River of Secrets: New Excerpt
River of Secrets by Roger Johns is the second book in the Wallace Hartman Mystery series, where a controversial politician is murdered in cold blood and Baton Rouge Police Detective Wallace Hartman struggles to find the killer amid conspiracies and corruption.
Herbert Marioneaux, a Louisiana politician infamous for changing his mind on hot-button issues, has been murdered and his body posed to send a message. Baton Rouge homicide detective Wallace Hartman has to figure out who’s sending that message. DNA points to Eddie Pitkin, a social justice activist who also happens to be the half-brother of Wallace’s childhood best friend. But even with the combative history between Pitkin and Marioneaux, murder seems out of character for Pitkin, whose usual MO is to confront the wealthy and powerful with their inconvenient past. As Wallace digs deeper, she unearths a possible alibi witness, along with evidence of a deeply troubled relationship that points the finger of suspicion at Marioneaux’s son.
While Eddie’s supporters are convinced of his innocence, his enemies are equally certain of his guilt. Under pressure from all directions, Wallace pursues her investigation into the dark heart of the political establishment as Baton Rouge falls under the shadow of escalating violence. When it appears a police department insider may be sabotaging her efforts by leaking information about the case, and after menacing messages are left for her and her loved ones, Wallace is forced to untangle a trail of old and disturbing secrets unaided by those she most needs to trust.
SATURDAY: JUNE 2
Wallace Hartman didn’t fancy herself a burglar, but when Davis McCone called with larceny in his heart she jumped at the chance—even though she was a Baton Rouge police detective and she would be stealing from her own mother.
Uncle Davis. She had called him that when she was a young girl, although he wasn’t really her uncle, just a good family friend. In fact, Davis was the man her mother had dated, before electing to marry Walter Hartman instead. They had all managed to stay friends, and Davis and his eventual wife, Gail, had been uncle and aunt to the Hartman children.
“Come have dinner with us tomorrow evening,” Davis said.
“Me and your mother.”
“She didn’t mention the two of you were having dinner.”
“I only managed to talk her into it a little while ago. It’s a birthday shindig.”
“You know she doesn’t like calling attention to her birthday.”
“She enjoys acting like she doesn’t like it.”
“Why do you want me there? I’ll just be a third wheel.”
“Not a wheel … a thief. And bring Mason.”
Mason Cunningham had entered Wallace’s life several months ago as a DEA analyst pursuing an investigation that intertwined with one of her own. He had remained as much more than that. Since Thursday, Mason had been in DC. He was returning this afternoon.
“Okay. We’ll be there,” she said. “And just so I’ve got this straight, you actually want me to steal something for you?”
“You’ll enjoy it. I promise. And your mother will be delighted. I promise that, as well.”
There wasn’t much Wallace wouldn’t do for Davis. When Wallace’s father had been killed, along with her husband and her elder brother, by a man who had made a vocation of drinking and driving, her life had hit a wall. Wallace and her mother, Carol, and surviving brother, Lex, had all hit the wall. Carol had gone almost mute with terror, confessing to Wallace that she’d become afraid of her own shadow. That if so much could be taken so quickly, then nothing was safe.
Instead of becoming afraid, Wallace had become angry. Angry that the killer was given a slap on the wrist and put back on the street. Angry that those who killed with a bullet the size of a fingertip could be imprisoned for life, even executed, but those who killed with a bullet the size of a Buick were often dealt with as if they were the victims.
Davis and Gail had worked hard to provide a sense of stability for the remnants of Wallace’s family. But it was Davis who had helped the most. He made sure friends and relatives came around to lift the burden of the day-to-day when necessary. He took time away from his law practice to make sure things that needed to be done got done.
Eventually, from somewhere deep inside, Carol found a way to cope. At first, she focused on putting one foot in front of the other, trying hard to impose some distance between herself and the devastating events. Then, one day, the dam broke and she began a period of proper grieving.
It had been painful to see, but Wallace took it as a sign that it was okay to begin the process of repairing and getting on with her own life. She considered herself to still be a work in progress, and she credited Davis and his wife with helping to make that progress possible.
Sitting on the back steps of her Garden District bungalow, a half-finished cup of coffee on the concrete step next to her, Wallace watched a pair of squirrels chase each other around the trunk and through the branches of the giant pecan tree that dominated the back of her lot. She marveled at the speed and agility of the chittering creatures as they made gravity-defying jumps through the leafy canopy.
As she reached for the book that lay next to her cup of coffee her phone buzzed again. It was Chief of Detectives Jason Burley, her boss. She felt sure he wasn’t calling to invite her to a birthday dinner.
The room was a wreck. The man’s bloody fingernails and the deep gouges on his neck told the story of his futile attempts to save himself. Once he realized he wouldn’t be able to, he had apparently panicked, thrashing around, smashing into furniture, scattering papers and lamps in his wake. The whites of his eyes were freckled with the petechial hemorrhages so emblematic of strangulation. He was curled into a fetal position on the living room floor of the little house in Spanish Town, a trendy older part of Baton Rouge near the state capitol building.
Wallace recognized him. Anybody from Louisiana would. Herbert Marioneaux—white, late sixties, a former pastor, and until now, a state senator from one of the rural districts deep in the Florida Parishes east of Baton Rouge. Many saw him as a crass social and political opportunist—an unashamed chameleon who was periodically in the news because of his sometimes controversial views and his often overheated rhetoric.
Wallace knew his story well. During his firebrand college years, when he learned to court media attention, Marioneaux had undergone a very public conversion experience, swapping out his hostility to organized religion for a loud and endlessly proclaimed fundamentalism.
Later, when it looked as if his career in the pulpit had given him everything it had to offer, he underwent a second conversion. This time he evolved from being a committed segregationist to a lover of all humankind, and then he promptly ran for office. Most members of the media predicted his second transformation would turn out to be a bait and switch calculated to get him elected and that separate but equal remained his true religion.
Herbert’s final evolution had come courtesy of the ligature around his neck—a tough plastic slip lock of the kind used to bind wiring bundles together or hold air-handling ducts to their overhanging supports. It was essentially a longer, thicker version of the zip ties police sometimes used in place of handcuffs. It had been slipped over Marioneaux’s head and pulled tight. So tight he hadn’t been able to get his fingers under the plastic, although he appeared to have given it his best shot. He would’ve had to slit his own throat to get it off. His killer had not offered him the mercy of that option.
Given Marioneaux’s past, Wallace knew his list of enemies could be long and complex. He was on the wrong side of history, no matter which side he took, which meant he was bound to attract a lot of resentment. But the scene in front of her went way past resentment—it spoke of rage.
A chair had been dragged over next to where Marioneaux had fallen. A table lamp, its shade crooked and badly dented, rested on the seat, and a book-sized hand mirror was propped against one of the legs. A well-lit reflection of the dead man’s face filled the glass. Arranging the corpse and the other elements of the scene to produce this grim tableau probably meant the killer wanted it known that he or she had watched and waited as the suffocating slip lock finished its work. That tended to make Wallace think this was personal between the killer and the victim.
She saw no evidence of a security system, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t one. Subtle, less visible systems were becoming popular as homeowners became smarter about how to thwart the growing tendency of break-in artists to identify and neutralize obvious protections.
Every window in the house was locked and none of the doors showed signs of forced entry. So far, nothing indicated whether the killer had lain in wait or had come in with Marioneaux or at Marioneaux’s invitation.
An old pouch-style briefcase sat upright on one of the chairs by the table. The flap was folded back and an empty foam-lined laptop sleeve stood amidst the papers and folders. Wallace looked around the room for the computer, but it wasn’t there. She didn’t remember seeing it in any of the other rooms, but she would check again.
She stepped into a corner that looked as if it hadn’t seen much action and surveyed the scene. Closing her eyes, she tried to imagine how the events in the room had unfolded, what sequence of events could have resulted in the chaos in front of her. Colley Greenberg, her mentor when she became a detective, had taught her how to do this. Study everything you see. Hold the scene in your mind’s eye, and then try to run the tape backward. Some of their colleagues laughed it off as voodoo lessons, but it worked. More than once, it had shown that possibilities that at first seemed attractive were, in fact, remote or impossible, and vice versa.
Athletes did it all the time, Colley had told her. They visualized the path of the tennis racquet before swinging at the ball. They pictured the arc of the gun barrel before drawing a bead on the clay pigeon or imagined the perfect flight of the basketball before propelling it toward the hoop. The very best, he was convinced, could see the action forward and backward, before it actually happened.
Wallace wanted to take the scene back to the moment and the location where the killer dropped the slip lock over Marioneaux’s head. Where had they been standing? Or had Marioneaux been sitting when the killer came up behind him?
She studied the room trying to deduce the order in which each object was knocked from its customary place. Knowing how the killer came to be where he or she was, at the critical moment, might say something important about the relationship between predator and prey. Just as she was on the verge of losing herself in her mental reconstruction of the scene, an angry voice broke her concentration.
“I don’t care who you are. This is my father’s house and I have a right to be here.”
The sound came from the direction of the side door—a hall and a kitchen away.
Wallace pulled herself away from the murder scene and strode toward the sound of the voice.
“Now get out of my way.”
Through the open door Wallace could see the driveway that ran along the side of the house. The afternoon sun silhouetted the officer blocking the door as well as the man outside who was trying, so far unsuccessfully, to bull his way inside.
“Sir, this is a crime scene—”
“Are you not listening to me? I just told you—”
“And my officer just told you this is a crime scene.” Wallace gently moved her colleague aside and faced the man. Even though he was one long step below the threshold, they stood eye to eye. To her five-eight that made him close to six-and-a-half feet—a very fit, very broad-shouldered six-and-a-half feet.
“And who the hell are—”
Wallace flashed her ID placard right up in his face without waiting for him to finish his question. “Step back into the driveway.” Over the man’s shoulder, she saw a well-dressed woman who looked to be in her mid-sixties, standing several steps away, in the shadow of the sagging wooden fence that bordered the cracked concrete. The familial resemblance between her and the man in front of her was clear. Wallace watched as she ended a call and dropped her phone into her shoulder bag.
“Tell me your name, sir.” Wallace moved toward him, her left hand raised, claiming the territory ahead of her as she maneuvered them both to the bottom of the steps. “Is the lady by the fence with you?”
“She is.” The man glared down at Wallace.
“I’m waiting,” Wallace said without looking at him.
“This is my son, Glenn Marioneaux.” The woman at the fence stepped forward and took Glenn’s arm. “And I’m Dorothy Marioneaux. What’s happened here, Officer? Has there been a break-in?”
“Is this your home, ma’am?”
“My husband, Herbert Marioneaux, is a member of the state legislature,” Dorothy said. “He’s a senator. He rents the house as a place to stay while they’re in session. I just drove in from Crofton. That’s where our family home is.”
“What brings you here, today, Mrs. Marioneaux?”
“We’re meeting him here—Glenn and I—and then going for lunch at one of the restaurants in Catfish Town, down by the river. Herbert usually takes Saturdays to catch up on things, but he has this afternoon free. I just left him a message that we’re here. He’ll be walking over from the Capitol building when he’s done.”
“Do you know if he’s expecting anyone else here, today?” Wallace asked.
“For Christ’s sake, can’t you just tell us what’s happened here?” Dorothy’s voice grew shrill. “Before you give us the third degree?”
“Sure. Walk with me.” Wallace led them toward the sidewalk by the street. Just as they reached the curb, an ambulance slowed in front of the house. Its flashers were off and the crew looked to be in no particular hurry. Wallace studied Glenn and Dorothy as the vehicle stopped. Dorothy’s eyes moved from the unlit light bar on top of the ambulance to the women in the front seat. Even though the windows were up, it was obvious from her lunatic expression and suggestive hand movements that the paramedic in the passenger seat was telling a crude joke. The driver was shaking her head and laughing. In the space of a single second, Dorothy’s expression toggled from puzzlement to fear. She drilled Wallace with an expectant look.
Slowly, Wallace nodded. This was one of the worst parts of her job. When she most wanted to reach out, to console, to tell them she knew how this felt, she couldn’t. First reactions were too valuable to ignore or to interfere with. It hadn’t been her intention for Glenn and his mother to see the ambulance and then jump to conclusions, but the opportunity had presented itself and, as painful as it was to see, it was not something she could afford to waste.
“Oh no.” Dorothy broke for the house.
With casual athletic grace, Glenn reached out and closed a huge hand gently around her thin upper arm. Her mouth opened, but no sound came out.
“Momma, don’t.” Taking hold of her other arm, he lowered his head until they were nearly nose to nose, until he was almost looking up at her. “Don’t do this. You don’t know what’s in there.”
The backup alarm sounded from the ambulance as it inched up the driveway. Wallace herded the Marioneauxs onto the grass in the front yard to let the vehicle pass.
“Let … me … go.” Dorothy struggled to free herself from Glenn’s grasp, her lips peeling back to expose clenched teeth. She said each word as if it were a separate sentence. Her gaze followed the retreating ambulance as it edged carefully through the officers and the crime-scene techs who milled about like stagehands prepping a set.
“You happy now?” Glenn looked over his shoulder at Wallace. His eyes were hooded. Whatever he was feeling over the death of his father was masked by an ugly smile mixed with a touching regard for his mother. “Is this what you wanted? You get off watching other people’s grief?” He pressed his cheek to the top of his mother’s head. After a moment, she collapsed against him and started sobbing. “Leave us be, why don’t you?”
“Mr. Marioneaux, I know this is a difficult moment.” Glenn opened his mouth, but with a raised finger Wallace preempted whatever challenge he was about to offer. “I do know. Now please, just listen. I’ll need to speak with you and your mother, and it will need to be soon. You can wait for me out here, until I’m finished in the house, or we can meet at the downtown police building this afternoon.”
“This is just so wonderful, just so damned thoughtful.” He pressed his lips tight together and then raised his bare wrist toward his face, pretending to consult a wristwatch. “It hasn’t been two minutes since we found out my father died and already we’re suspects.”
Wallace knew what was coming next.
“If only you people worked this fast looking for whoever did this.”
“We’ll meet you downtown, Detective.” Dorothy looked at Wallace. Her eyes were bloodshot and she looked haggard, but her voice was strong. She patted Glenn’s chest and pushed away from him. “I need to sit down.” She turned and walked to the passenger side of a late-model Cadillac sedan parked at the curb.
Wallace watched as Dorothy pulled open the back door and settled into the seat.
Glenn stared at Wallace. His lip curled and his nostrils flared as if he smelled something unpleasant. After a few seconds he moved away from her and stalked off toward the Cadillac.
Wallace returned to the house. In addition to the Marioneauxs, she would need to interview Tonya Lennar, the cleaning lady who made the freaked-out call to 9-1-1 when she found the body. It was going to be a long day.
Copyright © 2018 Roger Johns.