No links to Amazon yet, but I wanted to announce the release date of April’s Fool, coming out October 31st.
“Trouble follows you, boy, the way a bad smell trails a fart.” – Capt. Les Marshall, Texas Rangers
The day started rough.
I woke up.
No shock there. I woke up in a bed most mornings.
But this bed felt…wrong. Really wrong.
I cracked one eye open. A dead woman stared back. Bulging eyes fixed on my nose at point-blank range. Her bloated tongue stuck out, like she was blowing a raspberry from beyond the grave. A white stocking was wrapped around her throat.
Strangled, my keen detective powers deduced, followed closely by, I was sleeping with a dead woman.
“Gah!” I rolled away, churning out of bed and hitting the floor in a full-body flop with a half twist.
Carpet. Tan. Tight weave, industrial-grade.
It smelled of hotel room.
April Fortney’s hotel room was my guess, since Fortney lay dead less than four feet away.
I was supposed to protect her, not let her get killed.
Man, I was in trouble.
I lay on the floor of the Hyatt, studying the tan weave, trying not to think of hotel carpet viruses crawling into indecent places. My stomach churned and I worked at keeping the puke inside, where it belonged. My knees hurt from whacking the floor.
How the hell did I get here? What happened last night? Nothing came back to the big screen when I racked up last night’s movie show. I didn’t remember visiting Mrs. Fortney. Or going to bed with Mrs. Fortney.
And as sure as God made galoshes, I didn’t remember killing Mrs. Fortney.
One thing at a time. Observe some clues, Ranger Cable. Make some deductions.
Clue one: I was naked. As born, butt in the air, not-a-stitch on, naked. Did I get that way on my own, or did I have help? Somehow, the thought of being undressed by a total stranger, without being conscious of it, or a willing partner in the act, freaked me out like nothing else so far.
I shivered, slick-coated in cold sweat.
Clue two: I was sick as a poisoned dog. Winos in gutters looked better than I felt…Hell, dead winos in gutters looked better than I felt. Gripping the carpet seemed the only good way to stay anchored and keep the room from spinning. Either this was the mother and father of all hangovers, or my system was working through a heavy-duty, Costco-sized dose of knock-out drops.
“Well,” I told the tan carpet, “it sucks to be me.”
I winced, remembering the dead woman on the bed. Sensitive. Real sensitive. April Fortney started the day murdered. It sucked much worse being her. So maybe it was time to quit feeling sorry for myself and figure out who killed her.
I executed a clumsy push up to my hands and knees, pausing in a four-point stance before gathering strength for a climb all the way to up. Using the bed for leverage, I took it slow and easy and grunted to a standing position. The room spun, but I held on, arms out for like a tightrope walker.
My clothes lay over the back of the easy chair, next to the bed. Some care had been taken to set everything out, as if arranged by a loony butler after staging the crime. (The butler did it!) Even my boxers were folded.
My boxers were folded?
“Well that tears it,” I muttered. “I sure didn’t undress myself. Who the hell . . . ?”
A man can’t think without his pants on. It’s a known fact. I reached for my under drawers, but the floor tilted and I flopped into the chair. The hammer of my gun prodded me in the butt cheek. I dug the weapon out of the cushions, still in its clamshell holster, and set it aside.
Getting dressed turned out to be a pretty big chore, what with the room sliding around. My hands shook so much I had to feel for the buttonholes with the patience of bum fishing for a nickel in a storm drain. My Dockers were wrinkled from yesterday’s wear, and my button-down shirt with the Texas Ranger badge looked like a victim of a hard night.
I stuffed my feet into my dress boots and tried standing again.
All my gear, including my pistol, went back on my belt where it belonged. I checked the chamber of my .45. Still one copper-jacketed slug in the pipe and seven of its buddies stacked in the magazine. Good thing I hadn’t gotten around to writing April Fortney’s name on the tips. Somebody might take that the wrong way.
I left my cream-colored Stetson on the dresser at the foot of the bed. My head didn’t want to support the weight. The only thing missing was my cell phone. A quick pocket check, followed by another slow trip to the floor to look under the bed and dig through the chair cushions confirmed my cell phone was AWOL.
Now for the hard stuff.
Mrs. Fortney, former judge and most recently candidate for the U.S. Senate, lay flat on her back. She was naked but for a garter belt with one white fishnet stocking still attached. The other stocking garroted her neck. The bright white lingerie contrasted with her Starbucks latte skin in a way that would have been sexy, if she wasn’t dead.
Her eyes bulged from a bloated face. I leaned over for a closer look and found petechiae—burst blood vessels typically caused by strangulation. Her distended tongue had a blue tinge. She’d been dead more than a few hours.
I was being set up. That much was clear. They—whoever they were—did a good job on me. Probably refugees from Syria and polar bears in Siberia knew how much Fortney and I hated each other.
Whoever strangled her had to be strong enough to hold her down and twist the stocking around her neck with sufficient force to choke her to death. It would take either a very powerful man or woman. Given my height and weight, a jury would take one look at me and say, yep, he’s a big’un. He must’ve done ‘er.
That left only opportunity. As her bodyguard on the campaign, I had 24-7 access to the candidate. By virtue of the job, I had to be close to her. Nobody would question my stopping by her room at any hour of the day or night. Hell, I even had a room key.
”Which wraps up the trifecta of criminal justice, folks,” I said aloud in the hushed room.
I know I didn’t kill her. Even with a blank spot in my memory, the idea of murdering a woman—up to and including someone as disagreeable as Fortney—made me sick to my stomach.
So what happened?
I anchored my feet next to the bed and captured a mental image of the entire scene before I moved anywhere.
Standard Hyatt suite. Mrs. Fortney’s room, 1412 from the number on the bedside phone. King-sized bed. Easy chair. Small dresser with white Stetson, two empty glasses sitting in wet rings. One with lipstick on the rim. Mirrored closet, partially open, women’s clothing hanging there. The candidate’s suitcase upright in the corner. A large open area near the window, with a table, sofa and chairs.
I couldn’t see in the bathroom from where I stood, so I watched where I put my feet and circled around the foot of the bed.
Nothing in the bathroom except a ton of cosmetics. Wadded towels piled in one corner. The inside of the tub was dry. At the vanity, I used the tip of my gun barrel to push the faucet lever up and drank directly from the spout, sucking down enough water to submerge a whale.
Caught a glance of my reflection and nearly shot myself, just to put me out of my misery. I looked bad. Patriotic eyes—red, white and blue—pasty skin and a red crease on my cheek from pressing into the pillow. Sweat-matted blond hair, trimmed short, but long enough to stick up on one side.
An actor in a bad zombie movie.
I shuffled back to the bed and did the thing I’d been avoiding up till now. I looked at the body.
April Maree Fortney, age 42. African-American female, fit, good skin. Except for the ligature around the neck, I could see no marks on the body. I wasn’t about to move her to do a more thorough inspection, as Crime Scene pricks get fussy about disturbing evidence. Ever since CSI came out, they all thought the investigators worked for them.
She lay flat on her back, hands by her sides, palms up. Head turned, brown eyes focused on the place where I recently laid. Lay. Lied.
She had a tiny, distinctive mole on the left side of her nose, high up. No mistaking who she was. I lifted an arm and it was pliable, but cold. Dead maybe six hours? The bedside clock read 8:22. The red LED was lit next to the AM mark. So call it between midnight and two o’clock in the morning.
The murder weapon—a white stocking—had bitten into her neck and remained pinched there, twisted into a granny knot at the side. The attacker had been strong enough that the hosiery had squeezed deeply into the flesh of neck. A small amount of bloating almost buried the white material in a ring of flesh.
Several strands of Mrs. Fortney’s hair were caught between the stocking and her neck, like the killer slid it over her head and twisted. Probably held her down with his body weight.
Or it was a really big, strong woman. Crime fighters must not be sexist pigs and assume all killers are ment.
I leaned close to inspect the stocking and noted a trace of dark red, almost brown, on one of the loose ends. Blood? That would be a good guess. The itching on my pinkie finger finally registered and I held up my right hand.
As if splashed with ice water, my face went numb. On the inside of the joint, right little finger. A small cut.
“How much you want to bet that’s my blood on the stocking,” I whispered, awed by the depth, breadth and width of the pit of shit I was in. “These people don’t miss a trick.”
My heart thumped in my chest, hard, and new sweat prickled my skin. Swallowing with a dry throat, I checked over the rest of the body, just to be thorough.
Gravity had flattened her breasts, but not as much as I expected.
Nothing unusual on the ribcage, the stomach . . .
“Huh,” I grunted.
Judge Fortney had trimmed her pubic hair into a tiny V-shape, clippered close. Who would have guessed? Then again, who would have guessed she owned a pair of fishnet stockings and a garter? I would expect leather, and a whip, not something soft and feminine. And where was the matching bra? There didn’t have to be one, but its absence seemed strange.
Legs, feet, everything else looked as normal as a dead woman’s body could look.
She’d urinated when she died.
That did it for the examination of the victim. And the person who discovered the body?
Last thing I remembered was having dinner in the hotel bar with some of the campaign staff around eleven o’clock. After that . . . blank. At six-four and two hundred and ten pounds it’s not like any little old ladies carried me in here. Even one guy would have struggled, considering he’d have to knock me out and drag me through a hotel full of surveillance cameras.
There should be CCTV coverage of every hallway. Whoever entered this room would have to have passed at least one camera. As the Judge’s security detail, I had visited the control room and seen the set up. All digital recording, high resolution video, with over thirty cameras. Something had to have shown up on one of them.
“Be a good place to start,” I said.
I had already taken too much time piddling around the crime scene. Calling the local law enforcement types, with me standing there, a finger firmly implanted in my butt, didn’t seem the best choice, even though it was the only choice I had available. I wanted at least some clue as to how I got here, but it looked like that wasn’t going to happen.
A loud pounding at the door made me jump. A powerful, no bullshit voice followed. “San Antonio Police. Open up.”
Icy spiders crawled over my skin. The killer was being very thorough, getting the cops involved before I could sneak out.
“Just a sec,” I hollered. I frowned at the late April Fortney. Things looked bad for me, but still worse for her. Somebody framed me for her murder, but they killed her. A woman I was sworn to protect.
“This ain’t right,” I told her. “You may be past caring now, but I’m not gonna stop until I take this bastard down.”
I left her and reached for the door.