I live on Dauphin Island, thirty miles south of Mobile, several of them water. By Island standards my place is blushingly modest, a two-bedroom cottage perched on pilings over beachfront sand, but any realtor would list it for four hundred grand. When my mother died three years back she left me enough to swing the deal. It was a time in my life when I needed a safe retreat, and where better than a box in the air above an island?
The phone rang. I reflexively patted where pockets would be if I'd been wearing clothes, then plucked the phone from the table. It was Harry.
"We're wanted at a murder scene. Could be Piss-it's coming-out party."
"You're two months late for April Fool's, Harry. What's really happening?"
"Our inaugural ball, partner. There's a body downtown looking for a head."
Harry and I were homicide detectives in Mobile's first district, partners, our job security assured by the mindless violence of any city where the poor are abundant and tightly compressed. That shaped our world unless, according to the recently revised procedures manual, a murder displayed "overt evidence of psychopathological or sociopathological tendencies." Then, regardless of jurisdiction, the Psychopathological and Sociopathological Investigative Team was activated. The entire PSIT, departmentally referred to as Piss-it, of course, was Harry and me and a specialist or two we could enlist as needed. Though the unit was basically a public-relations schemeand had never been activatedthere were those in the department not happy with it. Like me, right about now.
"Get there as fast as you can," Harry said, reading me the address. "I'll meet you out front. Use siren, flashers. Gun it and run it, don't diddle around."
"You don't want me to pick up a quart of milk and a loaf of bread?"
The phone clicked dead.
I jumped into jeans and pulled on a semiclean dress shirt, yanking a cream linen jacket from the rack to cover the shoulder rig. I stumbled down the steps, climbed into the unmarked Taurus under the house, and blew away in a spray of sand and crushed shells. The flasher and siren stayed off until I'd crossed the inky stretch of Mississippi Sound to the mainland, where I cranked up the light show, turned on the screamer, and laid the pedal flat.
The body was in a small park on the near-southwest side of Mobile, five acres of oak and pecan trees surrounded by a turn-of-the-century neighborhood moving from decline to gentrification. Three flashing cruisers fronted the park, plus a tech services van. Two unmarkeds flanked a shiny black SUV I took as Squill's. The ubiquitous news van had its uplink antenna raised. Harry was forty feet ahead and walking toward the park entrance. I pulled to the curb and stepped out into an ambush, a sudden burst of camera light in my eyes.
"I remember you now," came a vaguely familiar voice from behind the glare. "You're Carson Ryder. You had something to do with the Joel Adrian case, right?"
I blinked and saw the woman reporter from the morgue rededication. She was in full TV-journalist bloom, lacquered hair, scarlet talons gripping a microphone like a condor holds a rabbit. Her other hand grabbed my bicep. She lifted the mike to her lips and stared at the camera.
"This is Sondra Farrel of Action Fourteen News. I'm outside of Bowderie Park, where a headless body has been discovered. With me is Detective Carson Ryder of the"
I scowled at the camera and unleashed a string of swear words in three real languages and one invented on the spot. There's nothing reporters hate worse than a sound bite that bites back. The reporter shoved my arm away. "Shit," she said to the cameraman. "Cut."
I caught up with Harry at the entrance to the park, guarded by a young patrolman. He gave me a look. "You're Carson Ryder, aren't you?"
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