Read Back on Murder Online

Authors: Mark J. Bertrand

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Back on Murder



© 2010 by J. Mark Bertrand

Published by Bethany House Publishers
a division of Baker Publishing Group
P.O. Box 6287, Grand Rapids, MI 49516-6287.

E-book edition created 2010

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means – electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise – without the prior written permission of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews.

ISBN 978-1-4412-1189-7

Library of Congress Cataloging-In-Publication Data is on file at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

For Laurie,
witty and long-suffering,
a wellspring of creative inspiration






































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 gang-bangers 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.”

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