Meet a P.I. whose past is catching up to him.
Brand new to Delia C. Pitts’ Ross Agency mystery series is Murder My Past, which she reads to us on this episode. Delia’s private investigator, SJ Rook, is catching up with his ex-wife, which can only lead to one thing: murder.
Harlem features largely in this series and as Delia mentions in our interview it’s the perfect place to set a mystery series. A multi-cultural neighborhood that has seen lots of change over the years, and one that holds plenty of secrets.
You’ll also hear Delia and I discuss the Crime Writers of Color website. On the books page you’ll find new featured authors and new releases each week.
Today’s show is supported by my patrons at Patreon. Thank you! When you become a patron for as little as $1 a month you receive a short mystery story each and every month. And the rewards for those who love mystery stories go up from there! Learn more and become a part of my community of readers at www.Patreon.com/alexandraamor
This week’s mystery author
Delia C. Pitts is the author of the Ross Agency Mysteries, a contemporary noir private eye series. She is a former university administrator and U.S. diplomat. After working as a journalist, she earned a Ph.D in history from the University of Chicago.
The fifth novel in her series, Murder My Past, was published February 16, 2021. In addition to her mysteries, Delia has published short stories in several anthologies and in the Chicago Quarterly Review.
She and her husband live in central New Jersey, too far from their twin sons in Texas.
To learn more about Delia and all her books visit DeliaPitts.com
Press play (above) to listen to the show, or read the transcript below. Remember you can also subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts. And listen on Stitcher, Android, Google Podcasts, TuneIn, and Spotify.
Excerpt from Murder My Past
“So, you clocked this Chuy. Three punches to the belly. He went down like a sack of onions, as I recall.”
“You recall correctly.” I tipped my glass at her.
“Hard to forget that fight. You were scary furious. Chuy was bigger than you. On the varsity wrestling team too. But you were mad as hornets in heat. Took him out quick and good.”
“You were impressed?”
“I was.” Annie squeezed her lids, then shook her head. “Day one of fall semester, I saw you in biology. I sat next to you at the lab bench.”
“Of course, SJ!” Laughter floated from her lips, tinkling and bright. “How do you think we ended up as lab partners?”
“You didn’t mind the anger?”
She twisted her lips to the side. “No. Not at first. I thought I could handle it. I was crushing hard on you.” She ducked her head, then picked at a salt crystal on the stem of her giant glass. “And I was so damn teen stupid.”
I puffed until bourbon rippled over the ice like uneasy memories. The present was safer ground, I could regain my balance there.
“Annie, I read you’re heading a multi-million-dollar operation. How do you do it? You look fresh as a baby in a cradle.” Laid on thick, south Texas cornpone slathered over the compliments. “You ought to bottle that care-free potion and sell it to these New York City women. Stress and distress are the name of the game. Up here, if you’re not anxious, you’re not really trying. That’s how they see it.”
She detected the BS. “Aw, poor thing! New York City ladies not treating you nice like you’re used to?” She tossed her head until the brown column of her neck shimmied with laughter.
“I’m doing all right in that department. Don’t worry your pretty little head.” Bravado rang stupid, but I tried it anyway. Thoughts of Brina jittered through my mind: her smiling face, her warm eyes, the intensity of her focus as we unraveled a puzzle together.
Annie’s brow lifted, satisfaction tilting her full lips. “You got yourself a fancy New York City girl, do you, SJ? Tell me about her.”
I hadn’t meant to mention Brina, but with the subject raised coy didn’t fly. “We work together in a detective agency. She’s my boss.”
I ducked my eyes, studying the ice in my glass. That flat declaration made things seem simple between Brina and me. They weren’t. Not by a long shot. Heat prickled my neck, the blotches giving Annie the clue she needed. Under pressure, my ears turned dusky red, the reaction both predictable and amusing.
Annie’s eyebrows arched in skepticism. “And dating the boss doesn’t land you in trouble?”
“None so far. She’s fair, honest, tough. She helps people. I help people. She gets me and we have each other’s backs. That’s what matters.” This was the most I’d ever said to a third party about what Brina meant to me.
Annie still had that talent for slicing through me like a goddamn can opener. Her smile widened. “And I bet she’s stunning too.”
I nodded but didn’t offer details on how beautiful Brina was. Annie knew me; elaboration on that score wasn’t necessary.
“Sounds good, SJ. You sound real good. I’m glad. You had me worried a few years back. But seeing you now–solid, steady, clear like this—makes me feel we went through all those troubles for a reason. So the both of us could land in a better place.” We touched glasses and took slugs from our drinks as this new-found peace settled over the table.But since she’d split me open, I had clearance to return the shot. “And you? Anyone special in your life right now?”
“I’m not solitary, if that’s what you’re asking. I’ve got my little amusements. But right now, the company is my baby, my family, my everything.”
“Tell me about your company.”
She launched into corporate titan mode, her eyes glittering. “I have two hundred and fifty-five employees operating out of four locations in Dade County. We do everything from residential and commercial cleaning to janitorial services in major hotels, restaurants, hospitals, and entertainment venues.” Her breath came fast and hard as she spoke. “The thing I’m proudest of is almost all of those two hundred and fifty-five are women. We have a few men scattered here and there, but mostly it’s us ladies who get the job done, day in, day out.”
I thought about how Brina ran the financial side of our little detective agency. Her meticulous attention to every penny spent or earned saved us from disaster each month. Brina wasn’t in charge of a multi-million-dollar firm, but with her drive and smarts, she could pull it off, no doubt.
“How did you get started?” When Annie left me, she’d had less than four thousand dollars in the bank. She’d built her company from nothing in the strictest sense of the term.
“I started by doing the work myself. Me and another girl, we rented a vacuum cleaner, bought some pails and mops, and went door-to-door drumming up business. I always tell my employees I know exactly how hard they’re working, because I scrubbed the same floors they do. I washed the same windows and I scraped out the same ovens and refrigerators too.”
“They must love working for you, Annie.”
“I don’t know about love. I’m a tough boss. But the people who work for me know I respect them, and they return that respect to me.”
“And you bring in the big bucks.”
“We do pretty well, all told.”
The modesty was fake, but seductive. I wanted her to keep talking with me like this all night. Balancing at the rollercoaster’s peak was exhilarating. More softball questions kept her going. “And what’s your company called? Perry Cleaning Solutions?”
Annie hesitated for the first time. Her eyes drifted toward her lap and she bit her lower lip. “No. Actually, it’s called Rook Cleaning Services.”
“It’s named after me? Why?” I swallowed deep to calm my racing heart.
“Not after you, SJ. When I started the business, I was called Rook too, remember? And then I didn’t get around to changing it as time went on. We grew big so fast. We got known by that name, so I kept it. Even when I changed myself back to Perry.”
Every day she went to the office, Annie was forced to think of me, of my ugly temper, and our terrible parting. I shifted in my chair, leaning from the table. “I don’t know about that, Annie. It doesn’t sit right somehow.”
“Yeah, I know. But figure it this way: If you hadn’t married me, I never would have escaped south Texas. And if you hadn’t wrecked our marriage, I never would have founded my company. I’m a big old business success thanks to you, SJ.”
I suspected there was a touch of Annie-style revenge in the name game too. But I let it slide. “So, Rook Cleaning Services is all on me?” I dragged a hand over my mouth, but a smile peeked out.
“Yep, all on you, wise guy. And to think, you never even wiped a countertop the whole time we were married!”
“I did so. Remember that weekend you were sick and I made you a cake from scratch? From my mother’s favorite recipe. Yellow cake with chocolate icing.” I grinned when Annie hummed and licked her lips. “And after, I washed every bowl, pan, and spatula. When I was done, that kitchen was spotless.”
“I’ll give you that, SJ. You really put your foot into that cake!”
Guilt fluttered in my gut, a twinge, no more. I’d never baked a cake for Brina. Maybe I should.
Annie and I talked on. I wanted us to continue like this all night. Catch up, heal those little wounds that still festered. Laugh the way we did in our early days together. This evening proved those memories weren’t my idle fantasies. Our talk showed we’d been foolish, misguided, juvenile. But we weren’t wrong about the fundamentals. I wanted more time with Annie. More time to repair, to explore. More hours to bury the past. More days to imagine a future.
Annie wanted more too. She sketched a fingernail along the braided metal of her necklace, lifting it from her throat. Wires in three shades of gold twisted together, yellow, white, and rose. She pressed her thigh against mine. A firm touch, not hard. But enough to spin the rollercoaster.
“You ever think about us, SJ?”
“All the time.” A stretch. But the core truth croaked over my dry tongue.“We were good together, you and me.”
“Sometimes.” More truth; I swallowed the last of the bourbon.
“Miami’s a nice town.” Her fingers twitched over my leg, just above the knee.“So I hear. Nice beach, nice ocean.”
“You ever think about moving?”
“You inviting, Annie?” The train tottered on the greased tracks, high above the carnival midway.
She winked, black eyes slick with tropical heat. “Depends.”
Depends? My stomach lurched under my heart.
Annie slid her eyes left, black pupils filling the slanted corners. I waited for another wink, but she stilled her gaze. I rubbed damp palms over my pockets, my fingers near hers on my thigh.
She said nothing more, scattering me in a thousand directions. Depends on what? Phases of the moon? The tides? If the sun rises tomorrow? What?
I never found out. Strangers invaded. Barbarians occupied our booth. The present erased our past with a bold swipe.
And the next day, two bullets deleted our future.