In early February of 1979, I was a mess. Nine months away from my job as a detective with the New Orleans Police Department did little to help my emotional healing. I wanted more time and simply wasn’t in the mood to deal with anything. Not yet. My personal and professional partner, Brenda Shapira, disappeared in late April of the previous year along with her abductor; and there was little chance of her returning. The remainder of 1978 saw me morph into someone else: the type of man I used to pass near the levee, distant and despondent. I had become a lonely, distraught and abject individual who spent days sitting on a park bench, thinking, remembering, sorting out the reality that I would never see her again.
The unexpected always has a way of reminding us of our own mortality, however simple or brutal.
Joggers took notice of my sedentary existence, as some quickened their pace, avoiding the closeness of me, welcoming a distance. Several birds waited for my daily arrival and the crumbs of uneaten sandwiches that my colleague, Officer Jake LaRocca, patiently brought me every day. A long sleeved black shirt and a pair of jeans became my outfit of choice. Solid. Simple. Predictable. This had been my life and I was frighteningly becoming accustomed to it.
But there was the peace…the feeling of being invisible like the void of someone you’ve loved.
“Roy Agnew, get your ass off that bench. I’m serious.” Jake stood over me, his deep voice pulling me out of my own self-inflicted haze. He was my age, forty-six, but had grown heavier over the past nine months, his body blocking out the wintry afternoon light.
“Man, I’m not up for this lecture right now. Could you move out of the way? You’re blocking my view.” I waved my hands, gesturing for him to move.
“I’m sick of bringing you sandwiches and watching you eat with the appetite of an invalid. Christ. I know it’s hard, Roy. She hasn’t been gone long. And who the hell knows, maybe she’s still alive somewhere. We’ve been over this, many times.” Jake bit into the last crunch of a dill pickle slice that had been tucked inside of a paper bag. He crumpled the refuse, tossing it from hand to hand. Stepping out of my light, he walked to a trashcan near the bench, throwing in the ball of paper. It made a hollow sound as it hit the bottom of the metal container.
Some things weren’t bottomless: they had limits, boundaries, and were finite in their acceptance of life’s terms.
“There’s been a murder. Another weird one. Happened a few days ago…young woman found in a cemetery next to a funeral home. Still waiting on the return of the full autopsy results. Looks like manual strangulation, red streaks in her eyes, swollen face, bruising on her throat. No ligature marks. She was also weighed down with purple, gold and green Mardi Gras beads. She was fully clothed, lying on the grass, eternally staring at the sky, right in front of a tomb with a big ass iris on it. We could use your help with this one, Roy. We want you to investigate it.” He sat down on the opposite side of the bench, his body making a thud as it hit the wood. From the corner of my left eye I saw him staring at me, waiting for a response.
“Who’s buried in the tomb?” I pulled a small hangnail out of a left finger.
“Comeux family. No relation to the victim. Her family doesn’t know anyone buried there. We’ve already checked on that.”
“I don’t know. Can’t you and Strode handle this one?” I drank a cup of coffee, my hands cold, matching the numbness I felt about returning to my job. I caressed Brenda’s Chai necklace that hung around my neck, the flat metal between my fingers, the perfect smoothness. The diary she left for me lay in the top drawer of my dresser in a sacred place, wrapped in some of her clothes scented with her gardenia perfume. I read through the diary… all of it, more than once, around twenty times actually. Her voice enunciated each sentence, strung together paragraphs. She was there with me, through her written words, explaining how events occurred nine months ago and the incident that led to her disappearance.
“Sure, we can do that. We can. But we won’t. We need you to talk to a funeral home director. His name is Daniel Martin. Odd bird. Young. His funeral home is over there on Oleander Street. The cemetery next door, where she was found, is named Sacred Memory. His assistant, Thelma Davis, found her. Apparently the victim lived around five blocks away, went out to pick up food and never returned. She was twenty, Roy. Her name was Susan Boykin.”
My father once said never to trust a man who has two first names. Daniel. Martin.
“What place did she buy food from? Was she raped? Tortured?” I took another sip of coffee. I had been drinking it heavy and black, to the point of bitterness.
“Walking distance from her house. According to her boyfriend, it’s a small Cuban restaurant she went to on occasion, ‘Little Havana.’ The boyfriend isn’t a suspect…he was waiting at her house with friends. They were watching television, playing card games. All checked out. The Cuban restaurant owner said she never visited them that night so she was taken before she reached it, a few blocks away from the cemetery and funeral home. Restaurant owner checked out too. The initial autopsy showed she wasn’t raped or tortured but killed pretty quickly after she was taken…around seven pm. No fingerprints on her or the beads. No footprints in the cemetery except for those of Thelma, walking all over the damn crime scene. She didn’t put up a fight…no bruising on her hands or arms and nothing under her fingernails. It happened fast. And don’t worry. No feathers left at the crime scene this time either.” He cracked his knuckles, a sound like twigs breaking.
You’ll never find the feathers on anyone. Ever again.
“I take it you’ve talked to this Martin guy and his assistant?” I stood and threw the rest of my coffee into the trash, the darkness of the bin.
“Yeah, we did. Briefly. He claims he doesn’t know the victim or why she was left in the graveyard near his home. His assistant says the same thing. But there’s something about that guy I don’t trust. Real loner. Nervous. It’s a pretty cemetery, quaint. He lives there, you know. He lives upstairs in that funeral home. Fucking creepy, man. How does someone live upstairs over an embalming room? Damn. I couldn’t do it.”
“All of us live near the dead in one way or another, Jake.”
“Yeah, we also talked to people who live near the cemetery, restaurant and her home…no one remembers seeing her. The woman had a tight group of friends, was an only child of a couple living in Covington. She left that house and vanished. Listen, I know this is hard for you but you’ve always been good with people and you need this. I mean, let’s be honest, you need to get off of this fucking bench and shave. Jesus. I take it you haven’t been watching the news either. They arrested that John Wayne Gacy freak. You know this, right? In late December. They found bodies in his crawl space, most of them decomposed. There were all of these little puddles of worms and shit down there. Fucking gross.” Jake grimaced and wiped dirt from one of his brown shoes.
I envied his detachment from Brenda.
“Of course I heard about it. Sick bastard. It’s not like I’ve been living in a hole somewhere, Jake. I do watch the news. Let me think about this Daniel Martin thing. I’ll let you know tonight.” I stretched my arms above my head. “Can you get me the file on him?”
“I could but there isn’t one. The guy is clean. He moved here from Florida several years ago and his only living relative is an Aunt Sadie Martin, his father’s sister who never married. She’s a retired public librarian…nothing on her either.” He looked at me, a furrow between his eyes.
“Fine.” I walked away from him and towards my high rise in the business district. A few years before, I landed a good deal on a one bedroom and for the time I spent there, it proved its worth. In the past nine months it had become my sanctuary, a fortress against the world.
“She was also missing a piece of jewelry. A ring. Her birthstone…ruby.”
I stopped and turned towards him as he continued.
“Her boyfriend said she purchased it recently, always wore it on her right ring finger. It sure as hell wasn’t with her body or near it. It’s a creepy coincidence. I mean her murder happened right around the same time as Thomas Carpenter’s murders last year…close to Mardi Gras and all. There’s the strangulation, too, like that first victim of Carpenter’s, Claire Watkins. That’s also why I need you. You may see something in this that I can’t. We miss you, man. I know the past several months have been rough but it’s not the same without you.”
I barely heard his congenial remark. My mind was still on Thomas Carpenter. Long gone. The man who took Brenda. Both were somewhere else entirely…a place I could never reach.
“Sounds like the killer took a souvenir. Its creepy timing but that might not mean anything. Claire Watkins was strangled with a ribbon, not with Carpenter’s bare hands. Do you know who gave Susan Boykin the ring by chance?” I glanced at the sky, which had grown darker since his arrival.
“The boyfriend said she told him she bought it at an outdoor market in downtown Baton Rouge. It was big and oval, hard to miss. Hey, do you want me to give you a lift? It’s about to storm, man. You’ll be soaked.” Jake stood, following behind me as I walked away.
“Nah. I’ve been walking. It’s my only form of exercise these days. Thanks, though.” A few people streamed by, one teenager on black roller-skates whisking past, his long brown hair flowing down his back. A young woman cycled by, a small bumper sticker gracing the back of her bicycle claiming: “Kiss Forever.” I felt alien to their world, a person who couldn’t enjoy their simple pleasures.
“I should be walking too. I look like a damn watermelon on sticks. Man, I hate this happened to Brenda. Believe that. We all do. I’m not sure what to say about it.” Jake shuffled behind me. His weight sounded heavy like a bear approaching prey.
“You don’t have to say anything. There’s nothing to say. Like you said. We’ve been over this. Many times.” I felt the stubble on my face and knew the time was coming for a clean shave.
Jake’s footsteps stopped pursuing me. All I heard were my own…each movement vibrating through my body and that’s how I wanted it. Skilled at blocking out voices and sounds, I allowed the white noise to accompany me home. Had nine months been enough time? It had given me the chance to empty Brenda’s apartment, store everything at my own place …in case she were to return one day like she said in her diary. With both of her parents dead and friends living out of state, I had become the living beneficiary of her belongings. I thought of those times Brenda described her insomnia: a ghost between two realms. I now knew the feeling. Listless vertigo, wishing a sinkhole in the park would envelop me at any given moment.
If you want something bad enough, won’t it happen?
I caressed her Chai necklace, hearing her voice in my ear: Onwards and Upwards, Roy. Onwards and Upwards.
But towards what, Brenda? Daniel Martin, a cemetery, a funeral home, and a strangled victim adorned with Mardi Gras beads?
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