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NEW ORLEANS REQUIEM
By D.J. Donaldson
Astor + Blue EditionsCopyright © 2012 D.J. Donaldson
All rights reserved.
Andy Broussard, chief medical examiner for Orleans Parish, had already been up for several hours, his sleep disturbed by thoughts of the impending annual meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, which this year his office was hosting. As he sat at the kitchen table sipping his third cup of freshly roasted Kenyan Meru, he mentally went over one more time the long list of preparations he'd made for the meeting, concerned that there might be something he'd overlooked. If this had been simply a regional meeting of medical examiners, he might still be asleep. But it was the national gathering of all the forensic disciplines. Criminalistics, Engineering Sciences, Jurisprudence, Odontology, Physical Anthropology, Pathology-Biology, Psychiatry-Behavioral Science, Questioned Documents, and Toxicology — they'd all be there. And its success would largely depend on his efforts.
Perhaps it was the early hour or maybe it was just a sixth sense he'd developed after so many years as ME, but the moment the phone began to ring, he knew that someone was dead.
Thirty minutes later, Broussard pulled his head out of a deep coffinlike artist's locker near the iron fence around Jackson Square and put his penlight back in his shirt pocket.
With him out of the way, Kit Franklyn, psychologist with the ME's office, could now see in.
Kit was not religious in the usual sense of the word. She wasn't even sure there was such a thing as a soul, except that when she looked at a man or woman dead only a few hours, she could find in their faces not the faintest imprint of the decades they'd lived. All traces of who they'd been were already gone—vanished so completely, it seemed that more was missing than could be accounted for in physical terms. Broussard had once advised her to forget the old cases, but she couldn't, and the victims' faces remained in her mind, accumulating at a worrisome pace.
Today, the body was that of a slightly built man who had perhaps been in his late thirties. He lay with the back of his head touching the wooden floor of the locker, his knees bent toward his chest. He was wearing poorly ironed cotton slacks, an unzipped poplin windbreaker, and a white crewneck T-shirt whose just-bought freshness was marred by a small slit in the center of a scant sunburst of blood just below his sternum. One eye was almost completely closed, dull cornea showing through the small slit between the upper and lower lids. The other was wide open.
"He's relatively fresh," Broussard announced. "Rigor's barely started."
"I'd guess it happened sometime after midnight last night," Lt. Phil Gatlin, senior homicide detective in the NOPD, said.
"Before that, there'd have been too many people around."
Broussard and Gatlin were nearly the same age but had arrived there by different routes. Where Gatlin's heavily lined face made him look older than he was, Broussard's made him look younger, most of this effect deriving from the absence of crow's-feet or other signs of wear around Broussard's eyes, the rest of his face being largely hidden behind a short beard shot with gray. Gatlin weighed around 230 but didn't look particularly overweight because he was six foot four. Even if he'd been Gatlin's height, instead of five ten, Broussard's 270 would have seemed excessive.
"Could that little bit of blood have come from a lethal wound?" Gatlin asked.
"It's possible," Broussard replied. He shifted the lemon ball in his mouth to the other cheek. "Have to get him to the morgue before I know for sure."
"I didn't see any defensive wounds. You?" Broussard shook his head.
"What's with the eye?" Gatlin said. "Never saw anything like that before. Why's one open?"
"No upper lid," Broussard replied.
Gatlin's heavy eyebrows jigged toward the bridge of his big nose. "How come?"
"It's been removed."
"When?" he asked warily.
"Right after he was killed."
"Jesus. Why didn't I see that?" Gatlin stepped over to the locker and leaned down for another look, playing his flashlight onto the cadaver's face.
"He's got deep-set eyes and more fat in his orbit than most folks," Broussard explained. "Makes it hard to tell if the lid is there or not. And since it was removed postmortem, there wasn't any bleedin'."
Gatlin played his flashlight all around the body, then stood up. "Don't see it in there." He shifted his attention to the pavement and searched the area where they were standing.
Kit had been wondering why she'd been summoned to the scene. She worked for Broussard doing psychological autopsies in suicide cases and was occasionally brought in by the NOPD as a psychology profiler in unusual cases. A corpse with a missing eyelid certainly fit that criterion, but since Gatlin hadn't realized it was missing when she was called, there had to be something he hadn't revealed.
"Why did you want me here?" she asked.
"I'll show you," Gatlin said.
Half a dozen cops were spaced evenly along a perimeter that had been marked off by yellow crime-scene tape strung from the fence around Jackson Square to the columns on the Pontalba Apartments across St. Peter Street, which from Chartres to Decatur was usually closed to vehicles. Despite the early hour, quite a crowd had gathered. Most of them were on the sidewalk, but some had come out of their apartments over the shops, onto the balcony overlooking the square, where from that elevation, they likely could see directly into the locker.
Gatlin went to his car, which was inside the tape enclosure, and opened the front door on the passenger side. He came back wearing cotton gloves and holding a few pages of folded newspaper as a butler might carry a tray of drinks. "We found this on his chest." He held the newspaper out so Kit and Broussard could see what was on it.
"Scrabble letters?" Kit said.
Broussard leaned close and tilted his head so he could look at the letters through the bifocal part of his glasses. "KOJE—held together with transparent tape," he observed. He looked at Gatlin. "They were just sittin' on his chest?"
"Un-uh. They were on the newspaper."
"I don't like this," Kit said.
"We should start a club," Gatlin replied.
"Obviously, this was no spur-of-the-moment act," Kit said. "Is the victim carrying money?"
"Twenty bucks and two credit cards."
Kit glanced at the locker. "You know what this looks like?"
"Act One, more to follow."
Gatlin's face twisted into a scowl of disbelief or of anger at what it would mean if she was right—she wasn't sure which.
"The killer's trying to tell us something with those letters," she said.
"Maybe how to catch him."
"Like 'Stop me before I kill again ...'?"
"Or maybe it's an ego trip.... He leaves a clue thinking we're too dumb to figure it out."
"What about the eyelid?" Gatlin asked. "Why'd he do that?"
"To make the crime special. Sort of a signature. And I don't think there's any point looking for it. Most likely, he took it as a trophy, something he can look at to relive the moment."
As she spoke, Kit found herself glancing at Broussard, trying to gauge his reaction to her comments. It was a part of herself she hated, this seeking of approval. If she'd been rejected by her father, it might make sense, but they'd always been close. So where did this come from? She found little consolation in the fact that she didn't act like this with all authority figures, only Broussard. As usual, the old pathologist listened attentively, his face unreadable behind his beard.
"Doc, you're describing one sick SOB," Gatlin said.
"No argument there," she replied.
"Since he brought his own weapon, chances are he came from another part of town and drove here."
Gatlin's weary expression clouded. "I don't see the connection."
"There's not actually anything to see. They're behavioral relationships discovered by analyzing large numbers of cases with similar features."
"Ritualistic ... items left at the scene, arranged in a particular way."
"You've been saying 'he' did this or that...."
"The odds are overwhelmingly in favor of it being an intelligent white male in his late twenties or early thirties."
"It'd help to know for sure if that single wound was the deathblow."
"Let's say it is."
"Then he got in close, which means he's confident and skilled at interpersonal relations, the kind of guy who'll look you right in the eye when you talk to him. The absence of defensive wounds indicates that he didn't look threatening.
He might have used some ploy to get close ... asking for a light, directions, that sort of thing."
"Or the victim knew him," Gatlin suggested.
"Unlikely," Kit replied. "In these kinds of cases, the killer and the victim have rarely met previously."
"So why'd he pick this guy?"
"Probably because of the way he's dressed—tight T-shirt, open jacket, ideal for a single well-placed knife thrust."
Gatlin nodded and made a rolling motion with one hand.
"There's a chance the killer's in that crowd over there," Kit said. "Or he may come back here later, or he might even attend the funeral ... they like to reminisce." She could see by Gatlin's drifting attention that she was now covering ground already familiar to him.
"And?" he said, his eyes wandering over the scene.
"He'll likely have poor credit."
That got him back with satisfying speed, but if he was expecting a new string of insightful comments, he was destined to be disappointed, for without further data, Kit had nothing more to say except, "End of analysis."
"What about this locker?" Broussard said. "Was it abandoned?"
"No," Gatlin replied. "Its owner discovered the body."
"Why was it out here? Most of the artists roll 'em into a frame shop or somethin' at night."
"Apparently, the good spots are first come, first served. If you leave your cart out, you can keep a good one. Anyway, that's what she said. But I had the feeling she just couldn't afford to rent storage space. Said she forgot to lock it when she went home."
"So somebody also stole her equipment," Broussard observed.
"Looks that way." Gatlin glanced at Kit.
"It wasn't the killer."
"I agree," Gatlin said. "Andy, how long before you can give me the skinny on the victim."
"How about we all meet again in your office at, say, ten o'clock to hash this over. Sorry about it being Saturday."
"You'll just owe us a big favor," Broussard said.
"How about I write you into my will."
"I sorta hoped we'd collect in this lifetime."
Watching the two old friends banter this way, Kit felt a twinge of envy. Broussard did it with her at times, but never as much as with Gatlin.
As the old detective turned to go, Broussard said, "Mind if I take those letters to my office?"
Gatlin turned, wearing a puzzled expression. "Why?"
Gatlin held the newspaper up to his face and stared at the letters, then looked back at Broussard. "What?"
"There's a hair caught in the tape holdin' the letters together."
Gatlin looked again and tilted the letters a little. "Damned if there isn't. I'll bag 'em for you."
Broussard liked nothing better than getting one up on Gatlin, who was no slouch himself. Today, he'd gone two up. Seeing the glitter of delight in Broussard's eyes, Gatlin added, "And you're outta the will." He glanced at Kit. "Not that I think you're wrong," he said, "but I'm gonna keep looking for that eyelid."
With nothing further to contribute, Kit ducked under the crime-scene tape and headed for her car, which she'd parked as close to the action as the scene tape allowed, the puzzle of the Scrabble letters occupying her thoughts. KOJE ... What was the killer's purpose in leaving those letters? What was he trying to tell them?
She began rearranging the letters in her mind, trying to make them spell something recognizable. As she unlocked her car, she felt a touch on her arm.
"Dr. Franklyn ..."
She turned and looked into clear eyes the color of the chalky green water in the quarry she used to swim in as a kid. The association of those eyes with a fond childhood memory was irritating, for she did not like Nick Lawson—not his eyes, not that stupid ponytail he wore, not what he did for a living. It was actually not so much what he did for a living that she resented but how he did it. From the paper's viewpoint, he was probably considered an excellent reporter. He certainly knew how to write. But he couldn't tell when to draw the line between the public's right to know and the damage public disclosure could do to an ongoing homicide investigation. When leaks occurred, Nick Lawson, it seemed, was always there with a bucket.
"What's in the box?" Lawson said, jerking his thumb toward the crime scene. "Or maybe I should say, Who's in it?"
"Talk to Gatlin."
"We aren't getting along."
"I wonder why. How'd you get here?"
"Same as you, internal-combustion engine."
"Such wit, and so early in the morning. What I meant was, how'd you know something was up?"
"Heard it on my scanner."
Kit doubted that. Cops don't like having to deal with reporters at murder scenes. And usually, at a typical generic murder, there aren't any to worry about, the event being so commonplace that daily perusal of publicly available police reports suffice. The cops know this and likewise understand that the more unusual the crime, the more likely radio chatter is to bring out a reporter. They therefore try to keep radio talk about unusual cases pared to the basics, giving the details only over the telephone.
"You think you're pretty clever, don't you?" Kit said.
Lawson's hands came up in a pleading gesture. "Just doing my job, like everybody else."
Kit became aware that he was making a faint whirring sound. "You need a new tape recorder," she said. "Your old one makes noise. I could probably have you arrested for that."
Grinning, Lawson took a small recorder out of his back pocket and pressed a button. The whirring stopped. The recorder was connected to a wire that ran under his shirt, probably the cord to the mike. "Look, I'm gonna get it all eventually," he said. "So why not make it easy on everybody."
"Because you're irresponsible."
"Since when has telling the truth ever made someone irresponsible?"
"When it prevents a murderer's slip of the tongue from being used as evidence against him because you had already made privileged information public."
"So, that newspaper Gatlin got from his car was like that ... or something that was on the paper?"
Kit felt her face redden. She yanked the car door open and got in, so anxious to leave she nearly backed into an old man in a beret who was crossing behind her on his way to see the reason for such a crowd.
She inched the car down St. Peter and backed onto Decatur, thankful the carriages and horses that usually blocked the view of oncoming traffic on Decatur had not yet appeared.
She took Decatur to Canal, crossed over, and headed uptown on Magazine, replaying practically every word she'd said at the murder scene, finding most of her performance acceptable. But that fiasco with Lawson ... He had worked her like he was the one with the Ph.D. in psych.
Finally, as she turned onto St. Charles with its venerable live oaks that formed a canopy overhead, she began to put things in perspective. She hadn't really told Lawson a thing.
Anybody standing outside the tape could have seen Gatlin get that newspaper from his car and could have concluded it was something significant by the way he carried it and how she and Broussard had gawked at it.
She looked at her watch. Teddy LaBiche always left Bayou Coteau at 5:00 A.M., which meant he'd be at her house in just a few minutes.
Teddy ... She pictured him at the door—most likely in a pale blue shirt of brushed oxford cloth, jeans that showed his slim athletic build, alligator boots and belt, his trademark stylish straw hat shading delicate but firm features that spoke of his aristocratic French lineage. And smelling so good, you'd never know he made his living as the owner of an alligator farm.
Excerpted from NEW ORLEANS REQUIEM by D.J. Donaldson. Copyright © 2012 D.J. Donaldson. Excerpted by permission of Astor + Blue Editions.
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