Disgraced African American St. Louis Police Lieutenant Carlo Gabriel wants fiercely to return to the headquarters hierarchy from which he has been exiled to the city’s tough North Side. All he needs do is track down the missing husband of the mayor’s vivacious press secretary. Instead he unwittingly and unwillingly unearths a morass of corruption, educational malpractice and greed that consigns thousands of at-risk youths to the mean streets of America’s erstwhile murder capital. Worse, it’s the kind of information that could get a cop killed.
Fighting for life and his honor, Gabriel makes chilling discoveries that ultimately lead to a life-threatening and life-changing decision—a choice that could affect not only his own future but also that of the city and its top leaders.
“Rick Skwiot proves himself a master weaver who deftly knits the threads of this suspense tale into a compelling—and surprising—conclusion. In short, Fail succeeds, and does so with compassion.”
–Michael A. Kahn, award-winning author of Face Value and The Flinch Factor.
“Chicago has Scott Turow, Boston Dennis Lehane, LA James Elroy. Finally St. Louis has its laureate of fiction, Rick Skwiot. His new novel, Fail, is a sheer success. Skwiot hits for the fences and stylishly touches all the bases — money, municipal politics, police corruption, infidelity, suicide, homicide, all rendered in crackling prose.”
–Michael Mewshaw, author of Sympathy for the Devil: Four Decades of Friendship with Gore Vidal
“Fail is a riveting spellbinding tale with intricate characters that are depicted through carefully crafted imagery of iconic St. Louis landmarks bolstered by lucid vernacular accuracy reflecting the rich cultural diversity of the city.”
–John Baugh, author of Beyond Ebonics: Linguistic Pride and Racial Prejudice and former director African and African American Studies, Washington University in St. Louis
“In Fail Rick Skwiot has written a story that will endure…[T]he flawlessly pitched voices, the intricate plot—tying academia and Mark Twain to the gritty streets of St. Louis—and the vividly realized characters are all as good as it gets in detective stories. Skwiot has squeezed himself into a spot between [Dashiell] Hammett and [John D.] MacDonald, and I suspect they would be happy to have him there.”
–Michael Pearson, author of Reading Life—On Books, Memory, and Travel (2015)
“Skwiot’s finest. Set on the mean streets and back alleys of St. Louis, Fail is a big, two-hearted yarn of political corruption and moral decay. The unforgettable police detective, Carlo Gabriel, who handles the investigation, must first grapple with his own transgressions before he can unravel the wooly skein of betrayal and depravity surrounding him. A tale that could well have been ripped from the front page of any city in the country.”
–John Leslie, author of Border Crossing
“The twisting plot and fascinating characters will keep readers turning the pages, but the underlying problem exposed by this vital novel is dead serious. In snappy, vivid, hard-boiled language, Skwiot lays bare the root cause of most of our societal woes: our failed education system. It is no mere coincidence the story takes place in St. Louis, the heartland city that has come to represent our greater national tragedy. Fail is a wake-up call.”
–Kelly Daniels, author of Cloudbreak, California
“Art imitates life in this prescient novel. Both crime fiction and a clarion call to rescue America’s underserved schools, Fail is also proof positive that the Ferguson, Missouri, uprising was inevitable.”
–Terry Baker Mulligan, author of Afterlife in Harlem
“Not all the snow that blankets St. Louis city in Fail can begin to whitewash its political corruption and educational malpractice, but through all the darkness hope for change emerges. A cynical detective ventures far outside his comfort zone, risking everything to keep an idealistic teacher alive long enough to expose ugly truths. A microcosm for what ails society, Fail is an intelligent read that refuses to pass the buck, earning a classy A.”
–Scott L. Miller, author of Counterfeit and Interrogation
“The rapid pace, seamless unfolding and well-crafted plot of this mystery … [are] balanced with the incisive depiction of two contrasting main characters—a crusading English teacher and [a] worldly-wise, battered cop. This tale is a trenchant reminder that the urban cocktail of poverty in the face of wealth, St. Louis’s famous segregated sprawl … and corruption in high places nationwide, is an explosive mix.”
–Peter H. Green, author of Crimes of Design
In a way, Alonzo Watkins got shot thanks to Christmas. The university library, where he had been cocooning most evenings for the past four months, closed early that Friday for Christmas break. So he took the 9:35 bus home instead of the 11:35. Bad timing.
The number 4 Natural Bridge in which he was riding slid to a stop. Alonzo looked up from the chess game on his iPad and saw the driver staring at him in the rearview mirror.
“You said ‘Salisbury Street,’ right?”
He glanced out into the dark, recognized where they were, and rose, shoving the computer into his backpack as he moved toward the front door. It opened with a hiss.
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“You take care, son. And merry Christmas.”
He stepped down into fresh snow, which came to the top of his beige chukkas. The bus, its yellow-lit interior now empty of passengers, lumbered ahead, turning south on Parnell Street to head downtown. Alonzo slipped the backpack over his shoulder, pulled his stocking cap down on his head, and marched east on Salisbury.
He had the northwest wind at this back, but snow swirled between the redbrick tenements, down the redbrick alleys, and across brick-strewn vacant lots, biting his face. His legs, protected from the Arctic chill by only his jeans, stung from the cold. Four blocks until he reached home on Hyde Park. He hoped his sister’s kids would be asleep but feared they’d still be watching TV.
The coming snow flew past yellow streetlights. A few homes were lit. In one first-story window a Christmas tree with multi-colored lights sat behind iron bars. Others, with windows boarded, loomed cold, dark, lifeless, and ghostly. On the next corner he saw the broad windows of the confectionary—usually dimmed by the time he passed—still aglow behind their crisscrossed steel grill. Alonzo dug his bare hands deep into the pockets of his wool jacket and kept trudging ahead.
When he noticed three hooded figures emerge from the store he crossed to the sidewalk on the far side of the street, keeping his eyes on the white ground in front of him. Like always, Alonzo tried to disappear, strove to become invisible. But on the periphery he saw the trio cross the deserted street and fall in behind him. He quickened his pace.
“The fuck you think you’re going, college boy?”
Alonzo kept walking, heart speeding.
“A yo. I’m talking to you, pussy!”
“What’s in the bag, homeboy?” came a second voice.
He felt a tug on his backpack and whirled.
Despite their hoodies and the snow blowing in his eyes he recognized the middle one, Marlon. They’d been freshmen together at Beaumont High four years earlier. But then Marlon had stop coming.
“I got nothing for you.” Alonzo’s voice cracked as he said it.
“See about that,” said the fat one on the left, grabbing the backpack.
Alonzo yanked on it, ears burning hot, adrenaline fueling him. Fatso jerked it toward him; Alonzo pulled against him. The zipper split open, notebooks, grammar book, chess clock, and iPad tumbling out into the snow.
Marlon stooped to snatch the computer. Alonzo dove forward to wrench it from his grasp. Someone booted him in the head. Sprawled on the snowy sidewalk, he took another kick, this one in the ribs. Had he the time and the wherewithal to think about it dispassionately, Alonzo likely would have taken his beating, relinquished his iPad, and slunk off. Instead, however, the instincts of a cornered animal rose within him.
Somehow he got to his knees and began flailing with his fists. A wild right caught Marlon, who dropped the iPad and brought his hands to his nose, from which blood began to spurt. He straightened, jammed his right hand into his pocket, and withdrew a small caliber automatic.
Panting, Alonzo froze and fixed on the gun’s barrel gleaming golden in the streetlight, vibrating. Marlon, wide-eyed, speechless, stood over him, shaking.
“Do the motherfucker, Marlon! Nigga busted your damn nose! Do him!”
Alonzo scrambled to his feet, turned and ran across the street toward Hyde Park, his breath coming in short bursts, chest heaving. Then he felt a bee sting in his back and heard the dull explosion of the gun, muffled by the snow.
He wheezed, trying to catch his breath. His legs buckled beneath him, dropping him once again to his knees. The sting in his back grew hot and spread, radiating throughout his chest. He fell forward, the snow cooling his face. Now the cold felt good, and he sensed himself slipping off somewhere strange and soothing…
Carlo Gabriel sat with his topcoat in his lap studying the mayor’s portrait on the wall across the room. Despite the high ceilings and the cold outside, the inside air hung warm. Memories hung in the air as well, which he kept brushing back.
Without apparent cue the bow-tied man behind the desk said: “Ms. Cantrell will see you now.”
Gabriel lifted himself and sauntered toward the tall door ahead, which now swung open. A statuesque brunette in a business suit appeared and shook his hand.
“Sorry to keep you waiting, detective. Call from channel five on the snow removal—or lack thereof.”
He thought to correct her on the detective title—“That’s Lieutenant Gabriel, ma’am”—but then thought better of it. Now that he was reduced to doing detective work that’s what he seemed to most people.
He stepped onto a Persian carpet. She closed the door behind him and walked ahead to an oversized walnut desk and high-backed leather chair. He couldn’t help noticing, through tall windows, the cityscape behind her—the Civil Courts Building, the Old Courthouse, the Gateway Arch. Impressive. Her hair was held in place by a bone barrette in back; her suit—black pinstriped—featured a tight skirt that did quite not reach the backs of her knees. Gabriel pursed his lips. Of course he had seen her on television when she worked as an anchorwoman. But he had never seen her legs.
She indicated a wooden armchair across from her. He sat and laid his topcoat on the chair next to him. When he faced her she took in and let out a breath.
“My husband disappeared three days ago.”
He leaned forward. “Three days… Saturday then.”
She nodded. He reached for his coat, black cashmere, and removed a notepad from its pocket. “When did you last see Mr. Cantrell?”
“Stone. Jonathan Stone… He left our apartment Saturday morning. I was still in bed.”
Despite the feeble winter sun her skin looked tanned. High cheekbones. Her perfume floated to him. “Where do you live?”
“The ABCs on Kingshighway. We own a condo there.”
He knew the building—a very correct address for urban white folks.
“Why did you wait three days before filing a report?”
She lifted a finger to her lips, full and pouting. “Is that what we’re doing, filing a report?”
“Just a manner of speaking, Ms. Cantrell. I understand that the mayor wants it handled right.”
“I want it handled right. No need making anything official until we have to. I pray we won’t have to. He could show up anytime.”
She meant alive, surely.
“So he’s been gone overnight previously? Without your knowing about it beforehand, I mean.”
“Was he depressed?”
She blinked. “Jonathan wouldn’t kill himself, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“Any drug or alcohol issues? Sorry, I have to ask these questions. No disrespect intended.”
“You’ve been married how long?”
“Twelve years. We met at Mizzou.”
She shook her head.
“He hasn’t shown up at work?”
She shook it again. “They’re on semester break. He’s a college professor.”
“In what field?”
“I presume money’s not an issue—gambling losses?”
She sniffed. “Jonathan wouldn’t be caught dead in a casino.”
“Any personal problems?”
A hesitation then: “You mean does he have a mistress?”
Gabriel shrugged a shoulder. It happens. Even when your wife is fine, and Ellen Cantrell was fine. “Whatever problems.”
“Jonathan’s a very private person. Keeps things inside.”
“Even being around students he never gets sick.”
“How old is he?”
Gabriel nodded remembering what it was like at thirty-four. A pivotal age for many men, fueled by a mix of ambition, testosterone, and hope. But for him that was two decades past and he wondered how much he had left.
“What about family members: parents, siblings…?”
“I emailed his mother—they live in Florida now. I was indirect but she obviously knows nothing. He was an only child.”
“The last time you saw him was Saturday morning…?”
“I didn’t actually see him. As I said I was still in bed.”
“You share the same bed?”
Cantrell lowered her chin and studied Gabriel’s silk scarf, purple, draped down the lapels of his black blazer. It was the sort of question asked of a connected white woman that, in earlier times, could have earned a black cop trouble.
She lifted her eyes to meet his. He stared back, waiting for an answer, but all he got was:
“I heard the front door closing.”
“What time was this?”
Gabriel made a note. “Were you up late Friday night?”
“At the mayor’s Christmas party. In the ballroom at the Mayfair. It was one o’clock when we left.” Gabriel sat still, waiting for more. Eventually she went on: “I was working, not partying. There were media people and others we have special relationships with. I try to make sure there’s no miscommunication.”
He raised an eyebrow. His Honor, he knew from their days together, liked his gin. Which at times made him shoot from the hip, figuratively speaking.
“And what was your husband doing during this time?”
“Mingling, I guess. People watching.”
“Did he get drunk?”
“Not so I noticed.”
“Did he drive home?”
“We took a cab. Jonathan had come downtown on the train.”
“What did you talk about in the cab?”
“I was talked out. Jonathan was his usual quiet self. When we got to Forest Park it had started snowing. He commented on how pretty it was.”
“Do you own a car?”
“Yes, a Jeep. I also have a city vehicle. Jonathan rides the MetroLink to campus.”
“And the Jeep is gone?”
“It wasn’t in the garage when I went down Saturday afternoon.”
“When did you first begin to worry?”
“Saturday evening. Not worry so much as wonder. I called his cell phone from a party fundraiser and got no answer. When I got home around midnight I tried again and heard it ring in the den.”
“Does he usually carry it?”
“Not always. He’s a reader not a talker.”
“Did he leave a note or mention a trip?”
“Not that I recall.”
“Any friends or colleagues we might check with?”
“Jonathan’s always been a loner. There may be colleagues at work but none that I know.”
Gabriel scribbled on his notepad: “Wife checked bank accounts—why?” As he did he saw her looking at her watch.
“One last question, Ms. Cantrell: Why did you wait three days to involve the police?”
She stood and glared down at him, jaw moving laterally as if grinding teeth. He often got interesting reactions when he asked the same question twice.
“I didn’t. Others have been on this since Sunday morning. Checking the accidents, incidents, hospitals.”
Who, he wondered? He visualized the chain of command: The mayor, Chief of Police Donnewald, Bureau Commander Coleman, Deputy Commander Masters, Fourth District Captain Stolle… But the usual chain of command didn’t apply here; otherwise he wouldn’t be having this conversation.
Gabriel flipped closed his notepad, pushed himself up from the armchair with a sigh, and handed her his card.
“I’d appreciate it if you could email me a recent photo of your husband. I’ll keep you posted on any developments.”
She studied the card and slipped it into her pocket. “You understand, lieutenant, that everything comes through me first,” she said, walking around the desk. “Clear?”
Her long legs were nothing like those of his ex-wife, Janet, but her mouth was.
“Yes, ma’am, I understand. The mayor underscored that.”
Outside her office he let out a breath. He moved back down City Hall’s grand staircase to the ground floor and crossed the lobby, heels clicking on the white marble.
He stopped and turned. An old black man in a baggy gray suit, carrying a Bible, approached. They slapped hands.
“Preacher Cairns! Thought you’d be in heaven by now. How’s biz?”
“Slow, slow. No one thinks to get married when it snows. Funny… You back downtown, Gabe?”
“Not yet. Still in exile. Just checking my traps.”
The old man laughed then sobered. “It ain’t the same these days.”
“Nope,” Gabriel said. “Not even close.”