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Done for a Dime
By David Corbett
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 2003 David Corbett
All rights reserved.
Every black-and-white to be spared had come, seven of the ten on graveyard, drawn in once the watch commander broke the Code 33. Dennis Murchison studied the crowd while his partner, Jerry Stluka, parked their unmarked Crown Victoria as close as he could.
Onlookers gathered in the battering strobes of colored light. Even though the rain had stopped, umbrellas sprouted here and there. On the perimeter, one older couple, decked in bathrobes and slippers, clutched their pajamas to their throats and craned on tiptoe to see.
Murchison and Stluka pulled out their IDs, put the tabs into their jacket pockets so the badges showed, then drew latex gloves from the dispenser on the dash. Stluka, eyeing the crowd, said, "Am I free to assume this officially kicks off Black History Month?"
He was sable-haired, muscular, compact. A build referred to as pyknic, Murchison had learned once doing a crossword puzzle.
"Got any pills you can take, stem the flow for a little while?"
Stluka inhaled through his teeth, a hard, thin whistling sound. "Yeah. Keep 'em with the antiwhining tablets. Want one?" He stretched his glove tight. "Who's I-C?"
Stluka cackled. "Sherlock!"
Murchison took stock of the faces swinging their way. Young men mostly, some with eyes like stones, full of what-the-fuck and who-are-you. "Once we get inside the tape, do me a favor. Lay off the Sherlock bit. Think you can do that?"
Stluka groaned. The pain of it. "Seems to me we could stand to lighten up a little. Get a sense of humor. You want, I could call him Maid Marion like they used to down around Dumpers substation."
"Oh yeah. That'll work."
"Hey—you want to be treated like one among equals, you take the damn chip off your shoulder."
"Whose shoulder? I'm the one asking."
Stluka made a little wave to suggest further discussion was beneath him. "I'm ready. You?"
They got out of the car and eased their way through the crowd from the back, checking faces. Murchison noted a player or two, known thugs, but that was hardly strange. They lived up here. One guy gripped an open Mickeys, talking smack into a cell phone. Others had their dogs in tow, pits and rotts. The animals strained against their chain leashes, sniffing the air. They'd caught the scent of the victim's blood.
Hennessey, who had the hill for patrol that night, stood in the middle of the street, ducking under one neighbor's umbrella as he jotted down her words. The woman wore pink sweats beneath a yellow slicker, bare feet in flip flops, her hair coiled meticulously into French braids.
Murchison came up, placed a hand on the officer's arm, and said quietly, "Hennessey Tennessee, toodle your flute."
The man was big, Irish—priestly eyes, wastrel grin. "Murch, hey." He nodded toward the woman under the umbrella. "Detective Murchison? Marcellyne Pathon."
She had high cheekbones in a round, childlike face. Behind thick horn-rims her brown eyes ballooned. She shook Murchison's hand. Her skin felt warm, her palm damp, not from rain. Nearby, a few young toughs in the crowd drifted back, far enough not to get dragged in, not so far as to leave earshot.
"She lives across the way." Hennessey pointed with his pen. Two little girls stood holding hands in the window, silhouettes, peering out at their mother. "Says she heard the shots, they woke her up, but—"
"Didn't see nobody." It came out quick. She adjusted her glasses. "I went to the window, you know, looked out, but—" A shrug. "All dark out here, you know?"
"Your children hear anything?" Murchison nodded toward her house.
Like that, she stiffened. "No, sir. All of us, the girls, too, we gone to bed already. Got church tomorrow."
"How about a car? Hear one? See one?"
She took in a long, slow breath, thinking it through. "No, sir. Don't remember no car." Her eyes held steady behind the Coke bottle lenses.
"Any voices, shouts, an argument?"
"No, sir. It was the shots, like sudden. Just them. Rest was real quiet. Especially for a Saturday. The storm, I figure."
"Mr. Carlisle hard to get along with?"
She recoiled just a little, as though accused. "How you mean?"
"Just trying to get an idea of who the man was, Marcellyne."
Her face relaxed a little, and she gave the question long consideration. She seemed conflicted. "What Mr. Carlisle was, was big—know what I'm saying? Spoke his mind. Stand back when he did, okay? But he was no trouble. I can't say nothing about him hurtin' nobody."
"The other neighbors. Any tension?"
Nearby, one guy with a dog craned to listen in. Hennessey edged over, herded him and his animal back.
"Not with me. Not with folks I know." Her eyes skittered around. Her voice quavered. "Have to ask them, I suppose."
Murchison nodded, glanced around at the nearest faces. Eyes fled his gaze. "Okay, Marcellyne. Great. Thank you. I'll get back in touch if I think we need some follow-up, okay?"
He didn't wait for her reply, but drew away, at the same time pulling Hennessey with him, turning him so their backs faced the crowd.
"This is your usual area up here, am I right?"
Hennessey shrugged. The polyester shoulders of his uniform beaded with rain. "Normally, yeah. Sure. Trade off from time to time—Brickyards, Dumpers—but I know the lay of the land pretty good up here."
"Look around. See any strange faces?"
Hennessey didn't have to look. "Here and there. But you know how it is. You're not a fuckup or his family, I don't know you."
From far back in the crowd, a voice shouted, "Pig white po-po motherfuckers!"
Murchison didn't bother to look. "You've got your Polaroid in the trunk?"
"Checked it out beginning of shift," Hennessey said. "Sure."
Murchison made a pressing gesture with his finger, the shutter button. "Don't wait, okay?"
Murchison joined up with Stluka just beyond the yellow crime scene tape, strung in a semicircle to keep the crowd back. An ancient sycamore loomed over a tall fence of rain-streaked dogtooth redwood that rimmed the property. A second ribbon of tape festooned the fence like bunting. A uniformed officer named Truax manned the gate, clipboard in hand, keeping the entry/exit log.
Murchison took a moment to survey the neighborhood. St. Martin's Hill shared the same high bluff overlooking the river as Baymont, the two neighborhoods divided by a shabby panhandle known for trade. St. Martin's was generally considered the better locale, working-class and stable, but the spate of foreclosures since the shipyard's closing had changed that.
Quicksilver mines once threaded the hill, part of a rim of upcroppings known extravagantly as the Sierra de Napa according to some old survey maps. Below, the Napa River flowed out from the salt marshes into San Pablo Bay. Only the western slope of the hill had been developed; the backside gave way to a broad, weed-choked ravine, former site of several sleeper mines. The ground remained too toxic from mercury for home building.
From this side of the range, though, on a clear night, glancing south from the bluff headlands, you could see San Francisco glimmering in the distance, like a wicked dream. Northward, beyond the salt flats, lay vintner paradise, the Napa Valley, with its thousands of acres of fretwork vines and the hundreds of tons of silt load they sent downriver. You could hardly head a boat upstream anymore except at high tide. An ecological disaster, those vineyards, but the yuppie-come-latelies couldn't love them enough.
In daylight, you looked west across the river to the Mayacamas Mountains, the interim distance greened with tidal wetlands riven by waterways—China Slough, Devil's Creek, Dutchman Slough. As a boy, Murchison had water-skied those sloughs with his older brother, Willy, breaking an arm once, his brother losing teeth, prelegal teens anesthetized with beer. Once, they'd traded chugs from a fifth of Four Roses bourbon—paint thinner with food coloring, basically—filched from a passed-out fisherman snoring in his boat.
The brothers had hunted together, too, looking for ruddies and stiff tails flying in to feed in the tidal pools, jackrabbits darting in and out of the fennel and coyote bush on the salt marsh levees, pheasant flushed out of the artichoke thistle around Five Brooks. Up near Dutton's Landing they'd helped buck oat hay for pocket money. After dusk they snuck into The Dream Bowl storeroom and helped themselves to a beer or two, then traded belches while the spinning tower light at the Napa Airport mesmerized them and they talked about girls they knew.
A lifetime ago, all that. As of 1972, Willy survived only in memory; you'd find his name etched in black granite among fifty-eight thousand others on the Mall in D.C. What hunting Murchison got to now concerned men. From time to time, he still felt the need for anesthesia.
He turned his eyes back to the immediate surroundings.
St. Martin's laid claim to being one of the few genuinely integrated neighborhoods in town, though halfheartedness more than high-mindedness deserved the credit for that. Haywire zoning had let in the low-rent apartments, and they were nests of trouble. Absentee rentals were a blight. This had driven out a lot of the whites, and almost all the ones left behind worked in the building trades, cast adrift by the shipyard closing, traveling hours up and down the valley now for any work they could find.
In truth, the racial tensions in town were a good deal less edgy than you'd find in dozens of other places, though that didn't mean they didn't exist. Just because people intermingled didn't mean they mixed. The same held true for the force. Murchison got along with Black cops all right, or he had before being partnered with Stluka. Now he was an enigma, but he couldn't do much about that without undermining his partner, a cardinal sin the way Murchison saw it. Loyalty was a duty, not a bond. Besides, he knew only too well that getting along isn't friendship. And you didn't have to wonder much what secret feelings remained at work beneath the surface of things—on the force, among ordinary people.
As for the folks who lived up here, they did well to know their neighbors beyond hello, regardless of race, and the ones they did know owed that familiarity to trouble—a men's rehab center trying to get zoning for ten additional beds; or the duplex owners who'd phonied up a permit request, then painted the house in clown colors when the Planning Department turned them down. Here and there, you did still find a family who'd lived in the same house for decades, but now their children were taking over the property, hoping for a little of that inflation windfall so key to the California dream anymore.
Being close to the panhandle, this particular street was mostly Black, though scattered here and there in the crowd Murchison caught a white face. He'd be interested in Hennessey's Polaroids. Be interested in which faces Marcellyne Pathon could identify, which ones she couldn't. Which ones she wouldn't.
Across the panhandle in Baymont, things got worse. Up top there was a reasonably decent neighborhood called Home in the Sky, built by a man named Jameson Carswell, a local legend—only Black developer the town had ever seen. In the fifties and sixties he'd built almost all the new homes owned by African Americans up here, then formed his own finance company to loan out mortgage money when the local banks refused, hoping to ruin him. A fierce loyalty remained among the older home owners over there. Old folks, they remembered.
Almost everything below that one neighborhood, though, despite the stellar views, qualified for Section 8. More than shacks, less than houses, they were old federal housing units left behind by World War II, now with add-ons and renovations grandfathered in decade after decade. Shabby apartment buildings and four-room prefabs set onto concrete slab pretty much finished the picture.
Patrol units seldom ventured over into Baymont for so much as a barking dog except in teams of three. Narrow winding streets snaked downhill among eucalyptus trees and Monterey pines so ratty and thick with duff they almost qualified as tinder. At the bottom, where the panhandle ended, the streets on that side converged with those from over here on St. Martin's—it was the only way in or out of either neighborhood, another relic of the federal housing plan. Traffic bottlenecked down there every morning and every night. A renovation plan was in the works, but that had been true for thirty years.
Beyond the low stone wall demarcating the Baymont and St. Martin's Hill communities, twenty-five acres of vacant navy row houses sat empty. They'd been targeted for condo conversion—a contractor had the plans approved for 250 town houses, model units were due for completion early next year—but then cost overruns for heating and electrical upgrades halted work, or so they said. Meanwhile the project just sat there, inviting the worst.
To the south along the river, the warehouse district began. Boxcars tagged with graffiti turned to rust in the rail yards. Piles of pumice and concrete powder, heaped along the loading docks, sent gritty dust clouds sailing through town, ruining paint jobs and prompting asthma attacks.
The night trade down there, among the warehouses, made the action up here on the hill look like church. That's where you found the lion's share of meth labs and crack houses and shooting galleries—if you found them. They roamed spot to spot, week by week, to avoid crackdowns, and even with federal HIDTA money, the force had yet to build up the manpower to do much. Bangers ran roughshod, and where they didn't the bikers did, the two sides negotiating truces only money could explain.
Beyond that lay Dumpers and the rest of southtown, absentee rentals again, a lot of Section 8. Live there, you inhaled mold through your walls and looked out at the street through metal bars. What you saw, more than likely, day or night, was hookers working twists along the side streets off the truck route. Come morning, if you ventured very far outside, you had to watch your step to avoid the spent rubbers.
The whole town had started to backslide when the first big wave of parolees came back to town, trying to reclaim what parts of the street trade they'd surrendered when they'd gone inside. Crime rates were ticking upward again. Six murders already this year, first week of February. Six murders and fifteen fires, in an overgrown town. A community in transition, some bow-tied consultant hired by the mayor's office had called it.
Turning back to the murder scene, Murchison had to peer over the tall wood fence just to see a rim of roofline. The upper tip of an addition appeared near the back. Raggedy plum trees flanked the yard.
To either side, beyond the fence and the trees, two Queen Anne Victorians stood dark. The Victorians counted among about two dozen in this part of town, one of the reasons it bore the nickname Heritage Hill. In contrast to Homicide Hill, which it also got called from time to time. The Victorians were impressive despite long neglect—steep-hipped roofs, cross gables, spindlework. One had a veranda in front and a Palladian window on the top floor. The other had a tower and a widow's walk. More to the point, they both stood empty. There'd be no neighbors on either side coming forward with eyewitness accounts.
Murchison approached the gate. Stluka, already there, leaned against the fence, trading wisecracks with Truax.
"Just slammed it down," Truax said. "This green gunk. Said it had bee droppings in it, I kid you not. Bee droppings, not honey."
"There a difference?" Stluka shook his head, leaned down, and spat. "Health food. It's God's way of being passive-aggressive."
"The two Victorians." Murchison pointed at one house, then the other. "Anybody check them inside?"
Truax shook his head. "Inside, no. But they're secure. Doors all locked. Holmes sent me and Hennessey over to check both out first thing. No windows broke, except those must've got broke before. They're all boarded up tight."
"I still want both taped off. They're part of the scene till I let them go."
"Yeah, sure." Truax flipped to a blank page and wrote it down.
"And back people farther away, across the street and beyond the Victorians, both directions. Neighbor said she didn't hear a car, but just in case there's rubber out here, I want to be able to find it."
Excerpted from Done for a Dime by David Corbett. Copyright © 2003 David Corbett. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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