Back on Murder

CHAPTER 1

I’m on the way out. They can all tell, which is why the crime scene technicians hardly acknowledge my presence, and my own colleagues do a double take whenever I speak. Like they’re surprised to find me still here.

But I am here, staring down into the waxy face of a man who, with a change of wardrobe, could pass for a martyred saint.

It’s all in the eyes. Rolling heavenward in agony, brows arched in acute pain. A pencil mustache clinging to the vaulted upper lip, blood seeping through the cracks between the teeth. The ink on his biceps. Blessed Virgins and barb-wired hearts and a haloed man with a cleft beard.

But instead of a volley of arrows or a vat of boiling oil, this one took a shotgun blast point-blank just under the rib cage, flaying his wife-beater and the chest cavity beneath. He fell backward onto the bed, arms out, bleeding out onto the dingy sheets.

Lorenz stands next to me, holding the victim’s wallet. He slips the license out and whistles. “Our boy here is Octavio Morales.”

He’s speaking to the room, not me personally, but I answer anyway. “The money guy?”

“La Tercera Crips,” he says, shuffling away.

I’ve never come across Morales before now, but his reputation precedes him. If you’re short of cash in southwest Houston, and you don’t mind the crippling interest rates or getting mixed up with the gangs, he’s the man to see. Or was, anyway. Guys like him go hand in hand with the drug trade, greasing the skids of the underground economy.

“If this is Morales, then I guess the victims in the living room are his muscle?”

Nobody answers my question. Nobody even looks up.

Morales lies on the bed just inside the door, now blasted off its hinges by multiple shotgun volleys.

Down the hallway, another body is twisted across the bathroom threshold, clutching an empty chrome 9mm with the slide locked back. I step around him, avoiding the numbered evidence tags tented over his shell casings.

It’s a hot day in Houston, with no air-conditioning in the house.

The hall opens into a living room packed with mismatched furniture – a green couch, a wooden rocker, two brown, pockmarked folding chairs – all oriented around a flat-screen television on a blond particleboard credenza against the far wall. Beer bottles lying in the corners. Boxes on the coffee table from Domino’s and KFC.

This is where the shooting started. The couch cushions blossom white with gunshots, exposed foam bursting from the wounds. The floor is jigsawed with blackening stains. We’ve left our traces, too. Evidence markers, chalk lines. Imposing scientific regularity over the shell casings, the dropped firearms, the fallen bodies.

One on the couch, his underbelly chewed full of entry wounds. Another against the wall. His hand still clutching the automatic he never managed to jerk free of his waistband.

This was a one-sided fight. Whoever came through the front door polished these two pretty quick, then traded shots with the victim in the bathroom before advancing down the hall. Octavio Morales must have been the target. Maybe he’d tried to collect a debt from the wrong person. Only guys like this tend to be the perpetrators, not the victims.

“What do you think, March?”

I turn to find Captain Hedges at the front door, his white dress shirt translucent with sweat underneath his gray suit. He slips his Aviators off and tucks them into his breast pocket, leaving one of the curled earpieces to dangle free.

“You asking me?”

He looks around. “Is there another March in the room?”

So I’m the designated tour guide. I can’t recall the last time Hedges spoke to