Read The 9th Hour (The Detective Temeke Crime Series Book 1) Online
Authors: Claire Stibbe
Whatever it was behind that chair was more afraid than she was. A small child perhaps, shivering with terror, or a war veteran suffering from some type of trauma.
“Sure I’m scared,” Malin whispered out loud as if answering a question. “I’m scared of the dark. I’m scared of china dolls and their blinking eyes. I’m scared of going barefoot into the sea. But I’m more scared of what I can’t see.”
A sigh. Not a human sigh. The heater had stopped. And then her flashlight went out. She could smell sweat and fear, and she caught the glint of a knife just as something hit her, sending her head against the door frame.
The flashlight fell from her hand, a loud thud against the floor. Arms wrapped around her, dragging her backwards against the wall. There was hardly any room to move between his body and hers, but she strained and wriggled until she managed to reach up, clawing his face and jerking up a knee.
A scream of pain as her assailant broke free, trying to find the door knob, hands swishing along the wall. She crouched, fingers swinging out wildly across the floor until she grabbed the flashlight. Swinging it like a club, she heard the groan and a sharp crack of bone, only that didn’t seem to stop him. He prized the door open and slipped out into the hall.
It wouldn’t be the first time someone clipped the side of her head with a weapon, leaving her senseless on the floor. Only this man saw fit to fly up the stairs, taking three steps at a time.
Tall, she thought. And fit.
She settled herself to channel her shame, angry he had got away so easily. If he went upstairs, chances were he would have to come down again, although she wondered why he didn’t just race through the front door. Light came from a crescent window in the hallway and it was then she noticed the door was armed with three tumbler locks and a solid chain.
That was why.
Malin peered up the stairs. Pitch black. No noise. She steered a tiptoeing course through a pile of boxes in the hallway, some leaning at an angle as if ready to topple. There was a kitchen on the south side and what appeared like a conservatory at the back of the living room. Dead plants, feathery plants. That’s all she could see through the aisle of brown cardboard boxes.
She inched out a little further and stood at the foot of the stairs. There was a crack of light beneath the bedroom door. At least, she assumed it was a bedroom.
And then she heard it.
Light clumping footsteps as if someone was pacing back and forth, voice muffled. There was no variance in the noise. He wasn’t coming downstairs and if he wasn’t coming downstairs, she would have to go up.
She tried the first step, soft, carpeted. The second and the third made no noise and she was halfway up with her gun poised when she heard his voice.
“I’ve never seen it before.”
“I don’t know anything about that either. It’s the first time I’ve seen it.”
“It’s cold, everywhere’s cold. Don’t you have your heater on?”
A muffled voice and then a grunt. Malin cocked an ear, wondering if the man was on the phone.
“I’m not going back inside―”
The door burst open before she had time to move and there was Temeke, pushing a gangly youth down the stairs and cuffing him with one hand.
“Meet Podger the lodger,” Temeke said with a grin. “Found him skulking about in the cupboard with a cardboard box. Isn’t that right, Podge?”
“It’s Steve Pogar,” the young man said.
“Oh, got a first name now. Always polite in front of the ladies, isn’t that so Podge? Trouble is,” Temeke said to Malin, “he wasn’t lodging, he was trespassing, fiddling about with evidence.”
“I didn’t know it was evidence,” the young man said.
“Well it was. And in case you were wondering, breaking and entering’s a crime.”
“Then how did
get in?” The young man asked, shoulder brushing past Malin.
“Same way you did, son. Listen, where’s the rest of her?”
“Rest of who? I just came over the wall for a smoke. Where are you taking me?”
“You can ask the judge. Prison’s not a nice place, son. Every hole’s a goal. It might help to know a few throws and take downs. What’s that smell?”
“What smell?” Podge said.
“Bleeding Nora, you trying to cover up a bit of weed with some spray-on gasoline?” Podge went quiet then, lips pressed into a thin line. Temeke tapped Malin on the shoulder. “By the way, there’s a head in that box. Whatever you do don’t touch it.”
Malin nearly gagged, although not half as much as she did when she saw it. A bloated face looked up at her, all teeth and blind staring eyes. A silver earring dangled in her left ear, a disk engraved with the number eight. She struggled to control her stomach and snapped the lid shut.
Slumping down on a small antique chair, she rocked gently to the rhythm of her breaths. There was a photograph on the dresser, a girl with long dark hair and pale, faraway eyes.
Patti Lucero. She wore no earrings then.
It was the writing on the back of the photograph that brought the bile to her throat.
Ole, you are the burning, glowing flame in my heart, Patti.
Tucking it in her pocket, Malin ran downstairs past the other boxes not wanting to look inside. She couldn’t look inside. She’d really throw up if she did.
There was a gush of cool air coming from the back of the house and slipping through another tower of cardboard boxes, she found herself in the kitchen. On the countertop was a plump, wooden figurine, a Santa Claus with his mouth shaped in a small O. It was a handcrafted incense smoker. Probably helped to take away the stench.
The back door yawned open since the screws from a heavy duty padlock had been wrenched out of the jam. Temeke was in the front yard talking to the suspect and he eyed her with a cool nod.
“There’s gasoline all over the front room,” she said, panting out the words. “It’s everywhere.”
“Do me a favor,” Temeke said, cocking his head at the sound of a radio. “Hop over the wall and answer that, will you? Sounds like Hackett’s having a coronary.”
Malin left Temeke to his relentless mocking and climbed over the wall. The car radio had been begging for attention to an empty car and she snatched up the handset. “Santiago.”
“Finally! Where’s Temeke?” It was Sergeant Moran with a bleat in his voice.
She gave Sarge the exact location and filled him in with what had happened. There was an edge to her voice she couldn’t define and her hands were shaking.
You’ve done more murder cases than Perry Mason,
she kept telling herself. Only she hadn’t, not one like this. Not one where human heads had been packed in cardboard boxes and some pimply youth was trying to burn the evidence.
It was twenty-five minutes before the field investigators were inside taking samples and dusting for prints. Cameras whirred and flashed, and there was an eerie silence as the axe was wrapped in an evidence bag.
Temeke wandered off outside for a smoke. She saw him through the window, sitting on a tree stump, eyes turned up to the sky. He took one drag before grinding the cigarette under his shoe. Probably thought better of it with all that gasoline inside.
The field deputy medical investigator tapped her on the shoulder and smiled. He was a tall man with short gray hair, eyes a watery blue. “Name’s Joe Vasillion and this is Jennifer Danes with the Journal.” He nodded at a brunette, hair in a bun, large green eyes.
,” she said as an afterthought. She shook Jennifer’s hand, saw a strange sparkle in her eye. She was pretty, probably sleeping with the doctor.
Vasillion’s voice was clipped, a walking, talking academic. She hadn’t seen many of those since leaving New Jersey. And he was handsome, too.
“Well, Malin, it looks like the head’s been in the house for about three days. Probably around the time she was killed.”
“And our suspect’s been inside longer than that,” she said more to herself than to them. “What’s in the black bag, the one in the front room?”
“Hard to say. Come over to the car, will you?”
Malin complied, sensing he was unwilling to talk in front of Jennifer. The doctor laid the box in the back of his car and opened the flaps. He prodded the flesh with a latex covered finger.
“She’s young,” he said, studying the mouth. “Could be anywhere between fourteen and eighteen. My guess is she was decapitated with that axe. Blade’s been cleaned, of course, but there’re traces of wood chips around her neck. Might be a wooden block around here somewhere.”
Malin’s head was beginning to swim and she steadied herself against the car. “That’s barbaric.”
“Take a walk and some deep breaths,” Vasillion said, closing up the box.
“Is this her?” Malin said, showing him the photograph.
“Can’t say,” he said. “Tell Temeke I’ll call him later.”
Malin clutched her stomach as the car pulled out, wondering what it was that made Vasillion such a genius. From what she’d read, he was certified in anatomic, clinical and forensic pathology, a fellow of the Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators. Quite breathtaking, she thought, hardly feeling Temeke’s hand on her shoulder.
“I think someone asked Podge to get rid of the evidence.” Temeke held up a finger as Jennifer tried to snap a photo of them. He took Malin around the side of the car and away from the path of the camera lens.
“Attempted arson?” she said.
Temeke nodded. “A regrettable coincidence we dropped round when we did. Looks like he took quite a beating. There’s a nasty lump on his head and a scratch on his cheek. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”
“He tried to attack me, sir. What was I supposed to do?” Malin tried to swallow but there was no spit in her mouth. “Are there any other remains?”
“Nothing. They found a metal hook, tablespoons, bongs, roach clips. I just wish I knew what happened to the rest of her.” He turned at the sound of the doctor’s car horn and waved. “I see you met Vasillion, our resident CMI.”
Malin nodded. She tried to ignore the sting of wind in her eyes as she waved, tried to ignore the fact that the Chief Medical Investigator would make a poor second best to the man beside her. Detective Temeke was all brawn
brains, and fine eloquent lines on a beautifully sculpted face.
“I found this gas bill in the kitchen made out to Morgan Eriksen,” Temeke said, flapping two envelopes in his hand and thrusting them at her. “The other’s a rental agreement from a Kelly Coldwell. Find out what you can.”
Malin handed him the photograph and watched him turn it over. “She was in love with him.”
“That was quick, Marl. Congratulations.”
“She didn’t know what he was, sir.”
“Killers can be devils. But so can the police.”
Malin walked back to the car and pulled the keys out of her trouser pocket. She glanced back one last time toward the house, nose twitching with the faint scent of gasoline.
The vision that popped into her head then was worse than morning breath on a pillow and she stumbled as she reached for the door frame.
“Temeke. When you went out for a smoke, what were you sitting on?”
Darryl sat in a pew at Clemency Baptist Church, watching his girls in the front row of the choir. His sister, Maisie, stood in the back row, warbling like a canary and waving her arms about.
“Detective said he wasn’t the right man,” he said, fighting back a yawn. “Said he couldn’t have done it.”
“Then he knows the man that did,” Pastor Razz said. “Remember what I said about forgiveness?”
Darryl nodded. “I finally forgave my dad for dying.”
“Well good for you. ‘Cos he couldn’t exactly help it with cancer and all.”
“Someone’s been following me, stalking me. I can feel it.”
“Nobody’s following you, son.”
“I’ve seen footprints in my back yard. Killer’s footprints.”
“How do you know they’re not yours?”
Darryl shook his head. A wave of sadness bubbled up from the pit of his mind, blotting out any joy he could possibly have. “I’ll kill him when I see him.”
“No you won’t.” Razz leaned back, head tilted up at the vaulted ceiling. “They all say that at the beginning. They’re all full of hate and bravado, jumping around and pumping the air. But they never do it. It’s not worth spending the rest of your life in the same prison as the man that took her. That would be a hell on earth.”
“It’s hell now.”
“What happens if that man asked God to forgive him one day? How would you feel if he sat next to you at the wedding feast?”
“He won’t sit next to me at the wedding feast.”
“What if there was a seating plan? God’s got a sense of humor, you know.”
Darryl thought about it for a moment and stretched out his legs. It wasn’t funny. None of it was funny. But it would just be his luck if God decided to write out a pair of place names in big flowery letters. Darryl and…
What was the man’s name?
“What if they never find him?” he said. “What if the case goes cold?”
“Pray about it.”
Darryl didn’t know how to pray. And he wasn’t about to start. Prayer had been the one thing Maisie begged him to do, to pray every day no matter the circumstances.
Maisie. Big-hearted Maisie.
She looked after his girls when his wife died. Stepped right in and took over. And when he was too depressed to make them their lunch, too depressed to kiss them goodnight and too depressed to watch a cartoon now and then, she was there to stand in the gap.
“Say your wife’s name,” Razz said.
“Just say it.”
Darryl rarely said her name unless he was half-asleep. “Carmel,” he murmured. It felt strange after so many years.
“That’s a beautiful name. We nearly called our youngest
, only we didn’t think you could handle it.”
Darryl almost choked. His wife would have loved it. If only he had been less selfish. Less stubborn.
“Maisie’s a good woman,” Razz continued. “She’s a marvel. I don’t think she’s missed one practice in twenty-five years. Not
. If it hadn’t been for my beautiful Gloria, I might have married her.”
Darryl tried to swallow that down with a shudder. He couldn’t imagine Razz and Maisie. You know. Under a quilt. It just didn’t seem right to him.
“And I know what you’re thinking,” Razz said, patting his belly. “You’re thinking I’m a good looking guy. That Maisie would have jumped at the chance. Thing is though, she wanted to be a nun in Junior High.”
“Yeah, a nun. She said she didn’t want to play the
. You know, the one where the woman pretends to be all mysterious and the man can’t help himself because all that secret stuff’s driving him crazy.”
Darryl had no idea what Razz meant. He couldn’t remember a day when his late wife had ever played games, except chess perhaps. She was good at chess.
“You’re lucky to have her, Darryl. It could have been worse.”
What was worse than this? Darryl smothered a yawn and glanced at his watch. “Feel like going for a drive in my Comet next week?” he asked, studying Razz’s wide smiling face. It was the color of well-done steak and there were more jowls on him than a bulldog.
“If they’ll let me out of the booth at Lightwalk. I’m beginning to wonder if anyone ever listens.”
Darryl enjoyed the show, a combination of bible study and light comedy kicking out at the televangelists of the seventies. Razz had excellent delivery, especially in church. “Of course they listen. Got higher ratings than that weather man and his dogs on Channel 4. You could slice a demon in half with your wit.”
They shook hands and Razz made his way to the front of the church to congratulate the music leader on another hour of trilling and jumping about. He felt like he’d spent the greater part of his weekend in church.
As he drove home, he barely listened to the girls in the back seat, voices raised to a joke or two. Maisie was quiet beside him, fingers pinching her nose. The Comet was stinking of oil again, stronger this time than before.
He turned off McMahon and swung into San Timoteo, pulling into the first house after a vacant lot. It was made of brick and stucco, evoking the desert southwest. He had grown to love the arches, the exposed beams and the floodlit courtyards. There were two blood-red ristras under the porch and a twist of Christmas lights around the vigas. Bought with his late wife’s life insurance money so there would always be a part of her there.
Maisie took the girls upstairs and he could hear them thumping along the corridors still singing How Great Thou Art. He poured himself a glass of milk and that’s when the phone gave a shrill ring.
“Darryl, this is Detective Temeke. Sorry to call you so late.”
The milk almost curdled in Darryl’s stomach. What could he possibly want at this time of night?
“I just wanted you to know there might be a newsflash tomorrow morning. We found another victim today. Partial remains.”
Darryl barely stuttered into the phone and he quickly found a chair at the kitchen table. “Where … where did you find her?”
“Over on the south side of town in a private house. The doctor said it was the same cause of death. Only it looks like our man left a bit of himself behind so to speak.”
Darryl had the beginnings of a nasty headache and began to massage one temple. “When you say a bit of himself―”
“A few strands of hair and some blood. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We need to find a match first. In any case, it was the newsflash I was worried about.” Darryl heard the long drag of a cigarette on the other end of the phone and then, “But we think it’s the same guy.”
“How did she die?”
“Manual strangulation. And then she was decapitated.”
Darryl felt a bubble in his throat like a large bloat of gas and he thought he was going to throw up. “If Morgan Eriksen’s inside, he couldn’t have―”
“The remains could be older.”
“So he could have done it.”
“He could, yes. I’ll be seeing him again tomorrow.”
“I’d like to see him.” The words were out of Darryl’s mouth before he could stop them. “Face to face.”
“You and I both know that wouldn’t be a good idea, sir. You have a good evening now.”
Darryl heard the soft click as the phone went dead and he let out a long sigh. Somebody would be told soon their daughter had been found and that same somebody would be crying bitter tears just like he had. It was probably the same girl that was on the news a month ago, missing, lost.
He walked over to the kitchen window and saw the fir tree covered in a fresh fleece of snow. The lower branches bowed under the weight, some flicking upwards at the sudden release of their burden. The solar lights gleamed across the yard and bounced off a black shape that seemed to glide along the wall. It tumbled over the other side and down the embankment, perhaps to the arroyo.
A coyote? No, it didn’t move like a coyote. It was more rigid, like a man vaulting sideways, legs outstretched. Darryl leaned over the sink almost pressing his nose to the glass. He had to be seeing things again. Although, it wouldn’t hurt to look.
He opened the sliding glass doors on the back porch and in six long strides he was standing by the back wall, peering down into the arroyo. There was a path directly below and beyond that, sand mixed with snow and sagebrush.
Nothing moved. And then about a hundred yards to the left of Tuscany Park something did move in the shadows. Something lurching up a gravel incline toward Bandelier Drive.
Darryl saw the car lights red and small, and a steam of exhaust as the car spun into gear and headed south to who knows where. He couldn’t see the model but he heard the low rumble from a loud exhaust.
A performance muffler.
Darryl wondered if it was the same car he’d seen outside work, black, aggressive front-end. Camaro SS Coupe. It wasn’t like he would forget a car like that, the type that was on every teenage bedroom wall. If you made a thumbs up sign at the driver you were already part of an exclusive club and it was mutually understood you’d left yours at home.
Three nights ago the car was in the bank parking lot at closing time, all fired up and glowing. It was the same halo headlamps that followed him all the way to McMahon, the same glass-shattering roar, the same black tinted windows.
He’d never get to bed now, not with that Camaro in his head. Not when he knew someone was out there watching him.