Thursday, June 07, 2012

The Cantrell Murder

One: The Body
Murder is never pretty, whether it’s splashed across the front page of the LA Times or lying stark, exposed in the lights of an LAPD squad car.
     The hem of the dame’s skirt was up, her splayed pins clad in cheap nylons. Blood splattered her name tag, but not so much that I couldn’t read her name. Gladys. Her face was mostly bloody pulp. I sighed. Another ghost to visit me at the witching hour, when not even the strongest eel juice could silence the demons.
     A freight train rumbled along the back of the deserted lot, lighting up the crime scene before trundling into Los Nietos station.
“What say you, officer?” I said, rising from my haunches to where the air didn’t reek so much of blood and piss.
Officer Petrovski emerged from the gloom; knife-edge creases and shiny buttons.
     “Looks like she took a pounding, sir.”
     “Uh huh.”
     A puff of wind kicked dust across her mauve uniform. A sheet of old newspaper crackled across the abandoned lot.
     “She worked at Pete’s Diner?”
     “Yeah, just across the way.”
     He gestured into town.
     “Looks like she put up a fight though,” I said.
     I pointed to the scrap of chrome. A piece of someone’s boiler; a shiv in Gladys’s final desperate fight for life. It was stained with gore, black in the yellow light.
     There was a trail of blood, leading out of the abandoned lot, away from the railroad station and into town. So I did what any good detective would. I followed it.

Two: Jimmy the Croaker
After a couple of blocks the trail dried up, in this end of town trails of blood usually ended up in one place. James Crow, MD, the sign on the door read.
     “Jimmy. Long time, no see,” I said, leaning in the doorway.
     He looked up from a tray of stained instruments.
     “Not long enough, Virgil.” He spat my name like a shot of formaldehyde.
     Crow was a former Army medic. Not a proper croaker but near enough if you couldn’t afford a vet and didn’t want the heat that came with taking your slug wound or shiv hole to a real doc.
     On the wall next to the faded certificate from the New Jersey Correspondence College was a newspaper clipping of our boys raising the flag at Iwo Jima. If you let him, Jimmy would tell you he was there.
     “How’s the leg keeping?”
     He peered over his glasses. “What the fuck do you care?”
     He was right. I didn’t. It was just my way of reminding him I knew his limp was the result of a big fat “Aloha!” from a pissed, Hawaiian pro skirt, and not a wad of white-hot Jap shrapnel. LA was forgiving in many ways, but not of shitheels who lied about being wounded in the line of duty for the good ol’ red, white and blue.
     “Busy night?”
     “No busier than any other Saturday in this shithole.”
     “Any stabbings?”
     Jimmy shrugged. “Maybe.”
     “Any stabbings between midnight, one?”
     Jimmy carried the stainless steel tray over to the sink and dumped it in. A tang of disinfectant touched my nose before the creaking overhead fan carried it away. He shrugged.
     “C’mon Jimmy. Don’t be a bunny.” I pulled out my billfold and offered a sawbuck. “For the war fund.”
     Jimmy took the money. “Yeah, as a matter a’ fact there was. Greaser. Scrawny. Chambray shirt. Cowboy boots. Bleeding like a stuck pig.”
     “This stuck pig have a name?”
     Jimmy sneered. “Yeah. John Q Citizen. Same as all the rest.”

Three: The Mexican
I ambled into the interview room, pausing for a moment to drink in the scene. Ruperto Simental – the stuck pig – sat slumped in the steel chair, bracelets holding his flippers behind his back, under the watchful gaze of Officer Miller. The Mexican was sweating, greasy hair cascading over his eyes. He looked up, eyes widening, but I shushed him with the fat manila folder I held in one mitt.
     “It must be Christmas, Simental, it must be fucking Christmas,” I said.
     Simental shook his head back and forth, like a dog trying to shake off fleas.
     “No, no, nooooo,” he said.
     I opened the folder and peered down at the report inside. “Close your head. It just doesn’t get any better than this. Let me get this straight. We’ve got witnesses who place you jawing with Mrs Gladys Cantrell outside Pete’s Diner at 11pm. We’ve got a body, not far from there – the coroner puts death at about midnight, maybe one...”
     “No... but...”
     “Bu-bu-bu-bu-bu,” I said, quieting him down. “You’ll have plenty of time for chinning when Officer Miller here is taking down your confession. We’ve got a piece of bloodstained chrome at the crime scene, and, uh, how is the injury there?”
      I climbed up from my chair and pressed the sole of my shoe against his side. He groaned. Officer Miller looked away.
     “No, you’ve got it all wrong,” Simental said.
     “Wait, I haven’t even got to the best bit yet. The Arizona PD pick you up in Nogales on a vag charge, then spy the APB. Why’d you feel the need to take a bunk?”
     “You’ve got it all wrong, senor! The Klan, they see me Saturday night with Gladys, she was my sweetheart...”
     “Break it up!”
     “I love her, Senor Smith. The Klan, they pick me up on side of road, stab me, say if I don’ wan’ worse, to get out of town...”
     “Please - the Klan? This isn’t Mississippi, Simental. What happened? She knock you back? You take her for a drive and try and take things too far?”
     The Mexican shook his head. Sweat dripped onto the metal tabletop.
     “Yeah, that’s what happened. She knocked you back and you bopped her.”
     I scattered crime scene photos across the desk.
     “Yes, you piece of shit. You cracked her head like a walnut and left her for dead.”
     “No. When I left her, she fine. I love her. I’m telling you the truth, Senor.”
     “Well let me tell you some truth, Simental. We’ve got opportunity, we’ve got motive...”
     “No, I love her...”
     “And she didn’t love you back. Motive and opportunity. So unless you can get some of your Klansman to give you an alibi, you’re gonna be dancing in the big house before the year is out.”
     “No, senor. I would never hurt her.”
     “Think about it. Let Officer Miller here know when you’re ready to talk sense.”

Four: The Brothers
Morning sunlight pooled in the kitchen of the Cantrell home, making me feel a little heady. I waved my fedora, sending dust motes cascading through the air. Dale Cantrell sat across the table, staring at his steepled fingers, chewing on his lip. Behind him, leaning awkwardly against the counter, was his older brother Cecil. Both of them looked like college boys in their button down shirts and crew cuts, but Dale said he was going to join the Army once he came of age. Cecil worked at the local grocery store.
     “It looks fairly straightforward. We’ve got opportunity, we’ve got enough motive for a jury. I know it’s not much comfort, boys, but there it is.”
     Dale pursed his lips. “I told her. I told her time and again that piece of shit was dangerous. Fucking greaser. They should build a fucking wall along the border, keep those fuckin’ bean-eaters at bay.”
     I waited; sometimes it’s best just to listen, but the boy choked back the rest of the diatribe.
     “Just so’s I can dot the I’s and cross the T’s, what were you boys doing Saturday night?”
     Cecil opened his mouth but Dale spoke over the top of him. “Usual. Playin’ cards. Bumpin’ gums.”
     “Oh yeah? I’m a bit of a shark myself. What were you playing?”
     “Poker,” Dale said, at the same time as Cecil said, “Rummy.”
     Dale shot his brother a look that could have stopped a goat’s heart. “Poker,” he said again, “then Rummy.” He jerked his head back over his shoulder. “Don’t worry about the boob.”
     Cecil reached across his body to pick up his cup of java. He stared into the cup before taking a slurp.
     “Uh huh. Well anyway, we might get you down the clubhouse tomorrow, if you’re up to it. Got some paperwork you’ll need to sign, and we’ll get you to formally identify Simental.”
     “Both of us?”
     “Yeah. Both of you. The Cap will bust my nuts if I don’t nail this guy. You know, procedure.”

Five: Break and Enter
I love the new flatties, fresh from the academy. Boys like Officer Petrovski, with their shiny buttons and spotless uniforms, nightsticks that have only seen the soft touch of a polishing cloth and haven’t yet got up close and personal with some goon’s ugly mug. I love ‘em like the sons I never had, but they don’t understand that sometimes you have to break the law to make the law work.
     A couple of things were bugging me and I had to have a snoop around the Cantrell place, even if just to set my mind at ease. The Mexican’s goofy Klan story, Dale’s rant about wetbacks, and the card game gaffe – the whole thing felt hinky. When you’ve been a shamus as long as I have, you learn to trust your gut.
     Around the back I found a window open. I checked left and right before sliding it open and climbing in.
     Dale’s room was a mess. For someone thinking of joining the Army, he didn’t have much self-discipline. Mommy Dearest had only been dead just over a week, and already the room was strewn with dirty clothes, half-eaten meals (if you can call ‘baked beans a la can’ a meal) and books. Amongst the mess, a single book caught my eye. White cover, black text. The Clansman, the title read, by Thomas Dixon. Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
     I checked the wardrobe in the corner, pushing the clothes back and forth. I didn’t really expect to find a pointy hat but it always pays to cover your bases. And there it was, hanging up between a leather jacket and a pair of navy blue gabardines. Like I said, it pays to follow your hunches.
     My mind went into overdrive. If Dale was out stabbing the Mexican Saturday night with the rest of the good ol’ boys, then the Mexican was telling the truth. And if Dale was lying, it made me wonder what his brother was hiding.
     I went to the Cantrell’s phone to line up a backdated search warrant.

Six: The Interrogation
I had Cecil all to myself, while Dean was in the next interview room digesting the delicious irony of being charged with attempted murder and also providing his favourite greaser with an alibi. The kid sat across from me, one leg jiggling up and down. I reached down and touched the brown paper evidence bag by my right dog. This collar was going to be duck soup.
     “So, you care to tell me what you were really up to Saturday night?”
     He stared down at the desk. “Playin’ cards.”
     “Oh yeah, that’s right. Poker wasn’t it? Or was it Rummy.”
     He chewed his lip.
     “At the moment, Cecil, we got you as accessory to attempted murder. Maybe you were even there. You got your own hood, or is someone lending you one?”
     Cecil kept mum, staring at the table.
     “You’re a real daisy, Cecil. The boys in the Big House are gonna love you.”
     His eyes darted up.
     “Know what the first thing they’re gonna to do you is? Knock your teeth out.”
His brow creased.
     “Yeah, Dale said you were a little jingle-brained. I’ll let you figure it out. Put it this way – inside of a month you’ll be beggin’ to do the dance.”
     I let that sink in a while then cleared my throat and continued.
     “Jakeloo, here’s what I figure. You and Dale got your heads together on this one. You both hated this Simental guy, but not for the same reasons. Racism isn’t your style, is it Cecil.”
     Cecil shook his head.
     “No matter. You drove down to Pete’s diner, about the time your ma was due to knock off. Dale and his Klan friends took the car, followed Simental after he said buonas noches to Mrs Cantrell.
     “Your job was just to keep ma busy, make sure she didn’t follow Simental, right? You were just meant to walk her home, under some pretense that you were out and about on the town.
     “But something went wrong, didn’t it? You told her about Simental, what your brother had planned for her. But why? You were angry.”
     Cecil was now shaking his head back and forth, furiously.
     “There’s something your brother doesn’t know about you, isn’t there? A dark secret.”
     “Yes. You were jealous, weren’t you?”
     “Yes, you sick piece of shit. You found out mother had been eating a man-size serve of chorizo and you threw an ing-bing.”
     I reached down and picked up the evidence bag, tipped the contents onto the table.
     “Some stuff I found in your little hidey-hole, Cecil.”
     Laddered nylons, stained panties, and photos – well-thumbed photos – of dear old mom. Cecil had a severe case of Oedipus.
     “Nothing like a son’s love for his mother, hey Cecil?”
     “No, you can’t prove it. Yeah, Dale might’ve been out hassling the bean-eater, but you can’t put me at the scene of the crime.”
     I launched myself across the table and grabbed his upper arms. He cried out in pain.
     “Wrong, dipshit!”
     I dug my fingers into his left arm, remembering the awkward way he reached for his mug of joe. I felt blood squelching under the bandage. Cecil cried out in pain.
     “Still sore huh? Well, that bit of chrome looked as if it had been lying in that abandoned lot for a while.”
     Cecil looked up, eyes blazing out of a pale face. “She deserved it! The roundheel...”
     “Cecil Cantrell, I’m charging you with the murder...”
     “...the cheap dime WHORE...”
     “...of Gladys Cantrell.”
     I let him go and wiped my flippers on my pants.
     “Officer. Take him away.”
     The uniform moved in and grabbed Cecil around the neck, dragging him out of the interview room.
     “The dirty chipper deserved it, copper. I just wanted her to love me.”
     “Don’t we all, Cecil. Don’t we all.”

Seven: Epilogue
When I got home that night, Gladys Cantrell was waiting for me, like all the other ghosts. Dressed in her bloodstained uniform and cheap nylons, head a blackened mess. She smiled as I pulled a glass out of the cupboard and poured myself a stiff hooker of whiskey.
     Like I said, murder is never pretty. Some are just more ugly than others.


(I wrote this story as part of an 'audition' to be a writer on the LA Noire video game. I didn't get the gig, obviously!)

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