The first dead body I ever saw was at my grandparents’ country club in Chicago. A mature black-haired woman in a pink suit and a pink hat sat peacefully on a round pink brocade sofa. I was ten years old. She was pretty and I liked pink, so I stopped to stare at her. I thought she was asleep. Just then someone came and placed a white towel over her face to keep people from trying to wake her up: She was dead.

My big brother and I were fascinated. And in the way. We were repeatedly shooed off, but we kept coming back. When the body was finally removed, the wet spot on the sofa shocked me. That's what happens when you die, I remember thinking. A fate worse than death! Two men rolled the sofa away, never to reappear. All of this was intensely interesting, but my brother and I never discussed this little adventure with the adults. We didn't dare.

The adventure continued: We went to the funeral. My grandparents knew the deceased. No foul play suspected, just death by natural causes; this was a country club, after all, not a hotbed of homicide. But my parents didn’t belong to a country club, so the setting awed me: Silver finger bowls. Restroom attendants. A dead body and a funeral? Bonuses for a ten-year-old. We visited Chicago again the next summer, and my father, my brother and I witnessed an armed robbery on a bus. Chicago, as my grandmother had promised, was a cauldron of crime! Nothing exciting ever happened in my quiet neighborhood back in Denver, my home town. Except when that jet from Lowry Air Force Base crashed into the house in the next block. But I digress.

At the service my grandmother, in her gruesome fur wrap with the fox head biting its own tail, whispered loudly, “Thank goodness the children didn’t see a thing!” Oh no, of course we didn’t. And “The Case of the Pink-Clad Corpse” had no effect on me. None whatsoever. Of course I did grow up to be a mystery writer...

I always knew I wanted to write, but I had nothing to write about--yet. So I majored in journalism. My role models? Brenda Starr. Lois Lane. Hildy Johnson, played by Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (based on the play The Front Page). Being another “Watergate Bob” Woodward? No thanks. My fictional heroines were (and are) all beautiful, smart, sassy, and very well-dressed.

            After graduating college with these lofty goals, I “interviewed” by phone for one of the small-town reporter jobs posted with my journalism school placement office, with a newspaper in a little town in western Colorado I'll call “Sagebrush.” When I told my editor-to-be, I'll call him “Sweeney,” that I had a hot-off-the-press journalism degree, he had just two questions for me: “Do you have a car? Do you have a camera?” I said a hesitant  yes to both. “YOU’RE HIRED!” Sweeney shouted over the phone. A little warning bell rang in my head. Two weeks, I thought, I’ll give it two weeks. “Sagebrush” turned out to be a shambles of a dusty Western boom town, where tumbleweeds, tractors, ranchers, and miners rolled in, and it took me two years to roll out.

Sweeney was a local legend, a lunatic whose saving grace was that he loved his little Daily Press with a maniacal joie de vivre. You hadn’t really worked for Sweeney till he “fired” you--and in the next breath shouted out your next assignment. Another reporter Sweeney often fired would tell me, “This time he means it!” He never did. He called me “Scoop” when he fired me. (He didn’t mean it.) Local high school teachers used the paper in English classes. As a bad example. The writing varied, but the typos were great. The Daily Press once reported that a local man, identified by name and address, was cited for “having his dong [sic] loose and at large.” His “dong”? They might have meant his dog, but he never complained. No one in Sagebrush would have been surprised either way.

There was something different about “Sagebrush.” For example, the town was full of people missing fingers and teeth--from the mayor (missing his wedding ring finger) to the tubercular waitress at the coffee shop (missing many of her teeth). The paper’s advertising saleswoman (missing a finger) could be very friendly (if you bought a full-page ad). The alcoholic staff photographer (missing most of his teeth) started refusing to take photographs for reporter’s stories. Later he refused to develop film for reporters who took their own photos. Then he refused to even let reporters use his darkroom to develop their own film. Finally Sweeney fired him (but he didn’t mean it). The printer, a paroled armed bank robber, was hired because convicts can’t quit until their parole is up. (Or so Sweeney said.) He was a nice guy, with all of his fingers and many teeth, who one winter accidentally drove right through the wall of the Daily Press while “parking” out back with a girlfriend and keeping the engine running to stay warm. In a moment of passion he'd hit the accelerator pedal with both feet. Sweeney fired him. (No, not really.)

Ah, Sagebrush! Golden memories. Climbing through a massage parlor window to interview the girls inside. (I got offered a job too. It would have paid more, a lot more. But Sweeney wouldn’t fire me that time.) Going on wild goose chases, excuse me, wild horse hunts with the Bureau of Land Management. Observing the FBI SWAT team “training” the local police. Hunting for stolen dynamite with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The BATF agent made me sit in the back of his car with the unhappy suspect, who was very anxious to learn what I would write about him in theDaily Press. I told him we'd write about “his dong being loose and at large.” (Only kidding!) Those halcyon young reporter days of sleep deprivation, exhaustion, hunger, and lunacy ended one winter. It was 40 degrees below zero. The water in my toilet froze solid. In a flash of clarity I realized I could be just as broke someplace warm

Like WashingtonD.C., where I got much better reporting jobs and my toilet didn’t freeze. Eventually I started writing plays and mystery novels, and I will swear in court that everything I write is fiction, but “The Case of the Country Club Corpse” did inspire a scene in my play  Remedial Surveillance. Sagebrush, Sweeney, and the Daily Press figure in another play, Boom Town Blues, and in my heroine Lacey Smithsonian's background as a reporter.

Lacey was a character in my imagination long before she appeared in the Crime of Fashion mystery series. For years I carried around in my head the first few lines of Killer Hair and the image of Lacey looking down at a beautiful young woman in a coffin, wearing the worst haircut she's ever seen. Lacey was amusing and persistent, and now she’s striding stylishly through her mysteries in her high heels and her knockout vintage suits. Luckily, she and I get along.

Besides, she had a journalism degree and a car and a camera, so I said, “You're hired!"



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