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By Peter May
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2002 Peter May
All right reserved.
Deputy J. J. Jackson, known to his colleagues at the Walker County Sheriff's Department simply as Jayjay, stuck another matchstick between his front teeth and began chewing on it. He unzippered his fly and issued a yellow stream into the dry bed of Bedias Creek. Steam rose from it in the cool morning air, and he made a bold effort to make sure that most of it crossed the county line into Madison. Somewhere to the north, beyond the trees that broke the monotony of the flat Texan landscape, prisoners were being called out of their cells at the Ferguson Unit to face another day of incarceration. And he was free to piss in the breeze, clocking off in just over half an hour, to bring to an end the long red-eye shift, and with it the prospect of an empty bed. He spat out the matchstick and regretted that he had ever given up smoking. He was sure to die of wood poisoning.
The Dixie Chicks played from the open door of his black and white. Strictly nonregulation, but hell, you had to have something to keep you awake. He squeezed his ample frame in behind the wheel and eased his patrol car out on to the deserted Highway 45. He was flying now, south, into the wild blue. Day was when Martha would have had hot pancakes and syrup, and a plate of grits on the table when he got home. But since she'd run off with that air-con salesman he'd taken to driving into Huntsville for breakfast at the Café Texan, opposite the county courthouse on Sam Houston Avenue. He always sat in the smoking room just so he could breathe in other people's cigarettes. Nothing you could do about second-hand smoke he could tell the doc.
He sang along with the Chicks for a few bars.
Up off the highway on the right a Mexican fast food joint stood proud on the bluff. Much as he liked that beer with the slice of lime stuffed in the neck, Jayjay avoided Mexican food whenever possible. It gave him bad heartburn. But today he turned off and followed the bumpy road up to the parking lot, a big empty stretch of dusty tarmac. Empty, that is, except for a large refrigerated food container hooked up to a red, shiny trailer tractor. Not unusual. Truckers often pulled off to snatch a few moments shut-eye during an all-nighter. But the door on the driver's side was lying wide open, and there was no sign of anyone around. There were no other vehicles in the lot, and the restaurant wouldn't be open for hours yet.
Jayjay left his engine running and got out of the car. He had no idea why the truck had drawn his attention. Maybe it was because the driver had made no attempt to slot it anywhere between the faded white lines. Maybe it was just instinct. Jayjay held a lot of store by instinct. He had had an instinct that Martha was going to leave him at least two years before she finally got around to it. Although that might not have been so much instinct as wishful thinking. But, hell, there was something odd about this truck. It looked ... abandoned. He pulled the brim of his Stetson down, stuck another matchstick in his mouth and clamped his open palms on his hips, the forefinger of his right hand touching the leather of his holster for comfort.
Slowly he approached the open door of the truck, glancing a touch nervously to left and right.
'Hey y'all,' he called. And when there was no response, 'Anybody there?' He stopped, staring up into the empty cab, working the matchstick from one corner of his mouth to the other. Then he pulled himself up into the cabin and checked in back where the driver would usually sleep. Empty.
He eased himself down on to the tarmac and looked around. Where the hell could he have gone? The Dixie Chicks were getting into some R&B back in the car. A slight breeze stirred the dust in the lot. Sun rising under early morning cloud dimpled it copper pink. Later, as the same sun rose, it would burn it off.
Jayjay walked the length of the trailer, past rows of tyres as tall as he was, painted black walls, treads he could almost get a fist into. Garcia Wholesale, it said on the side. Fresh painted. New.
Round the back the tall doors of the trailer stood slightly ajar, and he began to get a bad feeling. He took his gun from his holster, crooking his arm and pointing the weapon at the sky. 'Hey!' he shouted again. 'Is there anybody in there?' He didn't really expect a reply, but was disappointed to be right. He spat out the match and pulled the left-hand door wide. It was heavy and swung open slowly. He was immediately hit by the smell of something rotten. Whatever cargo this thing was carrying had been left unrefrigerated and was well past its sell-by. He could see boxes of produce piled high: tomatoes, eggplants, avocados, cucumbers. He grabbed a handle on the inside of the door and pulled himself up. The smell was almost overpowering now, thick and sour like vomit and faeces. Jayjay blenched. 'Jesus ...' he hissed. Boxes had collapsed from either side and he had to pull them away to make any progress into the interior of the trailer. Tomatoes and cucumbers rattled away across the riveted steel floor, and a naked arm fell from between two boxes, an open palm seeming to beckon him in. Jayjay let out an involuntary yelp and felt goosebumps prickle across his scalp. He holstered his gun and started tearing at the cardboard. Another column of boxes toppled around him revealing that only the back quarter of the truck was carrying produce. It was too dark to see clearly into the space beyond, or the body lying at his feet. He was gagging now on the stench. He fumbled for the flashlight hanging on his belt. The beam that pierced the dark shot back through him like a frozen arrow. The scream stopped in his throat, too thick to squeeze past constricting airways. Bodies. Dozens of them trapped in the light, fixed in death. Arms and legs entwined, faces contorted terribly by some dreadful struggle to hold on to life. Vomit and blood and torn clothes. Ghostly pale Asian faces, wide-eyed and lifeless, like photographs he had seen of mass graves in concentration camps. Jayjay staggered backwards, stumbling over boxes, feet skidding away from him on the slime of burst and rotting tomatoes. He hit the floor with a force that knocked all the breath out of him. For a moment he lay still, wondering if he had slipped through a crack in the earth and fallen into the devil's lair. And in the distance he heard the Dixie Chicks. I've seen 'em fall, some get nothing and, Lord, some get it all.
All my knuckles are broken and bleeding, so I can barely hold my pencil. I have smashed them on the door until I can lift my arms no more. It is difficult to breathe now and the heat is insufferable. The battery in my penlight is almost done and I can no longer see the faces around me. I no longer want to. They only reflect the fear and despair I know is on mine. Cheng has passed out. I do not know if she is still breathing. The grip of her fingers on my arm has gone slack. Poor Cheng. My yazi. All she wanted was a better life, to reach Meiguo, find her Mountain of Gold. It is all any of them wanted. How cruel to have come this far, and be separated from the land we sought by rubber and metal. And death. I can feel it pass under me. Tyres on tarmac. American soil. Why will no one hear us? Why won't they stop? Please, if someone finds this, tell my mother and father that I loved them. Tell my little girl that she was my last thought. Tell her—
Dr. Margaret Campbell stood before a class of nearly twenty students in a lecture room at the George J. Beto Criminal Justice Center in Huntsville. The center stood on a hill overlooking the death house in the Walls Unit of Huntsville Prison, where George W. Bush had given all of fifteen minutes consideration to the case of each prisoner he had sent for execution there during his time as state governor.
The Criminal Justice Center was a part of Sam Houston State University, and another seventeen students were watching Margaret on closed-circuit television from a facility at The Woodlands, nearly thirty miles away down the highway toward Houston. Any one of them could hit a remote unit on the bench in front of them and have their picture and voice relayed to the lecturer. She, in turn, could direct the camera toward herself, or toward the screen at the front of the room on which she was at that moment projecting an image of a woman hanging by the neck from the ceiling of a garage.
'When the officer failed to show up for his shift and they couldn't raise him on the telephone, the desk sergeant sent a couple of patrolmen round to the house to see what was wrong. They knew his wife was away visiting her parents that weekend and thought maybe he was just sleeping off a night of excess.' Margaret chuckled. 'Well, excess was right, and the sleep was permanent. When they couldn't raise anyone in the house, the patrolmen went round peering in the windows.' She prodded the screen with a pointer. 'And this is what they saw in the garage. What appeared to be a large, heavy woman hanging from a light fitting, her face obscured by long black hair hanging down over it.
'Well, they figured they had probable cause, and they called for the paramedics and broke in. They discovered two things very quickly. The first that the woman was dead, the second that she wasn't a woman. That she was, in fact, their friend and colleague, Jack Thomas Doobey, a three-times decorated police officer with more than twenty-five years service.'
A tiny snigger rippled around the lecture room. Margaret invariably found that her lectures on auto-erotic deaths both amused and fascinated her students. Something to do with the human condition, perhaps tapping into the latent fear that most people have of the dark side of their own sexuality.
'He'd done a pretty good job of turning himself into a woman,' Margaret said. 'As you can see. Good enough to fool his fellow officers, at least until they got right up close.' She segued through several other transparencies as she spoke, including close-ups of Officer Doobey's carefully made-up face, his black wig, the glued-on fuschia-pink fingernails that adorned hairy fingers, the dress, the layers of padding beneath it to give him hips and breasts.
'He had gagged himself.' Red silk over pink lips. 'And tied his hands behind his back.'
'How'd he do that?' a black girl on the front row asked.
'Stand up,' Margaret said.
The girl glanced at her fellow students self-consciously and got reluctantly to her feet.
'Step out in front of the class and clasp your hands in front of you,' Margaret ordered. The girl did as she was told. 'Now bend forward, reaching for the floor, and without unclasping your hands, step through them.' The girl struggled a little to follow the instructions while her classmates laughed. But with only a little difficulty, she managed to do what she had been asked and stood up with her hands now clasped behind her back.
'You see? Easy.'
Another series of transparencies flashed on-screen to reveal how Officer Doobey had rigged up a pulley mechanism to raise and lower the hanging noose through a large hook sunk into the roof.
Margaret elucidated. 'He controlled the pulley with a remote control unit he had adapted from a basic stereo system. So that made-up, dressed up, gagged and tied, he stood on a chair with the noose around his neck and the remote control in his hands behind him. That way he could raise the noose until it was tight around his neck and taking most of his weight, literally choking him. And then at the last moment lower himself back on to the chair.'
The class looked back at her in awed silence, clearly visualising the scenario. Then the face of a dark-haired young man from The Woodlands popped up on the monitor and his voice came across the speaker system. 'But why, Dr. Campbell? I mean, why would he do that?'
Margaret said, 'Good question.' She paused, considering how to phrase her response. 'We are led to understand that by starving oneself of oxygen, one is able to heighten the sexual experience.' She registered the consternation on the faces of her students as they tried to imagine what was remotely sexual about dressing up as a member of the opposite sex and hanging yourself. Margaret smiled. 'But I don't recommend that you try it at home.' Which brought the relief of laughter to the room.
'When I got there,' she went on, 'I was able to determine pretty quickly that Officer Doobey had managed inadvertently to turn the remote control the wrong way around in his hands after setting the pulley in motion, and was unable to lower it again. You can picture the scene. There he is, hanging by the neck, choking on his own weight. The binding on his wrists that is loose when in front of him, is twisted and tight behind him. He has no flexibility of movement with his hands. He is fumbling desperately to turn the remote around to lower himself to safety. And then it slips from his fingers and smashes on the floor and he knows he is going to die. He struggles for a few moments, feet kicking, then gives up and succumbs to the screaming in his ears and the blackness that descends over him bringing, in the end, a very long silence.'
A silence filled the lecture room as these green freshmen conjured images of death they could never have imagined. Images, Margaret knew, with which they would become only too familiar when they graduated into the real and unpleasant world beyond this cloistered academic environment. The hum of the sound system seemed inordinately loud in the silence. Margaret caught a glimpse of herself on the monitor. Pale and freckled, fair hair tumbling carelessly over her shoulders. The CCTV cameras did her no favours. God, she looked old, she thought. Much older than her thirty-four years. Perhaps all those images of death she had had to deal with herself over the years had etched themselves into her face. What was it they called it ... character?
A young man with close-cropped blond hair at the back of the room asked, 'How could you know that for sure? Couldn't someone have set it up just to look that way, and really it was murder?'
'Yes, Mark, that's possible,' Margaret said. 'But I was able to rule that out pretty much straight off.'
'Because Officer Doobey not only liked hanging himself, he also liked watching himself do it. He had set up a camera, and the whole drama was there on video tape. Death by Hanging—at a cinema near you.' Margaret grinned ruefully. 'It would make life a lot easier if all my cases were available on video.' She closed the folder on her desk. 'That's all for today, guys.'
In the corridor outside, the babble of excited student voices had already receded as they headed out for coffee and no doubt a few cigarettes. Margaret never ceased to be amazed at how many young people were smoking now. A whole generation had given up, but the kids apparently didn't care about the health issues. It made Margaret think of her time in China where everyone, it seemed, smoked. Everywhere. But even the most fleeting thought of the Middle Kingdom, even after a year, touched raw nerves, and she immediately turned away from it. She pulled her leather jacket on under the turned-up collar of her blouse and stooped to take a mouthful of water from a stainless steel drinking fountain below a wall-mounted display case filled with the badges and stars of innumerable law agencies.
'Ma'am? Can I have a word?'
She looked up and saw the boy with the cropped head of fair hair from the back of her class. He was grinning shyly, clutching his satchel to his chest, and her heart sank. He always managed to find something he could ask her about after class.
She stood up and thrust both hands in the pockets of her jeans. 'Mark, I've told you before—it's Doctor, or Margaret. Ma'am makes me sound like a ... well, like a schoolmarm.' And she immediately saw the irony in that. Because here she was, a teacher being cornered after class by a pupil with a crush on her. She smiled. 'Just call me Margaret.'
But Mark clearly wasn't comfortable with that. 'I've been thinking a lot, Dr. Campbell, you know, after your classes and all, about what it is I really want to do.'
Margaret grinned and set off along the corridor. He loped after her. 'And today you finally figured it out,' she said.
He frowned. 'What?'
Excerpted from Snakehead by Peter May Copyright © 2002 by Peter May. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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