Bone Factory

Bone Factory

by Steven Sidor
     
 

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Praise for Skin River:

"Hard-nosed, soft-hearted Buddy is irresistible, and Sidor supports him with bang-bang storytelling and a sharply drawn cast. Take note, and you may see a star in the making."—Kirkus Reviews

"You can't get creepier than this. Exquisitely plotted."—Booklist

"With an eye for

Overview

Praise for Skin River:

"Hard-nosed, soft-hearted Buddy is irresistible, and Sidor supports him with bang-bang storytelling and a sharply drawn cast. Take note, and you may see a star in the making."—Kirkus Reviews

"You can't get creepier than this. Exquisitely plotted."—Booklist

"With an eye for gritty detail and a predilection for metaphor, Sidor paints a morbid picture of deviance and death in the small Wisconsin town of Gunnar in his fast-paced crime debut. The salty prose and clever narration will keep readers hooked."—Publishers Weekly

"Skin River is an incredible debut—unforgettable, spellbinding, and darkly suspenseful. Steven Sidor must have sold his soul to the devil to write this well."—Steve Hamilton, author of Ice Run

"A stinger of a first novel—dark, harrowing, and unpredictable as a run of dangerous river. Steven Sidor plunges you into chilling waters on page one and barely lets you up for air."—Gregg Hurwitz, author of The Kill Clause

"Skin River is a sharp, breathless upcountry thriller. Steven Sidor keeps the pacing piano-wire taut and selects his words with a vivisectionist's diabolical care."—Stewart O'Nan, author of The Night Country

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Sidor proved in his well-received first novel, Skin River (2004), that he knows a thing or two about deviant human behavior. Now he delivers an equally laudable mystery about two homicide detectives, set in the fictional midwestern town of Booth City, that delves even deeper into the darker reaches of the criminal mind. The police officers make an intriguing pair: Ike Horner, a large black man, has some serious physical problems, which he tries to hide; Eliza Ochoa has moved away from her poor Latino family and doesn't want to be responsible for her partner's health. When they check out the murder of a prostitute in a park, they're surprised to find that the dead woman is actually a transvestite male, who worked under the name of Josine. Sidor's subjects may be grisly, but his writing style is often poetic. "This had been a fine place once, a holiday destination rather than a full-stop dead end," Ike says about the ghastly hotel where Josine lived. The eulogy also covers the once beautiful Booth City, where several of the richest families are involved in some very nasty crimes. Agent, Ann Collette. (Sept.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Homicide cops Eliza Ochoa and Ike Horner investigate the murder of a prostitute who is not all that she seems-actually, she's not a she, and that's just the first secret to be revealed. Sidor (Skin River) lives near Chicago. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
In used-up Booth City, there's a place where used-up bodies routinely get dumped, so what makes this corpse different?For starters, the young prostitute was not, as the cops had supposed, female. Augmented breasts misled them-that, plus the brutal knife-work. Okay, so it was a dead transvestite the police were dealing with, so what? To veteran homicide detectives like Eliza Ochoa and Ike Gorman, that news was hardly earth-shaking. Not in Booth City, where "trannies" were as common as corruption in a town that had long since lost all sense of itself as worthwhile. No, what was different, truly different, was that this poor soul turned out to have connections, links to people with clout. One of them, it seems, wanted her dead. But why? The question intrigued Ochoa and Gorman, good cops to the end. Undeterred by obstacles, personal and otherwise, they push their investigation. For a while it gathers speed before bogging down, stymied in part by bureaucracy. As the detectives close in, they learn first hand just how savage a tactician the cunning killer can be. Sidor, as he demonstrated in his debut (Skin River, 2004), is a prince of darkness, steeped in the noir tradition and not giving an inch. That said, he is also bountifully talented.
From the Publisher
"Booth City is as frightening as the Sin City portrayed in Frank Miller's graphic novels…. The conclusion is one of the most harrowing in recent memory."

—Booklist

"Sidor proved in his well-received first novel, Skin River, that he knows a thing or two about deviant human behavior. Now he delivers an equally laudable mystery...that delves even deeper into the darker reaches of the criminal mind...Sidor's subjects may be grisly, but his writing style is often poetic."—Publishers Weekly

"Stomach-churning suspense at its best." —Lansing State Journal

"Sidor conjures up a grim realm of sleazy hotels, bars, and squad rooms…. It's a hard-boiled world, presented in a brisk, brutal shorthand as tough as its subject." —Providence Journal-Bulletin

"Sidor is a prince of darkness, steeped in the noir tradition and not giving an inch. That said, he is also bountifully talented." —Kirkus Reviews

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780312329518
Publisher:
St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
09/01/2005
Pages:
288
Product dimensions:
5.76(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.97(d)

Related Subjects

Read an Excerpt

 

1

DEAD GIRL SCOUT

Coulter Street

The man said he was a sailor. He wore a Navy peacoat, unbuttoned, and a white, V-necked T-shirt underneath. Blue slacks, shiny black shoes, but no sailor’s hat. Gia guessed he could be a sailor like he said. The snow fell heavier. It blew down the front of the Hotel Hippolyte in icy bursts.

“Let’s go around the corner.”

“Sure.”

They walked around the corner of the building for some protection from the weather and curious eyes. He showed her he had money. He bounced the bill roll in his outstretched palm. He wore bike gloves. The man who said he was a sailor paused under a bright light overhanging the back door to a bar. Gia noticed acne scars on his face. His eyes were green and didn’t look real, but people wore colored contact lenses and Gia guessed he was one of those.

“You ain’t a cop, sailor man?”

“Me? No, I’m no cop. Are you?”

“Nah-uh. I’m Gia.”

“Hi, Gia. You have a place we can go? A room?”

Gia decided she didn’t like his smile. Straight white teeth and Gia could tell he had a face that changed with how he felt. Or how he wanted you to feel. An animated face. Gia had one too. But the sailor gave off a bad vibe and Gia said no to the idea of her room. This sailor was going to be quick and outside in the alley. She wasn’t spending too much time with him. She wasn’t taking him into the hotel either.

“We do it right here. Down where that doorway goes into the brick wall. See? We do it there or nowhere.”

“It’s so cold.”

“Not with Gia it isn’t. C’mon. What you want tonight? I bet I know.”

The man stuffed his hands into his pockets. Gia watched the money disappear.

“Hey, it’ll be good, sailor. Gia satisfies.”

“We have to be in a room. Not out here in the snowstorm.”

“You ain’t cold, sailor. Coat’s all open. And look.” She brushed her fingers on his cheek. “You warm. Gia’s getting warm too. The doorway’s nice and dark. Nobody looks in there.”

They held hands as Gia led him to the narrow gap where a brown steel door was chained shut and empty wine bottles stood in paper sacks. The man looked up and down the alley.

Snowflakes were sticking in the man’s blond buzz cut. Gia could see his pink scalp and veins like pipe cleaners twisted at his temples. He was chewing gum. Gia smelled mint when he laughed. A pretend laugh like a salesman uses.

“Gia, Gia. Today’s your lucky day.”

The man turned and walked back to the street. Through the falling snow Gia saw him go north half a block, and she continued to watch until the storm erased him, finally, from her view.

Girl Scout Beach

Who found the body?”

“A jogger. Lady’s over there.”

Detective Eliza Ochoa followed the patrolman’s gloved finger to a slim-hipped redhead wearing fluorescent lime sweats. She was talking to another uniformed cop. They were about twenty yards uphill, out of the wind, huddled inside the opening of a tunnel. The tunnel connected the city park to the trails along Figg’s Pond and the river. Eliza turned and started walking. The patrolman frowned when the detective angled away from the witness.

Eliza wanted to take a look at the playground first.

Tornado slide. Two swing sets. Red, white, and blue jungle bars shaped like a rocket. Between the rocket and the river, a pair of gold-jacketed men moved together, then apart, pulling a tape measure.

The Booth City crime techs had finished taking their first set of photos in the dim morning twilight. They had to hang an extra spotlight on the rocket’s nose. Its brilliance fanned into the soft gray murk. Eliza stepped over a half-dozen pale blue extension cords snaking along to the curbside and the Crime Scene van. The techs were busy recording distances around the body, how far it came to rest from the street, the water, and the trail.

Dr. Lu, the Medical Examiner, did her work from the morgue and rarely made an appearance at a crime scene. The detectives would need a good reason to bring her to the river.

A body’s length from the foot of the rocket, on a gentle slope curving down to the water, knelt Tom Gandy, the assistant ME. His black bag gaped next to him like a mouth he had to feed. He looked happy. Eliza knew it was Gandy’s game face, always smiling over the dead, and it meant nothing about the circumstances. He motioned for her to come closer. The spotlight neutralized colors, pushed them into camps of black and white. Gandy had wax hands. A strip of mud guarding the river behind him shined like congealed grease. Eliza’s eyes locked on the dark mound he huddled over.

“Morning, Detective Ochoa.”

She took the pair of gloves he offered. Gandy pulled aside the rubber cloth he’d placed over the victim.

Eliza’s partner, Detective Ike Horner, walked out of the gloom, ducking under one of the swing sets and swallowing the last of his gas-station coffee. He had arrived earlier but waited for Eliza before going over the scene. The patrolmen who were first to respond ran down the basics for him. He went for a quick look at the body. When Gandy pulled up in the ME wagon, Ike pointed him in the right direction. After standing around watching the crime techs shoot their film, he climbed back into his car to warm up.

Eliza could smell the menthol cough drop in Ike’s mouth. She heard him cracking it between his back teeth. His nose was running, and he dabbed at it with a handkerchief. He put the handkerchief back in his pocket and started drumming his fingers against the bottom of the empty paper cup he was still holding in his other hand.

“We got a polar bear?” he said.

Eliza and Gandy were studying the victim.

Facedown. Nude. Shoulder-length brunette hair. Lividity marks discoloring the left side. The body had been moved at least once.

“Okay?” Gandy asked, white teeth flashing.

Eliza said, “Sure. Go ahead.”

Ike nodded.

Gandy rolled the body onto its side. They saw it was a naked woman.

“She’s really cold. I can’t give you a time until we get her back under the lights.”

“Don’t know how those people take a swim when it’s freezing like this,” Ike said, continuing the thought he’d been having when he walked up.

“You skinny-dip with a hole in your chest this big?” Gandy asked.

Ike leaned over the assistant ME’s shoulder. “Guess I’d sink pretty quick.”

“Wonder if she got her money’s worth.” Eliza nodded at the dead woman’s obviously enhanced breasts, which had remained firm despite the circumstances. The detective pressed her latex-covered fingertip against a small tattoo, a black unicorn, printed above the victim’s left nipple. No smudging. At least her ink was real.

Ike clucked his tongue. “Why would a young woman want to go and do that?”

“Equal opportunity,” Eliza said. “Everybody’s got a tattoo these days.”

“No, her … ah, augmentation.” Ike sucked in another cough drop, stuffed his naked hands into his leather jacket.

“You don’t get the tit job?” Gandy asked, incredulous.

“Evidently, I don’t.”

“Really?” Gandy grinned like he was enjoying a joke Ike had missed.

“I’m serious. Always looks like Frankenstein’s bride. Word implant gives me chills. More science fiction than medicine.”

“Yeah, well, other men get chills too,” Eliza said.

Ike shrugged.

Gandy continued to inspect the body. “Ligature marks on the arms and ankles. Take a look at her lower back. What would you say those were?” He kept the victim on her side. It was easy because the dead woman was skeletally thin.

Wind grabbed the frigid mist churning over the Rood River’s #4 Dam and shoved it right into their faces. Higher up the beach, past the playground, nearer the dunes and in the grasses, the sand was still soft, but under the victim it was as hard-packed as cement. Twisting the body left no impressions.

“Those scars? Somebody’s been cuttin’ on her pretty good,” Ike said. He rubbed two knuckles along his chin. Water droplets sparkled in the day-old, salt-and-pepper stubble. Normally, he kept himself meticulously groomed. Clean-shaven from the neck up, his head too, the only exception was a trim military mustache. But vanity went to the wayside when his beeper chirped predawn and running an electric razor meant waking the whole house. Short on sleep and not enough time for a long, soapy wet shave. He wasn’t sure he trusted his hands this morning either, after he looked at them.

Gandy nodded. “I’d say a small pocketknife maybe, or like a fruit knife. Short blade, probably. Or a long blade and he used only the tip. But she would’ve had to hold pretty still for that. I count five distinct groupings.” He pointed with his elbow. “Couple fresh ones down there on her hip. See?”

Ike searched along his collar until he found the lanyard attached to his glasses.

The hip bones were pointed, stretching against the pale skin even in death. On the fleshier side, above the mottled left buttocks, Ike saw the wounds. Like a row of crusty black caterpillars—four slices, roughly vertical and a thumbnail apart. A thicker slash cut diagonally through the bunch, making a crude tally of five. The older scars were like that too. Notches.

Gandy turned the body back on the sand. “Could be those are self-inflicted, given they’re superficial and clustered. The stages of healing differ. But they’re in weird spots.” Gandy pulled his arm around his back. “An itch you can’t scratch.”

Eliza crouched down level with the dead woman’s waist. “How about this? She’s a real mess down here. That a knife too?”

“Same as the chest, maybe. Torn up. Probably looking at the forced insertion of a sharp object. We gotta ask Lu to take a peek. But figure the victim didn’t do that to herself. And I’d be surprised if she wasn’t sexually assaulted prior to the trauma. We’ll run a kit for smears. But the river …”

“Where’s all the blood?” Ike asked. He took a pen from his pocket and jabbed it into the sand.

The pen made a shallow scrape.

“Maybe the cutting was postmortem,” Eliza offered.

Ike shook his head. “She didn’t tie herself up. Why tie up a dead girl? Unless you’re tying her to something, a cinder block or what have you, guarantee she stays on the bottom. If that were the case we’d have some rope here. Where’s the rope?” He seemed satisfied when no one answered. “You tie her up so you can do what you will.” He considered that thought for a moment, then asked, “She didn’t drown?”

Gandy raised his shoulders. “We’ll check her lungs, but it doesn’t look like a drowning. That chest wound is destructive enough to be fatal. Same deal with the amount of bleeding related to the genital area. There’s a cut artery in her thigh, not even considering what’s internal, so … I mean either one or a combo would do it.”

“Could somebody have carved her up after she washed in?” Eliza wasn’t ready to let go of the idea that the woman had been dead before her flesh was desecrated. Wishful thinking, she told herself. But she also wanted to rule out the possibility of two sources for the injuries.

Gandy said, “My feeling is no, the mutilation was proximate to her death. She’s practically bled out. Blood loss happened at some other location. Maybe in the river.”

Ike squatted and brushed the point of his pen into the victim’s black hair. “She hasn’t been in the river at all. Hair would be frozen. I don’t see a towel. Crime techs pick anything up?”

“Box of pretzels, some cigarette butts. Found a needle in the bushes. Nothing she might’ve dried her hair with,” Gandy said. The corners of his eyes crinkled. “The needle was old, been on the ground for a while. Not promising.”

“It’s a dump then?” Ike asked.

“Looks like,” Gandy said. He shut his bag.

Eliza nodded in agreement. “I don’t see any drag marks. He was strong enough to carry her. We’ll need to be careful about footprints. But there’s nothing nearby except ours. So he swept after himself. He’s thinking about us, at least.”

Ike said, “I’m with you all on that aspect of the situation.”

The side of Eliza’s mouth turned downward in mild amusement. “Your approval means so much.” She stood up.

“I know. Weight of my experience speaks volumes.”

Eliza looked for his smile but didn’t find it. Until the last month or two, if someone had asked her, she would’ve told them her partner was good-tempered and philosophical about his job. But he’d changed. One minute he was cracking jokes, warm and content, the next he’d take your head off at the shoulders. A real bear. Half the time he looked glassy-eyed, like he was verging on a winter slumber. She’d catch him staring off into nothing. Spaced-out. She attributed his grumbling to quitting cigarettes. But he’d kicked at the end of summer. The only difference she noticed then was his clothes smelled better. She couldn’t imagine him exercising—but when he lost a few pounds, she was thinking, Okay, good for Ike, he’s doing something positive for himself.

But that wasn’t it. She was even prepared to blame the bad weather that hit town after the holidays. Ike couldn’t let a snowflake go by without complaint. But his moodiness seemed deeper, as if this new outlook might be permanent.

If he was going through a midlife crisis, she wished he’d get through it fast.

So they could move on.

Eliza motioned to the patrol cop. “Okay, Kendicki, tell them to bag her.” She snapped off the gloves. Eliza had long elegant fingers; the nails were buffed round and clearpolished. No wedding ring. She was average height, pushing forty. Her caramel skin had an undertone of gold. Her hair was dark, short. On this chilly morning at the riverside, she wore a burgundy wool beret and matching scarf, an overcoat of camel hair. She’d been a detective for twelve years. Ike was the only cop in the department with a more reliable network of snitches. He’d come to Homicide from the Vice Squad. Eliza made her name collaring midlevel street crew managers over in Gang Crimes.

Partnered for a year, they were solid investigators, as good as any in the city.

Nobody bird-dogged their investigations and that certainly helped.

“We talking to the redhead now?” Ike said.

“Why, you need a date?”

“Jamila’s always telling me I work too hard. Go get a hobby.”

“Like learning how to walk again?”

Ike laughed and turned up his collar. He was reading a bronze city plaque mounted to a tree trunk on his left. “Kendicki, get tape put up along the Girl Scout Beach here. Follow my finger, okay? That willow there, got it? Okay, from there. And right to the edge of this walk. Make sure nobody messes up anything till Crime Scene sweeps it.”

“The Brookies called and said they’re sending over two squads. Worried about traffic once the morning rush kicks in. That’ll free us up.”

“Good man. Suppose rich folks gotta get to work too. But the park belongs to us. Just keep the B-town boys up on the cobblestones where they belong.”

“Yes, sir.”

Eliza was ready to start walking. The temperature, below freezing overnight, was on the rise. But Eliza couldn’t feel it. It was just plain cold. Another storm front headed for the city. The forecast predicted rain changing to freezing rain and snow. Heavy snow expected around dinnertime. While Eliza pondered the weather report, cold drops began to fall. She watched them pock a snowdrift blown against the footing of the tornado slide.

Two attendants from the Medical Examiner’s Office rolled a stretcher on the curve of pedestrian trail before wheeling around the playground equipment and onto the beach.

One of them, a twiggy man named Lopes, had worked for the ME as long as Eliza had been a detective. He was unzipping a body bag. The other was an American Indian who wore his hair in a net, a loose braid coiled underneath. Eliza didn’t know him. She watched the Indian gaze out at the rushing Rood. The open water was moving fast with snowmelt from the hills. Its path snaked south. Downriver, at a distance from the dam, ice closed in and formed a narrowing channel. The latest precipitation flooded the channel, spilling over the midriver ice, eating at it from above and below and staining the thinned layers cloudy green.

On the opposite shore, a man in a peacoat was walking a Doberman pinscher. The man, who also wore a knit watch cap snug on his head, stopped. Eliza thought she saw binoculars hanging around the man’s neck. The man leaned forward, anchoring his elbows on top of a broken concrete abutment.

He was glassing them.

Ike shook his box of cough drops. “Want one? I’ve got to buy a scarf. This hawk wind’s blowing all winter long.”

Eliza swiveled at the sound, and glancing over Ike’s shoulder, she saw the Indian square himself to the river and raise his hand. It was a slight gesture and Eliza wouldn’t have noticed if she hadn’t been looking right at him.

Eliza declined Ike’s offer.

“Let’s find out what Ginger knows.” Ike headed for the tunnel.

“Who you waving at?” Eliza asked the attendant.

“What?” The detective’s question surprised him. His eyes flicked over to Eliza, then back down to the corpse lying on the sand. Eliza was close enough to read his plastic ID badge. He had it clipped to the sleeve of his navy-blue Nestor County Morgue jacket. His name was Elvis Fat Bear.

“Other side of the river. He a friend of yours?”

“Don’t know what you mean.” Fat Bear squatted at the dead woman’s feet. Lopes had the body bag open. Rain fell inside with a steady tap-tap-tap. He was putting paper sacks over the victim’s hands.

Eliza looked back across the water and realized her depth perception had been distorted. It was a woman wearing a silver parka walking the dog. She must’ve been hidden behind the larger silhouette of the peacoat man.

Peacoat was gone.

“We okay to take her?” Lopes asked. He had round tortoiseshell eyeglasses. Raindrops beaded on the lenses. His breath plumed. The rain was freezing. Eliza felt it turning sharp on her cheek. She waited for the other attendant to say something. Fat Bear waited too, head down, his hands around the naked ankles of the dead woman. Eliza didn’t answer. Fat Bear hunched his shoulders. Tiny ice drops bounced off his jacket.

“We’re good to go, right?” If Lopes thought so he wouldn’t have asked again. He used his thumbnail to scale wet ice off the zipper teeth.

Fat Bear looked up at the detective.

Eliza read nothing on his face. He was just a man doing a job in the rain.

“Sure. Get out of this weather.”

They lifted the victim into the bag. Eliza approached the water’s edge. The woman and her dog were upriver now, following a nature trail into the trees. Eliza peered at the mud. It was smooth except for the frozen footprints of birds. She walked off twenty paces to where a stone retaining wall had been constructed on this side of the water, an answer to the flaking concrete barrier on the Booth City side. She rested her hand on the stones, touched her fingers to the rough mortar gluing them together. Chunks of dirty ice floated past. A kidnapped Nativity lawn ornament—one of the wise men, judging by the purple turban—bobbed in the dam’s keeper wave. Eliza tried to imagine how it would feel to plunge beneath the surface. The brutal initial shock. How the cold must burn.

They needed to call the Brooktown area office to see if anybody was missing from the high-rises or brownstones up the street. Had to check the B.C. night patrol logs. Did anybody notice a disabled vehicle pulled to the shoulder by the river park or Figg’s Pond? Were the lots chained at dusk? Any reports of unusual activity in the park?

Eliza moved off to join Ike and the redheaded jogger.

The park was quiet now because it was snowing.

“She was naked and not moving.”

“You touch her?” Ike asked.

“God no.”

“If she was lyin’ like we found her, then you couldn’t have seen her wounds. So how’d you know she wasn’t asleep or passed out?”

“In this cold?” she asked, frowning. “I guess I didn’t.”

“But you called and said you found a dead body on the beach?”

“She seemed dead. And, I mean, obviously she is dead. So what’re you getting at?”

“Just your assumption she was dead.”

The jogger sipped her water bottle. “She had a crow on her, I think.”

“Come again?”

“When I first looked over there—I was just clearing the trees—one of those big crows was hopping on her. Then it flew away. I didn’t know what I was seeing. But that’s what it was.”

“A crow?”

A wisp of red blew across her eyes and she tucked it under her headband. Nodded.

Eliza hadn’t said a word since walking up from the river.

“Who’s going to sleep through something like that?” the jogger asked her.

Homicide Squad Room

Prints came back quickly with a hit: Delbert Lee Watts.

Ike couldn’t believe it—the vic was a man.

He looked again at the crime-scene photos and noticed the Adam’s apple, the square meaty hands. He’d have to give Doctor Gandy some grief about this one. There’d be enough to go around. Top it off, Ike had collared the guy no less than five times when he worked Vice details. Solicitation. Public indecency. Possession of a controlled substance. The refrain continued down his sheet. Ike looked at the mug shot inside the folder. Watts had lost about fifty pounds since his last bust eighteen months ago. A long time to stay out of trouble. Where could a transsexual hooker with a cough syrup habit vanish to in a midsized midwestern city? Ike couldn’t place the face in the photo. Then he realized he’d probably never seen Watts without makeup and a wig. The file said Watts’s street name was Josine.

“Josine.” Ike spoke the name out loud, thinking, You can take the Delbert out of the double-wide, but … he remembered him now. Josine used to take her johns into the woods. Not around Figg’s Pond but downriver and across town on Booth City’s east side. Marjorie Broe Woods, or Blow Woods if you asked the locals. Ike wondered if sad-eyed Delbert had picked up a little something extra in the woods one night. Death’s blank fin swimming circles in a drop of blood.

The woods were a locus for gay liaisons. Hangout for closeted men who didn’t dare enter the bars. Forest haven for anonymous sex. Marketplace where chicken hawks shopped the services of teenaged hustlers who traded their youth for damp bills, then crossed the boulevard and copped rock in the projects.

There were three gay bars within the city limits. The most notorious was an east-side basement club called The Axle. Its interior swallowed light. There must’ve been a sale on black paint the day before it opened. Spongy floorboards made a man feel as if he might fall through. But fall through to what? Axle air had a warm bleach-water smell like wet mops. The ventilation was whispery, congested. Murderous speakers, real eardrum poppers, were stacked ceiling-high in the four corners. The beat, all kidney-punching bass lines and deep percussive thrums, buzzed your breastbone. Mondays were slow. Tuesdays offered half-priced drafts and an open mike. Wednesdays and Thursdays rotated themes that usually failed to draw a crowd. But if sweat and smoke were crude oil, then on weekends the club was a Texas gusher.

Ascending The Axle’s chipped, beer-slick front steps, a patron might notice a bus stop shelter on the other side of the road. Plexiglas etched with gang signs. Crossing the road required some care. Syringes on the sidewalk. Intoxicated drivers of every variety under the moon. Slow-cruising trucks crammed with hill boys looking to mess up a faggot. Cops working undercover. Narco and Vice.

A lit Camel covers the piss smell of the shelter. Nobody sober waits inside unless it’s pouring rain. Eye contact means something. No words are incidental. Going for a walk takes you farther each time. A young detective plays the role for a solicitation sting. He looks good in leather. Motorcycle jacket with side laces. Black steer over brown stud. He has the body for bait. Baby face too. This is before he gets married and quits smoking. This is being hungry for action. This is learning on the job.

He still owns the jacket. Never been on a bike in his life.

Beyond the bus stop is a jagged seawall. Only the seawall isn’t really a wall but the hundred-year-old stunted trees of Broe Woods, and the sea is the Rood River sliding over Dam #5.

As the scent of decayed leaves rushed up from the well of memory, Ike saw his partner push through the squad room’s double doors. “Hey, Eliza, we got a name on the Dead Girl Scout. Delbert Watts.”

“Delbert?”

“He’s a shemale. You know, a little bit of this, a little bit of that.”

“For real?”

Ike was nodding. “Turns out I knew him too.”

“You didn’t kill him, did you?” Eliza smiled. “Wait. Let me get my coat off before you answer.” Her cheeks felt tight from the wind. The squad room smelled like coffee and stale heating. She was already looking for her cup.

“Delbert went by the name Josine. Used to hook in Broe.”

“Used to?”

“We haven’t picked him up in a year and a half.”

“Maybe he got himself clean.”

“I think he was sick. Man lost a lot of weight.”

“You’re saying AIDS?” Eliza asked. Without thinking, she brushed her thumb across the crook of her elbow. That was where her old man liked to shoot until his skin got bicycle-patch tough and his veins shriveled to the circumference of speaker wires. Colleagues thought he wore longsleeved shirts out of some sense of formality. She’d watch him slide the needle into his ankles, testing—then hunting between his toes—his skinny white leg cranked up in the air and the spike clamped in his jaws. He’d lay there, collapsed on the Naugahyde couch. The basement television bathed him like an indoor moon. Volume knob on the TV had cracked off. So he kept a pair of pliers next to the set. But she never saw him use them. Instead, the sound was always way down and there’d be a Johnny Cash record spinning on the hi-fi turntable. He must’ve played other albums too, but that was what she always heard in her memory. That big, slow voice resonating like it was coming up from the bottom of a mine shaft. Her father concentrating so hard he missed her slender figure trapped forever in the doorway. Watching.

“Something to check anyway,” Ike said. “Pretty much skin and bones when we found him.”

Eliza hung her coat on a wall peg. She flipped through her message box. Her desk and Ike’s butted together on the far side of the room, in a corner by the coffeemaker. She filled her cup before sitting back in her chair to absorb the new information. “An angry john gets a test, comes back positive. Decides Watts was the likely source …”

“Or as good as any.”

“He goes to Broe, picks him up again. Maybe they play around a little like old times. All of a sudden playtime’s over. Knife’s out and he ties him up. And our angry john slices into Watts’s junk. Teaches him a lesson. Then he stabs him. Probably does the serious carving after he’s dead.”

“Just an idea.”

“Doesn’t explain the old cuts. Or why he’s dumped at the river park.”

“No better theories going right now,” Ike said. He held up his empty hands.

“Don’t even know if he had it.”

“But Watts was about as high-risk as you can get.”

“We should double-check and see if he’s still white,” she said.

Ike’s laugh was triple-wrapped in scratchy smoker’s wheeze. Six months since he threw away all his lighters and matchbooks. Ten seconds since he considered walking to the 7-Eleven and buying a pack. He couldn’t shop there anymore. Too close to his habit, like having a beer with your old connection; a bad idea you needed to keep out of your head if you didn’t want to wake up with the glass pipette in your lap again. Chasing the dragon or, in Ike’s case, the camel.

“Any address in his file?” Eliza asked.

“Uh-huh. SRO on the corner of Kingston and Faro. The Limerick.”

“I’ve driven by it. Never been inside.”

“Not exactly four-star accommodations. I wouldn’t doubt if Delbert was meeting clients there. Working right out of his room. Place is ninety percent alkies, flameouts, and hookers.”

“What’s the other ten?”

“Vacancies.”

Chessman’s Bar

But the other ten percent weren’t vacancies. Single Room Occupancies were one step above shelters and two up from refrigerator boxes under the bridge. They were former transient hotels. Flophouse Row. Some still offered weekly rates and tickets for soup in St. Bart’s basement. The buildings were among the oldest on the riverfront. Booth City had a block of them crowding the piers where the riverboat casinos anchored. A gambler with a good arm could throw his dice and hit an SRO window from any of the decks. The Limerick was full to capacity. Down-and-outers. Disabled people who cashed government checks. Old-timers who had nobody. The functioning mentally ill. Shufflers and nonblinkers. Everybody smoked like Parisians. Ike considered it a miracle all these places hadn’t burned to the ground. Carelessness was a way of life down here.

Ike knew a cabby who’d been living in The Limerick for a decade. Wayne Poins. Poins had the money to move out. He talked about leaving. But he never got around to doing it. Poins declared himself a poet. Bard of the underclass. A San Francisco Beat who arrived too late and never quite made it out to the Left Coast. Or out of The Limerick. Even Poins would admit he’d rather warm a bar stool than go about the mundane task of finding a more respectable address. So he learned to sleep through the fights, the wall banging, and the sirens. But Poins had a great memory.

They were early for their appointment with the manager of The Limerick. The man working the desk told them he had a key and they could take a look at Watts’s room. The detectives decided to come back in a half hour and talk to the manager. They were in no hurry. They went for a stroll.

Eliza and Ike found Poins throwing darts in a barroom called Chessman’s, next door to the hotel. The sign painted over the door showed a chess piece, a black rook with bulging biceps but no face, hoisting a spilling draft into the air. The room was long and narrow with a high ceiling, like a racquetball court. Someone thought it was a good idea to festoon the bar with white Christmas lights, the chasing kind. Ike got the spins after one glance. Zydeco music squeezed joy from the jukebox. The bartender, a squat Latina in her sixties, made them for cops and said nothing. Her liquid brown eyes slipped behind a cloud. Eliza walked right over, asked for a Coke with lemon in Spanish. Ike went directly to the back. This was his contact. He’d take the lead.

Poins was stretched out on a bench. Waiting to take his turn. He had an empty bottle of Michelob resting precariously on his belly while he concentrated on the man throwing, a white guy with blond dreadlocks. Eliza thanked the bartender and followed her partner to the four dartboards in the rear. Only one board was lit. The last dart sailed above the board and stuck in the oak-style paneling. The man hung his head. Poins sat up, handed him his bottle.

He patted him on the shoulder and said, “You’ll get it back, friend. I never win twice in a row.” His sliding gaze picked Ike out from the shadows. “Ah, is the good detective here to roust us for a bit of gaming?” The cabby’s beard was huge and bristly black. Inside it, Ike could see a smile.

“How’s the world treating you, Brother Wayne?”

“Like I fucked his sister and told my friends. Join me for a toddy?” Poins stopped when he saw Eliza. He tipped his chin in her direction. “You I don’t know.”

“Detective Ochoa is my partner. Let’s find a table.”

The other dart thrower vanished into the men’s room. Eliza heard him flushing his stash. The two detectives and the cabby wedged themselves into a sticky wooden booth. Eliza could smell a pizza cooking and wondered where the kitchen was.

Poins waved at the bartender. “Luisa, Irish coffee, por favor? Detectives, are you drinking today? No? Solamente uno.”

“Do you know a tranny hooker named Josine?” Ike asked.

“Ah, cut to the chase, why don’t we?” The bar was drafty, and Poins pulled a brown scarf from his hip pocket and wrapped it around his throat. “I do know Josine. She stays at The Limerick, second floor, facing the street. But you knew that already or you wouldn’t be here.” Poins’s coffee arrived in a reindeer mug. He blew at the steam. “What has she done?”

“She’s been murdered.”

Poins set the mug down. “Oh Christ, did some bashers catch her in the park?”

“What park?” Ike asked.

“I think she was still a regular at Blow Woods. But I hadn’t talked to her in the building, oh, in about two months. Light in her window would be on when I came in late. A Chinese paper lantern you can see from the curb. I thought I was just missing her, not crossing paths, our hours mismatched or something. Last time I did see her, she was with a date. She brought a few back, you know. More often in the dead of winter. The good-looking gentleman callers she could show off. Repeaters too, ones she was comfortable with, they came up. This guy was blond, had shoulders like a linebacker.” Poins spaced his hands out like he was talking about the length of a catfish.

“This was in her room?”

“No. Going up the stairwell. Never saw his face, but young I’d say. Fit, at least. He was taking the stairs two at a time.”

Eliza noticed the rings on Poins’s hands. He wore silver on each finger. Nine silver rings because his right middle finger was missing.

“Remember ever seeing him before?” Ike asked.

Poins shook his head. “Can’t be absolutely sure because all I had was a glimpse from behind and he never turned around. But I’d say no.”

“Did Josine have enemies?”

“None she told me about.”

“Any problem johns? Guys who got carried away, roughed her up a little?”

“I’m sure that happened from time to time, but …”

Eliza slipped a notepad from her overcoat. “Do you recall any names? Anybody who ever really hurt her?”

“We weren’t close friends, just acquaintances, building mates. Josine didn’t talk shop with me. Our conversations were about weather, music, the neighborhood.”

“You knew she worked Broe Woods.”

“And she saw me drive my cab. What’s the big deal? I gave her a ride to the Woods once in a while. Or I dropped her off at a bar if she was in the mood for a venue change. She was fun to talk to. Made the ride shorter.”

“How was Josine’s health?”

“What do you mean?”

“She sick a lot?” Ike asked.

“Nothing I was aware of. She liked her cough syrup, but in that case she was being, let’s say … rigorously preventative?”

Eliza wondered about money. “How did Josine pay the bills? She have enough dates to keep the gas on, the phone ringing?”

Poins shook his head. “I’m in the dark on that too, I’m afraid. Seems to me the Woods are pretty lowball. Excuse the pun. But Josine was always flush. I never figured it out. And her cash didn’t coincide with long days pounding the pavement either. I think she got checks in the mail. Not Government. Real money.”

“So why’s she working the Woods?”

“Why are you carrying a shield, Detective Ochoa?”

Eliza stared hard at the cabby. Waited a beat. His eyes came down to the tabletop.

“Maybe she liked the action, Detective.” Poins smiled into his coffee. His thumb ring tapped the handle. “But I’m speculating, of course.”

“I don’t know too many hookers doing it ’cause they like the action, Mr. Poins.”

Poins shrugged. His smile was back in place. “That I would not know.”

“Delbert get into a lot of beefs with people?” Ike asked.

“Listen, Delbert wouldn’t say Boo! on Halloween. He was utterly harmless, a quintessential damsel in distress. Auntie Martha across the hall—the lady turned eighty-eight in June—she had to kill his spiders for him. So, no, I can’t believe he did anything to provoke someone to the point of murder. Delbert wasn’t stupid. The hick kid who just got off the bus was a lifetime ago. He’d been working those woods a long time.”

“Delbert wasn’t prone to looking for trouble is what you’re saying?” Eliza said.

“Oh, he could be bitchy, but that’s part of the package, isn’t it? The grand charade.”

Ike slid out of the booth. He dropped a card on the table. “You call if anything comes around doesn’t smell right.”

Eliza flipped her notebook closed. She had more questions but was willing to hold off if Ike decided the meeting was over. Besides, Poins was starting to irritate her. She didn’t do well with male condescension, particularly from slobs with dried egg yolk in their beards. She stood up next to Ike and rebuttoned her coat. Poins’s dart comrade had the restroom door cracked, peeking out like a mouse. Eliza took one quick step in his direction and the crack disappeared.

“Where’d you find the poor thing?” Poins asked.

“Figg’s Pond,” Ike said.

“In the water?”

“No, his body was on the beach.”

Poins shook his head in disgust. “Washed up like a godforsaken carp.”

The detectives didn’t bother to say Delbert never went into the water, that the river never had ahold of him. Instead, they said good-bye.

Poins polished off the Irish coffee and as the doors opened, letting in a slice of brittle winter sunshine, he requested Luisa bring him another.

Copyright © 2005 by Steven Sidor.

Meet the Author

Steven Sidor is a fulltime writer who's last conventional job was as a case manager for the mentally ill. Bone Factory is his second novel.

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