Skip to main content



The Death Collectors


Mobile County Courthouse,

Mobile, Alabama, May 15, 1972

Detective Jacob Willow dodged a sign proclaiming die you dam
murdrer, ducked another saying repent sinner! He shouldered past a
pinched-faced preacher waving a Bible and squirmed between two
agitated fat ladies in sweaty dresses. Breaking free of the mob
surging in front of the courthouse, Willow bounded up the steps two
at a time, tried three, tripped, went back to two. He flicked his
cigarette into an urn at the door and stepped inside. The trial was
upstairs and he ran those steps as well, dizzied when he reached
the top. He peered around the corner into the hall leading to the
courtroom, hoping he wouldn't see the Crying Woman.

Sure as sunrise, there she sat, twenty steps away on an oaken bench
the size of a church pew, black dress, veil, elbows on her knees,
face in her hands. Willow felt guilt curdle through his stomach. He
turned his eyes from the Crying Woman.

Courthouse guard Windell Latham sat behind a folding table at the
top of the stairs, a checkpoint for major trials. Latham was tipped
back in a chair and trimming his nails with a deer knife, white
crescents dappling the belly-stretched fabric of his uniform.

"See you're on your late-as-usual schedule, 'tective Willow,"
Latham said, barely looking up. "You gonna miss the sentencing you
don't get inside that courtroom 'bout now."

Willow nodded toward the Crying Woman. "Doesn't she ever

Another crescent tumbled. "Should be gone after today, Willow.
Won't be nothing to see no more."

Willow walked toward the courtroom on the balls of his feet, hoping
she kept her head in her hands. He hated the feelings the Crying
Woman sparked in him, though he had no idea who she was. Some said
she was mother to one of Marsden Hexcamp's victims, others said
sister or aunt; those asking questions or offering comfort were
waved off like wasps.

The strange, thickly veiled woman quickly became invisible to the
courthouse crowd, as familiar as the brass cuspidors or overflowing
ashtrays. Never entering the courtroom during the three-week trial,
she'd claimed the marble-columned halls as her parlor of grief,
weeping from opening statements through last week's verdict of
guilty. Believing her wounded by sorrow, the guards showed
kindness, allowing the Crying Woman the run of the courthouse and
occasional naps in an absent judge's chambers.

Willow took a deep breath and started to the courtroom doors,
walking as light as hard-soled brogans allowed. Her head lifted as
he passed, the veil askew. It was the first time Willow had seen
the Crying Woman's face, and he was startled by her eyes: tearless
and resolute. Equally surprising was her youth; she looked in her
early twenties. He felt her eyes follow him to the door, as if
riding his guilt into the courtroom.

He tried to rationalize his guilt --- most often in the hours
preceding dawn --- telling himself he'd been an Alabama State
Police detective for two years, lacking the experience to
understand virulent madness powered by intellect. He reminded
himself of scrapes with departmental majordomos, trying to convince
them the seemingly random horrors occurring in southern Alabama
were connected, that a full-scale investigation involving state,
county, and Mobile city police was necessary. Like his entreaties
to higher-ups, the rationalizations failed, and Willow's predawn
sweats continued through the trial's daily revelations of the
sexually bizarre and murderously horrific.

Willow nodded to the guard at the door, then slipped into the
packed room. He excused and pardoned his way to his assigned seat
in the gallery, directly behind the defense table. "All rise," the
bailiff cried, and two hundred people in the courtroom rose like a
single wave.

Only one person remained seated, a blond and slender man at the
defense table, wearing jailhouse stripes with the élan of a
man in a Savile Row suit. Marsden Hexcamp sat with his legs
crossed, the upper bobbing to some lazy internal rhythm. An errant
wisp of hair dangled down his forehead, drawing attention to his
water-blue eyes. He turned his head to the gallery and smiled as if
hearing the punch line of a lively joke. His eyes found Willow, and
for a split second Hexcamp's smile wavered. The defense lawyer
tapped Hexcamp's shoulder and waved in an upward motion, imploring
his client to rise to the judge's entrance.

Marsden Hexcamp flicked his head sideways and spat into the
lawyer's palm.

Willow saw the lawyer shiver with disgust and wipe his hand on his
pants. No one else noticed this miniature drama, all other eyes
watching Circuit Judge Harlan T. Penfield striding to the bench.
Small in stature, Penfield compensated through a voice as deep as a
country well and hawk-bright eyes blazing at any hint of
misconduct. Penfield's eyes glared at Marsden Hexcamp, and the
judge received a smile and lazy nod in return. Penfield slipped on
half-lens reading glasses and unfolded a sheet of paper with his
sentencing decision, a conclusion reached by the end of the first
week of the trial.

"We gather today for the sentencing of Marsden Hexcamp," Penfield
intoned. "And with it ends weeks of such revulsion and dismay that
two jurors could not continue, one still hospitalized with a
nervous condition. . . ."

Marsden Hexcamp's lawyer stood. "Your Honor, I do not think this is
--- "

"Sit," commanded Judge Penfield. The lawyer sat, looking relieved
to be finished with his role.

"The toll has not only been on the jurors," Penfield continued in
his rolling bass, "but on all who have smelled the brimstone rising
from Mr. Hexcamp like fog . . ."

Marsden Hexcamp mimed lifting a wineglass as if acknowledging a
toast, the chains around his slender wrists ringing like chimes.
Penfield paused, studied the defendant. "Your antics shall trouble
this court no longer, Mr. Hexcamp. By the power vested in me by the
great state of Alabama, I sentence you to be conducted to Holman
prison, there, hopefully in record time, to receive the penalty of
death by electrocution. And may God have mercy on whatever squirms
inside you."

Penfield's gavel dropped as Marsden Hexcamp stood. He shrugged off
his lawyer's hand.

"No last words for the condemned, Your Honor?"

"Sit, Mr. Hexcamp."

"Am I not entitled? Does not sure and impending death allow a few
final phrases?"

"Did you allow your victims a final say, Mr. Hexcamp?"

Marsden Hexcamp paused and thought. Amusement flitted across his
face. "Some of them spoke volumes, Your Honor."

"Bastard!" A coarse-faced man in the gallery stood and waved his
fist. He appeared drunk.

"Sit and behave, sir, or be removed," Penfield said, almost gently.
The man dropped to his seat, sunk his face into his hands.

Hexcamp said, "Well, Your Honor? May I speak?"

Willow saw Judge Penfield's eyes sweep the expectant faces in the
crowd, pause on reporters aching to record the final public words
of Marsden Hexcamp. Penfield tapped his watch.

"I'll grant you thirty seconds, Mr. Hexcamp. I suggest a prayer for

Hexcamp's smile flattened. His eyes lit like flares. "Salvation is
the province of fools, Judge. A vacant lot in empty minds.
What counts is not where we go, but what we create while in the
world's humble studio . . ."

"Murderer!" a woman screamed from the gallery.

"Madman!" called another.

Penfield pounded his gavel. "Silence! Ten seconds, Mr.

Hexcamp turned to the gallery. His eyes found Willow, held for a
beat, returned to the judge. "It's the art of our lives that
endures --- moments captured like spiders in amber. But magically
able to crawl. To bite. To influence . . ."

"Five seconds." Penfield dramatically stifled a yawn. Hexcamp's
face reddened at the slight.

"YOU are a WORM," Hexcamp screamed at Penfield. "A wretched,
despicable creature, a mere nothing, less than nothing, a vile
insect risen in contempt against the majesty of ART!"

"Time's up, Mr. Hexcamp," Penfield said. "Never let it be said you
were at a loss for words."

Marsden Hexcamp angled an eye at the judge. Then, agile as a
gymnast, he leapt atop the defense table. "L'art du moment
he howled, spittle flying. "C'est moi! C'est moi!
C'est moi!"

The art of the final moment, Willow thought, two years of high
school French kicking in. It is me.

"Guards, seat that man," Penfield said. His gavel again rang from
the sounding block.

A motion behind Penfield caught Willow's eye. He watched the door
of the judge's chambers open slowly, saw the desk, bookshelves, low
table --- and then, framed in the doorway, the Crying Woman. She
strode into the room and stopped at Hexcamp's feet, the crowd
gasping. A large-bore pistol appeared from the folds of her dress.
The weapon lifted, her finger tightening on the trigger.

She was crying again. She looked into Marsden Hexcamp's eyes.

Said, "I love you."

Willow dove across the railing, arms stretching for the gun. His
foot caught the wood and he tumbled to the floor below the defense
table. Thunder filled the room. Hexcamp's shirtfront gained a red
button the size of a dime, but the back of his shirt exploded. He
crumpled to the floor, landing supine beside Willow. Spectators
hugged the floor or jammed at the doorway, screaming.

Marsden Hexcamp lifted his head and moaned, his lips forming words.
Willow laid his ear over the man's lips, listened. Hexcamp's eyes
closed and his head slumped. "Stay with me," Willow yelled. He
grabbed the man's shirt and shook, as if freeing words trapped in
Hexcamp's throat. Hexcamp's eyes snapped open.

"Follow, Jacob. You've got to follow . . ." A scarlet bubble
escaped his lips. "You . . . have to . . . follow . . ."

"What?" Willow yelled into Hexcamp's glazing eyes. "FOLLOW

Marsden Hexcamp's eyelids fluttered, then opened. "The art, Jacob,"
he said, the blood now a red foam crawling down his chin. "Follow
the . . . glorious art."

Hexcamp's eyes became wax, his mouth a frozen rictus. Willow heard
a second roar of self-inflicted thunder. A body dropped to the
floor six feet away. The Crying Woman became the Dying Woman.

Chapter 1

Mobile, Alabama; present time

"Awards are dumb," Harry Nautilus said, aiming the big blue Crown
Victoria away from the headquarters of the Mobile Police
Department. "No good ever comes of stuff like this."

"Lighten up, Harry," I said, tightening my tie in the rearview
mirror. "We're the mayor's Officers of the Year."

"And I'm the state bird of Alabama. Tweet."

"It's an honor," I reasoned.

"It's a pain in the ass. And it ain't nothing but a politician's

"At least we'll get a free breakfast." I checked my watch; we had
an easy twenty minutes to get to the hotel where the mayor's
Recognition Breakfast was being held. I'd already cleared a space
on my ersatz wall at work, a gray divider. I'd never had an award

"You think I should mention the folks at Forensics?" I said,
holding out my arms and wondering if my navy blazer had shrunk
since the last wearing, or if I was still growing at age

"What are you talking about, Carson?"

"My acceptance speech."

Harry growled, a low bass note. Government Street was under
construction ahead, so we cut through the south edge of downtown, a
poorer neighborhood of small houses and apartments. I was buffing
my nails on my pants when a woman exploded into the street from an
alley, arms waving, pink robe flying behind like a horseman's cape.
She launched herself in front of the car.

Two hundred and forty pounds of Harry Nautilus stood on the brakes.
The robed woman held up her hands as if that would ward off a
two-ton car. Tires squealed. The Crown Vic fishtailed. Our bumper
stopped three inches shy of the woman's knees.

"They's a dead woman in that alley," the woman panted, clutching at
her robe. She was in her thirties, skinny as rope, an Appalachian
twang in her voice. "Got blood all up underneath her."

I called it into the dispatcher as Harry turned into the alley. A
woman's body sprawled facedown on the concrete, arms above her
head. Her blouse was white, and I saw a crimson smear in the upper
center of her back. Fearful of tainting evidence, we stopped the
car short and sprinted to the body. We always ran, praying fast
response and CPR might make a difference.

Not this time. Seeing the amount of blood loss, Harry stopped
running and so did I. We walked the last few steps gingerly,
careful of the flood of red on the pavement. The blood was
congealing, and I figured the killer long gone. Sirens wailed in
the distance. Harry knelt beside the body while I studied the
scene: shattered glass, strewn trash, and other detritus of an
inner-city alley. The concrete was bordered by dilapidated garages.
Grass between them was yellow from scant rain. A bright object
caught my eye. A plump orange nestled against a slumping garage
twenty or so feet from the woman's outstretched hand.

Another Crown Victoria entered the alley from the opposite
direction, followed by a patrol car and ambulance. Detectives Roy
Trent and Clay Bridges exited the Crown Vic. This was their
territory, District Two. Harry and I were District One ninety-nine
percent of the time, part of a special unit the other one

We gave Trent and Bridges a three-line synopsis of what we knew.
Bridges took the woman in the robe aside to calm her for
questioning. Trent walked to the body, looked down. He ran heavy
hands through thinning hair.

"Damn. It's the Orange Lady."

"Orange Lady?" I said.

"Name's Nancy something. Lives in a group home a block over. Every
morning she goes to the market and gets herself an orange. One
orange. Does the same thing every night. I asked once why she
didn't get two oranges in the morning, or buy a bag. Know what she


"The oranges liked being at the store because they got to watch
people. At her place they'd just see the inside of the

Harry said, "This group home's for folks with mental problems, I
take it."

Trent nodded. "Harmless types who need a little help getting by.
Nancy might have been a little disjointed in her thinking, but she
was always happy, chattering at people, singing songs in French,

"There's the morning orange," I said, pointing it out. I crouched
and looked between the woman and the orange, then dropped flat to
my stomach, eyeballing the topography and noting the drain grate in
the middle of the alley.

"You need water to swim, Cars," Trent said.

"And momentum to roll," I added, standing and brushing gravel from
my palms and jacket. Trent studied the body, shook his head. "Who'd
shoot her dead while she was standing in an alley?"

"Running in the alley," I suggested.

Trent raised an eyebrow.

"The orange is about twenty feet away. Slightly uphill. If she'd
been standing or walking, the orange might have rolled a few feet.
But the other way, toward the center of the alley. It's concave for
drainage. The shot knocked her forward, of course. But I think it
took added momentum for the orange to travel that far. Forensics'll
do the math, but I'd bet a couple bucks she was running full

Trent thought a moment. "If she was running, she knew she was in
danger; recognized the perp, probably." He started to the patrol
car to get the uniformed guys cordoning off the scene, then

"Hey, did I hear the mayor's making you guys Officers of the

"It's just a rumor," Harry said.

Trent grinned. "Officers of the Year doesn't quite cut it for you
two. How about the Grand Pooh-bahs of Piss-it?"

Piss-it was departmental slang for the PSIT, or
Psychopathological and Sociopathological Investigative Team, a
specialty unit with a name longer than its roster: Harry and me. It
was the one percent of our jobs.

Harry sighed. "Don't start, Roy."

Trent thought a moment. "Or how about the Wizards of Weirdness?" He
chuckled and started to invent another title, saw the look in
Harry's eyes, remembered his business with the patrol guys, and

Our bit part in a too-familiar drama over, Harry and I climbed back
into the car. The Orange Lady's case would be cleared fast, we
figured; the poor woman had pissed someone off, and he or she had
gotten revenge. Backshooting a fleeing woman in broad daylight was
irrational, an act of emotion, not brains. Trent and Bridges would
check the victim's acquaintances, find who she'd recently
irritated. Nail the case shut.

Bang. Just like that.

The awards ceremony was at a downtown hotel. By the time we
arrived, only carafes of tepid coffee remained on the banquet
tables. Harry and I slipped to our table and nodded apologies. At
the dais centering the front of the large, low-ceilinged room, an
overdressed woman from the Sanitation Department clutched a plaque
to her bosom, uttering immortal words about landfills.

" . . . like to thank all the microbial organisms who work so
hard at breaking down organic waste materials . . ."

Mayor Lyle Edmunds stood beside her, a frozen smile on his ruddy
face. The sanitation woman finished her soliloquy and padded back
to her table. The mayor regained the microphone, but no words came
from the sound system. He tapped the mike with a finger, was
rewarded with a screech of feedback. Two hundred faces winced, mine
included. The mayor leaned forward, tried again.

" --- esting. Testing. This thing working again? All right. Once
again I'd like to thank y'all for coming today, my chance to honor
folks who've made a difference in the quality of life in the
beautiful Port City, a year which this administration also made a
difference by . . ."

Most members of our table watched the dais, obliged to appear
transfixed by the mayor's oratory. At the head of the table --- if
a round table can have a head --- was Chief of Police Burston
Plackett. Plackett was flanked by four other members of the police
brass. The lower-rent side of the table was Lieutenant Tom Mason,
Harry, and me.

The mayor wound down. He studied the table of awards beside him,
lifted a pair of plaques.

"Two awards; it's us," I whispered to Harry. "What should I say in
my acceptance speech?"

"Let the mayor handle the speeching and preaching, Carson. Just
grab the wood and beat your feet back to the table." Harry frowned
at me. The frown said don't go near the microphone.

The mayor tapped the mike again, leaned into it. "My next award
goes to the Mobile Police Officer of the Year. This year I'm proud
to recognize a team effort: two members of Mobile's finest,
instrumental in tracking down the morgue killer a while back, as
well as Joel Adrian a couple of years ago. Together, Detectives
Nautilus and Ryder form a special team known as the PSIT, or
Psychopatho . . . ological and Socio . . . socio . . . sociolo . .
. doggone, that's a mouthful. Let me just say that these two fine
gentlemen are living proof that no city surpasses Mobile in the
quality of its . . ."

The mayor soared off on another flight of political
self-indulgence, spurred by the media. They huddled to the side ---
reporters, videographers, and a photographer from the Mobile
. I saw the reporter from Channel 14 staring at me.
When I stared back, she smiled and turned her gaze to the mayor. I
recalled her name as DeeDee Danbury. Trim, blond, medium height,
somewhat outsize features, eyes especially. When Harry and I'd been
in the brief glare of camera lights, Danbury had the voice closest
to my ear and microphone closest to my face. I didn't much care for
either effect.

Two minutes of humid ventings later, the mayor looked around the
room, saw the slender white guy sitting beside the big,
square-shouldered black guy.

"I'd like to introduce Detectives Harry Nautilus and Carson Ryder.
Come receive your awards, officers."

Applause rang out. I followed Harry's mustard-yellow suit to the
dais. His shirt was lavender, his tie red. Harry liked color, but
that didn't make him good at it. We stepped up, shook the mayor's
hand, took our awards. Someone yelled, "Hold for a photo." I angled
my head, steeled my jaw, and did my best Serious Crimefighter pose.
Cameras flashed. I tucked my plaque against my side and started
from the dais. The microphone floated in front of my face and
despite Harry's admonition I couldn't resist leaning in for a few

"First off, I'd like to thank the Academy . . ."

The microphone squealed like chisels on sheet metal. Everyone
winced, several people ducked. In the center of the room a startled
waiter dropped a full tray of dishes, china shards skittering
across the floor. Harry growled and jabbed his thumb into my
kidney, propelling me from the dais and my moment of glory.

Chapter 2

The photo taken at the mayor's bash ran the following day, Tuesday.
I was off rotation and didn't see the photograph until Wednesday,
coming in early to whittle at paperwork. Some wag had taped the
clipped-out photo to my chair, attaching a Post-it on which was
scrawled super detective to the rescue.

In the photo, Harry and I clutched our plaques, the mayor between
us. Harry had a wisp of a smile beneath his bulldozer-blade
mustache. My Serious Crimefighter pose made me look like a cross
between Cotton Mather and Dudley Do-Right. I shook my head, made a
mental note to never accept an award again, and read the

Hembree passed the
camera to a Forensics tech, nodded for me to follow, and walked to
the body between candles, moving as carefully as a man treading
barefoot among glass.

Her hands crossed over her breastbone, barely visible beneath the
roses and lilies and other flowers I couldn't identify. Cheap rings
encircled both thumbs and most of her fingers. In contrast, her
dark brown hair was short, conservative, clean; at odds with the
rest of her. Wax drippings clung to her hair like petrified tears.
Abrasions encircling the woman's neck suggested ligature
strangulation, an angry red collar. There were no other apparent
marks or signs of struggle. I smelled rot rising through the
sweetness of the flowers. When we return to dust, it's not a pretty

Hembree looked at me. "What age you put her at, Carson?"

"I'll say late thirties, early forties."

The Forensics tech pressed an invisible button in the air, made a
game-show buzzer sound. "Bzzzzt. Wrong answer. Try fifty. At
least." He bent over the body and palpated a bicep. "Good
condition, physically, muscle tone is balancing out the aging. Or
was. How many fifty-year-old hookers you see with muscle tone like

I made a zero with my thumb and forefinger. Most street girls never
made fifty, and if they did, looked eighty. I knelt at the bedside
and took the woman's hand from Hembree. "Working hands," I noted,
calluses across palm and fingers. "Outside work, and I don't mean
pounding pavement. Check the rings."

I slid a couple of bucks' worth of potmetal and glass up the
victim's digit. "Dime-store crap," I said. "If she'd worn it any
length of time there'd be discoloration."

"Strange designs," Hembree said. "Some kind of knot on the one, a
sword on the other. A moon over here."

"She's got a toe ring," I said. "Pentacle motif."

"Satanic? Goth?" Hembree lifted the hair behind the victim's ear.
"Found an identifying feature here, Carson."

I saw a birthmark near the base of her neck, a small splash of
claret across the skin. Hembree shined the penlight into the
creases at the back of the woman's neck. Ruddy lines stood in the
folds, like pen strokes made with rust.

"Look down here," he said, aiming the light at the crook of an

"More of the same," I said. "What's the tint from?"

"Nothing's certain until we get it to the lab." Hembree wasn't big
on guessing and having to later recant, though his accuracy made
take-backs rare. I'd heard that voice before; he had a

"Come on, Bree, give it out." I mock-punched his vermicelli bicep.
"I won't hold you to it. What are you thinking?"

He kept the penlight on the woman's arm, studying. "I'm thinking
the perfect Officer of the Year wouldn't be such a pain in the

"Maid find body," Cozy Cabins manager Saleem Hakkam was telling
Harry when I opened the office door to a small room filled with
smoke. "Maid scream into office, I drop coffee on floor, call 911.
Much scream, maid."

Hakkam stood behind a chipped Formica counter sucking a filterless
cigarette that smelled like burning shoeshine rags, occasionally
tipping ashes into a Dr Pepper can on the counter. The portly
Hakkam held the cigarette tightly with three fingers, like he was
afraid it would get away.

"Can we speak to her?" Harry asked.

Hakkam took a deep drag. "Maid scream. Jump in car, drive. Scream
down street." His words came out punctuated by smoke.

"When will she be back?"

Hakkam shook his head sadly. "Scream like that, no come

"Who rented the room, Mr. Hakkam?" Harry asked. "They come in and

Hakkam looked away. Harry sighed, seeing the picture. "Mr. Hakkam,
you're not in any trouble here. Unless you lie to me."

Hakkam's eyes blinked warily through smoke. "No lie at police.
Phone call come yesterday afternoon. Want to rent cabin for Tuesday

We'd both seen this before. "And you don't know who rented the

"No see. Come in late."

"Payment?" Harry asked.

"Caller say money in mailbox. I look. Money there. Caller say leave
door open, key inside on table. The money good, why not do?"

"You see the vehicle?"


"You have the envelope the money came in?"

"Burn with trash."

"The caller --- male or female?"

Hakkam shook his head and put his hand at forehead level. "Voice
not up here like woman. . . ." Then dropped it to his groin. "Not
down here like man. In middle." He shrugged. I suspected the caller
had muffled his or her voice.

Harry said, "How much money did you get paid, Mr. Hakkam?"

"Five hundred dollar."

"About ten times the going rate. You figured a dope deal, right?

Hakkam averted his eyes and sucked another chestful of greasy
smoke. I figured his lungs looked like bags of mud.

"Job is rent cabins, not ask people's business."

He frowned, took one final hit, and dropped the tar-soaked butt in
the can. It hissed and died, a curl of brown smoke issuing from the
opening, like the damned thing didn't want to give up.

We walked back to the cabin under tall longleaf pines, the shade
meaningless in the heat. The conversation with Hakkam wasn't
unusual in a failing neighborhood. Business was lousy, and he'd
happily rented to someone paying a premium for privacy --- dope
dealers wrapping or distributing product, porn types taping a
bottom-drawer flick. Hakkam did exactly as asked, hoping for repeat

We turned the corner to the front of the cabin. Harry froze,
grabbed the back of my jacket, and yanked me to a halt.

"Buzzards," he said, pointing around the corner. "Pooling and

Harry had a rhyming tendency, though some days I'd call it an
affliction. In the six years of our friendship, I'd learned to
decipher half of what he said. But I'd seen these buzzards before.
I peeked around the corner for confirmation.


Kept from the cabin by Leighton Withrow, they clustered near the
entrance, alerted by police-frequency scanners, or some vestigial
instinct that drew them to tragedy like june bugs to a screen door.
There were a couple of television stations and radio outlets, a
brace of print reporters.

Harry nodded dolefully. "I see Cunt and Funt from Channel 14 out

I gave Harry the raised eyebrow. While far from politically
correct, Harry wasn't fond of pejorative classifications. "Uh,
who?" I asked.

"DeeDee Danbury from Channel 14, she's uh, the C-word lady. There's
some squirrelly little camera guy usually with her; he's Funt. It's
what they're called over at City Hall. By some folks,

"Funt? That's the camera guy's real name?"

Harry peered around the corner again. "Used to be a TV show called
Candid Camera. Folks'd go to stick mail in a box and
suddenly a hand reaches out and grabs it, that kind of cheesy
schtick. All the time the scene's being shot from a hidden camera.
The guy who thought up the show was named Funt."

"The Channel 14 camera guy hides in mailboxes?"

"The way they work is Cu --- I mean, Danbury --- zings in questions
hoping to catch folks off guard, Funt shoots pictures of their

"How come you know this Danbury so well? You start watching TV?"
Harry was the original Music Man, vinyls of old blues and jazz
spreading through his house. He'd only recently --- and grudgingly
--- started collecting CDs. The last time I saw Harry's television,
a ten-inch black-and-white, it was a doorstop.

"She jammed me up three-four years back. I let slip a dead body was
a heavyweight dope boy, tried to suck it back a minute later. She
said OK, then later that night I hear the name on the news."


"What I didn't know was DEA had a lock on this guy, tracking a
shipment to him from Colombia. When it hit the airwaves the guy was
toast, the runners dove underground. Without the coverage, the
shipment would have sailed into the arms of the feds."

I winced. "Ouch."

"I about got assigned to traffic control at tractor pulls," Harry
said, peeking around the corner. "Still can't look at that woman
without my teeth grinding. OK, Carson, let's run it and gun

We came around the corner moving fast. The reporters dove at us the
second we hit their sights.

"Who's in
"Was it a
"Any ideas on


We ran the gauntlet with heads lowered; eye contact increased their
frenzy, blood to a shark. Answering questions wasn't our bailiwick
anyway; the department had flacks to make up crap by the bargeload
--- we always had our hands full dealing with the truth.

"Is this a PSIT
case, Detective Ryder? Is that why you and Detective Nautilus are

The last question
caught me. I turned to the foam bulb of a microphone two feet
distant. Behind it, big gray eyes highlighted a longish but
compelling face framed in ash-blond hair, Channel 14 reporter
DeeDee Danbury. My feet stopped moving until I felt the nudge in my

"Tell her no, for chrissakes," Harry whispered.

"No," I parroted.

She raised an eyebrow. "But aren't you two out of your regular

Harry pushed me into the cabin. Hembree was watching the medical
examiner's folks extricate the candles from the woman's eyes. He
held up an evidence bag, several ruddy particles inside it. "Found
these in the victim's hair. Similar to the substance in her neck
and arm creases. Also found some under her fingernails and in her

Hembree's tone was odd. I looked from side to side; no one but me
and Harry were in earshot. "Come on, Bree, no one's listening. What
are you thinking about?"

"Zombies," he whispered, an enigmatic smile on his

Excerpted from THE DEATH COLLECTORS © Copyright 2005 by
Jack Kerley. Reprinted with permission by Dutton Adult, an imprint
of Penguin Group (USA). All rights reserved.

The Death Collectors
by by Jack Kerley

  • hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Dutton Adult
  • ISBN-10: 0525948775
  • ISBN-13: 9780525948773