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SunLit Excerpt: “The Mervin Gardens Murders” — mystery among an older demographic

Author Irv Sternberg's comic protagonist Izzy Brand lives and solves crimes in a setting not often seen in the genre -- a retirement community

The elderly occupants of an independent living luxury complex in Denver are dying at an unusually high rate. When Leah Lamont’s gentleman friend, Sidney Luft, is found dead after leaving her apartment, she fears a killer is at large. 

Sidney Luft was not a vain man, but he allowed himself a modest measure of satisfaction at the thought that someone like Leah Lamont would find him attractive.  After all, Leah, at the age of 64, was almost ten years younger.  Moreover, she was almost as beautiful as she’d been while performing in movies, on the Broadway stage and on television.  He’d just left her apartment where she prepared his favorite meal of a T-bone steak, pink in the middle, sweet potato and asparagus, sautéed, not grilled.  He’d brought a bottle of Saint Brendan’s Irish Cream liqueur for dessert.  They sipped the cordial and chatted in the living room for a while before retiring to her exquisitely decorated bedroom with its pink bedding and matching drapes.

Because of rules she had established early in their relationship, he never stayed the night.  After making love, he left her apartment about midnight, returning to his own in the same senior citizen luxury condo complex of five, six-story buildings they shared with about 150 other residents in midtown Denver.  While her apartment was much larger than his–three-bedrooms, a huge living room, dining room and a balcony, compared to his modest one-bedroom unit–he was comfortably settled after losing his wife to breast cancer eight years earlier.

As he stepped from the shower, he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror.  At six feet-and a fraction tall and weighing about 175 pounds, his body was relatively firm, having shed some fat during a recent strenuous regimen in the fitness center.  And, unlike other men he knew of the same age, he had no problems making love.  In his mind, he felt like he was in his fifties.

Luft put on his dark blue silk pajamas, a Christmas gift from Leah, and slipped into bed.  For a few minutes, he allowed his mind to mull over the day’s events.  They’d taken in a show which they agreed was worth seeing despite several negative reviews.  Leah despised critics, often commenting on what she called their “pseudo-intellectual ranting.”  She often said she’d rather have a full house of appreciative attendees at her performances than a glowing review.  Instead of dining downtown, she insisted they return to her apartment where she would prepare a late evening meal.  How many women would do that?  It was one of the many reasons he adored her.

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Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.

He’d been asleep for about an hour when he awoke, coughing.  His chest felt tight.  He had trouble breathing.  The coughing continued so he got out of bed, went to the bathroom and drank a glass of water.  He felt hot.  He was sweating and felt nauseated.  He splashed a handful of cold water over his face and felt some relief.  He returned to bed and tried to fall asleep.

A few minutes later, he had a violent coughing fit.  He sat upright and clutched his throat.  He couldn’t breathe. He gasped for air, and fell back, his head on the pillow in a skewed position, his bulging eyes open, seeing nothing.

(From Chapter 11)

Leah Lamont persuades her friend, stand-up comic and occasional amateur sleuth Izzy Brand, to investigate. The coroner says all the deaths have been natural–from heart attack to accidental drowning in the complex pool. But Izzy agrees to look into things. He investigates between his comedy club engagements. 

I took Anita to her house and told her I was going back to Mervin Gardens in the hope of interviewing at least one more resident.  In the meanwhile I asked her if she would do some research.  “See what you can find online about any of the other residents.”  If skepticism was water, her expression would have drowned me in seconds.  “No, seriously,” I said, “you never know what you might find, okay?”

“All right,” she said, reluctantly.  “Be careful.”

I headed back to Mervin Gardens, parked my car, and checked the list of residents that Leah had provided me.  I scanned the list and randomly selected a name for no other reason than it kind of intrigued me.  I knew I was playing poker with a lousy hand.  In cases like that, you just play the cards you’ve been dealt and hope for the best.  I took the elevator to the fourth floor and rang the doorbell at apartment 409 occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Zbigniew Pulasky .

The man who opened the door may have been the largest man I’d ever seen face to face.  I guessed his height at near seven feet tall and his weight about 350 pounds, the size of a lineman in professional football.  He wore only a sleeveless undershirt and baggy gray pants.  His feet were anchored in a pair of tattered black slippers .

“What you sell I got already,” he said in a heavy Eastern European accent, “or I don’t want.”

But he said it with an easy smile that signaled he was not going to slam the door in my face, and that he was willing to engage in some conversation.  Maybe I was the only person he might converse with that day, other than his wife.  That thought often occurred to the elderly residents of places like Mervin Gardens.

I took his demeanor as an invitation to  start a conversation, so I introduced myself  as Leah Lamont’s friend and a part-time homicide investigator.  The idea must have intrigued him because he invited me inside, waited until I had seated myself, then offered me a shot of vodka.

I accepted, knowing that to decline would  be impolite and probably jeopardize any conversation.

Drink in hand, I asked him if he knew any of the people in the building who had died that year.  He thought for a minute and said, “Dat nice lady across the hall.  She die in March, I think.”

I tested my memory.  The only death in March was Janet Christie, 89, spleen and liver failure, according to the original coroner’s report.  I had already spoken to her daughter.

“Was that Mrs. Christie?” I asked.

His face lit up in recognition. “Ya, dat one.  “Nice lady,” he repeated himself.  “Big surprise she die.”

“Why was that?”

“Very old lady, but very healthy.  She walk every day.  Drive car.  Go shopping.  Go to church every Sunday and have people come for coffee almost every week. Very, how you say, social.”

“Did you know any of the other people who died this year?”

“Only dat gentleman Mister Luft.  I only in dis country short distance.  Know few people.”

“Did you know anyone who would want  to harm Mrs. Christie?”

He shook his massive head decisively.  “Na.  She was—

“A nice lady,” I said, interrupting him.

“Ya, like my Elena,” he said.  The mention of his wife made me wonder if she was at home.

“Is she here?”

As if on cue, a woman emerged from the bedroom and joined us in the living room.

“Dis Elena,” her husband said.  “She talk better English than I talk.”

Elena was an elegant-looking woman, perhaps at least 10 years younger than her husband.  She wore black slacks and a white turtleneck sweater.  The only makeup I could discern was a touch of lipstick.  She offered her hand, slender and soft with beautifully-manicured French nails.  “I hope you and the police catch Sidney’s killer,” she said, speaking softly and with only a hint of European inflection.

“Did you know him well?” I asked.

“Only as a neighbor,” she said, but her eyes conveyed a somewhat regretful look as did her expression.

Her appearance was a striking contrast compared to her husband.  If ever there was a seemingly mismatched couple, I thought, these two filled the bill.  Her husband attempted to be sociable. He offered me another shot of vodka, but this time I declined.  I left their apartment wondering about the state of their marriage.  And whether or not Elena had the hots for Sidney.


Irv Sternberg is a former journalist and public relations practitioner. He’s published 10 novels and three nonfiction books. A native of New Jersey, Irv has lived in Colorado since 1969.


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