Burnt Black

A Cliff St. James Novel

Cliff St. James Novels (Volume 3)

Ed Kovacs

Minotaur Books

CHAPTER ONE
 
 
Gravel crunched underfoot as Honey and I stepped out of her battered unmarked unit at the end of the drive and threaded through the dark green leaves of wisteria overhanging the walkway. It was only now that the old wooden house came into focus. I turned around, amazed that we stood mere feet from her vehicle, yet this home was almost completely camouflaged by bottomland greenery.
“Private but right off the road. I like that,” I said, turning my gaze to the one-story house that had seen better days. “Seems the West Bank has some secrets.”
“Real estate agent says this house is haunted,” said Honey as she glanced around the low porch. “I don’t see the lockbox with the key.”
My good friend and fellow New Orleans Police Homicide Detective Baybee had a day off, and I’d tagged along to help her house-hunt for a new place for her mom, who had given up on the government-funded Road Home Program, a bureaucratic nightmare that was supposed to provide compensation to Louisiana homeowners affected by the killer Storm of sixteen months ago. Like many disasters, the Road Home had begun with good intentions, but then again, the government could screw up a lemonade stand.
“If it’s haunted, why would you even look inside?” At sixty-five degrees Fahrenheit with a light breeze, today was a classic mid-December day. I felt comfortable wearing a lightweight 5.11 jacket with my Glock 36 subcompact, semiauto concealed in a hidden pocket, but when Honey said the word “haunted,” I swear a chill shot up my spine. “Let’s go.”
She shot me an Are you joking? look. “Tell me you don’t believe in ghosts.”
“I’ve never seen a ghost. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“I’m not saying ghosts are real, but I believe some things can’t be explained so easily.”
“Everything can be explained.”
“Explain to me why a real estate agent, who wants to sell this house and make money, would tell you up front it’s haunted.”
“It means there are a lot of gullible people in the world. That’s all.”
Cops have an uncanny knack for picking out pertinent radio traffic from the ambient background noise of life. We were both off duty but out of habit and curiosity Honey kept her handheld police radio clipped to her purse, monitoring the main frequency, not Homicide’s private channel. Our heads both turned to the direction of the static-tinged dispatcher’s voice.
“Ninety-fours in Fourth District, 9997 River Road. See the UPS driver,” said the dispatcher flatly.
“That’s practically next door,” said Honey, craning her neck to peer through the foliage. “In fact, it is next door.”
“Shots fired, but I didn’t hear a thing.”
We had a long list of addresses to visit, but the sheer closeness of the “shots fired” location acted as a magnet to our hardwired instincts as cops. If this were the Ninth or Mid-City or just about anywhere else in New Orleans, maybe we would ignore the call and mind our own business. But 94s out here in a bucolic part of the parish didn’t feel right, at least not to me, and the adrenaline started pumping.
“So much for this being a quiet neighborhood.”
Without another word we raced back to her unit. Honey threw the vehicle into reverse, spraying gravel as she spun onto River Road under an impossibly blue sky, and floored it.
Within seconds we rounded a bend and saw a UPS van parked up ahead in a driveway, right off the road. The long, cement drive wound a good football-field length to an unremarkable one-story house sitting on a remarkably large plot of land, across the street from the inner bank of the levee lushly blanketed with green tufts of soft grass and the Mississippi River just beyond.
“Maybe someone’s upset their delivery is late.”
Honey ignored me and radioed dispatch to advise them we had responded to the scene. Watching Honey all amped up in cop mode always produced feelings of disconnect, because blue-eyed blondes with movie-star good looks weren’t supposed to be tough broads, not in real life anyway, but here she was, performing flawlessly as a consummate law-enforcement professional as she had so many times before.
Being saddled by her father with the unfortunate name Honey Baybee had created the chip on her shoulder that wasn’t going away anytime soon. There was no removing that chip; there wasn’t even any discussing it; there was only blind acceptance and unconditional love, which I continually granted my best friend and cuddle buddy. Everyone assumed we were lovers. If my male friends knew I often slept with Honey but we’d never had sex, they would have disowned me. Or had me certified.
Honey skidded the vehicle right up to the UPS van, and I had my door open before we’d come to a complete stop.
“Jackson’s the name,” said the black UPS driver, climbing down from his big step van to meet me. In his late forties and burly, Mr. Jackson was a salty-looking guy who seemed kind of silly in the brown Bermuda-shorts uniform.
“Three gunshots and screams. Bloodcurdling screams before the shots. From a man.”
Honey joined us. “You sure about the shots?” she asked.
“I’m a retired Marine Corps gunnery sergeant. And I grew up in the Desire projects.”
Growing up in the projects meant he’d heard more gunshots than a lot of combat vets. “Where were you when you heard the gunfire?” I asked.
“The front door. I rang the bell to get a signature. Heard the screams, then the shots. I hauled ass to my van, drove back out here to the end of the driveway, and called it in. I been watching the house, but haven’t seen a thing.”
“Thought you guys were always in a hurry,” I said, without accusation, as I scanned the distant house, noting a pickup and silver sedan parked out front.
Jackson caught the intent of my remark. “You want to know why I’m standing guard. I been delivering to Professor Drake here for going on ten years. He always tips me big at Christmas, gives me a cold drink on a hot day. Asks about my family. He helped my daughter get a job in the Tulane bookstore. If that was him in there screaming, figured this was the least I could do.”
“You know whose vehicles those are?” asked Honey, gesturing with her head toward the house.
“The pickup belongs to some Mexican guys. They been working here off and on since the Storm. The Prius is Drake’s. He lives here alone, far as I know.”
“Appreciate it if you could stick around, Mr. Jackson. Until we see how this works out.”
I extended my hand and he took it.
“Will do.”
Honey and I got back into her unit, and she barreled us up to the house.
“What do you think?” I asked. “A little too much tequila for the homeboys, an argument with this professor guy over money, and things go south?”
Honey shrugged. “We’ll know soon enough.”
“I like this property. If the professor now sleeps with the fishes, your mom should put in an offer.”
The driveway widened to accommodate three vehicles, but Honey parked behind a battered old F-150 Ford pickup whose suspension sagged under the weight of power tools and building materials in its truck bed. The silver Prius sat parked closer to the front door. Relatively new pale yellow siding and a new red tile roof suggested this place got a serious makeover after the killer Storm, apparently from the men now inside. Honey gave dispatch a quick heads-up that we were going into the house, a little reminder to any arriving uniforms that there were friendlies inside.
We un-assed ourselves from her unit, drew our weapons, and listened. A couple of yellow-throated warblers played in the trees, a horn blew from a far-off river tug, live-oak leaves rustled in the cool breeze blowing off the river.
Honey’s off-duty piece was a .45 SIG SAUER P220 Elite, and she racked the slide back, chambering a round and cocking the hammer, then gestured she would take the back door. We both understood that at a relatively remote location such as this at the edge of the parish, if a homeowner was in the house bleeding out, he had a better chance of survival if we went in now and didn’t wait for backup.
I did a fifteen count, waiting for Honey to get around back as I eyed a couple of carved wooden gargoyles with maniacal expressions on either side of the front door. A vertical line of graffiti-like characters painted in glossy black decorated one side of the door frame.
Kind of odd.
I mounted the front steps and turned the knob. The door was unlocked, and I entered the dark room, pistol in hand.
My eyes adjusted to the dim light as I shut the door behind me. It was like stepping into an arts center that just so happened to also have some household furniture. “Cluttered” doesn’t do justice to describe the room, and I flashed on a museum I knew: the Voodoo Museum in the French Quarter.
My eyes danced over Native American fetishes, rattles, and drums; African/Caribbean/Asian and other primitive wooden statuary loomed all around, bedecked with bright, primary-colored strips of cloth. The “coffee table” was a glass-topped casket containing a full-size human skeleton that had symbols and text etched on the cranium. Hundreds and hundreds of books jammed shelving, fighting for space with quartz-crystal human skulls, porcelain figurines of Catholic saints painted to wear black robes, polished stone figures that looked Mayan, feathers, exquisite conch shells, and clusters of large semiprecious stones such as amethyst, tourmaline, and malachite. A white wooden cross had unusual symbols and writing painted on it and stood surrounded by vials, bottles, sachets, and black candles of every shape.
Animal heads hung stuffed and mounted on every wall, including the ugliest javelina I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying something.
And then there were the bones. Human bones. Femurs, fibulae, rib cages, pelvic bones, sternums, clavicles, skulls. From adults … and children. I had a strong feeling there’d be no more house-hunting today. The bones overwhelmed me with a recollection of mass murderers past. Very sick ones.
I heard a soft footstep and sighted on an entryway. Honey took a quick peek into the room, we made eye contact, then moved off together down the hall.
The rest of the house held more of the same but to a lesser extent than in the front room. We smelled a scent—copal incense?—as we approached the final room to search. This was clearly a new addition to the house. I went in first, crouching, then moved left. Honey jinked right after she cleared the doorway. The high-ceilinged circular room had to be fifty feet in diameter. The floor and walls were black marble, inlaid with all sorts of arcane icons and unknown script. Some of it looked medieval, other images appeared primitively grotesque.
There were sheeted mattresses and large pillows, a couple of big wooden cabinets, a table and chairs. A large red wooden chair, ornately carved and plushly cushioned, sat off by itself, facing the center of the room. An altar—to what I couldn’t fathom—was recessed in the wall, contained a human skeleton wearing a top hat, Mardi Gras beads, and sunglasses. Bottles of rum, packs of cigarettes, candles, cash, and other items adorned the altar.
As Honey and I circled in opposite directions, I saw that the far side of the room held a Bondage and Discipline setup, with all kinds of racks, restraints, chains, and goodies pertinent to a variety of alternative sexual fetishes.
Honey and I silently checked for any other hidden points of egress, since the elephant in the room had made its presence known the moment we had entered, that being a massive circular stone pedestal about three feet high centered in the room. I confidently calculated it could accommodate at least three people, since there were two naked male bodies on it right now. And they weren’t moving.
As I approached I saw a drain built into the floor at the foot of the pedestal. Was this some kind of sacrificial altar? The stone top was grooved so fluids would easily channel from the altar and drip down to the drain. For blood?
The nude Hispanic guys were freshly dead, but I checked to make sure. We holstered our weapons and scanned the area.
“No blood, no shell casings, no obvious signs of trauma or foul play, no marks, no entry or exit wounds readily visible,” I said.
“And no weapon,” added Honey. One of the stiffs, who looked to be around thirty, had a skunklike shock of white hair bifurcating his black locks.
Both of their faces were frozen in grimacing death masks, suggesting some kind of horrific fear. Fear of what? I’d never seen anything like this, and it made my skin crawl.
Honey unclipped her police radio from her purse. “Dispatch, this is Detective Baybee. Two, repeat, two signal twenty-nine unclassifieds, possible thirties, at the location of the ninety-fours in the Fourth.”
Possible 30s, possible homicides? Yes, she had made the right call. My instinct screamed murder, but there was no clear evidence of that.
“What do you make of all this?” she asked me.
“I think the professor has some explaining to do about all the bones. And why he has some kind of altar in a weird chamber with two dead men on it that look like they died of fright.”

 
Copyright © 2013 by Ed Kovacs