PEOPLE BEHAVING BADLY: A Collection of Short Mystery Stories (2015)
by John D. Ottini
The short stories in this collection all involve crimes and criminous behavior, and can thus be subsumed under the mystery category in its broadest sense, but they are not the kind of puzzle stories the term “mystery” implies. That said, they’re a lot of fun.
He tells people who ask that his name is Joe, but the reader can’t be certain this is true. Joe’s skill is looting mailboxes for checks and credit card statements, which he sends on to associates who will use the information thus gleaned to loot bank accounts and sell relevant data to identity thieves. After pulling off such a theft in Unionville, he finds a note indicating he’s been found out, and that the sender wants to meet with him. What seem to Joe “Easy Pickings” remains to be determined.
Now living in a retirement community, Bill Sullivan has said hello to fellow resident “Dumpster Rose,” prior to the arrival of the sanitation truck, three times a week for the past two weeks. Today is like another, except that now Bill invites her to breakfast, Rose’s acceptance of which leads to excitement and revelations, including at least one of the latter Bill could do without.
Marco Mancini knew from age thirteen that he wanted to become a priest, much to the pleasure of his grandmother and the displeasure of his parents. But heed the call he did, and now serves with Father Bryan at “St. Anne’s Church in crime-riddled Belleview parish. All those years of study and sacrifice at the seminary didn’t prepare him for the evil he’s witnessed over the last five years.” When an upset and very frightened young woman confesses to Father Marco, he surprises her with a “True Confession” of his own in a potent story that might leave readers pondering matters moral and immoral.
In “A Shoulder to Die On,” Brian Watson frequently forgets to remove the contents of the pockets in his jeans before tossing them into the hamper, so wife Dina makes it a point to check them before they become part of a laundry load. When she discovers a matchbook from “the Wild Horse Club, a singles bar which is best described as a meat market for horny souls,” she finds a seductive note penned inside its cover. She decides to let the discovery pass without comment to Brian, certain he’s not a cheater. But two weeks later she finds a note to him written on hotel stationery, resulting in confrontations which lead to catastrophic outcomes.
Experienced bartender Ace Miller has developed, from general necessity and the specific need to retain his job, a capacity “to listen, sympathize and keep the drinks flowing. Never offer advice unless asked to do so and never argue with a customer.” Between Mrs. Marsalina and, especially, the very demanding—and frequently inebriated—Ben Summerfield, he’s kept extremely busy. While he’s all too familiar with Summerfield’s story, neither he nor Summerfield can foresee the “Killer Karma” that’s coming.
Storefront medium Madame Simone has her latest customer initially tagged as both well-to do and well-educated until he opens his mouth and the grammatical errors pour out. But since he’s willing to pay her sizable fee for a reading, she’s willing to overlook the linguistic ineptitudes of the man who says his name is Tony. The reading starts out reasonably well, Simone having had only one dissatisfied customer in her five years working her grift, but it’s unfortunate she really can’t see the future or she’d know what happens when “The Auditor Cometh.”
“Jillian met Peter in the rooftop lounge on the 20th floor of the Markham Hotel a year ago.” They developed an on-again/off-again relationship “based on pure unadulterated lust, great sex and large quantities of alcohol.” But now Jillian has asked Peter to join her at the hotel lounge for what, unbeknownst to him, is her determination to make an irrevocable break. Their discussion takes the kind of turn Jillian couldn’t have foreseen, and a more radical turn when Will Denton shows up and demonstrates that “Falling is the Hardest Part.”
The nameless, highly imaginative first-person narrator of “A Matter of Disposal” learns that eavesdropping on neighbors Monica and Howard Swartz, who live in the apartment above his in a building with paper-thin walls and ceilings, can have very embarrassing consequences.
Another nameless narrator relates “A Deadly Act of Kindness.” A bone-breaker for his boss Mr. Genovese, he’s watching the home of accountant Daniel Davis because “apparently Dan’s stupid enough to think he can siphon funds out of Mrs. Genovese’s and some of his other clients’ accounts and get away with it.” Davis has denied the accusation but Mr. Genovese doesn’t believe him, so our narrator has been dispatched to send a message via the Davises’ eight-year-old daughter Molly as soon as they leave for the evening and Molly is home with a babysitter.
When he arrives at his office at the News-Tribune very early in the morning, crime reporter Jason Garrett finds an envelope with his name on it which was postmarked three days earlier. The letter is from a Mildred Cruickshank, and details aspects of her personal downfall from an opulent lifestyle to a far less substantial one—and why. Now living in a rundown apartment complex includes Mildred’s having “Hell to Pay” to contend with vicious juvenile delinquent sixteen-year-old neighboring twins Randy and Teddy in a particularly potent tale.
For Donald Roberts, “Sorrow Point” is simultaneously a state of place, a state of mind, and a state of retribution as he recounts his dysfunctional relationship with his parents, with his fifteen-year-older brother Thom, and with Thom’s wife Greta.
Henry Foster tries to discourage his stay-at-home wife Andrea from watching the evening newscasts because they’re always full of grim stories. But she does so anyway while he’s at work at “The Butcher” shop he’s inherited from his father and grandfather. On this particular evening there’s another story about a mass murderer of women. Mostly, however, Andrea is angry at Henry for what she saw on the news concerning him in this darkly comic tale.
Paul Santini is in deep financial trouble—and with the wrong people. He owes three thousand dollars to Romano Sambucco after losing to him in a game of pool, and—worst still—thirty-seven thousand dollars (plus interest) to crime boss Guido Genovese, owner of the “Lucky Thirteen” casino. In the case of the latter, Paul is given a painful warning by Genovese’s man Tony (a.k.a. the Auditor) Deluso that he’s up against a deadline. When a lawyer named Walter Michaels comes into his life with a fortuitous proposition, Paul figures he has it made—if he plays his cards right….
Readers who are fans of crime stories, some of which contain macabre twists, are advised to check out this quick entertaining read from an author whose prose is competently wrought and whose sense of characterization is strong and commendable. The one nit I have to pick is the one I mentioned in my review of James Patterson’s I, Alex Cross regarding “surprise” twists and violations thereof. Mr. Ottini has a predilection for surprise endings in a number of the stories in People Behaving Badly, not all of which are properly prepared for but which are less egregious than Patterson’s—if only because Ottini is working in the shorter form. Then again, in recent years I’ve read quite a few published short stories which violate what I was taught about planting suggestions and implications, so this might be one of those “new normals” we keep hearing about nowadays.
© 2018 Barry Ergang