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But I am here, staring down into the waxy face of a man who, with a change of wardrobe, could pass for a martyred saint.
It's all in the eyes. Rolling heavenward in agony, brows arched in acute pain. A pencil mustache clinging to the vaulted upper lip, blood seeping through the cracks between the teeth. The ink on his biceps. Blessed Virgins and barb-wired hearts and a haloed man with a cleft beard.
But instead of a volley of arrows or a vat of boiling oil, this one took a shotgun blast point-blank just under the rib cage, flaying his wife-beater and the chest cavity beneath. He fell backward onto the bed, arms out, bleeding out onto the dingy sheets.
Lorenz stands next to me, holding the victim's wallet. He slips the license out and whistles. "Our boy here is Octavio Morales."
He's speaking to the room, not me personally, but I answer anyway. "The money guy?"
"La Tercera Crips," he says, shuffling away.
I've never come across Morales before now, but his reputation precedes him. If you're short of cash in southwest Houston, and you don't mind the crippling interest rates or getting mixed up with the gangs, he's the man to see. Or was, anyway. Guys like him go hand in hand with the drug trade, greasing the skids of the underground economy.
"If this is Morales, then I guess the victims in the living room are his muscle?"
Nobody answers my question. Nobody even looks up.
Morales lies on the bed just inside the door, now blasted off its hinges by multiple shotgun volleys.
Down the hallway, another body is twisted across the bathroom threshold, clutching an empty chrome 9mm with the slide locked back. I step around him, avoiding the numbered evidence tags tented over his shell casings.
It's a hot day in Houston, with no air-conditioning in the house.
The hall opens into a living room packed with mismatched furniture—a green couch, a wooden rocker, two brown, pockmarked folding chairs—all oriented around a flat-screen television on a blond particleboard credenza against the far wall. Beer bottles lying in the corners. Boxes on the coffee table from Domino's and KFC.
This is where the shooting started. The couch cushions blossom white with gunshots, exposed foam bursting from the wounds. The floor is jigsawed with blackening stains. We've left our traces, too. Evidence markers, chalk lines. Imposing scientific regularity over the shell casings, the dropped firearms, the fallen bodies.
One on the couch, his underbelly chewed full of entry wounds. Another against the wall. His hand still clutching the automatic he never managed to jerk free of his waistband.
This was a one-sided fight. Whoever came through the front door polished these two pretty quick, then traded shots with the victim in the bathroom before advancing down the hall. Octavio Morales must have been the target. Maybe he'd tried to collect a debt from the wrong person. Only guys like this tend to be the perpetrators, not the victims.
"What do you think, March?"
I turn to find Captain Hedges at the front door, his white dress shirt translucent with sweat underneath his gray suit. He slips his Aviators off and tucks them into his breast pocket, leaving one of the curled earpieces to dangle free.
"You asking me?"
He looks around. "Is there another March in the room?"
So I'm the designated tour guide. I can't recall the last time Hedges spoke to me directly, so I'd better not complain. After soaking up some ambiance up front, I lead him down the hallway, back across the body hanging out of the bathroom.
"Looks like a hit on a local loan shark," I say. "A guy by the name of Octavio Morales. His body's in here."
When we enter the bedroom, activity halts. Lorenz and the other detectives perk up like hunting dogs, while the technicians pause over their spatter marks and surface dusting. Hedges acknowledges them all with a nod, then motions for me to continue. Before I can oblige, though, Lorenz is already cutting between us.
"I'm the lead on this," he says, ushering the captain toward the bed.
And just like that, I'm forgotten. According to my wife, when a woman reaches a certain age, she disappears. People stop noticing she's in the room. Not that this has ever happened to Charlotte, quite the reverse. But I'm beginning to understand the feeling. Beginning? Who am I kidding? I've been invisible for a long time.
I wouldn't even be here if it wasn't such a big event. An ordinary murder doesn't pull the crowds, but call in a houseful of dead gangbangers and every warm body on the sixth floor turns up. The call came in during a lull in my special duties, and I couldn't resist the itch. It's been a while since I've gotten to work a fresh murder scene.
"Looks like he was trying to hold the door shut," Lorenz is saying, miming the actions as he describes them. "They put some rounds on the door—blam, blam—and he goes reeling back. Drops his gun over there." He points out the Taurus 9mm on the carpet, a pimp special complete with gold trigger. "Then they kick the door in and light him up."
Lorenz stands over the corpse of Octavio Morales, wielding his air shotgun. He even works the pump, leaving out the sound effects this time. The gesture reminds me just how young this guy is to be in Homicide, how inexperienced.
While he's talking, I edge my way alongside the bed, putting some distance between myself and the group converging around the captain. This saves them the trouble of having to shove me aside.
The house is basically a squat. The property belongs to the bank, another foreclosure. There's no telling when Morales and his crew decided to move in, but they didn't exactly improve the place over time. The shiny brass headboard seems brand new, but the lumpy mattress is too big, drooping over the sides. And the bedding must have been salvaged from the dump. The sheets were rigid with filth long before Morales died there. My skin itches just looking at them.
I kneel and lift the sheets off the floor, peering underneath the bed. There's no point, really. The technicians have already been here. But I feel the need to look busy.
The window on the front wall casts sunlight under the far side of the bed. My eye goes to a dark line of filament silhouetted against the light, a length of cord hanging from the mattress frame. Probably nothing. But I circle around for a closer look, jostling Lorenz and a craggy-faced detective named Aguilar, who's busy explaining to the uninterested captain the significance of Morales's tats.
I crouch by the headboard, sunlight to my back, and start feeling underneath the frame for the hanging line. Once I find it—it feels like parachute cord—I trace the line back to the knot, then duck my head down for a look.
What I see stops my heart for a couple of beats. Maybe it's just the angle of my head. But the knot is secured around the mattress frame, and the end looks neatly severed with barely a hint of fraying. A fresh cut, made while the cord was drawn taut.
"Did anyone see this?" I ask.
When I glance up, nobody's looking my way. If they heard me, they're giving no sign. I scoot to the foot of the bed, running my hand over the frame. Sure enough, another knot. This time it's sliced close, leaving no dangling end. Returning to the other side, I push the sheets up and continue the search. My pulse hammering away so hard I can't believe no one else hears it. Two more knots, one at the foot of the bed, and another at the head.
I rise slowly, examining the mattress with new eyes.
Morales lies sprawled at the foot of the bed, legs off the side, arms thrown back. From above, the blood rises like a cloud, ascending several feet above his head. The pattern in the sticky sheets is not quite right.
I glance toward Hedges, who's nodding impatiently at Aguilar.
He turns to me, relieved at the interruption.
"What is it, Detective?"
Lorenz and Aguilar both turn with him, and so do the others. They blink at me, like I've just appeared out of nowhere. Even the technicians look up from their work.
"Come and see."
I get down on my knees, motioning him to follow. After a moment's hesitation, he does, careful not to get his pants dirty. I guide his hands to the knots, watching realization dawn on his face. We both cross to the opposite side of the bed, all eyes on us. He kneels without waiting for my encouragement. When his hand touches the dangling cord, he lets out a long sigh.
"Good work," he says.
Lorenz pushes his way forward. "What is it? What's under there?"
Hedges doesn't answer, and neither do I. As the detectives take turns under the bed, we exchange a glance. He looks at me in a way he hasn't for at least a year. Not since Wilcox left the unit. Even longer than that.
"When you're done here," he says under his breath, "I want you to swing by my office." Then, to the room at large: "I want a briefing in two hours. Lorenz, you better get on top of this. We'll need a blood expert to look at all this—assuming he hasn't already. And Lord help him if he already has and he missed this, that's all I can say."
And then he's gone, leaving the room deathly still in his wake.
The next moment, Lorenz has me by the sleeve, dragging me over to the corner. His voice barely a whisper. I half expect him to chew me out, so his real motive comes as a shock.
"I don't get it." He casts a glance over his shoulder, making sure no one's listening. "What's the deal with the rope?"
It takes me a second to find my voice. "They're restraints, Jerry. One at each corner, like somebody was tied spread-eagle to the bed. The blood on those sheets, it's probably from two victims. Morales and somebody the shooters took with them, after cutting her loose."
"Just a guess."
He takes all this onboard, then backs away, patting me on the front of the shoulder. But the pat feels like a push, too. As if he's distancing himself from me. Or from his own ignorance.
"All right," he says to the room. "Here's the situation."
Before he can launch into his speech, I'm out the door. One of the advantages of invisibility.
Outside, layers of garbage tamp down the knee-high grass out front, some bagged but most of it not: sun-bleached fast food packets, thirty-two ounce cups, empty twelve-pack beer boxes, all of it teeming with flies. The house is broad, one of the street's larger residences, complete with a double-wide carport and a driveway full of cracked concrete, rust stains, and a shiny black Escalade. The keys are probably still in Morales's pocket.
The perimeter line is being held by one Sergeant Nixon—Nix to his friends—a cop who can remember back far enough to the time when Texas produced lawmen instead of peace officers.
"Look who it is." He gives my shoulder a pat, but it's nothing like the heave-ho from Lorenz. "What are you doing at an honest-to-God murder scene? I thought you were putting in time with the cars-for-criminals team."
"I came out for old times' sake."
"Roland March," he says, looking me over. "The suicide cop."
"Don't remind me. Anybody talking around here? Neighbors witness anything?"
He glances up and down the street, like he's worried the nearby uniforms will overhear. "The lady down the way might be worth a talk. See the yellow house?"
"I think it's supposed to be white."
Nix isn't a fat man, but whenever he shrugs, his head retracts turtle-like, giving him a double chin. "We got a statement off her already, but she sure was talkative. If you're looking for the full canvassing experience, you might give her a try."
Ducking under the tape, I head for the yellow-white house. The neighborhood must have been nice once, before it was sandwiched in by apartment complexes. In southwest Houston, the complexes serve the same purpose as inner-city housing projects in other parts of the country. They're easy to secure, so gangs move in and start doing business. Colombian heroin and coke, Mexican meth, crack—it all comes through along the I-10 corridor, and the complexes serve as weigh stations.
A decade ago, there were places along here a patrol cruiser couldn't go without taking fire from one gang or another. We cracked down, and the dealers got the message. Now they stick to doing business. Everybody gets along, more or less, except for the ones in neighborhoods like this, where the trouble can't help but leak over. But there's a tension out on the streets, a lot of rumors about the Mexican cartels and the kind of trouble that might be around the corner.
I adjust the badge around my neck. Give the door a good knock.
When it opens, I'm greeted by a ripe young thing in her early twenties, bursting out of a tank top and pink shorts, pushing the door open with her foot. Glitter polish on the toenails, a flip-flop dangling. Her features are two sizes too big for her face. Huge eyes, a terrifyingly wide mouth marked out in brown liner.
I glance back at Nix, who's smiling at a cloud pattern overhead.
"Excuse me, but ... I was wondering if I could ask you a couple of questions?"
"About that over there? I didn't see nothing."
"What about earlier?" I ask. "You notice them driving up in that suv?"
"Last night you mean? I was out there in the yard. Octavio pulled up, and he had some others with him. Little Hector, I think, and someone else. They rolled down the window and whistled." If she was flattered by the attention, she gives no sign now. "They don't stay there or nothing like that. It's just their party pad."
"Did they have a woman with them?"
"People's always coming and going. I told the other policeman already."
On the way to my car, I give Nix my best Clint Eastwood glare.
He smiles back at me. "Anytime, Detective."
I don't know which I prefer more, being ignored or jerked around.
* * *
In spite of my reptilian tolerance for heat, the air-conditioning back on the sixth floor feels great, especially given the white Freon my car's been spitting out in lieu of cool air. This is Homicide, the nerve center, humming as always with quiet intensity. The clack of keyboards is a constant, the hum of conversation. For the most part, though, the cubicles stand empty. Only a few detectives have trickled back in, filling mugs with coffee, combing the break room for anything not too stale, reviewing notes in anticipation of the big briefing.
We aren't what you'd expect. Watching television, you might think we're all scientists with guns, working our cases with calibrated precision. But we make mistakes just like anyone, and all that technical jargon can be a coping mechanism, an alternative to dark humor. Some guys like to crack jokes over the corpse, and others like to talk about castoff and trajectories and residue. We're only human, after all, and the job gets to us sometimes.
We aren't like the cops on cable, either. We aren't crooked. We aren't pushing drugs on the side, or even taking them. We're not functioning alcoholics. We don't take backhanders or use racial epithets or delight in parading our ignorance, even ironically. If anything, we pride ourselves on a certain professionalism, which means we won't beat you with a phone book or a rolled newspaper. We won't frame you, even if we know you did it.
We don't have our own reality show—a sore spot ever since the Dallas unit made its debut on The First 48—but if we did, they wouldn't have to edit out the violence, or even bleep that much of the language. For the most part, we're middle-aged and male, split pretty much down the middle between married and divorced. We dress like there's still a standard to keep up. And no matter who you are—a shirtless banger with enough ink on your skin to write a circuit court appeal or a corner skank in a skintight halter—we'll address you politely as sir or ma'am.
We are polite not because we are polite, but because we want to send you to Huntsville for the balance of your natural life, or even stick you with that needle of fate. And respect works. It's as good a way as any to send you down.
All of this is true about us. Except when it isn't. And when it isn't, all bets are off.
Don't mind my bluster, though. Like the sick jokes and the pseudoscience, it's just another way of coping. Because I'm on my way out, and realizing too late I don't want to go.
The man with all the power is Captain Drew Hedges, who sits behind glass walls and metal blinds, his door resolutely shut. In a department that's seen its share of shake-ups, Hedges has shown a knack for hanging on and, in spite of his better judgment, has a soft spot in his heart for others with the same knack, myself included. He doesn't just run the Homicide Division, he leads it, which means earning the respect of some notoriously independent-minded detectives.
I rap a knuckle against the wood, then wait. No sound from the other side. I try again. This time the door swings open.
Excerpted from Back on Murder by J. Mark Bertrand Copyright © 2010 by J. Mark Bertrand. Excerpted by permission of Bethany House Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted October 2, 2010
I almost passed up this book because my July was crowded already and J. Mark Bertrand is a fairly new writer, but I really liked the book that he and Deeanne Gist wrote together so I thought, I'll give it a go... I'm so glad I did! He has created an amazing character in Roland March, a homicide detective who's lucky streak has ended and he is basically out on his ear, and built up a cast of characters around him that really accentuate his strengths and weaknesses well. The story is engaging and weaves mystery, murder and relationships all into one book. I was very impressed as I followed the story and found myself reluctant to see it all end. Looking forward to seeing Roland March become a regular.
57 out of 63 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 30, 2011
Good story, good writing, believable characters - all without the use of profanity or immorality generally found in comparable mystery fiction. I just finished this book, and I am ready to read more about Roland March. There were a few extremely minor formatting glitches which really didn't matter to me, especially on such a great free read.
48 out of 51 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 27, 2012
Back on Murder was realistic, gritty, and read like a great police mystery. The main character was a bit grumpy, frumpy, and calloused, but he had good reason and you find out throughout the story bits and pieces that made him the way he is. I didn't really like him at first but by the end of the book I was ready for the #2 Roland March episode.
30 out of 33 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 16, 2010
If you like solving mysteries and pride yourself in your ability to answer it early in the book, this book is for you. Mark Bertrand weaves the clues and hints in and out with such skill that you will find it quite the challenge to solve the mystery. It even appears like there is more than one mystery to solve. The character of Roland March is a gloriously flawed policeman down on his luck. This case is his last chance. It will either redeem him or undo him, his marriage, his entire life. And the readers will root for him from the start but are never sure if he is going to make it. Read the book to find out, you will be glad you did.
26 out of 27 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 19, 2011
I love murder mysteries! But I need diversity within my story line. I don't want all dark. I need fully developed characters. Characters who stay on course with the theme of the book, but lend a human touch; whether it be love, anger, angst, guilt, desire etc. I am not easily pleased when it comes to these expectations. I am giving my (only) second five star rating ever! Back on Murder had it all: Great characters, suspense, surprise, revelations, loss, and a well written, interesting story. One of those books my husband asks why I have not finished reading yet. Why? Because when they are really good I do not want them to end, so I delay the ending for days. I read slower and slower as I sense the climax, stalling the conclusion. That is a GOOD read!
19 out of 22 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 21, 2011
OK, let me preface this by saying the book was free, so I will be much kinder than had I paid actual money for it. The story was great. Riveting to say the least and it held me captive. BUT. The grammar left a lot to be desired, as did some of the punctuation. My biggest complaint was the use of lower case letters when capitals were called for. dna should have been DNA. hpd should have been HPD. This was evident throughout the entire book. And random numbers inserted mid sentence. I have NO idea what that was about. All of the sudden...what the heck is that? Perhaps it IS proper grammar, but I have never seen it before. In all my recollections, the expression is: All of A sudden. May seem trivial to some, but it irritated the heck out of me. That being said, I liked the book in general. I just hope the author hones up on his vocabulary and grammar skills. And I find it hard to fathom how any editor could let those lower case letters pass.
17 out of 24 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 5, 2010
Back on Murder is a book that will keep you guessing. As with any mystery novel, the key is to never be predictable. And the more books that are written, the harder it is to be original. I found this book to be a mix of originality and "been there done that". It was a little hard to get into at first, definitely not a book that has it's hooks in you from the very beginning. But overall, I was impressed with the storyline.
The storyline: The story begins with Roland March, an out-of-favor homicide detective. After a life-altering event (to which the book refers but keeps you guessing until the end), Roland was never the same as a detective. He slowly fell from the top to the very bottom and is now verging on the precipice of unwanted. A simple discovery makes him realize that he loves his job and he is given one last chance to save his career. Gambling on hunches and instinct, Roland steps out on a limb and follows a lead that no one else believes in. "Battling a new partner, an old nemesis, and the demons of his past, getting to the truth could cost March everything. Even his life."
What I liked about this book: I enjoyed the overall storyline of this book. Despite the slow tempo, it was interesting and provocative. I appreciated the relationship as portrayed between Roland and his wife. Although it depicts problems between them, their marriage remains strong. I enjoyed the mystery and sense of reality that came with it. It is obvious that Bertrand is familiar with the mechanics of the homicide department and this gave the book an essence of truth.
What I didn't like about this book: If Bertrand could have increased the tempo and made this book more suspenseful, it would be far superior. I thought it didn't really succeed in being a suspense. There was mystery to it as Roland searched to solve his case, however there was not really an element of nail-biting suspense. I thought Roland's character could have been developed a bit more. I believe the intention of leaving his story a secret until the end was meant to draw the reader in, however it had nearly the opposite effect. Too much mystery makes a story boring and I found it hard to relate to and understand Roland until the end.
Who this book is good for: Anyone who enjoys a good book really. This book is a great gift for man or woman alike. It is a fantastic read for any day and the slower tempo makes it possible to put it down and save it for another time. I appreciate that aspect as a mother who rarely has time to read as I was drawn to it but not controlled by it :)
**This book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc.
Available at your favourite bookseller from Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group
11 out of 16 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 9, 2010
My brother-in-law who was in law inforcement for over twenty-five years read, Back on Murder, and loved it. He said the man who wrote the book had to of either been in law inforcement, or either knew someone who was, or he really did his homework. I totally agree. Back on Murder, was so well executed and so interesting I had a hard time putting it down. If you like crime scene novels, you'll love this one. Especially the guys.
10 out of 13 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 10, 2013
Liked this book a lot. The first chapter was kind of boring, but after that I had a hard time putting it down. This is a must read for all mysteryvfans.
9 out of 10 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 19, 2012
Posted July 19, 2012
Posted October 3, 2011
The book had a good plot but the story seemed to jump a bit and left you confused at times. Everything comes together at the end but you spend a lot of time wondering where the author was going with some detail or another that seemed to be drawn out and then dropped. Overall it was a good read that I would recommend. Some parts were a little slow though. Just keep with it.
6 out of 8 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 10, 2013
Posted February 8, 2013
Rspooner revealed way too much in their plot spoiler, all the while bragging how they got the book for free. We realky dont care, just stop telling everything that happens. You euin it for those of us who wish to be surprised. Then you have the anal retentive grammar nazi who cant enjoy a book for finding fault with every little perceived imperfection. If yoy can do better i challenge you to do so....but i will bet you cant!!!!!!
5 out of 14 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 7, 2013
More realistic than a majority of crime novels and certainly more realistic than current TV shiws. Plot twists are interesting however it begins slow but then becomes more action oriented. There are some typos due to the publisher which can be distracting but not enough for someone who truly enjoys a great murder mystery.
5 out of 7 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 15, 2012
I trip over this book when B&N added it to my home page based on books I had previously read. I am glad they did. I like the author's writing style. I like the lead character, and I like the pace of the action.I haven't finished the book yet, but based on the reviews here I am sure it will be worth the read.
4 out of 6 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 8, 2013
I haven't read this book yet but according to RSpooner's review it should be a good book. RSpooner did a great review. He/She reviewed the book yet didn't give the story away, at least not in my opinion. Thank you very much!
3 out of 8 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 6, 2011
Posted July 25, 2011
Loved this book. I am now a J. Mark Bertrand fan. I appreciate his style of writing, very clear but still keeps you on the edge of your seat. Cant wait to read his next book. Hopefully it will continue the Reg Keller character. HIGHLY RECOMMEND.
3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 17, 2011