SATURDAY, DECEMBER 5 -- 10:49 P.M.
A uniform named Nguyen is on the tape tonight. The flashing lights bounce off the reflective strips on his slicker. He cocks his head at my ID and gives me a sideways smile.
"Detective March," he says, adding my name to his log.
"I know you, don't I? You worked the Thomson scene last year."
"That was me."
"Good work, if I remember. You got a line on this one yet?"
"I haven't even been inside." He nods at the house over his shoulder. A faux Tuscan villa on Brompton in West University, just a couple of blocks away from the Rice village. "Nice, huh? Not the first place I'd expect to be called out to."
"You think death cares where you live?"
"I guess not. Answer me one thing: why the monkey suit?"
My hand-me-down tux, now speckled with light rain, stretches the definition of plainclothes. "It's a busy night, Nguyen, so they're pulling from off duty. They caught me at the wife's office Christmas gig. That snow yesterday drove the city a little crazy."
"Snow in Houston. Who woulda thought? But still--"
"I have a feeling the vic's not gonna mind."
"It's not the vic I'm thinking of."
He lifts the tape and I slip under, traipsing across the wet lawn.
The past ten years or so, deluxe mansions like this have proliferated. Stone and stucco. Tile roofing. Driveways of textured concrete. They're cropping up in the Heights, too. My neighborhood. At least they were before the market nosedived. Now the only thing proliferating are the foreclosure signs.
I pause inside the wood-and-glass double doors to shake the rain off my jacket, staring out at a sea of travertine newly muddied by a trail of HPD boot prints. All the lights are on. Wrought-iron chandeliers. Antique-looking lamps on side tables tucked in between an island of oversized couches. Through an arched partition I see more furniture and a floor-to-ceiling bookcase packed to the limit. What I don't see are any police.
A familiar voice calls: "Come on back, March."
Passing through nested living rooms and a modern steel-and-marble kitchen, I find a cluster of patrol officers facing a set of sliding glass doors. One of them is my old mentor, Sergeant Nixon, long in the tooth but canny as ever.
"Look who's here," he says, motioning me over. "They must've run out of detectives and sent us the Phantom of the Opera."
I glance down at my tux. "That bad?"
"What were you shooting for, dressed like that? James Bond?"
"Now you're just hurting my feelings, Nix. What's the situation here? Get me up to speed already."
He taps the glass door. "Out there's the scene. Body's half in the water. We're still waiting on everything--CSU, ME, you name it--but supposedly they're on the way. I kept my people inside, figuring you'd be happier that way. And it saves us from getting wet."
I squint through the rain-streaked pane. A long, narrow swimming pool glows aqua in the darkness, an inky cloud floating near one side, transected by a pair of pale, bare legs. The rest of the body, the part out of the water, is hard to make out.
"I'll get the lights," Nix says.
He flips a wall switch, activating a hedge of lamps planted around the edge of the yard. Some Christmas lights draped around a pergola start blinking, too.
I can see her now, facedown on the gray slate, her arms stretched out like she's reaching for something. Her skin shines bone white apart from the pattern of wounds flaying her back.
"I'm gonna take a look."
I deposit my battered leather briefcase on the kitchen island, then slide the door open to slip outside. Nixon follows me.
"Watch where you step."
He sighs. "Will do."
From inside, she looked naked, but as we edge closer I make out a pair of white shorts soaked through and tinted pink with blood. The waistband tepees out at the small of her back. Puncture wounds, long and thin, run up and down her spine and across the shoulders, too many to count. The kind a kitchen knife might make. Neat, too. In and out. Inflicted postmortem, probably, or they wouldn't be so uniform.
We crouch a few feet away.
Her brown hair is still damp, the tangled locks arranged to leave her face clear. One cheek pressed to the slate, the other waxy and pearlescent with rain. Her eyelids gently shut like they might blink open at any time. Like she might notice us suddenly and cover herself in embarrassment.
"She's young," I say.
"Twenty-four. Her name is Simone Walker. She was sort of a live-in houseguest here, helped out with the rent. The owner called in the body. Says she came home and found the girl like this. I've got her upstairs waiting to talk with you."
"Do me a favor, Nix. Cut the Christmas lights."
The swimming pool is special, not the square slab of chlorinated blue you see out in the suburbs. This one's long and thin, hedged with gray slate, concealed from the neighbors by the height of the house and a perimeter of tall fences lined with taller vegetation. At the back of the yard, a door leads into a cottage-sized garage. This isn't a crime scene. It's the cover of an architectural magazine. Like Nguyen said, not the kind of place you expect to be called to. Maybe death doesn't care where you live, but murder does. A lot.
I bend down, breaking the surface of the water with my fingertips. It's forty degrees outside in Houston, just a day after our unprecedented, seemingly impossible snowfall. But the water is warm to the touch. Of course it is. A heated pool.
Something under the water catches my eye. Beneath the ripple of light rain, at the shimmering bottom of the pool, one of the chairs from the set under the pergola lies on its side. An expensive sort of chair, metal framed with hardwood slats, the kind my wife would buy in a heartbeat if her old-money ancestors hadn't also passed down the miserly gene.
The Christmas lights cut off and Nix returns.
"What do you make of that?" I ask, pointing into the pool.
"Got me. Don't they tell people to put the lawn furniture in the pool when a hurricane's coming? To keep it from flying around or something."
"You think they were expecting a hurricane?"
He shrugs. "You're the detective."
The glass doors slide open and a uniform sticks his head out. "Crime scene van just rolled up, Sarge."
"Listen, Nix," I say, touching his arm. "It's bad enough I've got an outdoor scene, and rain on top of that. But people are gonna start showing up, and they'll all want a look at the body--"
"Say no more. Necessary personnel only."
He goes inside, leaving me alone. The glass door closes and for a moment the world is quiet. I glance around. As far as I can tell, everything looks right. The body's been posed, the scene has been arranged, but even that isn't so unusual. Apart from the chair, it's all what I'd expect to see. But it doesn't feel right and I don't know why.
Upstairs a female officer baby-sits the homeowner, a tall, thin woman in her mid-fifties dressed in a clingy black sweater and dark jeans. She stands at the window in the corner of a paper-strewn home office, peering down at the street outside, arms crossed, a pair of glasses dangling from one hand. The uniform looks relieved at my presence.
"Dr. Hill," she says, "this is the detective."
The woman turns, inspecting me through narrow eyes. Her lined face is scrubbed of makeup and framed by a severe black bob, the sharp fringe cutting across her eyebrows.
"I'm Roland March."
I hand her one of my cards, pausing to write my mobile number on the back. A ritual of introduction, performed by rote a dozen times a day. She studies the writing, then motions me into a nearby chair currently occupied by a tower of reference books.
"You can move those," she says.
I get the books sorted and prop my briefcase against the chair leg, its worn sides drooping miserably, the leather spotted with dried water. A gift from my wife years ago. The key long since missing, the lock broken, the flap held down by wraparound straps. Digging inside, I retrieve my equally battered Filofax, another of Charlotte's gifts.
"Do people still use these things?" the woman says. She reaches forward and snatches it away. "It was such a Yuppie affectation." She thumbs the snap open to look inside. "I thought everything was digital these days."
"Excuse me, ma'am." I hold my hand out politely.
"Sorry," she says, closing the binder and snapping it shut. "That's a bad idea, isn't it? Grabbing things from the police. But it's not like I took your gun or anything."
She speaks in a low, gravelly tone I've always found strangely attractive, one of those scotch-and-cigarettes voices, minus the foreign accent.
"It's okay," I say, opening the Filofax flat on my lap, turning to a fresh page. I take my digital recorder out, too, proving I'm not such a dinosaur. Frankly the Filofax is an affectation, something I found in an old box and decided to put back into service, handier than the usual notepads when it comes to arranging and rearranging pages. Unlike the recorder, it never needs recharging, either.
"Just have a seat for me, ma'am. I need to ask you some questions about the victim."
"I don't think I can sit. I can't stop moving. I've been pacing a hole in the carpet. I'll go crazy if you make me sit still."
She eyes the female officer with uncertainty, then lets out a long breath. "I'm sorry, Detective. I'm making a mess of this. Can we start over, please? I don't want you to get the wrong idea. I'm Joy Hill."
She extends her hand, then pulls it back, uncertain of the etiquette where policemen are concerned.
"What's the wrong idea you don't want me to get?"
"I'm making the wrong impression, that's all I mean. You're thinking I should be distraught and instead here I am running at the mouth. I can't help it. I was raised not to show people how I feel. I keep it bottled up until--is it all right if I smoke?"
"If it'll help."
She retrieves a pack of Dunhills from the desk, along with a glass ashtray, bringing both to a chair just across from me, finally sitting. She flicks a fresh filter half out of the pack, then pulls it free with her teeth. The lighter's in the ashtray. A metallic ping, a flash of fire, and then she exhales a column of smoke. A smile comes to her lips.
"I don't let anyone smoke in the house," she says.
And yet she keeps a pack handy all the same. "All right, let's get started. It's Dr. Joy Hill, right? And you're a doctor of what?"
"Hence all the books. You teach where?"
"At UH," she says. Then, catching my reaction: "It's a good school, Detective. A good department. People think we're handing out fast-food diplomas to a commuter population, but it's not like that at all."
"You don't have to convince me. I went there."
"And studied what? Criminal Justice."
"Worse," I say. "History. The victim, Simone Walker, she rented a room from you?"
"Rooms," she says. "Basically, we drew a line down the middle of the upstairs. I kept the master and my office, and gave her the other bathroom and the guest bedrooms. You probably know about my husband already. No? He met his soul mate a year ago and started fathering her children, but he left me the house."
"So you knew Ms. Walker from where?"
She glances at the ceiling. "A friend introduced us, I think. This was maybe seven or eight months ago. I was looking for a roommate and Simone wanted to move out on her own. She had marriage trouble, too."
"Not as far as I know. She pretty much operated like a single girl, though, if that's what you're wondering. I assume they were legally separated, but it's not something we ever talked about."
"What's her husband's name?" I ask, my pen poised.
Again she looks at the ceiling. "Jason Young. Walker was her maiden name. She moved her things in around the end of last semester--during finals, actually."
"Where did she work?"
"Ah," she says, templing her fingers. "That's a good question. Simone changed jobs pretty frequently, and for the last month or two I don't think she had one. I suspected something was going on, but then she confirmed it by asking for money. The whole point of having her here was to make money, not hand it out. Anyway, I said I couldn't help her. She found other sources eventually."
"We'll come back to that," I say, glancing at my watch. "But I need to know what happened today, the events leading up to your discovery of the body."
She pauses to think. "I saw her this morning around ten. I was leaving and she'd just rolled out of bed. She told me she was having lunch with a girlfriend, then spending the rest of the day in the pool. I said she was crazy. I mean, it was snowing yesterday. But she's, like, so what? The pool's heated."
"Did she say who she was meeting?"
Dr. Hill stubs her cigarette out, then sets the ashtray on the floor. "She didn't say, and I didn't ask. I had an appointment on campus, so I was a bit rushed. Anyway, this was her crash pad, Detective. She liked to play music, she liked to watch TV, and she liked to swim. When she went shopping--which she did a lot--this is where she'd dump her stuff. But mostly she went out. I told her she could have friends over, but she didn't. I don't know why."
I can think of a few reasons. "So you came home at what time?"
"After dark, maybe seven? I parked in the garage and used the door into the backyard. The pool light was on, and then I saw her. I froze." Her eyes get an unfocused, faraway look. "I kept willing her to move. But she was dead, I could see that. So I went back the way I came and I called 9-1-1."
"From the garage?"
"No," she says. "I went all the way around to the front door, let myself in, and then went to the kitchen where I could see her. I don't know why, but that's where I called from. To keep an eye on her, I guess."
"All right, ma'am." I tuck my pen away and drop the Filofax into my briefcase. "I'm going to ask you to show me where Ms. Walker's bedroom is, and then we'll have you wait with the officer awhile. I'm sure we'll have more questions in a little bit."
She beats me to the door, only too happy to be up and moving again. We pass the grand stairway and I get an earful of chatter from downstairs, signifying the arrival of more personnel. I recognize one of the voices: Lieutenant Bascombe, my boss. Dr. Hill continues down a white-paneled hallway, pausing at an open door.
"This is her bedroom."
Inside is a double bed, the covers hanging off the side, two tall dressers, and an overflowing laundry hamper. A stack of cardboard boxes in one corner. A vanity with stickers around the mirror, a blow drier and curling iron with their cords intertwined.
"Her mother lives in town," she says. "Somewhere around Piney Point, I think. Someone will have to call her. Is that something you'll do?"
"We can do that."
In the closet, a score of tightly packed clothing bags hang in disarray. The floor is lined with rope-handled shopping bags of every size and color. On the shelf over the rod, shoe boxes are packed three or four high.
"It might be better coming from you," she says. "I only met the woman once, but we didn't get on too well. I'd say she's a hard woman to like, which is probably why she and Simone weren't very close."
The room smells of perfume. On the vanity I see half a dozen designer scents to choose from. I bend down to inspect a low bookcase, empty apart from some grocery store paperbacks. There's a framed photo on the top shelf.
"Is this Simone?"
Dr. Hill peers at the photo and nods. Her eyes cloud and she clamps a hand over her mouth. Her shoulders shake. "She was sweet. She really was. I felt very . . . fond of her. I can't believe this is happening."
She retreats into the hallway, leaving me alone to study the photo.
Simone Walker is pretty in the snapshot, with high cheekbones and a toothy smile, her complexion washed out by the flash. She's dressed in a tank top and jeans, holding a red plastic cup in one hand, and the darkness behind her seems to conceal a party, though no faces are visible, just limbs. She gazes at the camera in a coy way, making me wonder who was taking the picture. It's an innocent look. A young woman enjoying herself. At ease in her surroundings. The expression pensive, but not melancholy.
This is who I'm here for. This is her. The body out there, whatever was done to her--
I'm going to make it right. Not that I can save her. I'm too late for that.
I'm always too late for that.
Dr. Hill reappears, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. "There's something I should tell you. About her husband, Jason. Something happened you need to hear about. Remember the money she asked for? The loan? Well, she asked him and he said yes. On one condition. She had to go to bed with him first."
"And did she?"
She nods. "The next morning there was some kind of argument and she left empty-handed. He kept calling her cell phone, and she'd send it to voicemail. When I asked her what was going on, she told me about the deal. Pretty sick. Whether it had anything to do with this, I don't know."
"Thanks," I say. "We'll check it out."
José Aguilar waits for me at the bottom of the stairs, hands buried in the pockets of his whiskered jeans, his muscled bulk hidden under a leather bomber. His impassive, pockmarked face is so red he looks freshly boiled, but that's normal for Aguilar.
"I heard you got pulled in," he says. "Figured you could use a hand."
"Nice jeans," I say.
"You're one to talk. What's with the getup? Prom night?"
"Charlotte's firm hosted a party and she dragged me along."
"Lawyers and liquor. And you're missing all the fun." He nods toward the kitchen. "The lieutenant's out there having a look at the scene, by the way."
"I heard his voice."
"So what do you want me to do?"
"Go upstairs and see if you can get anything more out of the woman who found the body. She's giving me an odd vibe."
"I'm on it," he says, slipping past me.
In the kitchen, Sergeant Nixon's not on the door, but I spot him outside shadowing my supervisor, Lt. Marcus Bascombe. Black. Six foot four. A glare that could put a hole in the ozone layer, assuming there wasn't one already. The lieutenant is my kind of police apart from the fact he doesn't like me. He tried to get me booted from the squad once, but that didn't work out. Now he treats me with grudging respect. All it would take to get back on his bad side is for me to stop closing cases. I'm not planning to start now.
I plant my briefcase on the island again, throwing the flap open and digging around for my flashlight, a little Fenix that puts out plenty of light. I grab my camera, too, then head through the door. Under the pergola, the crime scene technicians are just getting started running extensions and setting up lights. Bascombe crouches near the corpse, studying the wounds to her back, while Nixon whispers some commentary.
One of the crime scene techs motions me to the table, pointing to a cloud of black dust on the metal edge. "We've got some prints here, a few different sets it looks like."
"Good. Keep dusting."
As I approach, Nix heaves a sigh and detaches himself from the lieutenant's orbit, grateful to get away. We exchange a glance in passing.
"I've talked to the witness who found the body," I tell Bascombe. "According to her, the victim was meeting a friend for lunch, but didn't say who. I need to get a canvass started, and it wouldn't hurt if the ME would show up and give me an approximate time of death."
He straightens and steps away from the body. "I'll make a call and see what the holdup is. Not that I can't guess. That shooting on Antoine dropped three bodies, and I just came from South Central where a man drowned his seventy-three-year-old father in a bathtub and called it in as an accident." He shakes his head. "You could see the handprints on the old man's back where he was held down."
"Everybody's gone crazy," I say.
"Just like always."
I give him everything I have so far about Simone Walker, including Dr. Hill's story about the sex-for-money trade with her estranged husband. Then I flick on the flashlight and do a closer exam of the body. The way she's placed is so precise and unnatural: right-angled to the pool, bent at the waist, arms fully extended and perfectly parallel, hands resting side by side. Clean hands, too, nothing visible under the nails.
"It's almost like . . ."
"Almost like what?" Bascombe says.
I line myself up with her hands, then pantomime the motions. "Like he held her by the wrists. Like he dipped her into the water after he killed her."
"Or fished her out."
The big lights switch on, bathing the yard in white, glazing the mist overhead. The surrounding houses are mostly obscured by the tall fence and the screen of vegetation, reinforcing the sense of privacy. A few rooflines, a few attic windows. The lieutenant heads toward the edge of the slate, making room as the crime scene techs close in. I check the bushes for any sign of entry. Nobody scaling the fence could get down without breaking a branch. But there's nothing.
"You see the chair down at the bottom?" I ask him. "What do you make of that?"
He goes to the end of the pool opposite the house, taking a knee next to the water.
"Okay," he says, rising to the challenge. "How about this? She's over by the table when he attacks. She's sitting in the chair. He kills her, then drags the chair over with her in it, dumping them both into the pool. After she's been in the water awhile, he pulls her out and poses her. But he leaves the chair where it fell, 'cause he doesn't want to go in after it."
I nod. The scenario makes sense as far as the chair goes. If it was dragged from the table to the pool and chucked in, where it's lying is exactly what I'd expect. But what's the point?
"Why not drag the body and leave the chair?"
"I don't know," he says. "Find the guy and ask him. How's that for a plan? If I was you, I'd get the canvass going, and then I'd find out where this girl's husband lives and reel him in. The quicker you get him in an interview room, the less time he'll have to start believing he got away with it."
The glass door slides open and Sheila Green from the ME's office steps through, another charter member of my fan club. Dr. Green's boss, Alan Bridger, married my wife's sister a few years back. They have a house in West U. Considering this scene is practically in his backyard, I'd hoped to see Bridger here. No luck.
Gazing down the length of the pool, a tingle creeps up my spine. A ping of recognition. Something's been bothering me. And now I know what.
With the lieutenant looking on, Dr. Green takes one of the victim's wrists, lifting the arm, carefully turning the body to expose a breast and another network of punctures and a jagged, seeping gash in the chest.
I throw out my hand. "Wait."
The medical examiner freezes. After a pause, she lowers the body back. Bascombe stares at me, palms raised. Without explaining I switch my camera on and snap a photo. The preview on the LCD screen isn't exactly right. I realign the camera and take another shot.
"Everybody go inside," I say. "Except for you, Lieutenant. I need you over here."
The work stops, but nobody moves. Bascombe makes the call, signaling the crime scene techs to indulge my whim. He comes over, bringing Dr. Green with him. With the scene clear I take another shot.
I hand him the camera, displaying the photo. "Does that remind you of anything?"
"Yeah," he says, "it reminds me of what I can see with my own eyes." He squints at the screen, then shows it to the ME. "You gonna tell me or what?"
"The Fauk scene."
He looks again.
"Why does that name ring a bell?" Dr. Green says. "Wasn't that your big case, March? The one they wrote the book about?"
I ignore her. "You were there, Lieutenant, I wasn't. I inherited that case, if you remember. But ever since I got to the scene tonight, I've had this weird feeling. I couldn't put my finger on it until now."
He hands the camera back. "You've lost me, March."
"You were there."
"It's similar, I guess. But the Fauk woman had her clothes on and she was only stabbed once. She was floating in the swimming pool, too, not halfway out. Not to mention the guy who did it is doing time in Huntsville thanks to the confession you wrung out of him--"
"I'm not saying the crimes are the same. But look at that picture. I studied the Fauk photos so hard they're burned into my memory, and I swear there's one that looks exactly the same. The pool, the way the body's located off to the side, even the placement of the furniture. It's all the same."
"A lot of crime scene photos are gonna look alike," Dr. Green says. "They all have dead people in them for one thing."
Her voice trails off and it all comes back to me, that ten-year-old case, all the frustrations and roadblocks, all the drama. Donald Fauk murdered his wife and thought he'd gotten away with it. He had, as far as the investigation was concerned. But I was new on the squad, trying to prove myself, and the case was high profile enough to pass along once the lead detective retired. My old partner and I had gone to Florida, arresting Fauk as he planned his next wedding.
We flew him back on the morning of September 11, 2001, and after the Towers were hit in New York, our flight was grounded in New Orleans. After spending a few hours as guests of NOPD, we gave up on another flight out and rented a car. Somewhere along the Atchafalaya River Basin, Donald Fauk started talking and never stopped.
"The book," I say. "The Kingwood Killing. There are pictures in the middle, including this one." I point to the camera screen. "If you read that book and got inspired, this is what you'd do."
"March," Bascombe says, "this case here, it has nothing to do with the Fauk murder."
"When you see the picture in the book, you'll change your mind."
Dr. Green shakes her head. The lieutenant catches her gesture and frowns. Then he turns that high wattage glare of his on me, and just like that, all the respect I've won back over the last year is gone. All he sees is the screw-up he was trying to bounce out of Homicide twelve months back. I start to say something, but he cuts me off.
"Listen to me, you tuxedo-wearing dimwit," he says, moving closer so I get the full effect of his height. "I want you to get that canvass going, and then you find this girl's husband and bring him downtown. If I have to hold your hand on this, March, I will. But believe me, you don't want that. Are we clear?"
I can feel my cheeks burning, my body starting to squirm. He outstares me and suddenly I'm looking away and nodding obediently. Behind him, Dr. Green is nodding, too, a faint smile of triumph on her lips.
"Everything's fine here," he tells her. "We're on top of this thing. Now, what we could use from you is an approximate time of death. . . ."
They circle back to the corpse, leaving me to stew. The crime scene techs file back to resume their work. Bascombe calls one over and starts explaining about his chair theory, pointing out the probable path they should fluoresce for signs of blood.
After a moment I collect myself and get busy. There are doors to knock, interviews to conduct, and still a chance that some physical evidence will be found. And there's a suspect to run down: Jason Young.
And when I find him, whatever else happens and no matter what Bascombe does in response, there is one question I am going to ask. Does he have a copy of The Kingwood Killing? Because whoever murdered Simone Walker had a picture in his head, and he rearranged his crime to fit the fantasy. I'm convinced of that.
Find the book and I'll find the killer.
Excerpted from PATTERN OF WOUNDS: A Roland March Mystery © Copyright 2011 by J. Mark Bertrand. Reprinted with permission by Bethany House. All rights reserved.