Book Title: SNIP
Author: Doc Macomber
Genre: Detective Murder Mystery
Release date Oct. 31, 2008
The snagged female corpse wasn’t the only life washed ashore that year. Hurricane Katrina had inflicted merciless destruction across the South and Air Force Special Investigator, Jack Vu, finds himself among thousands displaced by the storm. Forced to live in a barracks, Jack anticipates the solitude of a Louisville hotel room while investigating the apparent suicide. After another grisly discovery, Vu encounters unlikely partners in two Big Easy cops, one of whom is jailed for murder. In a city quick to convict, the implications of a delicate snip could spell disaster.
From a Mississippi riverbank, to historic Churchill Downs, Jack must tread carefully through tainted jockeys, bantering musicians, and even a quirky Elvis impersonator. When it comes to the Kentucky Derby, social classes collide, proud residents protect their own, and some secrets are best taken to the grave.
“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
A cool drizzle trailed down Willy’s leathered neck as he settled back and waited for the sky to clear. From shore, he could barely make out faint tug-like sounds motoring on the Ohio. Leon told him the old boat appeared to be barging wheat containers upriver. Sure enough, he finally heard the unmistakable bark of the tug’s engine as it muscled around the turn at the forks, a landmark he could no longer see.
As the wind shifted, Willy inhaled an oily diesel stench and the pungent odor of rotting garbage collecting along the riverbank. He shook his head.
“Twenty years ago this river smelled like fine perfume. Now all the sweetness is plum gone.”
Leon swung round on his folding chair, grinning at his malcontented friend. “That’s ‘cause you’re sittin’ over your damn creel. Dead carp smells a might better.”
Willy wiped his nose and shifted the wicker tackle box under his skinny buttocks.
“You think my lures stink?”
“Think it’s the whiskey?” Willy teasingly patted his tackle box.
Leon pawed around in his front pocket, pulled out a container of chewing tobacco and removed the tin lid.
“I could use a stiff drink. But, I ain’t reachin’ between your bony legs for it.”
“Not until the fish bite.” Willy shifted in his folding chair yet couldn’t get comfortable. “Them’s the rules.”
“I should’ve had Fay spike the coffee.”
Leon packed his wet gums, returned the can to his pocket, and gazed out at the winding river.
Willy figured his friend would give in and ask again. But to his surprise, he didn’t. Instead, there was only the soft sound of slapping gums and the quiet comfort in knowing Leon had to wait.
“Gotta stretch my legs!”
Willy carefully patted the ground until he found the handle of his white cane. He picked it up off the dirt, unfolded it, and slowly stood. He meandered a few yards along the riverbank, tapping the red tip along the mud, deciphering subtle nuances, and checking the ground for debris. When he heard his creel creak open, he stopped suddenly, flashing a pair of nicotine-stained teeth at his friend.
“If you’re fishing for the bottle, I’ve got it!” He heard the creel shut.
Now satisfied, Willy took his time circling back. When he returned, he folded his cane, tucked it between his legs, and felt around for his fiberglass fishing rod. He found it stuck in a pocket of mud; a hole he’d made for himself. He ran his hand up the Mitchell reel until an index finger discovered the taut monofilament.
“Willy,” Leon eyed the whiskey flask sticking out of his friend’s shirt pocket, “what’s eatin’ you?”
“Nothin’ worth discussin’.”
“I know better. You’ve been pissin’ and moanin’ all mornin’. They cut off your disability again?”
“That’s not what Fay said.”
“Fay don’t know jack.”
How could Willy explain the weight of a lifetime of missed opportunities? He sank into this “what if” depression, each time sucking him further into the muck, the rescue line always hovering just at the tips of his frantic fingers. Today the “what if” was his sight. Yesterday it was his flaccid cock, as useless now as a hunk of thick rope. Would vision and a hard-on really have changed the course of his life, as meandering and unpredictable as the river snaking by? Doubtful…
During breakfast somebody other than Leon had noticed his foul mood as well. Fay, the young waitress who slid Willy his plate of biscuits and gravy across the counter, had suspected something immediately.
“You’re wearing one sour-ass face this morning,” she said. “What’s up? Little Oscar depressed?”
“None of your business, Fay. And my pecker’s fine thank you. Go fill our thermos with some of that chicory ‘cause we’re in a hurry. And this time don’t scrimp on no sugar.”
Leon butted in. “Willy ain’t hisself today.”
“Shut up, Leon!”
Sure enough, Fay had felt pity for him, because on the way out he’d been able to cop a feel of her fine ass. The last attempt, she’d nearly broken his finger. A blind man wearing a splint on his pussy finger don’t look so good. People talk…
Willy sulked. It hadn’t helped that some asshole had knocked down his markers along the trail. The sticks were how he counted steps to the water’s edge. That was just plain spiteful.
A heavy vibration against Willy’s foot snapped him out of his funk. Leon jumped up, staring at the bending tip of his friend’s fishing pole and reached for it. Willy whirled around like a frisky rat and rapped Leon’s fingers with the blunt end of his cane.
“Hands off!” Willy jerked hard and set the hook.
“Well – what’ya waitin’ for? Reel it in!”
Leon rubbed his reddened fingers as he jittered along the riverbank like an electrified eel, gawking at the arc in Willy’s rod.
Shimmering water droplets flew off the line as it circled precariously around a rock, threatening to saw it in two.
“I’m tryin’ damnit! Grab hold a me!”
Leon slipped behind his friend, wrapping his arms around Willy’s skeletal waist while veins poked out along his forearms as he struggled to hold on. Blood raced to his legs in urgency as both anglers dug in their heels and labored to pull the obstinate fish ashore. For ten exhausting minutes they reeled and kept a steady pressure on it.
“Mother Jesus! It’s a fat fucker!”
The two hauled and heaved until their dinner finally hit the shore.
“Well – go see what I hooked.”
Leon blankly stared. A gnarled snag had lodged itself against the riverbank.
“You hooked a whopper all right.”
“Hot damn!” Willy squealed.
“First a drink.” Leon snatched the flask from Willy’s pocket – one quick swig before exposing the awful truth.
“Hey…” Willy swatted at Leon as he took a long pull of the amber liquid.
“Have a nip yourself while I haul in your trophy,” Leon said, finally surrendering the whiskey.
Willy’s line was wrapped tightly around the far branches of the slimy log. Leon grabbed hold and grunted laboriously as he tugged it ashore. The log was hung up. Leon dug his feet in and groaned hard as it finally surrendered and climbed the waterline. For a brief moment it seemed quiet enough to hear a tadpole fart.
An odd something, about the size and color of a dolphin, broke the surface and lodged against the slimy bark. But, it was no fish. Leon crept down for a closer look.
Willy grew impatient. “Well! What is it?”
A woman’s head floated on the surface, the current tangling her long hair round a branch, while her lifeless torso bobbed against the shore.
Leon turned ashen. He couldn’t swallow. Scuttling back up the riverbank, shaking his head, he grabbed the flask from Willy’s hand, twisted the top off and guzzled. Tired of waiting, Willy tottered a few steps closer to the waterline, but stopped shy, and turned back.
Leon flopped down on the muddy bank. “Willy – you done caught you a white girl.”
“What do you mean caught me a white girl?”
Hand-over-hand, Willy clumsily followed his fishing line down the bank toward the water, until his left hand encountered the log. He pawed along the wet bark until his other hand entangled a fistful of hair.
The body continued its gentle slosh against the riverbank. Most of the torso was now out of the water face up in the mud. Brunette hair floated on the surface like strands of a jellyfish. At most, the body had only been in the water overnight. The icy temperatures of the Ohio thwarted decay.
Leon watched from a distance, his body quivering.
“Leon, describe her to me.”
“Willy – I don’t know. She’s all slimy, covered in river rot. And, she’s got on some kind of uniform.”
“Leon! Get your scrawny ass down here. What the hell you mean – a uniform? Like a waitress or something?”
The slight swell of the river, forcing the corpse from its murky depths, gave the lump of bones a mysterious life-like quality all its own. Leon tried to be strong as he cautiously rejoined his friend.
“No. Looks like some kind of military uniform.”
Spittle ran down Leon’s chin. He swiped it off and watched Willy gently caress the poor girl’s face.
“Leave her be,” Leon whispered. Leon had no fascination with the dead. Willy, however, was a creature of sensation and wanted to feel every square inch of the corpse. Afterall, it wasn’t everyday an old black man garnered from the river opportunity to run his hands over a white girl.
Leon stood back as his friend’s fingers traced the girl’s face, plucked a blade of river grass from her mouth, and tossed it aside. Then, Willy slowly worked his way down the body. He particularly liked the buttons on her suit and the ribbons on her breast pocket. It certainly was a military uniform. His hand slid down her ankle and discovered she was missing her right shoe. She had on nylons, but the little toe had torn through the sheer material.
“She wearing nail polish?”
“What difference does it make?”
“Is it red?”
Disgusted, Leon walked over and quickly examined the girl’s foot. “It’s more pink than red.”
“What color is the uniform?”
“Air Force then,” Willy said.
“We gotta call the cops.”
“Look, if we call the cops they’re gonna ask us plenty of questions. Couple niggers like us? They’ll probably throw us in jail for killing this white girl. Even if they don’t, they’ll sure’s hell find out about your unpaid tickets and yank your license. Then I’d have to take the bus everywhere. Can’t do that no more.”
“We gotta do something. We can’t just leave her out here.”
“You could push her back in and let nature sorta … take its course.”
“I ain’t touchin’ her!”
“You prepared to pay them tickets?”
Leon scratched his head and stubbed the toe of his boot in the dirt. “Guess not.”
Willy washed his hands in the river and then stood up straight. “OK, then. I’ll say a prayer for her and you push her back in.”
“Willy – I swear I’ll leave your nigger ass here. You walk away from that poor girl this instant.”
Leon found Willy’s lure, cut it loose, pocketed it, and trudged over to collect his fishing gear.
Willy, detecting the fear in Leon’s voice, knew he was finished. So, he silently prayed for the girl as he moved to gather his own tackle. Leon slipped the cooler over his shoulder, handed Willy the folding chairs, then took his friend by the arm and led him up the trail.
As Willy walked through the tall grass, he reckoned he now had as good a reason as any for his solemn mood. Their favorite fishing hole would never be the same.
As Jack Vu reflected on the wreckage of the Arctic Wing no longer moored in New Orleans harbor, he pondered the role boats had played in his life. They had previously been harbingers of significant change. As a Vietnamese teenager, a fishing boat had carried him to safety on his escape from the Killing Fields of Cambodia. Now, it was unclear where Katrina’s winds had blown him with respect to yet another vessel.
Vu parked his yellow Vespa at MaCuddy’s Boat Works and entered through the front gate where he was boldly confronted by the barking drool of two Dobermans chained to a post near the main office. The dogs strained against their collars as he finessed past and climbed the rickety steps to the front door. The office was a dented, single-wide trailer with boarded windows and rainbow colored rust stains trickling down the aluminum siding. Vu knocked, waited, and knocked again, but no one answered. All he heard were the distant sounds of hammering and grinding thundering from the boat yard.
Leaving the office, he followed a dirt path which led through a hundred or more boats in various stages of disrepair. Yachts and sailboats stood perched on stilts back to back. Many had caved hulls, broken masts, hunks of missing fiberglass, and pretzel twisted outboards. Running gears stuck out of cockpit centers, cables were sheared off, ports shattered, and everywhere rigging wound like knitting balls in heaps. The yard resembled a war zone, a familiar visage for Vu. He searched for his own boat, the Arctic Wing, and feared the worst. If only he’d stayed aboard during Katrina, perhaps the damage could have been prevented.
He found her along the northern portion of the yard. The ninety-five-foot motorsailer built of wood and metal in the late sixties rose defiantly above the other hulks. Her large wooden hull was elevated by a battery of stilts, which exposed three gaping cannonball-sized holes. Her main mast was broken near midpoint and hung askew by its rigging. When Vu first found the Arctic Wing after the storm, the 22’ foot Ziggy Bee jutted out near midship. The Bee’s fiberglass bow had pierced the Wing’s wooden deck during the storm. Fortunately, that area of the boat previously stored underwater marine radar equipment which had recently been sold off. The equipment had once been used to document seafloor conditions as part of a small government research project whose funding eventually dried up.
Although the Ziggy Bee had been removed from the Arctic Wing before transport, none of the dried river mud, branches, or garbage now filling her deck had. The living quarters below deck were even more deplorable.
Vu knew the boat was a wreck. Yet, for a resourceful guy used to living in sparse wartime conditions, he thought he could save her. If the owner of the salvage yard would allow it, he hoped to clean the interior and move back aboard. He missed the warm cradle of the teak, the squeak of the wood, the clanging of the halyards. He treasured the intimate cocoon that held his heart and in which he and Betty had found a life worth living together. The Arctic Wing’s survival felt akin to physical validation of their unlikely pairing.
From behind Vu, footsteps crunched across the gravel. He turned. An exhausted man with a shaggy beard and greasy overalls approached, clutching a hammer.
“Tough to look at, ain’t it?”
Vu nodded. “Have you been able to work up a repair estimate on her?”
“She’s rebuildable alright, but it’s going to cost you a pretty penny.”
“I was afraid of that.”
The scraggly man stuck out his hand. “Name’s MaCuddy. I remember you. Been so many wrecks brought in over the last few months, can’t keep the owners’ names straight. We haven’t seen this sort of business since Hurricane Camille in ‘69.”
“I’m Jack Vu.”
“That’s right. You’re the military guy.”
“Air Force, stationed at the Joint Naval Base.”
“How’s life in the barracks?”
“I miss my boat.”
“Bet you do. She’s a spacious one. A little unsightly down below, but nothing a few days of elbow grease can’t fix.” MaCuddy turned and studied the boat as if trying to remember the work she needed.
“She’s in need of major hull reconstruction and deck work. Some of her electrical is in pretty bad shape. The mast needs replaced, as will her main sail. She’s not water tight topside. You’ve got that crater in her aft cabin, but she’ll survive. Can’t say that for most of the boats in this yard. The New Orleans Marina faired the best of the three, probably because it was surrounded by Municipal Harbor and all those high-rise condominiums. One marina suffered near 80 percent losses. You’re lucky, considering…”
Vu noticed fresh stitches on MaCuddy’s forearm and that the black hair had not yet regrown. MaCuddy looked stout and powerful, the type of old tar not to piss off. He walked up to the Arctic Wing, tapped on her hull with his hammer, jotted on a clipboard, and then looked back at Vu.
“No dry rot. That’s good. We’ll need a check from the insurance company or cash before we begin.”
“When will you have a total figure for me?”
“In about ten seconds.” MaCuddy flipped through his clipboard and located the document. His bushy eyebrows crunched as he finished his mental calculations. “Give or take a few hundred, I figure we can get her back in the water for thirteen-five, depending on whether we can locate hull material that’ll match the existing planking and that I can have a new mast carved. You want a wooden mast, don’t you?”
Vu didn’t have insurance or thirteen-thousand five-hundred dollars, neither did Hyun-Ok, who actually owned the boat but lived in Tokyo. Vu had been living aboard cheaply while Hyun-Ok decided if she wanted to convert it into a floating hotel. Her insurance agent had recently informed Vu that their company would not be liable for damages. He’d received an e-mail earlier in the week from the owner saying she was done dropping money into a hole in the water. He was on his own. The title was his. She’d send it over. Vu had some serious decisions to make.
“There’s no insurance coverage. I have about six-thousand in savings. Would you consider payments?”
“No.” MaCuddy lowered his clipboard and looked Jack in the eye. “Cash up front only. Been our policy for forty-six years.”
While Vu’s mind mulled limited financial options, two men emerged from one of the wreckages behind MaCuddy’s back carrying an outboard motor. Vu’s acuity immediately deemed the men out of place. They kept their heads down and skulked in the shadows as scavengers, not employees. Vu recognized their furtive movements because he too had stolen as a child, if only to survive.
“Turn around. Do you recognize those men?”
MaCuddy glanced over his shoulder. “Hell, I’ve got so many people running around this place, I can’t tell one from the other.” He stared at the men and then shouted, “Hey, you two!”
The men ignored him, but walked faster.
MaCuddy dropped his clipboard on the ground. “Hey! Stop!”
The men took off running and Vu gave chase. He almost caught up to them near the main entrance. But, they saw Vu, dropped the motor, and made a last dash out the gate toward an old pickup parked on the side of the road. Vu copied the license number on a small notepad just as they sped off.
MaCuddy trotted up, winded and limping, his face twisted in rage. His jaw twitched as he angrily jerked up one fallen strap on his overalls.
“Shit, they got away. They’ll just come back. The bastards.” He rubbed his fresh scar and looked disgusted.
“Is that souvenir from a recent run in?”
“That’s why I got them dogs. Can’t defend myself like I used to.”
“I take it this is a regular occurrence around here?”
“Getting worse every day.”
“Those two are probably part of a larger crew. I might be able to help.”
After a few deep breaths, MaCuddy regained his senses. Vu pocketed his notepad.
“What is it you do for the Air Force again?”
“I’m an investigator.”
“You mean like a cop?”
“More or less.”
“You carry a gun?”
“Then you should have shot them bastards.”
Vu remained silent. MaCuddy wiped a sleeve across his sweaty brow. “Well, whatever you are, you just saved me six hundred bucks and plenty of explaining to another customer. I’m obliged. In fact, I’ll even take that off the amount you owe me.”
Vu got an idea. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll agree to watch this place in the evenings if you’ll allow me to move aboard and keep an eye on things in exchange for a reduction on repairs.”
MaCuddy stared intently at him. “You want to live here?”
“Yes. I need a bit of privacy to spend some quality time with my woman.”
“What about her place?”
Vu flinched at the memory of kissing Betty goodbye in her childhood bedroom filled with music posters and high school science awards. Closing her door quietly and walking down the hall he’d encountered her father. And, as they nodded to each other in passing, the racial disapproval was alarmingly evident in her father’s eyes.
“Lost it in Katrina. She’s living with her parents.’’
MaCuddy thought it over. “You afraid of dogs?”
“Are you a saucehead?”
“An occasional beer or sake.”
“Sake? What in God’s name is that?”
“What about your gal?”
“She works for the police. Having her around at night means the cops would be close by.”
MaCuddy scratched his head. “How much discount we talking about?”
“I’ll give you six-thousand dollars down payment and you let me do some work of my own to bring down the remaining balance.”
MaCuddy gave it some more thought. “Fine. You can move in tomorrow.”
The men shook hands. As they walked back toward the office, Vu knew Katrina’s winds had blown him through MaCuddy’s shipyard gates for a reason. How would this new arrangement turn out? He paused.
“One other thing. I need to borrow your dogs.”
The historic twin spires of Churchill Downs glistened in the late afternoon sun. Along the infield, dust started to settle. The ninth race was about to begin. The next round of horses trotted onto the track. While the horses paraded by the crowded grandstand, a few spectators scribbled hasty notes into their Daily Racing Forms and dashed off toward the betting windows.
Out on the track, veteran jockey Patti Knot – known among racing circles as “Goldilocks” – pulled up to the gate early, sensing her young mount might give her some trouble. She firmly held the reins and coaxed the skittish chestnut colt into the chute as the gate locked behind. Patti quickly removed a gold coin from her silk pocket and kissed it for luck.
Laughter broke out.
The male jockey from the adjacent chute flashed his pearly whites. “Well, if it isn’t Goldilocks,” he said. “I thought you retired.”
Patti’s eyes darkened. A seasoned professional with nearly twenty years on the pro circuit, her career had recently plummeted. Getting rides at her age was becoming increasingly difficult, but retirement was not an option. She needed more money to assemble her dream. A win today would move her one step closer. Meanwhile, the career of her tormentor, Brad Black, had skyrocketed. Thirty-one wins this season, but who was counting?
Patti focused on her mount. Blazing Saddle was a spirited two-year-old. She didn’t need him coming unglued out of the gate. From past experiences she knew he was notorious for breaking right out of the chute. A collision with another horse could be disastrous.
The starter checked the gate. All jockeys signaled to ready. Patti’s calves tensed in the irons. The brisk air stung her nostrils. She double-checked her goggles, readied her whip at her side, and tightened the reins. Seconds later, the bell sounded.
Blazing Saddle broke perfectly, flying straight out of the gate and immediately found his stride. Ten horses thundered down the dirt track passing the first post. Patti and her mount were hung on the outside, sandwiched between Lucky Star and Ocean Seven and running in third position. Brad’s mount, Sea Breeze, a two-year-old filly, was in the lead, hugging the key position along the inside rail. Ocean Seven’s jockey nudged forward to second after the third post. Patti held on tight, not giving an inch to the angry jockey beside her or the thousand pounds of bone and muscle barreling down the track at better than thirty miles per hour – with the fourth-place jockey shouting: “Move over bitch!”
It was exhilarating.
With less than three furlongs to go, Blazing Saddle seemed determined to win. The colt impressed Patti with his stamina and drive. Very few two-year-olds had this kind of competitive edge. She held the whip and crept up on the lead horse.
Patti and Brad volleyed for the finish line. The crowd screamed and the horses grunted with exertion. Brad repeatedly raised his whip and brought it down hard on the number one horse. Side-by-side the two horses beat down the track. Fist-sized dirt clods whizzed through the air. Brad raised his whip again, this time striking his opponent. The stinging bite of rawhide on Patti’s left buttock startled her, breaking her concentration. In vain, she flashed daggered eyes at her nemesis, but Blazing Saddle had lost momentum…
Sea Breeze crossed the finish line by a length, followed by Ocean Seven. King’s Ride captured the show position, with a tired Blazing Saddle sadly finishing fourth.
Back in the stables, Patti climbed down from her mount and handed him over to the groom.
“He did OK,” Bobby said, reaching for the reins.
Patti nodded and removed her helmet and gloves. She felt a fresh scratch on her cheek and checked to see if it was bleeding.
“Yeah – thought we had that one,” she said finally.
“What happened on the home stretch?”
“He lost his stride.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
Patti ignored the questioning eyes. The track official probably had it all on camera, but she would deal with it in her own way. After a moment, the groom led the horse toward the shed row.
Patti’s legs tingled as the muscles readapted to terra firma. She fell behind a few paces, taking one final look as the spirited chestnut turned the corner and disappeared behind the stables.
Inside the Jockey Club, Brad opened his locker. Several jockeys walked up to pay accolades and swap friendly puns, which were all part of winning.
“Saw you spanking Goldilocks,” another jockey said, smiling.
Brad put his towel down and slipped off his robe, unveiling layers of rippling chest muscle. He stood straight, stretched the kinks from his back and cracked his neck. “She was begging for it.”
One of the newer jockeys said, “She’s got a fine ass.”
“Yeah – if you like dark meat.”
Brad ignored the stilted laughter and pulled a pair of slacks from his locker. Making fun of women was widely accepted in his profession, but racial comments left all but the newest star-struck beginners uncomfortable. As the room silenced, he turned around to see Patti standing directly behind him. She was casually dressed in blue jeans, cowboy boots and a turtleneck sweater. Her Brazilian ancestry was glowingly apparent in her fine maple skin. She surveyed him through intelligent eyes, but was unimpressed by his physique.
Brad closed his locker door.
“So you don’t like dark meat? Probably too juicy for you.” The other jockeys stifled laughter while shuffling closer to the action they all sensed was brewing. Collectively, most agreed that Goldilocks was one of the few women jockeys who merited respect. She’d been in the game longer than most.
Across the room a jockey entered, chatting on his cell phone. His instincts perked as he encountered the tense standoff. Quickly, he hung up.
Patti stood a confident five-foot-one – no fat, pure muscle. Years of conditioning had honed her body with countless sit-ups, pushups, weight training and horse races. Patti flippantly tossed her golden braids like twin whips cracking the still air.
“Look, I’m sorry about the lash. Guess I missed my mark.” Brad’s voice held as much sympathy as a scorpion when about to sting a frog. “No hard feelings?”
Patti clenched her fists. “Absolutely not. I look forward to whipping your ass next time around.”
The room laughed. Brad mistakenly dropped his guard to join in the joke. Like a consummate professional, Patti saw an opening and effortlessly lunged inside. Fists flying, she connected with Brad’s jaw. A cell phone clicked, capturing the shot. Brad’s eyes glazed over as he reeled into the locker, his legs folding beneath him. Patti smiled derisively at him as another silence enveloped the room.
When she turned to leave, the crowd parted before rushing to Brad’s aid. Once outside, Patti relaxed. The tension drained from her body. Decking that asshole was probably not a smart career move, but it sure felt good.
Near the main entrance of the track, an old Chevy pickup pulled into the handicapped parking area and killed its engine. Willy stared out the windshield and slapped the dash.
“Leon – you callin’ the police ain’t gonna bring that girl back! It’s just gonna get us in trouble. We don’t need no more trouble.”
Leon had been listening to his friend’s arguments during the entire drive. But, his mind was made up. He glanced around for a payphone near the entrance, though they were becoming increasingly obsolescent thanks in part to cellular phones. His eyes tracked a blonde woman striding in their direction, but her presence didn’t register with him.
Leon grabbed the door handle. “Fine. You wait here while I go make the call.”
Willy unfolded his cane. “I’m going to find the crapper,” he shouted. “You do what you want.”
Willy pushed open the passenger door and climbed out. As he unfolded his cane, he heard Leon’s door open and slam shut. Willy didn’t wait for his friend.
“Willy – wait up!”
Willy raged across the lot, unaware of the large trash receptacle looming before him. Seconds later the blonde grabbed him, averting his collision with the dumpster. As she pulled him safely aside, Leon hustled up out of breath.
Willy turned toward his rescuer.
“What the hell you doin’, grabbin’ an old blind man like that?”
“You nearly walked into something,” Patti laughed. Willy brushed the woman’s hand from his shoulder and stretched his cane out. The tip banged the solid metal container.
“Don’t pay no attention to this man here,” Leon said. “He’s done lost his faculties.”
“You’re the one who’s crazy.”
Leon continued, “I need to use a pay phone, miss. Where can I find one?”
Willy mimicked his friend causing Patti to suppress a smile.
“I believe the payphones are inside. If it’s an emergency you can use my cell phone.”
Willy butted in, “No thanks. It’s a personal matter.”
Leon felt his pockets. “Could I bother you for change, miss? All I got’s a twenty.”
Patti guessed by the look and smell of the crusty old men in muddy trousers that they were probably just eking by.
“I’m a little short myself. But, you can have my change.”
She reached into her pocket and pulled out a handful of coins. Her favorite lucky coin was among them. She deftly plucked it out, dropped it back into her front pocket, and then poured the remaining coins into Leon’s eager palm.
Willy wrapped Leon’s foot. “Yes. Thank you, ma’am,” Willy added. “Have a nice day now.”
Before she could respond, a limousine rolled into the lot and honked its horn. Patti glanced over her shoulder and frowned.
“OK. Look, I gotta go guys.”
She left them to their own devices and hurried toward the car.
After she was out of earshot, Willy rapped Leon’s other foot. Leon’s loose tongue had gotten them into trouble more times than Willy cared to recall. Leon, who by now could do nothing but stand still for fear of getting hit again, turned his attention toward the young woman. A woman with mahogany skin and blonde hair was not usually his type, but he just may have to add her to his fantasy repertoire.
Leon turned back round. “That’s one fine lookin’ filly.”
“A filly that could identify us.”
“If you could a seen those ham hocks.”
“I don’t give no damn about her biscuits, Leon.”
“I wasn’t gonna tell her.”
“What if the cops trace your call? And, if they start puttin’ two and two together – look around. I figure there’s a few hundred cameras here. You take a couple suspicious niggers, a fine lookin’ woman, and your big ass mouth … shucks … we just as well go to jail now and save the cops the trouble of shooting.”
Leon gazed up at the telephone poles and counted six satellite dishes mounted on the rooftops of the surrounding buildings. Doubt set in. He stared down at his trembling hand. Latching onto it wouldn’t even hold it steady.
“I’m callin’. You comin’ or not?”
The gears turned, swinging the arm into position as the town clock pealed two guttural tolls. Louisville City Hall on West Jefferson Street was a colossal eighteenth century hallmark of downtown – three stories of undulating Italianate facades, a mix of brick and carved stone, with a clock tower the citizenry set watches by. Louisville’s early agricultural history was apparent in the sculpted husbandry of horses, pigs and cows prominently displayed above the second story windows. Behind one of those windows sat Detective Sam Buck, a rumpled unshaven titan, a true heavyweight, standing well over six-feet-five. Today he presided over a cluttered desk where a coffee-stained newspaper lay open to the morning crossword. This was Buck’s third week back as chief homicide investigator, but he still found traces of Afghan sand in his shoes.
“Hey Smitty,” he shouted across the freshly-painted, government office, “What’s another word for neutered?”
Detective Smitty, a stout, redheaded Irishman, slid back from his keyboard where he was finishing up a report. He stared across the room at his partner.
“A 9-letter word for neutered?” Buck repeated, tapping his pencil on the desk.
“That’s eight letters. It starts with a ‘C’.”
Smitty glanced out the window. On the sidewalk below an attractive woman in a dark suit picked up her briefcase and sauntered across the street. Smitty leered. “Try cunnilingus, mate.”
Buck frowned, nudging his glasses up his crooked nose with his pencil. “Cute.”
Smitty waited until the lady was gone, then turned. “How ‘bout – castrated?”
Buck picked up his pen and wrote down the letters in the blank boxes. “Yeah – that works. So, how was your nephew’s wedding on Saturday?”
“Not good. His bride tumbled into the champagne fountain.”
“Little lassie is out of action,” Smitty said. “Broke a tooth. I told the lad it was a palpable sign.”
“Things to come, or not to cum, if you’ll pardon the pun.”
Buck craned inquisitively in Smitty’s direction.
“Blow jobs, mate. Once they’re legally tethered, women will do anything to avoid ‘em … even pitch themselves into a fountain.”
The phone on Buck’s desk rang. Buck stopped grinning, put his pen down and picked up the receiver.
The caller seemed nervous, possibly African American, with an unusually deep voice.
“Slow down,” Buck told him. “Where’d you find the body? The Ohio. It’s a very big river, sir … perhaps you could be more specific?” Buck swung his chair around and pointed for Smitty to pick up.
Smitty covered the receiver and punched the lit button on his phone.
“You’re sure it was a female?” he continued. “OK, OK. Where are you right now?”
The phone went dead. Buck replaced the receiver and waited for Smitty to hang up as well. “Think it’s legit?”
Smitty logged off his computer. “Beats a crossword.”
Buck tore off the piece of tablet where he had jotted a few notes and rose from his desk. He shrugged on the tweed jacket slung over the back of his chair and carefully pocketed the note. He removed a .38 S&W Police Special from his desk drawer and slipped it into his shoulder holster. It felt inadequately small compared to his military issue .45 Colt. Smitty turned off the coffee pot and caught up with Buck at the door.
Downstairs in the underground garage, the two men climbed into an unmarked black sedan. Buck controlled the wheel but had trouble buckling the seat belt. It seemed he’d packed on a few extra pounds lately, nonchalantly blaming it on the difficulties of getting back into the groove after his last tour.
He rolled down the passenger window, unbuttoned his shirt a notch, and lit a smoke.
Twenty minutes later, the sedan pulled off the main road onto the shoulder and parked. From a hill overlooking the Ohio River, the two detectives took in the sweeping view of the city in the distance.
They got out of the car and hiked down the steep embankment. A few hundred yards later they stopped. The Ohio wound ahead like a giant slithering python. The trail came to an abrupt end at the water’s edge. A small area of scrub grass had been cleared away along the riverbank. Buck searched for what the caller had said were markers – empty beer cans and sticks stuck in the ground. Instead, all he found were a few thorns stuck to his trouser cuffs. Smitty was frowning at the mud on his newly polished loafers.
“See it anywhere?”
“Caller said the trail was marked,” Buck said. “I don’t think we’re in the right place. Let’s try further south.”
They eventually followed a narrow trail through the tall scrub grass. At the edge of the trail a pair of sticks stuck out of the ground. A torn piece of red cloth was tied around the top of one of the branches.
Buck spotted it first. “I think we found it.” He figured it’d be a good spot for fishing. He remembered a similar place upriver where he’d fished as a kid.
Further downstream, something shifted in the water, disturbing a covey of flies which swarmed the shore in beat to the rhythmic tide.
Smitty pointed to where the corpse lapped against the bank. “There’s our catch, mate.”
The melting ice cubes cracked as New Orleans Detective Dorene Gates sat alone in the lobby bar of the historic Brown Hotel in Louisville, stirring a double shot of Maker’s Mark. She studied her reflection in the gilded mirror behind the bar, unable to believe what seventeen years of police work had done to her face.
She was no longer the eighteen-year-old ebony beauty from Louisville who had left friends and family – never to look back. The youthful sparkle in her brown eyes, once brimming with hopeful enthusiasm, was gone. What remained was a piercing intellect with no false illusions, honed from years of working homicide. Just an ordinary cop in New Orleans, she was something of a celebrity in Louisville, where coverage of a recent string of murders had made her face recognizable to anyone who watched TV. She’d tracked down and arrested the infamous “Dyke Killer,” who had roamed the ravaged neighborhoods of the Big Easy in the months following Katrina, killing at will.
The rough streets of New Orleans had changed more than Dorene’s face. No longer was she the chunky lazy kid who got stoned with other low-caste losers from school. Her body was muscular. Her chest and shoulders resembled carved bronze; annealed from years of pumping iron in seedy basement gyms and beating the hell out of shithead criminals. Even the coy sunbursts splaying from the corners of her eyes had been earned the hard way. Only an artist could truly appreciate the hours of lost sleep, death, filth and decay that had sculpted them over the years. And, the grandiose plans for social change were gone. She no longer believed she could change the world. The world operated at its own tempo. Had its own reasons and desires for existing that had very little to do with individual agendas.
The flight from New Orleans that morning had left her mouth dry, and renewed more than just her hatred of flying. She had revisited her high school traumas and inwardly cringed. She’d been a uniquely easy mark and knew her place in the racist Louisville of her youth, yet she hadn’t discovered her place sexually. While she never had any interest in black boys her age, white boys intrigued her with their cocky power. They were kings in the school hierarchy. Even the most popular white girls deferred to them. But unlike the good white girls in school, she had something they wanted and she happily gave it. Nicknamed “Black Box” by the white boys she routinely allowed between her legs, she soon found her interest in sex was driven by similar desire – she wanted to fuck women too.
A black dyke of a whore is nobody’s ideally suitable high school chum. In the recently integrated Louisville school system, she was publicly shunned by both black and white girls. It had been a lonely confusing period. That is, until senior year with Patti – a sexy Brazilian blonde with dark skin – another misfit.
From sheer lack of other choices, the two fell in together. Patti’s ideas of sexual freedom were unimpeded by southern Christian morals. She was young, exotic and driven. She knew what she wanted – to be a world-class jockey. What better place to make one’s mark than Churchill Downs? Louisville held nothing for Gates though, and after high school their parting was stoically businesslike. Both had future dreams that didn’t include room for each other. Later, she heard Patti had married in order to stay in the States.
Gates took another drink of bourbon, licking the fiery spirit from her lips and smiled ruefully. Her friend was not coming. Patti Knot was backing out. It had been a stupid idea in the first place. What had she been thinking e-mailing her? And attending her twenty-year reunion? Did she really think they would hook up? For the first time in years she had agonized over what to wear for their “date.”
What a schmuck…
She asked the bartender for her bill. While she waited, a vendor dropped a stack of newspapers on the bar. She picked up the evening edition of the Louisville Examiner and thumbed through it.
As Gates pulled out the Sports section she snapped to attention. Plastered over the front page was her high school sweetheart, the horse nut who went on to become an internationally famous thoroughbred jockey. Apparently, Patti now had a second career as a boxer. That could explain the no show. No use drowning sorrows. Time to head back to the room, take off the cocktail dress, throw on some jeans and find the nearest gay bar. To hell with reunions.
The bartender brought her receipt and a telephone.
“You have a message at the front desk.”
Gates tore her friend’s picture from the paper, neatly folded the clipping, tucked it into her pocket and signed the bill.
An old ache rose in her chest as she dialed the front desk. She listened to the message and smiled.
A cool evening moon appeared over the Ohio, its silver trail pointing toward the Galt. Gates popped a breath mint into her mouth and headed toward the main entrance. Strolling down her own memory lane, she passed a half-dozen street corner musicians, including bluegrass, rhythm and blues, rap and even, a pretty darn good Elvis, (the younger version).
A sign near the elevator indicated the Louisville Central High Reunion was being held in the West Wing Ballroom. She boarded the elevator with several white couples wearing evening attire. From their chatter Gates gathered they were heading to the same function, though she didn’t recognize any of them.
The group rode the elevator to the third floor and exited together. Gates trailed the pack, automatically assuming her inferior high school social status. They followed the carpeted hallway to its terminus with two double doors which swung open. Loud Rock and Roll spilled into the foyer as several people burst through the doorway, laughing. Gates hung back, took a deep breath, then entered the crowded ballroom. Trying not to look overly expectant, her eyes scanned the room for Patti.
Gates figured several hundred people milled about the room, not counting the small half-drunken group near the stage, focused on the four-piece band bedecked in Zebra stripes hammering out lame covers of Rod Stewart hits. Numerous tables and chairs filled the center area and full-service bars lined both sidewalls.
It was remarkable, she thought. High school all over again – the same little cliques – same stuck-ups and suck-ups, same egos and phony smiles, even the same shitty music.
Suddenly unsure of herself, Gates stood awkwardly rooted. Then, a familiar voice penetrated the crowd. Wearing his old letterman’s jacket, fifty extra pounds, and a receding hairline, Wayne Lewis sidled up, giving Gates an obvious once over, which she figured complimentary.
“So our famous dyke cop has returned.”
Wayne leaned in closer. “After regular servings of my Johnson, only a dildo could take its place, eh?”
“Yeah, Wayne. You ruined me on real dick for the rest of my life.” Gates suggestively ran her fingers across his belt buckle. “Let me ask you a personal question. You have a harder time getting laid with that gut of yours?” Slipping her hand down the edge of his pants, she grabbed his tidy whiteys and gave them a firm yank.
Wayne’s face contorted, first in pain and then in anger.
“Just an old high school wedgie, Wayne. But, you give me any more trouble tonight, I’ll make it my personal mission to…”
“Dorene!” Gates turned toward the older rotund brunette in the peach colored pants suit hurrying toward her, her cheeks flushed with color.
“It’s me. I hardly recognized you either. Can you believe this crowd?”
With that, Meg Brown threw her protective arm around Gates and led her away. She’d been her school counselor and quite a hard-ass, but Gates had respected her. She’d pushed Gates to acquire skills for life beyond just discovering her own identity, though she helped with that too. She forced reading and writing down her throat. These assets would help her later in life. Gates had relied on those creative writing skills more than once in her career to doctor questionable incident reports.
“I want no trouble tonight deary. You stay away from Wayne and the boys and I’ll see that their wives keep them in line.”
“Dory, you look good,” Meg said affectionately. “Ruth Henry told me you went into law enforcement. That true?”
Gates nodded. Apparently Meg didn’t watch the evening news.
They chatted for a few minutes. Gates pulled out her gold shield and showed it off, aware of her eagerness to impress her old counselor. Meg smiled approvingly.
“Are you still teaching?”
“No. I retired a couple of years ago.” A painful sound crept into her voice. “And my husband, Howard, passed on last year.” Sorrow graced Meg’s shiny blue eyes.
“Actually, to be truthful, it’s been a wee bit wicked. But, my two sons help out around the house these days and we’re abiding as best we can. Someone once said: ‘You have to learn to do everything, even to die.’”
Meg raised her head proudly at her former student. “A great writer and one I’m pleased you remember.”
Gates fought down a surge of gratitude. She wanted to thank her former teacher for not giving up on her. But, everything she could think of saying sounded corny. Instead, she gave her another hug.
Mrs. Brown blushed. “Well, I’ve seen some of your old pals hanging around the back bar. You might want to remind them about the DUI laws in this state.”
After their goodbyes, Gates resumed scanning the crowd for Patti.
Musing on Gertrude Stein after so many years, caused her to shake her head. “When you finally get there, there isn’t any there, there.”
Nothing like a reunion to confuse past and present. Where had the time gone?
Before she found an answer, a beaming face appeared midst the crowd – a bouncy high-heeled sexy Brazilian, frantically waving and dicing her way through the wall of bodies.
Hope had arrived.
“Hey Dork, glad you could make it.”
Snip Audio Book – UNABRIDGED 6 CD disc set
Produced and recorded By Maine Streaming Media. Maine Streaming Media Narrators: Jerry Lyden and Giz Coughlin