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Home Sweet Homicide

11:30 A.M. APD Homicide Squad Briefing Room

A newspaper story on police brutality prompted the Fifth Floor to bring in a conflict avoidance consultant who lectured us on the levels of force. He left his chart on the wall:


Jeffries added a final level in grease pencil:

4. Beating suspect to death.

Senior Sergeant Lloyd "Buck" Jeffries, lead cracker, waddled in, tossing a sneer in my direction, followed by sidekick Milsap, and sat opposite me. Both wore cowboy boots, their badges and guns cleverly concealed under Buddha-size guts. Jeffries slicked his reddish-brown hair back from his ruddy face with what could have been lard. He was the bigger and fatter of the two, but no bigger than our CO. "I weigh more, but Jeffries is fatter, " Miles told me once. "He thinks fat. Jeffries has a fat soul."

I assaulted Jeffries a few weeks earlier for a comment he made during our last full-squad case, the ice cream killings. Somebody robbed an ice cream joint at closing, then covered his trail by torching the place and killing the staff, four teenage white girls, what the press likes to call "innocent victims."

In the months after Joey died I drank every night. When my number came up on the ice cream thing, I couldn't pull it together to take charge. Miles pulled me from the case, the first black mark on my record. The second came a week later when I found Jeffries in a taco joint, letting loose with some ideas about Mexicans. I told him to cool it. Jeffries jolted to see me, then grinned, oozing malice. "Didn't mean nothin' by it, Reles. I like Mexican barbecue!" Suddenly the image of Joey Velez's charred body flashed across my eyes. My skin ran hot, the fury bubbled up in my chest and it burst to the surface before I saw it coming.

Jeffries was out of commission for two days. "I didn't do nothin'," he told Miles. "Damn Jew walks in and goes psycho on me." Miles suspended me immediately. The rage I'd learned as a kid, that had cost me my marriage, now jeopardized my job. Jeffries always hated Joey Velez for being Mexican, marrying a white woman, making Senior Sergeant first, and God knows what else. He hated me from the day Joey mentored me onto the squad, a New York Jew college boy. And now he hated me for knocking the shit out of him in front of witnesses. And fresh back from suspension, I had two strikes on my record—fucking up on the case and assaulting Jeffries. He'd do anything to help me get that third strike.

The secret about the rumor of my insanity was that it was partly true. In the months after Joey's death there were days I couldn't form a whole sentence, nights I woke up screaming from my dreams. I'd see flashes of Joey everywhere. A moment's thought made me realize it was just my imagination, but my imagination was as vivid as my nightmares: I dreamed almost as much awake as I did asleep. Sometimes it was hard to know the difference.

So after suspension I vowed to pull it together. I couldn't make myself sane, so I decided to act sane. What cop would know the difference? If it seemed like people were laughing at me, I'd act like they weren't. No way of knowing if I imagined it or not. And if I saw Joey I'd remind myself he wasn't there. But when acting crazy might give me an advantage, I wouldn't pass it up.

Internal Affairs determined the squad had "internal rancor" and bounced Jeffries's buddy, Marks, back to Vice. Velez and Marks got replaced by Lonnie Waller from Vice and James Torbett from Narcotics. Torbett was black—you could hear jaws drop the first time he walked into the squad room. No surprise he didn't laugh off the nigger jokes Jeffries liked to tell when he was feeling warm and friendly.

The squad settled into the Briefing Room. Torbett sat on the left, solid build, five-ten, thirty-nine, gray suit and tie, every muscle in his face clenched high-blood-pressure tight. In interviews he put on this "don't mind me I'm just a sleepy cop" face. But his silences during bullshitting sessions won him the suspicion of the squad and the nickname "Reverend" behind his back.

Between Torbett and me sat Lonnie Waller, a neat, goofy, low-key brownshoe with plastic-frame glasses, thinning sandy hair, forty or so; divorced, no kids, no accent. Born in Utah, Waller might have been considered suspect by the squad of Texans, but my New York accent and swarthy complexion took the heat off him so I think he was grateful. He was sharp and quick-witted in a way that no one else on Homicide was, and it made me want to see him as a co-conspirator, two immigrants on a squad of shitkickers.

Torbett and Waller got partnered together a lot since they joined Homicide at the same time, but nothing between them smelled like friendship. Partnerships on the force were unofficial: you could get teamed with someone for as little as a ten-minute interview if it suited the case. I didn't stick with anyone for more than a day after Joey died and I didn't plan on it. But if I did, Waller was first in line.

Jake Lund was a wiry computer information search specialist with a badge and a gun. A fresh haircut gave away the forceps marks in his skull-the outside world didn't interest him from the start—and he sat across from Torbett with a Dr. Pepper and a box of Jujubes. He traded regular duties when he could for the privilege of chasing information on the computer or the phone. These trades were strictly verboten but he was worth more in the office so the brass let it slide.

Our CO sat down last, on my right. Lieutenant Miles Niederwald, head of Homicide, forty-six but could pass for sixty, two-hundred and fifty pounds under a stooped back and wisps of white hair flaked with dandruff specks the size of maggots. A professional drunk, Miles white-knuckled it until lunch, then painfully rationed enough drinks to get through the day without passing out or getting the shakes. Once I asked him if he ever drank water and he grimaced. "Fish fuck in it."

At Joey's memorial, Miles kept me from following Joey's wife, Rachel, when she walked out on the eulogy, delivered by newly appointed police chief Lucille Denton: "...years of service, shining example." Denton didn't say Joey was a credit to his race but I could tell she wanted to. When she got up to her friendship with Joey (they never met), Rachel made a good clip up the aisle and pushed out the double doors. Miles's fat hand grabbed me as I jumped up to follow. "Don't," he said. "Everyone'll think you're screwin' her."

Miles wore the look of defeat you see on older cops outranked by women, in this case Chief Lucille Denton, a fifty-something heel-clopping office-manager type from California. Her name brought a scowl to his face. She was at APD less than a year and her strong suit was looking good on TV: most of APD wanted to see how good she looked on pavement, outlined in chalk.

Miles Niederwald the CO, Jeffries and Milsap the crackers, Jake the geek, Torbett the reverend, Waller the joker and Reles the nut: all present and accounted for. Used to be Joey would lead the briefing and I'd toss in useful details. Not today. The room reeked of ammonia. Jake chewed Jujubes, Waller flicked the flint on his lucky Zippo lighter, Jeffries spit tobacco juice into a Coke bottle, all watching to see what crazy Reles would do. Waller leaned toward me with a grin and whispered, "I bet Jake twenty bucks you'd flip out before the end of the briefing. Do it and we'll split the difference." I swigged coffee, killed half the fluorescents and lit up a slide of the underpass. I said, "Case Number 88-09-12-H-OO26."

"25," Jeffries said.

"Waller's murder-suicide was 25, this is 26. Victim found in the ravine under the 700 block of East Twelfth, arms, legs and head missing, neck missing, skinned around the midriff." I lit up the autopsy slide, the mutilated torso on Hay's table, the strip around the middle exposing a four-inch-high view of her stomach, intestines, et cetera. Not a sound in the room. "All we got is female, white or possibly light-skinned Latina, likely brunette, late teens or early twenties, and blood typing info. ABO: A-negative. PGM: one neg. Genotype: AH. Phenotype: A. EAP: BA. Date of birth: say '65 to '71 at the outside. Dead three or four days, refrigerated. Keep an eye out for more parts we can match, similar actions in the past."

Miles moved close to me, but not so close as to keep anybody from hearing him. "Tell 'em the rest."

"Thanks, Miles. From the damage to her uterus," autopSy slide, "she had human papilloma virus and chlamydia, and she had 'em for a while." I could see them mentally putting on rubber gloves.

"Tell 'em the rest."

I made a note to scratch Miles off my Christmas card list. "Enlarged liver and kidney discoloration, likely alcohol and drug abuse." Their interest in the case was already slipping—cops want to think they're avenging an innocent—but I couldn't let Miles prompt me again so I gave them the works. "Multiple strains of semen in the vagina, no violent penetration. And multiple strains of semen in her stomach." Burst of laughter from the squad. Belly full of spunk, just another whore killing. "We don't assume she was a whore," I said as the chuckles wound down. "And if she was, there's still a law against killing her."

We took turns being in charge, but most homicides were more straightforward and didn't warrant more than one or two officers. This was my first full-squad case without Joey, not counting the ice cream killings. If we didn't nail it fast, I'd be rotated off the squad before the file got closed—unsolved. I left the lights off, the projector humming and the autopsy slide on the screen. "Whoever left these remains in Shit Creek had no trouble getting rid of the rest of the body. Al's Corpse Disposal and Dog Food Factory wasn't gonna take the arms and legs and refuse the torso. And if they did, no one would drop it in a heavily trafficked area six blocks from HQ unless they wanted it to be found."

Torbett: "You saying he was trying to get caught?"

I shrugged.

Waller: "Maybe he's a psycho."

Jeffries: "Or just really stupid."

Me: "Who'd be smart enough to cut up the body that neat and stupid enough to leave it where he did?" No answers. "Think out loud. No points off for stupid ideas."

Jake: "Someone trying to send a message?"

Me: "To who? No one would know who the victim was."

Torbett: "Gang related?"

Everyone: "There are no gangs in Austin." Universal laughter, except Reverend Torbett.

Jake: "Sex crime?"

Me: "Maybe. She could have been kidnapped and used for a sex slave, but for how long? Factor in the advanced stages of multiple sexually transmitted diseases, absence of violent penetration." Jeffries chewed that thought, then spit a long stream of tobacco juice into his bottle.


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