Jose Latour's
Sophisticated; brutally honest; gripping Edgar Award Nominee
First Chapter
Meet the Author
Discuss Jose Latour
Buy the Book

Chapter One
(Read or print)

Elliot Steil sat on a backless bench in the shady public park, rested his left ankle over his right knee, slipped off a well-worn tasseled loafer, and began massaging his foot. A couple of minutes later, he gave the same treatment to his right foot, then finally placed both heels on the cement walkway and wiggled his toes as he held the marble slab on which he sat.

Trying day, Steil reflected. His coffee and sugar reserves had simultaneously given out two days before, and breakfast had consisted of forty grams of stale white bread washed down with a glass of cold water. A few minutes later he found his bike's rear tire punctured. He spent seventy-five minutes waiting for a bus, and at 10:02 A.M. punched his card at the Polytechnic Institute where he taught English, two hours and two minutes late.

Lunch was a meager, poorly seasoned mixture of rice and insufficiently cooked red beans escorted by overripe tomatoes. The teacher had left the building at 5:00 P.M. pondering if he should walk home or waste some more of his free time on the almost nonexistent Havana public transportation system. The scheduled 8:00 to 11:00 P.M. blackout and pending household chores led him to cover the eight kilometers on foot.

When riding the bus or his bicycle, Steil frequently forgot about the problematic metatarsal bones he had inherited from some unknown ancestor. The orthopedic corrections made for the regular shoes he bought at stores became ineffectual after a forty -- or fifty -- minute walk.

Steil sighed and lifted his gaze from the walkway. Two approaching teenagers cut short their exchange of buzzwords to glance at him, then looked at each other, smiling broadly. The lanky blond boy in dirty high-top sneakers and oversized shorts, carrying a basketball under his arm, suddenly raised his head and pressed his nostrils closed with his fingers.

"Whaddaya know? Shoulda brought my gas mask," quipped the taller, light-skinned black kid as they passed Steil.

Both youngsters bent over in a series of hiccups and moans, meant to be laughter. Six or seven steps farther on, their merriment subsided, and they slapped each other's palms -- first at shoulder, then thigh level -- before returning to their conversation.

Steil didn't resent the comment; in fact, he smiled in amusement, certain that his feet were odorless. After twenty years of high school teaching, he had grown used to teenagers' ways. What troubled him was the regressive Spanish that kids were speaking. How could they effectively learn a second language when they mispronounced and clipped their mother tongue? Every school year the number of students who spoke an appropriate Spanish dwindled; the ones who did were almost exclusively girls. Boys with above-average writing and communication skills swept everything under the mat to avoid being ridiculed unmercifully by their male peers.

The lanky blond boy dribbled the ball proficiently with his left hand, talking to his companion as they sauntered away. Steil put his loafers back on and resumed his long walk.

One hour later, just after rounding the comer of his block, Steil was spotted and surrounded by kids excitedly babbling something about a gleaming new car and a tourist. Knowing that pain and exhaustion made him lose his temper, he patiently tried to extricate himself from the gang. But the children kept blocking his way, jumping and yelling that the americano had given them chewing gum. Steil stopped dead in his tracks and glared at them angrily, imposing silence.

"Okay, Lemar. What's the matter?"

"An americano is looking for you. He came in that car," the boy said, pointing straight ahead. "He gave us chewing gum."

For a moment Steil was too surprised to react and kept his gaze fixed on the nine-year-old undisputed group leader. "Fine, thanks a lot. Now get back to whatever you were doing."

Steil turned and peered at the pearl-gray Toyota Corolla parked at the curb, right in front his apartment building. It had tourist plates, and behind the steering wheel sat a dim figure. Moving tiredly, the teacher approached the driver's seat, placed his left hand on top of the car, and stooped over. A man in his late sixties looked up, his bushy eyebrows rising for an instant and his lips parting in surprise.

"Looking for someone?" Steil asked.

"Thank God," the driver said. "Nobody seems to understand English around here, except for 'gimme.' Yes, I'm looking for Elliot Steil."

"That's me."

Now the blue eyes glinted with excitement. The stranger tilted his head to the side and smiled fleetingly before getting out of the car and extending his hand. The door clicked shut on its own.

"Dan Gastler," he said. "Glad to make your acquaintance."

"Pleased to meet you. Er ... is there anything I can do for you?"

"The other way around."


"I've been retained to do something for you. Can we talk in private?" His accent sounded familiar to Steil. Georgia, maybe?

"Oh...sure, sure. This way, please. Just a minute. Roll up the window and lock the car."

Steil's apartment building had been erected in 1924, and the old red bricks showed where plaster had fallen away. The small Otis elevator was out of order, so the two men took the neglected stairway to the third floor. Steil led the way through the right side of a U-shaped hallway and past three front doors before inserting a key into the cylinder lock of apartment 314.

The teacher hastily retrieved a soiled shirt draped over an old green armchair, picked up a kerosene lamp with a blackened glass chimney that stood on a coffee table, and kicked a slipper under another, matching armchair. After switching on a sixty-watt bulb, he deposited the lantern on the kitchenette's drain board and threw the garment into a dark bedroom, where disorder reigned.

Buy the book -->
Accessory to Murder, from HarperCollins, at The Online Mystery Network,
is produced and published by Newfront Productions, Inc.

Copyright © 1998, 2009 by HarperCollins and Newfront Productions, Inc.
All rights reserved. Do not duplicate or redistribute in any form.