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Novak's Mission

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"Novak's Mission" is an entertaining and intriguing police mystery that will draw readers along a misty trail that reveals a hidden crime.

Synopsis

When Karol Novak takes over a scandal-ridden police force, he has two murders to solve and years of corruption to clean up. The last thing he needs is to reopen a closed murder case.

But that’s the birthday wish of a nine-year-old girl, making it difficult for him to refuse.

Since the request comes through Novak’s wife, it’s impossible. When Novak grudgingly peeks into the case, he doesn’t like what he finds.

The borough council resists his spending another minute on the case, but don’t try telling a veteran Pittsburgh cop he can’t do his job. Whoever wants the case dropped wants Novak out and is using a secret from his past against him.

When one of his officers disappears while investigating the old case, Karol Novak has only hours to bring her back, solve all three murders, and save his job and reputation.

The gritty detail of police work is reminiscent of Ed McBain’s police procedurals, while the relationship between Karol and Barbara Novak recalls Donna Leon’s Venetian mysteries.

Will Novak answer the nine-year-old’s plea before the council forces him out? Find out for yourself by buying this engaging novel of small-town policing.

One universal feature of mystery writing (don’t call them rules; there are few “rules.”) is that every character has a secret.

It is the successful hinting at these secrets and, after peeling away layers and layers of stuff, the eventual reveal of them that drive many mystery book plots.

Author James H. Lewis uses this device to great success in his new mystery, “Novak’s Mission.” This is an entertaining read, even if a couple of the “bad guys” are somewhat one-dimensional.

Full disclosure: Like Novak I am long time journalist who writes mysteries.

Novak’s background is evident in the beginning the story as he maneuvers readers through the minutia of local government. But that stroll through civic engagement is also a plot device that creates the underpinnings for future action and understanding.

The other evidence of Novak’s career is the crisp, direct prose, which is both instructive and propulsive as Police Chief Karol Novak settles into a new job in his hometown and finds there is trouble in River City. With a capital T.

Novak, a retired Pittsburgh, Pa. detective, is appointed police chief in the small suburb of Boyleston.

The description of the crumbling police station is apt metaphor for the department and the town. Novak is succeeding a police chief who was running scam from the department; he inherits a force marred by strife and distrust, and a power hungry mayor and a council more intent on in-fighting than legislating.

Oh, and the town’s economy has collapsed.

Novak’s Boyleston also a changing town as the old manufacturing base has faded and immigrants have become a larger economic force; this is both a modern reflection, and a measure of Novak’s own family’s immigrant past and a hint to a piece of his secret and “mission.”

As Novak settles in, he confronts a double dealing deputy chief and is asked by a child why her grandfather is in jail, maybe for a crime he did not commit.

The story is laid out as a police detective would investigate it.

A statement leads to a clue. A clue leads to more information. Someone examines data  and forms a new theory of the crime.

Step by step, the cold case and the current world of Boyleston circle one another.

Masterfully, Lewis ties together the strings and conversely pulls apart the charade and the act buried under decades of lies is exposed.

Reviewed by

I am a career award-winning journalist and the author of the four-book Frank Nagler Mystery series. Kirkus Reviews called Nagler "one of modern fiction's expertly drawn detectives." I have also written short stores, poetry, and literary fiction.

Synopsis

When Karol Novak takes over a scandal-ridden police force, he has two murders to solve and years of corruption to clean up. The last thing he needs is to reopen a closed murder case.

But that’s the birthday wish of a nine-year-old girl, making it difficult for him to refuse.

Since the request comes through Novak’s wife, it’s impossible. When Novak grudgingly peeks into the case, he doesn’t like what he finds.

The borough council resists his spending another minute on the case, but don’t try telling a veteran Pittsburgh cop he can’t do his job. Whoever wants the case dropped wants Novak out and is using a secret from his past against him.

When one of his officers disappears while investigating the old case, Karol Novak has only hours to bring her back, solve all three murders, and save his job and reputation.

The gritty detail of police work is reminiscent of Ed McBain’s police procedurals, while the relationship between Karol and Barbara Novak recalls Donna Leon’s Venetian mysteries.

Will Novak answer the nine-year-old’s plea before the council forces him out? Find out for yourself by buying this engaging novel of small-town policing.

AMY'S SECRET

The Boyleston Police Station shouted neglect from its peeling paint to its fusty locker room odor. Karol Novak knew he’d need more than latex and Lysol to rid it of decay. As he readied himself for the challenge, he realized he’d forgotten the access code. Not a promising !rst act.

He set down the carton cradled in his left arm and rang the buzzer beneath the bulletproof glass panel. A young uniformed woman with a head of tight blonde curls glanced through the window and came around to unlock the door.

“Thanks,” he said, “I’m—”

“The new chief. I recognize you. Entré

.” She performed an awkward curtsy and stood aside as he maneuvered the box through the small entrance area.

“I’m Ocer Barnwell,” she said, “Lydia.”

Novak smiled and nodded as he braced his carton against the door and shoved four others into the bullpen with his foot. “My oce is...?”

She led the way, throwing open the door to a windowless room containing a desk, two bookcases, two oce chairs in faux leather, a

2 JAMES H LEWIS

three-drawer !ling cabinet, and stained ceiling tiles. “Deputy Chief McMahon has been using this oce. He hasn’t vacated yet.”

Reports and !les covered the desk. They transferred Novak’s books and mementos from his cartons to the bookcases, re!lling the empty ones with McMahon’s belongings. Barnwell loaded them onto a dolly and wheeled them down the hall, returning to stand in the doorway as Novak rearranged his collection. “We’re glad you’re here. Relieved, after all this—” She held up both hands to encompass some# thing she chose not to describe.

“I’m sure you’ve had a lot of uncertainty.” He didn’t know what else to say.

“Plenty.”

“You’re alone on duty?” He tried not to make it sound like a criticism.

“No. We have two patrol cars out, but a delivery truck has just overturned at the entrance to Parkway West. Trac is backed up all the way to Carnegie. We’ve rerouted trac onto Noblestown Road. It’s all we can do until Greentree police clear the ramp.”

Boyleston was one of 130 municipalities in Allegheny County, ranging in population from Pittsburgh’s three hundred thousand to Haysville’s seventy. They were served by 109 police agencies, some employing only one ocer, many distinguished by their levels of ineptitude. Coordination was spotty. An accident in one could cascade into its neighbors, creating mayhem.

Barnwell watched as Novak unpacked, making him feel as though he were under surveillance. “Who’s that?” she said as he hung a framed photo over a protruding nail.

“Petr Êech. He’s goalkeeper for Arsenal and for the Czech National team.” Seeing her frown of incomprehension, he added, “Soccer.”

“What’s with the helmet?”

“Several years ago, he saved a goal by covering the ball with his body. An opposing player slid into his head with his cleats raised. He almost died.” Novak stared at Êech’s image for a moment. “He

fought back and is still among the top keepers in the Premier League.”

“And that one?”

Novak followed her gaze to a faded photograph of a young man. “Henry Sutton. He was my best friend growing up.”

When he didn’t elaborate, she said, “Weren’t you with the Pitts# burgh Bureau?”

“Thirty-three years.” Again, he oered nothing more.

Folding her arms, she continued to study him. “Why did you come here, of all places?”

Novak looked up, his perpetual half-smile disappearing. “I live in Boyleston, and they needed me.”

“Yes, but what I mean is—”

“I know what you mean,” he said. He immediately regretted his sharp tone. “I’m retired, and the council asked me to step in. I feel a duty to help out.”

“I’m glad you’re here.”

“So am I.” He smiled and tried to look her in the eye, but found her penetrating gaze intimidating.

She turned, ready to resume her duties, but wheeled again. “Will I be okay?”

He frowned, shaking his head in bewilderment.

“I was one of the ocers Chief Russell used on outside assign# ments. All along, I thought we were working for the borough. Once I realized he was pocketing the money, I reported it to the mayor. I assume he told you.”

“No, he hasn’t mentioned it. Why would you be in trouble?”

She lowered her voice. “I didn’t speak out for a month. I worried he’d retaliate, feared losing my job. When he continued doing it, I worked up the courage.”

“This was last fall?”

“No, I spoke out around this time last year. When nothing came of it, I !gured no one cared.”

Novak looked away to conceal his reaction. She’d reported last

NOVAK'S MISSION 3

4 JAMES H LEWIS

spring that Chief Russell was using ocers in his private security business, and yet the borough hadn’t terminated him until January? As a law ocer and taxpayer, Novak was outraged that Russell had been allowed to continue ripping the borough o for eight months or longer.

“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell the others I was the source,” she said. “No one knows where it came from.”

“Of course I won’t.” She exhaled and relaxed her shoulders. “And I don’t see how anyone could take issue with it. You did the right thing.”

Her face erupted into a smile that crinkled her cheeks, making her eyes even more pronounced. “We have a lot facing us,” she said. “What’s your top priority?”

He looked down as he considered a response. “Getting the department on track. Keeping everyone alive. These are dangerous times. I want to keep everyone safe.”

“And pursuing justice,” she said. “We have to pursue justice, don’t we?”

He chose not to argue the point.

B&'(&'& N)*&+ &'',*-. home to !nd her husband kneeling in the bathroom, drawing a bead of caulk around the lip of the bathroom tub. Their home had just passed the century mark, and while it had good bones, Karol spent a few hours each week patching tears in its ligaments, tendons, and muscles.

She sat on the closed toilet lid and waited, a sign that she had something to discuss.

“Nice legs, lady.”

She laughed, leaned forward, and planted a kiss on his forehead. “Trying to make an old girl feel good?”

“No, I mean it. You’ve still got it.” Novak had always admired his wife’s legs. Barbara Fournier, a second-generation French-Canadian,

had been a dancer during her college days. The !rst time he had spotted her on a warm September day in Schenley Park forty years before, she had been sprawled on a blanket reading a book, her modest shorts displaying the most beautiful set of “stems” he’d ever seen. Karol Novak had come to a full stop during his afternoon run and gawked.

“Hello to you, too,” she’d said.

“I’m sorry,” he’d stammered, uncertain whether she was pleased or annoyed at his open admiration. “I don’t mean to stare.” Still fumbling, he’d choked out an introduction.

Accepting his apology, Barbara had patted the blanket alongside her, inviting him to sit and chat. From that moment on, there had been no one else for either of them.

They chased each other for three years while remaining chaste— they were good Catholic kids, after all. She sat in the front row of the stands, watching him tend goal for Pitt’s soccer team. He sat along# side her in the cheap seats at Heinz Hall, listening as André Previn led the Pittsburgh Symphony. After graduation, they married at St. Cecilia’s, her family’s parish church, settling into the three-story brick house, which, like Boyleston Borough itself, had seen better days. Over time, they restored it to its former prominence and built a family.

“How’s the police station?” she said, interrupting his reverie.

“Rundown. Depressing.” Boyleston’s Police Department occu# pied one-third of the borough oce building, which also housed its library. It had been built during the late 1940s when Pittsburgh supplied the nation with all the steel it needed to feed its building boom. While Karol and Barbara had attended council meetings and spent many days at the library, neither had yet ventured into the public safety wing.

“It needs a coat of paint and new radios,” he said as he squared o the bead at the corner of the wall. “I don’t get it. The federal govern# ment has generous equipment grants, but none of it has landed in Boyleston. Someone hasn’t been paying attention.”

NOVAK'S MISSION 5

6 JAMES H LEWIS

“Too busy running a side business,” Barbara said, “and fencing stolen items.”

“I met a young ocer, a woman, who claims to have reported Russell’s scheme more than a year ago.”

“But they didn’t !re him until the !rst of the year.”

“Eight long months. It does not give me con!dence in their judgement.”

“But they hired you.” He smiled, grateful as always for her unwa# vering encouragement. “This woman, is she pretty?” The two shared a laugh as Barbara posed the question her mother-in-law liked to ask whenever a young woman came up in conversation.

“No, I wouldn’t say that. She’s...

interesting

. She has frizzy blonde hair, a nose that’s a bit big for her face, and piercing blue eyes that bore into you. She’s one hell of an interrogator. She doesn’t let up until you answer her question.”

“I may have to keep an eye on the two of you.”

Karol chuckled. It was part of their game.

“Can you listen to something for a moment?” she said.

At last, he thought, she was ready to impart whatever was on her

mind. “I’m married. Listening is what I do.”

“What do you know about a man named Thomas Walsh?” Karol’s hand paused. “Just a minute while I !nish.” Only

after he had removed caulk from the gun, cleaned the tools, and placed them in his leather kit did he turn to face her, still crouching, his back to the wall. “Why do you ask about Walsh?”

“I sit here for ten minutes to hear you answer my question with a question.”

“It’s why I married you. You were the only woman with enough patience.”

“Something odd happened at the party.” Barbara had spent the day helping their daughter, Mariel, throw a party of some sort. “You know Bridey O'Connor.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Sure you do. She’s the single mom who lives a block down from Mariel. Her daughter, Amy, is Jennifer’s best friend.”

“Uh-huh.” It would do no good to dispute the issue. Jennifer, their granddaughter, had dozens of friends, all of whom had at least one parent. Barbara somehow kept track of them all.

“Anyway, it’s Amy’s birthday, and Mariel threw a party for her at the bowling alley.”

“That’s generous.”

“Bridey doesn’t have much money, and since Jennifer and Amy are so close...”

Novak nodded as though he understood.

“They bowled for an hour—Jen had the high score—and then we moved into the restaurant next door for pizza and sodas. Amy opened her presents—what is it about little girls and unicorns?”

“It’s the horn.”

She ignored him. “We brought out the birthday cake. Bridey lit the candles, told her to make a wish. And Amy sat there thinking about it, looking straight at me.”

“At you?”

“Yes. Just hold on a minute. After she blew out the candles, one girl asked what she’d wished for. Another said that she shouldn’t tell, or else it wouldn’t come true. Amy replied, ‘I have to tell. I need Mrs. Novak to hear.’”

Novak, who had only been half listening, now leaned toward her.

“She said, ‘I wish Chief Novak can get my pap out of prison.’ That was it. The whole place went quiet. No one knew what to say. Bridey gasped, grabbed the girl’s arm, and headed toward the exit, leaving her presents behind. The poor child was wailing. I ran after them. I feared what Bridey would do to her.”

Novak stroked his cheek as he considered her story. “And her grandfather is Tom Walsh?”

“Yes, but I had to drag it out of her mother as 

she dragged Amy to her car. I felt sorry for her.”

“The mother or the daughter?”

NOVAK'S MISSION 7

8 JAMES H LEWIS

Barbara tilted her head from one side to the other. “Both.”

“C’mon, let’s get out of this ridiculous position and !nd some# thing to drink.”

Staggering to his feet and steadying himself against the wall for a moment, Novak descended the stairway. His hand brushed against a portrait of his paternal grandfather, one of a dozen framed photos of three generations of family members that lined the staircase. After straightening it, he took another /ight to the basement, !shed a bottle of Yuengling and a can of soda water from the garage refrigerator, and joined his wife in the living room.

T0-1 2&3 opposite each other on a long brown sofa that backed to a picture window. Barbara sprawled lengthwise, her feet in his lap as she sipped the beer while Karol faced the gas !replace, above which hung a Patriarchal cross with its double crossbars.

“Thomas Walsh...” he began.

“Barbara!” came a frail voice from a nearby room.

“I’ll go,” Novak said.

“Sit still. I’ll get her.”

With his wife gone to help his mother up after her nap, Novak

/ipped open his laptop and searched for the name, hoping to recharge his memory of the three-decade-old homicide. He hadn’t played any role in the case, but since the murder had taken place less than a half-mile from their home, he had followed it from arrest and conviction to sentencing. A decade-old article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, when last Walsh had appealed for clemency, helped !ll in the details.

“Hi, Ma, how was the nap?”

His mother muttered an acknowledgment as Barbara eased her into the reclining chair opposite the !replace. Novak turned on the gas log. Even in summer, any room Izabela Novak entered was too

cold for her. He fetched her a glass of wine and placed a blanket over her lap.

Na zdravie,” his mother said, raising her glass.

“And cheers to you, Mom.” He hoisted the can of soda water. Barbara was not to be deterred. “Thomas Walsh,” she said. “Walsh, yes. Over the Memorial Day weekend in ’89, he went

!shing upstate with friends. His wife, Rebecca, was alone with their four-year-old daughter. Someone entered their home and suocated the mother while she slept. The little girl discovered her body in the morning and ran across the street to neighbors. At !rst, county detec# tives suspected an intruder, but Walsh’s alibi didn’t hold up, and they recovered evidence from his car. They charged him with her murder.”

“Bridey was the little girl?”

“A terrible thing. No child should have to face that. Anyway, Walsh denied it at !rst but then confessed. He was sentenced to life without parole but immediately recanted and started !ling appeals. They all failed. A decade ago, he appealed for clemency, but the governor turned him down.”

“Do you think he’s guilty?”

Novak shrugged. “He confessed. A jury convicted him. Why should I doubt it?”

“He was a bad man,” his mother said. She’d been following the conversation, oering no opinion until now.

“Still, will you look into it?” Barbara said.

“I can’t.” When she turned a rare frown his way, he said, “Although it took place in Boyleston, the county handled it, as they do every crime of violence. I haven’t yet assumed command, but I’m sure the department has a full plate. Plus, we have nothing to go on— no new information, no sign that there was anything wrong with the conviction.”

“All you have is a nine-year-old girl’s birthday wish.” “Nice try.”

NOVAK'S MISSION 9

10 JAMES H LEWIS

Barbara smiled as though giving up, though Novak doubted he’d heard the end of it.

“W)4’3 you come in with me?” Izabela remained in the passenger seat as the car idled, willing her son to join her at early Mass.

“I can’t, Mom.” Novak stared straight ahead, unwilling to meet his mother’s gaze.

She did not move. “Why don’t I walk you in?” he said, attempting to break the spell.

“No. I can take care of myself.” She opened the passenger door, then leaned over to peer back in. “You can’t hold this anger inside you. It’s not right, not healthy.”

“It’s perfectly healthy,” he said, still refusing to meet her eye. “Your father—”

“—would have felt the same.” Which was untrue.

“You should return,” she said in a softer tone. When he didn’t

answer, she said, “I’m worried about you, Karol.”

“I assure you, my soul is in good hands.”

“No, I’m worried about you. You look tired. You’re under too

much stress.”

“I’m !ne, MamiÊka

,” he said, hoping the childhood endearment

would placate her.

“Are you sure you should take this on? You don’t need to.”

“I’m !ne,” he repeated, and immediately regretted his sharp tone. She sighed and, gathering up all the strength in her 84-year-old

body, slammed the door before stalking toward the entrance. Despite the line of cars gathered behind him in the circular driveway, Novak waited until the heavy wooden doors of the ancient church had closed behind her before driving away.

St. Cyril and Methodius Church, one of Pittsburgh’s Slovakian parishes, had been her home and refuge since her arrival in the United States at the end of the war. Here, Slovak-speaking nuns had

taught her to read, write, and speak English. Here, her younger brother and sister, both born in the US, had been baptized. Here, both she and her sister had married beneath its arched wooden timbers.

The diocese was studying parish consolidation, and Karol Novak suspected that St. Cyril would not survive the process. Not wanting to alarm her, he had not told his mother that she might soon lose her church home.

It was one of several things he kept from her, some of which were known only to police ocers. And to the church.

About the author

James H (Jim) Lewis is a former reporter, public media executive, and non-profit consultant. He has lived and worked in Washington, DC, Florida, Texas, New England, Oregon, and Sweden and now lives in Pittsburgh. His articles have appeared in the Washington Post. This is his third novel. view profile

Published on August 31, 2020

50000 words

Worked with a Reedsy professional 🏆

Genre: Mystery & Crime

Reviewed by

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