Sunday, July 11, 2010

Back On Murder - Chapter 1

Back On Murder
Bethany House (July 1, 2010)

J. Mark Betrand

Chapter 1

I'm on the way out. They can all tell, which is why the crime scene technicians hardly acknowledge my presence, and my own colleagues do a double take whenever I speak. Like they're surprised to find me still here.

But I am here, staring down into the waxy face of a man who, with a change of wardrobe, could pass for a martyred saint.

It's all in the eyes. Rolling heavenward in agony, brows arched in acute pain. A pencil mustache clinging to the vaulted upper lip, blood seeping through the cracks between the teeth. The ink on his biceps. Blessed Virgins and barb-wired hearts and a haloed man with a cleft beard.

But instead of a volley of arrows or a vat of boiling oil, this one took a shotgun blast point-blank just under the rib cage, flaying his wife-beater and the chest cavity beneath. He fell backward onto the bed, arms out, bleeding out onto the dingy sheets.

Lorenz stands next to me, holding the victim's wallet. He slips the license out and whistles. "Our boy here is Octavio Morales."

He's speaking to the room, not me personally, but I answer anyway. "The money guy?"

"La Tercera Crips," he says, shuffling away.

I've never come across Morales before now, but his reputation precedes him. If you're short of cash in southwest Houston, and you don't mind the crippling interest rates or getting mixed up with the gangs, he's the man to see. Or was, anyway. Guys like him go hand in hand with the drug trade, greasing the skids of the underground economy.

"If this is Morales, then I guess the victims in the living room are his muscle?"

Nobody answers my question. Nobody even looks up.

Morales lies on the bed just inside the door, now blasted off its hinges by multiple shotgun volleys.

Down the hallway, another body is twisted across the bathroom threshold, clutching an empty chrome 9mm with the slide locked back. I step around him, avoiding the numbered evidence tags tented over his shell casings.

It's a hot day in Houston, with no air-conditioning in the house.

The hall opens into a living room packed with mismatched furniture—a green couch, a wooden rocker, two brown, pockmarked folding chairs—all oriented around a flat-screen television on a blond particleboard credenza against the far wall. Beer bottles lying in the corners. Boxes on the coffee table from Domino's and kfc.

This is where the shooting started. The couch cushions blossom white with gunshots, exposed foam bursting from the wounds. The floor is jigsawed with blackening stains. We've left our traces, too. Evidence markers, chalk lines. Imposing scientific regularity over the shell casings, the dropped firearms, the fallen bodies.

One on the couch, his underbelly chewed full of entry wounds. Another against the wall. His hand still clutching the automatic he never managed to jerk free of his waistband.

This was a one-sided fight. Whoever came through the front door polished these two pretty quick, then traded shots with the victim in the bathroom before advancing down the hall. Octavio Morales must have been the target. Maybe he'd tried to collect a debt from the wrong person. Only guys like this tend to be the perpetrators, not the victims.

"What do you think, March?"

I turn to find Captain Hedges at the front door, his white dress shirt translucent with sweat underneath his gray suit. He slips his Aviators off and tucks them into his breast pocket, leaving one of the curled earpieces to dangle free.

"You asking me?"

He looks around. "Is there another March in the room?"

So I'm the designated tour guide. I can't recall the last time Hedges spoke to me directly, so I'd better not complain. After soaking up some ambiance up front, I lead him down the hallway, back across the body hanging out of the bathroom.

"Looks like a hit on a local loan shark," I say. "A guy by the name of Octavio Morales. His body's in here."

When we enter the bedroom, activity halts. Lorenz and the other detectives perk up like hunting dogs, while the technicians pause over their spatter marks and surface dusting. Hedges acknowledges them all with a nod, then motions for me to continue. Before I can oblige, though, Lorenz is already cutting between us.

"I'm the lead on this," he says, ushering the captain toward the bed.

And just like that, I'm forgotten. According to my wife, when a woman reaches a certain age, she disappears. People stop noticing she's in the room. Not that this has ever happened to Charlotte, quite the reverse. But I'm beginning to understand the feeling. Beginning? Who am I kidding? I've been invisible for a long time.

I wouldn't even be here if it wasn't such a big event. An ordinary murder doesn't pull the crowds, but call in a houseful of dead gangbangers and every warm body on the sixth floor turns up. The call came in during a lull in my special duties, and I couldn't resist the itch. It's been a while since I've gotten to work a fresh murder scene.

"Looks like he was trying to hold the door shut," Lorenz is saying, miming the actions as he describes them. "They put some rounds on the door—blam, blam—and he goes reeling back. Drops his gun over there." He points out the Taurus 9mm on the carpet, a pimp special complete with gold trigger. "Then they kick the door in and light him up."

Lorenz stands over the corpse of Octavio Morales, wielding his air shotgun. He even works the pump, leaving out the sound effects this time. The gesture reminds me just how young this guy is to be in Homicide, how inexperienced.

While he's talking, I edge my way alongside the bed, putting some distance between myself and the group converging around the captain. This saves them the trouble of having to shove me aside.

The house is basically a squat. The property belongs to the bank, another foreclosure. There's no telling when Morales and his crew decided to move in, but they didn't exactly improve the place over time. The shiny brass headboard seems brand new, but the lumpy mattress is too big, drooping over the sides. And the bedding must have been salvaged from the dump. The sheets were rigid with filth long before Morales died there. My skin itches just looking at them.

I kneel and lift the sheets off the floor, peering underneath the bed. There's no point, really. The technicians have already been here. But I feel the need to look busy.

The window on the front wall casts sunlight under the far side of the bed. My eye goes to a dark line of filament silhouetted against the light, a length of cord hanging from the mattress frame. Probably nothing. But I circle around for a closer look, jostling Lorenz and a craggy-faced detective named Aguilar, who's busy explaining to the uninterested captain the significance of Morales's tats.

I crouch by the headboard, sunlight to my back, and start feeling underneath the frame for the hanging line. Once I find it—it feels like parachute cord—I trace the line back to the knot, then duck my head down for a look.

What I see stops my heart for a couple of beats. Maybe it's just the angle of my head. But the knot is secured around the mattress frame, and the end looks neatly severed with barely a hint of fraying. A fresh cut, made while the cord was drawn taut.

"Did anyone see this?" I ask.

When I glance up, nobody's looking my way. If they heard me, they're giving no sign. I scoot to the foot of the bed, running my hand over the frame. Sure enough, another knot. This time it's sliced close, leaving no dangling end. Returning to the other side, I push the sheets up and continue the search. My pulse hammering away so hard I can't believe no one else hears it. Two more knots, one at the foot of the bed, and another at the head.

I rise slowly, examining the mattress with new eyes.

Morales lies sprawled at the foot of the bed, legs off the side, arms thrown back. From above, the blood rises like a cloud, ascending several feet above his head. The pattern in the sticky sheets is not quite right.


I glance toward Hedges, who's nodding impatiently at Aguilar.


He turns to me, relieved at the interruption.

"What is it, Detective?"

Lorenz and Aguilar both turn with him, and so do the others. They blink at me, like I've just appeared out of nowhere. Even the technicians look up from their work.

"Come and see."

I get down on my knees, motioning him to follow. After a moment's hesitation, he does, careful not to get his pants dirty. I guide his hands to the knots, watching realization dawn on his face. We both cross to the opposite side of the bed, all eyes on us. He kneels without waiting for my encouragement. When his hand touches the dangling cord, he lets out a long sigh.

"Good work," he says.

Lorenz pushes his way forward. "What is it? What's under there?"

Hedges doesn't answer, and neither do I. As the detectives take turns under the bed, we exchange a glance. He looks at me in a way he hasn't for at least a year. Not since Wilcox left the unit. Even longer than that.

"When you're done here," he says under his breath, "I want you to swing by my office." Then, to the room at large: "I want a briefing in two hours. Lorenz, you better get on top of this. We'll need a blood expert to look at all this—assuming he hasn't already. And Lord help him if he already has and he missed this, that's all I can say."

And then he's gone, leaving the room deathly still in his wake.

The next moment, Lorenz has me by the sleeve, dragging me over to the corner. His voice barely a whisper. I half expect him to chew me out, so his real motive comes as a shock.

"I don't get it." He casts a glance over his shoulder, making sure no one's listening. "What's the deal with the rope?"

It takes me a second to find my voice. "They're restraints, Jerry. One at each corner, like somebody was tied spread-eagle to the bed. The blood on those sheets, it's probably from two victims. Morales and somebody the shooters took with them, after cutting her loose."


"Just a guess."

He takes all this onboard, then backs away, patting me on the front of the shoulder. But the pat feels like a push, too. As if he's distancing himself from me. Or from his own ignorance.

"All right," he says to the room. "Here's the situation."

Before he can launch into his speech, I'm out the door. One of the advantages of invisibility.

Outside, layers of garbage tamp down the knee-high grass out front, some bagged but most of it not: sun-bleached fast food packets, thirty-two ounce cups, empty twelve-pack beer boxes, all of it teeming with flies. The house is broad, one of the street's larger residences, complete with a double-wide carport and a driveway full of cracked concrete, rust stains, and a shiny black Escalade. The keys are probably still in Morales's pocket.

The perimeter line is being held by one Sergeant Nixon—Nix to his friends—a cop who can remember back far enough to the time when Texas produced lawmen instead of peace officers.

"Look who it is." He gives my shoulder a pat, but it's nothing like the heave-ho from Lorenz. "What are you doing at an honest-to-God murder scene? I thought you were putting in time with the cars-for-criminals team."

"I came out for old times' sake."

"Roland March," he says, looking me over. "The suicide cop."

"Don't remind me. Anybody talking around here? Neighbors witness anything?"

He glances up and down the street, like he's worried the nearby uniforms will overhear. "The lady down the way might be worth a talk. See the yellow house?"

"I think it's supposed to be white."

Nix isn't a fat man, but whenever he shrugs, his head retracts turtle-like, giving him a double chin. "We got a statement off her already, but she sure was talkative. If you're looking for the full canvassing experience, you might give her a try."

Ducking under the tape, I head for the yellow-white house. The neighborhood must have been nice once, before it was sandwiched in by apartment complexes. In southwest Houston, the complexes serve the same purpose as inner-city housing projects in other parts of the country. They're easy to secure, so gangs move in and start doing business. Colombian heroin and coke, Mexican meth, crack—it all comes through along the I-10 corridor, and the complexes serve as weigh stations.

A decade ago, there were places along here a patrol cruiser couldn't go without taking fire from one gang or another. We cracked down, and the dealers got the message. Now they stick to doing business. Everybody gets along, more or less, except for the ones in neighborhoods like this, where the trouble can't help but leak over. But there's a tension out on the streets, a lot of rumors about the Mexican cartels and the kind of trouble that might be around the corner.

I adjust the badge around my neck. Give the door a good knock.

When it opens, I'm greeted by a ripe young thing in her early twenties, bursting out of a tank top and pink shorts, pushing the door open with her foot. Glitter polish on the toenails, a flip-flop dangling. Her features are two sizes too big for her face. Huge eyes, a terrifyingly wide mouth marked out in brown liner.

I glance back at Nix, who's smiling at a cloud pattern overhead.

"Excuse me, but ... I was wondering if I could ask you a couple of questions?"

"About that over there? I didn't see nothing."

"What about earlier?" I ask. "You notice them driving up in that suv?"

"Last night you mean? I was out there in the yard. Octavio pulled up, and he had some others with him. Little Hector, I think, and someone else. They rolled down the window and whistled." If she was flattered by the attention, she gives no sign now. "They don't stay there or nothing like that. It's just their party pad."

"Did they have a woman with them?"

"People's always coming and going. I told the other policeman already."

"Well, thanks."

On the way to my car, I give Nix my best Clint Eastwood glare.

He smiles back at me. "Anytime, Detective."

I don't know which I prefer more, being ignored or jerked around.

* * *

In spite of my reptilian tolerance for heat, the air-conditioning back on the sixth floor feels great, especially given the white Freon my car's been spitting out in lieu of cool air. This is Homicide, the nerve center, humming as always with quiet intensity. The clack of keyboards is a constant, the hum of conversation. For the most part, though, the cubicles stand empty. Only a few detectives have trickled back in, filling mugs with coffee, combing the break room for anything not too stale, reviewing notes in anticipation of the big briefing.

We aren't what you'd expect. Watching television, you might think we're all scientists with guns, working our cases with calibrated precision. But we make mistakes just like anyone, and all that technical jargon can be a coping mechanism, an alternative to dark humor. Some guys like to crack jokes over the corpse, and others like to talk about castoff and trajectories and residue. We're only human, after all, and the job gets to us sometimes.

We aren't like the cops on cable, either. We aren't crooked. We aren't pushing drugs on the side, or even taking them. We're not functioning alcoholics. We don't take backhanders or use racial epithets or delight in parading our ignorance, even ironically. If anything, we pride ourselves on a certain professionalism, which means we won't beat you with a phone book or a rolled newspaper. We won't frame you, even if we know you did it.

We don't have our own reality show—a sore spot ever since the Dallas unit made its debut on The First 48—but if we did, they wouldn't have to edit out the violence, or even bleep that much of the language. For the most part, we're middle-aged and male, split pretty much down the middle between married and divorced. We dress like there's still a standard to keep up. And no matter who you are—a shirtless banger with enough ink on your skin to write a circuit court appeal or a corner skank in a skintight halter—we'll address you politely as sir or ma'am.

We are polite not because we are polite, but because we want to send you to Huntsville for the balance of your natural life, or even stick you with that needle of fate. And respect works. It's as good a way as any to send you down.

All of this is true about us. Except when it isn't. And when it isn't, all bets are off.

Don't mind my bluster, though. Like the sick jokes and the pseudoscience, it's just another way of coping. Because I'm on my way out, and realizing too late I don't want to go.

The man with all the power is Captain Drew Hedges, who sits behind glass walls and metal blinds, his door resolutely shut. In a department that's seen its share of shake-ups, Hedges has shown a knack for hanging on and, in spite of his better judgment, has a soft spot in his heart for others with the same knack, myself included. He doesn't just run the Homicide Division, he leads it, which means earning the respect of some notoriously independent-minded detectives.

I rap a knuckle against the wood, then wait. No sound from the other side. I try again. This time the door swings open.

Just inside, Lieutenant Bascombe stands with his hand on the knob, still listening to the captain's final instructions. I wait my turn. Bascombe is black, bald, and six foot four, an object lesson in intimidation. His eyes have as many signs for fury as the Eskimos have words for snow, and I've grown fluent over the years, having so often been on the receiving end of these glares. Now, fortunately, he doesn't even look my way.

"I'm not asking for perfection," the captain is saying, "but it wouldn't hurt to get some dictionaries in here. It may not seem like much, but I'm telling you, this is an embarrassment. We look like a bunch of illiterates here. Is that really the impression we want to make?"

Bascombe's nodding the whole time, trying to cut off the flow of words. I can tell he's heard enough, and if I've walked in on another lecture about the standard of spelling on reports coming out of Homicide, I can sympathize. Hedges can go from stone-cold cop one second to high school English teacher the next, and the latter incarnation is by far the more frightening.

"I'll take care of it," Bascombe says. Then, noticing me, he seizes on my presence as an excuse. "March's here to see you, sir. Let me get out of your way."

He pushes past, disappearing in the direction of his own, much smaller, office.

"Come on in," Hedges says. "Take a seat."

His jacket hangs on a rack in the corner, the sweat stains on his shirt all but dry. He's rolled his sleeves up like a man with hard labor on the agenda. I sink into one of the guest chairs, crossing my leg in an effort to look relaxed. His leathery, nut-brown face is so weatherworn that even a decade under the fluorescents hasn't raised a hint of pallor.

To look at him, you'd imagine that squint could see through any persona, plumb the depth of any lie. When I first joined the squad, I was in awe of those narrow-lidded, all-knowing eyes. But I've worked for him long enough now to realize that it's just an expression, no more indicative of insight than his starched shirts or his square, gunmetal glasses.

"You wanted to see me, sir?"

Instead of answering, he reaches behind him, pulling a book from a shelf bursting with color-coded ring binders. He slides it across the desk so I can see the cover. The Kingwood Killing. Brad Templeton's true-crime thriller. I feel a twitch under my eye.

He taps the book. "You ought to read it sometime."

"I don't have to read it. I lived it. Remember?"

"I remember. The question is, do you? The reason I wanted to talk to you is, that was good police work today."

"Thank you, sir."

"It's been a long time since I've seen that out of you."

How am I supposed to reply to that? Instead of answering, I give a noncommittal squirm. If I had my way, every copy of that book would be rounded up for incineration. It's like a yearbook photo, only worse. A reminder of someone I'd rather forget I ever was.

He sees me looking at the book and clears his throat. "Now, the fact of the matter is, you got lucky. Eventually somebody would have noticed those restraints. It just happened to be you. But I recall you used to be very lucky. You used to make your own luck. Question is, can you do it again?"

I'm getting tired of his rhetorical questions, but I don't show it. Instead, I force myself to nod. It isn't easy. My neck's as stiff as a corpse's in rigor.

"Sir, if you'd give me a chance, I think I could."

He shows me his open palms. "What did you have in mind?"

"Stop loaning me out for these special assignments. Put me back on the regular rotation. Let me work cases again. Hand the suicide cop mantle over to one of the younger guys."

His head shakes the whole time I'm talking. "You don't get it, Roland. I didn't give you these assignments. You earned them. You haven't been pulling your weight, so it was either that or cut you loose. And to be honest, that's what a lot of people have wanted me to do." His eyes flick toward the door, where Bascombe was standing a few moments before. I know the lieutenant doesn't have much love for me, but it's still a blow to realize he wants me out.

"I have a lot of experience, sir. I didn't discover those restraints by accident." His squint tightens, but I press on. "You've got Lorenz heading up that investigation, and you know it's too big a job. Coordinating something like that, it's a little more complicated than filling out a few reports and interviewing a couple of witnesses."

"You don't think he's up to it? That's too bad."

My throat dries out all the sudden. "Why's that?"

"Because I was thinking of putting you on the case with him."

"With him?" I ask. "How about putting me in charge?"

Hedges laughs. "I admire your nerve, March. But you've gotta be kidding. I mean, take a look out there." He jabs a finger at the blinds. "If I pulled a guy like Lorenz off the case and replaced him with you, I'd have a mutiny on my hands. In case you haven't noticed, your approval ratings in the bullpen are at an all-time low. Ever since Wilcox bailed—"

"But if I get results, people will have to respect that."

Whenever he has something to think over, Hedges temples his fingertips, resting his bottom lip on the steeple, bouncing his head slowly until a decision comes to him. He pauses, goes through the motions, and then sits up straight in his chair.

"Take it or leave it," he says. "You can work the case alongside Lorenz, with him as the lead, or you can keep doing what you've always done and see where it gets you. I'm sorry, Roland, but you're not in any position to bargain here. I'm throwing you a bone. You want it or not?"

I used to love this job, and there's a part of me that wants to love it again. That will take work, though. After a free fall like mine, you don't expect to summit all at once. This is a good offer. I'd be a fool not to take it.

"Well?" he asks.

Two things are holding me back. The first is Lorenz. Not his inexperience, which could be an advantage for me, but the fact that, in spite of his inexperience, he's made it so far up the ladder. The man is connected. He has friends everywhere. If he wants to, he can make my life difficult.

"I'd be working for Lorenz?"

"More or less," he says. "On this one case."

Then there's the second thing. "Would this mean I'm off the cars-for-criminals detail?"

"Well," he says, drawing the word out, widening his hands to show just how much distance he'd have to cross to pull something like that off. "When's your next show?"

"Tomorrow morning. The big Labor Day weekend haul. But to be honest, they're overstaffed as it is. They don't need me."

The hope in my voice must embarrass him, because suddenly he won't look me in the eye. "Listen, March. I can't get you out of it before tomorrow, but ... let me have a talk with Rick Villanueva and see what I can do. You'll be off the hook by Monday morning, all right? Just one more thankless task and you can start working murders again."

"Just one more?"

He nods. "But keep in mind, this is something of a probation. If you don't pull your weight on the investigation, if Lorenz comes to me with a problem, well ... my hands will be tied."

"I understand, sir. There won't be a problem."

"Make sure there isn't."

Outside, the detectives are gathering. The buzz of conversation dips as I open the door, then resumes once they realize it's just me. I pick my way through the crowd, looking for a spot on the periphery. As I walk, I feel eyes on me. Looking up, I see Lieutenant Bascombe sending one of his eloquent glares my way. Next to him, Lorenz practices his scowl. The lieutenant's lips move and Lorenz nods in reply. Whatever they're saying about me, I don't want to know.

But at least they can't ignore me anymore.

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