|Joe Torio Mysteries
|Just Enough Rope
Joe Torio Mystery #2
Opening Chapter of
Opening Chapter of
At the edge of the greenbelt, Gully Raye moved between the winds and through the shadows, just ahead of his ghosts, and far from prying eyes. The sky above the landfill's working face was cobalt blue laced with peach-colored clouds driven by a gentle western breeze. The beginnings of a good day: sunny but still very cold. Special day. According to the salvaged quartz watch hanging from Gully's neck by a piece of twine, it was just before six. Morning Hill, east beyond the greenbelt screen, was still blocking the sun. The scraped dirt, the seeded reclaimed strip, and the expanses of compacted rubbish sparkled with a heavy blanket of diamonds from the late April frost.
The salvaged thermometer outside Gully's shack, hidden deep in the woods, rested at seventeen above by Gabriel Fahrenheit's reckoning. The cold was keeping the others deep within their crates and boxes packed with newsprint. It was the weekend, so the landfill crew wouldn't be out. So, until the sun appeared over Morning Hill and sunbeams reached into the woods and warmed up the winos, Gully would have at least an hour or two of prime uninterrupted picking time.
Things for his shack: plastic bags to seal his roof, Styrofoam packaging and cardboard for insulation, old canvas for window and door drapes, pots and pans, even tables and chairs. Things for his back: old repairable shirts, coats, trousers. Rinsing out the plastic laundry soap containers allowed him to wash the clothes in his salvaged plastic tub; needles, thread, scissors that only needed a little sharpening. Tools. A good Stanley all-metal claw hammer, a saw blade that would soon have a good wooden handle salvaged from another saw with a broken blade. Screwdrivers, nails, screws, springs—the landfill's bounty made a comfortable man of Gully Raye. The birds made him wealthy.
The birds, snow white and primer gray against the blue sky, a blanket of harsh cries driving those images, those thoughts, far into the void.
—Luther had told him. God, they had all told him—
He looked at the birds.
The gulls were huddled on the topsoil rise east of the tire dump. They were facing into the slight breeze, waiting for the sun. Several of them noticed Gully and whispered to their friends. Soon dozens of white heads at a time were popping up above the crowd only to dart down an instant later, looking at him. The birds all knew Gully. They kept watching his hands.
Garbage birds and sky rats, the winos called them. They threw rocks at them, and even tried to kill and eat them. The previous July, One-eared Rocco had salvaged some small fire crackers. He'd light one, throw it out, and laugh when a gull would pick it up. It was extra funny for Rocco when, instead of killing the gull, only its beak would be blown off. Gully smiled to himself as he remembered Rocco screaming when the joint he had been smoking touched off the remaining fireworks in his crib, trapping him inside with all that warmth-retaining newspaper and excelsior. He had burned alive. Gully had called in the fire on his restored mobile police squawk, but there wasn't much of Rocco left by the time the Collier company of the fire department arrived.
—The smile. The guilt for the smile. The pain that made Rocco laugh. The battle to keep it all away. Away from his eyes. Away from his mind. Away—
Things balance out.
Gully nodded to himself. The fire fighters saved the woods. After a little knife work by the ME's Office Rocco was moved south of the landfill across Knowles Road into Digger's Field where he was stacked in cardboard on top of two other indigents in a trench and buried. From one landfill to another.
All of the gulls were looking in Gully's direction now and he relented. With his right hand he reached into his jacket pocket with a huge sweeping gesture. Immediately three, then ten, then fifty, then three hundred gulls left the ground and streaked toward him. He held a broken piece of dog biscuit up in the air and began turning to his left, whirling around in a slow circle, the gulls circling clockwise above him. He tossed the piece of biscuit up into the feathered ring, one of the gulls caught it on the fly, and dropped to the ground with it, immediately rejoining the rotating ring of gulls once the prize was consumed. Time after time Gully tossed pieces of dog biscuit, stale bread, dried meat and cheese up into the ring, which grew larger and larger as additional birds joined. By the time his pockets were empty, Gully was drinking in the sight of the bird formation, looking as it did like the eye of an avian hurricane, their cries deafening.
For several circuits after his pockets were exhausted, the gulls circled, one-by-one peeling away as each one recognized that their benefactor was tapped. As the circle thinned, Gully noticed something low in the bottom step of the working face where late Friday's trash had been dumped prior to Frank and his bulldozer spreading and crushing the refuse at the end of the working day. Poking out from beneath an irregular collection of flattened cardboard boxes was something that looked like the curled fingers and palm of a left hand.
Gully had found bodies and body parts at the landfill in the past. After he had found the mobile police radio and repaired it, he could call them in, and had done so until the police dispatch supervisor at the Collier Substation laid a trip on him about unauthorized use of a police frequency. Before that he had called in a human foot and a human head, five months apart, not related to each other. Much later there was the discarded body of rookie mobster Little Dog Morgan. A valuable find, too. Three hundred and twenty-one dollars in his wallet, a cell phone in his pocket, and a gun tucked in his belt at the small of his back: a nice Pocket Auto. Excellent down-filled L.L. Bean winter coat, too. Blue and green, a warm detachable hood, not much blood on it, and the holes patched over easily. Big pockets. Lots of room for broken dog biscuits, pieces of bread, stale crackers, moldy cookies, dried meat, and fuzzy pieces of cheese. He knew nothing of how Little Dog or the body parts had become dead, consequently they came with no messages. There were no killers with whom to share pain and tears and outrage and nightmares. He was not afraid of this new arrival.
Half the gulls had left the circle by the time Gully made it to the hand. Human. Female. It was a left hand, palm up, and was attached to a right hand at the wrists by a one eighth-inch thick black nylon cord wrapped twice and fastened with a square knot. There was an additional loop of cord between the wrists.
Gully staggered backwards as though smacked in the face by a truck. He fell back against the next highest step, his body—his heart—aching.
Nylon cord. One eighth inch. Black.
Wrists tied behind the back.
Two loops. Square knot. Extra loop in between.
Hard to catch his breath, tension tightening the muscles in the back of his neck, driving the pains forward across his scalp. Gully, pegged in place, blinked and forced himself back for another look.
He pushed away from the wall of compacted trash, went back to the hands, and moved a sticky Martha Stewart catalog until he could get a full view of the left hand. The ring finger carried a plain gold wedding band.
Relief. He felt his neck relaxing. He had been wrong. The ghosts and nightmares had joined forces and gathered, but now they disbanded, fading into the mental mists. Safe. The puzzle of his first reaction, though, teased at Gully. He bent down and looked more closely.
Beneath the hands was wrinkled and stained dove gray cotton cloth: the woman's blouse. It was spotted with blue and orange paint. He leaned in and sniffed. Oil paint. Artist's. Still fresh. Gully squatted down to see beneath the cardboard. The black nylon cord extended from the wrists beneath the cardboard where it was tied to her ankles. Her wrists and ankles had once been tied tightly together, but there was plenty of slack now. The long bones of her arms and her legs were broken. Getting run over by a bulldozer a few times does that.
What looked like a pair of charcoal gray pants with a black leather belt and a pair of once white panties were pulled down to just above her knees, exposing her buttocks. Another problem.
Pubic hair. Blond. Problem number three.
On the right shoulder of her blouse was a blue and white patch. Eagle perched on a key. She was the one who had been mentioned on the news, which made her occupation problem number four.
Taking off his pack, Gully took the mobile radio from it, turned it on, held it to his mouth, and pressed the transmission switch. "Collier dispatch, this is Batman on tac three."
"Collier dispatch. Long time no hear, buddy. I been trying to raise you for weeks. How's your thang, Batman?"
"I got something important, Raff. You sure your boss isn't going to shut us down?"
"Lieutenant Quinlin has been brought up to speed, Batman, and she asked us to render her sincerest apologies to you the very next time you checked in. She knows now about what all you've done for the department. We square now?"
"What you got for me?"
"White blond female DOA dumped at the east working face of the new landfill off Collier Road. She came in a compacter truck and was here before seven PM Friday. The dozer has been over her and Frank puts the dragon back in the box at seven."
"I haven't touched the body, but I think she's the missing Books State corrections officer that's on the news. Katey Sloan?"
"What makes you think so, Batman?"
"The trash she's in is the kind that comes from Books and Friday is the prison's pickup day. Also, she's wearing charcoal gray trousers, black leather utility belt, light gray shirt, State DOC patch on the right shoulder."
"Everything but the song. Units are on the way, Batman. This one is heavy, my friend. The suits are going to want to talk to you."
"I can't do that."
"Stick around for the detectives, Batman. Let us give you a medal. Maybe a few dollars to show our appreciation."
"I'll make sure they find the vic, then I'm gone."
"I got you. Good to hear from you, man. Take care."
Gully turned off the mobile unit and thrust it back into the rucksack. Turning back to the body of the young woman, he studied the wedding band for a moment.
The ring was wrong. Blond was wrong. The job was wrong. Lemon meringue pie without the meringue. But who insists upon meringue?
Getting down on his side, Gully tried to look far enough beneath the cardboard to see the victim's neck. It wasn't enough so he lifted the cardboard a little. There were ligature marks on what he could see of her neck: the right side and back. The mark was broken and overlapped in back. One more wrong thing.
—two plus two plus two plus—
Gully staggered back a step as his breath grew short. That had always been the problem: If this, then that. If that, then that other thing. And if that other thing—
He stood up suddenly and whirled around, his fingers reaching into his pocket to wrap themselves around Small Dog's Colt Pocket Auto. He quickly searched his surroundings, then went around again slowly, this time checking each shadow at the edge of the woods, each rise, each depression, looking for a face, a turned leaf, a sign, something out of the ordinary.
Lots of planning. They wouldn't leave his reaction to chance. What about after he called it in?
Quickly he ducked beneath the cardboard and lifted the victim's right shoulder until he could see her face. The skin was abraded. Cigarette burns. He lifted the shoulder higher. Her blouse was open, no bra, and just above her right breast were bite marks. He leaned in for a closer look. That familiar misalignment of the right canine with the right lateral incisor. Lots of planning. Gully lowered the vic's shoulder and backed out from beneath the cardboard.
There was nothing Collier Dispatch could do now. Still scanning his surroundings, Gully reached into his bag and pulled out a wad of newspaper clippings. His memories. As long as he could keep them in his bag, he didn't have to carry them in his head. He leafed through the clippings until he found one only a few days old. Page twenty report on the additional landscaping and other changes out at the South River Mental Health Institute. He frowned. A line about the bridge construction and traffic jams on the way to the butterfly palace, new staff taken on: Juliana Strong, Arnold Phelps, Michael Butcher, blah, blah, blah—
A line about a soap star, Barbara Cleveland. And that serial killer, Nathan Sunday. He was out there. Yes. And that's where they would send Alvin. That's where they would kill him—or make him kill. The bricks were being placed one after another.
He shoved the clippings into his bag and pulled out the cell phone he had taken from the perforated body of Little Dog Morgan. He indexed to the Riverview Living Center number and thumbed the call button, slightly amazed that the phone still worked. Someone out there, somewhere, was still paying the bills without reading what they were for.
The nursing home operator answered and Gully asked for room three sixteen. Two rings, a pickup, then that velvet voice with the gentle Georgia accent. "Yes?"
"Hey, White Sheet."
A chuckle came through the earpiece. "Hey, Batman. You got Collier filled in yet?"
"Not for another fifty years."
"How've you been doin', Gully? I didn't hear from you all winter."
"Still working things out, Luther. You know." So many nightmares, so little time. "By the way, Luth, Adelaide wants you to call."
"I told her you'd call. Don't let me down, man. Okay? She really needs to hear from you. I got to go."
"Does she have her phone on?"
"Yes. Another half hour or so, anyway."
"I'll give her a ring."
"Got to go. Thanks." Gully ended the call and waited, the sounds of distant sirens making him anxious. He climbed down from the face of the compacted garbage bluff until he was on the hard-packed dirt within a hundred feet of the woods. Any further north and Morning Hill would cut him off from the Castle Hill microwave tower. The sirens grew louder. Gully moved more toward the west, still in line with the tower, but closer to the appliance dump. Plenty of good hiding places there in case he had to sprint for it.
"C'mon, Luther. Now."
As if answering his plea, Small Dog's cell phone rang and Gully punched to answer. "Yes?"
"I had to wheel myself all the way down to the lobby to find a pay phone that was free. Adelaide. I haven't heard that one since we worked the Loaf." An edge of amusement came into his voice. "Who do you think is listening in?"
"Not sure, Luth. There's bad stuff working, though. If it's what I think it is, they may not be listening, but they ought to be. They sure got the equipment and the training."
"What do you mean? Cops?"
"Maybe. You heard about that CO over at Books who turned up missing Friday?"
"Katey Sloan. The news can't talk about nothin' else."
"She's DOA out here, partner. I just called it in."
"You sure it's her?"
"Dead sure. Look, Luth, you remember Jolene Gaye and Dena Lloyd?"
A beat of stunned silence. "How could I forget?"
"Same signature, exactly almost."
"What do you mean 'exactly almost'?"
"This one's got the wrong hair color, marital status, and occupational status. Strangled from the rear, too. Everything else is perfect, though, including the bite marks."
"You got it. And it was staged by someone who knows at least a little on how to do it and a lot on how to hang it on Alvin Yuker. They set up your boy, Luther. It'll work, too. The ring and the discrepancies with the ligature marks, hair color, and stuff are going to look like nothing to a jury who sees everything else that was done right."
Another silence. "Son, you are in the headlights. The other side can't afford for you to get on the stand."
"That's what I thought."
The sirens were loud on Collier road as the prowlers turned into the landfill's entrance. Gully thrust his left hand into his coat pocket to warm his fingers. "What do I do, Luther?"
"Vanish. Check in with me through Adelaide when you can. About what to do, I'll call Al Dockery. If there's something that can be done, he'll know what it is."
"I'm scared, Luth."
"I got the ball, Dale. Now, find the shadows. Run between the winds. Ninja detective. I'll send someone to let you know when it's safe."
"Thanks. So long, White Sheet."
Gully punched off the cell phone and stuck it in his pocket. As the first SRPD blue-and-white came around the north end of the green screen, Gully raced to the woods. He waited at the edge of the green belt until he saw one of the uniforms climb the garbage cliff and call out to the others. They'd found her. Gully Raye ducked into the deep woods and ran for the shadows. . . .
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