The skim of his clothes was a secretive sound in the blue tinted gloom of the pre-dawn hour, a lament that throbbed under his skin. Oz mused that the feeling was fitting as he tried not to wake the figure deeply asleep in the sex-rumpled bed. The form moved restlessly at the rasp of shoelaces, stilling Oz in the chair he was sitting in for a moment. The man quieted and Oz finished dressing before standing to thread his arms through his long woolen coat.
The clink of his glasses being lifted from the bedside table caused the man to roll over onto his stomach, the sheets slipping down to expose the tops of his buttocks. He was still, thankfully slumbering on, as Oz stood motionless next to the bed, looking his fill. Oz’s body ached from the pleasure he’d indulged in throughout the night. His skin hunger and physical needs finally assuaged after so long a drought of chosen celibacy. He lingered for a long moment more; admiring the masculine beauty of the stranger he’d given his body to. Shaking himself, he moved away as disquiet sliced through his gut, remembering the tears that had burned in the corner of his eyes in the midst of sex.
He made sure the door was only a hushed snick, as he left the hotel room. Walking down the quiet hall to the elevators, Oz was glad he was alone with no one to smirk at the evidence of the night he knew was displayed on his face, home was beckoning. He slumped in the corner, lips twitching at the thought that elevator etiquette was so ingrained in him, even when he was the only one in the glass enclosed box.
The hint of the smile fell away at his reflection in the mirrored walls. The bows of his lips were swollen, his auburn hair chaotic and too long swooping down over his brow and curling about his ears. The tops of his sharp cheeks were rosy below his dark framed glasses, and above the wispy beard Harold had teased him endlessly about. The beard he’d grown to look as old as he was, rather than the undergrad he’d not been for eight years, hadn’t worked out so well. He still looked like an undergrad, at least according to Harold, particularly with the small hairless patches of skin in front of his ears that refused to grow even a hint of stubble. Oz had not been able to shave that ridiculous wisp off his face, and at the memory of Harold’s loving mockery, he still didn’t think he could face doing it.
He turned away from his image, avoiding the sight of unshed tears that brightened his hazel eyes at the thought of Harold’s laughing face. The lobby was a tomb, with only reception and cleaning staff silently working in preparation of the day. The scuff of Oz’s shoe soles on the wet sidewalk was loud in the crisp winter air. He’d take the streetcar home, he decided, they’d be up and running by the time he walked across Canal Street to the stop. He didn’t have to think on the streetcar, only experience the hard wooden seats, the rumbling rhythmic thumping of the electric gears, the roar of the rails on the tracks, and wonder about the well-to-do families that had built the seemingly endless mansions along oak lined St. Charles Avenue.
King’s Day, January 6th
The body was in the middle of the street, illuminated only by the street lamps and the blue strobe lights of the police cars that cordoned off the area from the press and the gawkers, whose prying morbidity was more evident than their concern for the victim. Oz ducked under the police tape, ignoring the calls of the press, assured his partner was close behind by the staccato rhythm of her heeled boots on the pavement.
Approaching slowly, Oz’s eyes took in the scene; the body was lying in the dead center of the street, in the dead center of the block on Barracks Street between Dauphine and Bourbon. Oz would swear if they measured the distance, the results would be within a half a foot of the midpoint. The precision of the placement, so neat and tidy, surrounded by the historic milieu of the Creole style town homes and squat cottages, sent a prickle of unease up Oz’s spine. The decorative iron galleries and colorful stucco façades surrounding him were shadowed, seemingly in mourning, in the winter dark of the dawn that had yet to rise.
“Not a good start to Carnival,” Yolanda murmured, crouching over the body. The snap of blue nitrile gloves against her wrists was resounding over the noise of the crime scene crowd.
“No,” he agreed, squatting across from her over the body. Mindful of his coat tails, he placed them over his thighs, before slipping on his own gloves.
There wasn’t a lot of blood, but the amount that circled the victim’s neck was black in the darkness, even under the illumination of Yolanda’s small penlight.
The light flashed over the victim’s eyes, her movements were efficient, detached. “Extensive petechiae.”
“He used a garrote,” Oz replied, studying the wound. “Probably a wire of some sort.”
The cold misting of his breath didn’t remove the stench of urine and feces that hovered over the body. A victim soiling themselves in the throes of a strangulation death was not uncommon, but the fumes of alcohol wafting up were unique to this particular body.
“I’d put him in his early twenties, probably a student,” she answered. Oz knew her lack of agreement with his statement was agreement. Detective Yolanda Price was a woman of few words, often chosen carefully, often comfortable with long silences. Her contemplative silences usually resulted in Oz’s unending urge to babble incessantly, though in the year they’d been partners he’d gotten better at resisting the need to fill the quiet between them. They were the odd couple in the Homicide Section of the Criminal Investigative Division, the gay nerd rookie and the veteran Black woman.
The victim was young, blond, and green eyed, with athleticism to his frame that Oz considered for a moment. His face was softly rounded, even in death, what Oz’s mother would have called a baby face that would’ve aged well if he’d had a future. Tall, broad, and heavily muscled, this victim wouldn’t have been an easy kill, Oz considered, but beyond the wounds from the garrote, there were no other signs of trauma.
They were silent on their heels across from each other with the body between them, Yolanda mirroring Oz in her contemplation with her forearms resting on her thighs, gloved hands relaxed, as they both took in the death lying between them. The body was straight, almost peaceful, rather than in an ugly sprawl, as most bodies of murder victims tended to be. The posing set Oz on edge, taking in the hands folded over the chest, the legs parallel together, touching all the way to the worn sneakers on the victim’s feet. His clothes were orderly, draped on his frame, jeans straightened, and even the black leather jacket encasing his solid frame was zipped closed, allowing just a hint of a dark green sweatshirt underneath. Oz figured the hidden shirt either had the name of the university the victim attended advertised on it, or whatever sports team most young men like him were obsessed with. Everything about the victim was immaculate, almost chaste, and pristine, except for the deep ring of carved flesh at his neck.
Oz met Yolanda’s dark eyes. “It’s a funeral viewing.”
She raised a black brow, and Oz stayed quiet, watching her eyes sweep the body again, giving her time to ponder his statement. Oz didn’t know how she was so flawless at such an early hour, from her bob-length natural spiral curls to her red trousers and cream-colored silk blouse that set off her smooth onyx skin beautifully. Yolanda Price was always impeccable in face and form, even when they were called to a scene at three-thirty in the morning on a Saturday. Oz didn’t even want to contemplate the state of his hair, he couldn’t remember if he’d pulled a comb through the too long strands before he left the house. At least he always had a three-piece suit, tie, and shirt pressed and ready to go, so he was unwrinkled at the moment in his dark purple pinstripe. By the end of the day, he knew he’d look worse for wear, while Yolanda would be as fresh as a daisy, as if she’d not been slogging through a twelve to fourteen-hour day. How she did that was one of the many of the mysteries of her that Oz hoped to eventually figure out.
“You’re right,” she agreed, her low lyrical voice reflecting her frown, focused on the bleached white hands folded in front of her. “If he was in a suit and coffin, it’d be a wake. Let’s see if he’s still got his ID.”
Following her lead to search the victim’s pockets, Oz grimaced a bit at the stench that rose fetid and tingling in his nose, as he felt along underneath the body for a wallet in a back pocket. Yolanda was the successful one in the endeavor, pulling a brown billfold from underneath.
“Wyatt Akers, twenty-two,” Yolanda said, studying the wallet’s contents. She pulled out some bills and a card. “Tulane student, he wasn’t robbed.”
“Judging by the booze I can smell, he was sloppy drunk when he was attacked,” Oz replied. He stood and twisted to look around, pulling off his gloves. “But the question is… where was he attacked? There are no open alleys on this street, or the surrounding ones. The killer must’ve had a car to dump the body here. Carrying a hundred-and-ninety pounds of dead weight through the Quarter would be noticed… even with this area deserted after Midnight.”
“Cabrini Playground is just a block up, it has a low fence,” Yolanda stated. “We should have uniforms check for signs of a struggle there.”
Oz nodded before taking in the body from above, frowning at the image it presented. “Have you ever seen anything like this?”
“No… not in the seventeen years I’ve been working the City,” she drawled, rising to circle the victim, her boots scraping the pavement, as she came alongside Oz. “What’re you thinking?”
“It’ll turn serial if it hasn’t already,” Oz confessed, the death mask on Akers face was grotesque in the rising shadows of the dawn. “It’s too perfect, too controlled, to be a first kill.”
“He can’t have been killed that long ago, not in this area in the middle of the street,” Yolanda mused. “Unless he was killed elsewhere, but I’d think Akers was partying here tonight. It’s a long drive from Uptown with a body in the car.”
Oz was inclined to agree, Uptown and the university area wasn’t that far away, only about five miles, but with Friday night traffic, driving a body downtown was an added risk to the killer. Of course, the hazard of killing in the French Quarter was more dangerous, between tourists and locals out partying on a Friday night. The risk taken to place the body here was disturbing, bold and arrogant.
“We’re only three blocks from Lafitte’s, though he’s local, he could’ve been on Frenchman,” Yolanda said.
There were other bars off Bourbon Street, little hideaways on the side streets, and only locals, usually an older crowd, frequented Frenchman Street in the Marigny, rather than brave the beer and urine soaked pavement and misbehaving out-of-towners on Bourbon. Given the age of the victim, the start of the Mardi Gras season, and the amount of tits and ass that was displayed in exchange for beads at this time of year, Oz was confident Akers had most likely been part of the party on Bourbon.
“We’ll have officers canvas both areas, perhaps something will shake loose,” he replied absently, pulling out his moleskin, putting his thoughts down on paper. Yolanda had her own journal out, and Oz already knew, she’d give it to him later and he’d be the one writing the report at the end of the day, struggling to deciphering her chicken scratch. It was the way they rolled as a team, the rookie and the veteran. “Grab whatever security camera footage is available.”
Oz looked up at a shuffle of feet approaching; it was the Coroner, Boudreaux and Alice the crime scene tech, anticipating getting access to the body. The sun was finally starting to peak over the slate rooftops, glinting off Alice’s bright red hair, casting her freckled face in shadow. Her eyes swept over Oz for a moment, a small smile playing around her thin lips, before moving back to the victim. Yolanda had a small quirk at the corner of her mouth, her razor sharp eyes missing nothing of what was happening around her. Oz knew there might be, probably would be… almost assured to happen, teasing about Alice’s crush in the not too distant future. Not that he wasn’t flattered Alice found him attractive, she was a good looking woman in an understated voluptuous way, but he’d gotten the impression over the course of their acquaintance that she found the fact he was gay equally attractive. He shuddered to think she imagined him in the throws of gay sex, but sometimes he thought it was a distinct possibility.
“Chadwick, Price, it’s too early for this shit,” Boudreaux greeted, foul mouthed, barrel chested and craggy, with a perpetual frown on his face, under the shock of a full head of white hair. Oz had yet to see the old man smile since he’d met him over seven years ago. Boudreaux was nothing if not pragmatic to a fault about the state of crime and murder in the City. “I have a backlog of bodies to get through today, but should have this young man posted tomorrow afternoon. It’s a fucking shame.”
Oz and Yolanda moved back a pace as Alice got her camera out, the high-pitched rhythmic whine after the shutter resonated in his ears as he concentrated on finishing up his initial impressions. They left Alice and Boudreaux to it, finished with Wyatt Akers for now. His body couldn’t give them any more insights; it was just a husk whose meager secrets would be teased out by Boudreaux’s examination, and Alice’s microscopic science of the scene.
Oz waved over a patrolman. “Who found the body?”
“Homeless guy, over there,” he returned pointing, his hazelnut hued face grimacing at the proximity of the body and its reek.
Across the street, away from the mass of reports and mill-abouts, a small figure sat on his heels against a pink stucco wall, with officers in their blacks and badges hovering over him, as if he’d sneak away thief-like in the night. There was no guarantee that the black man was homeless, but with his cardboard sign advertising his circumstances under his arm, it was a good bet the patrolman’s supposition was correct. As Oz took in his too thin and grimy form, he figured this man was legitimately homeless, rather than one of the multitude of professional panhandlers that stationed themselves for handouts on every major thoroughfare and corner throughout the city. The motorists who’d become weary of seeing the same faces every day on their commutes everywhere, in every neighborhood, often ignored them. Oz himself had seen the same woman, advertising her homelessness and pregnancy on the corner of Napoleon and St. Charles for over two years. Her bulging belly unchanged, her features lined, despondent, but expectant, her demanding presence tiresome for him to encounter day in and day out. The evidence of the recession in the influx of New Orleans’ panhandling community over the last six years was jarring to encounter for those new to the city.
A dirty cream-colored ball cap covered his graying hair, cheeks and eye sockets sunken. His face was lined and hollow with a combination of deprivation, and long-term alcohol or substance abuse that the stubble of his graying beard couldn’t cover. His hands were claw-like, his knobby knuckles swollen with arthritis, clutching his sign that declared ‘God Bless’ in bold black crooked letters, reminding people that acknowledging, rather than ignoring what was in front of them, was the kind thing to do. Oz saw it as another demand, to some extent, and it made him feel uncharitable, then irritated he that felt that way. The sparkle of New Orleans had been tainted somewhat since he’d first moved to the City with Harold as a younger man.
Yolanda waved away the patrolmen before crouching in front of their witness. “You mind if we ask some questions?”
“For you pretty Po-po, I’d be happy to talk,” he replied, garbled with his vernacular southern accent. The man gave her a gapped tooth grin for a second before sobering, assessing Oz with his dark bloodshot gaze.
“I’m Detective Price and this is Detective Chadwick, Mister…?” she replied ignoring the pretty comment, waving a hand in Oz’s direction.
“Henry, de name’s Henry, ma’am,” he answered shifting a bit against the wall, discomfort at the attention he’d acquired evident as his eyes passed back and forth rapidly between them.
Oz followed Yolanda’s lead and squatted down so he was eye level with the man. The distrust was somewhat mitigated by Yolanda’s presence and Oz knew their witness would be more inclined to talk with a member of his own race, even a woman, than a tall skinny white guy in glasses who was standing over him.
“Mister Henry, do you know what time it was when you came across the body?” Oz asked, the formal address, even with just a first name known, he’d learned was the southern way. A show of respect to elders by children and adults alike that Yankee’s, like him, had lost, if they’d ever really had it in the first place.
Rubbing the back of his neck, he replied, “‘Bout three, I thought he was just sleepin’ in de street at first.”
“Did you touch the body? See anyone ‘round, Mr. Henry?” Yolanda asked.
“No… no one, I didn’t touch, I could tell he were dead when I got close,” he replied. “I went back to Bourbon and got a Po-po to come take a look.”
“Do you often come this way? Where were you headed?” Oz questioned gently, disappointed their witness wasn’t really a witness at all. If this was a stranger kill, and he was pretty sure it was, the case was going to go cold and languish for god knew how long.
“I was coming up from Decatur, gonna get somethin’ to eat from Brother’s on Rampart.”
And probably a drink, Oz thought, eyeing the small tremors of Henry’s fingers. The man had been detained for hours, and the start of an addict’s detox was unmistakable.
“Thank you, Mr. Henry,” Yolanda said standing, extending her hand for a quick shake. “If we have more questions, how do we find you? Do you have an address, phone?”
“I usually sit on Decatur and Dumaine, or there ‘bouts most days, ma’am. Don’t got no phone or home, though.”
It shouldn’t be too hard to find him, if they needed to, Oz mused, rising. Most of the homeless had specific places they preferred to panhandle and stuck to their territory, running off any rivals in a variety of vicious ways.
“I’ll call in to see who we need to give notifications to.” Yolanda pulled out her phone, throwing over her shoulder. “Get the officer’s canvassing, I’ll meet you in the car.”
Henry was smirking at him, “She a tough Mama ain’t she?”
Oz raised a brow, smiling at the assessment. “All too true, Mr. Henry. Before you go, can I get your full name for the record?”
“Henry Joe Perry.”
“Thank you, we appreciate your waiting,” Oz returned, making a final notation in his book. They’d do a background check on Henry, as a witness and possible suspect, but Oz was confident the man had just found the body. He pulled out his wallet, handing Henry a twenty. “Breakfast is on me.”
Another quick toothless grin and the bill disappeared into Henry’s jacket pocket. “Good luck, Po-po.”
Oz nodded, watching the painfully thin figure shuffle on his route up the few blocks to North Rampart for breakfast and booze. Boudreaux was zipping the body bag closed, a clutch of patrolmen were waiting on Oz for instructions, and Yolanda, still on her phone, was pushing through the horde of reporters. They followed her aggressively, but Oz knew she’d remain unflappable, and silent to their boorish and coarse questioning.
Looking up at the cloudless sky, soon to be a bright pale winter blue, Oz knew there were more bodies in his future, and hoped Henry’s wish of luck for him would blanket the investigation. They were going to need it.
The rhythmic thumping over the Causeway didn’t help mitigate the silence that had Oz fidgeting within five minutes into their hour and fifteen-minute drive to Covington, north of Lake Ponchartrain. It’d been months since he’d been on the Northshore, perhaps more than months, since he couldn’t remember the last time he’d braved the forty-minute drive over the bridge. The lake was deceptively blue, with sunlight sparkling off the small surface waves. Brown Pelicans could be seen skimming the surface, majestic in their hunting, silly looking hanging out on old wooden pylons along the bridge. Oz knew under the surface it was brackish and dark, an estuary connected to the Gulf of Mexico, rather than a true lake in the traditional sense of the word. New Orleans was like that, Oz often mused, dazzling and light, but full of darkness and decay underneath.
He was sure that their visit to historic Covington would be no different, full of lovely rolling hills and large oaks lining the picturesque thoroughfare that framed the historic Eastlake, Greek Revival, and Cajun style homes, along with the smattering of newer sprawling houses that were a mismatch of styles in between. The beauty in semi-country old suburban areas, hiding the decay in the rural country just a few miles away, the rot that surrounded the veneer of genteel southern life. That veneer was soon to be ripped away from Lorraine and Jim Akers, Wyatt’s parents, their affluence no match for the darkness to come.
His fingers fussed with the edge of his waistcoat for a moment, before Yolanda’s contented silence finally became too much and he blurted, “How’s Anton doing?”
She languidly checked her watch over the steering wheel. “You lasted a whole thirty minutes, you’re getting better.”
Oz snorted at her teasing poke. The quiet wouldn’t have been so bad if they’d had the radio on, but there was no middle ground between his and her musical tastes. It was one of the first things they’d learned about each other, Oz’s preference for classic rock and pop music versus Yolanda’s rigidly regarding gospel, hip hop, and R&B. They were both quite vocal in their critiques of each, and had learned music was something they definitely would never have in common.
“Well? How’s he doing?” Oz persevered. If he didn’t, the silence would make a comeback, causing an itch under his skin.
Her smile was bright white, rounding her cheeks. Giving him a wink, he realized she wasn’t going to continue to torture him with the silence. “He’s doing just fine, excited about graduating.”
“Got a job lined up when he’s done?”
“He’s interning this semester at Castle’s Pharmacy on Oak Street, I think they’ll hire him full-time after graduation,” she replied, her pride in her son unchecked in her tone.
Oz wasn’t sure how old Yolanda actually was, he hadn’t the balls to ask, plus his mom drilled into him that it was rude to ask a lady her age, no matter how curious he was. All he knew was that Anton was twenty-two and a senior at Xavier University, majoring in Pharmacology. Oz had not even met him yet. He figured with her years on the force and the age of her son, she had to be at least forty. It was difficult to tell, her skin still smooth with the agelessness inherent in many of her race. He could’ve done a background and credit check on her if he’d wanted, but knew he’d be unable to look her in the eye afterward if he did. Oz was a horrid liar, the involuntary ticks that came out on this face when he did try to lie, inevitably gave him away. Of course, if Harold had had the chance to meet her, he would’ve had no compunction about snooping, and then he would’ve held the information hostage from Oz, just to be contrary.
“Good, good… glad to hear he’s doing so well.” He nodded. Getting personal information out of her was like pulling teeth, though he did relish the details he could occasionally annoy out of her.
She gave him a pitying look. “How old do you think the killer is?”
“Given the age of the victim, I’d think he was young, but the scene was too mature for a beginner.” Oz relaxed, talking about the case was actually talking, and he could work with that.
“If it isn’t his first, VICAP should pull up something.” She nodded. “I’ll run a check when we get back.”
It would probably be late afternoon by the time they returned to the city, Oz figured. It could be later, depending upon how the Akers’s took the news of their son’s death. He wished the weather was as bleak as the notification they were about to give. It wasn’t fitting to be so bright and clear, a happy start to Carnival, in the face of the bereavement to come.
The pained screech of Lorrain Akers’ despair at the news was still lingering in the back of Oz’s mind, bringing his own grief bubbling to the surface. He’d gotten better about keeping it to himself, since the first notification he and Yolanda gave together over a year ago. He’d had a righteous breakdown afterward, unable to control his anguish, a mirror of the grief they’d evoked in the family of a victim at the time. That was the moment Yolanda found out he was gay, found out about Harold. He’d been a mess, and she’d stayed silent, grounding him with a hand on his shoulder.
Oz still didn’t know what she thought about his homosexuality, it wasn’t a topic they’d ever discussed, no matter how much he wanted to know her thoughts on the subject. All he did know was she attended church regularly, and believed in God and Jesus Christ. And at the moment, was amused by his bitching about her handwriting while finishing up their report.
“How can you even read it yourself?” he exclaimed, shaking his head at the wreck of ink in front of him. “I know you can write beautifully when you try, I saw Jenson’s birthday card. You do it on purpose, don’t you?”
She just raised a sardonic brow at him and returned to her screen. “The sooner you get done, the sooner we can go home.”
Oz huffed, and adjusted his glasses, squinting at the page.
He was just about to ask about a word, he was pretty sure wasn’t a word, when he heard his Commander’s projected rumbling voice.
“I’m sure we can provide some help to you,” Lester Shelton said to the figure following him out of his office. “Budgets are tight, though I’m sure you know that.”
“I am aware, sir. I’ll try not to impose on your office too much.” That voice, that accent, had Oz sitting stiff in his chair, slicing alarm fired frantic through his chest causing heat to prickle up his neck to his cheeks.
“Ah, good, you two are still here,” Shelton said, lumbering toward them, his bulk didn’t hinder him, he was still spry despite pushing sixty. He was a big man with a big presence, gray haired and sepia toned. He’d been Commander of the Homicide Unit for over five years. “Let me introduce you to two of our Detectives, Yolanda Price and Oscar Chadwick. This is Special Agent in Charge, Jacques Verret; he’s with the FBI’s New Orleans Field Office. You’ll probably be crossing paths at some point.”
Fuck, fuck, fuck… was the mantra going through Oz’s head at the sight of sky blue eyes landing on him.
It had only been a week, since Oz had sated his physical needs in Jacques Verret’s bed. He’d only known Jacques’ first name at the time, their lust more important than actually getting to know each other.
“Detective Price,” Jacques said, with a perfunctory handshake before those damn eyes returned to Oz.
“Oscar… is it?”
Oz couldn’t get a word out through the lump of horror building in his throat, so gave a jerky nod in response. His hand was automatically offered, before being encased in the familiar rough warmth that had skimmed over his body, hard and soft for hours on end.
His gaze assessing, Jacques murmured, “Please to meet you… finally.”
A/N: This excerpt is a first draft of chapter one of my original novel, Crescent City Boogaloo written during 2016’s National Novel Writing Month. My thanks to The Council: Ashe, Becca, Boffin, Claudia, Holly, and Jess for all your support and encouragement, I’m thankful to have such wonderful fandom friends.