Long Read

True Crime and I, Pt. 2: Shortbread Cookies and “Cold Case Files”

My paternal grandmother was born on Christmas Eve 1929 and, as such, always insisted on celebrating it as absolutely distinct from Christmas. She was always mindful of birthdays; gifts for the birthday girl were usually accompanied by something small for the other sister.

She loved flowers and cats and painting. All of her children grew up to be cat people, as have all of her six grandchildren. Baking was a passion of hers; cherry pies and shortbread were specialties. Christmas was incomplete without a tin or two of Grandma’s shortbread, sent through the mail from Kentucky.

After a long and often difficult illness, she passed away in early September. While sudden, it was not unexpected. Luckily, Parkinson’s had left her wits mostly intact to the end, so that she could appreciate what would turn out to be final visits with family in August.

On this, what would have been her eighty-eighth birthday, I would like to share with you to inadvertent and formative role my Grandma had on my interest in true crime.

*  *  *

I have written previously on how my childhood interest in Ancient Egypt, encouraged by my parents, likely sparked my early fascination with the morbid and macabre.

Completely unknown to my parents, I fanned this fascination by watching forbidden TV as soon as their backs were turned.

There was Discovery Channel’s “A Haunting in Connecticut,” which I watched while my mom was out shopping. I was nine. I didn’t sleep for days.

Of course, I went on to watch all of Discovery’s “A Haunting” series in secret.

There was the time I watched Stephen King’s “Rose Red” on-and-off for an afternoon at my dad’s house. Big mistake.

Best of all were those chances I had to watch Discovery’s “FBI Files.” Rediscovering the series as an adult, I laughed at how plastic science class skeletons had scared the ever-living **** out of me as a nine-year-old.

Then, there was that fateful trip to Grandma’s.

The moral of this story: if you really want to know what your kids are watching, make sure you can walk faster than they can change the channel.

*  *  *

I don’t think it was that long summer we spent with Grandma after my parents divorced. I think it was an earlier trip, maybe earlier that same year. I was about eleven.

As my younger sister had taken the big-screen TV downstairs, and I did not want to watch Disney with her, my Grandma offered me the little box TV on her vanity. She left to do laundry or read.

I turned it on to find it was on A&E, which was running a weekend marathon of Cold Case Files. 

The original Cold Case Files, which ran through the mid-2000s, featured Bill Kurtis’s chilling narration. It also featured plenty of gruesome postmortem photos. I couldn’t turn away, mostly out of horror. This was beyond anything I’d seen before. I couldn’t process. God knows I still can’t watch it before bed. Speaking of which…

At Grandma’s, I slept on a cot below a large first-floor window. Unfortunately for me, I had just learned who the LA Nightstalker was. The bug-eyed, hollow-cheeked composite sketch appeared every time I closed my eyes.

All the lights were on that night. All of them. 

*  *  *

I was hooked.  On a visit to my other set of grandparents, around the same time, I watched Dateline for the first time, again, surreptitiously. I still remember my first Dateline episode, on the murder of Molly Bish. Years later, moving to Boston, the details of the case would return to me. It haunts me–as a child, Molly had seemed like a grown-up. Barely an adult myself, looking at a picture of her now, I see a child, her life cut away from in front of her.

*  *  *

I flipped over the A&E website, where you can watch Cold Case Files episodes in whole with just a little advertising. I see now they have rebooted the series, beginning earlier this year, but without Bill Kurtis’s voice. Darn.

* * *

I asked my cousin, “Do you think Grandma knew I watched sixteen hours of Cold Case Files on her TV that time?”

My cousin thought. “I feel like she knew, and she couldn’t have approved, but she wasn’t going to really object to it.”

So, Grandma, thank you for spoiling your grandchildren, even if it was with questionable TV choices.

Happy birthday. I miss you. I love you.


How to Medicate Your Cat; or, 101 Ways to Need Antibiotics Yourself

Knives hit me in the stomach. I looked down at the shrieking cat, squirming around in my hands.

Et tu, kitté?

Trying to kick off and escape, she had punched her very sharp back claws into me.

Can’t say I didn’t deserve it. I told her as much the previous day, when she nearly gave me a mastectomy, attempting to launch over my shoulder from my collarbone.

It’s for her own good.

    *     *     *

At the start of the month, Sassy had her dental cleaning. As a kid I heard people make fun of Martha Stewart for brushing her cat’s teeth, but I do think it was for the best. Dental health is a good prevention against various infections, in people and felines. Sassy had rotten teeth, no bones about it.

She came from the shelter like that, I swear.

A thorough dental cleaning requires anesthetics, because–well, have you ever put your finger in an angry cat’s mouth? I’ve been doing it for the last two weeks and I would highly recommend against it. I had been nervous about putting Sassy under, but research and a discussion with my vet have assured me that while risks do exist, they are marginal for an otherwise healthy animal.

Sassy came through the surgery without any complications–and minus two rotten-through teeth.


High as a kite after surgery.


A rare opportunity to give her a belly-rub…and keep my hand

That left me with two weeks of liquid antibiotics to administer orally to a cat who hates being held. Wrapping her in a blanket as a “kitty kolache” only protects me so much. The only comfort she gets from it is hiding her face in the blanket so I can’t bring the syringe to her mouth.

This process, if done to a human, probably violates the Geneva Conventions. Sassy tells me as much.


Between doses. “I’m calling my lawyer.”

She is a good girl and doesn’t scratch to hurt–it’s just that her claws are out when she tries to escape, and my skin happens to be a good place on which to latch. I’ve never seen this cat bite anyone, even when she’s been given good reason (for example, putting her in the crate).

Aside from some nasty scratches, I’ve also had antibiotic paste spit into my eyes, onto my sleeves, and into my hair. I also swear that she woke me up every two hours last night because she knew we were going to the vet for suture removal this morning.

*    *    *

“Can you tell I’m overly attached to this animal?” I asked the vet before her surgery.
“Is that a bad thing?”
“I don’t think so.” He smiled.

*   *   *

It’s all worth it.

We had been concerned her weight loss was a sign that something very, very serious was wrong with her. In the last two weeks, since the tooth removal, she’s put on half a pound and is approaching her ideal weight again. Of course, this makes her even more difficult to wrangle at medicine time, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

She also seems a little less afraid of visitors. She only runs away when they approach her, not when she hears the doorbell ring.

Best of all, even immediately after I shoot two vials of antibiotics into her mouth, twice a day, she chirps at me and rubs up against my leg.

All is forgiven; all is well.

Kidnapping, Wedding Crashing, and Plenty of Jumping to Conclusions: My Adventures in July

Dear Readers,

I can explain.

The broken promises. The long silences. The unannounced trips.

Okay, I think I advised the other day about the trip. I certainly did give warning that I was preparing for a move. Said move went well, by the way, and I am settling into my new apartment quite nicely. It did take me a week to get my internet up and running, which is another reason I have been incommunicado.

July has been a busy month for me, but I bring back from my adventures not one, not two, but THREE new reviews coming out this week. The first two are of audiobooks I enjoyed on my Boston-D.C.; the third is of a hardback book I have been working since Christmas and finally finished after my electronics had been packed away.

Some tales from the trail:

I Think I’m Getting Kidnapped

It is the day before my drive to D.C. I am already wound up. While standing in line, waiting for whatever I need to complete yet another pre-trip frantic errand, a voice behind me announces “Hey, do you like novels?”

Why would he know that?

Perhaps because “stranger danger” was drilled into me as a kid, more likely because of the things I read and watch, I am a little wary of overly interested strangers. The person I encountered was nice enough, and was promoting a new e-book. No harm done.

I leave the store and begin to walk back to my car, not being followed. When I arrive at my car, there is an idling vehicle pulled up alongside mine. With cars parked in front of and behind mine, I am effectively stuck. Somewhat inconvenient, but again, no harm done.

Then the driver of the idling car looks up and calls me by my first name. My blood runs cold.

“Yes?” I say.

“I’m your ride.”

“No you’re not.”

He is silent. I move to the back of my car. He is not moving.

“This is my car,” I say.

He looks at me, puzzled.

“I need you to move,” I say.

He rolls forward and I hop into my car, not sure why this person knows my name. Then, in my rear-view mirror, I see a woman my age, of similar appearance, coming out of the apartment building I parked in front of. She got into the car that had been boxing mine in.

I had not fended off a kidnapping. I had only managed to scare the living daylights out of myself and an unsuspecting Uber driver.

I Crash a Wedding

The next day, I dropped True-Crime Cat off at the vet for boarding, fought back tears at seeing her little green eyes disappear behind the counter, and set off driving for D.C. From Boston to the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge, I enjoyed the audiobook of Ann Rule’s Small Sacrifices.

This was my first road trip and, as is to be expected, newbie mistakes began piling up.

I grew up in Texas, where toll booths are few and far between. As such, it did not occur to me to prepare for all the tolls, and I did not have cash to pay the toll booth attendant as I drove south from I-84 to the Jersey Turnpike. Consequently, with plenty of July-Fourth-Weekend traffic piling up behind me, the very patient toll attendant filled out an invoice for me to pay NY State by mail. (Which I did, of course)

I then promptly got lost in New Jersey, because I unintentionally set my navigating app to to avoid tolls, which led me parallel to the Turnpike, down a country road full of stop lights. This was probably why I had trouble focusing on the first three hours of Robert Graysmith’s hefty true-crime classic Zodiac.

After finally pulling over somewhere south of Princeton and re-calibrating Siri, I had only lost two hours to waiting at traffic lights. The sun was beginning to sink low as I headed south to Delaware, surrounded by trees.

“The young couple were alone in their car, surrounded by trees,” crooned the narrator of Zodiac, “It was already evening.”

Not an actual quote, but close enough. And that is when I began hitting myself for my choice of audiobooks. I had promised myself I wouldn’t do Zodiac books on my solo drive. I promised myself.

Somewhere south of Baltimore, I realized it was time to find a ladies’ room. Seeing an exit up ahead, I prepare to get off I-95. The “NSA-EMPLOYEES ONLY” sign and the cop with the rifle blockading the exit tipped me off that I would not be making a pit stop here.

So I drove on. The next exit is “NASA-EMPLOYEES ONLY.”

I am beginning to get desperate.

Why didn’t I stop in Baltimore? I ask myself.

Then, finally “NASA Greenbelt-State Park.” Where there’s a park, there’s a park ranger. Where there’s a ranger, there’s a HQ.

I pull off the highway at last. Right at the exit is a rustic structure  set in a wooded area, surrounded by cars.

Oh, good, they must have lots of services here if it’s this crowded. 

I find a parking spot and look up. It is a veterans’ association lodge, and there is obviously a party going on. But I am desperate.

I run to a couple taking a smoke break outside and explain the emergency.

“Is there any chance I could use the ladies’ room?”

“Oh sure, go on in, sweetie. We won’t tell anyone.”

I enter. There is a wedding cake. I wouldn’t dream of doing this on any other day. By some miracle, though, it was a casual wedding, and I came wearing the dress code.

On my way out, thanking God and the American Legion, the couple I met at the door invite me to stay for drinks. I politely decline.

I make it back to my car and close the door. Between putting the key in the ignition and turning it, I begin laughing and put my forehead against the wheel. I am ready to be done driving. After another hour, and twelve in total, I make it to my hotel.

And that is the story of how I became a wedding crasher.

P.S. Wherever you are, happy newlyweds, I wish you every happiness in the world.

P.S.S.: Come back tomorrow for my review of Small Sacrifices. Reviews of the Graysmith Zodiac audiobook coming Friday. Next week, I address the hard-copy book I finished this month, Kenneth D. Ackerman’s Trotsky in New York 1917: A Radical on the Eve of Revolution, a tale of spies, suspicious Russian political operatives, and sassy backtalk.