That summer of 1970, Houston baked under a miserable sun. Detective Nick Noelle felt as miserable as the weather. Two months ago, his wife Sally had kicked him out of the cottage he’d bought just after they married, thinking this was where they’d both find peace. Last month she showed up at his crummy place in a boarding house, whipped as a dog and needing nothing from him but money. She was hooking again. Between that and this goddamn heat, he was going crazy. That morning, he called in to the precinct, made some excuses, said he’d be in later that afternoon.
Gunning it down to Galveston, he stepped right out onto the 61st Street pier and stared out over the muddy water. The view should have been beautiful, but it wasn’t. Over the Gulf, a storm was brewing. It was getting darker now. The beach town was dead; the water lapping at the pier was a ravaged brown; the pier was old and flaking away. He could focus on that ugliness instead of Sally. He could hope for rain instead of obsessing over a game of poker at Sam’s House of Cards. One cloud overhead started leaking small drops of rain. He lifted his face so the water would hit him square on.
The problem was, wracking his mind not to think about Sally only made his memory of her greener. There was a hamster wheel in his head. He’d been nutty to fall in love with her, even more the lunatic to marry her – a cop who thought he could rescue a hooker. What a chump!
He had to stop thinking maybe she’d loved him. Why should she? He was nothing but a crusty Cajun cop, getting old and worn out fast. He had to stop thinking she wanted anything but money. Did she know how much he’d socked away?
The sky swelled with black clouds. Whole barrels of toxic rain poured over him. He let the water soak his clothes and ogled the water below the pier, up to the muddy churning bay. He could end it all, right here, right now. He could climb over the railing and just disappear. That’s what his old man had done. The guy had been a big bruiser, a three-time loser in the pen, killing the pain with a bottle of Absinthe and a dunk in the Mississippi. Like father, like son?
Fuck no! No way! He’d spent his whole life so far doing every single thing different from the way his old man had done. His father had been a mean-eyed drunk, and he wasn’t his father. Not yet anyway.
He drove back to Houston in the Plymouth the department let him use, his windshield wipers fighting the rain as hard as they could. He stopped at his apartment to change and headed in to work.
Nothing much was going on there. For days it had been too damned hot. The thieves, the rapists and the murderers were holed up next to air conditioners or open refrigerator doors, too sluggish to move. Now it was too wet. The light in the squad room was dim and gray: gray filing cabinets, gray metal desks, and black plastic telephones. The fluorescent lights buzzed, off and on and off and on. Half a dozen detectives sat pretending to be busy. Beyond them the lieutenant was in his office. Noelle could see through the glass that he was eating a chocolate bar.
Noelle’s new partner, Lopez, sat at his desk reading a Bible. Noelle did his best to stifle his snort of disgust. The kid had spent most of his time as a beat cop in uniform. Noelle still couldn’t figure out how he’d made detective. Lopez was the type who followed every single rule, even the ones that contradicted each other. Noelle couldn’t believe Donnelly had assigned him Lopez, after Noelle had had the best partner a cop could have. Barry had died just last year from cirrhosis of the liver. No one breathed his name to Noelle, and you can bet for sure no one had ever had the guts to tell him alcohol was what had killed him. Damn straight! They all knew Noelle’s prickly temper too well.
So was Donnelly playing some kind of practical joke – assigning him a guy who never swore, drank, gambled or picked up hookers? A guy who would never even tell a single white lie to back up his partner? Or was Donnelly, in some offbeat lieutenant’s way, trying to save his soul?
If that was the case, he might think harder about retiring, taking that pile of money he’d socked away and moving to Vegas.
“Boss,” Lopez called. Why did Lopez call him boss? They were supposed to be partners. “Where you been? I’ve been here waiting since nine this morning.”
“Well, at least you put the time to good use,” Noelle said, nodding at the Bible.
“I was just taking a break, looking something up for my daughter. I worry about her, you know? Being a teenager these days, with all the craziness loose in the world.”
“Yeah, sure.” Noelle wasn’t really listening. Lopez wasn’t a kid; they were actually about the same age. Unlike him, Lopez had a regular life, a house and a wife and a daughter. He had a light brown face without furrows and scars. Even if he did worry about his daughter, there was something sincere about him. Of course, he smiled a lot. Those clean white teeth. Noelle’s were chipped and yellowed with nicotine. It was probably a good thing he wasn’t a Yes-man like Lopez: no one could have stomached a smiling Noelle.
He sat down at his own desk and flipped through his messages. Nothing important. One call from Sally. The air conditioners hummed loudly. It was only a little cooler now, with the rain.
“I was waiting for you,” Lopez said, “because I wanted to ask –“
The black phone on Noelle’s desk rang. He picked it up. “Yeah?”
He heard a crumply crinkly sound, like someone squeezing a piece of paper in his fist. “Noelle?”
“Yeah, that’s me. Who is this?”
“I got her.”
Noelle’s attention sharpened. The voice sounded mechanical, not like a man’s or a woman’s. Damn! All the sound was muffled. “Got who?”
“Have a looksee down at Bayou Bend, the shed by Miss Imahogg’s place.”
Noelle’s gut twisted. “Is that a place you go to a lot?”
Whoever it was hung up.
“Lopez.” Noelle already had the Plymouth’s keys in his hand. “We’re taking a drive.”
The rainfall streamed over the roads and highways, flowing in miniature rivers into the gutters, washing leaves and bits of trash into drains. Traffic was light. Noelle drove as fast as he dared, skidding around curves, pushing yellows, until finally he reached the bayou, just as the skies began to clear. Noelle found a narrow asphalt road to bypass the guards at Miss Imahogg’s mansion, and he drove down the muddy ravine until he reached a shed.
He and Lopez got out to look around. With the rain drying up, the bayou steamed in the heat. Noelle sniffed the air. Beneath the stench of swamp and rotting plants he smelled something else, a smell he knew right in that place where his gut twisted. Decomp. Dead body. His shabby suit stuck to his unruly belly and his arms felt like meat hocks hanging from a greasy butcher’s hook. He was sick and he hadn’t even seen a body yet. A murder case always started out this way for him. A feeling like what he was about to face was something he had to deal with, to get over an even bigger feeling. Maybe that he wasn’t the right person for this responsibility. Was he worthy?
He held very still and listened. He didn’t hear anything at all. Odd, no sound at the bayou? He followed his nose to the shed and a stack of empty Lone Star crates piled next to rotting cabinets meant for gardeners sometime in the past. He listened again and heard nothing except Lopez quickly murmuring a prayer.
Maybe he should stop right now. Call the lieutenant. Find out if they’d been able to trace the call. What if it wasn’t decomp? What if the body wasn’t dead? What if it was just hideously horribly wounded, and he could save him, her, it? He yanked and pulled at the crates, tossing them behind him.
“Boss, shouldn’t we call it in first?”
“Just whip your skinny ass over here and help me.”
“But the book says….”
“This isn’t about the book. This is about a human being.”
The heaviness in his arms was blessed with. He didn’t give a rat’s ass about the mud and crap falling from his hands to his suit. Even though he hoped he could rescue the victim beneath those crates, in his heart he knew this was a murder. He knew, too, there wasn’t anyone else in all of Houston who’d keep digging the way he would, who’d do whatever it took to bring the killer to justice.
The stench of something very dead rose up choking him, but he kept at it. Finally, he saw the large black trash bag with a slit in it. Inside the bag, a woman’s body. No, not a body – the pieces of one.
Lopez staggered away and retched. “Oh, Jesus! Oh, Mother Maria!”
Noelle pulled out a pair of gloves from his suit pocket. He put them on and gently pried the trash bag open.
He could see the victim was young, in her early twenties, maybe even younger. Her face was unmarked, unlined. The rest of her was a testament to human brutality. Her chest and stomach were slashed open and swarming now with maggots – she’d been dead a while. Noelle thought maybe some of her internal organs were missing. Her hands were gone. Nails had been driven through her feet. Just above her left foot, a delicate diamond anklet glinted. Noelle leaned in closer to inspect the tiny attached pendant, a gold heart with a ruby cross inside it. He could barely make out the engraved initials J.B.
“Okay,” he said. To himself and maybe to her too. He backed away from the body; his spastic colon was on fire. This was going to be a tough one. Whoever killed like this wouldn’t stop at one; there would be others. “CALL BACK UP NOW!!!” he shouted to Lopez. “We’re going to need all the help we can get.”
It seemed like hours before the coroner’s wagon got there to haul the body away. Cops swarmed all over the shed and a log nearby, where they found splattered bits and pieces of dried blood. They dusting for fingerprints, searched for more blood or strands of hair or fiber. There wasn’t much of anything, thanks to the rain. He trudged the path leading into the woods and spied a cigar butt. Could it be evidence of something, or could it be just a stray bit of trash? It was hard to say. The killer, or the rainstorm, had cleared the scene of anything useful. If there ever had been anything.
Had the killer purposefully killed as the storm approached, knowing the rain would wash away evidence? Or was that just dumb luck?
Why did the killer make that phone call? Why call at all, and why call him?
“He’s playing with us,” Noelle told Lopez. He couldn’t keep the frustration and anguish out of his voice. “Why?”
Lopez had no answer. Noelle didn’t expect one.
A full twenty-fours after that phone call, Noelle finally left the precinct to get some shuteye. The coroner had rushed the autopsy; Noelle had been there. Back at his desk, he’d studied the crime scene photos again and again, hoping something would leap out at him. He’d heated milk in the little precinct break room to soothe his stomach. He’d chewed half a roll of Tums. This killing was the most sickening thing he’d ever seen, and he’d seen a lot: crimes of passion, the weapons a knife or a gun or a big hunk of rock; drunks dead and moldering on the sidewalk; the abandoned dead body of a little baby – the worst of the worst. But this killing – with the cutting and the hacking to pieces, the kind of frenzy and strength it took to do something like that -- this killer was not only psycho but enraged as well. That didn’t mean the killer wasn’t also smart.
He drove the Plymouth back to his apartment, turning on the radio full blast to let Hank Williams drown out his thoughts. That didn’t work; maybe Hank Williams did something for his aching gut, because he was hungry for the first time in more than a day. He stopped at J.J’s Barbecue for a greasy rib sandwich along with a cup of rancid dishwater coffee, still steaming hot by the time he pulled up to the old Victorian in Washington Heights.
He’d been renting a single room since the day Sally kicked him out.
He had to climb a set of rickety stairs to his front door. Inside, the place was nothing but a room with a nook for a kitchen, a cracked ceramic stove he never used, a small icebox holding nothing but Budweiser, and a table with a quart of Jack Daniels sitting full and ready. The smudged window gave a pinched view of the street. He had one overstuffed armchair, upholstered in an old lady’s pattern of red roses, stained with tea but comfortable. In the corner, a queen-size brass bed. The bed he’d bought for him and Sally when he married her. She’d insisted he take it with him. He’d been so proud of that bed.
He sat for a while in his worn armchair, feasting on the barbecue, drinking a beer, telling himself not to think of Sally. He always missed her most when he was alone, hungry and feeling sorry for himself. Also when he was nerved up by a case and itching to play poker. To drink some really good Irish whiskey, to fan out the cards in his hand, while searching the faces of the other players, reading their tells, knowing the pair he was holding would soon be a full house. Man, that rush! Not only of winning. Being on the edge of something big coming his way. Or losing. He’d mostly done all right. He’d squirreled away good money for that move to Vegas.
He’d just had a run of bad luck, that’s all. No reason for Sally to get so crazy, after all he’d done for her. No reason to push him out. Her, pushing him out! After he’d cared for her, for what she wanted, going to Gamblers Anonymous, three meetings full of nothing but suckers and losers with spooky eyes under the church basement’s fluorescent light. At first he’d hoped the program would do something for him, for Sally’s sake. Unfortunately, the set-up was, he had to talk, and there was nothing he could talk about. He couldn’t tell these wrecked people about the real parts of his life, about his job, the killings, the rapes, the brutality, the grind of the system. He felt like an outsider, even though the place was supposed to welcome everyone. He just didn’t fit.
There were two places he fit. One was this chair. The other was Sam’s. He tossed the ends of the wet chewy white bread into the trash. He drained the last swallow of Bud from the can. Sally would be madder than a wet hen, if she knew, but he felt better. Relaxed. His gut had cooled. His hand snatched up his car keys, soon it would be holding aces.
It was only a little after six, early for a place like Sam’s, and the place wasn’t crowded. The carpet was thick, the wood paneling dark, the bar long and polished, with only a few drinkers on barstools. A couple of the poker tables were filled; a few guys sat at the blackjack tables. Cocktail waitresses sashayed between the tables carrying trays of drinks. Sam’s did have some class. Noelle looked around to see if anyone noticed a crusty Cajun cop had just come in. They were all too busy with what they were doing. Anyway, everyone knew cops played here, at the public tables, not the private ones, of course. Everyone knew Sam kept the cops sweet and the city’s rich even sweeter.
Noelle sat down at the bar and ordered a double Irish whiskey. The first swallow shot heat straight down his gut. Poker, that’s what he’d play tonight. What was wrong with that? He hadn’t gambled in two weeks – he was owed. Especially after the last twenty-four hours. Jesus – that body! Anyone judging him could spend a day in his shoes – they’d surely need something to take the edge off too. The second big swallow of whiskey sent heat and something softer into his muscles and his joints, relaxing him even more. After the third, he felt himself slip into his groove, his shoulders loose and easy, his head clear, his hands ready to hold the cards, his eyes bright and sharp. His engine running at just the right speed.
He paid his tab, picked up his whiskey, and sat down at one of the poker tables between a big old cowboy of a player and a fat assed, big-haired woman wearing gigantic brass hoop earrings. He bought twenty bucks worth of chips and anted up a buck for the first hand, starting small. The first round he folded with two sevens and not much else, watching the guy across from him chew a toothpick. Noelle tried to figure out if the way that guy shifted the toothpick from one side to the other was any kind of tell. The second hand he folded with a pair of threes and a pair of nines, noticing the big-haired woman’s flowery perfume got stronger when she liked her cards. He was right: she took the pot with a royal flush.
On the fourth hand, just as he looked at his cards, he saw, out of the corner of his eye, Sam himself leading two men with two girls toward the back room with the private tables. God, he’d love to play there just one night. Imagine the winnings! If he had the stake, in one night he could walk out with a year’s salary. Enough to tell Donnelly and Chief Cullen and Lopez and the rest to shove it, enough to walk away from the killers and the victims. Enough to spend a year doing nothing but fishing, with beer in the ice chest and country music on the transistor radio.
Sam and the men and the women passed closer by. Noelle looked at the girl with the blonde hair and it was like he’d been zapped with electrical current. All of him jolted into sizzling attention. My God! She had the most intense blue eyes, with thick black eyelashes. She was just the right height, and all curves. The way she kept flipping back that long shiny platinum blonde hair! She smiled, and she had an overbite – it made her look a little plain. He liked that. It made her more real.
Noelle recognized the man she was with. George Brunswick. Old enough to be her father. Rich enough to have a young girl like that on his arm, even if he was married, even if he was one big layabout. Everyone knew in town that George was the younger brother of James Brunswick Sr. the man who ruled Houston. James the I, who was James and George’s father, had cut George out of his will and the pots of millions James Sr. had been given and had made himself. James Sr. had felt pity for his brother, giving him a title at Brunswick Oil. George was thrown an office but no job tied to it, although, crafty ole George had married a multimillionaire wife with a homely face and loads of cash. He played with the cash instead of her; he also ran like a fox searching for young ladies to play with. Noelle stared at the other guy with George who was younger than Brunswick but older than the girl he was with. That girl was an even more gorgeous blonde. Noelle would never in a million years have a chance with a girl like that. He felt envy run sharp through his gut. He soothed that with more whiskey.
The dealer looked over the couples and smirked. “You going to watch or you going to play?”
His cards! He looked down at his hand and, shit, he was holding a full house. Maybe that platinum blonde had brought some luck his way. He steadied himself, kept his face empty of any expression. Oh, Lord, let him be a winner tonight! For a special bonus: let him run into that lucky blonde again.