Authors: Matt Witten
FALLING DOWN DEAD . . .
I was hanging out at Madeline's Espresso Bar that morning when a voice I didn't recognize called out my name. When I looked up I saw an old writer, Donald Penn. He was a short, thin man with scared brown eyes and unkempt white hair who came into Madeline's almost every morning wearing the same threadbare gray sport jacket and skinny dark tie. He'd whisper, "Cup of Ethiopian, please," to whoever was behind the counter, then spend the rest of the morning sitting in a corner, scribbling in a dirty old spiral n
book and muttering softly to himself.
Given how quiet he was, and given he and I had never spoken to each other, I was surprised when he came toward me shouting my name.
I was even more surprised when he lurched forward, flinging a small shiny object at me.
And I was most surprised of all when
he fell down, dead, at my feet.
BREAKFAST AT MADELINE’S,
Winner of the Malice Domestic Award
“Witten delights with his charming characters, especially Burns himself.” –
“A breezy narrative filled with excitement and wit. The perfect antidote for a rainy day.” –
“A success. Fast…lighthearted… Witten presents his characters and plot twists in a straightforward and believable manner.”
– Albany Times-Union
Interesting characters, a substantial plot, and a subtle sense of humor.” –
The Mystery News”
“Charming, witty and moving…an irresistible read. Jacob Burns is a welcome addition to crime fiction.” – Don Winslow, author of
“Mystery fans are going to love this guy.” – Laura Lippman, author of
The Most Dangerous Thing
"Jacob Burns is a wise-cracking, write-at-h
ome dad with a nose for trouble… Matt Wit
ten is an up-and-coming comic genius in the amateur sleuth game. Watch this guy, but don't spill your coffee!"
Sujata Massey, Agatha Award-wi
nning author of the Rei Shimura mysteries
“A breezy, funny whodunit. The plot is fun, but it takes a backseat to the loopy, charming Jacob Burns.” – Tom Savage, author of
For Zachary and Jacob
I would like to thank my literary agent, Jimmy Vines; my editor, Joe Pittman; and the folks who helped me along the way: Carmen Beumer, Betsy Blaustein, Nancy Butcher, Gary Goldman, Navorn Johnson, Frances Jalet-Miller, Sujata Massey, Mark T. Phillips, Pam Reed and Malice Domestic, Bonnie Resta-Flarer, Beth Teitel, Celia and Jesse Witten, and everybody at Madeline's Espresso Bar. Finally, many thanks to Nancy Seid, who is not only one heck of a wife and girlfriend, but also a darn fierce editor.
This book is fiction! The people aren't real! Nothing in it ever happened!
One special note: I have been honored to serve on a grants panel for the Saratoga County Arts Council, one of the finest arts organizations around, and
never witnessed any of the chi
canery depicted herein.
I was hanging out at Madeline's Espresso Bar that morning, same a
s any other morning—except week
ends, when I go heavy on the husband and father thing. It still amazes me sometimes, but I'm
forty years old
with a wife, two kids, and three hundred thousand dollars, which I hustle
d late last fall. The three hun
dred grand, that is. The wife and kids I've somehow accumulated over the years.
You've seen guys like me sitting in the back corner of every coffeehouse from Podunk to Paris. We're the wild-eyed dreamer
s scribbling madly in worn note
books or hunched over coffee-stained old portable computers, muttering to ourselves. People tend to give us lots of room.
In my case, though, I'd become something of a local celeb.
Last November it came out in the
how my screenplay sold for a million big ones.
Since nothing much happens in Saratoga Springs in November—and since the editor is my wife's best friend—my rather bewildered grin even made the top of page one, right above the winner of the 13th Annual Simulated Deerhunting Competition. The headline screamed,
Saratoga writer jacob burns goes hollywood!
So the folks at Madeline's put my mug shot up on their bulletin board, and sometimes I'd hear tourists
whispering to each other in hushed reverential tones as they pointed at me. The brave ones would come up and ask for my autograph.
That morning it was already May, and six months had passed since I bec
ame a major regional tourist at
traction, but I still felt a little stunned. See, I'd spent ten long years—well, to be
honest, more like fifteen—writ
ing poignant bittersweet screenplays about migrant farmworkers, homeless Haitians, and others of their downtrodden ilk. To use that infamous
word, I'm a
a stuck-in-the-60s anachronism, an amusing relic to point out to y
our grandchildren. After receiv
ing several thousand re
jections—at least—I finally fig
ured out that no one in Hollywood would ever in their wildest dreams give a rat's ass about any of this stuff.
But then last year it h
appened: My old college room
mate got the rights to a novel called
, about deadly fumes seeping out of
the earth's core after an earth
quake and threatening to destroy the entire population of San Francisco. I guess I must have hit a certain time in my life, because I ag
reed to do the adaptation. Basi
cally, for a couple of y
ears I'd been wanting to buy my
self a pair of hundred-dollar prescription sunglasses.
seemed like a good way to finally achieve that dream.
So I wrote the thing, in five short weeks. And the rest, as they say, is history. One million buckaroos. Even after the agents, managers, lawyers, producers, accountants, unions, Internal Revenue Service, and other bloodsuckers drank their fill, and even after I treated myself to
-dollar sunglasses, I still wound up with that three hundred K, free and clear.
And not only that, advance word on
The Gas that Ate San Francisco,
which would come out this Christmas, was awesome. So now every studio in Hollywood had a disaster flick they wanted me to work on. Showers of
deadly hundred-ton meteors... gigantic man-eating weeds... a thousand cloned grizzly bears set loose in New York City...
Of course, I still had no takers on any of my poignant, bittersweet screenplays.
My agent set up a deal for me to adapt another novel, about a lethal hairy green fungus, transmitted by soap. (I kid you not.) But whenever I sat down to write the darn thing, my brain froze up and all I could think about was eating another handful of Nestle chocolate bits. I gain
ed twenty pounds without finish
ing a single page, and eventually realized I'd better take a break from writing before I started looking like Marlon Brando.
Bottom line, I needed a break, period. For fifteen years I'd spent my life anxiously chained to
board, on an endless quest for one perfect word after another. Ever since my kids were born I'd been feeling a wee bit perturbed, to put it mildly, that my better half provided a good two-thirds of our decidedly moderate income. But now, abracadabra, I'd rubbed the magic lamp called Hollywood and woken up wealthy. And like a li
fer unexpectedly released on pa
role, I suddenly didn't know what the heck to do with myself. This strange new freedom was baffling.
For right now, all I wanted to do was sip coffee at Madeline's, read their newspapers, do the crosswords, and chill out. Which i
s what I was doing on that morn
ing in May when a voice I didn't recognize called out my name. This happened a lot lately; if it wasn't a tourist, then it was some aspiring young writer wanting me to recommend them to my agent.
When I looked up, though, I saw an old writer: Donald Penn. Or as everyone at Madeline's referred to him, The Penn. I'd ne
ver heard him speak out loud be
fore. He was a short, thin man with scared brown eyes
and long unkemp
t white hair who came into Made
line's almost every
morning wearing the same thread
bare gray sport jacket and skinny dark tie. He'd whisper "Cup of Ethiopian, please," to whoever was behind the counter, then spend the rest of the morning sitting in a corner, scribb
ling in a dirty old spiral note
book and muttering softly to himself.
In short, he acted very much like me, except a lot crazier—or at least, I hoped so. Certainly his beard was scragglier.
Given how quiet he was, and given he and I had never spoken to each other, I was surprised when he came toward me shouting my name.
I was even mor
e surprised when he lurched for
ward, flinging a small shiny object at me.
And I was most surprised of all when he fell down, dead, at my feet.
Not that I knew he was dead. I figured he was drunk, or maybe he'd just tripped on one of Made
Oriental rugs. "Mr. Penn? You okay?" I asked.
But he didn't answer, and he didn't move, either. Everyone in the espresso bar was staring at me. I knew I was supposed to pu
t down the Arts and Leisure sec
something. But what? Beyond Band-Aids and kisses, my medical expertise is limited.
I shook The Penn. No
thing. Trying to ignore his rot
ten fishlike odor, I bent down and felt his neck. No pulse. I put my hand in front of his nose and felt a tickle, but it was just some stray hairs from The Penn's mustache.
"Call an ambulance," I heard someone say, and then realized the croaking voice was mine.
Noise and commotion suddenly burst out behind me, people running around and screaming for a phone. Some guy in a Buffalo Bills jacket raced in from the front room, gra
bbed The Penn, and started bang
ing his chest and blowing air into his mouth.
As Buffalo Bill pounded away just like the studs on ER, I looked down at my shaking left hand. Somehow I was still clutching the shiny object that Penn had flung at me.
It was a key. In fact, a very familiar key—I had one just like it at home.
My hand was holding the key to a safety-deposit box at the Saratoga Trust Bank.
Buffalo Bill wiped sweat off his forehead and frowned. An ambulance roared up and thr
efficient EMTs dashed in, zapped and tubed The Penn to no avail, then carried his body out on a stretcher.
Reality suddenly hi
t me like one of those hundred-
ton meteors. Donald Penn was stone cold dead.
And as he was dying, he tossed me the key to his safety-deposit box.
There was only one possible explanation I could think of: The
crazy bastard knew he was dying
... and his final dying wish was to have me open his box.
It gave me the shivers.
y-looking cops came in and ques
tioned me, followed by a cute young reporter from the
. They all wanted to know exactly what had happened.
I told them what I saw:
it looked like a heart attack. But I never mention
ed the key. I figured it was no
body's business but mine. Mine
and The Penn
They didn't probe too
hard. Clearly this was just an
other sad-sack derelict biting the dust from too much booze and too much scrounging for leftover, half-eaten Happy Meals from the McDonald's garbage bin.
So less than five minutes later, the cops let me go. I stepped out of Madeline's and blinked up at the blue May sky. My feet started moving, and before I knew it, I found myself walking up Broadway toward the Saratoga Trust Bank.
I had to sidestep hordes of young mothers idly wheeling their baby carriages as they basked in the sunshine. Saratoga Springs is a tourist town that takes its flowers seriously, so there were tulips, daffodils, and other splashes of c
olor blooming all over the side
walk. Teenage kids with weird haircuts sat on the
benches smooching, and Skidmore College women were out in force wearing ultra-tight tops and ultra short skirts. All of this springtime festiveness made The Penn's death seem even more bizarre.
As I headed up the
marble steps of the bank, I won
dered what I'd find in his box. Old love letters? Thick stacks of thousand-dollar bills? Dirty socks?
I walked up to the thin-lipped, middle-aged woman who spent her days perched like a withered parrot outside the bank's imposing safety-deposit vault. The way it works at the Saratoga Trust, you give Ms. Thin Lips your key and s
ign a form, after which she pro
ceeds to open the vault's thick steel doors. Once inside, she hands you your box, and then turns her back to give you some privacy as you put in or take out your valuables. Or if you request it, you get your own small private room.
So I gave The Penn's key to Thin Lips and waited while she got out the form. She looked down at it, then up at me, and frowned. "You're not Donald Penn," she said.
"No, he gave me hi
s key. He wanted me to get some
thing out of his box," I explained.
She eyed her for
m doubtfully. "He has not autho
rized you to do that."
"Well, but he gave me the key."
"You are required t
o obtain his official authoriza
"That'll be a little hard to do. He's dead."
She stared at me, not sure if I was making some kind of sick joke. I decided to give her the works. A tear fell from my eye, a trick I learned from an actress friend once, and I blubbered, "He died right in front of me, thirty minutes ago."
But Thin Lips just constricted her lips even more. I don't know how she managed to get her words out
through that tightly zipped mouth. "Unless you're a family member, or you're mentioned in his will, you can't get into his box."
Death to all bureaucrats.
"An individual's safety-deposit box is sealed after his or her death. The
laws and regulations in this re
gard are extremely strict."
I thought for a moment, then said, "Oh." Not exactly brilliant, I know, but it was all I could come up with.
Her eyes narrowed suspiciously, until they were even thinner than her lips. "What do you want from Mr. Penn's box, anyway?"
I stood up huffily and threw the wom
an my snooti
est frown. "I'm surprised you would ask. That's a breach of privacy, is it not?"
Thin Lips gave a guilty little start. As I turned and walked away, I could feel her glaring at my back. It was the most fun I'd had all morning.
That night, after our kids were in bed, my wife and I sat on the front porch sipping our almond sunset tea. "What was this guy'
s story, anyway?" I asked obses
sively, for maybe the hundredth time.
"Maybe he was a secret millionaire, the bastard son of Aristotle Onassis," Andrea suggested.
"No, really," I said.
"He's a Venusian spy who faked his own death in order to escape his tyrannical masters."
I shook my head and laughed. Andrea is by nature an upbeat person, and she's also an expert at getting me to lighten up—a skill she was forced to acquire during all those years of being married to a struggling writer.
Andrea looks like a 60s folk singer, with long black hair down to her waist, freckles, and deep brown eyes that reach right into you. Thanks to long hours of
working out at the Y, she's in even better shape than she was before her pregnancies.
In short, she's a beautiful woman.
Sometimes when I would sit at Madeline's and think about my life,
and how the highlight of my ca
reer was some inane B flick about killer gas,
I'd get re
ally depressed. But then I'd think about Andrea, Babe Ruth, and Wayne Gretzky, and feel okay again.
Babe Ruth is our five year old, and Gretzky is three. They used to be Daniel and Nathan until they decided to change their names.
After kidding around with Andrea on the front porch, and then kissing my sleeping boys good night, I was able to put The
safety-deposit box out of my mind and get some sleep.
But the next day, while reading the
all my irritation at being unable
to get into his box re
turned full force. The story on The
scribed in moving detail how he had died in my arms. Actually, of course, he'
d died at my feet, but why quib
The cute young reporter had learned that The
body was examin
ed by the county medical ex
aminer, who dec
lared the cause of death was in
deed a heart attack. But the reporter hadn't succeeded in learning much else about The Penn beyond his age, fifty-three, and his
address, 511 Broadway. She men
tioned that he was a writer, but said he had no known publications. And no
known relatives, no known jobs
... no known anything.
I sat at the kitchen table wondering if The
friends—assuming he had any—called him Donald or Don, or Donny. Then, thrusting that thought aside, I went out to the driveway with Gretzky to play hockey. His babysitter was sick, and today was Tuesday, one of the three days Andrea teaches at the local community
college. So that left me holding the bag—or in this case, the baby.
Gretzky is the more easygoing of our two children, with a knack for relaxing and enjoying the simple pleasures of life, a talent he must have inherited from his mother. The one time he gets really fierce is when he's playing hockey. So he and I battled each other all morning in a hotly contested, no-holds-barred game. I played pretty well, I thought, but the kid is tough, and he beat me 83 to 0.
Then he held his crotch and started dancing. A dead giveaway. "Do you want to make peepee?" I asked.
"Hockey players don't make peepee," Gretzky answered firmly.
"Sure they do."
"No, they don't!"
Normally Gretzky is,
as I said, the cheerful, easygo
ing sort. But not tod
ay. After several minutes of at
tempted rational explanations, followed by several minutes of attempted evenhanded negotiations, I eventually wound up carrying him kicking and screaming to the bathroom, just in the nick of time. He let loose about three gallons.
I figured he was just acting obstinate because he was sleepy, so I said gently, "Honey, time for a nap."
"Hockey players don't take naps," he declared angrily.
Forty-five minutes and several Dr. Seuss books later, I tiptoed out of his bedroom, thrilled that I was about to get some time to myself. But then the door creaked. "Daddy?" Gretzky called out.
I gritted my teeth and tried to keep the desperation out of my voice, because if Gretzky heard it, he'd never let me go. "Yes, sweetheart?"
"Do hockey players die?"
I came back in and sat down on Gretzky's bed. "Only when they get very, very old."
"We've been alive for so long today, maybe we won't ever die."
Maybe we won't ever die.
Without warning, The Penn poured into my mind again, lurching forward, flinging me that key. Dying.
And other images flooded in, too. The Penn drinking coffee and writing feverishly
in his dirty spiral note
him in one corner muttering and scribbling,
me in another co
rner muttering and scribbling..
. How many mornings did we spend together like that, a hundred? Two hundred? And what did he do with all those notebooks of his, anyway?
Suddenly the answer shot through me.
They were in his safety-deposit box.
"Daddy. Answer me."
The Penn wanted me to read his stuff. That was his dying wish.
I bent down and kissed him. "You're right, honey. Maybe we won't ever die. Have a nice nap, Mr. Hockey Player."
I thought as I tiptoed downstairs, I can't let
life work lie in a cold metal vault, unread. What if he turned out to be a secret literary genius? What if he was one
of those writers who become fa
mous after they're dead?
But he'd never ev
en have a chance of becoming fa
mous unless I could get into that stupid safety-deposit box. I took The
key from my pocket and rest
lessly rubbed it between my fingers, then turned it over and read the box number on the back: "2011."
An idea started forming in my head, but suddenly the phone rang loudly. I grabbed it fast, praying it hadn't woken my son. "Hello?"
"Mutant beetles take over Los Angeles," my agent explained. "Warner Brothers.
Five hundred K."
Jesus, what next—satanic gerbils? Carrying the portable phone, I walked into the study and searched my top desk drawer until I found what I was looking for: the key to my own safety-deposit box.
"Will you fucking
to me?!" Andrew
ing into the phone, furious; after all, ten percent of five hundred is fifty. "It's just a
. All you gotta do is add a few commas and exclamation points and shit."