An Excerpt from: Blood on the Pen
Copyright © 2009 David W. Huffstetler
All rights reserved, Wild Child Publishing.
Someone was going to die that night. Was it Maxwell Thornton or his mistress? Eddie Carter knelt behind an oak display case in the dim hallway outside Thornton’s office, waiting for the chance to kill one of them, maybe both. The clock above Eddie’s head clicked past nine p.m. The door eased open, and a woman stepped out, straightening the black skirt around her slender hips. A dark mist rolled over Eddie’s soul. Kill the bitch. Kill her now. But it was too late. The woman’s stiletto heels clattered over the wooden floor as she scampered down the stairs and out the exit door three floors down.
The hall settled back to the faint sound of an occasional passing car and the staccato ticking of the clock. Five minutes, eight minutes, ten. Again, the door opened, and the clock gave way to the jingle of his keys as he locked the door. He straightened his paisley tie, looked at the ceiling, and said, “Hell, that damn light’s out again.” He shrugged and followed the same path his mistress had taken toward the stairs.
Eddie Carter stepped out of the shadows, eased up behind him, and smashed a piece of pipe into the back of his head. Thornton fell hard to his knees and flat on his stomach, his thinning hair growing wet with blood.
Thick hands worked slowly, calmly tying the prone man’s wrists and ankles and shoving a rag into his mouth. The same hands that wrote prose on a computer keyboard now lashed a rope around the corner post of the banister. Thornton came back to his senses in a haze and found himself cradled in robust arms. His hip banged against the top rail as Eddie lifted him up, and then dropped him over the edge. He fell six feet, and his body jerked to a stop, with two steel meat hooks ripping into the flesh of his armpits. His body swung suspended over the stairwell, his screams muffled by the gag in his mouth. He jerked and shuddered, looking desperately for some way to save himself, but the only person there was Eddie Carter, watching him die.
* * * *
The mid-morning sun found Jack Harden sitting alone in a cemetery on the outskirts of Dallas, staring at a gravestone. Jenny, his wife of twelve years, lay in the ground with a plain headstone bearing only her name and the word Gone. Harden opened his jacket. The barrel of his pistol scraped against the silver Texas Ranger badge pinned to his shirt as he pulled it from his shoulder holster. Perspiration covered the back of his neck from the heat of another sweltering August day, soaking into the collar of a pale blue dress shirt, the kind he almost always wore.
He held the forty-five-caliber revolver in front of him and studied its long lines. It was elegant in its simplicity, at once both beautiful and foreboding. He slipped the barrel into his mouth and a stale, metallic taste ran over his tongue, but he wouldn’t have to taste it for long. He wouldn’t have to taste anything or feel anything again. He cocked the hammer. Three quick rings sounded from Harden’s belt.
He thought he’d turned his cell phone off before coming to the cemetery, and now it hailed him. His finger trembled against the trigger and, once again, the phone rang. Harden eased the gun out of his mouth and muttered, “Damn, you people won’t even let me kill myself.” He snatched the phone from its holder, flipped it open, and said, “Yeah, this is Harden.”
Captain Abernathy sounded curt. “Jack, where the hell are you?”
Harden gave a wry, sad grin and said, “Just visiting family, Captain.”
“Well, get over to Highland Park. We’ve got a body swinging in a stairwell over there, and the press is already going ape shit.”
Harden stood and stretched the kinks out of his six feet three inches. He thought about closing the phone and finishing what he had started with his gun. Would Jenny welcome him to her world, or would she be disappointed that he had killed himself? He chose to answer his captain. “All right. Where is it?”
“It’s in one of the older office building down on Benlow Street, 4713 is the address. The crime scene is on the third floor, outside a literary agency called Thornton Creative Properties. Dallas P.D. had a couple of patrolmen respond to secure the scene, and the Medical Examiner is on his way. And, Jack, be careful about what you say to the media.”
Harden snapped his phone back onto his belt. He blew a kiss toward Jenny’s grave and said, “I’ll see you soon, sweetheart. Not today, but soon.”
* * * *
The tires on his ten-year-old Chevy pickup truck whined down Interstate 75, and his tortured mind went back to business, back to being a Ranger. He took the off ramp and snaked his way through town to a series of tall office buildings. As he approached the 4700 block and slowed to show his badge to an officer at the roadblock, a reporter rushed forward with a microphone. “Hey, Ranger, can you tell us what’s going on down there?”
Harden pulled away without answering. He drove halfway down the block and, as usual, parked where he “damn well pleased,” in the middle of the street. The skyscrapers around it dwarfed the three-story building, one of the few structures still standing from the 1940’s. The wooden steps creaked under Harden’s two hundred fifteen pounds, a bit heavier than he’d been in his twenties. He looked up, and there hung a bloodstained body dangling from a rope at the third floor. He ducked under the yellow crime-scene tape at the landing, dodged puddles of blood, and clamored up one more hot, humid flight of stairs.
“Hi, Jack.” It was the clear, baritone voice of Moses Browner, the painfully thin Deputy Coroner. He snapped another photograph of the body, lowered the camera, and said, “Let me introduce you to our victim. Maxwell Thornton, president and majority stock holder of Thornton Creative Properties.”
Harden took a cigar from the inside pocket of his jacket, rolled it in his mouth, and carefully lit it with a wooden match. Two young police officers edged away from the smoke. Harden turned back to Browner and said, “Have you got a cause of death yet?”
Browner put his finger to his chin and answered, “Yeah. I figure his heart stopped beating and that pretty much did it. Now, how do you expect me to determine a cause of death when the man is still hanging up there? He’s tied hand and foot, got a gag in his mouth, and is hanging from a rope tied to the banister with the other end tied to a steel meat hook in each armpit. I’m thinking maybe it’s not suicide.”
Harden overlooked the sarcasm, took another puff on his cigar, and said, “So, what does all that tell you?”
The rattle of a mop bucket and a cleaning lady pulling it toward them interrupted Browner’s answer. He brushed her away, saying, “Not now, we’ve got work to do here yet. We’ll call you when we need you.” He turned back to the tall Ranger, who was still waiting and still smoking. “Well, I can tell you this much, Jack. It would take a pretty stout man to lift him over the banister, so the perpetrator is either a big fellow or there was more than one. The victim was probably killed sometime last night and he was probably still alive when whoever did this put him on those meat hooks. There’s blood on both sides of the landing where he thrashed about, trying to get loose. I’d say he just hung there until he bled to death.”
“It takes a pretty sick bastard to do that,” Harden answered. “Maybe sick enough to stay around and watch.”
Browner held out a plastic evidence bag with a piece of paper inside. “We found this note taped to the handrail.”
Harden studied the paper through the clear bag and read it aloud. “Do you believe this? Signed D.A.” He handed it back to Browner and said, “Well, that doesn’t make much sense, but it sounds personal. I guess it could be a revenge killing. Let me know if you find anything else, Moses. I’m going to talk to the other people in the agency. Maybe they’ll know if he had any enemies.”
Browner smirked and said, “Well, he sure had one.”
Something flashed, but it wasn’t Browner’s camera. It came out of the shadows behind them. Harden spun around, reached for his pistol, and growled, “Who’s back there?”
A slim figure with dark, shoulder-length hair stepped into the light and said, “Hold your horses. I’m just a reporter. Don’t shoot me.”
Harden let the gun drop back into its holster. “Who are you and how did you get in here?”
Her large brown eyes glimmered in the light as she answered, “My name is Elsie Rodriguez from the San Antonio Post, and I came up the back stairs.”
“San Antonio?” Browner quizzed. “Dallas is a little off your beat, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” she answered. “But I didn’t come about the murder. I came to see Jack Harden. I called the Ranger Office, and they told me he’d be here.”
Harden dropped his cigar to the floor and crushed it under his foot. “Bull shit. We don’t tell reporters where Rangers go.”
“Okay, I heard it on my police radio.”
“What are you doing with a police radio?”
“The paper loaned it to me, but that’s not important. I’d like to talk to you for a few minutes.”
He started down the stairs, saying, “I’ve got no time for reporters. You wasted a trip. Go back to San Antonio.”
* * * *
Elsie watched him storm away. She turned to Moses Browner and said, “Well, he’s kind of a nasty one, isn’t he?”
Browner wagged his head and chuckled softly. “He is that. But he’s a good man, and he probably has a right to be out of sorts now and then.”
“Yes, I know. That’s why I’m here.” She gestured toward the body and asked, “Say, do you mind if I get another picture while I’m here?”
“Don’t press your luck, young lady. You need to get back down those steps before somebody confiscates that camera.”
Elsie gave a coy smile and said, “Okay, okay. I’m going. You don’t have to be a Harden about it.”