By Mary Ann Tirone-Smith
Published by Henry Holt & Company
January 2002; 0-805-06648-9; 320 pages
This was the first call I made. Houston Police Department. Asked them to track down the dispatcher working out of the Thirty-first Precinct seventeen years ago, third shift, on duty from eleven to seven.
Very efficient force down there, cop called me back twenty minutes later.
He said, "Now have I got Agent Penelope Rice of the FBI here?"
"Count yourself fortunate, ma'am. Officer Melvin Hightower dispatcher seventeen years ago Thirty-first Precinct is still dispatchin' still workin' the third shift don't ask me why. He's home asleep till five. Don't need to sleep far as I can tell. Melvin's famous for the amount of rest he gets on the job."
He gave me Melvin's home phone number. I thanked him.
"Always a pleasure helpin' out the feds, ma'am."
At five o'clock Officer Hightower answered his phone on the first ring. He didn't say hello, he said, "FBI?"
So I said, "Officer Hightower?"
Him: "Agent Rice?"
I let it go. "Yes, this is Agent Rice. Sorry to bother you at home."
"Expect it's urgent."
Very urgent. "Yes, it is. I need you to recall the work you did the night Melody Scott and James Munter were killed."
"You and everybody else. That little guttersnipe. . . . Well, her number's just about up, ain't it?"
He wasn't looking for an answer so why bother?
"About to get the big stick. I'll tell ya, it's all been coming back to me like it happened last night, like I got a picture show in my head. I'd be more'n happy to share my recollections with you, Agent, but I do find myself wonderin' what interest the FBI might be havin' at this late date. I mean, when it's too late to change a thing."
'Let's just call it a spot check, Officer. We were involved in the case before it went to trial."
"That so? Never heard that. But who am I? Dispatcher, is all. So here I go: See, that night? I get two calls concern' the crime. From the same guy. 'Course, he was fool enough to try to deepen his voice second time. First voice, regular voice, guy tells me two people got beat up, gives me an address, a motel, and then I get dead air. Couple minutes later he's Mr. Deep Voice and says two people, armed and dangerous, high on illegal drugs, are causin' a fuss and gives me another address, a residence, then more dead air.
"I figure it's just some fool with an ax to grind. . . . Hey, now, I didn't quite mean to say that, did I?"
"I guess you didn't."
"I don't take none of it lightly, Agent."
"Where was I? Oh. I send two cars out, two boys in each, hear from my second car ten minutes later. Officer says, 'Melvin, we got a coupla naked, stoned kids standin' in a bathtub fulla bloody water.' More blood than water, he tells me. Says, 'Aint their blood neither. Some, but most of it came off them, not outa them. And there's a pile a clothes on the bathroom floor saturated with blood.' Says, 'Melvin? A violent crime's been committed real recent, some other location. You keep your ears peeled, hear?'
'Then as I remember he said he wouln't be gettin' much outa the two kids till he brings 'em in. Says, 'Make a real big pot a coffee, Melvin, 'cause I can see I'll be needin' six cups myself. Figure these hopheads'll choose my squad car to puke up all the shit they been takin'.'
"Two kids, Agent, are Rona Leigh Glueck and her boyfriend, Lloyd whatever-his-name-was. Forget. Officers come in, Rona Leigh wrapped in a blanket, and she's laughin' and laughin'. First sensible thing we make outa her is, 'I had me so much fun killin' that bitch I got a pop ever' time the ax chopped her.' Then she goes totally berserk, like a blind dog in a butcher shop, starts carryin' on, screamin' and cryin' and laughin' all at once. Pukes right then. Never puked in the squad car, oh, no, she waits till she gets in fronta my desk. Toss her in the lockup with all the hookers, and they're like to kick the shit outa her 'cause she's still pukin' her brains out. But then they recognize her as one a their own and clean her up. The boyfriend, he never said a damn thing.
"Then the other shoe drops. Two officers I sent to that motel? Here's their story. They knock on a lotta doors, put up with a lotta grief from the other guests, who figure they was bein' arrested and don't know what for. Then they find the right room. The boy's room.
Time to let him come up for air. "James Munter."
"Yeah, Munter, that was it. His room was unlocked. Officers open the door, flip on the light, first thing they can make out? The handle a that ax. Where it wasn't slick with blood said the wood was almost white. The light comin' through the door behind them had lit it up, is what that poor rookie kept sayin' to anyone who would listen. Said the ax handle looked like it had a light bulb in it.
"The blade was embedded in the female victims upper chest. Senior officer says to me, 'You wouldn'ta believed it, Melvin. A drip fell right down on my shoe like suddenly it's rainin' blood.' Ma'am, our two boys look up at this big red splash on the ceilin' and then they step back real quick so's they won't get dripped on further. And then they just go steppin' on back and steppin' on back till they was out the door again. Rookie told me he just slammed it, liked to make it all go away. Ya with me, Agent?"
"Could understand his feeling. Been there, done that, which is why I choose to dispatch. Two boys run to the cruiser and call the precinct for help. Get me. I remember listenin' to both a them talkin' so fast, so crazy, I could smell sulfur. I said to them, 'You boys best calm yourselves right down 'cause I can't make out one word y'all're tryin' to say.' So they did, and I know to quick send out another car, call the man in charge, wake him up, and then, a course, all hell breaks loose. Real soon, you got your newspaper boys, you got your TV lights, you got your rubberneckers, ex cetra. With a homicide word flies fast, never mind what happens when you got a double ax murder, you know what I'm sayin', ma'am?"
"I know." I said to the dispatcher, "Did the officer who found the bodies get the names of the people staying at the motel?"
"No, ma'am. Let's just say those folks had the foresight to check out real fast -- long as you call runnin' out the back door checkin' out."
"What about other people in the neighborhood? Did any witnesses come forward?"
"Ma'am, that neighborhood is so low-down you don't want to know who your neighbor might be, never mind listen to what he has to say. Nobody seen or heard a thing. We figured right away, Forget about witnesses."
"Were you able to trace the calls?"
"From the puppeteer?"
"What the hell is that, FBI talk? Did you say puppeteer?"
"The man who called you twice. Disguised his voice."
"Oh, him. Nope. Nobody saw to tracin' that call."
"I find that impossible to believe."
He chose not to respond.
"Who destroyed your trace?"
"Ma'am, thought you said this was a spot check?"
"Hey, Agent, you're a pisser, you don't mind my sayin'. You want to talk to someone else in the department? That'll be fine. But you take it from this old geezer, who's been around a lot longer than you, it is too late for stirring up shit. She dies in -- what is it? Couple weeks?"
"Ten days? You see? There's no point. Now I got to get movin'. Got plenty to do before I report to work tonight."
Yeah. He had plenty to do. Had to get back on the phone the minute I hung up and report my call to someone. The bastard.Copyright © 2001 Mary-Ann Tirone Smith
Reprinted with permission.
Meet brash FBI investigator Poppy Rice in the first of a winning new series, a tense death-row drama.
Poppy Rice is home in her DC apartment with very little furniture and a stack of boxes she still hasn't unpacked after five years. It's 2 A.M. and she's suffering from her usual insomnia, so she watches a tape of the CBS Evening News. Dan Rather is interviewing convicted ax-murderer Rona Leigh Glueck, who in ten days will be the first woman executed in Texas since the Civil War. Poppy pauses the tape on a close-up of Rona Leigh's delicate, childlike hands.
So maybe it was a lightweight ax.
Poppy digs out Rona Leigh's case file to find -- along with the grisly crime-scene photos -- a physician's testimony that glee, not muscle, gave her the strength to commit the crime. When her public defender asked the crime lab for help determining whether such a frail woman, only seventeen years old, could physically commit these murders, he was turned away for not filing the correct paperwork.
With the reluctant support of her colleague and sometime lover, Joe Barnow, the impetuous and relentless Poppy reopens the investigation to find out if Rona Leigh deserves a certificate that will read: Death by Legal Homicide as Ordered by the State of Texas.
Fearless and irreverent, Poppy Rice is unstoppable. In fact, she's already on to her next case -- Mary-Ann Tirone Smith is currently at work on the second novel in this smart new series.
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Mary-Ann Tirone Smith is the author of five previous novels, including, most recently, An American Killing, which was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book. She has lived all of her life in Connecticut except for the two years she served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon.