The rookie cop swept his damp palm over his holster, signaling to the dozen onlookers to stand back: Don’t you dare cross the crime-scene tape stretched across the entrance to the two-story tenement. His pale skin was pimpled with fear, his eyes danced about, his jaw tensed.
The onlookers regarded him with curiosity or pained impatience. Some sent double-barreled stares.
“I live here,” an old black man announced. “My mother needs her meds. I got to take her her meds.”
“I don’t care,” the rookie said, widening his stance. The Third Police District of Washington Metro extended from embassies and gentrified townhouses to stretches of urban decay. Upon entering this gritty neighborhood, the officer had stepped out of his comfort zone. Even the ordinary seemed to jitter with menacing intent. The three-o’clock bands of school kids passed by, some stopping to see what they could see. Across the street a pair of teenagers exited a hardware store, one tweezing a paper sack between two fingers. Some children entered a hole-in-the-wall grocery. A gray Malibu, DC plates, pulled up and double-parked in front of the building.
“You can’t park there,” the rookie said.
“Yes, I can,” a giantess responded as she climbed out of the car, a hefty satchel dangling from her hand. Six-foot four, broad-shouldered, African-American, she had a linebacker’s tilt; she leaned forward as she barreled toward him.
“Stop scratching your holster,” she ordered. “Your twitching hand tells the crowd you’d take five minutes to dig out your pistol.” She butted his shoulder as she passed.
“Hey!” the officer protested.
“See? You couldn’t even draw your gun on someone bowling you down.” She raised her badge so he had to look up. “Detective Shelley Krieg. The damage is on the second floor?”
“Um … yeah. Second floor.”
She stiff-armed the building’s front door, shoving it open.
“How come she gets to go through?” someone shouted.
Krieg halted, then pivoted. “Because I’ve got this shiny ticket.” She flashed her shield.
The old man called out to her, “My mother needs her meds!”
“Let him pass,” Shelley told the rookie. “Why’d you cordon off the whole building?”
“There’s blood in the hallway,” the cop answered.
“Yeah. Yes, ma’am.”
“Then move the tape to the front of the stairwell. Is the back entrance secured?”
She bounded up the steps two at a time.
At the top of the stairs, a spindly teenaged kid sat folded up, his face buried in his knobby knees. He wore Plasticuffs cinched tightly around his wrists and ankles. His eyes cried out, his nose emptied of snot, he rocked himself gently back and forth. Shelley sniffed. The carpet smelled of fresh urine. His.
A splash of blood painted the tips of his sneakers. His bloody tracks led to a middle apartment where the door hung open, spilling out the only light along the length of the dim corridor. The condition of the overhead fixtures—cracked ceramic and a Medusa’s mop of wires—seemed so decrepit that screwing in a light bulb would likely burn the place down.
A patrolman stood guard over the kid. “Brace yourself. It’s all kinds of nasty,” he warned as Shelley headed toward the light.
More crime-scene tape adorned the apartment entrance, streamers for a macabre party.
Shelley stopped at the doorway. Setting down her satchel, she took out and snapped on vinyl gloves. Before entering, she paused to survey the crime scene. The apartment was cramped, one main room. A fold-out sofa bed, a dining table with two chairs tucked beneath, a dresser, and a kitchen all crowded one another for floor space. A radiator pinged as it heated as though being tapped by a tack hammer.
“Hey, Shel,” Lt. Kris Atchison said. At thirty-five, he was four years her senior but acted a lifetime more weary.
“Better use the booties. The blood is sprinkly. Kind of all over.”
With the way Atch blundered about, he seemed to think the purpose of the disposable covers was to keep his expensive shoes clean, not to preserve evidence. He looked the way Atch always looked: every hair in place, a trim crease to his dress pants. He was the only detective Shelley knew who paid for professional pedicures. She slipped disposable covers over her work shoes.
A toilet flushed. Detective Sal “Click” Morretti popped open the bathroom door, wedging his shirt flap under the waistband of his pants, below his low-slung belly, and zipping his fly. “Lordy, it’s Shelley,” he said. “This crime scene just got supersized.”
Shelley ground her teeth and swallowed some well-chosen curse words. She scanned the room. A half-turned key was inserted in the doorknob lock. Others dangled below it at the end of a beaded key chain. Above the knob were three sturdy slide bolts. On the dining table sat a wide-ruled yellow legal pad. It had been moved: Streaks of blood on the table surface joined in right angles to mark the pad’s former position. Rows of blotchy green dots filled three lines on the paper—ink bleed-through, a felt-tip pen. No blood spots marked the page. The pad’s top sheet had been torn off.
Thin dotted lines of blood criss-crossed the wooden floor. Some had been mushed by skidding footprints. The sofa bed lay open, the top sheet pulled back into a wad. No blood spray over the foundation sheet. A pair of pruning shears rested blade down in the kitchen sink.
A phone lay alongside its charging cradle. Its red light was on as though a call was in progress. She lifted it up to listen but heard only the buzz of disconnection. She returned the phone to its position.
“When does Crime Scene get here?” Shelley asked.
“When they get here,” Click said.
A broad puddle of blood bloomed from the space behind the sleeper sofa. Shelley stepped to the side and craned her neck to get a better view.
The victim lay on his back. A light-skinned black male, maybe twenty-five, thin but muscular. The fingers of his left hand had been pruned off at the knuckle; the thumb remained intact. Three of the fingertips lay nearby. As for where the pinkie was hiding, only God knew. A deep-cut impression of an elastic band ran from the corners of his lips along both cheeks: something to hold down a gag and seal in the screams. But what made the scene nasty—as the patrolman put it—the victim’s chest had been split, his ribs chopped through and the right half of his rib cage pried open like a swing gate.
The gash through the muscles was dirty red, the color of day-old meat. The open chest cavity exposed an ugly jumble of pink and grey. The bits of cartilage were the yellow of nicotine-stained teeth while the clipped ends of bones displayed a pearly gleam, jutting out like a ready-to-spring bear trap.
“It looks like it would take a good deal of strength to do that,” Shelley said.
“I don’t know,” Atch said. “With the pruning shears I’m guessing you just need to be motivated—or a sick motherfucker.”
“PCP,” Click concluded. “A dust freak.”
“You think everything is PCP,” Shelley said.
“Explains the world we live in.” Click pointed to the kitchen nook. “I came across a bag of powder on top the fridge. Left it there for CS.”
Shelley knelt to examine the stubs of the victim’s fingers. Some were raw red stumps, some had the blood coagulated. The perp had lopped off a finger, then waited to let the bleeding stop. Did another, and then another. That would take time. Minutes? Hours?
Dried blood crusted the palm of the victim’s other hand. The fingerprints of his thumb and index fingers appeared painted with violet.
Click planted himself in the center of the room and began glancing about and snuffling. Finally, he said, “Krieg? Why are you here?”
“Tate sent me.”
“Tate?” Click echoed, bridling at the name. Atch froze. “Why three detectives?”
“The captain must have decided this case was special.”
“Special as in ‘super-ugly?’ Or special as in ‘moron Olympics’? ’Cause three detectives make for a three-way fuck-up. And where’s Kent?” Her partner.
Click rolled his eyes. “We don’t need him and we don’t need you. This one’s a slam-dunk. We got the brain-dead perp sitting in the hall.”
“Why are you so convinced he did it, Sherlock?” Krieg asked. “No-shit Sherlock” was Morretti’s other pet name, awarded for the way he looked constipated whenever forced to think. Morretti’s instincts were off as often as they were on.
“Because he confessed,” Morretti said.
“He called 911,” Atch explained. “He blabbed it all. We got the murder weapon sitting in the sink.” The shears. “He cleaned them off afterwards. Shows he considered the consequences. He’ll have a tough time claiming he was out-of-his-head high.”
“Kid’s name is Rafael Hooks,” Click read from a wallet. “Nineteen. Old enough for a life jolt.” Click flipped the driver’s license to show Krieg how its photo matched the suspect in the hall. As he did so, the contents of the wallet spilled to the floor. Click dropped down to scoop up photos, business cards, and a half dozen singles. In the process he smeared the blood splatters with his knees.
“You know what? You’re right,” Krieg said. “Three’s a crowd. You two need to hike down the hall and skin some knuckles on a few doors.”
“Umm … Shel, we were up in rotation,” Atch said. “We’re the primaries. We caught the call.”
“And since then Tate made me the lead.”
“Tate gave you the lead? Fuck me,” Click said. He mouthed a few choice slurs and gave her the evil eye as he and Atch slouched their way to the door. They ducked under the tape and hit the hallway. As he parted, Click added, “You ought to plant that kid in the box. He’ll talk to you. People trust you. You’re just like Oprah.”
Shelley looked around, shaking her head. Crime Scene was going to throw a fit. The two lumbering detectives had managed to smudge the blood on the floorboards. If other shoe prints existed, they would never be sorted out of the mix. If the perp had tried to dispose of drugs and had left any residue in the toilet bowl, Click had flushed it away.
She decided it was time to listen to the 911 tape and question the kid.
For your copy of “Never Kill A Friend” click this link to Amazon books.
“Detective Shelley Krieg, a Washington, D.C., native, is a standout in many ways … The fast-moving plot tells the story of a strong young woman trying to stay true to herself while dealing with powerful, corrupt people and her own conflicting loyalties. This has the makings of a strong series.” –Barbara Bibel, Booklist