I Mean You No Harm

by Beth Castrodale

I Mean You No Harm

The enemy of my enemy is my sister

Career criminal Vic Doloro isn’t the kind of guy you’d send a card to on Father’s Day. Layla Shawn never has. She’s spent most of her thirty-two years estranged from her father and haunted by the mysterious death of her mother.

Then Vic dies, leaving Layla—an unemployed artist—a tempting inheritance of ill-gotten money. Urging her to take the money is Vic’s other daughter, Bette, with whom Layla shares a troubled past. On a cross-country road trip, the two women mend fences, but Layla finds herself caught in the middle of an unsettled and lethal score between her father and a man who knows more than he should about her mother’s death.

As Layla zeroes in on the truth and wrestles with her own demons, she finds herself face to face with a killer.

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Beth Castrodale worked as a newspaper reporter until her love of books led her to the publishing field. She was a senior editor at Bedford/St. Martin’s and is the founding editor of Small Press Picks. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous publications, including Marathon Literary Review, Printer’s Devil Review, and the Smoky Blue Literary and Arts Magazine. Her debut novel, Marion Hatley, was a finalist for a Nilsen Prize for a First Novel from Southeast Missouri State University Press, and an excerpt from her second novel, In This Ground, was a shortlist finalist for a William Faulkner – William Wisdom Creative Writing Award. Castrodale lives in Boston in a shadowy Victorian that’s proving to be an inspiration for her next book.

I Mean You No Harm will be in bookstores, online and wherever fine books are sold on August 3, 2021.

CHAPTER 1

The Wake

Reedstown, Ohio, 2019

Layla never imagined she’d see her father again. But here she was, staring into his lily-draped casket.

The movie-star looks that had hooked her mother were long gone.

So was the figure from the courtroom sketches, expressionless except for the dark eyes brimming with what one reporter described as “menace.” That same reporter nicknamed him “Thundercloud.”

So was the man Layla had last seen during that ill-fated road trip twenty years ago, when those same dark eyes seemed edged with regret.

Heart disease, years of it, had killed him at the age of sixty-five. Not a bullet from a rival or a cop, the type of ending that part of her had always expected. The disease had bloated his features beyond familiarity to her, and the rose-colored lights trained on him, surely intended to suggest the flush of life, did nothing but broadcast that this was the location of a dead body, the one she and fifty-some other guests had filed into Parlor A of Hanlon Funeral Home to see.

Someone tapped her shoulder.

“Layla?”

She turned and saw a hollow-cheeked figure in a pale green dress and white cowboy boots, her gray hair bottle-brush short.

“Layla, it’s Bette.”

Layla would have guessed the woman standing before her to be in her late forties at the youngest. But if she was remembering correctly, Bette was thirty-seven, just five years older than herself.

“Of course. Good to see you.”

The awkward question arose, unspoken: hug or not?

Bette answered it by extending her hand. Layla shook it firmly, “but without breaking bones,” her grandpa’s old instructions.

“You too,” Bette said.

Bette barely resembled the teenager from the road trip. Back then, she’d had weight to her, and thick, shoulder-length brown hair. The only familiar feature was the half-smirk of a smile, as she were about to say, You’re full of shit.

Bette nodded toward the casket. “He’d be glad you made it.”

Would he? Based on her last encounter with her father, Layla wouldn’t have assumed as much. Nor would she have assumed that Bette would ever want to see her again, half-sister or not.  And given how things had gone on the road trip, Layla came to believe that Bette had caused every single bit of the trouble her grandparents used to discuss in low voices. But things were different now, or so it seemed. If Layla’s recent phone conversation with Bette was to be believed, she was now a responsible single mother with an associate’s degree and a steady job as a security guard.

Even Bette’s smile looked slightly different, the halfsmirk now suggesting some mutual understanding, as if she and Layla were in on the same ongoing joke. Age, maybe, was the only thing that could explain this.

“Ready to meet Marla? And Jake?”

“Sure,” Layla said.

She followed Bette away from their father’s body, away from the cloying smell of lilies, toward a far corner of the room.

On her drive to the funeral home, Layla envisioned an assemblage of stereotypical mobsters: thick-bodied thugs in cheap-looking suits or athletic wear, all of them flashing some type of gold: chains, rings, or watches. As it turned out, a few attendees matched this description, but they were far outnumbered by ordinary-looking men and women mostly middle aged or older, with a few young adults and toddlers sprinkled here and there, presumably children or grandchildren of the mourners. Most guests looked like the ones who’d attended her grandparents’
funerals.

Still, as she and Bette made their way around and through the clusters of guests, Layla took in as many male faces as she could, just as she’d done on the way up to the coffin. She searched for anyone resembling the picture her mother had drawn, years ago, during one of her waitressing shifts. Any man with dark, down-turned eyes and a widow’s peak. Any man with a blank yet devouring stare.

Once again, no luck.

Once again, Layla told herself that it had been thirty years since her mother had made that drawing on the back of an order sheet. By now, maybe, the man she’d sketched was dead. Just like her.

As she and Bette neared a lamp-lit nook, a sixty-ish woman in a navy blue dress rose from a sofa and smiled. The boy who’d been sitting next to her did the same.

“Marla, this is Layla,” Bette said.

“Pleased to meet you,” the woman said, taking Layla’s hand. “And sorry for your loss.”

“Likewise,” Layla said. She’d meant this as a response to the Pleased to meet you, doubting that the death of Vic Doloro, in Marla’s reckoning, could in any way be considered
a loss.

Marla was the sister of Bette’s late mother, Vic’s ex-wife. And apparently, she’d had a ring-side seat to the disintegration of her sister’s marriage. As Bette had put it to Layla over the phone, “Dad was never any saint in Marla’s book. But she loves my kid, and I’m pretty sure she’s fond of me.” Bette mentioned how Marla was helping to look after her son, Jake, whose father had bolted not long after he was born.

Layla wondered whether Marla had ever harbored any ill will toward her own mother, and by extension toward herself. Bette once had, and maybe still did.

As far as Layla knew, her mom had gotten involved with Vic shortly after his divorce, but maybe Marla and Bette suspected an affair, and maybe they were right. In any case, the relationship between Vic and her mom ended inside of two years and never resulted in marriage. The only lasting consequence of it was Layla herself.

“You must be Jake,” Layla said, turning to the curlyheaded kid in the purple dress shirt.

“Yep.” He accepted her hand and gave it an energetic shake, not quite a bone-cruncher. It made her smile, just as he was doing now.

“Glad to meet you, Jake.”

“You too!”

When Layla first learned of Jake’s Down syndrome, she imagined a boy with flattened features, and an upward slant to his eyes. Those were there, but so was his mother’s
smile-smirk.

Looking toward a group of exiting guests, Marla shouldered her purse, as if she were ready to follow them. Then she turned to Layla. “I hope you’re still gonna stay with us tonight.”

“That’s the plan.”

Under ordinary circumstances, Layla would have kept her visit as short as politely possible. She would have stayed long enough for dinner with Bette, Marla, and Jake and driven home later this evening, giving some reasonable-sounding excuse for skipping tomorrow’s funeral. But these weren’t ordinary circumstances. During the same phone call in which Bette told Layla of Vic’s death, in which they caught up on as much other news as they could for the time being, Bette said, “I have something for you. Something from Dad.”

Layla’s first thought: Dad? I’ve never had anything that could be described as a Dad. Her next thought, which she expressed in words: “What is it?”

“I can’t tell you,” Bette said. “Not over the phone.”

Because you’re worried your phone is being tapped, Layla thought. Because the “something” is criminal, just like our father was.

When Layla expressed her reservations, Bette said, “I promised him I would do this, Layla. Just hear me out, in person. Then you can decide for yourself if you want this,
this gift.”

Layla had instantly pictured a gold-plated revolver, in a Tiffany-style box with a bow. That picture came back to her now.

But it wasn’t just the gift that had brought Layla here. There was also her mother’s drawing, tucked in Layla’s back right pocket.

“Let’s get you some dinner,” Bette said. “You must be hungry. And tired.”

The truth was, Bette seemed far more tired than Layla felt; in fact, she didn’t look well. Maybe she was fighting a case of the flu? As Bette followed Marla toward the exit, as she threw an arm across Jake’s shoulders, she seemed to sway in her boots.

When Bette reached the doorway, a man materialized from the crowd by the guestbook stand: a tall, lawyerly looking sort in a tailored blue suit. Layla guessed he was one of the Hanlon staffers, until he took Bette’s arm and leaned in close, whispered something in her ear.

Layla stayed back, sensing this was something private, if not intimate.

Then he let go of Bette’s arm, and she moved ahead, not waiting to introduce Layla to him. With Jake on her arm, Bette followed Marla into the hall, not looking back.

As Layla approached the doorway, she glanced toward the man and caught his eye. He nodded back, as if Bette might have told him who she was. Then again, the nod might have been simple politeness.

No down-turned eyes, she observed. No widow’s peak.

Disappointment over finding no matches between the drawing and any of the men in this room wouldn’t surface until the wake was hours in the past. Right now, Layla just felt relief.

When she reached the door to the parking lot, Bette was holding it open for her.

It wasn’t until this moment that it occurred to her: This was it. She would never see her father’s face again, in anything other than photographs. Tomorrow, he’d be a closed casket on a stand, by a hole in a graveyard.

Thank God I look almost nothing like him, Layla thought, stepping into the night. Thank God I look like Mom.

Hardback: $25.00 US      ISBN:  9781945501692 — First Edition: August 2021
Paperback:  $15.00 US     ISBN: 9781945501715 (not yet available)
ePUB: $10.99 US              ISBN: 9781945501708
Audiobook: Unabridged, (Under production)  $26.00 US     ISBN:  9781945501722