Authors: Joel B Reed
Murder in the Choir
A Jazz Phillips Mystery
Joel B Reed
White Turtle Books - Canby, MN
This is a work of fiction. The events reported and the characters who populate these incidents are figments of my imagination. Any resemblance between any of my characters and any actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. As far as I know, there is no Oak Grove community near Nashville, Arkansas, although small settlements like it are scattered throughout the state.
Paper Edition ISBN 1-933482-31-1
© 2005-2011 by Joel B. Reed All rights reserved.
This one is for Noell, my partner and companion.
1. Smiley Jones
The hit didn’t fit. Not the normal way. There’s usually a clear connection. It might be love. You know what I mean. It’s normally the husband or the wife or maybe a jealous lover, someone now or from the past. Or it might be someone with a superheated crush—romance that’s turned into obsession. Stalkers turned killer are pretty common these days. Then, at times, it’s a crime of old-fashioned passion. She comes home from a visit to her sister or he comes home from a hunting trip and finds a nasty surprise.
That last one actually happened. I worked the case and the defense was very simple. It never made it to a jury. “No, your honor, it just happened. I would never have shot them if I didn’t already have the gun in my hands. I guess I was so excited I forgot to unload my rifle. Yes, sir, the rack made it into Boone and Crockett. It was a record for the state.” Of course, it didn’t hurt that the case was tried in Dorado County, Arkansas, or that his honor’s trophy bride had given him horns six months before with a county attorney. Or that this was well known by the defense lawyer. The tricky part was the change of venue, and that cost a bundle. On the other hand, ten thousand dollars is cheap for a successful defense in a murder trial. Even on top of lawyer’s fees.
So lust is one of the first things investigators look for. The other is money. Any of the seven deadly sins will do, but greed is a major player. You will never see it listed as the cause of death, but greed has probably killed more people than anything else. When it comes to murder, even a rookie knows to look for the insurance policy or the inheritance. The beneficiary goes right to the top of the list. It’s the very first question: Quo bono? Who benefits from the death? Greed covers a multitude of other sins and it’s something juries find easy to understand. So greed has a special place in the hearts of state’s attorneys.
Of course, anyone who watches cop shows knows this. They also know that every once in a while the United States produces thrill killers. Not all of them turn into serial murderers, but more do than you might expect. These crimes follow their own twisted logic, but within that logic, they do make sense. What we look for is the connection. There’s a pattern, and following the pattern backward points to the killer. Doing that is just a matter of good police work—using your mind and asking questions. Perseverance pays off and a little luck doesn’t hurt, either. Criminals are human and they make mistakes. Good police work is being alert enough to see it when they do and getting close enough to grab them.
Like I said, anyone who watches television knows this stuff. My knowledge comes from being a criminal investigator. Twenty years with the Arkansas Criminal Investigation Division—CID for short— taught me a lot, and I’ve spent the last several years as an independent consultant. Some of this was working as a consultant to the FBI in a couple of off-the-wall cases but never as an agent. Like many state and local officers, I have a love-hate relationship with the Bureau. I admire their dedication and, to give the devils their due, they normally do very thorough work. They also can be prime contenders for asshole of the year, riding roughshod over jurisdiction and treating local officers like peons. Nor are Fat Boys accountable the way most police departments are. So when they recruited me after attending their academy, I declined politely, though I appreciated the training. What I really wanted to do, after being patronized for six weeks, was to flip them the bird, but I am glad I didn’t. They may be jerks, but they pay good, and I don’t have to put up with their workaday bullshit. As a consultant, I can charge them extra for any caca rendered.
Maybe I ought to introduce myself. My name is Phillips: J.S. Phillips. I go by J.S. most of the time, and my friends call me Jazz. I picked that up from a high school coach with a south Arkansas rasp that could sharpen a hoe. It was imitating his way of saying “J.S.” that became “Jazz” in the mouths of my teammates and the name stuck. I didn’t mind at all. I could imagine what their fertile imaginations might do with my real name, so I hung with Jazz. The girls seemed to like it, and nobody learned my real name until it was published in the bulletin at graduation. That might have been bad enough, but there were lots of other class mates saddled with strange names I never knew before. We reached an unspoken agreement not to make it an issue. We all had too much to lose. Or so it seemed.
Don’t get me wrong. My real name is not all that bad. It is unusual. Both my parents were band musicians and both my grandfathers were named John. They saw themselves as Bohemian by Arkansas standards, which means mildly eccentric, and they didn’t want to call me Jack or Johnny. So what they came up with, given my dad’s last name, was John Sousa Phillips. Fortunately for me, John Sousa is clumsy to say, and they understood how I might have to defend Sousa with my fists. Fertile young minds could turn it into Suzy or Sissy. So they went along when Grandpa Jack shortened it to J.S. and that’s what the family calls me to this day. As an adult, I can admire my parents’ creativity. As a child, I was terrified someone might find out who I really was, and I loved the sobriquet. J.S. sounded tough, like Robert Mitchum with a dead butt hanging out the corner of his mouth.
That’s a nice word, isn’t it, sobriquet? It sounds like something you might find in a boutique or an ice cream shop. There’s nothing like French to take something that’s as common as dirt, like nickname, and make it sound exotic. On the other hand, there’s nothing like Latin to make something sound down and dirty. Translate “common as dirt” into Latin and you get one simple word: vulgar. I guess a rose by any other name is still a weed, but to Arkansas ears, piscem natare doces sounds like pissing on the ground twice.
This has nothing to do with murder. It has everything to do with how we Americans think about murder and other unpleasant things of life. We try to clean up killing in the way we talk about it. Consequently, police do not have departments of man-kill, but departments of homicide. Maybe we should take a cue from the good folks in the funeral business and call it the Department of Involuntary Passing. With the kinds of imaginations policemen have, that could lead to jokes about incontinence.
As Americans, we also split hairs in the way we think. With man-kill we call some things manslaughter and other things murder. Of course, when the state does the cold blooded and premeditated man-killing, we call it execution which is another euphemism. I have to hand it to Oklahomans. When they kill a convict in a capital case, they’re honest enough to list the cause of death as homicide.
With the case at hand, nothing made sense. There was no motive anyone could see behind the killing and that’s why they called me. Not that they were all that interested in clearing the case of a black musician getting shot. The problem was that Smiley Jones was well known in the jazz world and a national celebrity. He was also a deacon at his local country church and seemed clean as a whistle. Apparently, the man didn’t drink, the man didn’t gamble, and the man didn’t use drugs or chase skirts. He was a quiet, gentle grandfather you would never notice until he picked up a horn or sat down at a piano or smiled. When he did, it was like the whole world went away. There were even those who claimed Smiley played a better horn than the great Sachmo, Louis Armstrong. I think that is stretching it, but with a guitar or piano, our man Smiley was one of the best.
Even the death of a celebrity can get swept under the rug after a brief scandal or under the right circumstances. This was not the case with Smiley Jones and I wasn’t under any illusions the locals called me in because they wanted to solve the case. They were taking a lot of heat from the press and the state, and they called me in to show they were doing all they could to get it cleared. With me on the scene, it was a win-win situation for them. I would be their golden boy. They would get the credit if I solved the case, and if I didn’t, I would take the blame.
Knowing this, I almost refused to take it. Outside consultants cannot afford to come up empty too many times. When they do, they stop being called. Nor did I have any lack of good excuses. I was in the middle of another case at the moment, something that was shaping up to be a major serial killing. The press were not aware of it at this point, so there wasn’t the intense pressure to get it resolved. Things were quiet and the killer had been inactive for several months, leading us to believe he was either dead or in jail. So we were doing the long, tedious job of looking at arrests leading to convictions after the last death we knew for sure was his. As it turned out much later, our work was useless. We were dealing with a she, not a he, a real black widow who preyed on adolescent boys. Her inactivity was due to a long stay in a mental hospital in a different part of the country.
The problem with Smiley Jones was the way he was killed. I made the mistake of asking for details because I knew the man. I had never met him, but I knew his music and I liked it, and the name caught my attention. When I heard what they had, I found myself intrigued. There was just enough evidence to promise a solution, but too little to suggest any obvious direction. It was a teaser and I was hooked.
Even then, I might have let it go. “Well, I’d really like to help you, Sheriff,” I told the man on the other end of the line. “I just don’t see how I can shake loose right now. You know—other commitments.”
There was silence from the other end of the line and I thought he had hung up. While this was not very professional, I knew it wasn’t personal. The man was under a lot of political pressure. I was just about to drop the phone in the cradle when I heard a familiar voice call my name. “Hey, Jazz, you ornery Coonass! How they hangin’?”
Steve DiRado and I go back a long way. “Hey, Dee, you worthless hound!” I shot back. “Haven’t they fired you yet?”
“No such luck, good buddy,” he laughed. “We got ourselves a real pisser here. I could use some help.”
That got my attention. Steve DiRado is one of the smartest people I know and one of the most informed. He could have been a brilliant concert pianist or quantum physicist or just about anything else he wanted to be. The problem was that while all these things interested him, his consuming passion was crime. Or it might be more accurate to say his passion was justice. Long before forensic science became such a big part of police work, Dee was pushing the envelope putting the bad guys away. His ratio of cleared cases was phenomenal, and very few of his cases went south because of mistakes he made. Normally, the only help he needed was doing leg work.
“That good, huh?” I asked him. Dee chuckled but said nothing. He knows my hot buttons, when to press and when to give me time to think. I took my time. “What else have you got?” I asked.
“I take it you’re in?” he shot back. He knew I was, but he needed to hear me to say it.
“What the hell,” I told him. “You guys need someone to hold your hands. Usual rates, mileage, and per diem? My rates, not yours.”
“You’re on,” he laughed. The natural state of Arkansas is notoriously cheap when it comes to paying expenses. The other side is that politicians don’t value what they don’t pay very much to get. I charge enough to make sure they pay attention. It’s a matter of pride.
“All right. How soon do you need me?”
“How about the day before yesterday?” He laughed, but he was dead serious.
While Dee is one of the steadiest people I know, I could hear strain in his voice. I wondered what in the hell I was letting myself in for this time. “So the case is that hot already?”