Thursday, December 7, 2017

Dreadful Selfish Crime (a mystery novel)

Photo by Joe O'Connell

October 12, 1992

Chapter 1

A one-lane bridge crossed the Little Cuckoo on County Road 24. The stream ran steady but shallow beneath Arturo B. Lincoln's car. Flashing red and blue lit the night around Deputy Sheriff Walt Talbort's cruiser. Arturo pulled his blue 1970 Cutlass 442 to where the stumpy deputy stood, notepad in hand, listening to a rail-thin father and his wide-eyed sons tell their tale.

"Abe, are you out of bed?" Walt grabbed the edge of the car door with a pudgy paw, then looked at Bobbi. "Oh, sight-seeing. I trust her husband is still on the run."

Last year, back when they were almost strangers, Arturo had helped Bobbi get rid of her husband, Dowell Goodman, a wife-beating son of a bitch. Arturo planted a bag of white powder in Dowell's truck and got Walt to scare Dowell out of the county. Bobbi kept the little bag and grinned when she used its contents to sweeten her tea.

"He’s running scared." Bobbi reached over and touched Walt's hand. "Thanks for asking."

Walt and Arturo had been drinking buddies off and on for the past few years, after meeting on a night when a train derailed and spilled toxic chemicals. Reporters came from as far as Dallas to cover the story, but Walt made sure the local boys got the scoop first. Arturo invited him out for a beer in thanks. They discovered that law enforcers and journalists had plenty in common--they both worked odd hours, were apt to screw up their personal lives, and were often reviled by strangers.

"Worth my while, Walt?" Arturo held his breath.

Walt leaned close to his ear. "If you're a blood and guts fan. Poor ape caught lead between the eyes. I've got the report if you want notes before the J.P. arrives."

Arturo took out his notepad and rewrote Walt's words: “Two boys, ages ten and four, playing along the bank at approximately 6:30 p.m. when saw something stuck on tree branch in the water. Upon discovery it was human, went home, waited for father's arrival to tell him. Father called 911 with report at 8:48 p.m. Deceased is white male, early 30s, brown hair, beard, thin build…"

The father tapped hard on Walt’s shoulder. "Can we get this done? I want my boys home and in bed." 
“Zombies,” the youngest boy said, his eyes the size of half dollars and his arms clutching his father’s leg.

The man spat hard at the ground. "County ain't fit to raise cattle, much less kids."

Walt sighed before turning back to the red-faced man.
"Hold your horses, sir." 
The deputy grabbed the report from Arturo's hand. 

"Let me finish, Abe. Meet our swimmer. I double dare you."

Arturo opened the car door, and as he rose he caught sight of something white along the bank. He could just make out a human foot where it stuck out of a tattered sheet the father had probably brought with him after hearing the boys' descriptions.

"Bobbi, grab that camera from the glove box and wait here." He kept the idiot camera handy for just such a reporting chore.

"I'm a big girl." She had the expectant look of a kid about to peek into a carnival freak show tent.

"I don't want a corpse to be your memory of this evening. Please. I've got work here, and then I'll get you home.”

It had been a long work day for them both. With tired eyes she gave in, handed him the camera, then leaned her head back onto the seat.

The lens became his eyes and Arturo felt himself vanish. It was too corny and new-agey for him to admit out loud to anyone, but he'd learned long ago that a good photographer--and he was at best a fair one--must inwardly disappear and become the camera. He kneeled and clicked shots from behind the wiggly boys as they told the rest of their tale to Walt. Then he walked a couple yards toward the sheet and shot it with the moving stream as the backdrop. The flash lit the damp night.

Goose bumps raised on his arm as he crossed the short distance separating him from the facts of death. The bank was eerily silent. Part of the sheet was in the water and the wet area molded to an arm that’s only movement came from the gentle sway of water as the waves struck bank.

Arturo squatted and pulled the sheet back from the face with a jerk. His stomach tightened. The bullet had torn off most of the face, leaving half a lip and one dangling, vacant eye. The ragged edges of facial flesh were the color of cottage cheese. What the bullet didn't get, hungry fish had nibbled. But they were kind enough to leave his old friend and colleague Casey Bonner's tangled beard almost perfectly intact.

A metallic tang filled Arturo's mouth. He turned his head before the first load of bile came up. He could just make out Walt's chuckle from back at the squad car as another spasm forced the afternoon's beer out onto the grass.

He wiped the spittle from his lips and stumbled up the bank.
"Abe, puking on a crime scene is a felony in my book." Walt's smile faded to concern. The father was already a few yards off, ushering his boys back to the world of television cartoons where dead men shook it off and came back for more.

"You all right, buddy?" Walt patted Arturo lightly on the shoulder.
Arturo nodded and coughed up the last of the bile. He felt like he'd been hit by lightning and the electrical charge was trying to force its way out of his trembling hands.

"That corpse was a friend of mine," he said.

(email therealjoeo at for more)