INSTRUMENT OF JUSTICE
By R. G. Crossley
Jazz kicked aside a large rat with his gleaming black GI shoe as he stepped through the doorway of apartment 3B following Detective Sergeant Tompkins. The Hollywood Hills walk up had been the most recent abode of one Mary Higginbottom (aka Mimi Williams) wantabe movie starlet.
The iron smell of blood mingled with dust and mold to assault his senses as he stood over the naked body of Miss Higginbottom stretched out face down, arms and legs askew, on the threadbare maroon colored carpet. The apartment around him contained a few sticks of furniture; a sagging forest green sofa, a cheap plywood coffee table with two matching end tables at either end of the faded couch and two paintings of flowers adorned the otherwise bare walls. The kitchen at the far end of the room had an icebox and a two-burner hotplate. The pale green laminate counters were covered with flotsam of an empty egg carton, a mostly empty glass bottle of milk, two half full dime store glasses and two plates. A two person laminate dining table bracketed by two pine chairs was shoved into a corner near the window overlooking the street. No doubt the killer ate with Mary before he bashed in her head.
Jazz's dark, somber eyes travelled the length of the shapely female form noting the position of each pale limb until finally stopping to study the large bloody mess in the nest of bleached blonde hair. The skull had been caved in with a heavy object, likely the killing blow.
Scanning the filthy carpet he quickly found the murder weapon, a square off-white ceramic ashtray decorated with black twisting spider like veins. It looked heavy. One corner was coated with blood, no doubt the victim’s.
This appeared open and shut. So why had the LA cops called in the Provost Marshall? "So why am I here, Detective Sergeant?" he said shifting his gaze to the rail thin man in the double-breasted suit with ferret shaped features. When Jazz checked him out, everyone he spoke with told him the robbery homicide dick standing beside him was the best on the force.
The LA police veteran, his pale gray-green eyes gazing at him dispassionately from beneath the brim of his chocolate brown fedora, cleared his throat. "Pick up the ashtray, Sergeant." His too many smokes voice reminded Jazz of gravel crunching under foot.
Jazz had been an MP with the 212th U.S. Army Criminal Investigations Division for the past two years and at age twenty-five had mostly rousted drunks on leave from seedy bars in Hollywood, or escorted street walkers off the base when they were caught in the junior officers quarters after lights out, with a little traffic duty thrown in to keep him truly bored. A murder case seemed out of his league, his CO, Captain Norton, certainly agreed with his opinion, one of the few things upon which they both agreed.
However, even Norton had to follow orders when they came down from higher up. Sergeant John Stiletto would be assigned to work with the LAPD on a murder case. He had no choice but to send Jazz to this address to meet with the police officer in charge.
Norton, a West Point grad, resented his rapid promotions and cool attitude for such a young man as Jazz. He no doubt hoped Jazz would fail to solve the case then he'd relish ripping the three stripes off his uniform tunic. Guys had been busted for less. As far as Captain Norton was concerned Stiletto was no different than any other non-com.
With the attack on South Korea a couple of days ago Norton probably hoped to ship the arrogant pup off to the front after he busted him. Jazz being KIA wouldn't bother a bastard like the captain.
But he hadn't bargained on Jazz Stiletto's sharp, inquisitive mind, which made him the best candidate for the Military Police's investigations division the review board had ever encountered. Uncertain at first about MP duty Jazz soon found he enjoyed the power to tell officers what to do, and the classes the army offered about investigative techniques and the Uniform Code of Military Justice were all incredibly interesting to him.
Jazz nodded to the detective then dropped to his haunches careful not to disturb Mary's clothing nor step in her cooling, sticky blood. He took a cotton handkerchief from his pocket and after covering his fingers with it grasped a non-bloodstained corner of the ashtray in order to lift it off the carpet. He peered closely at the ceramic ashtray wondering what he was looking for.
Beside him Tompkins had lighted a cigarette with one hand the other hand buried in his pants pocket. "Turn it over."
Jazz turned over the weighty ashtray and immediately saw what had triggered the call to the Provost Marshall. A label affixed to the underside read, Property of the U.S. Army.
* * *
After Tompkins had the ashtray checked for prints, and the blood type confirmed as Mary Higginbottom's, he delivered the ashtray in a paper evidence bag at eight thirty the next morning to Jazz's office at the base. A smoking cigarette adorned the right side of his mouth as he sat in a chair across from Jazz and set the brown paper bag on the desk between them. He flicked his hat back with one long, bony finger. "Hey, Sarge."
"Hello, Detective Sergeant, nice to see you again." Jazz reached for the paper bag and opened it to peer inside. "Good, the ashtray." His eyes rose to lock with Tompkins "You got the fingerprint results?"
Tompkins shrugged. "We sent 'em to the bureau in Washington but you know those guys." He smirked. "They take their sweet frigging time if the case isn't one of theirs."
Jazz offered the cop a half smile as he plucked the phone from the cradle. He put the earpiece next to his ear and tapped the cradle twice. "Private, get me Ross at the FBI fingerprint analysis unit please. Put him through as soon as he's on the line."
He hung up and eased back in his swiveling pine office chair. "So what leads do we have so far? Other than the murder weapon of course."
Tompkins shuffled his skinny butt in the chair. His eyes avoided Jazz's steady gaze. He cleared his throat then took the partially smoked cigarette out of his mouth and stubbed it out in a small round clear glass ashtray on Jazz's desk. Jazz sensed the man's unease. He must have expected the joint investigation to be stalled with the delay of the fingerprint evidence.
Jazz eased back in his chair causing it to creak in the uncomfortable silence. He chuckled and pasted an easy grin on his lips. "I'm sorry, Detective Sergeant, I know you didn't want some military dick who doesn't look like he shaves yet butting in on your case, but unfortunately you and I are stuck with each other so why don’t we make the best of a shitty situation?"
Tompkins eyes regarded him for several seconds then his expression of calm indignation relaxed and he took off his fedora and set it on the desk next to the ashtray between the dark wood in and out boxes. The inbox brimmed with neglected documents.
"Sorry, Sergeant, it's just I don't trust the military. It's not you." He locked his hands together and leaned forward in his chair as if he were worried someone might over hear him. "Sure we can work together but I'm in charge, this is my case. Understood?"
Tompkins had emphasized the last word so Jazz knew this was important to him. He wondered how many MP's had crumbled this guys cookies in the past. Not that it mattered, Jazz would let the detective take the lead for now at least until they eliminated military personnel from the list of potential suspects. He'd given it some thought and decided that ashtray could have come from anywhere. Civilian contractors working on bases all over the country stole those things all the time.
"So have you conducted any interviews?" asked Jazz.
Tompkins nodded. "A few. The landlady was away visiting her sister last night but a neighbor reported hearing some yelling." He shrugged lit another cigarette then offered the pack to Jazz. Jazz took one then handed the pack back. Tompkins next offered the still lit stainless steel lighter. Jazz leaned across the desk to light his cigarette. He sucked the acrid smoke into his lungs, exhaling he blew a cloud of the fragrant tobacco from between his lips and out his nose.
After stealing a glance at the clock on the wall Jazz set the smoldering cigarette on the edge of the ashtray. "Let's interview the landlady together."
Tompkins nodded and snapped up his fedora pulling it on his head then tilting it at an angle. Jazz smiled to himself. The detective reminded him of a movie flatfoot. Jazz suspected Tompkins had worked the Hollywood station for a long time so he'd probably adopted the mannerisms of fictional cops to encourage suspects to drop their guards. Guy seemed like a smart cookie.
Before Jazz could stand his phone rang. He plucked the receiver and pressed the earpiece to his ear. "Yes?" His eyes locked with Tompkins and he indicated he better take a seat again. "Hi, Pete, how's it goin'?"
"Not bad, Jazz, been working too hard as usual but you know the bureau."
Jazz chuckled. "Yeah, that's why I'm an MP, seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day isn't enough for us."
"So, I assume this isn't a recruiting call. What can I do for you, 'ol buddy?"
"You should be receiving a set of prints from the LAPD for a murder investigation involving a Mary Higginbottom — "
"And you want me to move it to the top of the heap, right?" interrupted Pete.
"I'd sure appreciate it."
"A solider involved?"
Jazz waited in the silence until Pete finally spoke. "OK, but you owe me a big favor."
Jazz smiled to himself. Pete and he attended the same high school and played on the baseball team. They even dated the same girls. "No problem. Thanks, Pete, you're a real pal."
"Righto. See you next time you're Washington."
"You bet. Bye." Jazz hung up the phone. "It won't be fast but this should cut some time off the results," he said to the detective.
Tompkins nodded clearly impressed. "Sure, sounds good." He stood.
Jazz got out of his chair and went to the coat tree in the corner behind the desk, and after pulling on his tunic he set his cap on his head. He walked to the desk and stubbed out the cigarette. "Thanks for the smoke." He buttoned up the tunic with his free hand. "Truce?"
Tompkins offered a wry smile. "Yeah, sure, Sergeant."
"Call me, Jazz. Everyone does."
Tompkins shoulders relaxed. "OK. Call me Al."
"You driving, Al?" Tompkins responded with a smile.
The two men shook hands as if meeting for the first time, which in a sense was accurate, then left the office together.
* * *
They arrived at Mary Higginbottom's four-floor walkup to discover a car parked in front of the building. Jazz froze as they stopped behind the car and the County Coroner, Ben Brown, exited his car. He recognized him from his picture in the L.A. Times when the famous, or as some would say infamous, died of undetermined causes.
Tompkins forehead wrinkled and his expression changed to puzzlement. "What's Ben doing here?"
Jazz was relieved his recent breakthrough of the cop's armor hadn't been worthless; Al seemed genuinely surprised as himself to discover the coroner at the crime scene.
Stepping out into the warm air, the scent of car exhaust and citrus carried by a breeze from a nearby orchard swept over them. Jazz wanted to light another cigarette but held back. He'd read the coroner abhorred tobacco in all its forms. There were rumors Brown had been about to publish an article about the dangers of smoking, but the Governor had intervened stopping him.
Tompkins smiled and extended his hand as Ben Brown strode up to meet them on the sidewalk beside Tompkins ink black Ford coupe. Brown nodded grimly and shook Al's hand.
"Hello again, detective." His voice had a higher pitch than most men. His narrow shoulders made his suit jacket appear baggy. Beneath his meek appearance Jazz suspected hid a fierce political animal. In his position Brown had to be aggressive to survive for the past five years in a city like LA.
"What brings you all the way out here, sir?"
Brown looked away toward the citrus grove. "One of my staff made a mistake and I thought I better come in person to apologize."
Tompkins shrugged. "No need, sir. What's the problem?"
Brown turned to face the detective his arms straight at the sides of his pin striped suit jacket. "The victim was drugged before she was struck with the ashtray."
Tompkins looked to Jazz who acknowledged the information with a slight nod of his head. He had suspected this already. Finding the body laying face down with the head wound a little far forward for someone struck from behind struck him as bordering on the impossible. Passed out, then killed seemed to make far more sense of the scene he'd found upon entering the apartment.
They thanked Brown then walked the three flights of stairs to Mary's apartment. Al Tompkins referred to the apartment as the vics, no emotional attachment, no recognition of a dead human being. Jazz knew this was a cop's way of handling death. It made him glad he'd joined the military police instead of the cops. He hoped Al wasn't a reflection of his future.
Upon entering the apartment, Al still had a key; they were met with the chemical odor of bleach and a woman with her head covered by a bandana. Her black hair, shot through with gray streaks, stuck out the sides, knelt on the filthy carpet rubbing the large bloodstain with a gray rag. Her hazel eyes shot to the two men and her forehead wrinkled. "What the hell do ya think you're doin' coming in here?"
Al stepped forward as he held out his wallet the gold colored badge prominent next to his police identification card. "Hello, ma'am, I'm Detective Sergeant Tompkins, this is Sergeant Stiletto of the Military Police."
She struggled to stand, the woman's time worn features registered her surprise and her dark eyebrows rose in unison. Jazz estimated her age at a minimum of sixty-five. She wore a plain dark blue dress over which she had tied an apron imprinted with a pattern of yellow daisies. Her hands were lined and calloused from years, if not decades, of cleaning and scrubbing such as she was doing right now.
"Well, a solider boy huh?" Her eyes travelled up and down him then flitted to Al as she placed her fists on her wide hips. "And a cop." She grunted. "What do you guys want now? I just got access to the apartment again and cleaning blood out of this rug is murder." Her gray cheeks flushed with color. "Sorry, I'm just doing my job. I don't own the place."
Al took out his notebook and pen from his inside suit pocket and flipped it open to a blank page. "You know Miss Higginbottom?"
She nodded. "Barely. She paid her rent every month and came and went at all hours. We don’t exactly travel in the same circles. I'm Lucy Peel by the way."
Al offered her a tight smile. "Thank you, Miss Peel."
"That's Mrs. Peel. Widow."
"Sorry, Mrs. Peel. Do you know if Miss Higginbottom had a boyfriend?"
Mrs. Peel shook her head as she retrieved a pack of Pall Malls from the pocket of her apron. She also took out a pack of matches. After lighting one she placed both items back in the apron without offering one to either of them. "I don't know. Like I said we travelled in different circles." She hesitated and her eyes looked away toward the window facing the street.
She knew something more, thought Jazz. Time to go deeper.
Al sighed and put away his pen and notebook inside his jacket. "That’ll be all for now, Mrs. Peel. We'll be in touch if we need anything more."
"Mrs. Peel," began Jazz offering the landlady a warm smile. A shadow of smile passed over her weathered features. "Did you see anything of interest the day the body was discovered?"
"There was one thing..." Crossing her arms she walked to the window peering into the distance taking intermittent drags of her cigarette. Al nodded to Jazz to continue.
"Yes, Mrs. Peel?" Jazz came up to stand beside her.
"There was a taxi parked out front of the building when I came home from my sister’s. The guy getting in was dressed like you, sergeant."
"Really? Like me?"
She shrugged. "There were none of those fancy stripes on his arms, just a single gold bar on his shirt collar. A yellow patch on the shoulder had a black stripe across it and a horse’s head in the upper left corner. He glared at me as the taxi pulled away." She sniffed indignantly. "I don't like being glared at when I haven't done anything."
"What time was this?"
"Oh, about seven thirty. My sister lives in Edendale so I catch the early bus to get home by seven thirty. Tenants may need something before they head for work."
The woman saw more than she let on. No doubt she knew far more about Mary than she was willing to share. "Had you seen the man before?"
She shook her head. "Like I said Miss Higginbottom kept all sorts of hours..." She hesitated. "There were a lot of guys..." Her cheeks flushed crimson.
Jazz knew exactly what she meant. He grinned and patted her arm. "Thank you so much, Mrs. Peel, you've been a big help."
As they exited the apartment Al patted Jazz on the back. They had a lead now, one that had just complicated Jazz's life.
* * *
When they arrived back at the base it was nearing four o'clock and Jazz's aide was clearing his desk preparing to leave for the day. He was younger than Jazz but not by much. A fresh faced farm boy from Iowa. "I need you to stay, private, sorry."
The blond curled haired young man nodded and sat down behind his desk. Jazz was rare among the "Buck" Sergeants in the division. No one had an aide unless they were an officer or a senior NCO. None of this bothered Jazz, he appreciated Private Billings. He had a sharp mind and a very high efficiency rating on his performance reports. Jazz was especially pleased when Billings showed aptitude for investigative work.
"Join me in my office, Billings."
The private rose from his desk and followed Jazz into his office. He took a seat on one of the two chairs across the desk from Jazz.
"Where's the detective, sergeant?" asked Billings.
Jazz offered his aide a small smile. "He's gone home. The investigation has taken a turn in our direction I'm afraid."
Billings azure eyes flared as he nodded. His fidgeting on the chair told Jazz his aide was excited. He didn't share his enthusiasm. A witness or possibly the killer was an officer — an officer about to be deployed to Korea along with the 1st Cav. He had to work fast if he wanted to catch Mary's killer before he was shipped out and escaped justice.
The worst-case scenario hadn't played itself out yet, but his gut told him this case wouldn't end well. "I need the sign out logs for the 1st Cavalry Division going back over the last two weeks, and the personnel files for every second lieutenant in the division." Billings rose from the chair but before he could leave the office Jazz added, "And call the NCO mess, tell them to send over coffee and sandwiches. It's going to be a long night."
"Yes, sergeant, right away." He closed the door firmly as he left the room.
Jazz stared at the plain wood door for several minutes. The army green paint was still shiny having been painted last month. For the first time, in a long time, he was worried.
It had to be an officer. Anger welled up from the pit of his stomach. He slammed a fist on the desk. Son of a bitch.
* * *
Finally at 0500 hours they found a match between the personnel files and the sign out log. A second Lieutenant named Miles Dupont had signed out on the morning of the murder and signed back in just before 0800 the next day. It had to be him.
Jazz flipped through the file. Dupont came from a well-connected family from upstate New York. A graduate of West Point he'd only recently been assigned to the 1st Cav. Jazz froze when he saw where Dupont had been assigned within the division. His job was as the aide to Brigadier General Halburt Mostly.
A knot formed on Jazz's stomach and he licked his suddenly dry lips. The smell from the half eaten ham and cheese sandwich and cold coffee next to him made his stomach churn.
"Billings, I think it's time for you to head to the barracks for some sack time."
"But, sergeant, I — " Jazz stopped him with a stare. "Yes, sergeant." Billings left him alone.
Jazz sat in the quiet broken only by the distant sounds of supply trucks and troop transport vehicles arriving in the compound preparing to take troops and equipment to ships in San Diego headed for Korea. Today would be deployment day and he had a job to finish no matter what the cost.
* * *
Jazz entered the CO's office at 0700 after stopping at his quarters for a fresh shirt and a shave. The cold water helped chase some of the sleepiness away.
"Yes, Sergeant?" asked the captain's aide, a female corporal who's name Jazz didn't know.
"I'm here with information about the case I've been working on. The captain will want to know."
"I'm sorry, he's in a meeting right now." The phone on her desk buzzed. She cocked one eyebrow and picked up the receiver. "Yes, sir."
She listened intently for several seconds the puzzlement spreading on her narrow features. "Yes, sir, right away."
After setting the receiver back in the cradle she looked at Jazz. "The captain will see you. Please go in."
Jazz nodded and after opening the inner door to his CO's office froze with his jaw hanging open. He discovered whom the captain was meeting with. The 212th's commanding officer, Colonel Gillis and a three star general Jazz didn't recognize sat in the two chairs in front of the captain's desk. Their serious eyes were focused on him.
Jazz came to attention and raised is right arm in salute. "Sirs."
"At ease, sergeant," said the colonel. "Please come in and close the door behind you."
"Huh, yes, sir." Jazz did as instructed and now stood staring at the three officers thoroughly confused why such senior officers were involved.
The general shifted his attention to the captain. "You are dismissed, captain."
"Sir?" said Captain Norton confusion evident in his tone.
At least I'm not alone.
The captain stood up from behind his desk and left the office, but not before giving Jazz a dirty look.
The colonel waved one hand at the now empty chair behind the desk. "Sit. Please."
"Huh, yes, sir." After he was seated Jazz couldn't contain himself any longer. "Excuse me for asking, sirs, but what's going on?"
The general and the colonel exchanged a glance then the colonel locked eyes with Jazz. "You are the best investigative Sergeant in the division, Stiletto, but what you've stumbled on is a minefield. In order to save your career I will take over the case personally."
A creeping knot of anger boiled from deep inside Jazz as he considered the implications of what his CO was telling him. Dupont wasn't a witness. He killed Mary Higginbottom by bashing in her skull with an ashtray.
"Sir, if I may ask, what’s going to happen to Lieutenant Dupont?"
The general cleared his throat. "Don't be concerned with matters above your rank, Sergeant. The army will take care of Dupont."
The colonel and the general stood in unison. The meeting was over. Jazz scrambled to his feet and stood at attention. The two senior officers left the office without another word.
Jazz slumped down in the captain's chair and considered what had just happened. It smelled like cover up. The worst-case scenario had happened. Was there anything he could do about it without being shipped to Leavenworth?
* * *
Two days later Jazz received his orders. He and the rest of the 212th were being sent to Korea. Billings had managed to ferret out information Dupont had been shipped out with General Mostly as part of his staff. The deployment report had even used a false name for Dupont, but the old hound dog in Billings made the private dig further until he discovered the error. Jazz approved of the private's tenacity. He would make a fine investigator one day.
Pete Ross called back and said the fingerprint evidence had been logged in but had been misplaced. Jazz knew from the tone in Pete's voice his old friend had been compromised. Al Tompkins, after serving in the Hollywood Division for twenty years, had been reassigned to Glendale and his notebook had been confiscated. Not surprisingly he didn't return Jazz's calls.
Old Mrs. Peel left town under mysterious circumstances. Her sister called Jazz and asked if she said anything about leaving. Someone was closing all the loopholes, permanently.
Before he departed for the war zone Jazz made the decision to find Dupont in Korea and take care of him. In Jazz's world no one escaped the consequences of their actions.
A young woman had her life and dreams of stardom cut short by a vicious killer. Jazz Stiletto would be the instrument of justice to avenge her death. Miles Dupont would pay for his crime.
International selling author, Russ Crossley, writes romance under the name R.G. Hart, mystery/suspense under the name R.G. Crossley, and science fiction and fantasy under his own.
This year there will be re-issues the romantic comedies, MY ZOMBIE PRINCE and ANTIQUE VIRGIN by 53rd Street Publishing, paranormal romantic comedy, ZOMOPOLIS, and a new western romance entitled, THE FIRE IN THEIR HEARTS co-authored with R.S. Meger will be published in 2014. Also, look for another Aloha adventure, BLOODY BETTY QUEEN OF THE PIRATES, published in 2013.
His latest science fiction satire set in the far future, REVENGE OF THE LUSHITES, is a sequel to ATTACK OF THE LUSHITES released in 2011. The latest title in the series was released in the fall of 2013. Both titles are available in e-book and trade paperback.
He has sold several short stories that have appeared in anthologies from various publishers including; WMG Publishing, Pocket Books, and St. Martins Press.
He is a member of SF Canada and is past president of the Greater Vancouver Chapter of Romance Writers of America. He is also an alumni of the Oregon Coast Professional Fiction Writers Master Class taught by award winning author/editors, Kristine Katherine Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith.
Feel free to contact him on Facebook or Twitter or http://www.russcrossley.com. He loves to hear from readers.
His short story "Boomerang" was published on the omdb! website in July, 2010.
Copyright © 2014 R. G. Crossley. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!