Authors: Trudy Nan Boyce
G. P. PUTNAM'S SONS
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Copyright Â© 2016 by Trudy Boyce
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eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-14070-7
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Boyce, Trudy Nan.
Out of the blues / Trudy Nan Boyce.
PS3602.O927O77 2016 2015015991
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
For my father, Reverend James H.
And the days keeps on worryin' me,
there's a hellhound on my trail,
Hellhound on my trail.
he girl climbed the tree so she could sit in her spot, look out through the limbs and leaves, and pretend about an imaginary dog. When she patted the pecan leaves, they gave off a green, peppery smell. It was like breathing the breath of the tree. The jaggedy streaks of gray bark where she sat were like the tree's hard fur.
Wearing conspiratorial smiles, her mother and brother had waved from the car windows, knowing that she had been headed to the tree as they started out the long driveway around the house. Later she realized, when she saw the note on the table, that he must have thought she'd gone with them, because it wasn't long after the dust from the car settled that the gunshot sounded from the house and she dropped from the tree, forgetting almost forever the longed-for dog.
Frantic, she couldn't think how to clear his eyes of the blood. She couldn't leave him to get a cloth. Her shirt? She used her fingers to try to wipe the sticky globs from her father's eyes. His head in her lap, she cried for him to help her know what to do. He was a cop. He should know how to handle this emergency. The gun, black and heavy, lay next to the
dusty-rose bed skirt. She thought if he could somehow just see, he'd be able to help her, but he quit moving, his groans stopped, and she held his head, blood seeping through her red shorts and into the ruby dahlias and violet peonies embroidered in the rug.
And then their return. Their faces as they held the balloons at the door of the room. Their fallen faces. And the note left beside the cake for her tenth birthday.
in her family ever claimed to know where the old steamer trunk had come from. The trunk had been painted over in a flat country blue that had faded to gray, the original color revealed beneath the leather clasps that were now brittle, one completely worn through. Smudged and blurred, some brushstrokes had come through the top layer of paint, “STÂ .Â .Â . ,” but the rest was faded. She'd moved the trunk out of the upstairs closet when the carpenters were doing renovations and had been using it as a nightstand beside the downstairs bedroom window. Sometimes thinking right before she fell asleep that she would get around to opening it, she'd go over the items she remembered might still be in it.
Removing the lamp and embroidered runner and letting the metal lock fall, she was eager about the coat. Beneath some quilts and baby clothes it was there in its original Rich's box, wrapped in fragile, yellowing tissue. The Atlanta department store had been gone a long time, bought out by Macy's, but the coat still had the tag attached to the sleeve with thread.
Looking at herself in the age-flecked floor mirror, Sarah Alt thought that even though she wasn't as tall as her dad, it was still a good fit. Twenty-five years after it was purchased, the tan trench coat now fit her, falling to calf length on her slim five-foot-nine frameâher father's coat, one he'd never worn.
nown throughout the department as “Rosie,” the large man in transition with red-polished nails and long, blond, waved hair and wearing a ruffled white blouse sat at the receptionist's desk and buzzed her in. “The code is number 1524,” she said without looking up from the paperback she was reading.
“Thanks.” Salt held her father's coat as she punched the numbers on the keypad and turned the handle of the inner door to the Homicide Unit.
Rosie mumbled, “Keep your chin up.”
During the ten years Salt had been in uniform, a beat cop, she'd been to the Unit many times, making statements as the first uniform on murder and assault scenes, providing information from the streets to detectives. But this,
was her first day, first shift as a newly sworn detective. A shiny gold-tone badge clipped to the belt on her slacks had replaced her old silver-finish shield, the one she'd worn for ten years of uniform patrol, most of them spent in The Homes, the most densely populated housing project in Atlanta. She'd worked
there so long that it had felt at times more like home than her own. Now she heard talk that the city was making plans to tear down all the projects, including The Homes.
Two detectives, one white, one black, both on the small end of medium in height, wearing short-sleeved shirts and bright ties, were standing at the front cubicles in the rows of workspaces. “Well, well, well,” exclaimed the black guy she knew as Daniels. “Lookee what the dog done dragged in.”
“Yes in-deed-dee,” the other guy said. “Got us a brand-new big-city detective.”
“I got your big city,” she shifted the coat to shake hands. “They told me to report to Sergeant Huff.”
There were caricatures of the Three Stooges on Daniels' tie and Barney Fife's face on the other guy's. “He's around here somewhere.” Daniels motioned toward the back of the big office space.
“I think I saw him go in the break room,” said the guy with the Barney tie, pointing to the back right.
The Homicide room was huge and smelled of burned coffee and mildewed paper. Thirty or so gray cubicles filled the center space, less than a quarter occupied most of the time; only the detectives from the on-duty shift were working, and some of them were taking their weekend days off or were out in the streets. The walls were lined with supervisors' offices, interview rooms, and rows of five-drawer file cabinets in mismatched grays, tan, and military-green colors. Salt wound her way through the aisles past the attached desks stacked with murder books and decorated with personal touches: framed photos, patriotic posters, military memorabilia, and action heroes. She walked past Wills' desk, noting with a smile the “Dog Is My Copilot” bumper sticker on his file bin and photos of Violet and Pansy, his Rottweilers. She and Bernard Wills had begun a relationship the year before, and while he'd encouraged her to test for
detective, neither of them had anticipated working the same unit, or “squad,” as Homicide was called, much less the same shift. Wills' partner, Gardner, ever optimistic, ever ready with a look-on-the-bright-side comment, had the cubicle across from his. A photo of his garden hung on the gray-fabric cubicle wall.
She found Sergeant Huff, whom she knew from having talked to him on a couple of cases, in the unfortunately bright break room peering into a humming microwave. She whisked her fingers through her dark hair, which she wore short with a messy part on the left, a part made permanent by a bullet scar through her scalp.
“Sergeant Huff,” she announced herself.
The microwave pinged and the heavyset sergeant took out a plastic bowl with a blue lid. “You're taller in clothes.” He sat down at one of the metal and veneer tables and took a plastic spoon from his shirt pocket.
“Yes, sir, five nine in shoes.” She pulled at her new cream-colored linen jacket and navy slacks. “In caseÂ .Â .Â .” Her voice trailed off as she realized she was standing at attention like she was back at roll call in the precinct. She tried to cover by slumping.
“My goddamn wife is starving me here. I'm forty-five years old and she's feeding me New Age hippie mush.”
“I called Lieutenant Pierce yesterday to ask about my assignment and he told me to report to you today at four p.m.” Salt sat down at the table, draping the coat across her lap.
Head lowered to the bowl, Huff shoveled the food into his mouth with the little spoon as he talked. “Doctor says I've got to lower my cholesterol, lose weight, quit smoking, âlimit my alcohol intake'”âhe made air quotesâ“reduce stress, exercise.” His close-cut brown hair had receded to the middle of his scalp. The bowl held something that looked like beef stew but with no aroma. “So the missus,” shovel, “packed my lunch bag with an apple, which I ate on my way to work
thirty minutes ago, and this fuckin' tofu stew,” shovel, shovel. He tossed the spoon into the empty bowlâit hopped. “I just finished my lunch and I got eight hours left in the shift. Now that's stress.”
“SargeÂ .Â .Â .” began Salt.
“âSarge,' don't call me Sarge. I hate being called Sarge. Sounds like some fuckin' war movie. Call me Huff or Charlie or Shithead but don't call me Sarge. Nobody calls me Sarge.” His belly popped from behind a large Harley-Davidson belt buckle as he pushed back from the table.
“Hey, Sarge.” Daniels stuck his head in the door. “We got incoming.”
Sergeant Huff leaned back, belched loudly, then stood and threw his plastic bowl into the sink. “I'll show you your desk. You'll get the same one as the only other woman who ever worked Homicide nights in this city.” He led her through the cubicle farm. “She worked kids' murders, something wrong with her head. She was nuts, totally, but for some reason they let her stay till she retired. She only got one or two cases a year. Went out on all the dead babies.”
“Sarâ” Salt stopped at a barren desk across from one festooned with a rainbow flag and a purple flag. “Can I have this desk?” She pointed to the empty spot.
“If you're thinking you might want to partner with Felton, our gay caballero there”âhe pointed to a photo of two men in a frame on the desk with the flagsâ“forget it. Every man here wants him, as a detective partner, that is. You probably already heard he's the best homicide dick in the city, state, and a contender for best in the nation, maybe the world. But he won't partner.”
“Can I have the desk?”
At a cubicle far from the entrance and far from the center of the room, Huff stopped and unclipped the radio from his belt. “Go ahead for Homicide,” he spoke into the handheld.
“Zone Three is requesting Homicide to 441 Brown Avenue on a body found in a warehouse.” Homicide dispatch sounded less urgent than Salt was used to from the beat dispatches.
Salt positioned herself in the sarge's sight and pointed to herself, requesting “Me?”
Sarge shook his head at her. “Homicide units 4125 and 4126 will be responding,” he advised dispatch. “Daniels, Barney,” he shouted across the room. Turned out the guy with the Barney Fife tie was named Barney.
“4125 and -26 copy,” the detectives acknowledged the call.
Daniels' and Barney's heads bobbed across the tops of the cubicles as they walked toward the door.
“This was the chick's desk,” Huff said. “Now it's yours.”
Other than the desk, a stained chair, and an old tower PC and monitor, the workspace was empty, except for a manila file lying on the desk. Huff picked up the file. “This is also yours. Wasn't a murder and now it might be. You'll start with that. Welcome to Homicide.” He dropped the file on the desk, turned his back to her, and walked away.
Before she could hang up her coat, fat fingers were on her wrist, soft, strong, and insistent. Salt turned as Detective Hamm from day watch grabbed her and began pulling her toward the exit. “You're coming with me. We've got another one.”
“But SarÂ .Â .Â . Huff saidâ”
“Fuck Sarge. My regular partner is off today, so I get to pick. Even if he was here, I'd make sure you went with us. These guys are going to put you through the wringer, but I'm going to give you some starch first.”
Salt followed the lumbering detective, whose wide buttocks shifted and quivered up and down and side to side, to the elevators.
“How's the head?” Hamm asked as she hit the call button. Hamm
and her partner, who matched her in girth, had been the responding investigators to the incident last year when Salt had been shot. Charissa Hamm was the only woman, until today, currently working Homicide, also known as the Hat Squad. Hamm worked days. Salt, as a rookie detective, would work nights, four p.m. to midnight, but often the three shifts worked scenes together if a case was close to one of the shift changes or was a “red ball,” as the high-profile cases were known. An Atlanta native, Hamm had solid ties to her black working-class community, church, and high school friendsâconnections that had proved helpful to her both in her career and in solving cases.
“Fuck.” Hamm cursed the malfunctioning elevators and headed to the stairwell. Then the elevator pinged and the overhead panel lit up. They turned back but the elevator doors didn't open and it scrolled up to the next floor. “Double fuck.” She slapped the wall beside the call button. “Your head?” Hamm repeated, her voice competing with their footsteps echoing in the concrete and steel stairwell, each floor marked with conflicting floor numbers, the “4” in red and “5” in black on the same door.
“Better,” answered Salt, lifting a lock of hair that covered the scar that began at her hairline.
was a mixture of middle-class homes, a few houses falling to lower-middle, and seventies-built apartment complexes, some designated as government assists. A dog barked continuously, its howling seeming to come from differing directions. The residences backed onto a wooded area, bisected by a ravine that was owned by the city's watershed management. Salt cocked her ear, listening to the dog.
“And the chick detectives aren't ever fat.” Hamm was sitting in the driver's seat, legs out the open door, pulling on old-fashioned rubbers
over black loafers that were sprung at the sides, her brown, wide foot overrunning the leather. She zipped up a gear bag, tossed it in the backseat, and grabbed the Handie-Talkie off the console. “Fuckin' TV makes juries expect a detective to look likeâwell, like you, Blue Eyes. You're gonna ruin those new shoes.” She tipped her head toward Salt's spotless navy athletic shoes.
“I bought a couple of pairs in different colors. They can be thrown in the washer,” Salt said.
“Smart girl. Just the same, get a pair of these.” Hamm pointed to the overshoes. “They're cheap and will save having to clean shit, piss, and other body fluids off your shoes.”
“I love it. Just us girls talking about shoes,” Salt said as they walked toward the crime scene.
They followed the uniform who'd told them that the body, that of a young boy, was in the nearby ravine. Spring rains had come almost daily and made the ground soft and covered with dark, steaming layers of composting leaves and newly green tangles of briars and vines.
“Careful,” warned the officer as he led them to a part of the gully where the decline was less treacherous. In spite of her heft, Hamm's step was sure as she gracefully navigated the roots and muck going down the bank. Once on the bottom they could see north up the ravine to where other uniforms had begun to string the yellow tape, marking off the scene at the tops of the banks and on both sides. People, including more than a few children, were starting to gather along the tape on the side where the woods met the backyards. A dirty blanket had been hoisted between two trees as a makeshift curtain so the spectators could not see the body.
Uniform supervisors and the rest of the two shifts from Homicide began arriving. Salt spotted Sergeant Huff and the crime scene techs. More people milled behind the tape. “Where's my baby?” One woman ran from the group as word spread that it was the body of a
child. Another uniform stood to one side with an elderly can man and his industrial-sized plastic bags of recyclables. “Grunge found the victim and started yelling,” said the first officer, nodding at the old man.
Salt and Hamm stood at the blanket, which smelled of old garbage. The dog's barking kept up, coming from somewhere north of them. “Ivory need to shut up,” someone said from above. Overhead, the limbs of a massive pecan tree spread up and out, shading thirty yards in both directions. The ravine bed was dark with past years' slough and brackish puddles. The banks became increasingly dry closer to the top and were covered with tiny green sprigs, the fallen flowers of pollen from the big tree overhead. The woman who was looking for her child screamed from the street, “I can't find him. Help me, somebody!”
“This is going to get bad. I'm going to go set up a command post in the parking lot,” Huff said, and pointed above. Hamm nodded and went around the blanket. “I want you to come with me,” he told Salt, “but go take a look first.” He nodded to the other side of the blanket. The dog's bark was more insistent. Salt's shoe made a sucking sound as she turned.
The light-skinned boy was facedown on his right cheek, hunched with his buttocks bare, tan shorts around his calves. His hands were positioned as if he were going to push up. Except for some rust-colored smears on his backside, there was no obvious trauma. “You didn't have to see this,” Hamm said in a low voice, not looking up from her note taking.
“I know.” Salt left her and followed Huff up and out of the ravine. “Merrily We Roll Along” played over and over from an ice cream truck's plinky speaker. The sun shone through the canopy of mostly water oaks, their small leaves whirl-a-jigging in the bright breeze. Huff assigned the six investigators and five uniforms to a grid search
for evidence and witnesses. They were to interview anyone and everyone and make notes.