Authors: Edna Buchanan
A Britt Montero Novel
For Sgt. Christine Echroll, Viking Princess, Brave Warrior.
She saw the dark side but never faltered.
What is evil lives forever.
The snake stood up for evil in the Garden.
THE GARBLED POLICE RADIO TRANSMISSIONS HAD been confusing: reports ofâ¦
WE FOUND A SMALL TABLE IN THE DARK AND crowdedâ¦
“ALTHEA MORAN, PLEASE.”
THE UNIDENTIFIED VICTIM HAD PULLED INTO AN I-75 rest stopâ¦
SHELL HUNTERS FOUND ROLAND MILLER'S MISSING Ford Taurus the followingâ¦
I STUDIED THE MAP AGAIN BEFORE LEAVING THE newsroom thatâ¦
I CALLED THE CITY DESK FROM A LAND LINE, Aâ¦
“THINK SHE'LL CALL AGAIN?” OJEDA LOOKED RED-EYED from lack ofâ¦
“HI THERE.” SHE SOUNDED GENTLY AMUSED. “Asleep at your desk,â¦
NOW WE WAITED FOR THE KILLER'S CALL. SWAT, the policeâ¦
HER DEADLY AND UNPREDICTABLE VIOLENCE TERRIFIED me, but she wasâ¦
“NOW SEE WHAT YOU MADE ME DO!” SHE SCREAMED. “You'reâ¦
“HE JUST DIDN'T GET IT.”
“THAT IS A FUCKING CHOPPER!” KEPPIE shrieked. “Not a UFO!â¦
I CLOSED MY EYES, HOPING THIS WAS YET ANOTHER nightmare.
EVERYBODY KNEW ABOUT RITA LEE HUTTON. One of the fewâ¦
THE PUSH OF A BUTTON RAISED A DINNER TABLE outâ¦
“WE'RE SAFE NOW,” I TOLD JOEY IN THE AMBULANCE. “Theseâ¦
HE GARBLED POLICE RADIO TRANSMISSIONS HAD
been confusing: reports of gunfire, a fleeing car, a traffic accident, and a corpse. Were they related? It was impossible to determine from my dashboard scanner. Cops speak guardedly on the air these days, assisted by sophisticated encoding techniques that scramble their signals and permit outsiders to pick up only intermittent one-sided fragments of transmissions.
Steamy waves of heat rose off pavement that would still be hot to the touch at midnight. It was nearly dusk, the hottest day so far of Miami's hottest June on record. The temperature had shattered weather bureau records every day, all month. The heat index, taking the humidity into account, had settled at a wilting 115 degrees. The backs of my thighs had become one with the vinyl seat and my dress clung damply in unseemly places. Deadline rumbled toward me like an avalanche, and I still had work to do on two other stories.
I parked outside a little family grocery on the corner, left my press card on the dash, and separated myself from the car seat. What had happened here? I scanned the chaos of the street. Spinning emergency flashers and yellow crime-scene tape stretched for blocks into the sunset's red
and purple glow, creating a hypnotic, nearly psychedelic effect. To my relief I saw Homicide Detective David Ojeda. Mercurial and savvy, he is a quick study, so sure of himself that he is not afraid to talk to a reporter. He wouldn't stonewall. And he owed me. At least I liked to think so; he probably wouldn't agree. Homicide cops always feel righteous, no matter what. He acted as though the history we shared had never happened, but I wouldn't forget. You don't forget a man who whips out his handcuffs and books you into the county jail.
Ojeda did not look happy to see me. He looked limp, from his loud tie to his usually fierce and bristly mustache. Damp half-moons ringed his armpits. His high forehead glistened. His knowing smile had given way to a scowl. Not happy at all.
A late-model Buick Riviera had slammed into a huge eight-by-ten-foot concrete planter, in what looked like the last stop on a path of destruction.
A woman sat mumbling on the curb behind the wrecked Riviera, head in her hands, so drenched in blood and gore that I thought she must be seriously hurt. Her hair and even the little pink barrette she wore in it was spattered and stained. Uh-oh. Was that a little pink barrette? Up closer it appeared to be a chunk of brain matter. But whose? The medic checking her pulse did not seem unduly concerned.
Other medics surrounded a young man lying in the street. His hair looked as though he had jammed a wet thumb into a light socket. Was it normally that wild or rearranged by whatever mishap left him sprawled on the pavement? What on earth had the not-so-good citizens of Miami been doing to each other out here?
The world is crazy, full of crazy people. Miami has more than its share. My job is to tell the public all about it. My name is Montero, Britt Montero, and I cover the police beat in this superheated sea-level city at the bottom of the map.
The medical examiner and two cops stepped away from the Buick just then and I glimpsed the driver, still behind the wheel. My God! I swallowed hard. Ojeda mopped his face with a handkerchief as I sidled up and murmured softly in his ear.
“Where is his head?”
“Nowhere,” he replied, “and everywhere.”
“Was this an accident or a shooting?” I demanded. “What happened?”
“Talk to PIO,” he said.
“Nobody from public information is here.”
“Jesus, will you look at that,” he muttered. We stared morosely at adults in the crowd who had hoisted toddlers up high onto their shoulders so the wee ones could better view the carnage.
“Okay.” The detective stashed his sodden handkerchief. “Don't tell them I talked to you,” he warned. “Here's the four-one-one.
“Our victim, the driver here; his gal-pal Wanda, that's her over there”âhe indicated the woman on the curb, whose mumbling was rapidly coalescing into an incoherent rantâ“and his brother come bopping into Overtown to buy crack. The brother is riding shotgun, literally. He's in the backseat with a sawed-off across his knees.”
“That him over there? The injured guy in the street?”
“Nope. Don't get ahead a me here.” Ojeda looked annoyed. “Don't jump the gun. You always do that.”
I wanted to argue that he was no one to talk, but didn't.
“He's the street-corner dealer our happy little group in the car is making a buy from when a dispute arises. Our man in the street there is leaning in the car window, negotiating, when our driver apparently tries to take off with both the drugs and the money. Don't know if they planned a rip or if it was some spur-a-the-moment brainstorm. The seller refuses to let go the goods; he's half in and half outa the window, getting dragged. The brother in the backseat starts brandishing the shotgun, the seller grabs it and
hangs on for dear life, getting dragged farther into the car as they wrestle over the gun. Then
It goes off, taking off the driver's head, which explodes onto his girlfriend's lap. The dead guy's foot punches the accelerator and the car peels out, leaving a hundred-and-fifty-foot traila blood back on Second Avenue.”
He stopped to glare at the flies already buzzing the car.
“He slumps, his chest on the horn, foot on the accelerator. They wind up here about a mile later. From what I hear, his passengers were screaming louder than the horn. The dealer's legs are still hanging out the back window, kicking and thrashing. One of our unmarked cars had to swerve up on the sidewalk to get outa their way. They do a U-turn and are following as the car sideswipes a light pole and a buncha parked vehicles, mows down those meters, runs over some news-vending machines, and slams into the planter. The air bag deploys, shoves the driver back into an upright position, and the horn stops.”
Somebody should invent air bags activated by gunfire, I thought, to shield against bullets and shotgun blasts. They could market them in Miami.
“Where's the brother?” I asked, looking around.
“Our guys following 'em see the backseat passenger crawl outa the wreckage and sprint off into the twilight,” he said. “Wanda's still sitting in front, trying to put her boyfriend's skull back together; mosta the pieces were in her lap. His foot's still frozen on the accelerator, engine revving, tires spinning. The dealer, he got flung free, into the street, on impact.”
Ojeda squinted into the fading glow of the dying day. As I scribbled notes, Dr. Vernon Duffy, an assistant Miami Dade County medical examiner, picked up his padded aluminum equipment case and joined us. Slightly stooped and pale, he spends too much time in the morgue.
“Think we'll ever see rain again?” A New Hampshire native, Duffy looked wilted in the merciless heat. Ocean winds from the east usually keep Miami's summertime
highs below the century mark. But no rain or breezes had come this month, normally our wettest. The entire state had withered beneath brittle blue skies and a scorching sun that seared lawns and shrubbery a crispy brown that crunched underfoot.
“Nope, we're doomed. Must be global warming, doc.”
He nodded and looked pleased at my gloomy prognosis. “The ERs are full of heatstroke victims. Joggers are dropping like flies.”
“What about him?” I indicated the Buick.
“Can't blame this one on the heat,” Ojeda said, “unless it made his head explode.”
“What kind of shotgun pellets did that?” I asked.
“It's not pellets or bullets,” Duffy said patiently, “it's the gas, the high-pressure combustion, tens of thousands of PSIs.”
“Well, the pellets sure didn't help,” I said. “Why did the car continue to travel for so long after he was shot?”
“Evidently his spinal cord continued to function, responding to his fatal injury with a reflex that slammed his foot down hard on the accelerator.”
“Like I said.” Ojeda nodded. “Foot froze on the gas.”
The sinking sun projected a rosy glow onto palm fronds silhouetted against the sky. No breeze disturbed the blast furnace radiating around us. I felt my sandals melting into the pavement. Yet something was astir, a shift in the crowd. Instead of being lulled, like me, into a sleepy stupor by the heat, there were ominous murmurs and rumblings.
The atmosphere suddenly seemed supercharged, tempers short.
Ojeda and the uniforms on the police line picked up on it too. “Work the crowd,” he told two patrolmen. “See who's running their mouth.”
“When are you going to move the body?” I asked.
“We're not,” the doctor replied. “We're leaving him in the car.”
Made sense. The Buick and its grisly contents, along with the little glassine bags of crack strewn across the backseat and the twelve-gauge sawed-off Remington 870, its stock duct-taped, its short barrel crookedly hacksawed by some amateur, would be delivered as is, a not-so-tidy little package, to the most efficiently designed building in South Floridaâour medical examiner's office.
Boats that crash, planes that plummet, and corpse-crammed cars are scooped up intact and taken by flatbed truck to Number 1 Bob Hope Road, where forensic scientists examine them in the privacy of a large, well-lit, and air-conditioned hangarlike enclosure far from bad weather, insects and alligators, curious crowds, and reporters.
Ojeda instructed the uniforms to duct-tape two yellow plastic body blankets over the Buick and its contents for the trip.
“Now I gotta go talk a lady outa her clothes,” he announced, turning on his heel.
“The lab wants to try out some new blood-spatter techniques,” Duffy explained.
The detective's swagger implied a history of success in talking ladies out of their clothes. I trailed along to watch, perspiration oozing from every pore, my sunglasses skidding down my nose. Ojeda asked Wanda, still seated on the curb, if she happened to have a change of clothes handy. He explained that he needed what she was wearing for evidence.
“I tol' Frankie not to wave that gun around,” she said. The detective repeated his request. She didn't seem to hear. The keys to the Riviera, she said. She needed them. The Buick was her mother's.
“If she's the registered owner, she can talk to our VIP representative about releasing it,” Ojeda said politely.
Uh-oh, I thought. Using the Vehicle Impoundment Program, police seize the cars used in crimes involving drugs, prostitution, or drunk driving. A man caught soliciting a
prostitute can lose his car, even if it's registered to his wife. Try explaining
to a spouse.
“I got to get that car back home before nine,” Wanda insisted and stood up. Her stained T-shirt read
REHAB IS FOR QUITTERS
. “My mama needs it to git to work.” Her mother, she said, worked midnights at the county hospital.
Did she plan to visit Busy Bee Car Wash first? Then there was the crash damage. The Buick was history.
Ojeda answered his cell phone, then covered the mouthpiece to mutter an obscenity. “Word travels fast. It's somebody from the community relations board's crisis-response team.”
He then greeted the caller warmly. Miami cops had been instructed by the chief to deal directly with board members to try to keep the peace in this not-so-peaceful place on the planet. It makes me think of our publisher, who insists that we respond personally and with warmth to every call and letter from readers, no matter how threatening or insane.
“That's incorrect, ma'am,” Ojeda responded affably to the caller. “No police officer fired a weapon.” He rolled his eyes in my direction. “No, this was not a pursuit situation.”
He paced as he spoke, his darting eyes seeking out the uniforms dispatched to canvass for troublemakers. I heard only one side, but the conversation was obvious.
“Well,” Ojeda said pleasantly, signaling a sergeant with an index finger's slash to his throat, “if somebody witnessed something we don't know about, we'd welcome the opportunity to take their statement. We'd appreciate them coming in. No, it'sâ¦butâ¦butâ¦the victim's vehicle passed two of our people at high speed, nearly ran them off the road, they followed. That's why they arrived so quickly at the accident sceneâ¦. He was already deceasâno. No pursuit.” His fingers ran raggedly through his damp dark hair. “The man at the wheel was alreadyâ¦I agree. Dead men don't drive as a rule. But
in this sitâNo, the shooter is notâ¦. We have a tentativeâ¦. During a struggle. Drug dealâ¦. We don't know that yetâ¦. I don't know, ma'am. We'll certainly check into it. Thank you for the information. I'm sure the chief and internal affairs will be glad toâ¦. If someone knows something differââ¦Bring them in by all meansâ¦Why wouldn't they want to talk to us? It's the right thing to doâ¦. Well, I'm sorry to hear thatâ¦. Feel freeâ¦. Ojeda,
. Badge number fourteen-ten. Thank you so much.”
He snapped the small phone shut and summoned the patrolmen sent to check the crowd. “Okay, anybody who tells you or somebody else that they saw something, heard something, or think they know somebody who mighta saw or heard, or
they saw or heard something, get 'em down to the station and take their statements. The community relations board is already on our backs. Check with the guys at the initial scene, see what kinda witnesses they have, and if they found the piston from the shotgun shell. The wad is probably still in the car.”
He returned to Wanda and offered a new ensemble for her consideration, curling his wrists as he unfurled it, like a high-fashion designer pitching an original: a plastic-and-paper sunshine-yellow biohazard suit. Every patrol car is equipped with one.
As he awaited her approval, the driver from Double Eagle Towing arrived, waved cheerfully, strolled up to the Buick, and peered inside.
Wanda yelped in indignation. “What they doing with that tow truck? Git that outa heah! They can't take that car. My mama ain't got nothin' to do with this! I tol' you I needed to git it back to her by nine.” She squinted impatiently at her watch, then stared at it for a long moment. So did I. Both the timepiece and her arm were encrusted with blood and what appeared to be bone splinters. Her head swiveled, eyes darting wildly at the people conducting the routine tasks sudden death generates. Her
shriek, a bloodcurdling, god-awful cry, momentarily froze them in their tracks. Frantically, she tried to wipe her arm clean with the other hand, then saw that it, too, was bloody. She peered down at her clothes, then lunged as if trying to shake off the mess. She whirled, howling and writhing, into a horrible dance, as though trying to escape her own skin.