Call of the Nightingale

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Logline or Premise
In his latest case, Cartwright sets out to prove the innocence of a seventeen-year-old girl named Alice, suspected of murdering her grandfather, Professor Carmichael—a leading genetic scientist, with a dark and sinister past, dating back to the 1930s American Eugenics program.
First 10 Pages


阴 YIN / 12

龙 DRAGON / 103

阴 TIGER / 135

杨 YANG / 157



for my daughters

teoma, alessandra and gabrielle


I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars and would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—

I know why the caged bird sings

Paul Laurence Dunbar





IT WAS THREE IN THE MORNING when he was rudely awoken by the thunderclap of a distant storm. He decided to get up, knowing there was no way he’d get back to sleep. He maneuvered himself onto the edge of his bed, his feet suspended, not quite reaching the parquet floor below. He was drenched in sweat, uncertain if it was due to the medication or the unbearable heat being generated by an unusual weather pattern.

Through his opened bedroom window, he noticed that the night sky had turned a crimson red. The moon, punctured by hues of cerulean blue, hung precariously over the withering willow trees that lined the riverbank a couple of hundred yards away. The storm predicted by the forecasters was heading his way.

He remembered how a few years back, scientists had warned that the atmosphere would begin displaying erratic behaviour—an inevitable result of climate change. Of course, he, like many others, hadn’t believed this possible, but there it was, nature’s proof, pushing back at him through the open window.

Giving up a long, anguished sigh, he got up to close the window. In the distance, he could hear a nightingale singing a mournful serenade, a warning perhaps of the impending storm. Shutting the window and engaging the latch, he turned and made his way to a white lacquered dresser stationed against the wall opposite his bed. He opened the top drawer and began searching anxiously for something. A moment later, his search was successful. He extracted a small piece of paper. Returning to his bed, he unfolded the paper as he'd done on countless occasions. It was still the same as before. Blank.

When he examined the paper earlier that day, he recalled how something had been different. But he couldn't remember what. He brought it close to his face, hoping to divine its secrets. But nothing jumped out. Frustrated, he shifted his gaze to the approaching storm outside the window. Bolts of white light were now piercing the blood-red sky, interspersed with the roar of thunder. A torrential rainfall followed, bellowing the window with brute force, demanding its entrance.

Looking back at the paper, he suddenly couldn’t recall why or how it had gotten into his hand. Noticing the folds etched into it, he decided to follow its pattern, first refolding the paper in half. Then in quarters. He continued folding it over onto itself until it had become impossible to add any more folds. He then began flipping it from palm to palm as though evaluating its weight.

Finally, he allowed it to come to rest in his right hand. He then clenched his hand, making a fist, causing the folded piece of paper to disappear within. He continued squeezing with such intensity that his knuckles turned a ghostly white. Perhaps he feared the object would somehow escape his grasp or worse—be stolen.

At some point, he must have felt that it was safe to release his grip—to allow the object to rest once again, unguarded, in his open palm. Tears began forming along the edges of his hazel eyes. He had had an epiphany. He realized that this folded piece of paper represented the sum of his life—his dreams, desires, and beliefs.

He also knew he had little time left. To him, living was, at best, an irrational and compulsive folding in of one's time, of one’s space, of one's experiences. He had played many roles within his allotted time and space—spaces he’d occupied for the past eighty years. But like the folded piece of paper, which now lay inert in his palm, having reached the end of its folds, he, too, had reached his. All that remained was the unfolding.


I GOT A CALL THAT MORNING from Lieutenant William Ant from the homicide division of the 3rd Precinct. I was at my office catching up on some paperwork, which for me, amounted to playing the saxophone without a reed. The IRS had decided I should be audited for reasons I suspect were not altogether kosher. My last case upset a few bureaucrats, so I figured they had called in some markers.

“What gives, Lieutenant?” I asked as though I didn’t have another care in the world.

“I’ve got something for you.”

“Is it my birthday? I thought it wasn’t for another two months?”

“Funny guy. Not sure if you’ll see it as a gift once you hear all the details.”

“Such as?”

“We’ve got a girl here charged with the murder of her grandfather. The thing is, she’s not saying a word.”

“Yeah. So, what’s that got to do with me?

“Well, we found one of your business cards in her pocket.”

“That’s weird. Haven’t printed any of those for over a decade. Doing my bit for the environment.”

“I’ll bet,” said Ant, “more likely you didn’t want to spring for new ones.”

“Now you know why. They have a habit of ending up in the strangest places. So, what’s her name?”

“Alice Carmichael. Ring any bells?”


“Well, she keeps saying that she’ll only talk to you. So, we need you to come down.”

“What about the details of the murder?”

“That’s where it gets even stranger. But I’d rather fill you in at the Precinct.”

“Wow. Here I was, thinking I’d spend a quiet, relaxing morning working on my taxes. But if duty calls, damn the taxman. See you in ten.”


OUT ON THE STREET, I began my relentless attempt to flag down a yellow cab. My powder blue Caddy had bit the dust a few weeks back, leaving me at the mercy of Motor City’s cabbies. Five minutes later, one finally pulled up to the curb.

“Where to, mister?” the voice boomed out once I was seated. The voice belonged to a large-bodied man of African American descent.

“3rd and W. Grand,” I said.

He dropped the lever attached to the cab’s meter. The numbers on its LED screen started churning quickly upwards. I felt the little cash in my pockets falling even faster—downwards like water tumbling over the edge of Niagara Falls.

After a few minutes of silence, the cabbie ventured a question, breaking my Zen-like relationship with the meter.

“You in trouble?” he asked, glancing at me through his rear-view mirror.

“What makes you say that?” I threw back, surprised at the question.

“Well, there are only three reasons someone visits a cop station voluntarily. Either they’re a cop, a witness, or a suspect. I figure you’re not the first two.”

“Are you always this upfront with your fares?”


“Yeah, on what?”

“On first impressions. You strike me as someone who can handle himself. I was curious.”

“I’ve learned from experience that curiosity’s a good trait unless it involves butting one’s nose into other people’s business. Could be bad for one’s health.”

“Can’t help it. I’m a cabbie.”

“Good point. I’m in the private business.”

“Oh, yeah. What kind?”

“The private eye kind.”

“No shit, you guys exist?”

“Why? You figured we only hung out in pulp novels?”

“Well, judging by what you’re wearing, yeah,” angling his head toward me with a mischievous Cheshire cat-like smile pasted across his face.

Glancing down at my black felt fedora sitting next to me and my matching black, cotton double-breasted suit offset by my snub nose and chiseled face—he wasn’t far off from the truth.

We spent the rest of the way making small talk about the ins and outs of living in Motor City. Finally arriving at the 3rd precinct, he released the metering lever demanding I pay $14.50. I handed him a twenty and told him to keep the change. I then asked, “What name do you go by?”


“Got a last name?”

“Why? What’s it to you?”

“Just curious.”

“Didn’t you just tell me that could be bad for one’s health?”

“That I did. Mine’s Cartwright. James Cartwright.” I extended my hand. He took it and shook it hard.

“Since you’re so cordial and upfront, mine’s Bourne. Jason Bourne.”

“As in the master spy?”

“What can I say? You don’t have the exclusive on the pulp market.”

“True,” I retorted, smiling at his jab.

“Listen, James, you want me to wait for you. I’ve got no fares scheduled.”

“I’d say yes, but my budget’s a little tight right now.”

“That’s no problem. Maybe we can work out some deal.”

“Oh yeah. Like what?”

“I drive you around, and you teach me some tricks of the trade. I’ve been considering a change for a while. Maybe this is it.”

“Let me get this straight. You’re thinking we hook up and become a thing, like Kato and the Green Hornet. Make it like we’re some superhero team. And what? Are you applying for Kato’s role?”

“If that’s what it takes.”

“Got any experience?”

“Did a couple of tours in Afghanistan. Then worked security for a firm down in Florida before moving up here.”

“Let me think about it. Where can I reach you?”

He scribbled his name and phone number on a scrap of paper and passed it to me. I pocketed it and got out with no intention of getting back to him. I enjoyed working alone. That way, any screw-ups were mine and mine alone. Besides, all my previous partners had ended up dead or seriously handicapped.

But watching him pull away, I imagined tomorrow’s headlines:


I gave my head a few quick shakes, hoping to erase such absurd notions, and refocused my attention on the real matter. I made for the steps, thinking I was ready to confront whatever hornet’s nest awaited me. Boy, was I wrong.


SHE WAS THIN FRAMED, no older than seventeen, looking like she hadn’t eaten for days. She was seated on a wooden chair, hunched over, knees against her chest, and dressed in black jeans and a plain black T-shirt.

The room Ant put her in was painted bleach white with bright fluorescent overheads. I exited my spot behind the two-way mirror from where I’d been observing her and made my way through a hallway to a door marked B—one of five interrogation rooms the 3rd had reserved for their guests.

I walked in and sat down across from her. A plain white Ikea-like table on four legs set us apart. She didn’t look up—her head now folded in and down between her knees, rocking back and forth. I waited several minutes for her to adjust to my presence. Then dove in.

“Alice.” Nothing. “Alice, you asked for me. My name’s James Cartwright.” This seemed to register something. She looked up.

“Are you the James on the card?” she ventured to ask, her voice frail and suspicious.

“I figure I am. The lieutenant in charge got a hold of me based on the information on that card.”

“I need your help.”

“How so?”

What she really needed was a talented lawyer and something to eat.

“My grandfather told me I could trust you if I ever got myself into trouble. I guess this would count as one of those times.”

A faint smile echoed across her lips, hinting at her attempted humor. I smiled back.

A knock at the door momentarily interrupted us. A uniformed cop walked in, handing me a bag of takeout food from a local fast-food restaurant which I had the Lieutenant order earlier.

I passed it over to Alice, hoping that she wasn’t vegetarian. She took the bag, giving me an inquisitive look, and emptied its contents. She played with the food for a while, like a cat does once it’s gotten hold of its prey. But within minutes, she had devoured the burger and fries.

I waited for a beat, allowing her to digest her food, then asked, “What was your grandfather’s name?”

We both knew it was a rhetorical question, but I needed an entry point, and this was as good as any.

“Oliver Carmichael,” she said.

“Do you have any idea why your grandfather had my card or why he thought I could help?”

“He said your paths had crossed at some point. But he wouldn’t tell me how.”

I had no recollection of meeting anyone matching the professor’s description. But I met many people in my line of work. I’d have to check some of my back cases to see if something would click.

“What did your grandfather do for a living?”

“He was a university professor at the University of Michigan. He taught biochemistry.”

“And what were you doing at your grandfather’s yesterday?

“He had asked me to come by. He said he had something important to tell me.”

“What happened when you got there?”

“That’s the problem. All I remember is unlocking the door and walking in. After that, it’s a complete blank. Next thing I know, I’m covered in blood, handcuffed, and brought here.”

“You don’t remember calling the police?”

“No. Did I?

“So, it seems.

“What do you think, Mr. Cartwright? It doesn’t look good for me.”

“Truthfully, no. But the evidence is all circumstantial. There are no witnesses. Do you have a lawyer?”

“They appointed one for me.”

“Forget that. I know someone. I’ll have her come by. She’s good.”

“You don’t have to do this for me.”

“Yes, I do.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because. I believe you’re innocent.”


Ant had been watching my interaction with Alice behind the two-way mirror. As I exited, he was lying in wait for me.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing, Cartwright? I let you in there thinking you’d get a confession and save the taxpayers some dollars. Instead, you give her false hope, telling her she’s innocent.”

“She is.”

“How do you figure? Did we read the same reports?”

“On paper, it doesn’t look good.”

“What makes you say that?” he said sarcastically. “Could it be that they found her beside her grandfather’s body, with the murder weapon in her hand and nine stab wounds zigzagging his body? Or is it that when she called the thing in, she admitted to the murder?”

“Like I said, it looks bad on paper.”

“So, what makes you think otherwise?”

“The way she ate her food.”

“What about it?

“She’s left-handed. The killer was right.”

“Maybe she’s ambidextrous.”

“Maybe. But it’s enough to get me looking elsewhere for the actual murderer.”