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A triple homicide was a hell of a way to start a Monday morning, Tony Ceola thought as he eased his Chevy Impala to the side of the street. A patrol unit was parked in front of the house, blocking the driveway. The officer who'd caught the call leaned against the back fender, yellow-and-black crime-scene tape fluttering in the light breeze, his face mottled shades of green.
Fat leather attache slung over one shoulder, Tony greeted him with a nod. He glanced at the Cadillac in the driveway, then checked out the piss-yellow Ford across the street. It belonged to Frank Simmons, fellow detective and general goofball, but not a bad guy. There were worse guys to work a triple homicide with.
As he started up the driveway, Simmons stepped out onto the porch and took a deep breath. "You know, Chee, there oughta be a law against killing people in the middle of a heat wave."
"There's laws against a lot of shit. Some people just don't obey them."
"Imagine that." Simmons gestured toward the Caddy. "Look familiar?"
"Make my day and tell me it belongs to Mykle Moore."
"Who else you know drives a fuckin' tank like gas ain't nearly two bucks a gallon? He's inside, and his partners in crime are with him. I already got a call in to the M.E. and the crime-scene unit."
"Banks and Washington? They just got arrested the other day. I thought they were in jail awaiting trial."
"Ain't you heard?" Simmons snorted. "The district attorney installed revolving doors down there to speed up the process of getting these poor misguided souls back out on the street. Let's get started, son. They're already swellin' and smellin', and it ain't gonna get any better."
Taking one last deep clean breath, Tony followed Simmons inside. The stench of death was strong, but not yet overpowering. Grover Washington, lucky to have lived long enough to see thirty-two, five-feet-nine-inches tall and about that across, sporting a shiny gold ring in his left ear and a shinier gold tooth, lay sprawled in the middle of the floor, looking for all the world like a rag doll tossed aside, except for the large-caliber holes in his chest and the blood pooled around his torso.
The second corpse was Walter Banks, twenty-seven, guilty of at least four murders, but too slick to get convicted even once. He was seated on a ratty old couch, his head tilted back. He could have been asleep if not for the fact that he was wearing most of his blood on his clothes.
The third victim, on the floor in front of the side window, was the youngest at eighteen. Mykle Moore had been lean and wiry, with a baby face that couldn't even sprout a decent mustache, but he'd beaten his sister to death with a baseball bat for doing the nasty with one of his competitors. Now that face bore a gunshot wound in the forehead, and an exit wound from a second shot dead center in the chest.
Next to each body was a calling card with a one-word message: Repent. They would bag them, of course, but Tony already knew what the lab would find--standard playing-card size, printed on common index cards by the best-selling brand of printer in America. No fingerprints, no smudges, no clues.
"Maybe somebody should explain to this guy that it's real hard to repent with a bullet in your brain."
Simmons snorted again. "I hope not. He might stop putting those bullets there, and then where would we be?"
"Not so bogged down in cases is where," Tony retorted.
"Hey, you and me, we do our best to take this scum off the streets, and the justice system"--Simmons said it as an epitaph--"puts 'em right back out there. Our vigilante is taking 'em off the street permanently. Any way you look at it, that's justice."
"Any way you look at it, that's murder." Tony set his bag down on the floor, pulled on a pair of powder-free latex gloves, then took out a camera. CSU would photograph everything, but he liked taking his own pictures, as well, to ensure he got every shot he wanted, at the angles he wanted. He snapped off long shots of the room and close-ups of the bodies, the windowsill, and the calling cards, then crouched near Washington's body.
Considering all the misery Grover had caused--the drugs he'd dealt, the people he'd killed, the assaults and intimidation and rapes--lying dead on the floor of an abandoned house was as much justice as anyone could hope for. Too easy a death, some would say, but in the end, dead was dead.
A card lay faceup on the torn linoleum, its top edge just touching the pool of congealed blood. Repent. Had he? Had he known what was coming and had time to say a prayer?
Tony doubted it. The only way to take out these guys was by surprise. They were always armed--MasterGun, Grover had frequently joked. Never leave home without it. No weapons were visible on any of the bodies, but no doubt they would turn up once the M.E.'s guy was ready to tag 'em and bag 'em.
"What do you say, man?" Simmons looked up from his own examination of Walter Banks. "Let's call it 'death due to natural causes' and go get some breakfast."
It didn't get much more natural for people like these, Tony thought. Those who lived by the sword died by it.
"Looks like a .45, maybe a .357," he remarked as he stood up.
"I'm surprised the guy didn't need an elephant gun to bring down ol' Grover here. He's a big mamou." Simmons grimaced. "You know we're gonna have to help load him up."
Tony straightened. His muscles were already protesting in anticipation as he backtracked to the door.
Presumably, the killer had been standing in the vicinity of the doorway when he'd opened fire. None of the victims had expected trouble, or they would have had their weap-ons drawn, and surely one of them would have gotten off at least one shot. Had the shooter walked in on them without warning? Or had they been expecting him, if not the gunshots? Banks hadn't had time or, just guessing, reason to rise from the couch, and Grover had been on his feet, facing the door. Looking at someone who had just come in?
"What about the brass?" he asked, turning his gaze to the floor in search of shell casings. "You see any?"
"Not a one. But a .357 wouldn't eject 'em, and a .45 . . . a pro would take 'em."
"Anyone who watches C.S.I. would take 'em." TV had taught people more than they needed to know about criminal investigations. Fortunately, crooks didn't tend to be quick learners.
Switching the camera to his left hand, Tony flipped on a flashlight and played the beam over the floor to his right. Rubbish was piled against the wall--beer cans, fast-food wrappers, used rubbers, a couple hypodermic needles. Punks came here to get drunk, get laid, and get high in relative comfort.
He'd never been that horny or that desperate in his life.
Before he faced the task of sorting through the trash, he turned a hundred and eighty degrees, then crouched, lighting up the floor in the opposite corner. The angled beam highlighted a half-dozen faint shoeprints in the dust. Maybe their shooter hadn't walked in on his victims, but had been here waiting for them. Standing in the corner of the darkened room, a person could go unobserved by anyone who entered. Then it would have been a simple matter of stepping out, gun in hand, and blowing the bastards away.
He finished off the roll of film, then studied the clearest footprint while reloading the camera. It looked to be about a size eleven--his own size--and unremarkable. A dress shoe, probably, with no markings or obvious defects. Too bad it wasn't a running shoe with the fancy tread patterns common to that type. That would make it easy to identify the brand and style.
On the other hand, probably ninety percent of the population in northeast Oklahoma wore running shoes, including all three victims. The size-eleven-dress-shoe group was significantly smaller.
"I'm gonna talk to the kid outside," he said, peeling off his gloves and trading the camera for a notebook and pen as Simmons raised a hand in acknowledgment.
As soon as he stepped off the porch and took a breath, Tony realized just how bad the air inside was. His rough guess was that the bodies had been closed up in the house a day or so. With the temperature expected to hit the mid-nineties, after another twenty-four hours, they probably would have been able to catch a whiff of the stench at the station downtown.
The patrol officer had regained some color. Tony leaned against the car next to him. "First homicide?"
The kid nodded.
"I'm Tony Ceola." He stuck out his hand, and the kid shook it, mumbling his own name. "What brought you here, Petry?"
"A neighbor reported a suspicious vehicle parked in front of the house. Said the place has been empty for years. Kids use it to party, but they usually don't stick around during the day."
Tony was surprised anyone had bothered. This was a rough neighborhood in a tough part of town, the houses so shabby that it was hard to tell the abandoned ones from those still occupied. It wasn't an area where it paid to show too much interest in what went on.
"So you came over and . . . ?"
"Walked up on the porch. The door was partly open. I called out, but no one answered, and I was about to go inside when I smelled . . ." His face took on that puke-sick tinge again, and his Adam's apple bobbed. "Anyway, I decided to look in the window instead, and I saw . . ." He finished with a limp gesture.
"You didn't go inside?"
"Have you touched anything inside or out?"
"Talked to anyone? Seen anyone?"
Petry shook his head.
"Okay. If we need anything else, we know where to find you. You can clear and go
Grateful, the kid pushed away from the car, got in, and drove away. A white van pulled into the space he'd vacated and the driver jumped out. Pete Wolenska was an investigator for the M.E.'s office--tall, lanky, with a cast-iron stomach and thick glasses that gave him a bug-eyed look. He'd made it as far as the second year of medical school before deciding the doctor route wasn't the way he wanted to go. He'd taken a temporary job with the medical examiner while he figured out what he did want, and had been there ever since. "Hey, Chee. We got three D.B.s?"
"Yeah. Small, medium, and super-jumbo size."
"Shit." Wolenska pulled a gurney from the back of the van, tossed three body bags and a tackle box on top of it, then started pushing it toward the driveway. "I should've let the geek take this one. I've already met my quota this month."
"The geek" was the M.E.'s newest investigator, and it was an apt description. The guy was short, scrawny, and personality-free. It was like the pot calling the kettle black, though, when Wolenska was nothing but a taller version himself.
They hadn't made it halfway up the drive when the crime-scene unit arrived. Tony would have preferred to let them all go inside while he started canvassing the neighborhood, but pronouncing the victims would take about ten seconds, CSU would take their pictures, and then it would be time to move the bodies. Everyone would be royally pissed if he was off chatting up the neighbors instead of helping.
Wolenska left the gurney at the bottom of the steps, walked through the door, and stopped to sniff the air. "Yup, they're dead."
"And it took you six years of college to figure that out?" Simmons called from the living room.
"Sorry, Wo, you're not my type," Simmons retorted.
"Who is?" That came from a crime-scene tech, a cute little blonde named Marla.
As Tony stepped into the room once more, the stench struck him anew, making his throat tighten and his breathing go shallow. He forced himself to ignore it and began filling out evidence tags while Wolenska bent over the first body.
"Definitely dead. Twenty-four hours maybe, no more than forty-eight. You want the hands bagged, Chee? The way he's starting to putrefy, we might not get anything, but it's your call."
"Yeah, bag 'em." The M.E. could test for gunshot residue, which would tell them if any of the victims had fired a weapon recently. These three had liked guns and their ability to frighten, intimidate, and destroy.
"Grover Washington, Mykle Moore, and Walter Banks." Marla stood beside Tony and took the evidence tags from him to slap on the paper bags Wolenska was securing over the victims' hands. "Can you think of three more deserving victims?"
"Not offhand." He filled out the last set of tags--case number, victim's name, left hand, right hand--then glanced at Marla. She barely reached five-feet-six on her tiptoes and hardly cast a shadow in the bright June sun, but she was tough, tenacious, dedicated, and smart as hell--all the qualities he admired in a woman. Too bad it took more than good times and great sex to satisfy her.
"When are you and What's-his-name getting married?"
"His name is Richard."
"Oh, yeah. Dickless."
"The wedding's at the end of the month." She tilted her head. "Why? You want to make a better offer?"
"We couldn't agree on what constituted 'better' two years ago. What makes you think anything's changed?"
"Because in the future you'll be thinking of me longingly as the one who got away." Neither her tone nor manner changed as she gestured around the room. "What do you want pictures of?" she asked, then chimed in with him. "Everything."
"Smart-ass," he added.
"Anything in particular you want us to pay attention to?"
"Footprints in the dust over there. I think the shooter was hiding in the corner and surprised them. Here're the pictures I took. I'll stop by and pick them up later." He handed over the film. "Also, check the window frames for prints. If he was waiting inside, he might have looked out to watch for them."
"Our vigilante's been a busy boy," the other crime-scene tech, Flint, remarked. "How many does this make?"
"Six," Wolenska said at the same time Tony answered, "Seven."
Silence settled in the room as everyone looked at him. It was no secret that he was the only one in the department who thought Bryan Hayes's murder was also the vigilante's handiwork. Hayes had been the fourth to die, killed the week before, but beyond his involvement in the drug trade, the circumstances were completely different. The others had been killed in locations like this--empty buildings, abandoned houses--while Hayes had died at home in midtown Tulsa. Calling cards had been left with the other bodies, but not with Hayes's. The others had been shot with a large caliber weapon while Hayes's wounds had come from a .22. The other crime scenes were short on evidence, while they had a witness and a possible partial tag number in the Hayes case.