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Josh Whoever was my first book, published by Five Star Mysteries in 2013. Josh got a starred review from Library Journal, was named a Mystery Debut of the Month by them, and was a finalist for the Silver Falchion Award that year.
Josh was inspired loosely by the Steely Dan song, “Here at the Western World” about a guy who hangs out at a run-down bar (don’t we all?). It grew into a man who had been falsely held up as a hero. He runs away and lives in the broom closet of a bar, running just enough scams to stay drunk and hidden. But one scam goes awry, and now he’s got to save a daughter of the Russian mob to get back to the bar and stay drunk–and alive.
Library Journal said, “…the collection of oddball minor characters and surprise twists deepen an already strong story. An engrossing debut.”
Here’s the first few chapters.
Josh Whoever – Chapter 1
I only took this job to get fired, but now I stood here raising my hands in the air like any good citizen being robbed.
Two robbers had popped into the bank from nowhere. From inside my little bank teller window, I had no real view of them walking in the door but now they strutted around in white paper lab suits, looking like big bunny rabbits waving guns at random around the bank lobby.
The tall one did all the talking. “Open your cash drawers, put your hands in the air and shut up.”
His eyes darted from teller to teller looking for a challenge. The young girl in front of him just stood there frozen. He waved his gun at the ceiling and let off a burst and the girl screamed and opened her drawer.
“This. Is. A. Robbery.” He shouted each word loud and important, like he was hyping a band at a rock concert.
Like we needed a program to tell us what’s going on here. Like I needed a program to tell me that my own future was over if they got away with this robbery.
The short one reached up with the barrel of his AK-47 and pushed away the video camera over the door so that it saw only the ceiling. They started at the far end and worked their way down the long row of tellers towards me.
I stood motionless and watched, curious about how they did this. I knew plenty about small-time scams, but I’d never seen a big-time bank robbery like this before.
The tall guy did all the talking but looked at the silent one for something. There: that was it. Silent shook his head, and Tall skipped a teller. Silent knew something; he skipped the tellers with dye packs.
I admired them for pulling this off, admired the details: the paper lab suits were a good touch. No one would remember anything about the robbers except the white suits with hoods. Probably buy them cheap at some med supply place; add a white ski mask and you can wear anything you like underneath.
Except for the shoes. Tall had flashy basketball kicks that demanded respect on the street, what you’d expect from a robber. But Silent had a pair of black Ferragamo’s, rich businessman shoes that cost three hundred dollars new, except his weren’t new. The kind of guy who would buy these shoes wouldn’t keep his shoes this long; he either had money or worked for guys with money and had to keep up. Either way, it stood out and it offended me. I was a pro in my own way. I respected pros. You’ve got to get the details right.
The two guys moved the same way: pro, but with a flaw. They looked casual, even random, but I could tell it was rehearsed. No one but me would remember that later, and that was good.
But the body language had a flaw. Tall moved like a bank robber in a movie, all swagger and attitude, waving the gun around and yelling at anything. Silent faded into the background and that was good, too, but the pose was wrong. He hunched over and shuffled like a kicked dog. This wasn’t a man used to demanding other people’s money. Silent begged people for money every day and hated doing it but had to pay the rent.
There, in a flash I had it. Silent’s walk and Silent’s shoes belonged to Robert, the assistant manager of the bank. I watched him get pushed around every day by the manager. Now Robert was getting his payback.
See, that was the tell, the one detail that betrayed all your hard work because it was too much a part of who you were for you to even know it was there. I knew how to stay in character and keep the game going until I got to the payoff. Even now, when I wanted to grab the guys and tell them to start over, to come through the doors this way or that, even now I just stood there impassively with my hands in the air.
I wanted to tell them: be a pro. Be a pro, or be burned.
I reached over quick and took the dye pack from Kelly’s open drawer, one of the old style packs with a timer. Kelly smiled weakly back at me, chewed her gum faster and looked away. I pressed the timer button and put it in my own drawer.
Tall came to me and waved his gun. I smiled and scooped up the cash and dye pack and shoveled them on top of the money in the bag. I felt like saying, “sorry,” to the big bunny rabbit, but the best I could do was apologize in my head.
Sorry, I thought, but I can’t let San Francisco’s finest look at the personnel records and ask me questions, the kind of questions these giant companies should ask before they hire someone but never do. Big dogs can’t be bothered checking on the little guys who really make up their companies.
And that’s why I hated these companies, hated so much of the world: be a pro, treat people and your job with respect, or get out.
Me? I got out.
Josh Whoever – Chapter 2
I stood in the bank and wondered what my next scam would be, hoping it would be easy again like the last one. Remembered sitting in the conference room of the big environmental company: just me, the company lawyer and the boss, all in jeans and shirts from all-natural materials to show how much they respected the earth. But they didn’t respect the earth, didn’t respect anything else either, including me, so here we were.
“So, do you prefer to be called Mr. Smooth Water, or Joshua?” said the lawyer, smiling, trying to be my friend so it would cost the company less.
“It’s pronounced ‘Ya-wa’.” I folded my arms across my chest, trying hard to swell up with pride. “Joshua is just the white spelling. And Smooth Water is my formal Chippewa name from my mother’s tribe. It should not be used by whites.”
There. Let the lawyer know there’s no friend of his here, and this would cost the company more. I could see him wondering, maybe this guy’s native American, maybe not. I’ve got the kind of light-dark look that could be Hispanic, Middle Eastern, white, black, whatever I need. In any case, the lawyer couldn’t challenge me on it. I also knew that this company had too much to hide for them to risk a big fight out in public.
“Thank you, Joshua,” the lawyer said, pronouncing it “Ya-wa” like I asked, and smiling while he did it. I gave him no smile back, just sat there with my arms crossed like the picture of Sitting Bull, offended but impassive. “It’s my understanding that Mr. Johnson here, acting in his position as your supervisor, has terminated you from your position here at California Green Industries. He believes he had cause, you believe he did not. Is that a fair statement of the situation?”
I glared at the lawyer and played out the part of a proud, offended man forced to describe a painful insult.
“I came to this company because it said it would help protect the land of my fathers, clean up the streams and take the white man’s poisons out of the air. In the week I have been here, I have been insulted and shamed, despite doing my best.”
“The jerk hasn’t done a lick of work since the day he came in,” said Johnson. He was had trouble sitting still. “He just sits on that cheap blanket drinking company coffee, explaining that each day is a sacred day of some kind or the other that won’t let him do this job or that.”
The lawyer held up his hand to Johnson, but they had given me an opening.
“Coffee is a sacred drink to my people. It is the water of life for me, the source of all movement. We have proudly shared it with the white man.”
“I thought you people preferred something stronger,” said Johnson, and the lawyer shook his head furiously but too late. The price had gone up.
“And now this racism,” I said, “the true source of our problem here.”
Johnson stood up. “The problem is you won’t work. The problem is I’ve got a boatload of jobs that need to get done, and you’re just dragging us down…” The lawyer held up his hand and interrupted.
“None of which you’ve documented, Mr. Johnson.” He turned to me, his buddy, and smiled again. Amazing the problems that can be solved if we all just smile. Smile, and offer money. “Joshua, I think we all have the same interests here. We all want to see that the values shared by this company and your forefathers are not damaged by a pointless, bitter, public struggle. Clearly, we no longer have a position available for you at this company, but we want to treat you fairly. Would $2000 help you find a position more suited to your talents?”
We settled on $5000. Johnson was taken out of the room still screaming. Sometimes I got more, sometimes less, for a week or so’s half-assed work at a company that would rather pay me off than fight publicly.
The scam worked best at companies that had something to hide, like this one that was taking money to clean up the environment but doing little more than generating publicity for itself. Mostly, I find companies already ripping off the public before I rip them off. Of course, sometimes just the fact that a company has money goes a long way to prove to me that the company is corrupt and needs to return some money to the community. And me.
So I strutted out the door with a check in hand, threw the sacred blanket in the trash by the big Fred Meyer’s, ran a few errands, and headed back to the Western World bar.
Mayor was behind the bar by himself. Three in the afternoon was too early to have a hired bartender, not to mention that Mayor was way too cheap to pay somebody to just sit behind his own bar and watch sports reruns, which is all Mayor ever does anyway. He looked up at me like I was just another channel on the old RCA.
“Thought I might not see you this time,” he said. “Make a score, keep going someplace better. Become a citizen.”
I looked at him and tried to smile. I hated seeing the disappointment rise in Mayor’s eyes, knowing that I put it there. Mayor and the skinny girl who danced here were my only real links to the world. And, truth be told, this was the only world I could stand anymore.
“Hey, you know you’d miss me.” But Mayor just stared, not willing to keep it light and make it easier on me.
“I’ve got twenty-five hundred.” I pulled out a stack of bills without explaining the errands that had eaten up the other half. “How long will that carry me?”
Mayor stared a long time, and I thought for a minute that he might say no this time. But the money clock ran slow here; most drinks were paid for with wadded-up dollar bills and change counted slow from dirty pockets. A pile of crisp fifty dollar bills was rare, except from me. Mayor looked at the calendar, studied it like the football coach on the TV studying his playbook.
“Let’s say the end of March. Same deal as always: sleep in the back room, sweep up at night, and drink only the cheap stuff, only enough to stay drunk. Eat from the lunch buffet, though you never eat much anyway. Don’t cause trouble, though you never cause trouble. You can be everybody’s buddy, but you can’t buy them drinks ‘cause you got no money and I ain’t fronting you any.
“End of October, skinny girl and I will wake you up. Last two weeks, no booze, nothing but coffee and the buffet, sober up and go back, jack, do it again. Wheels turning round and round, find some scam or an actual job until you show up here again. Or not. Cash aside, won’t break my heart if someday you get stuck in the real world and don’t make it back here.”
“Deal,” I said, and shoved the bills across the bar. “Let’s get started.” Mayor reached under the bar and pulled out the plastic tumbler that was my cup and the gallon jug of the cheap stuff he used to top off the expensive-looking bottles behind the bar. No need for the pretense of a nice bottle. He filled the tumbler half full. No need for the pretense of dishing this out one shot at a time either. I looked at him and wished that I was one of those who got the good glasses with the tiny drinks. One of those that came in, had a couple of drinks, and toddled home to a happy wife and kids.
What bullshit. I picked up the glass and emptied it. I picked up my crushed and sad paper sack and headed to the back.
“Think I’ll take my luggage to the Presidential Suite. I’ll join you in the Main Ballroom for happy hour after I’ve freshened up.”
“What do you do back there, anyway?” Mayor turned back to the TV.
“I’m a writer.”
“Need any paper?”
“I don’t write anything down.”
The next thing I remembered clearly was Mayor and the skinny girl shaking me awake at the end of October. The coffee cup in front of me looked like a swimming pool I was supposed to drink. Mayor just looked at me like I was another mess at the bar that Mayor had to clean up, but the skinny girl said to Mayor: “You don’t know. I talked to a guy who knew him on the outside. He’s somebody. Used to be somebody, anyway.” I looked at her sweet, wasted face and wanted to thank her. Thank her, and tell her how wrong she was.
“He’s a cork in a bottle,” said Mayor. “And you’re a professional heartbreak. Don’t waste it on this one.”
In a flash I remembered something else less clear: the skinny girl, sometime in the middle, holding my head, saying, “Oh Josh baby, oh Josh baby. You could do it for me, Josh baby.” I couldn’t remember if the words came during one of the times she had shown me a kindness, or just one of the times when I was too drunk to get to my room without help. But she said it, I was sure, and now I wondered what to do with it.
Josh Whoever – Chapter 3
I shook the memory of the Western World away and snatched my head back to the here and now in the bank. The robbers finished and told us all to lie down and face away from the door. Then they were gone and the bank was silent until the police crashed in like heroes here to save the day now that the day had walked out the door.
The detectives gave us all numbers, like we were in a deli waiting for a corned-beef sandwich, but instead we waited our turn to be brought into the conference room to have our formal police interview. My number was nine; they were on five. I was sweating and hoping the sweat wouldn’t dissolve the little bits of glue that held my eyelids up to make me look more Chinese. Once they saw I was phony, or once they pulled my record and checked me out, then everything would all be over.
I shuffled humbly over to a detective standing around drinking free bank coffee and texting on a cell phone. Tried to tell him about the silent robber, nudge the detective into solving the crime before they pulled my record and talked to me. But no, the detective waved me back. Take your turn, sir, follow procedure, sir; we’re not really interested in solving the crime, sir, just doing our jobs, sir.
I spotted the manager leaning on one of the desks in the middle of it all. He could have been watching guys mow his lawn for all the interest he showed.
“Mister—ah, sir?” I said to him.
Christ, I thought. All I said to him was, “Romanov?”
The manager smiled at my surprise.
“Yeah, that Romanov. I run the bank for my father. He owns a lot of stuff.”
Yeah, I thought, some of it’s even legal. I hadn’t known the Romanovs owned the bank. Now I wished I’d picked a different one.
Romanov looked up, squinted a minute, then it came to him.
“Joe Chan?” he said.
“Yes, sir.” I answered to the name I’d put down on the application at the bank. “Though it’s pronounced ‘yow.’ It’s a traditional Chinese name, taken from my honorable grandfather who first came to this country seeking freedom. I’m honored that you know my name, sir.”
Romanov shrugged. “Yeah. Dad believes I should know the employees. So I memorize names of new hires to impress him.”
“Sir,” I said, polite and deferential. “I’ve tried to talk to the detectives, but they seem to be busy. I believe I have information that might be helpful.”
“So? What do you want me to do? Haul my ass over there; tell them Charlie Chan here has solved the case and saved the day? The bank’s got insurance, son. Let it go.”
“Sir, did you notice the way the silent robber walked? Now look at the assistant manager.”
Romanov tried to look bored, but he looked at Robert at the other end of the bank and smiled.
“You weasel,” he said, watching Robert. “Good for you. Finally grew a pair and stopped begging for it.”
He turned back to me.
“Yeah, maybe,” he said. “Cops already said they got one witness outside the bank. The witness saw a tall guy come out alone. Not wearing a white suit. Not carrying a bag. So they’re looking inside already. Probably got him in their sights right now. I’ll go tell them for you; you get the credit. You got good eyes.”
A detective came out of the interview room and called out for number eight and I knew my time below the radar was running out. Romanov waved the detective over, snapping his fingers like he wanted another glass of water. I grabbed Romanov’s sleeve but Romanov shook me off.
“Sir, it might be better to tell them you thought of this yourself,” I said, “and leave me out.”
The detective walked over and stood waiting for orders, knew he couldn’t offend the manager. Didn’t like being ordered around either, so he stood there, refusing to be the first to talk.
Romanov talked to the detective, not taking his eyes off me while he did. “Just wanted to know how the investigation’s going.”
The detective tried to smile politely but his mouth tightened into a narrow line. This rich jerk called him over for a personal status report?
“You’ll know as soon as we do, sir.” He drew “sir” out to about five syllables, and left.
“So.” Romanov turned back to me. “You work in a bank where there’s just been a robbery, but you want to stay below the cop’s radar?”
I saw the detective looking for another witness, skipping number eight and coming for me. I saw Romanov looking at me and needed a story and needed it right now.
“Yes, sir. I’m really a private investigator, sir, and don’t need to attract the attention of the police. I only took this job because I need the money.”
“Got a license you can show me?”
“No, sir, I’m kind of unofficial. That’s why I’d prefer to stay anonymous.”
“Yeah, I bet. Unlicensed private detective who can’t pay the bills, and is afraid of the cops. Good luck with that. I think we’ll just let the police do their job.” He turned away and said back over his shoulder, “Good eye, just the same.”
Nervous, screwed, no help anywhere. The detective was looking for me; somebody else in another room was pulling my application. I thought about running, a calculated risk sure to draw attention. Maybe if I could get through the door, maybe even get to another city, find another bar, maybe I could start over. It was more than I could handle just thinking about it.
Bang. There was an explosion in the assistant manager’s office. The texting detective leaning in the office door looked in and saw red dye everywhere and a hole in the ceiling. He pulled his gun but there’s no threat there, no one in the office, just an answer or the start of an answer anyway. The dye pack has gone off finally, stashed in the ceiling with the money and clothes and guns. Robert made a break for the door but everyone was on edge now and they wrestled him to the ground. Maybe running wasn’t such a good idea.
They stopped bringing in witnesses. The detectives had an easy job now, and I had an easy out. Stay quiet and they’ll send people home. Call in tomorrow too traumatized to come back to work. May even make some money here. I eased towards the door.
“Charlie Chan?” Romanov came up behind me. I thought about correcting him but decided, no, get this over with fast.
“Thinking about what you said.”
I stared at him with a polite look on my face and my eyelids starting to sag and my feet already pointed to the door.
“You did pretty good back there. My family could use a detective, an unlicensed detective, do jobs other people can’t.”
The door looked good now. I needed to fail this job interview.
“What you charge?” asked Romanov.
“Five hundred dollars a day, plus expenses.” There, that ought to do it. I had seen that on Mayor’s TV, thought it was absurd. It sounded even more like a joke when it came out of my mouth. No straight citizen would pay that. But Romanov just looked back like I’d told him the price of a hamburger.
“Sounds about right. Look, my brother’s got a twenty-three-year-old daughter who disappeared three days ago. Cops aren’t interested, say she probably just ran off. Plus they don’t like my brother too much. Or the rest of us Romanovs, for that matter. So my brother’s got a couple of his guys looking into it, but they’re bozos, plus they’re not going to tell him anything he doesn’t want to hear because they’ll get hurt cause that’s what my brother does for my dad, hurts people.
“Come up with an address for her by the end of the week, and I’ll pay your five hundred a day. Actually get my niece back home, and I’ll double it.”
He poked a business card at me.
“Deal with my brother’s wife; it’ll be better for you.” He started to walk away and then came back. He smiled at me, a big Chamber of Commerce smile between partners.
“Enjoy your new job. Do a good job and there’ll be more,” he said.
Romanov stepped into me, nose to nose, and lowered his voice to a growl.
“Course, you don’t do a good job for us, know this: we don’t forget, and we don’t forgive. My brother will come for you.”
Romanov stepped away, laughed, and said over his shoulder, “Welcome to the real world.”
Want more? JOSH is available from Amazon at