Book Title: THE KILLER COIN
Author: Doc Macomber
Copyright: 2003, 2013
Genre: Detective Murder Mystery
Revised New Edition Release Date Sept 18, 2013
▶ Sample an excerpt from Killer Coin
Embedded in the slender neck of the burned corpse, a gold coin beckons. Its surprising thumbprint peels back the veneer on a morass of intrigue that threatens to destroy military investigator Jack Vu’s sense of order and his career. As his hunt for the murderer unravels, Vu ricochets from the Big Easy to the unlucky waters of the Pacific Northwest. Along the road, he discovers unlikely allies and unexpected enemies. Reinforcements appear in the form of cantankerous swamp rats, bush pilots and more than just a few shots of bourbon. Love, betrayal, honor, and a final sense of justice play out as this case crashes on the rocks. Buckle your seatbelts. This is one wild ride.
Praise for Doc Macomber:
– Editor, The Skin Game
“Doc understands the seamier side of life. His characters are complex, loaded with contradictions and wholly believable.”
– Dan Schilling, Former Special Ops Commander, Co-author, The Battle of Mogadishu
“Hard men, Wild women, and even a Love-sick Alligator … it’s a killer!”
– Retired Marine Capt. W.A. Montgomery
“It’s always enjoyable spending time with Jack Vu.”
– Bill Johnson, Teacher, Screenwriter, Author, A Story is a Promise
“An intriguing read that will hold your attention as investigators come up against dead ends and lies…where people aren’t always what they seem. A fun read and something different by a talented author.”
– Murder and Mayhem
The withering heat of Bourbon Street pressed him deeper into the narrow alley. His composed demeanor belied his frustration and rage. Sweat trickled. His lips parted as searing air burned down his throat. Finally, she arrived and threaded her way through the milling crowd outside the Hotel Montelanne. He leaned forward as she moved toward the entrance, displaying her badge. The world flashed white as his pupils narrowed. An arrow of light from her gold shield had found him. When his vision cleared, she was gone…
* * *
The French Quarter housed many elegant turn-of-the-century hotels like the Montelanne. With its ornate marble lobby, woven lavender, and blue twill it coveted the sweet floral scent of bougainvillea. The gilded walls arched toward a gaggle of chandeliers and sparkling lights. Detective Gates figured the rooms started around three bills and went up from there. Smiling, she remembered an old beau explaining the art of seduction. The better the hotel, the better the sex.
Across the lobby she saw a uniformed officer step into the elevator and hold the door.
“Hello Dorene.” It was Reese from the 83rd. “Where’s the new partner?” His ravaged face needed a shave. The stink of cheap cigars and sweat filled the tiny space. Gates stepped up to the control panel and punched the 14 button, though it was already lit. Her silence echoed during the slow ascent.
The activity centered around the west wing where several firemen were calling it quits. The uniform posted at the victim’s door, folded up his newspaper, and fed Gates the details. His name was Franklin, from the 36th Precinct. A smoke detector had gone off, triggering an automatic evacuation announcement and a full firehouse rollout, standard hotel procedure. But it had been a false alarm. No real flames, just a smoldering corpse. Forensics had been notified.
Gates pulled on a pair of rubber gloves. Where the hell was Hill anyway?
“I hear it’s pretty grizzly in there,” Franklin warned as he swapped places with Reese at the door.
Gates raised her finger to her lips. “Shhh. Don’t spoil it for me, Franklin.”
Gates tried the wall switch. Nothing. Apparently the fire department had killed power to the main breaker. She switched on her flashlight and shined the beam along the plaster wall. No electrical panel. Moving toward the tunnel of yellow light, she stepped into the foyer and froze as the curl of pungent smoke hit her.
“What’s cookin’?” The voice from behind startled her.
Gates glared over her shoulder at her partner, Bruce Hill. His shirt stained with sweat, he was out of breath and panting like an excited Pekingese. Only a rookie would take the stairs, thought Gates.
“See if you can find the breaker box.” She instructed. Hill patted down the walls. Gates was no epicurean, but she knew the odor wasn’t right. And what was that sound? The hiss was low, indecipherable and insistent. “You hear that?”
Hill’s hand found the box. The lights switched on. “Holy Jesus!”
She lie naked except for what remained of a melted negligee coiled like a snake around her mid-section. The hot iron had sizzled through tissue and bone, leaking a darkening pool of fluid onto the smoking carpet. So that was the strange crackling sound – like droning cicadas.
Gates snapped out of it. “Unplug it.” She pointed to the cord. She took out a handkerchief, covered her nose and mouth, and stepped back from the rancid smoke her eyes watering.
Hill yanked the cord from the wall.
A clouded blue eye stared out accusingly from the twisted face. The smoke and stench of burnt tissue hung like death’s cruel veil, concealing the image of the iron still branding its deep imprint into the fleshy part of the woman’s abdomen. Gates swallowed hard.
Hill gagged, and jerked a window open, allowing a fresh breeze to blow in. “I think I’m gonna puke,” Hill moaned.
“Not on my crime scene.” What a way to break Hill’s homicide cherry. Gates smiled, remembering her first homicide. She’d barfed down her own sleeve.
“Check the other rooms. See if you can find some ID.” Gates instructed.
How many crime scenes had she attended since? Each death was unique, but similar in effect. It incised a piece of her soul. Moving to the open window, Gates drew in a lungful of tepid air. Distant lights from the Spanish Plaza winked through the smoggy night – a rare glimmer of hope that someday her life might change.
Gates dug out her notepad and began the slow calculated inventory of the room’s personal effects. With the exception of the overturned ironing board, and a nearby glass lying on its side next to a small wet stain, the room looked intact. No obvious signs of a struggle.
Gates figured the woman had been facing the ironing board when the accident occurred. She fell backwards, pulling the hot iron with her. The body showed no obvious cuts, scratches, bite marks, abrasions, or bruising; evidence often associated with rape cases. She stooped over and smelled the damp stain beside the overturned glass. Scotch. Single malt, and expensive.
Gates slid a gloved finger beneath the melted slip, searching for possible traces of semen.
Hill walked up packing an eel-skin wallet. He glanced down at the woman’s raw, contorted face and then diverted his gaze, examining the picture on the airline’s identification card.
“She wasn’t bad looking.” Hill commented.
Gates guessed the victim was in her late twenties, maybe earlier thirties. It was difficult to get a feel of how the woman looked under normal circumstances. Now, most of the tissue had been damaged, pulled taut under the intense heat like latex under a heat lamp. Gates noted the nails, manicured and painted by skilled hands. The skin around the nails and toenails had lost its pinkish color; common during the early stages of rigor mortis.
Gates picked up the victim’s right hand.
“Shouldn’t we wait for forensics?” Hill asked.
Gates ignored the comment and inspected beneath the nails, looking for any trace evidence. Through rubber gloves, Gates traced the victim’s hand contours, as if the hand was Gates’ window into the deceased’s soul – a subjective history carved in skin. That had once been just a lot of metaphysical horseshit, but that was before logging ten years in Homicide in the Voodoo Queen’s city.
Hill, busying himself in the closet, broke the silence. He pulled out a freshly pressed airline’s uniform.
“My bet, she was getting ready for work,” gesturing as he went along. “She irons her uniform and hangs it back up. Goes over to the ironing board. Maybe picks up her drink, takes a sip or two, sets the glass down and feels light-headed. Maybe she passes out and strikes her head on the floor. The iron goes with her, topples over onto her. She’s either unconscious or too out of it to know what’s happened. I had an uncle once that had low blood sugar. When he drank alcohol he’d pass out colder than a cucumber.”
Hill returned the uniform to the closet. “You don’t buy it, do you?” Hill paused. “Maybe she had a heart attack? Or maybe someone knocked her over, made it look like she fell? Or, maybe someone else ironed her uniform so we’d think she did it?” Gates ignored the fact Hill was inexperienced and quick to form opinions. She needed quiet. She knew the evidence was in front of her.
“She doesn’t fit the profile of a cardiac arrest.” Gates reasoned. “It’s possible she fainted … or had a mild seizure. I don’t see any evidence of an overdose. You brought up a good point though. Maybe she’s diabetic. Check for a medical tag.”
Gates leaned toward the victim, ignoring the overpowering odor. Something shiny and gold glistened on her neck. “I see something.”
She lifted the victim’s hair back from her neck. A tiny metallic face beckoned. Pulling a pair of well-worn tweezers from her personal tool kit, she attempted to lift the metal from the neck, but it held fast.
“There’s marked indentations in the skin,” Gates noted, staring down at where the skin had folded around the coin like an orchid enclosing on a dew drop. Maybe the heat from the iron … she risked damaging crucial evidence if she continued. Then she noticed a smudge – a possible fingerprint on the patina of the coin.
Gates put her tweezers away. “I don’t think she fainted.” Gates added. “See beneath the ligature, where the chain goes around the neck? There’s bruising and discoloration. Let’s look at the eyes. Pull back the lids.” Hill hesitated, all thumbs, like a reluctant schoolboy conducting his first dissection. Losing patience, Gates pushed him aside. She pulled back the left eyelid. “See the small spotty hemorrhages? It’s presumptive evidence of death by asphyxia. This was no accident.”
Andrews Air Force Base is located in Maryland about ten miles southeast of Washington, D.C. The 4300 acre installation first opened during WWII. During its 60 years it had grown like many small towns across America to include two eighteen-hole golf courses, a skeet range, a twenty-four lane bowling alley, tennis courts and three outdoor swimming pools. It’s the home of Air Force One. It is also where 27,000 active-duty personnel and their families live and work. And like many closed communities, it has its rules and secrets.
Special Investigator, Staff Sergeant Jack Vu, rode his canary yellow, PX 200E Vespa, past the 33rd Field Investigations Squadron Building, Headquarters AFOSI, and figured he’d take the shortcut along a dirt trail that lead directly to the fairway. The path was wide enough for his motorbike and an occasional wary squirrel. He’d spent his youth weaving in and out of the chaotic traffic in Saigon on a bike just like this.
The brilliant blue sky stung his eyes and his close-cropped dark hair caught the warm autumn air. A few fat robins chirped in the treetops lining the trail. Even now, twenty years later, he had the urge to hunker down in the grass and aim his slingshot at the wild birds.
For all the negatives of reporting to work on a Saturday, in some sick recess of Vu’s brain, he was very curious. Why had he been picked for this assignment? Was it his Vietnamese background? His linguistic skills? Or something else?
As he neared the fairway, pockets of dust kicked up under his chrome wheels and he shuddered at the thought at having to clean the bike again.
He’d started off the morning bright and early giving the scooter a good washing, even though it didn’t need it. He’d entertained the notion of washing the neighbor’s Australian Sheepdog. The dog was starting to emit a pungent odor which aggravated his allergies. Some of his countrymen would have simply put the dog on a spit.
Vu parked his scooter alongside the fairway and pulled out a small pair of binoculars. His slight five foot three stature belied his agility and strength. He had common Vietnamese features: broad cheekbones, large fleshy lips, dark eyes. With the exception of his ears, which stuck out from his small head like little flapjacks, Vu looked like any other Asian man.
A few minutes later, looming over the hill from the second hole and kicking up a pollen cloud the size of a hot air balloon, careened a golf cart. Branch Chief Wheylicke sat behind the wheel, wearing a neon knit shirt and yellow pants. A sun visor squeezed his stubby gray flattop. Beside him sat a fit, slender man, wearing an embroidered cotton shirt, plaid golfer’s pants, and cleated shoes. Vu barely recognized the Branch Chief out of uniform, or his companion, the former Commander of the 52nd Field Investigation Squadron.
Vu suppressed his surprise in seeing his old mentor and wondered what he was doing in Maryland.
“Hello, sirs.” Vu snapped to attention as the two men climbed out of the cart and gathered their clubs. Though both his superiors were out of uniform, Vu nevertheless saluted.
“Hello, Vu,” his former commanding officer said, dropping the formality. “How goes the battle?”
“Adequately, sir.” The colonel stared at Vu’s Italian cycle.
“All one-hundred sixteen kilos, sir.”
“I’m a Harley nut, myself.” He said and faced the Major. “You ride, Major?”
The Branch Chief scratched himself. “Never owned one.”
“Well, I can’t say I’d buy the new V-Rod. Little wild for my taste. Looks like a mock version of Boeing’s X-plane.”
Vu looked at the two men. Sweat rolled off the Branch Chief’s brow as flies buzzed overhead. Vu removed his leather jacket.
Turning toward Morgan, Vu extended his hand. “What brings you to Maryland, Colonel?”
Morgan boasted a million dollar smile that could win over a constipated judge at the Westminster Kennel Club.
“I’ve been transferred to Maxwell War College, so I stopped by for a friendly game of golf.”
It was the old cat and mouse game. Give nothing away. Take what you can. Vu was adept at the game – so was the Colonel.
“Come by the campus and pay a visit sometime.”
“I will, sir.”
“Now gentlemen, I do believe I hear the beckoning call of the third hole.”
As the Colonel snatched his favorite driver, he discreetly nodded to Vu. Something passed between the men to which Branch Chief Wheylicke hadn’t been privy. The Branch Chief, absorbed in deciding which iron to select for his next shot, dropped his clubs back into his bag and approached Vu. There was business to discuss. And Vu assumed his former commander knew about it. Morgan was giving Wheylicke the professional courtesy to inform his soldier in private.
Vu sensed Wheylicke disliked him on sight. Many men of Wheylicke’s age had developed an inbred distrust of the Vietnamese after the Vietnam war. It was well disguised at times, but always lurked beneath the surface. A lion’s jaw waiting to snap shut. Vu knew the ideology traveled in both directions.
“I’ll cut to the chase, sergeant. You ever hear of a Special Ops man named Lyman?”
“Staff Sergeant Jim D. Lyman?” Branch Chief echoed.
Everybody had heard a version of the story: Two years ago, a secret Special Ops team was dropped inside Beirut – a classified mission kept from the American public. The whole thing turned to shit. In the heat of the conflict, one man got left behind. Jim Lyman. Vu knew the story had been a cover. But this early in the game he wasn’t letting on.
“He’s MIA, sir.” Vu replied.
“For twenty-four months. He’s also a former kick-ass Navy Seal who transferred to the 42nd Air Force Special Ops squadron, earned a Distinguished Cross, and was twice recommended for a silver star. He’s not a man to mess with.”
“Has Lyman’s status changed, sir?”
“In a manner of speaking, sergeant.”
“It’s mere speculation at this juncture. But the man may have reappeared in the U.S.”
“Speculation, sergeant. AWOL or not, it’s all fuckin’ speculation.”
It was the spy game again. “Okay, sir,” Vu said, “I will just speculate.”
Branch Chief glanced over his shoulder. Vu assumed he didn’t want others hearing what was coming next. “Yesterday, I received a call from the New Orleans Police Department. A Detective Gates informed me a print matching that of Sergeant Lyman was discovered by their forensics unit at a crime scene.”
“A thumb print, sir? No other prints?”
“Not a one, according to the detective.”
“Unusual. What was the nature of the crime?”
“Did Lyman kill the victim with his thumb?”
“No, sergeant. His print was found on a coin.”
Vu scratched his head. He killed someone with a coin?
“Sergeant, I want you on the next available flight to New Orleans. We’ve got to nip this thing in the bud before the press gets wind of it.”
Vu pulled a small clear bottle containing green tablets from his pocket. A Chinese herb mixture. He popped a few into his mouth and closed the bottle.
Branch Chief studied him. “When you get back, you should get that checked out.”
“Yes, sir. Anything else, sir?”
“See Detective Gates with the City of New Orleans Police Department, Homicide Division ASAP. It’s all in the file.”
“Do I relay my findings to the Judge Advocate’s Office or to you?”
“To me, sergeant. Everything runs through me.” The Branch Chief looked Vu hard in the eye. Vu bowed his head.
“The Colonel recommended you for this assignment. He indicated that you’re our kind of man. That you know how to be discreet no matter what information you might discover.”
Vu paled as the connections lined up in his mind.
“I will do my best, sir.” Vu paused and cleared his throat. “Sir, I apologize in advance if I’m about to be impertinent. Why would Sergeant Lyman – a decorated war hero – fail to report to his old command?”
“His health could have deteriorated. He’s been MIA for quite a while. It may have affected his mental faculties. At any rate, I’m not convinced they’ve found his thumb print. Mix ups have occurred. God knows, the government has made its share of blunders.”
“Sergeant, at this point, we know dick. This entire affair could easily blow up in our face and be an embarrassment to the military. Don’t let that happen. Do we understand each other?”
Vu’s stomach growled.
The door to Betas’ office was open. Vu entered and observed the Major’s chair had not been moved since the janitor had mopped the floor the previous evening. Across the room, a half-pot of coffee smoldered on a tarnished hotplate. The room reeked of something sweet. Perfume?
Vu’s sneeze rocketed droplets into the air. As he pulled out a handkerchief and blew his nose, he heard it – a barely audible grunting coming from an adjoining office.
“Julie!” He called out. “It’s Jack.” The noise stopped. Vu waited, listened, and then heard a cry.
Vu hurried into the next room. Airman Julie Betas, aka “War Dog”, the Branch Chief’s personal assistant, was down on all fours doing pushups. Beads of sweat glistened on her bushy brunette eyebrows.
Struggling to pump out one last rep, she growled aloud before dropping to the floor. She rolled onto her back panting, and lifted her flushed face. “Hello, Jack.” She uttered between breaths. Her eyes were as big as sand-dollars. “I finally did it.”
Vu helped the young recruit to her feet.
“What?” He asked.
“I’m scheduled for my annual fitness evaluation next week.”
“Has the Aikido helped?”
“Very much. You were right. I should’ve started years ago.”
“Take it easy. Passing the yearly fitness test is one thing, mastering the art of Aikido is another.
Betas eyes lit up. “Let me show you something…”
Betas moved to the center of the room. “C’mere.” She motioned for Vu to join her. Vu watched Betas drop down into a low martial arts stance, plant her feet, and raise her fists like an amateur boxer. Betas looked a bit awkward, Vu thought. But she had the basics down. What she lacked in technique she made up for in enthusiasm.
“C’mon!” Betas goaded him, her eyes eager and alert. “Come at me!”
Vu sighed. “As you wish.” Effortlessly, Vu, like a sullen Cobra with deadly intentions, slid forward, penetrated Betas’ guard, and slapped her kidney with his open palm. Nonetheless, Betas stood her ground.
She parried – locking Vu’s arm with a clumsy Judo-like maneuver, thrusting her knotty hip out, and flipping him in the air. Vu landed on the floor, stunned. His eyes rolled back in his head.
Betas leaned down. “Are you okay, Jack?”
A stupid grin appeared.
“Your style lacks grace but it is effective.” He beamed.
Betas proudly puffed out her chest. “You’ve created a monster, Jack.” Julie reached toward Vu. “Let’s go again…”
Vu shook his head. “I’m here for my orders, not an ass whipping.”
“I’m in my moment of glory and you wanna talk business?”
“I’m afraid so.”
Betas looked disappointed. She helped Vu to his fee, reached down and brushed his pants. Vu playfully stepped out of her reach. “Ouch!”
Betas danced across the room, removed a manila envelope from her desk, and tossed it toward him. Vu caught the package before it struck the floor.
“Nice delivery.” Vu said.
Betas grinned. “Hey what’s your hit on our new CO?”
Vu shrugged and examined his orders. He knew he was dodging the subject, but Betas was fishing. He didn’t mind, really. Vu looked upon her with the affection of a sister. But he never participated in company gossip.
Betas feigned disappointment. “You’re flight leaves tonight at eighteen-thirty-five. You’re booked direct to New Orleans. Window seat, near the restroom, as you prefer. I didn’t book a return. The commander thinks you’ll be gone at least a week, maybe more…”
“More than a week?” Vu asked.
“If you’re going to request preliminaries on Lyman, it’s already done. The Major requested a complete dossier from DIS and MAJCOM. I’ve included these documents with your orders. You’ll find the information attached to your travel voucher. Try not to lose your receipts this time, please.”
“You’re efficient, as well as deadly.” Vu teased.
“And you’re full of crap.”
Vu bowed his head in a mock show of respect. “It is my duty.”
“You’ll like New Orleans.” Betas smirked. “It’ll remind you of home. It’s crowded like Saigon, humid as hell, and the streets smell like rotting Kim Chee.”
“There’s no place like home.” Vu agreed.
Betas stretched out her back. “Vu, remind me again. Why do I like you?”
“Because I’m humble. Or, perhaps it’s that I allow you to water my bamboo while I’m away?”
“Shit!” Betas exclaimed. “I gotta go into that jungle you call an apartment?”
“I could provide transportation.” Vu casually pointed toward the window. Beyond the clean glass, parked in the lot behind the building, stood Vu’s shiny new scooter.
“Deal. Bike for bamboo.” Betas chuckled. “Oh, I spoke with a Detective Gates in New Orleans. She’s expecting you, but she doesn’t sound too thrilled about it. She was either having a really bad day. Or she’s a royal bitch.”
“You’re filling me with such anticipation.”
“How often do I water your weeds?”
“Two gallons per plant, every other day. The palms will be fine for a week. If I’m not back…”
Betas interrupted. “You have palms now? Where the hell do you sleep?”
“In the arms of Buddha.”
“Right, Jack.” Betas held out her hand. “Keys?”
Absently, he dropped them on her desk. His mind was already moving back in time to another war and the soldier left behind.
Killer Coin, book review – featured here for a short time – go to : Murder and Mayhem Bookclub
The Killer Coin – UNABRIDGED on 5 CD set
Produced and recorded By Maine Streaming Media. Maine Streaming Media Narrators: Jerry Lyden and Giz Coughlin, and Elizabeth O’Hara