Years after their marriage collapses, Buck White splurges on Irene’s coffin. She was found floating in a cypress swamp behind a Seminole village, her beauty marred by sadistic violence, a guitar string buried so deep in her neck that it takes two autopsies to dig it out. Sheriff White knows neither the time nor place of death, but the savaged corpse tells him to look for a serial killer: white, under forty, antisocial, and with a fondness for liquor. The man White is tracking turns out to be a special kind of crazy. Uncommonly charismatic, he has the wit and cunning to elude law enforcement while seducing new victims. More women will die before White gets on his trail, but no one will hurt the sheriff as badly as Irene.
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By Joseph Koenig
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1986 Joseph Koenig
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The casket sat on the lip of a dark trench etched in shallow Everglades muckland. It was a big bronze number with a red satin lining and angels rising triumphantly from the lid; on 14K a year one of the rare big-ticket items Buck White had lavished on his wife. The others were a self-defrosting refrigerator that was her favorite and the jeweled anklet a West Palm goldsmith had fashioned before the honeymoon. It had set him back a couple of months' pay, Irene's twenty-four-karat cuff; and drove him wild each time he saw it glistening against the warm velvet of her skin. Riding on his hip, it was something else again, as cool as the woman herself. After four years the clasp broke, and Irene stuffed it in a drawer and told him she was tired of it, like a lot of things she once was crazy for but never really became her. What on God's green earth was that supposed to mean? he'd wondered till she filed for divorce and moved in with a frog gigger from Chekika.
He hovered over the grave with his sons at his side. In his fists was a felt cowboy hat, the black mourner's band crushing a peacock feather to the crown like a luminous moth. Behind him somber men, his men, wearing the drab brown of Laxahatchee County sheriff's officers, eyed the crowd, bowed their heads as a spavined black cleric intoned the Twenty-third Psalm. Three decades before, he'd sung with a gospel group that recorded two sides for a race label in the Midwest. Still star-struck, the minister chanted the verse to a dated Motown beat. At his clarion "Amen" the casket was eased into the ground, and White tossed a spadeful of earth after it, a half pound of moist humus and chalky limestone pebbles. Two Mexicans squatting in the shade of a laurel oak brought shovels to finish the job.
Using his thumb, White brushed away the tears of Buck, Jr., who was eight. His other boy, Franklin, three years older, too old to cry, turned away and ran a sleeve under his nose. White fit his hat low on his close-cropped head and hugged his sons close, walked them around the clapboard Free Will Baptist Church to a sun-blistered Ford where his mother held open the door. "Be good now, y'hear," he admonished them. "Mind your grandma."
"We will," Franklin promised, and skittered inside the car.
His brother joined him on the Leatherette griddle of the backseat and wound down his window. "Pa," he called out, "you comin' home for dinner?"
"I'd like to, son, but I still have a lot of work to take care of. You understand what that work is."
"You gonna catch him now. That what?"
"If I can," his father answered.
"You can," Franklin said. "We know you can."
"I guess he doesn't stand a chance, then," White said.
"When you do, you gonna put a hurt on him for what he done? You gonna kill the man?"
"No, boys," White said as a cruiser came by and stopped for him. "You know that's not my job. That's for the courts to—" He backed inside the passenger's seat. "Well, we'll have to see this time."
A cortege of county cars followed the flashing domes back to headquarters.
That it was a man he was looking for was one of the few certainties he worked with. A white man, the coroner had said, ruling on half a dozen pale filaments woven in Irene's dusky pubic patch. An uncommonly brutal one, judging by the steel guitar string lost in the soft flesh of the throat and not discovered until a second postmortem. The time of death, as well as the location, remained undetermined. The body, nude from the waist down, had been found by a wildlife officer in the virgin cypress swamp of the Fakahatchee Strand behind a Seminole village. Clustered bruises below the biceps showed that it had been dragged there from the road.
In the six days since, the investigation had gone nowhere. Hopes for a quick break were dashed when no one came forward to claim the Laxahatchee commissioners' two-thousand-dollar reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killer. The responding officer's report on the finding of the body, the follow-up by detectives, the crime scene photos and lab work, autopsy results and interviews with potential witnesses were all as familiar to White as a map of the county, a map leading to dead ends at every corner.
When White arrived at his office, a bull-necked man with the square crew-cut of a Southeastern Conference football coach followed him inside. He was wearing gray trousers with a military pleat and a tailored navy blazer that was tight across one shoulder. He stabbed out a heavy hand, sundarkened to the cuff, and said, "Sheriff White? Captain Joe Gresham, Florida Department of Law Enforcement."
White felt his grip and released it, pulled up a folding chair. "Pleasure," he said, as if there could be some truth to it. "What've you got for me?"
"The final report from the chief medical examiner's office on the second postmortem, including the killer's blood type from specimens obtained under her fingernails," Gresham said, riffling through a briefcase. "She clawed him pretty good."
"Yes, she would," White said.
"A1MNRH1rh, if that means anything to you."
"No sickle trait, either. We test routinely for that now," Gresham boasted.
"It's a load off my mind. I was getting used to the idea that he was white. I'd hate to think it was some sick nigger."
Gresham looked up sharply. "Did Mrs. White consort with male Caucasians?" he asked after a pause. "It would help if we knew."
"What about techs?"
Gresham showed White his palms, then brought them together. "And what I know you'll put to especially good use is this psychiatric profile we drew on him."
"I don't give a shit what happened to his pet rabbit when he was seven," White said. "I need a couple of good evidence men to go back in the swamps with me. We don't have the manpower or the expertise to run a comprehensive murder operation here, and we've already lost tire tracks and other good stuff to the weather."
"This is state-of-the-art I'm giving you. Cost a bundle to draw. We brought in forensic psychiatrists all the way from Charlotte."
"Better if they could cast tread marks, work bloodhounds."
"Techs aren't the big deal they once were," Gresham told him. "The psychs feel you'll be better off with this."
"Shows what they know about human nature," White grumbled.
Gresham removed a yellow binder from the briefcase and pressed it against his knees with both hands. "Since the victim had no personal enemies to speak of," he said, "all signs point to a random killer, a serial killer we suspect. Of the fifty-five hundred unsolved homicides in the U.S. annually, ten percent are the work of these animals. At any given time there's at least thirty-five of them running around loose from coast to coast."
"Which one's mine?"
"A strangler, the kind who craves the feeling of power he gets from having a victim die in his hands. For practice he'll choke a woman until she passes out; a wife, girlfriend, anyone'll do. It often takes a while before he works his way up to killing."
"Who is he?" White tried again.
Gresham flipped through the report. "Someone with above-average intelligence ... a gifted gabber with a knack for worming his way into a victim's confidence ... He lives a rich fantasy life. When he can't find fresh prey, he may return to the scene of a kill to relive the victory. So what you might want to try is a stakeout of the crime scene."
"In the middle of the goddamn Everglades? Where'll I put my man, in a tree?"
"He's the product of a broken home," Gresham went on. "Quite possibly he resents his mother."
"A lonely man ... with a smoldering hatred of women ..."
"And a criminal history of violent crimes, including sexual assault."
"You came all this way to tell me he's antisocial?"
Gresham worked a finger behind the knot on his hand-painted tie and maneuvered his jaw from side to side. "Tallahassee has only the most rudimentary facts to work with," he said. "Still, you should find this information very useful." He cleared his throat. "Between twenty and forty years of age ... a heavy drinker ... likes to move around from place to place ..."
"What you're giving me fits half the men in this county," White said, pacing the room, "the half that's not already doing time. Forget what he likes on his Wheaties. Tell me what his name is and what he's up to right now. Where do I put my hands on the son of a bitch? What do your shrinks say about that?"
Gresham snapped shut his briefcase and tossed the report on White's desk. "I can't answer," he said, getting up to leave. "Why don't you call and ask them yourself? I'm sure they'll find it interesting talking to you."
Among the few outsiders in attendance at the funeral had been a girl from the Miami Herald, a twenty-year-old intern who'd been promised her first byline for a short piece on the frustration of a backcountry sheriff stymied in the hunt for his estranged wife's slayer. The neophyte reporter came away from the ceremony impressed more with "the unflinching dignity of the proud lawman and his shiny-faced boys" and "the Afro polyrhythms of the pastor's baritone dirge, which harkened to the field hollers that were the forerunner of the blues." A rewrite man honed her thirty-five-hundred-word account into a six-inch squib that ran with the obits, next morning, under the headline: BURY SHERIFF'S SLAIN SPOUSE.
In the afternoon White's phone began ringing off the hook.
"This the coon sheriff? We sure sorry 'bout your black bitch, Sheriff Coon. Hear you givin' a cash reward for the boy who done her. We doin' the same, 'ceptin' we paid ours C.O.D. Give him half when he poured her the pork and the rest when she choked on it. What you think of that?"
White slapped his hand against the mouthpiece and whispered into the space between his fingers. "Tyrone, do you have this call traced yet? Fine. Tell the brothers to leave their uniforms in their lockers and load up their riot guns. We're going cracker-crunching tonight."
"Sheriff Dewayne White, please."
"I have a word for you about the passing of your wife."
"I know who's responsible, where the blame lies."
"You, sir. You, yourself, are responsible. The sins of the father are visited on the—"
"Don't preach to me," White said. "I've been washed in the same blood as you ..."
"Pardon, Sheriff, I didn't know you were a devout man."
"I ... I really don't know how to begin this."
"Let's start with your name."
"Peter Arquette, sir."
"What can I do for you, Mr. Arquette?"
"Nothing, sir. It's something I'd like to do for you."
"I'd like to, I mean, I want ... I have to get something off my chest."
"Yes, I want to confess to the murder of your wife."
White pulled away to stare at the receiver, then returned it wearily to his ear. "I'm listening," he said.
"It was last Sunday night," Arquette said. "I'd had a couple of beers too many, I guess, and I wasn't feeling myself, and on the way back home I had to use the toilet. The nearest one was in a place called Sports Corner. It's a colored bar in Chekika, do you know it?"
White experienced a gentle pounding, not altogether unpleasant, in his temples. He reached for a pencil. "Yes, I do, Mr. Arquette."
"I was feeling quite relieved when I came out of the bathroom, and as I thought that one more beer couldn't hurt, I ordered a draft and sat down in a corner booth. I was drinking it by myself, as you might understand, when a beautiful Negro girl came in and took a seat at the table closest to mine."
The pounding in White's head turned to hammer blows. "Go on," he said.
"Irene ... Mrs. White told me about herself," Arquette said. "How leaving you was the biggest mistake of her life and how much she missed her boys, how she hadn't been at peace since she'd run out.... Sheriff White? Sheriff White, are you listening?"
In a husky voice White said again, "Go on."
"Well, we sat and we talked, and I bought her a drink. And I must have bought her another one because then it was two A.M., closing time, and the waiters were stacking the chairs on the tables. I offered to drop her off where she was staying, and she accepted very gratefully. We went west on the Trail. As we passed the Fakahatchee Seminole enclosure I pulled onto the road that runs behind it because I had to go to the toilet again. I walked into the trees and zipped down my pants and ... I don't know how to say this to you, but the next thing I remember is dragging that poor woman out of the truck and tearing off her skirt and forcing her.... And after that it gets kind of hazy, but when I woke up in the truck, the strings were missing from my Fender bass, and there were deep scratches on my cheeks and on my arms and on my throat, sir.
"Mr. Arquette, where are you calling from?" White asked. "I'd like to come over and have a word with you in person."
"I'm at my house here in Glades City," Arquette said. "But there's something else you should know about me before stopping by. Mrs. White isn't ... wasn't the first woman I ... I've done this to."
"The Zodiac Killings, Sheriff White, those are mine too," Arquette said tearfully. "I got away clean. And the Stocking Strangler in Columbus, Georgia ... they tried the wrong man in that case. I did those."
"Bet you're the Chokoloskee Choker too. That right?"
"Yes, sir," Arquette answered. "How did you find out?"
"Sleep well tonight, Arquette," White said. "Confession's good for the soul." But for the soul of a compulsive confessor, poor bastard, not nearly so good as a few stiff drinks.
"Who the hell's this?"
"It's been a tough week, eh? Maybe I should call back another time."
"What ...? Hector, is that you?"
"So you recognize my voice? I thought perhaps you would not admit it."
"Damn right, it's tough," White said. "It's getting tougher by the minute."
"I'm sorry I could not be there for the funeral. A case came up...."
"I understand, Hector."
"In part, that is why I am calling. I have something to help take your mind off your troubles."
"A nice, juicy mass murder Metro PD doesn't know where to put? Some tripwire vets with an armor-plated swamp buggy holed up in the glades? Not today, Lieutenant. I don't have the stomach for it."
"No blood, no muss," Hector promised. "All I want is for you to come with me on a ride in the country. Show me around, say hello to a nice man. It will do you a world of good."
"I'm not in the mood," White said. "I buried Irene yesterday, and now I have to get used to losing her all over again. I've been neglecting the boys, working the case myself, and I still don't have a decent clue. Today all the palmetto bugs are crawling out of the woodwork, and each one has my number. A spin in the country ... uh-uh."
"You'll be doing yourself a bigger favor than me. Get you away from your grief and from your desk. I know how you like to brood."
"Forget it, Hector. The answer is no."
A button lit up on White's phone, and his finger struck at it. He heard adolescent giggles, a squeaky falsetto. "De-wayne, honey, this is your Irene callin' from the grave ..."
His finger curled into his fist, and he slammed the fist on his deck, punched back the call from Miami.
"What happened?" Hector asked. "It sounded like we were cut off."
"Where in the country?" White asked.
Lieutenant Hector Alvorado of the Miami Missing Persons Bureau had emigrated from his native Cuba in the tumultuous months before the revolution. He had been back once, in 1961, sailing out of Cudjoe Key in a rust-bucket motor launch, his bronze features shaded with lampblack, out-of-date road maps of Oriente province in his army-surplus fatigues. He returned to Miami two months after a memorial service in his honor, sullen and uncommunicative. Below his left eye was a tic that he kept screened in a blue-gray cloud from a bottomless cache of Have-A-Havanas. His taste in cars was also vintage Havana, running to '59 Chevies, of which he owned three. When he pulled into the lot at Laxahatchee sheriff's headquarters, however, it was an unmarked Oldsmobile from the Miami motor pool that he bottomed on the yellow speed bump.
White was waiting in his cruiser with the engine running. He backed out of his private spot, away from the weathered stanchion with his name stenciled over his predecessor's, and motioned the 88 in. Alvorado slid beside him on the long bench seat and fastened his safety belt, the only cop White knew who used one. "The sheriff's own space," Alvorado said, surveying the near empty lot. "A place of honor."
Excerpted from Floater by Joseph Koenig. Copyright © 1986 Joseph Koenig. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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