Andrew Welsh-Huggins releases the newest book in his Andy Hayes Private Investigator series, An Empty Grave, on June 30 at Gramercy Books in Bexley, in an event moderated by fellow Buckeye Crime Writer member Connie Berry. Eileen Curley Hammond interviewed him recently about his accomplishment.
ECH: Seven books in for this series. Do you delight in finding new Columbus places to feature in your books?
AWH: I always enjoy sneaking in references to Columbus, whether long-time landmarks like the Statehouse or real-life restaurants like Club 185 in German Village (though I’m careful not to put any bodies into actual establishments). The one downside of using real businesses is the risk they’ll close and no longer be current. Fingers crossed, all the restaurants that Andy visits in An Empty Grave are still operating — for the moment!
ECH: You have a full-time job as well as writing novels. How do you carve out time to write?
AWH: I’ve managed to settle into a system where I work for a couple of hours each morning before I start work as a reporter. I have a short commute in non-pandemic times, and for the moment no commute at all as I continue to work mostly from home, so I’m fortunate that way.
ECH: You edited (and contributed to) Columbus Noir. Was it more fun corralling other authors, or do you prefer the solitude of writing your own series?
AWH: I enjoy working on my own material, but I also really liked editing Columbus Noir because I got to work with such great writers. In that situation, it was also exciting to be creating something that showcased Columbus and its amazing crime writing community.
ECH: I love how you meld what’s happening in Andy’s personal life with the cases he is working on and how his journey to outlive his past continues. What can you share from the new book?
AWH: Andy’s younger son, Joe, undergoes a crisis involving life at home with his mom and stepdad, and Andy has to make some hard decisions about increasing his involvement in Joe’s life despite the erratic and sometimes dangerous life of a private eye (at least a fictional one). Andy also meets a woman who he thinks may finally be the one, but as usual, complications arise.
ECH: This book is number seven in this series. How many more Andy Hayes books will there be?
AWH: My standard response is, at least one more, although I have plenty of ideas that could propel the series for a while. I like hanging around Andy’s world so I’m hopeful to keep the series going.
ECH: Where can we find your book, and do you have any appearances scheduled?
AWH: My book will be available at local bookstores and at the Ohio University Press website (www.ohioswallow.com). If you order through June 18, you can enter promo code OHIOSUN on the website shopping cart to activate a 40% off discount.
ECH: Would you like to share an excerpt from An Empty Grave?
“WHAT ABOUT MURDER?”
Even in the crowded restaurant, conversation at high Saturday-night boil, the question turned heads at more than a few tables. I gestured for the stranger to sit, but he shook his head and repeated the query. Joe and Mike, despite how accustomed they were to such interruptions, stared in fascination at the ungainly man looming over us like that relative at Thanksgiving you’ll do anything to avoid but secretly can’t stop glancing at to see what happens next. I sighed, aware of the attention we were attracting and realizing there was no easy way around our predicament.
“Murder?” I said.
“You heard me. Do you investigate it?”
“I usually leave that to the police.”
“But what if they won’t?”
“What if the police won’t investigate a murder?”
“That’s not been my experience.”
“Then maybe you haven’t been paying attention to what’s really going on.”
“Listen, we’re running late, and I don’t have time to talk right at the moment.”
“So you’re just like all the rest? You won’t help me. Is that it?”
“I can’t help you because I don’t know what you’re talking about. I also can’t help the fact I’m running late. Now if you’ll excuse me—”
“Fine,” he said, squeezing himself into the booth beside Joe before I could object. “I’ll start from the beginning. My dad was a cop, and someone killed him. And I need help finding the bastard who did it.”
LET THE record show this whole sorry mess started because, as usual, I bit off more than I could chew.
I’d taken an early-afternoon surveillance gig to shore up my moribund bank account, even though I knew my schedule was tight. In my defense, the job should have been a cinch — trailing a furnace repairman who was claiming workers’ comp for a bad back through Home Depot while he loaded multiple four-by-four timbers onto a cart. Instead, as usual, things got complicated. It turned out he was also having an affair — the lumber was destined for the deck he was building for his girlfriend — which meant extra tracking time. As a result, I was late picking up my sons from the houses of my respective ex-wives, as usual, and my plans for dinner at home as part of my custody weekend went out the window.
Plan B was a couple of large pepperonis around the corner at Plank’s on South Parsons. We ate quickly because we had only thirty minutes before movie time — one of the Marvel films, the name of which I’d already forgotten. Something to do with avenging and justice. I was mapping out the fastest route to the theater in my head, Mike was complaining we were going to miss the previews, and Joe was fiddling with his phone when the man approached our table.
“You’re Woody Hayes.”
I looked up. Just what I needed. Another Ohio State football fan eager to berate me for ancient sins I’d spent half my life trying to atone for — not that I’m counting. He was heavy, balding, with thick black-framed glasses just short of factory-floor protective wear. Intensity glowing in his eyes. I thought about making a dash for it. But as often happens to me, there was no place to hide.
“Once upon a time. I go by Andy now. Was there something —”
“I’ve seen you on the news. You’re a private eye.”
“That’s right. An investigator, technically.”
I checked the time on my phone. Twenty-five minutes before showtime. At this point, maybe faster to forget surface streets and head straight for the highway. Cutting it close but still doable, especially if the previews started a minute or two late.
“What kinds of things do you investigate?”
Mike sighed loudly. Joe, despite the sullen mood he’d been in recently, looked on with interest.
“Missing persons, missing money, very rarely missing pets.” I dug for my wallet and retrieved a card. “Maybe you could give me a call?”
And that’s when he asked the question.
“What about murder?”
I GLANCED up the aisle and saw a woman at a far table staring at us. The man followed my gaze. “It’s just my sister. She’s not too thrilled I walked over here.”
That was an understatement. To judge by her expression she couldn’t have been more mortified had the man sauntered up to us in his birthday suit.
I nodded at her. “Your father. When did he die?”
A pause. “Last month.”
“Around here?” I hadn’t heard of any cops being killed recently.
“Yeah. But it took him forty years to die.”
That was just enough to pique my curiosity.
“Keep going,” I said, ignoring Mike’s groan. “But make it fast. We’re in a hurry, like I said.”
Without invitation, he picked up a piece of our pizza and started talking. He said his name was Preston Campbell. He lived nearby, in the house where he and his sister grew up. His father was Howard Campbell, but everyone called him Howie. A beat cop in the late seventies who worked a bunch of precincts but eventually settled for the University District north of Ohio State.
“Lot of guys didn’t like that rotation because of everything happening on campus in those days. The hippies and the music and the protests and everything. He didn’t mind it so much. Plus, back in those days the neighborhood was still intact. Lot of professors lived around there. But fall of ’79, cops started seeing a bunch of burglaries. Not random, either. Professional. They figured it was a team, knew what they were doing. Had a system for watching places, checking out people’s movements, striking when residents weren’t home. Some professors got cleaned out. University raised a stink and the city put on extra patrols. My dad was assigned a swing shift, 8 p.m. to 4 a.m., to keep an eye on things.”
“We don’t have much time here,” I said.
He continued as if he hadn’t heard me. “So, this one night, him and his partner were coming back from a dinner break. They’re making a pass, up by Indianola and Chittenden, when they see this van that hadn’t been there earlier. They drive by, going slow, my dad at the wheel. His partner notices a guy in the driver’s seat who slumps down real low when he sees the cruiser. They keep going, pull over half a block up, and get out. They start walking back toward the van when his partner — guy named Fitzy — spots someone in a yard with something in his arms. They both take off running after him. That’s when it happened.”
“Dad,” Mike said.
“My dad goes around back, to the left, OK? Fitzy cuts right. My dad’s checking out the rear door, which is partly open, when he hears Fitzy yelling. He runs around and sees Fitzy on the ground, unconscious, and some guy hightailing it. He starts chasing and the guy turns and shoots my dad, three times.” Jab, jab, jab, went the piece of pizza in his hand. “He goes down, but still manages to get two shots off.”
“He get the guy?”
“Oh yeah,” Campbell said. “Now they’re both down, both bleeding out. My dad calls out to Fitzy, he wakes up long enough to call it in, and that’s the beginning of the end.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean my dad survived, but his days as a cop were over.”
“What about Fitzy? And what about the guy who shot your dad?”
“Fitzy was fine — he was back at work the next day. The guy who shot my dad? That’s the problem. He disappeared.”
“Disappeared? Like, ran off? After being shot?”
Campbell shook his head. “After they arrested him. But before he could be prosecuted.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Dad. We’ve got like fifteen minutes.”
“Hang on,” I said.
“But this is the thing,” Campbell continued. “I just found out he’s still alive.”
“The guy who shot your dad?”
He said yes emphatically, pizza-flecked spittle flying from his mouth.
“After all these years?”
“You heard me.”
“That’s the problem. I don’t know.”
Our server appeared and inquired how everything was. I nodded blankly. Mike asked for the check.
I said, “You know he’s alive but you don’t know where?”
“That’s right. Which is why I need you to find him.” He retrieved a lumpy wallet and pulled out what looked like several twenties. “I’m not a charity case. I can pay.”
“Dad!” Mike said.
“Just hang on,” I said, eyeing the money. “We’ve got time.”
Except that we really didn’t. And sure enough, we missed the previews. As usual.
“An Empty Grave” by Andrew Welsh-Huggins ©2021. This material is reprinted by permission of Ohio University Press, www.ohioswallow.com.