Below is a taste of my current work-in-progress, book three in the Joplin/Halloran mysteries. Best enjoyed with a bottle of Yuengling or a glass of Brunello.
I hope you like it!
The Devil's Bidding
“Zounds, sir, you are one of those that will not serve God if the devil bid you.”
- William Shakespeare, Othello: Act I, Scene I
Cautiously, the cat crept out from under the bed. It had been a long time since the frightening sounds that had caused her to hide had stopped, but she was still wary. It was dark now, the pale light from the street showing only shadows, but that was no problem for her. She padded out into the hall, head turning, eyes darting, but saw no one. The kitchen was also dark, but she saw a shape on the floor, and, as she got closer, breathed in a scent that was familiar and comforting.
The cat began to head-bump the figure, but there was no response. No petting of her head or tickling behind her ear. She tried again, and when nothing happened she moved on to the utility room where her litter box and food were kept. There was only dry food for her, a disappointment, but she was hungry and ate most of it.
After using the litter box, she returned to the figure on the floor. More head-butting still brought no response, so she curled up and put her head on her owner’s back, then closed her eyes. The usual warmth she expected wasn’t there, but it didn’t occur to her to wonder why.
The first thing Hollis Joplin did when he got to the Milton County Medical Examiner’s Office that morning, after Sherika had handed him a manila envelope she said Fed Ex had delivered, was head to the break room for coffee. He’d shared a cup with Carrie earlier, but it hadn’t been quite enough caffeine after a late, somewhat booze-filled Friday evening at Davio’s. Carrie had then gone back to bed. As an assistant ME, she had weekend duty just once a month, but Joplin worked rotating shifts with the other death investigators, and he was on for Saturday.
Making a mental note to turn down a second one of Gerry’s potent dirty Martini’s the next time, he shoved the envelope under his arm and grabbed a mug from the counter. He filled it from the large urn next to the microwave, hoping Sarah Petersen, his boss, had been the one to make the coffee that morning. She never seemed to make it either too weak or too strong, which was yet another reason she was held in high esteem by all the investigators. The pathologists, too, for that matter. Since becoming Chief Investigator well over a year ago, she’d turned the unit into a well-oiled machine, leading by example whenever possible. Which meant getting to the office before anyone else and making sure she knew what the people under her needed to do their jobs.
Like decent coffee.
Joplin had been summoned to a vehicular homicide on 400 before he left the condominium he shared with Carrie, so it was after nine-thirty by the time he got to his cubicle. He’d intended to get started on his report of the scene, but decided to open the envelope first. Setting his mug on the desk, he sat down and slit the flap with a pen knife he kept in a side drawer. Inside were several eight-by-ten photographs.
The first picture was of a front door, black, with two potted plants on either side. The next showed a narrow entry hall that held only a rug and a chest of some kind, with a still-life painting of some pears over it. The third picture was of a kitchen. The warm yellow walls held a pot rack and several prints of various herbs; stainless appliances and gray granite countertops made a nice contrast to them. Joplin was beginning to wonder if some realtor had heard that he and Carrie thinking of buying a house after their upcoming wedding, when he was stopped short by the next photo.
It was of a woman lying face-down on the kitchen floor. Her head was turned to the side, but her long brown hair covered her face. She was wearing jeans and a black, fitted jacket, but her feet were bare. Joplin moved quickly to the next photo, which showed the woman from a different angle. Whoever had taken it had stood or knelt near her head this time. Two more photos were close-ups of the woman’s hands, which were on either side of her, palms down, as if she’d fallen and had tried to get up. There was a wide silver ring on the middle finger of her right hand and a diamond solitaire ring on the third finger of her left hand. The nails were pink and looked professionally manicured.
He was certain she was dead.
Sarah Petersen looked up from her computer to see Hollis Joplin standing in the doorway. His large head, thick blond hair looking a little unkempt, was cocked to one side, and his green eyes were definitely blood-shot.
“Can I talk to you?”
“Sure. What’s up?”
He placed some photos on the desk and nodded toward them. “I’d like you to look at these.”
She gave him a quick glance, eyebrows raised, then picked them up. Shuffling through them, Sarah frowned when she got to the fifth picture. “You take these?” she asked, looking up at him.
“No. According to Sherika, FedEx delivered them. I’ve never seen them before. But my name is on the envelope.”
“Obviously, it’s a crime scene, even though there aren’t any labels or case numbers on the backs of the photos. The question is: whose? You didn’t take these, but somebody did.”
“Right. I kept the envelope they came in, but it didn’t tell me much. It was labeled “Overnight Delivery,” sent on November 8, 2013, but the ink on the sender’s label was smeared, making it illegible.”
“You think that might have been deliberate?”
“Sure seems like it.”
The phone on Petersen’s desk rang, cutting off further speculation. She was silent as she listened but grabbed a pen and wrote something down. “We’ll get on it,” she said, then clicked off and handed Joplin the page from her note pad. “We’ll have to figure this out later, Hollis. There’s a body at that address that’s more important right now. Why don’t you leave these with me,” she added, gesturing toward the photos.
“Fine with me. Maybe Sherika knows a little more about who sent them.”
“If she doesn’t, nobody does,” Petersen said. Their receptionist had her finger on every pulse in the ME’s office.
The living ones, anyway.
The address was in Brookhaven, which straddled both Dekalb and Milton counties. More specifically, it was in Historic Brookhaven, on Club Drive. Joplin, who was an architecture buff, knew that Salson Stovall, along with Solomon Goodwin, had been responsible for much of the development there, inspiring wealthy Atlantans to build summer homes in the area in the late nineteenth century, much like their Buckhead neighbors. But it wasn’t an actual neighborhood until 1911, when several investors bought a tract of land they named “Brookhaven Estates” and hired Herbert Barker, a New Jersey golf pro to design a golf course for it. The area then became the first community in Georgia to be created around a golf course.
Something that couldn’t be said about Ansley and Druid Hills, which seemed to please the Historic Brookhavenites, from what Joplin could tell. And they totally separated themselves from the newly-created city of Brookhaven, which included North Brookhaven and Town Brookhaven, and was in less-wealthy Dekalb County.
He turned left off Peachtree, onto Peachtree-Dunwoody, then took Winall Down to West Brookhaven Drive. The trees in the beautifully-kept yards that surrounded the Capital City Club were still ablaze with color, due to an extended Indian summer that year. Joplin turned left and drove slowly, looking for 1452. It was directly across from the clubhouse, but he was disappointed to see that it obviously wasn’t one of the houses built by Hal Hentz or Neel Reid or even Preston Stevens, who had designed the clubhouse; he was pretty familiar with the styles of the houses they’d created. But it wasn’t new, by any means; probably built in the early teens of the twentieth century, Joplin decided. Unfortunately, whatever style it had started out with, it hadn’t retained it, and seemed to be comprised of a series of lateral additions made over the years.
Sarah had told him that the body wasn’t actually in the house itself. It was in a carriage house at the back of the property. Joplin drove down the driveway to the right of the house and parked behind a gray Nissan sedan that he knew belonged to Ike Simmons, a senior detective with the Atlanta Homicide Unit. They had been partners for seven years before he’d left to join the Milton County ME’s office. They’d also been best friends. Still were, for that matter.
He grabbed his bag and got out of the car, then walked around the other cars, which included an APD car and a blue Audi, to reach the front door of the carriage house. As it came into view, he began to walk more slowly, then stopped altogether. The door was black, with two potted plants on either side. To anyone else, this would have seemed like a mere coincidence, but Hollis Joplin had an eidetic memory, and his mind retained images of anything he’d ever seen, often in three dimensions. It helped him in his work as the “eyes and ears” of the forensic pathologists who would perform autopsies on the bodies he saw at deaths scenes. But it had wreaked havoc on his ability to sleep at night since his teenage years, as well as on his relationships.
So Joplin knew exactly what he would find behind the black door with the plants on either side.
The door opened as Joplin was putting on paper booties over his shoes.
“Probably won’t do much good,” said Ike Simmons. His face, dark-complected, with broad cheek bones above a well-kept mustache, didn’t look happy. “It’s been like Grand Central around here.”
“Who found the body?”
“Owner of the main house, Mrs. Marlow. She tried to call the victim, but couldn’t get her, even though she knew she was home, since her car was here. It’s the Audi out front. So she came over and knocked several times, but got no response. She heard the cat meowin’—“ Simmons paused and shook his head. “Actually, she said it was ‘crying,’ and accordin’ to her, the victim was diabetic and had some problems regulating her insulin lately, so she called 911 and then let herself in with an extra key she kept on hand. She went into the victim’s bedroom, thinkin’ she was there or in her bathroom passed out, like the last time this happened, and by the time she found her in the kitchen, the EMTs had arrived.”
“Did she touch the body?”
“Said she was too scared,” said Simmons, opening the door wider for Joplin. “But she let the EMTs in, and then the uniform showed up. He secured the scene after it was determined that she’d been dead for some time and there was nothing they could do, but it had already been pretty compromised.”
Joplin nodded, then walked inside. He saw the rug and the chest and the still-life painting that had been in the photos and followed Simmons to the kitchen at the end of the short hallway. The body lay on the floor, dressed in jeans and a black jacket, but no shoes. Her hands were on either side near her shoulders, palms down, rings just as he remembered them. Her long brown hair covered her face, which was turned to the side. An enormous black cat with green eyes, sitting a few feet away, stared up at Joplin, as if waiting for him to do something.
“She won’t leave the body. Mrs. Marlow tried to pick her up, but she wasn’t havin’ it. Acts more like a dog than a cat, if you ask me.” Simmons looked down at the body. “She was cold, and had no pulse, so the EMTs didn’t turn her over or try to resuscitate her. We left her like that until you could get here.”
Joplin pulled his eyes from the cat, then knelt down and opened his black bag. He tugged on latex gloves, then reached out and moved the curtain of hair covering the victim’s face off to one side. The first thing that struck him was the severe bruising on her neck; the second was that her face had the usual dark, bloated look of a person who’d been strangled.
The third thing that struck him was that he knew who she was.
As if reading his mind, Ike Simmons said, “Victim’s name is Blaine Reynolds. Why does that name ring a bell, Hollis?”
Blaine Reynolds had been the only woman Joplin had dated after his divorce who’d meant anything to him.
Except Carrie, of course.
He’d first met her when Lewis Minton had brought her into the Investigative Unit on a chilly Friday in March of 2007.
“I want you to meet someone,” he’d said solemnly to Joplin and Deke Crawford, who was his partner that day. He’d motioned toward a petite, dark-haired woman who looked to be around thirty. She had large blue eyes and an upturned nose and was dressed in a short black jacket and tapered slacks. Her hair was straight and brushed the collar of the jacket. “This is Blaine Reynolds,” said Minton, smiling, then he told her their names. “She’s an investigative reporter with the AJC. The paper wants to do a series of articles on the differences between the ME and coroner systems in Georgia.”
“Ms. Reynolds,” said Joplin, shaking her hand.
“Blaine,” she’d said firmly. “I’ve asked Dr. Minton to let me observe your unit for a few days, if you’ll have me. I’d like to see first-hand what death investigators do.”
“I’d be happy to help,” said Joplin.
“Me, too,” said Deke, shyly, offering his own hand. He’d turned red as he said this, and Joplin had seen his immediate attraction to her. He wondered if his own attraction to her was obvious.
“Blaine’s going to start the first of next week,” Dr. Minton had said. “I’d appreciate it if anyone on the day shift could take her out on some scenes. Would that work?”
“Actually, I’d like to go out on some night crime scenes, if possible,” she’d said quickly, looking at Joplin.
“Works for me, but you might run that by Chief MacKenzie, Doc,” Joplin had answered diplomatically.
“Of course. Is he in yet?”
“Not hardly,” Deke had said, then looked at his feet.
Mackenzie had never actually gotten to the ME’s office before ten a.m.
“Well, I’ll catch him later then. Might as well take Blaine down to meet a few of the pathologists, anyway.”
She’d glanced back at Joplin after they’d all said ‘nice to meet you’ and ‘see you soon.’ It was a look that had told him that she was attracted to him, too.
“Hollis?” Ike was saying, and Joplin realized he’d had to repeat it several times.
He was still crouched over the body, but he pulled himself up and looked directly at Simmons.
“She’s a reporter for the AJC. Was,” he added, correcting himself. “I also dated her for a few months.”
“Oh, lord, of course!” Ike shook his head and frowned. “How could I forget that?”
“It was almost five years ago, Ike.”
“Yeah, but it was big at the time, Hollis. You know it was. I don’t really read the papers, but I shoulda remembered her. You were crazy about her!”
“I was,” Joplin admitted.
“Then what happened? All I remember is that you said your ‘schedules conflicted,’ or somethin’ like that. Which I thought was pretty lame at the time.”
Joplin shrugged. “It was the truth. Mostly, anyway. Investigative reporters don’t have set days or shifts. They just follow leads—whenever and wherever it takes them. My schedule changes weekly and involves day and night shifts. When she was in town and had a free night, I usually didn’t. After a while, it just didn’t seem worth the effort.” He looked down at the body. “To her, especially.”
“I’m sorry, Hollis,” said Simmons, shaking his head. “And sorry you had to be the one called to the scene this morning.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t think that was just my bad luck.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ll explain later. Right now I need to give Blaine all my attention. Something I couldn’t do five years ago.”
Twenty minutes later, as Blaine Reynold’s body was being wheeled out of the carriage house, Joplin found Ike Simmons talking to the uniformed cop in the living room, arranging a canvas of the neighborhood.
“Ask if anyone saw a person or persons in the area on foot, too. Not just any strange cars. And find out if there were any delivery or utility trucks around yesterday. Accordin’ to the landlady, she got home around five p.m. and saw the victim pull in the driveway around six, but somebody could have already been on the property by then. “
The cop finished writing in his notebook and nodded. “Will do.”
Simmons waited until he’d left, then turned to Joplin. “What can you tell me, Hollis?”
“Well, first, could you tell me if the landlady is going to take care of Blaine’s cat?”
“Only you would worry about a cat at a crime scene,” said Simmons, shaking his head.
“You and Alfrieda took care of Quincy when I was in the hospital, Ike. You’re an animal-lover, too.”
“Yeah, and havin’ that cat of yours at our house for three weeks almost cured me of that, Hollis. But, don’t worry. I’ll check with Mrs. Marlow about it before I leave.”
“Thanks, Ike. Did Mrs. Marlow give you any contact information about her parents? I never met them, but she told me they lived in the D.C. area. Her father’s a lobbyist. Or was, when I knew her.”
“She gave me a phone number for them. I’m going to call as soon as I’m through here.”
“How about her fiance? She’s wearing what looks like and engagement ring.”
“I got that from her, too. Name’s Winston Avery. He’s a lawyer. I’m gonna go see him after I call her parents.”
Joplin nodded. “Okay, good. Thanks for telling me.”
“Yeah, yeah. Now can you please tell me about the victim?”
“She was strangled. I could even see the hand imprints on her neck because of the bruising. Rigor had relaxed completely, so I’d put the TOD at not too long after she was seen turning into the driveway by the landlady, but that’s just an estimate. Body temp backs this up, given the ambient temp in the house. But if she’s got anything in her stomach at autopsy, that could change the estimate.”
“Thanks. CSU will be here soon, but I’m assumin’ you took pictures.”
Joplin nodded. “Yeah, but I almost didn’t need to.”
“When you finish up here, Ike, I’d like you to come by the ME’s office and take a look at what was delivered to me this morning.”
“FedEx delivered this?” Simmons asked Sherika, one gloved hand holding the manila envelope.
“Far as I know,” she said, putting a little emphasis on the “I” as she stared back at the detective. As usual, her composure was serene, and her attractive face, with its large, dark brown eyes and scarlet lips was the picture of…competence. Sherika just reeked of competence, in Joplin’s mind. Anybody’s mind, actually. It was a quality that she possessed without any attempt to make other people feel…less competent. He was sure that that would never have occurred to her.
They were all sitting in Sarah Petersen’s office. Ike Simmons had looked through the photos, which Petersen had placed in an evidence bag, along with the envelope, and after some discussion, had asked that the receptionist be brought back there. Sherika had been with the ME’s office since it opened, and by all accounts knew more about the daily goings-on than anyone else. She wielded this power discreetly, but they all—pathologists and investigators, as well as office staff both above and below her—knew what was what.
Simmons immediately seized on her implication. “You mean you didn’t recognize the driver?”
“Never seen him before. Which doesn’t mean anything. Routes change all the time.”
“What did he look like?”
She shrugged. “White guy. Middle-aged. About your height. He smiled a lot.”
“Was he wearing a company uniform?”
“Yeah. Long-sleeved polo shirt with the purple stripe on the right.” She paused and added, “His left. The stripe went to his arm, then down his side. Black pants, running shoes. Nike, I think.”
“Anything else you can tell us about him, Sherika?” Sarah Petersen asked. Her ashy, blunt-cut hair and angular features gave her the look of a young Eunice Kennedy, and the Boston accent completed the picture.
Sherika cocked her head. “He was in pretty good shape for a guy that old. No belly. But I remember thinking that there was something off about his face. Like his nose didn’t go with it. And his hair didn’t match his skin.”
“Like he’d changed his appearance?”
She nodded, then said, “But I didn’t pay any mind to that. I wish I had, now. But I didn’t. It was just a morning delivery, you know?”
“We know,” said Petersen.
“One more thing,” Sherika said.
“He didn’t like black people.”
Joplin stared at her. “And you know that because…?”
“Because he smiled a lot, like I told you. White people smile a lot when they feel uncomfortable around black people.” She turned to Simmons. “You know what I’m saying, right?”
He sighed and said, “I know what you’re saying.”
“Why would the killer have sent you these photos, Hollis?” Simmons asked.
“I have no idea. Really. I was trying to figure that out before I got the call to go to Brookhaven. I didn’t know if they were real or staged, but my gut told me I was looking at a dead body.”
“Did you know it was Blaine Reynolds then?”
“No, of course not. I didn’t recognize her until I brushed the hair away from her face. It was covering her face in the photos and when I first saw the body at the scene. You know that, Ike.”
He nodded. “But why do you think the killer—or whoever took the photos—sent them to you?”
“You think someone other than the killer might have taken these photos and sent them to Hollis?”Sarah Petersen interjected.
“It’s a possibility. But the question is still, ‘Why Hollis?’ Why draw him into this? Because he once knew the victim? Was involved with her?”
Petersen turned to him. “How involved with her were you, Hollis?”
“Did you sleep with her?” Carrie asked. She speared a piece of penne pasta out of the pot with a fork and then bit into it, chewing slowly. Her long, almost black hair was gathered at the nape of her neck with what she called a “scrunchy,” and her deep brown eyes looked off to the right as she was deciding whether the pasta was ready.
And waiting for him to answer her question, Joplin was sure.
“Yes,” he said finally, hands clasped in front of him as he sat across from her at the kitchen island. A black Le Creuset pot filled with Shrimp Fra Diavolo simmered on a burner in front of him. Lights from restaurants and businesses on Peachtree shined brightly through the large Palladian windows in the newly-darkened living room of the condominium, casting shadows on the brick walls. It was their favorite time of day. Usually, anyway. “Does it matter?”
He watched carefully as she turned off the gas burner and then bent down to get a colander from one of the lower cabinets behind her. First, because he was trying to gauge her mood; secondly, because he never got tired of looking at her.
“Not really. It was long before I knew you. On the other hand, whoever killed her seems to want to involve you somehow, so maybe I’d better know as much about your relationship as possible. Without all the sexual details,” she added as she thunked the colander into the sink.
Joplin looked at Quincy, who had heard Carrie’s tone of voice and, ever vigilant, was creeping toward them. Quincy didn’t like raised voices or pots and pans being banged. Neither of these things happened very often, but even once had been often enough for the cat, who had a long memory. The last time, actually, had been about six months ago, when Carrie’s Orthodox Jewish parents had come for dinner, and the subject of Joplin’s willingness to convert had come up.
He hadn’t been the one to get upset. Harriet and Nathan Salinger had always been pretty great to him, especially since he was not only not Jewish, he’d also been divorced, was eight years older than their daughter, and –in their minds—was responsible for her almost getting killed by a serial killer.
Carrie had seemed to handle her parents’ request well at the time, promising that she and Joplin would discuss it, but after they’d left, she’d lost it. Joplin had been sure the issue had more to do with what she believed her parents had hoped and expected for her, more than just his religion—or lack of it. Since her brother’s death at age ten from Tay-Sachs disease, she’d tried to be everything they wanted and needed in a child and had planned on being a pediatric pathologist.
And then, Carrie had done a thirty-day rotation as an intern at the Milton County ME’s Office and fallen for Joplin’s good friend, Jack, who’d later been killed. And after he, himself, had almost died, Carrie had changed her career path to forensics and applied for a residency at the ME’s Office. Something which he was sure must have disappointed her parents.
When the pots and pans, which hadn’t deserved to be banged around that night, had been stacked, and Carrie’s voice had come down a few octaves, Joplin had proposed. He’d been wanting to do so for a long time; he even had the ring, purchased a few weeks earlier. Just in case the right time came up. And after seeing Quincy, who adored Carrie more than even purring could say, looking so upset, Joplin had seized the moment.
In a way.
First, he’d had to go into their bedroom and paw through the bureau drawer where he thought he’d put the Tiffany box. When he’d finally found it, he’d come back into the living room, to find Carrie watching Homeland.
He hated Homeland.
Ever the romantic, Joplin had shut off the TV, knelt down in front of Carrie and opened the Tiffany’s box.
“Will you marry me?” he’d asked.
Carrie had stared at him. “How can you ask me that now?”
“I thought it might be a good time,” he’d said, a little crestfallen.
What had ensued involved a lot of crying, some apologies for her parents on Carrie’s behalf, an apology on Joplin’s behalf for his poor timing, several declarations of love, and a very long, tongue-involved kiss, followed by a “yes” from Carrie. Quincy, by that time, had curled up on the couch.
Now, however, Quincy was in alert-mode as he leaped up onto the granite island and stared at them.
“You’re scaring the cat,” Joplin said as Carrie dumped the pot of pasta into the colander and then slammed the empty pot onto the counter.
“Well, you’re scaring me. Someone hates you enough to kill one of your old lovers and drag you into it.”
Joplin walked over to Carrie and put his arms around her, clasping them in front of her. She was tense—rigid, actually—but he put his head close to hers and said, “We don’t know that that’s what happened, Carrie. I think whoever killed her wanted me to know that she was dead and that, somehow, it was my fault. But I don’t think she was killed just to get me involved.”
She relaxed a little, then turned around to face him. “Then why, Hollis? Why was she killed, and why would it be your fault?”
“I have no idea. Truly. I haven’t even seen her since the last time we had dinner together, and that was almost five years ago. We never even had an official break-up—just couldn’t synchronize our schedules to get together. And then we sort of…stopped trying.”
Carrie seemed to think about this, then said, “Who was the last one to call?”
It was something only a woman would think to ask, in Joplin’s opinion, and he wasn’t sure how to answer. “I was. And then, she was,” he added lamely.
“What does that mean?”
“I made one last effort to try to see her, but she said she was on assignment and was going to be out of town for several days. Said she’d call me when she got back, but that never happened. Then when I was in the hospital, she called me.”
Carrie frowned. “You mean a year ago? When you got rid of your colostomy bag?”
“No,” said Joplin. “During the Carter case. After Jack…died,” he added reluctantly. It still wasn’t easy to bring up Jack Tyndall. Joplin had almost been disemboweled the same night Jack had been killed, and he’d spent weeks recovering at Grady hospital.
The color left Carrie’s face, and he hated that they were both being dragged back to that time. It had taken several months for them to deal with it. Joplin had handled it at first with his usual avoidance tactics, followed by a rather severe Blue Funk, but, mostly due to Carrie’s perseverance, they’d finally been able to renew a relationship that had been sidelined by Carrie’s affair with Jack.
“Oh,” she said, finally, as she poured the pasta back into the pot.
“It was all over the media—you remember, Carrie. And she called when she heard I was conscious and out of danger. Just to tell me she was thinking of me and wishing me a speedy recovery. The call lasted maybe three minutes.”
Carrie nodded slowly. “I see. Did she ask if she could come by and visit you?”
“No. And I didn’t ask her to. It was over, Carrie. Had been for a long time. And I was in love with you, even though I wouldn’t admit it to myself at the time.”
Tears began to form in Carrie’s eyes, and she looked away from him. “Thank you for answering my questions, Hollis,” she said. “Most of them anyway. The two biggest ones, though, are why Blaine Reynolds was murdered. And why those photos were sent to you.”
“You’re right. But I’m going to do my damnedest to find out. I promise you.”
Copyright P. L. Doss 2018, all rights reserved.