Authors: Diane Fanning
Tags: #Mystery, #houston, #Police Procedural, #Murder, #country music, #murder mystery, #austin, #molly mullet, #Thriller
Copyright © 2007 by Diane Fanning
All rights reserved.
This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination, or, if real, used fictitiously.
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the express written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law.
in conjunction with Tekno Books and Ed Gorman.
Printed in the United States on permanent paper.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Photograph on cover by Peggy Parks Photography
This book is dedicated to Pete—just because
Moonlighting a security gig at Solms Halle was as good as it gets for a uniformed cop. I relished every opportunity. There were few fights—even fewer drunks who maintained belligerence once you hustled them out into the open air. It was fun any night, but tonight was plum. Trenton Wolfe was the top bill.
When the management booked Wolfe, he had just finished recording his latest CD, Wolfe Pack, and had not yet released the chart-topping single,
“Bite the Moon
.” Now that he had, he was riding a meteor into the stratosphere as the hottest new act in country music. The boisterous bodies packed into the old dance hall and stringing out into the street were proof that a legend was being born. The band honored the engagement in this obscure venue in gratitude for all the stage time Solms Halle gave them before anyone knew their name.
Although there was a chill in the air tonight, and all the wooden shutters were raised to let the fresh night breeze drift in through the screens, Solms Halle was hot and sweaty from the overflow crowd. The nightspot was nearly as old as Texas. Its unpainted, rough-hewn plank walls testified to its small-town dance-hall history.
The narrow picnic tables—worn smooth from the sliding of cold, wet bottles of beer—and the bench seats—shined to a high gloss by the rubbing of innumerable backsides—stretched out in tight rows perpendicular to the stage. The sitting-in-an-old-barn atmosphere was guarded with zealous neglect. Any attempt to fancy-up Solms Halle was likely to cause its death as a Hill Country institution.
The driving country beat of Wolfe’s music vibrated in the walls and floorboards, slid out the open windows and down the street where it danced on the rushing waters of the Guadalupe River. For half an hour, the band played old favorites for their longtime fans. When they started into a track off the new CD, I was enjoying myself too much to call it work.
Then, I heard the first scream. It echoed with the faintness of an off-mike back-up singer. Curious but not yet concerned, I headed up a crowded side aisle, pushing through the milling, bouncing, dancing gaggle of customers that blocked the way.
I was halfway up the length of the hall when the shriek of multiple female voices rose to a crescendo that overpowered the throbbing of the speakers pouring out a tale of lost love. One by one, the musicians stopped playing. The last to remain oblivious to the nearby panic was the drummer, who pounded out a mindless, manic solo—lost in the rhythm of his own world. I got a few steps forward while everyone else sat frozen in place listening to the eerie harmony of screams blending with the relentless drums like a ghoulish punk concerto. At last the silence of the other musicians disrupted the depths of the drummer’s intense concentration. He lost his rhythm and his drumsticks clattered to the stage floor.
As if that sound were a secret signal, the stillness of the audience broke and they rose to their feet as one. My shouts for order dissolved in the cacophony the moment they passed my lips. Between the women fleeing from the restroom toward me, and the curiosity seekers pushing against my back, an impenetrable bottleneck grew.
I stepped up on a bench and from there to a tabletop. I jumped across from table to table, hoping to reach the stage, commandeer a microphone and calm the crowd. On the way, I flipped out my radio and called for assistance. I needed backup—bad.
I kicked over abandoned beer bottles, spraying foam on my pants legs and shoes, as I sprang across the room. When I reached the midpoint, I had a clear view of Trenton Wolfe. He stood on the stage and glared into the once captivated crowd that had transformed into an unruly mob.
Even in his state of apparent annoyance, the appealing good looks that had graced dozens of magazine covers were still intact. His perfectly sculpted six foot three frame had fueled my fantasies and those of most every other woman I knew. His chestnut brown hair, just long enough to brush the collar of his shirt, appeared as if it had never been fussed over and yet it was always in a perfect state of dishevelment—as if he just rose from a pleasurable encounter in bed. His face had a proportioned symmetry with a chin you could rely on. It was friendly, yet menacing. He had the bad-boy look that drove a lot of us crazy. His full, sensuous lips could part in a smile warm enough to melt a javalina’s heart but, at the moment, they were pursed in disgust.
By his side was his bass player, Stan Crockett. He was a bit taller than Wolfe and leaner than Ichabod Crane. Skin wrapped around his bones like saran wrap clinging to a turkey carcass. His deep-set eyes and sunken cheeks perched on a scrawny neck with a prominent Adam’s apple. That apparatus was balanced on a body so lanky, it appeared as if it might suddenly splinter at the waist. At the end of toothpick arms were hands with skeletal fingers that somehow created magic every time he touched a bass guitar.
Word was that despite his cadaverous appearance, Crockett was a laid-back, happy man who smiled easily and often. Unfortunately, on a face like his, a grin looked like a grimace and a full smile like the mocking of a ghoul. At the moment, he was not smiling. His compressed lips were in constant motion as he whispered to the mute star of the show.
I ran up the length of picnic tables toward the two. I jumped to the floor, battled my way through the dense crowd in the small space between the table and the stage and vaulted up onto the platform.
I grabbed the microphone and ordered the crowd back into their seats. My shouts were as effective as the whispered rebuke of a chaplain during a prison riot. By now, many of the intoxicated in the crowd were taking offense at the pushing and shoving and were throwing punches in response. Oh, man, oh man, where was my backup? I strained my ears but could not hear the sounds of approaching sirens, nor did a look through the windows reveal any flashing lights racing to the scene.
Mike Elliot, manager of Solms Halle, clambered onto the stage and shot me a glance of desperation. I didn’t think it would do much good but I shouted into the microphone again. Mike tried to hustle Trenton Wolfe and his group out of the hall. Trenton was not making his job any easier. I could not hear a word he was saying, but he was yelling at Mike and his arms flailed the air like a windmill run amok.
Unlike more modern facilities, there was no backstage entrance at Solms Halle—no easy exit for performers. Mike and a few beefy volunteers formed an arrowhead that struggled to maintain its unity and pierce through the noisy crowd.
I slid off the stage and sidled along the wall to the ladies’ restroom where all the brouhaha had begun. Light slipping through the crack at the bottom of the door illuminated a mishmash of bloody footprints on the floor.
I slammed my back against the wall by the doorframe and drew my gun. The churning chaos around me parted like the Red Sea. I took a deep breath and kicked open the door. I moved into the doorway with my gun extended in a shooter’s stance. “New Braunfels Police Department. Throw down your weapons.” I scanned the barrel of my revolver from one corner of the small bathroom to another. Nothing moved. But there were four stalls. Any one of them could conceal a perpetrator.
If someone in one of those stalls shot at me right now, I doubt the plywood doors would even slow down the bullet. I exhaled a guttural shout and kicked open the first stall door and drew a bead on the vacant toilet. I moved to the next one. I could taste the fear in my mouth. It coated my tongue with a green slime that made my stomach lurch. I kicked open the next door and the sick sensation grew.
What was behind the next door? The lady? Or the tiger? Again, I kicked. No victim. No bad guy. Nothing but porcelain.
Now all that was left was the last stall, I could smell my sweat and feel it form a clammy pool on the nape of my neck. I kicked that last door open. Nothing.
I breathed again. But it was ragged. What had started as a small spot of tightness in my chest had expanded to embrace my whole upper body in its painful grip. I turned back to the doorway to the hall where the tops of a few foolish heads leaned in to see what was up. When they saw my gaze turn on them, the heads pulled back like turtles retreating into their shells.
With flashlight in hand, I shone the light in the narrow hallway outside the restroom door. I followed the trail of blood to where it led in the other direction. It ended at another door. Through the crack at the bottom, blood still seeped—as thick as glue, as dark as dirty oil—but still it moved.
I grabbed a paper towel from the bathroom dispenser and crossed the hall. In my right hand, my gun was at the ready. With my left hand, I laid the towel on the knob. I tried to turn it. It was locked. From the hinges, I saw that the door opened out. A kick would not do the trick. I needed the key. I reached on top of the doorsill. No luck. I shone the flashlight around looking for a nail that held a key. Nothing there. I needed Mike. Whoever was bleeding in there might still be alive. From the consistency of the blood, I doubted it, but it was possible. I was torn. Guard the door? Go find a key?
Before I could decide my problem was solved—Mike Elliot was by my side, a chunky key ring in his hand. He slid the key in the knob and backed away from the door. I stepped up, turned the key and released the lock. I pulled the door open a crack then slid to the side where I would be shielded as I eased the door open with my foot.
I led with the barrel of the gun, then jerked into position—knees bent, gun pointed straight ahead. One glance and I returned the gun to my holster and traded it for my flashlight—whoever had transformed this ordinary utility closet into an abattoir was no longer there.
Sticky blood pooled like a major coke-syrup spill on the floor. Up the wall and across the cleansers lined up on the shelves, runny dime-sized droplets of blood formed a distinctive pattern—a line of streaky spatter rose up in a peak, descended and rose to a second peak—the classic formation of arterial gush, just like the pictures I saw at the seminar. It looked like the chart for an electrocardiogram—very bad news for the body sprawled at my feet in a lake of blood.
A small cardboard box nestled in the small of the victim’s back, arching his body upward. Tossed across the upper half of his torso was an orange plastic rain poncho—the disposable kind Wal-Mart sells for a couple of bucks. It seemed odd that there were smears of blood all over the side of the poncho facing toward me, but I didn’t have time to ponder that puzzle now.
I pushed the poncho aside with the butt of my flashlight to check for a pulse. His neck was sliced through to the spine, throwing his head back into a bucket where his hair floated on the blood that accumulated in the bottom.
I crouched down to check for vital signs. The spot where I should press to check for a pulse was no longer there. I knew it was futile, but still I lifted his limp wrist and held my breath as my fingertips sought any glimmer of life. No throb. No beat. No life.
Embedded in the shredded tissue of his throat, I saw a metallic glint. I focused the beam of the flashlight and discovered the source to be a guitar string. I followed its length and noticed the ends pulled through a block of wood and twisted tight. Death by guitar string—that had to be a first. And Solms Halle was the perfect setting for it. My moment of levity gave way to a sudden and severe bout of nausea—the bile rising at the back of my throat, its acid searing my tongue. I threw a hand to my mouth and squeezed my eyes tight, willing the upsurge to back down. If I lost it here, I would contaminate the crime scene and never hear the end of it.