Capturing Cleo


February 2002


He’d known when the phone started ringing well before sunup that it was going to be a long, bad day. He’d been right. On occasion, he really hated being right. Here it was seventeen hours later, and the day dragged on.

One last stop, and he could call it a night. Luther stepped from his car onto the downtown sidewalk. At this point in his career—in his life—nothing should surprise him. Little did. If he expected the worst, always, nasty surprises were few and far between. 


Luther stared at the building before him, wishing someone else had gotten that early morning phone call. He didn’t need this; he had a gut-deep feeling this weird case could be full of nasty little surprises.


He was due for a vacation. In fact, he was past due. He had the trip planned, in his head, he just hadn’t gotten around to requesting the time off. Two weeks in Florida, sleeping all day and walking the beach at night. The sound of the surf, seafood, and bikini-clad women. What else did a man need?


But, no. Instead of those temptingly beautiful things, he had one dead body, heartburn from a too-quick, too-late barbecue supper, and a craving for a cigarette like he hadn’t had in months. He played with the cellophane-wrapped candy in his coat pocket, running a few pieces through his fingers. The candy had helped him quit smoking, but sometimes he felt like he’d traded one addiction for another. 


The February night air cut through his coat jacket, damp and chilling, making him long for Florida.

Detective Luther Malone quit fiddling with the candy in his pocket and stood perfectly still on the sidewalk while he glared at the blue neon sign over the single, shuttered window of the redbrick nightclub in downtown Huntsville: Cleo’s. Muted piano music and a woman’s voice singing something old and bluesy drifted to his ears. It was the kind of music that would be very easy to go to sleep to, and since he’d been up since 4:00 a.m. he was momentarily tempted. It was now past nine at night, and this really could wait until tomorrow morning. He’d already spent all day filling out paperwork, combing the scene for clues, and talking to the victim’s hysterical girlfriend and his neighbors. And now this. Yeah, tomorrow would work just fine.


Why put off until tomorrow what you could screw up today? Besides, since this Cleo Tanner was a nightclub owner, the best time to catch her was likely at night. She probably wasn’t any more of a morning person than he was.

He threw open the door and stepped inside. The club was small. Cozy was a kinder word, and it suited the warm and welcoming place. A long bar stretched along the wall to the left, and a number of small, randomly scattered tables and chairs, half filled even though this was a Monday night, were arranged in a haphazard kind of symmetry. At the rear of the room a small stage rose above the dimly lit crowd. A woman perched on a stool there and sang. He recognized the song now: ‘I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good.’ A piano and a piano player shared the stage with the singer, but as he watched and listened, the instrument and the longhaired musician faded into the background, necessary but insignificant. Luther stared, over heads and past hanging silk ferns, at the singer whose warm, husky voice captivated the crowd. And him. 


It wasn’t just the voice that fascinated him, it was the whole, luscious package. Damn. Now, this was a woman. Grace was always trying to set him up with one sweet thing or another, certain he wasn’t yet past saving, sure that he, too, could be as disgustingly happy as she and Ray were. But she’d never offered up anything like this woman.

Long, wildly curling black hair fell past the singer’s shoulders; her lips were red and lush; her eyes slightly slanted and rimmed with dark lashes, giving her an exotic air. She perched on that stool, back straight and yet perfectly relaxed, shapely legs crossed at the knee. The body beneath her slinky black dress was rounded and curved, soft in all the right places and begging to be...


Luther shook off his daze and headed for the bar and the bartender. It really had been a long day.

The surly bartender was an older man, late fifties, early sixties, Luther guessed. He was built like a fireplug, short and solid, and had a head of thick, silver-gray hair and a flat face only a mother could love. He was obviously offended that a potential customer took his attention from the woman on stage. The fireplug looked Luther up and down, scowled, and asked what he wanted to drink in a gruff voice that matched his craggy face.

“Nothing,” Luther said. “I need to speak to the owner. Cleo Tanner.”


“I know who owns the place,” the bartender snapped. “Wait around. She’s kinda busy right now. You can talk to her in about twenty minutes.”


Annoyed, Luther lifted his jacket to show his badge, and to offer a glimpse of the snub-nosed revolver he carried in a shoulder holster. “Tell her Detective Malone from HPD is here and has a few questions for her,” he said.

The bartender didn’t budge. “I tell you what. You go up on stage and flash that badge and gun at her. Maybe, and I ain’t promising anything, that’ll get her to end her set early.”


Luther cut his eyes toward the stage. “That’s Cleo Tanner?” Surprise.




He should’ve known. Cleo Tanner was a singer, he already knew that. Her one recorded hit, popular almost eight years ago, had been the sappy country love song, “Come Morning.” He glanced around the club, taking it all in while he waited. The small crowd was mesmerized, as he had been when he’d first seen her. They ate and drank, and smiled serenely. If she pulled in a good crowd like this on a Monday, the weekends were probably really busy. She was doing all right.


From what he’d learned today, Cleo Tanner could make a real killing in the business if she went back to using her married name and sang country music. She could pack a much larger place than this and make a small fortune. Hearing her now, watching her, he knew she had the talent and the presence to make something like that work.

Luther took a deep breath. “Coffee,” he said, taking a stool and leaning on the bar. “Black.” He stared at the singer, but she was as oblivious to his presence as she was to everyone else’s. She didn’t look at the crowd, she didn’t sing to a lover at a table close to the stage. She sang with her eyes fixed above the crowd, a satisfied smile on her face, an evident contentment in her eyes.


She finished the song to enthusiastic applause, and after flashing a small smile she almost immediately went into the next number: ‘Someone To Watch Over Me.’


Cleo Tanner was gifted, beautiful and incredibly sexy, but like it or not she was still suspect number one. His day wasn’t getting any better.