In the Frank Nagler Mysteries, there are victims of crimes who are “wrong-place, wrong-time” victims, characters who die blameless.
Others carry deeper troubles, and in trying to purge those demons, deliberately act, and as a result, become targets of the story’s villain.
In the third book of the series, 2017’s THE WEIGHT OF LIVING, one such character is Calista Knox, physical therapist and companion for Leonard, the blind bookstore owner, who is Detective Frank Nagler’s best friend.
She frustrates Nagler by offering several versions of her murky past.
Her response: “Not versions, Frank, pieces. Old habit for survival. Tell just enough to stop the questions, and if it doesn’t work, make stuff up. Never, ever, get anywhere near the truth, because the truth hurts like hell.”
In the second book of the series, 2016’s A GAME CALLED DEAD, such a character is college administrator Harriet Waddley-Jones.
She is old character, surviving from the first-ever draft of the story, written when I was 24, and didn’t know anything. In that draft she was overbearing, doing everything possible to protect her college from a police investigation.
In A GAME CALLED DEAD, the tables turn. She is revealed to be STUDENT A, the lead plaintiff in a years-old lawsuit over campus sexual assaults against those very same overbearing college administrators. The suit settlement came with a gag order.
This issue of sexual assault has in 2017-18 become defined as the “Me-Too” movement. This a version of that movement, circa 2012-14, when the A GAME CALLED DEAD was being rewritten.:
This scene is the set up:
On the way back to the college, Waddley-Jones was silent, withdrawn.
“A lot to think about,” Nagler said. “I hope you have some idea what was going on back then when Adams roamed the city.”
She shook her head slightly and blinked twice, as if waking. Then she glanced at Nagler.
“Yes, a lot to consider. I was thinking about the last victim, Michelle Hanson, and how similar our lives as teens would have been. It’s…remarkable.” Then she stared at her folded hands.
“You don’t have a sister, do you, Harriet, so she couldn’t have been raped.”
She looked up and gasped. “How did you know?”
“I looked you up as well,” Nagler said. “So either that story has become a convenient rhetorical devise, or…”
“I was raped when I was fifteen,” she said softly. “I, like Michelle Hanson, used to sunbathe in the nude behind a tall fence. I never heard him…he was my father’s business partner.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “You don’t…”
“And I don’t. It is the place I go when troubled to hide. It is my shield against the world, just as Martha’s death is your shield. I say it was my sister because it is an act of denial. It is more convenient to invent a sister I never had than it is to relive the pain and shame and to hear my cries in the dark. Just as it was easier for you to bury the pain of Martha’s death…buried so deep that even a woman like Lauren Fox, who loved you so deeply, could not extract you.”
This scene is the reveal:
“… Nearly twenty years ago on this campus, such cowards were in charge. When faced with allegations of rampant crimes at this school, they could not admit they fostered and even participated in the crimes. They drove the victims away and rewarded the criminals. Reports were made and hidden. Even a lawsuit could not bring these crimes into the open.
“This is a shameful past, and I am here today because I was part of it, here today because I allowed the silence to descend.”
She paused and breathed deeply. Some of the students, trapped in their seats by the size of the crowd were texting more than paying attention. The administrators stared at the floor or cast sideways glances at one another.
“You may have read a news story about the old lawsuit, and maybe you doubted its veracity,” she began again. “Don’t. It all happened, and perhaps more that eluded the investigators. But I know it was true.” She paused, having planned the impact, having waited for seventeen years, nearly half her life, to declare her identity.
“I am Student A.”
Harriet Waddley-Jones dipped her head, closed her eyes and gripped the sides of the podium. She was shaking, crying, trying to hold her emotions in check but wanting them to soar; wanting the words she had just spoken to grab ahold of the pain and guilt and wrench it from her soul. She wanted to be weightless, but instead was anchored. Free me, she thought. Please free me.
Some in the room gasped; some stood and applauded. Many sat in surprise, stunned a moment before they began to furiously text out the message. The administrators unfolded their arms, and quietly begging pardon, sidestepped out of the rear door, where Jimmy Dawson caught Harriet’s eye before he pursued them for a comment.
“How does this occur?” Harriet continued. “It happens when those in authority feel they have all the rights to act, and everyone else only has the right to be acted upon.”
A voice from the back: “Ah, lady, you asked for it. Getting nailed by some top professor probably helped your career.”
“Would you want to be raped, sir?” she shot back. “To be held down while something hard was shoved up your ass? Or maybe watch as your girlfriend was pinned on a bed and your friends took turns? Did I ask for that, sir?”
The crowd stirred by her challenge.
In that moment she chose to talk about the one thing she had never discussed. It is time to be free if this….
She began again. “I was nineteen, thrilled to have been chosen for a big project in Washington, D.C. I had never been there before. The Capital, the monuments, museums, the helter-skelter traffic, the excitement and noise and life. What an experience. And then to be working on a minority voting project with the leading educator in the field. Imagine my excitement.”
She glared at the athlete who had challenged her. Her voice grew stronger.
“Yes, imagine my excitement when my professor came to my room with a bottle of wine and told me it was time to celebrate. And first we cheered with wine the work and the community response. Then we toasted the program. Then he told me how beautiful I was, and drank to it, and how all the young volunteers were drawn to me because I was such a leader and so beautiful. Then we drank. A song came on the radio and he pulled me to my feet and said, ‘Dance with me,’ and I said I was tired. And he said, ‘One dance,’ and then held me tightly.”
Her voice softened with fear and confusion and became childlike, and her eyes filled with pain as if she was shedding the years between and taking on the persona of the woman she was at nineteen.
“And I said, ‘One dance,’ and we swirled around the room, my head dizzy, and he kissed my neck and I said, ‘No,’ and he unzipped my dress and I said, ‘no, no,’ and then it fell to the floor, and then he unhooked my bra and thrust his tongue in my mouth and put one hand between my legs, and then I was naked and he was inside me and I was crying, eyes closed. Then he pulled out, fumbled with his pants, finished the wine from the bottle, threw it on the floor and left me there.”
Waddley-Jones stared at the floor and when she looked up her eyes were fierce and her face hard.
In a voice like a hiss: “Everything I was died at that moment in the dirty little hotel room. Ev-er-y-thing,” cutting the world into four parts. “But what was worse, everything that I wanted to be also died. I’ve lived my life as a lie because I could not forget when I signed the agreement with this college when I was twenty that they took away my right to speak. Well, I’m taking it back. Can you give that all back to me, Mister Critic? All the love I could have given, but didn’t trust enough to give; all the love that others felt for me and I could not receive? Can you give me back all the time I have hated myself, all the hours I felt the shame of that moment like a rash that would not heal? All the time I’ve spend locked in this emotionless box; all those things I have missed? Can you give them back to me? Never,” she said bitterly.
“A Game Called Dead” was named a Runner-Up in the 2016 Shelf-Unbound Best Indie Book Contest
The Frank Nagler books are available at the following New Jersey libraries:
Brick (Ocean County Library System) 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 Associated Libraries of Monroe County, Pa.
The Frank Nagler mysteries are available online at: