An intriguing mystery featuring homicide detective Daniel Turner in the second of this atmospheric crime noir series, following Blue Avenue.
When one of her students is found dead, English teacher Lillian Turner and her husband, Navy war veteran Johnny Bellefleur, are drawn into the investigation. Having made a macabre discovery which throws a disturbing new light on the case, Johnny and Lillian find themselves involved in something darker and more dangerous than they could have imagined.
With their marriage cracking under the strain and Johnny’s sanity under threat, the pair is warned to stay out of the case by Lillian’s brother, homicide detective Daniel Turner. Just what is Daniel’s connection to the dead girl? Does he know more than he’s letting on? Can Lillian trust her own brother?
About the Author
Michael Wiley was brought up in Chicago, and now teaches literature at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. He is the Shamus Award-winning author of three previous novels in the Chicago-based Joe Kozmarski PI series
Read an Excerpt
The Detective Daniel Turner Mysteries
By Michael Wiley
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2015 Michael Wiley
All rights reserved.
No one ever calls desire a deadly sin but they should – more than lust or greed or appetite or envy. William Blake says it's better to murder an infant than nurse unacted desires. Satisfy desire or kill it, or it will kill you. I've always known that. That's what first threw me into Johnny's arms. And that's what I taught Sheneel Greene. But then her chair was empty – empty as an empty cradle, an empty bed, an empty heart.
Her chair stood in the front row, third from the right. She sat between a tall Cuban boy named Angelo and an Asian kid whose name I could never remember though I saw him every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoon for more than a month; couldn't remember because when my eyes scanned the room, they stopped on Sheneel Greene and stayed too long, until she smiled or looked away.
She had pale skin, like a salt block, so translucent the blue of her veins seemed to rise through it. Her white hair dropped pastÂ her shoulders. She had slate-gray eyes like the eyes of some fair-skinned blacks. Mostly she wore jeans and a red T-shirt with the word Ngafa on the front. Midway through a class on Emily Dickinson, I asked what Ngafa meant.
'Bad spirit,' she said.
'In what language?'
She smiled and looked away.
So I read to the whole class from Dickinson, but mostly to her:
My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –
In Corners – till a Day
The owner passed – identified –
And carried Me away.
I said, 'Dickinson was tiny, like a wren, but she called herself a loaded gun. You can hear her desire. A loaded gun aches for a finger to shoot it.'
Angelo grinned. In our town, almost everyone owned a gun – for hunting, sport, protection, aggression, all four – and mixing a rifle with sex could make a poetry lover even of a kid whose grammar consisted mostly of grunts.
Sheneel Greene's eyes lit up too. The words seemed to thrill her as a lover's hands on her body might. After class, she said, 'I love Emily Dickinson,' intoning love the way only a nineteen-year-old can, with a mix of crumbling innocence and half-secured experience.
I taught to her, and she seemed to hook into the books we read with a tender-fleshed intensity. Every good teacher knows that there's an erotic to teaching, not so different from the kind that drives a girl down between her teacher's knees in his office after class or carries a boy to his teacher's bed where she touches his hairless chest. It's a dance in which teacher and student anticipate each other's moves and they move with a grace that feels almost physical, though it need not be.
I danced with Sheneel Greene. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoon for a month.
Then she was gone, her chair empty. One class meeting, two, a week, ten days. I felt the class slipping from me.
None of Sheneel's classmates knew her phone number. I asked them with the false airiness of a woman who suspects a friend is avoiding her, or a new lover whose calls have gone unanswered. 'She lives in Fernandina,' said the Asian boy whose name I couldn't remember.
'Samuel Huang. Sam,' he said, annoyed, when I gave him an uncertain look.
The department secretary pulled the phone number and address on her computer. Samuel Huang was right: Sheneel lived in Fernandina, a beachfront town on a barrier island thirty miles to the north, where people moved when they tired of the city, though fumes from the paper mills overpowered the ocean air both day and night, and the noise of shipping trucks sounded over the bell-like music of halyards and metal hardware on the shrimp trawlers.
I closed my office door and dialed. Sheneel's number rang four times and voicemail picked up. Her voice still surprised me. It was deep and rough for a pale, little girl, though it lilted Southern as only the voices of multigenerational Southerners' voices did. 'Leave a message,' she said.
I did, with false airiness. She had missed five classes, I said. We'd finished Dickinson and started Whitman. Read 'Song of Myself.' Feel free to call me. 'Please,' I added, though it was a non sequitur except in the economy of desire.
Her chair remained empty all the following week.
Students often dropped out of classes. They got jobs, got pregnant, got high or drunk, got into fights with their families or friends, and going to school no longer mattered. I should have forgotten Sheneel Greene, focused on the kids who remained.
Then Eileen Rothenstein called from Student Counseling and asked, 'Has Sheneel Greene come to class this week?'
'She's been gone for three.'
'Has she emailed or called?'
'Her friends haven't seen her, and her brother has reported her missing. I can't say much, but we're worried. Let me know if you hear from her.'
'Why would she contact me?'
She hesitated. 'She talks about you during our sessions. I think she feels close to you.'
What sessions? Why did she talk about me? I wouldn't go there. 'Have you talked to her parents?' I asked.
'Sheneel and her parents had a falling out. She has her brother and her friends. And people like you.'
'I'll let you know if she calls.'
'She's a good kid,' Eileen Rothenstein said, 'but she's also a danger to herself.'
'You understand, I'm crossing professional lines in saying this much.'
'What kind of danger?'
'You'll let me know right away if you hear from her?'
When we hung up, I sat for a long time. A picture of Emily Dickinson stared at me from the cover of a book on my desk. Her face was as pearl-white as Sheneel Greene's. But her eyes were dark and spread too far apart, her hair also dark and parted crookedly, her black dress topped by a black ribbon at her throat. Only the gentle inward curve of her neck indicated that she might have sweated with desire.
The afternoon sun shined through the window into the office. During the summer, heat radiated from the glass, but now in late February, though the weather outside was turning warm, the glass seemed a solid barrier. What did Dickinson say? The blonde assassin passes on, The sun proceeds unmoved. Dickinson had violence in her heart. She was as tiny as a wren – and she wrote wren-like poems, poems of few words and bird-like immediacy – but wrens eat meat and they tear other living creatures mid-flight from the sky.
Sheneel was a danger to herself. What did that mean?
I should have let Student Counseling deal with this. I should have returned to my class and taught the students who showed up.
But I carried my thoughts about Sheneel Greene home to Johnny. I talked with him about her with forced airiness. I told him all I knew. I said that he should look for her. I did it for myself, though I pretended it would be good for him, since he too had torn at himself ever since he'd been back, and maybe searching for a self-destructive girl would turn out well for both her and him.CHAPTER 2
Felicity came through the glass door of my office, dragging a wicked trail of truck exhaust and the bitter smell of roadside weeds that always hung over Philips Highway.
'Cigarette?' she said.
She was a tall, black woman, heavy-boned. Her skin, tight over her cheekbones, glistened with sweat. She generally wandered the mile stretch of highway between Emerson and University with a brass-topped cane, though I once saw her with a wooden walking staff topped by a head whittled and painted to look like a grizzly bear.
'Cigarette?' she said again.
'I've told you I don't smoke,' I said.
'The hell you don't.' She turned to leave.
The stories said she'd worked this stretch for forty years and more, from before the government built the Interstate, when traffic backed up a quarter-mile at the stoplights and a girl could walk the line ignoring all but the men in Cadillacs. Now, in the two months since I'd set up my agency in the rental, I'd never seen a car stop or slow for her. A guy named Farouk Bashandi, who'd opened a restaurant called Sahara Sandwiches Shop a hundred yards south from me, said he'd once seen her get into a beat-up Chevrolet van, but that was it. Few men fantasized about a sixty-year-old hooker with a gimp leg unless sex had come to smell to them like death and dying.
I asked, 'How's business?'
'I'm too old for the butcher,' she said. 'You can lead me around on a chain but I can't carry a load, so what good am I?' She smiled, and she still had all of her teeth. 'Business is middling.'
'You can sit here awhile,' I said. 'Breathe the air conditioning. Stay out of the dust.'
She stared at me, and her eyes glinted with something – gratitude, shame, craziness?
'No,' she said. 'It's time for me to go back where I came from.'
'Where's that?' I asked.
She smiled again but with a nasty edge. 'I crawl outta de swamp.'
She was making fun of me, but I said, 'Like the rest of us.'
'Ain't that the truth.' The mockery was gone. Or was it? 'How's business with you?'
'Middling,' I said.
'Far as I see, sugar, I'm the only one that's walked through your door since you unlocked it and hung up your sign.'
'Takes a while to build up clients.'
'Sure it does,' she said, and looked at me slyly. 'Isn't your job to find things? That's what skip tracing is?'
I nodded. 'More or less.'
'Then find me a cigarette.'
'You give me a cigarette, you can take me any way you want.'
'I don't want you, and I don't smoke.'
'The hell you don't. Look at yourself in the mirror. Your head's on fire.'
'You're more than a little crazy,' I said.
She laughed at that. 'Bye-bye, sugar, till next time,' and went out through the glass door.
Afternoon sunlight bent through the gap between the door and the frame, and I stared at it until the door swung closed. Light like that could blind a man, but I'd learned that if you closed your eyes for even a second – if you let your mind wander to the skin of the woman you loved, or you whistled a song you'd heard that morning in your bunk – a bomb might explode under your feet, or a quarter-inch piece of metal, shot from a shadowy window a block away, might rip into your jaw. I'd seen the damage. I'd tagged it and zipped it into bags. I'd smelled the meat and ammonia of dead men in gray-metal rooms, two decks down, as the ship around me lowered side to side so slowly I felt the movement only in the deep part of my belly. But it moved and in its movement revealed that the whole earth at its center is liquid and undependable. They called the job soft duty and gave it a name that painted over the bloody rooms in which I performed it: Corpsman, HM3, in the Deceased Personnel Mortuary Affairs Division. Preparing plastic bags for the 346th Airlift Wing, who would refuel in Germany and then fly straight to a giant warehouse in Dover, Delaware. Joint operations duty. Soft duty – a hundred miles offshore from the bombs that exploded under men's feet and the pieces of metal that ripped into their jaws.
'That's good,' Lillian had said when I'd told her about the posting. 'Safe.' When I looked unconvinced, she'd added, 'Hemingway drove an ambulance in World War One and he came home alive.'
I should be fighting, I thought. I said, 'What's Hemingway got to do with it?'
'He saw the same things. An ammunition factory blew up in Milan. He carried out the bodies.'
I said, 'Didn't he kill himself with a shotgun?' She looked worried. 'That was later. Much.'
I had a pistol in my desk drawer. Why wait?
My head was on fire, the hooker said. How did she know?
I had all ten toes. Lillian had counted them as we lay in bed my first night home. I had all ten fingers. Lillian had counted them too. I had my feet and my legs, my hands and arms, stronger because I'd worked out with free weights in the ship gym. I had my dick, thank God. The organs in my belly pumped, cycled, and cleaned like beautiful machines. But did I have my head?
I opened the top desk drawer. My SIG 9mm lay on a green oilcloth rag. When I rented the office, I imagined sliding the drawer open as another man sat across from me. The oilcloth would keep the SIG from rattling. The man would suspect nothing as I lifted it and pulled the trigger.
That was a joke. My hands shook even when I was alone – especially then. And no one had sat across the desk from me except Felicity the hooker and, a few times, Farouk Bashandi who came to complain about the lack of business at Sahara Sandwiches. He'd fitted out an empty building with grills and picnic tables. A sign by the highway side showed a man eating a pita sandwich while riding a camel. In its day, the building was a Skinner Milk House. Back then, the Skinner family owned the largest dairy in Northeast Florida and they made a fortune by selling milk directly instead of through grocery stores. But shopping habits changed, and the Interstate drained traffic from our stretch of highway, leaving the building to crumble. 'The rent was cheap,' Farouk said. 'Can you believe it?' He'd imagined happy families eating falafel and gyros at the outdoor tables he'd fitted with umbrellas. The stinking air and the boarded windows across the highway on a restaurant called Chopstick Charlie's hadn't worried him.
I lifted the SIG from the drawer. It felt as heavy and cold in my hand as a chunk of bone, more solid than the liquid center of the earth.
I'd never shot it or any other gun off range. In training, I'd put holes through paper targets and blasted plastic manikins, I'd spotted man-shaped shadows through a night vision scope, and I'd learned to compensate for wind and gravity so an enemy would die as hard at a quarter-mile as he would at point-blank range. I'd played simulation games and watched hundreds of hours of videos meant to desensitize us so that, when we faced real blood and violence, we would charge in as if they were all we'd ever wanted. But I'd never picked up a gun really intending to kill a man.
First time for everything. I held the barrel to my chin. If I pushed hard enough, I could shove the barrel through to blood and bone without pulling the trigger.
The phone rang and my heart jumped. My heart had no right to do that. I'd suffered no physical trauma of that kind. I'd just stuffed together the pieces of other men after the blood had drained into the earth and the adrenaline had lifted like steam into the hard dry sky. If anything, my heart should stand still. When the phone rang, I should lie on the floor behind my desk like a dead man.
It rang again. I put the pistol back on the oilcloth and closed the drawer. I breathed in, out, in. 'Hello?'
'That's not how you're supposed to answer.' Lillian. She meant well.
I breathed in. 'Johnny Bellefleur.'
'Better,' she said. 'But with enthusiasm.'
I breathed. 'It's fake in my ears.'
'Make it real.'
Nothing was real. 'I'm trying.'
'The hooker came in. She said I could screw her if I gave her a cigarette.'
'Actually, she was pretty good.'
'I guess not. What's up there?'
'Let's eat dinner out tonight,' she said.
'You all right?' She didn't sound it.
'I'm fine. Everything's good. We'll talk tonight.'
Not at all convincing.
She said, 'I love you.'
I spent the rest of the afternoon at my desk, glancing from my gun drawer to my phone. The phone never rang, but I also didn't open the drawer. I tried taking my mind elsewhere, to circumstances that made me happy: Lillian on the beach, Lillian on our bed, Lillian in the woods – the shadows of green loblolly bay leaves falling on her skin, unbothered by stinging insects, snakes, and wild pigs, this being my fantasy, not theirs.
A truck horn blasted outside and tires screeched. I eyed the rays of sun through the glass door. All happy dreams come to an end. I had trained to account for glint and glare and the warping optical effects of a setting sun. On the range, I could hit a target in the fading light at a hundred yards, two hundred if I got lucky. With a few adjustments, I could point an M72 at a building or another ship and put a hole in the side big enough to crawl through. I could do it all, and I should have done it all. That's what my papers said.
Excerpted from Second Skin by Michael Wiley. Copyright © 2015 Michael Wiley. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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