, as she read Nagler’s blank face. “Maybe just that.”  Her face folded shut, eyes clenched, leaking tears, mouth, lipless, a line. “He’s my father…sir.”

“Okay, no promises,” Nagler said as he took the file from her hands. It came slowly, her grip more firm than he had expected as if she was passing not just a collection of papers, but the link to her life.

“This means a lot to you doesn’t it?”

There was no relief in the deep darkness of her eyes as she said, “Yes.” The pain replaced by just fire. She held his stare.  “There is more here than meets the eye.”


The series is:  “The Swamps of Jersey,”  “A Game Called Dead” and “The Weight of Living” published by Imzadi Publishing of Tulsa.

The books are available at the following New Jersey libraries:

Mountainside; Morris County Library; Somerset County Library System; Bernardsville Public Library; Hunterdon County Public Library; Mount Olive Public Library;  Phillipsburg; Warren County, Franklin branch; Mount Arlington; Wharton; Dover; Hackettstown;  Clark, Parsippany and the Ramsey library, as part of the Bergen County Cooperative Library System; The Palmer (Pa.) Branch of the Easton Public Library; Deptford Free Public Library and Franklin Township Library (Gloucester Co.), New Providence Memorial Library.

The Frank Nagler mysteries are available online at:









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An audience of one

Her name was Sandy and she was the only other person in the room.

This was the Mountainside Public Library on Saturday where the kind folks who run the library has scheduled a reading for me.

They had placed a large poster in the doorway announcing my visit, and displayed copies of the two Frank Nagler mysteries they had in their collection, “The Swamps of Jersey,” and “A Game Called Dead.”

Thanks to the librarians for accepting a copy of the third Frank Nagler book, “The Weight of Living.”

It is hard to predict who shows up at such readings for little known authors. I have been at some when friends and family  of a local author flood the room. I have been at others when curious readers arrive, and at others when no one arrives.

But on Saturday it was Sandy.

And what privilege it was.

I read some passages and described the tortured history of how a simple cop item in a long-forgotten newspaper became the so-far three book series, how the original manuscript changed and became “The Swamps of Jersey,” and how “A Game Called Dead,” resembled the first manuscript of that story in name only, and how I am attempting to write the original story again.

Sandy asked questions, and offered that she had worked in Morris County, the site of the fictional Ironton, N.J. the setting for the Nagler stories.

We shared stories about Picatinny Arsenal and other Morris County places.

The scheduled hour-long session ran 30-minutes long. And she bought two sets of the books. Thank you, Sandy.

The value of the session was not the sale of the books, it was to sit and talk with an interested reader.

The one thing I learned since 2014, when Imzadi Publishing released the first Frank Nagler book, “The Swamps of Jersey,” is that like most striving writers I am my both my best asset and worst enemy. No one owns us anything, and we have to work for it.

But sharing time with an interested reader who willingly gave me 90 minutes to talk about writing is the best experience.

The seminal lesson of American politics comes from the Tip O’Neill, the legendary Massachusetts Congressman, who after he lost his first run of office for a local seat in a district where he and his family were well known, asked a neighbor if she had voted for him.

Her reply, O’Neill said,  shaped his political career.

She said, “No, because you never asked for my vote.”

Asking people to read your books is like asking for their vote.

Thus, the glory of an audience of one.

Also Saturday, after a writers’ marketing meeting at the New Providence Memorial Library, I dropped off copies of the Nagler books. The librarian and I chatted for  a moment and as she read the back covers, said, “We need to have you come and speak about them.”

Then she asked for a second business card she could give to the local historical society where potentially we can chat about using local sites and histories as a basis for mysteries.

So, you never know.

Thanks to all for their interest.



The Frank Nagler books are also available at the following New Jersey libraries:

Mountainside; Morris County Library; Somerset County Library System; Bernardsville Public Library; Hunterdon County Public Library; Mount Olive Public Library;  Phillipsburg; Warren County, Franklin branch; Mount Arlington; Wharton; Dover; Hackettstown;  Clark, Parsippany and the Ramsey library, as part of the Bergen County Cooperative Library System; The Palmer (Pa.) Branch of the Easton Public Library; Deptford Free Public Library and Franklin Township Library (Gloucester Co.), New Providence Memorial Library.


The Frank Nagler Mysteries are available online at:





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Reading at Mouintainside, N.J., Library at 1 p.m. Saturday (June 17)

I’ll be reading from and discussing the Frank Nagler Mysteries at the Mountainside Public Library in Mountainside, N.J. at 1 p.m. Saturday. (June 17)

“The Swamps of Jersey,” “A Game Called Dead,” and the new one, “The Weight of Living,” tell the story of the investigations of Ironton, N.J., detective Frank Nagler while he sorts out the troubles in his heart.

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Wake the gray day

Thunder rumbles like distant gun fire,

 A broken heart sighs behind a smiling face.

An old woman’s shaky letters cry for life and love,

Words full of times and weariness, rest that has not come.

Birds dance in the rain, shaking off dust.

A teenage girl whispers a word in a crowded hallway

And fills another mind with kaleidoscopic dreams,

Secrets fulfilled; soft flesh.


Dry rivers mark deserts, hunger descends to hollow eyes;

A chorus of cries can not penetrate the smiling evil of power.

Dry bones nestled in soft sand for others to find,

The poetry of need crushed by the metal wall of self.


Pray the rains come and dissolve the walls.

Pray the sunlight cracks the hardness.

Pray that soft words balm the wound that festers still,

Pray that silence stirs to sound, that stasis turns to motion.

Pray we step from the porch hands held, voices raised

Love aroused to wake the gray day.

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