Dead Write: A Claudia Rose Novel
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When Olinetsky hires Claudia to come to Manhattan and help her uncover apparent screwups made by her nemesis, the assignment puts her at odds with her romantic partner, Detective Joel Jovanic, who suspects that Grusha herself is trouble. Drawn into the feckless lives of the rich and single, Claudia delves into a twisted world of love and lies fueled by desperation. But desperate enough to kill? Clues in the suspects' handwriting might help Claudia save Grusha's already dubious reputation before the names of more victims are scribbled into someone's little black book.
Release date: March 23, 2021
Publisher: Write Choice Ink
Print pages: 294
Content advisory: some profanity
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Behind the book
I used to work for a high-priced dating service, analyzing handwriting of the members. But as far as I know, nobody was being murdered.
Dead Write: A Claudia Rose Novel
The Olive Avenue off-ramp materialized out of the pre-dawn fog like something in a dream. Claudia Rose exited the Golden State Freeway, following the WAZE voice to a gated driveway on small side street. The one thing she could say in favor of driving to Burbank at four a.m. for a TV interview was the light traffic. Even Jovanic’s mumbled promise to keep her side of the bed warm had not made rolling out of it in the dark any more attractive. But Hard Evidence aired live at eight-thirty a.m. East Coast time—three hours later than L.A. With luck, she could be back under the covers by seven. Five minutes of free publicity hardly seemed worth the effort, thought Claudia, handing her ID to the guard.
Anyone who believed there was glamour in being on TV might think again if they visited this studio, a plain, unmarked building squatting in the dark. Peggy Moon, the show’s producer was waiting at the back door. Grabbing her briefcase from the trunk, Claudia hurried across the parking lot to meet her. A twenty-something Asian-American, Moon had a pretty face, a misleading smile, and, Claudia knew from working with her in the past, a personality tougher than rawhide.
The producer wanted her to analyze a note written by the latest celebrity misbehaving; an unstable young actress who had been arrested for DUI. Again. This time, her one-year-old child was in the car with her. The D.A. added a child endangerment enhancement, and when the actress ran out of excuses, a fed-up judge who didn’t care about her star status had remanded her to the Century Regional Detention Facility, better known as the L.A. County women’s jail.
Claudia studied the actress’ handwriting, not surprised to find it large, round, and generally immature. She needed to live in a world that revolved around her. The crowded words showed a lack of perspective and poor judgment, which she had already proved with her behavior. In Claudia’s opinion, the young woman’s acting out in self-destructive ways was the result of childhood sexual abuse. The abuse showed up in the deformed lower loops, which she would never say on TV. Even misbehaving public figures deserved some privacy.
Still, when it was over, the interview didn’t feel like her finest five minutes on the air. She had been careful how she framed what she shared, but it felt as if she had just emerged from a pigsty and needed a thorough scrubbing.
The cold fact was, assignments like this paid the bills. The free advertising this short spot gave her was worth more than she earned in a year. An appearance on a faux-news show like Hard Evidence didn’t pay as much as an article in The National Enquirer, but reality TV reached millions of viewers.
Peggy Moon hovered, gushing praise as the sound man retrieved his battery pack from Claudia’s waistband, the mic from her jacket. “What you do is so amazing, Claudia. I’m going to use you in a super big segment. People need to hear more about handwriting analysis.” Hollywood excitement sparked through the hip black frames of her DKNY glasses. “This is gonna be huge—I can feel it.” Moon leaned into a pretend hug and air kisses. “Gotta run, I’ll call you.” And she was gone, already yelling at one of her underlings about the next segment.
Claudia knew better than to take the hype seriously. Maybe Moon would call, maybe not. That’s show biz. She drove off the lot headed for home, not bothering to hide a big yawn.
She was getting into the freeway turn lane when the sound of her brand-new cell phone sent her heart into overdrive. She let it ring. More than a month had passed since a murderous psychopath destroyed her old phone, and she had put off buying another. It made no sense, but replacing the phone had felt like an act of disloyalty to the friend whose decomposing body she had found.
Jovanic had finally lost patience and dragged her to the phone store. Claudia did not care if it had OLED display, or how many megapixels the camera had, or what kind of chip made it run. She let him pick one.
The ringing stopped; started up again two minutes later. Jovanic’s number would have triggered the theme to the old Cops TV show—Bad Boys, bad boys, Watcha gonna do, whatcha gonna do When they come for you… He had programmed it himself when they got home from the store.
With a glance at the screen, Claudia read Private Caller. Her parents? Her brother? Her niece? Their names would have appeared. Who else might call her on a Sunday morning before dawn? Reluctantly, she tapped the button. “Claudia Rose speaking.”
“Please hold for Baroness Grusha Olinetsky,” a female voice said.
Claudia’s eyebrows went up in surprise. It might not be a household name, but ‘Olinetsky’ was a recognizable one. The ‘baroness’ was a matchmaker; a darling of the talk show circuit and award shows—a Kardashian type of celeb—famous for being famous. She seemed to pop up everywhere there was a red carpet, and appeared as a guest judge on Your Perfect Match, a reality dating show. Claudia had watched it once. After witnessing a contestant slink offstage in tears, having endured Olinetsky’s brutal critique of her hair, her dress, her posture, she had not been tempted to tune in again.
There was a click and the husky voice she remembered from the TV show came on the line. “Claudia Rose?” The woman pronounced it Clowdia. “I need to meet vit you as soon as possible.” The heavy accent curled around the words, transforming w into v. “I need you analyze some handwritink. Is oorgent matter.”
Claudia was glad her caller couldn’t see the face she made at the phone. Every client thought their matter was urgent. “What kind of analysis do you need? Is it a forgery, or—”
“No; not forgery. I am matchmaker; vorld class matchmaker. You never hear of me?”
“Yes, I’ve heard of you.”
“Okay. You call me Grusha. Ve be friends. Ven you can come to New York to see me?”
Claudia’s attention sharpened. “New York? I have no plans to be in New York.”
An old Camaro raced past doing ninety, closely followed by a motorcycle whose rider looked like the Green Lantern in black leather and a neon lime helmet. Even at dawn, L.A. traffic had its own brand of insanity.
“You come,” Olinetsky was demanding, not asking. “I vant you look at some files in my office. Tell me vat the people are like.”
Her imperious manner made Claudia wonder about Grusha Olinetsky’s own handwriting. Heavy pressure, she guessed; plenty of angles and long t-bars that she often found in the scripts of take-charge people. “Why don’t you overnight the originals and I’ll return them to you. If you don’t want to do that, you can scan and Dropbox them to me.”
“No.” Just one word, but the tone was adamant. “Cannot take them from here. Don’t vorry, I pay you good. You come next veek, I send ticket. Is oorgent.”
She’d said that before. Still, her urgency did not have to become Claudia’s emergency. “I’ll need more information than that,” Claudia was just as firm. “You’re asking me to make a cross-country trip, but you’re not giving me any details. I need to know something about the purpose of the analyses. What, specifically are you looking for?”
The reply was so long in coming that Claudia began to wonder if she had hit a dead zone and lost the call. Just as she was about to ask, ‘Can you hear me now?’ the baroness spoke again.
“So. I use graphology before. I know is good tool to learn about people. But last analyze person I hire, he make mistakes; bad mistakes. When I see you on TV show this morning, I call them for your number. I vant to meet you in person and see if you are the right one to replace him.”
Him. Claudia’s interest perked up. There were not a lot of qualified men in her field who would be working for someone like Grusha Olinetsky. Her intuition was telling her that there was more to this story than Grusha was saying. “What’s the name of the graphologist you’ve been using?”
“His name is Andrew Nicholson.” Grusha spat the words as if they tasted bad in her mouth. “Incompetent. I do not trust this man to vork for me one more time.”
Claudia nearly hit the brakes. Andy Nicholson was a handwriting analyst, but she couldn’t bring herself to call him a colleague. A few months back, they had gone toe-to-toe in a high-profile forgery case. Andy had a longtime bad habit of lying about his credentials and inflating them out of all proportion to the truth. Claudia’s client won the case, and when Nicholson’s lies were exposed, he came off looking like a fool. He had been seeking revenge ever since, fabricating outrageous stories about Claudia on the witness stand and to anyone who would listen. A witness can’t be sued for their opinion, so filing perjury charges against him was a no-win.
She smiled into the phone. “Tell me more.”
Jovanic rolled over and followed her with sleep-bleared eyes as Claudia stripped out of the business suit she’d worn for the interview. Shivering, she slipped under the covers and backed up against his long, lean body. After a few hundred nights of practice, they fit together like pieces of a puzzle.
Later, after they had steamed up the windows, then slept for a while, Claudia brought up the phone call she had received. “I got a new client on the way home from the studio this morning. Somebody famous; you’ll never guess who.”
Jovanic got up and headed for the bathroom. “Was it, ummmm, Scarlett Johansson?” he called back to her.
“Now you’re being silly.” She heard the flush, and the water running, then he was back, diving under the covers and snuggling next to her.
“Donald Trump? Emily Blunt? Jennifer—”
“Stop it. It was Grusha Olinetsky. You know who I mean, right? The baroness?”
Jovanic’s crude Bronx cheer made his opinion of Grusha Olinetsky abundantly clear. “Sure, I know who you mean. What does she want with you? Something to do with that trashy TV show?”
“No. She has a dating club. She wants me to analyze some of the members.”
He made a skeptical face. “I don’t know, Claudia. She seems like a pretty sleazy character.”
“I’ve had other sleazy clients and you haven’t complained.” She slid her leg over his hip, bent on returning his attention to where she wanted it. “Anyway, my job is to analyze handwriting for them, not judge their morals. She wants me to come to New York next week and meet with her in person.”
Jovanic’s fingertips halted the lazy journey they were making along her thigh. “New York? Why would you have to go all the way there? What about Annabelle?”
Annabelle Giordano was a troubled teen who was staying in Claudia’s home for a while, except this weekend, when she was visiting Monica, her best friend and Claudia’s niece. “Of course, I’ll make arrangements to take care of Annabelle. I don’t think that’s going to be a problem. Are you going to be a problem?”
“That kid clings to you like a life-preserver. She’s not gonna like it.”
The reminder hit its target, but Claudia had already made her decision about the trip. Just as she was starting to move on, maybe it was time for Annabelle to begin to let go of her a little. At least, that’s how she rationalized it to the nagging voice in her head that was telling her it might still be too soon to interfere with the girl’s safety net.
She tickled the hair curling across Jovanic’s belly. “Listen, Columbo, in case you’ve forgotten, you’re the cop; I’m the one with the psych degree. I’ll take care of Annabelle, don’t worry your pointy detective head about it.”
Jovanic was silent for a long moment and Claudia knew he looked unhappy because he wanted to protect her. “How long do you have to be gone?” he asked.
“Grusha said she didn’t know for sure, but I’d say three or four days; no longer than that.” She braced herself for a bigger objection, mildly surprised when he gave in without further argument. His fingertips started moving again, brushing her skin with the lightest of touches, making it tingle. “Why can’t she just send you the handwriting samples?”
“That’s what I asked her, but she wants to meet in person. And guess who she’s been using—Andy Nicholson. According to Grusha, he screwed up, big time. That’s why she wants me to come; to fix his screw-up.” Claudia chuckled in delight at the prospect. “That’s an offer I can’t refuse. I can’t stand that jerk. He gives the whole field of handwriting analysis a black eye.”
Jovanic shot a warning look. “You ought to stay out of his face, babe. That asshole would as soon put a hit out on you as look at you. He won’t take kindly to you scooping up his big celebrity client.”
“She’s not his client anymore, and I didn’t take her away from him, she called me. I’m not worried about Andy Nicholson. His only weapon is words.” Claudia put on a little girl voice. “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.”
Jovanic removed his hand from her leg and sat up, throwing the blankets off. His scowl signaled that he didn’t appreciate her lame attempt at humor. He reached for his shorts. “Haven’t you had enough shit in your life lately, Claudia? Do you need this right now?”
His words were a bucket of icy water, dousing her enthusiasm. He was talking about the discovery of her friend’s body. The thoughts she had been pushing away. But as fast as that, they flooded back; those memories she had worked so hard to brush off. It didn’t matter how hard she worked at it. The horrific images of that day nipped at the periphery of her consciousness without end until she thought this must be like schizophrenia, battling voices that refused to be silenced.
The murder of her friend had left Claudia feeling as though her own life was spinning out of control. Jovanic knew she had been depressed and angry over it, but she didn’t want anyone, including him, to see the naked vulnerability she felt. She’d been there before.
A flash of a thirty-year-old memory—big hands pulling her where she didn’t want to go; threatening: I’ll hurt you if you don’t do what I say.
She had been hurt anyway. She pulled the covers up around her neck as if that would protect her and drew her knees up in a fetal position.
“Claudia?” Jovanic was leaning over her and he sounded concerned. He sat on the side of the bed, his arms encircling her, wanting to keep her safe.
As if she could ever be safe.
“You don’t have to go to New York right now.” He was letting her know that despite her best efforts, he could see through her with a detective’s eyes. A lover’s eyes.
She answered in a tight little voice, certain that if she gave in now and allowed him to take care of her, she would never be able to stand on her own again. “Andy Nicholson isn’t going to hurt me and there isn’t any danger in this job, it’s a great opportunity.”
Jovanic didn’t want to let it go. “But did Olinetsky tell you what kind of mistakes Nicholson made?” he asked again.
Claudia lifted a bare shoulder in an elaborately casual shrug. “I’ll find out when I get there.”
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