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WHEN EVERYONE IS ON THE TAKE,
Until one disgraced cop and one crusading teacher
decide to risk everything to make a difference.
“St. Louis noir … The slick prose readily entertains … Well-executed.” — Kirkus Reviews
Watch Rick talk about FAIL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=psiYL1o1bhs
About Rick Skwiot
Former journalist Rick Skwiot is the author of three previous novels—the Hemingway First Novel Award winner Death in Mexico, the Willa Cather Fiction Prize finalist Sleeping With Pancho Villa, and Key West Story—as well as two memoirs: the critically-acclaimed Christmas at Long Lake: A Childhood Memory and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing. He also works as a feature writer, book doctor and editor. From St. Louis, he currently resides in Key West.
Disgraced African American St. Louis Police Lieutenant Carlo Gabriel wants fiercely to return to the headquarters hierarchy from which he has been exiled to the city’s tough North Side. All he needs do is track down the missing husband of the mayor’s vivacious press secretary. Instead he unwittingly and unwillingly unearths a morass of corruption, educational malpractice and greed that consigns thousands of at-risk youths to the mean streets of America’s erstwhile murder capital. Worse, it’s the kind of information that could get a cop killed.
Fighting for life and his honor, Gabriel makes chilling discoveries that ultimately lead to a life-threatening and life-changing decision—a choice that could affect not only his own future but also that of the city and its top leaders.
Enjoy our excerpt from FAIL:
Carlo Gabriel sat with his topcoat in his lap studying the mayor’s portrait on the wall across the room. Despite the high ceilings and the cold outside, the inside air hung warm. Memories hung in the air as well, which he kept brushing back.
Without apparent cue, the bow-tied man behind the desk said, “Ms. Cantrell will see you now.”
Gabriel lifted himself and sauntered toward the tall door ahead, which now swung open. A statuesque brunette in a business suit appeared and shook his hand.
“Sorry to keep you waiting, detective. Call from channel five on the snow removal—or lack thereof.”
He thought to correct her on the detective title—“That’s Lieutenant Gabriel, ma’am”—but then thought better of it. Now that he was reduced to doing detective work, that’s what he seemed to most people.
He stepped onto a Persian carpet. She closed the door behind him and walked ahead to an oversized walnut desk and high-backed leather chair. The tall windows boasted a view of the cityscape behind her—the Civil Courts Building, the Old Courthouse, the Gateway Arch. Impressive. Her hair was held in place by a bone barrette in back; her suit—black pinstriped—featured a tight skirt that did quite not reach the backs of her knees. Gabriel pursed his lips. Of course he had seen her on television when she worked as an anchorwoman. But he had never seen her legs.
She indicated a wooden armchair across from her. He sat and laid his topcoat on the chair next to him. When he faced her she took in and let out a breath.
“My husband disappeared three days ago.”
He leaned forward. “Three days … Saturday then.”
She nodded. He reached for his coat, black cashmere, and removed a notepad from its pocket. “When did you last see Mr. Cantrell?”
“Stone. Jonathan Stone. He left our apartment Saturday morning. I was still in bed.”
Despite the feeble winter sun her skin looked tanned. High cheekbones. Her perfume floated to him. “Where do you live?”
“The ABCs on Kingshighway. We own a condo there.”
He knew the building—a very correct address for urban white folks.
“Why did you wait three days before filing a report?”
She lifted a finger to her lips, full and pouting. “Is that what we’re doing, filing a report?”
“Just a manner of speaking, Ms. Cantrell. I understand the mayor wants it handled right.”
“I want it handled right. No need making anything official until we have to. I pray we won’t have to. He could show up anytime.”
She meant alive, surely. “So he’s been gone overnight previously? Without your knowing about it beforehand, I mean.”
“Was he depressed?”
She blinked. “Jonathan wouldn’t kill himself, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“Any drug or alcohol issues? Sorry, I have to ask these questions. No disrespect intended.”
“You’ve been married how long?”
“Twelve years. We met at Mizzou.”
She shook her head.
“He hasn’t shown up at work?”
She shook it again. “They’re on semester break. He’s a college professor.”
“In what field?”
“I presume money’s not an issue—gambling losses?”
She sniffed. “Jonathan wouldn’t be caught dead in a casino.”
“Any personal problems?”
A hesitation then, “You mean does he have a mistress?”
Gabriel shrugged a shoulder. It happens. Even when your wife is fine, and Ellen Cantrell was fine. “Whatever problems.”
“Jonathan’s a very private person. Keeps things inside.”
“Even being around students, he never gets sick.”
“How old is he?”
Gabriel nodded remembering what it was like at thirty-four. A pivotal age for many men, fueled by a mix of ambition, testosterone, and hope. But for him that was two decades past and he wondered how much he had left.
“What about family members, parents, siblings…?”
“I emailed his mother—they live in Florida now. I was indirect but she obviously knows nothing. He was an only child.”
“The last time you saw him was Saturday morning?”
“I didn’t actually see him. As I said I was still in bed.”
“You share the same bed?”
Cantrell lowered her chin and studied Gabriel’s silk scarf, purple, draped down the lapels of his black blazer. It was the sort of question asked of a connected white woman that, in earlier times, could have earned a black cop trouble.
She lifted her eyes to meet his. He stared back, waiting for an answer, but all he got was, “I heard the front door closing.”
“What time was this?”
Gabriel made a note. “Were you up late Friday night?”
“At the mayor’s Christmas party. In the ballroom at the Mayfair. It was one o’clock when we left.” Gabriel sat still, waiting for more. Eventually she went on. “I was working, not partying. There were media people and others we have special relationships with. I try to make sure there’s no miscommunication.”
He raised an eyebrow. His Honor, he knew from their days together, liked his gin. Which at times made him shoot from the hip, figuratively speaking.
“And what was your husband doing during this time?”
“Mingling, I guess. People watching.”
“Did he get drunk?”
“Not so I noticed.”
“Did he drive home?”
“We took a cab. Jonathan had come downtown on the train.”
“What did you talk about in the cab?”
“I was talked out. Jonathan was his usual quiet self. When we got to Forest Park it had started snowing. He commented on how pretty it was.”
“Do you own a car?”
“Yes, a Jeep. I also have a city vehicle. Jonathan rides the MetroLink to campus.”
“And the Jeep is gone?”
“It wasn’t in the garage when I went down Saturday afternoon.”
“When did you first begin to worry?”
“Saturday evening. Not worry so much as wonder. I called his cell phone from a party fundraiser and got no answer. When I got home around midnight I tried again and heard it ring in the den.”
“Does he usually carry it?”
“Not always. He’s a reader not a talker.”
“Did he leave a note or mention a trip?”
“Not that I recall.”
“Any friends or colleagues we might check with?”
“Jonathan’s always been a loner. There may be colleagues at work, but none that I know. None in whom he would confide.”
Gabriel scribbled on his notepad: “Wife checked bank accounts—why?” As he did, he saw her looking at her watch.
“One last question, Ms. Cantrell. Why did you wait three days to involve the police?”
She stood and glared down at him, jaw moving laterally as if grinding teeth. He often got interesting reactions when he asked the same question twice.
“I didn’t. Others have been on this since Sunday morning. Checking the accidents, incidents, hospitals.”
Who, he wondered? He visualized the chain of command: The mayor, Chief of Police Donnewald, Bureau Commander Coleman, Deputy Commander Masters, Fourth District Captain Stolle.… But the usual chain of command didn’t apply here; otherwise he wouldn’t be having this conversation.
Gabriel flipped closed his notepad, pushed himself up from the armchair with a sigh, and handed her his card.
“I’d appreciate it if you could email me a recent photo of your husband. I’ll keep you posted on any developments.”
She studied the card and slipped it into her pocket. “You understand, lieutenant, that everything comes through me first,” she said, walking around the desk. “Clear?”
Her long legs were nothing like those of his ex-wife, Janet, but her mouth was.
“Yes, ma’am, I understand. The mayor underscored that.”
Outside her office, he let out a breath. He moved back down City Hall’s grand staircase to the ground floor and crossed the lobby, heels clicking on the white marble.
He stopped and turned. An old black man in a baggy gray suit, carrying a Bible, approached. They slapped hands.
“Preacher Cairns! Thought you’d be in heaven by now. How’s biz?”
“Slow, slow. No one thinks to get married when it snows. You back downtown?”
“Not yet. Still in exile. Just checking my traps.”
The old man laughed then sobered. “It ain’t the same these days.”
“Nope,” Gabriel said. “Not even close.”
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