This week’s Crime Fiction Friday is an original from MysteryPeople favorite Billy Kring. We hope you’ll enjoy the sly humor and fast-paced action of “The Hanging Judge,” all set here in this fair city. You can find copies of Kring’s crime novels on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.
The Hanging Judge
By Billy Kring
The bats under Austin’s South Congress Street Bridge swirled upward in a brown-furred, leather-winged cyclone because of the body hanging in their nesting area.
Below the bridge six kayakers floated on Town Lake. They displayed signs saying, No Hanging Around This Area, and Pretty Fly For A White Guy, and John Holmes Wishes He Was This Hung, upholding the unofficial city motto: Keep Austin Weird. One kayak with an albino couple dressed in black turtlenecks and white Andy Warhol hair shouted an angry mantra of, “Bats have rights, too!”
Homicide Detective Joe Hardin stooped under the yellow tape, went to the edge of the bridge, and leaned over the rail into the vortex of winged mammals as he studied the rope from the knot on the bridge rail to the suited body dangling below. He snapped photos with his iPhone as bats shot toward his head like small brown jets.
Walkers and cyclists on the bridge approached the scene until a look from Hardin nudged them on down the road. A shirtless jogger with a P90X body and major attitude bent low to come under the crime scene tape. Joe opened his jacket to show the shield on his belt, “This is a crime scene, Ace.” He glanced beyond the man and saw his Homicide partner, Detective David Ornelas walking to the scene.
P90X thought about pushing it, then looked in Joe’s eyes. He shot Joe the finger as he trotted away saying, “This is America, not Nazi Germany!”
David ducked under the tape and said as he passed the angry man, “Don’t get your lederhosen in a bunch.”
Joe said, “Glad you could make it.”
“Got any gum this morning?” Joe gave him the flat pack of Eclipse gum he habitually carried. “Who do we have?”
“Judge Matthew Rodgers.”
David thumb-pushed three pieces of gum out of their pockets and returned the pack to Joe. One piece of gum remained.
“Why didn’t you just take all of them?”
David waved his hand in front of his mouth as if moving away dragon breath, “Lethal halitosis this morning. I’m saving your life here.” David looked over the edge. “Who called it in?”
“A jogger, Conrad Gonzales. He was out running and it was foggy. Said he was forty yards away–his estimate, when a dark shape disappeared over the railing. He said he heard the rope go taut so he hurried to the spot and saw the rope and the body.”
“So it’s a suicide.”
“If what he saw is what happened.”
David peered over the edge again, “And if he didn’t do it himself.”
“My, aren’t we cynical this morning. But yeah, he was big enough to do it. Like an NFL linebacker.”
David chewed the gum as he pulled on a pair of latex gloves, “Wanna pull him up?”
They placed the body face-up on the sidewalk, leaving the rope on his neck as they began a careful observation of the victim, taking photos and notes as they progressed. David removed the wallet.
“Look here, a black Amex card, fourteen one-hundred dollar bills, five pictures of himself, and one picture of his wife. Man, she is smokin’.” Joe narrowed his eyes at David. “What? She is. I’m just saying.”
“Rope abrasions around his neck but no lividity in his extremities. Hey, the TV stars are here.”
The Crime Scene Investigators stopped their van on the road. A tall woman stepped out of the passenger side and said, “I never remember which one is Starsky and which one is Hutch.”
David said, “I’m Starsky, see, no thinning hair.”
Joe said, “He’s all yours. We’ve kept everyone away from the guardrail where the rope’s tied.”
“We’ll dust it. See you at autopsy.”
Joe said, “We still need to talk to some of these gawkers, and the wife, but we’ll be there.”
The Rodgers home was in an exclusive downtown area not far from the bridge.
They stopped in the circular driveway of the sprawling Contemporary home on an acre of tree-covered, manicured property. “Man, it must be nice,” David said.
Joe pointed at the security cameras and motion-sensor lights around the perimeter. “That’s good equipment.”
David nodded, “More than I make in a year.”
They walked to the front door and David rang the bell.
The man who opened it was a young, lean, six-foot-seven blond named Benjamin Crawford who was drying his hair with a towel. He said Mrs. Shiobain Rodgers was at PowerBodies, the gym downtown.
David asked, “Did you see either Mr. or Mrs. Rodgers this morning?”
Benjamin said, “They’re separated, so only Mrs. Rodgers lives here. She left the house before I started.”
“How long have you worked for them?”
“Any idea why they separated?”
“Did Mr. Rodgers still frequent the premises?”
“Yes. Do you want me to have him call you?”
Joe changed the subject and said, “Did you play basketball?”
Benjamin smiled, “Nah, I was that cliché, you know, White Men Can’t Jump.”
“You look like an athlete.”
“How’d you wind up as a butler?”
“I knew Shiobian from school, so lucked into it.” They thanked Benjamin and returned to the sedan.
Joe headed downtown again, “That gym’s not far from the bridge.”
David said, “Kind of odd, her being down there at the same time her husband’s doing the Howdy Doody off South Congress.”
“She could be innocent.”
“She could be guilty, too.”
PowerBodies smelled of sweat and peppermint air freshener. Shiobain Rodgers stood near the heavy punching bags. Tall, tanned, and built like a gymnast, her strawberry blonde hair hung in a ponytail and even at this distance Joe could see her eyes were a deep jade.
“Wow,” David said.
She talked with three very fit men as she worked the heavy bag with Krav Maga strikes and kicks.
David pointed, “Isn’t that the smartass on the bridge?”
P90X now wore a black tee with cut-off sleeves and KRAV MAGA MASTER BLASTER in red letters across the chest. He stopped Shiobain and used his hands on her waist and hips to show her a change in stance. His hands lingered.
Joe stepped in front of Shiobain and showed his badge. “Mrs. Rodgers, I’m Detective Joe Hardin. I need to talk to you in private.”
P90X puffed up, “You can’t come in here and interrupt our workout.”
Joe said to the woman, “It’s about your husband.”
Shiobain said, “We can use the gym office.” She led the way. Inside, she said, “What did Matt do now?”
“I’m afraid he’s dead, Mrs. Rodgers.”
“He was discovered this morning hanging from the South Congress Bridge.” Joe always hated this. Shiobain seemed to shrink as reality crushed her. Tears started and she placed her head on his chest.
Joe felt awkward, but put his arms around her, patting her back, “I’m sorry.” Shiobain wept but made no sounds. Joe looked out the office window and saw everyone watching them. He patted her again as he pulled away. “Can someone drive you home?”
“I can do it.”
“I still need to ask you a few questions.”
“When did you last see your husband?”
“Last night about ten. We’re…we were separated.”
She looked directly into his eyes, “He was cruel.”
“Was he physically abusive?”
“No, he used words.”
Joe nodded, “Where was he living?”
“His private office on fifth.”
“Has he been depressed recently?”
She peered at him, “Did he commit suicide?”
“We’re trying to determine what happened. It may be suicide; it may not. We want to be thorough.”
Shiobain nodded, “No, I don’t believe he’s been depressed. I’d have noticed.”
“Did he have any enemies?”
“His nickname was Maximum Matt. He received death threats every month. Everyone from tree huggers to Ponzi scheme executives to hired killers hated him. Gang members that he sentenced, they have his face with a bullet hole in his forehead tattooed on their arms. So, yes, he had enemies.”
He put his hand on her shoulder, “I’m sorry for your loss.”
She rested her hand on his and looked into his eyes. The impact of her touch and that green-eyed gaze sent a sudden heat through him. She said, “Thank you.”
Joe removed his hand, “I may need to ask more questions later.”
Her fingers touched his chest as she wiped the dark places where her tears stained the blue shirt, “Whatever you need. Now if you don’t mind, I’ll be going home.”
The sun rested like a red ball on the western horizon by the time Joe and David reached the morgue. David said, “I thought you and Shiobain were going to start making out right there in the gym office. Another ten seconds and there would have been tongue action, I’m telling you.”
“I told her that her husband was dead. I was consoling her. It wasn’t a date.”
“Uh-huh. Women do funny things when they realize they just inherited twenty million dollars.”
Joe raised his eyebrows, “That much. No other heirs?”
“Something to think about.”
“We’ve seen murder committed for a lot less.”
The Medical Examiner, Doctor Jessica Bybee, motioned them to the body, “Judge Rodgers was hanged.”
David said, “At least you didn’t say he was hung.”
“His neck was broken.”
“His neck was broken before he was hanged.”
“You’re a tease, aren’t you?”
“Yes I am,” she smiled.
Joe said, “Any guess on the weapon?”
“From the bruising, it appears to be a fist. One blow to the left side of the neck.”
Joe said, “One punch?”
“Yes. The hanging was to conceal the real cause of death.”
“I also took this out of his throat.” She gave them a glassine evidence envelope with a piece of paper in it. Random clipped letters from magazines were glued to the page: YOUR DAY OF RECKONING IS HERE.
She said, “That should keep you two party boys busy.”
“Crap,” David said. Jessica grinned and waved them out of the morgue.
As they left, David said, “Mr. Krav Maga stands out, doesn’t he?”
“We’ll talk to him tomorrow. For now let’s get to the office and process what we’ve got.”
At the station, David downloaded the photos from his iPhone to his computer: Bats caught in mid-flight, kayakers grinning and holding signs. The Judge looked surreal, like a Hollywood prop.
David said, I’ll talk to the kayakers first thing in the morning.”
“I’ll research our Judge and ID everyone he sentenced in the last few years, see if something rings a bell.”
Joe raised an eyebrow.
David said, “I’ve been watching a two-part special on the sixties. Last night was about the psychedelic scene and sixties catch phrases. So I’m feeling all mellow yellow, if you know what I mean.”
“Well groove yourself on home and I’ll see you tomorrow.” Joe finished ten minutes later and drove to his apartment where he ate cold pizza and drank Jack Daniels on the rocks and thought about Shiobain. He’d need to see her again, and he wasn’t kidding himself, because it wasn’t all about the murder.
David checked out a black Mustang GT 500 from the car pool, the prize they’d seized in a narcotics bust and put in service, and was at the kayak launch area on Town Lake an hour before sunrise. The people who held up signs the day before were drinking beer. David said, “Isn’t it a little early?”
One of the men was sandy-haired. He said, “We just got off work, so for us it’s five o’clock.”
David said, “I can buy that. I need to ask a few questions about yesterday.”
They introduced themselves. Gene was the sandy-haired one, and the others were Mark, Jayson, Allen, Bill, Carlos, Jim, and Quint. They worked nights for a security company guarding buildings downtown and started the kayaking as a way to wind down after work.
David said, “Did you see the victim go off the bridge?”
Mark said, “Nah, it was foggy. When we saw him, he was already swinging.”
“You didn’t see anybody else on the bridge with him?”
Quint said, “There was a guy in the water swimming. That’s all we saw when we got there.”
“Where did he come from?”
“Probably from the south shore and swimming to the north shore. It’s only three hundred yards across the lake right there. The dude had a nice crawl stroke.”
Gene said, “A little later we saw a big guy on the bridge pull out his phone and make a call. We figured 911, so we made up some signs.”
“Yeah, what’s with that?”
“To lift the mood. Death’s such a downer, you know?”
“What about the other two people who were there with you yesterday, the white haired ones?”
Mark pointed behind him, “Those two?”
David turned and saw the albinos, dressed exactly as yesterday.
They were Magda and Leander Smiles, brother and sister, and prominent activists for the Mexican free-tailed bats living in Austin. Both grew visibly agitated as they talked about the bats being disturbed. Magda said, “That man was causing all the mothers’ milk to curdle.”
“I don’t think he did it intentionally.”
“Of course not, but the results on the poor bats was the same, wasn’t it?”
David said, “I’ll put that in my report.”
Before he could leave, Leander said, “You know that one of our brothers gave all for this cause.”
David frowned, “From the country song, ‘All Gave Some and Some Gave All’?”
“Of course,” Leander said. David had the mental image of a mullet-haired Billy Ray Cyrus gyrating and singing the song of the same title. Leander said, almost quivering, “It’s no laughing matter. Bats have rights. Rights, mister!”
“I understand Bruce Wayne feels the same way.”
David finished and as he left, Gene called to him, “Want a beer?” David waved a No at him, driving away laughing, “Jesus Christ.”
It didn’t take Joe long while going through the case files to see Matthew Rodgers deserved his nickname: Maximum for first offense marijuana possession, Maximum for panhandling, first offense, Maximum for jaywalking, Maximum for manslaughter, Maximum for cocaine possession, Maximum for DWI, Maximum for defacing public property, Maximum for Public Intoxication. It went on and on.
Then, two years ago it changed. For one day, April second. Probation plus time served for Assault. Another one: probation for Solicitation, and a third, probation for Theft over fifty dollars. Probation or time served, or Case Dismissed for every case that day. Joe wondered what that was about. He knew one thing: it was as good an excuse as any to visit Shiobain.
Benjamin opened the door, “Hello, Detective Hardin.”
“Is Shiobain at home?”
Benjamin opened the door wider, “In the back yard.”
She wore loose fitting gray sweatpants and a sleeveless white tee shirt cut off at the midriff. The woman worked hard on the heavy bag. He stepped out of the house just as Shiobain shot a whistling right high into the bag that made it rock crazily on the rope.
Joe thought about the cause of death. He said, “That was some punch.”
Shiobain wiped the sweat from her forehead, “It seems to help.”
“I assume you have more questions for me.”
“Did April second have any significance for Judge Rodgers?”
“Not that I know of. Why?”
“I was going through his sentencing records, and two years ago he changed his normal practice. But only for that day, the second.”
“He gave probation to everyone sentenced.”
Shiobain’s eyebrows went up. “Huh.”
“I’m assuming it had to do with the date.”
“I can’t imagine what.”
“Maybe something in his private office?”
“I’ve never been in there, but I can give you a key.”
“Thanks.” She got the key and put it in his hand. Her hand lingered. Joe said, “If you need me for anything…”
She put a hand on Joe’s forearm, “We weren’t in love anymore, hadn’t been for a couple of years. He said it was too much trouble to get a divorce, so we separated sixteen months ago. I wanted you to know.”
Joe smiled stiffly and left.
The judge’s private office on Fifth Street was an I-Love-Me room, filled with pictures of Rodgers with politicians and celebrities hanging on the walls. The only thing that seemed odd was a burnt-orange head and shoulder clay sculpture of Texas Football legend Earl Campbell in his shoulder pads and jersey. The sculpture rested on a large pedestal in the corner of the room as if allowing the Heisman Trophy winner a view of the entire office. Joe said, “Safe to say the Judge wasn’t an Aggie.”
On the wall behind the desk were citations and awards, all proclaiming Judge Matthew Rodgers as an outstanding individual and patriot.
Joe checked the desk first, and in the center drawer, far in the back he found a note. The glued letters read: DEATH IS COMING. Joe photographed it, and put it in an evidence bag. He opened the file cabinets and finger-walked through the numbered tags to April second.
Nothing. He looked around the office and thought of where else to check. His phone rang. It was David.
David said, “I’m batting zero.”
“I found another note in the Judge’s office. It may be the first one.”
“Want me to give you a hand?”
“Let’s pay the Krav Maga boys a visit.”
Joe leaned against his car in the gym lot as David slid the black Mustang in the adjoining space. Joe shook his head.
David said, “Okay, okay, it’s Steve McQueen Week on TCM.”
“I’m jealous because you beat me to it.” They followed two slender women into the gym and saw the three men near the heavy bag.
P90X and his two muscular friends sparred two-on-one, with P90X being the one. They went hard at each other with fists, elbows, knees and feet, and the only thing preventing real injury were the gloves and pads they wore. The two muscular men were good, but P90X was much better. His strikes and kicks flashed out and their power seemed ferocious, knocking the other two down or staggering them backward.
When they paused for a breather, Joe and David approached.
P90X said, “Don’t you pigs have anything better to do?”
Joe said, “I need to see some identification from each of you.”
P90X barked a laugh, “Does it look like we’re carrying ID in these clothes?”
“You can get it or you can go downtown and cool your heels in lockup while we run full background checks. Your choice.”
The two friends walked to the locker room, but P90X waited a full three seconds before following.
David said, “I guess that showed us, huh.” They returned and P90X gave his driver’s license to David, who read it, did a slow blink, then said, “Aramis D’artagnon Hensley.”
“What of it?”
“Nothing, just an…unusual name, you know, for this part of Texas.”
“I was born here in Austin.”
“I guess it’s not that unusual after all.”
Aramis defused a little, “My parents went to UT and both studied French Literature. They loved Alexandre Dumas.”
“Works for me,” David said.
Joe asked the taller of the other two, the one who looked like the actor Chris Hemsworth, “And yours?” The man handed Joe his license. Joe read it, “Manhard Struucker.” David coughed.
Manhard had a strong Texas accent, “They’s an umlaut over the first u. Texas don’t show them thangs on the license.”
“This Austin address current?”
“Where’d you grow up, Manhard?”
“Born in Fredericksburg. I moved here ‘bout ten year ago.”
The third man handed Joe his license and introduced himself, “I’m Helmut, Helmut Struuker.” Helmut indicated Manhard with his head, “We’s cousins.”
David said, “Are all three of you Krav Maga instructors?” They nodded yes. “Which one’s the best?”
Manhard and Helmut pointed at Aramis.
“Good, we can start questions with you, Aramis.”
Aramis handed Joe a card and said, “Contact my attorney. We’re not saying another word to you. Come on, fellas.” They walked to the heavy bag and Aramis slammed a punch so hard on the bag that the canvas strips holding the bag ripped and the bag flopped to the floor. Aramis glared at the detectives.
David said, “I believe that’s hard enough.”
At the station, they ran backgrounds on all three men. Manhard and Helmut had minor traffic violations, but Aramis had eight arrests and two convictions for assault, plus a string of other minor violations. David said, “A shrink would say he has anger issues.”
Joe’s cell phone rang. It was Shiobain, and her voice quivered, “I received a note in the mail. It says, ‘You’re next.’”
Joe flipped his phone to Speaker so David could hear, “When did you get it?”
“Get Benjamin to sit with you until I get there.”
“Did you check your security cameras?”
“Benjamin did. He said the only person near it was the Postman.”
“I’m coming.” Joe hung up and turned to David, “Can you stay on Aramis?”
David smiled, “Like an East Texas tick.”
Joe and Shiobain sat on a couch in the master bedroom while he examined the note. It was like the others: Block letters cut from magazines and glued to a blank sheet of paper. He didn’t hold out any hope for fingerprints.
Joe said, “Was Aramis here today?”
Shiobain said, “No. Aramis has a temper, but he’s never acted badly around me.”
“How about around the Judge?”
She tightened her lips, “They didn’t like each other.”
“Any idea why?”
She looked at her hands, then at Joe, “Me. Matt was a jealous man.”
“Did he have reason to be?”
“You and Aramis looked cozy when I saw you at the gym.”
“I like the attention, I flirt a little. That doesn’t mean I was unfaithful. Why are you so focused on Aramis?”
“He fits. And he’s what we’ve got so far.”
“What about all the threats?”
“Everything we’ve checked has been a zero.”
“We keep digging.”
Shiobain put her hand on Joe’s knee and he felt his heart thump in his chest. She bowed her head, almost shy, “You don’t have to start right now. I’m really scared, Joe.” Shiobain’s head was close and when she raised her eyes to his, Joe’s will dissolved. She said, “Will you hold me?”
Aramis left the PowerBodies parking lot in a gold Camaro. David spotted him as soon as he pulled on the street. He kept three cars between them at first, then two, then four.
Aramis drove to the county jail, parked illegally and went inside. David called the jail, identified himself, and talked to a Sergeant Wilson, “There’s a guy just came in, his name is Aramis D’artagnon Hensley.”
Wilson snorted, “I know him. He’s at sign-in right now. Here every week like clockwork to visit his buddy.”
“What’s his buddy’s name?”
“Christopher Corman. Goes by Chris.”
“Can you pull Corman’s file? And I’ll want to talk to him. It may be an hour or two; I want to see where Aramis goes when he leaves the jail.”
“It’ll be waiting on you.”
Aramis drove away thirty minutes later and David fell in behind like before. Aramis drove to PowerBodies again and went inside, then to the office. He took out a bottle of scotch and a jelly glass and poured it full, no ice. David said to himself, “He’ll be there a while,” and drove to the jail.
Chris Corman wore wire-rimmed eyeglasses with round lenses, the kind that reminded David of John Lennon.
David said, “I read through your file.”
“Three years for selling anabolic steroids.”
Chris said, “I didn’t sell anything. I gave one guy three pills. I’d never even had a parking ticket before that. So I got twelve months to serve-no parole for each pill. Maximum Matt’s version of justice.”
“Your business partner seems to have some anger problems.”
“Our business was served foreclosure papers today. I’m angry, too.”
“Business hasn’t been good?”
“We were holding our own until the Judge sent a letter to our bank.”
“I’m not following.”
“The Judge hates Aramis. Thinks he’s trying to screw Shiobain. You know Shiobain?”
“Rodgers wrote a letter to the bank and told them that Aramis and I were drug dealers and a terrible financial risk.”
“He called Aramis a drug dealer?”
“He inferred it. He wrote that Aramis was an abuser of women and a person of immoral character.”
“If your payments were on time…”
“We were two months behind, first time in eight years. But the Judge keeps his money in the same bank and he’s on the board of directors.”
“So they dropped the paper on you.”
“Detective Ornelas, Listerine is harsh. He wanted to destroy our lives.”
“Did Aramis murder the Judge?”
Chris looked at David a long second, “It’s time I got back to my cell. Tonight is swill night.”
Joe held Shiobain close for a long time. Shiobain pulled apart first with a small smile, “Thanks.”
They sat in silence. Joe said, “How did you and the Judge meet?”
“About seven years ago I took a photo of a guy spray painting protests on the State Capitol steps. I testified in Matt’s court about it, and we talked after that. You know the rest.”
Joe said, “I have to get going.” He touched her shoulder, “I’ll be calling you.”
As Joe walked through the living room and glanced out the window, he saw Benjamin washing a red Jeep Cherokee under the carport by the guesthouse. He was shirtless, and the long muscles in his back stretched and bunched as he worked the sponge on the hood. Joe went into the yard.
Benjamin said, “Grab a sponge.”
“I’ll pass. I wanted to ask you, do you take care of the Judge’s downtown office?”
Benjamin stopped washing, “Yeah, like once a week.”
“I found a note in his drawer. A note like the one Shiobain got today. Do you know when he might have received it?”
“It was in the back of his middle desk drawer.”
“I never messed with his desk.”
“Detective, I don’t know if it matters, but I’ve seen Aramis here at the house several times when he wasn’t invited.”
“In the house?”
“I never caught him inside, but I’ve seen him in the back yard, at the rear door and at the side of the house, kind of in the shrubs. I never saw him doing anything, but he was there all the same. It creeped me out, you know?”
“I’ll follow up on it. Keep a close eye on Shiobain.”
Joe called David, “Aramis has been snooping around the Rodgers house.”
“Stalking or planning a murder?”
“Maybe a little of both.”
“I think I’ll go stir him up, see what he does.”
“Don’t shoot him.”
David entered the gym and waved at Aramis, who shot him the finger and took another drink. David opened the office door, came in and sat down.
“Get out of here, cop.”
“Are you a stalker?”
“A stalker, some creep with an obsessive interest in another person and who sneaks around spying on them.”
He stood up, his face flushing, “I’m no stalker. Tell me who said that.”
“I heard you’ve been hanging around the Rodgers house at odd hours.”
“Did Shiobain say I was bothering her?”
“The information came from an anonymous source.”
Aramis nodded, “Uh huh.”
David rose and said, “Have a nice day.”
What bothered Joe was that he hadn’t seen any security systems at the office on fifth. It didn’t make sense. He drove down Fifth and turned into the office driveway.
It was Earl Campbell’s orange right eye that finally drew his attention. The camera hidden inside the bust was wireless, and it took Joe another twenty minutes to find the laptop receiver hidden in a false bottom cabinet drawer beside the bed.
He sat on the bed and reviewed the videos. The camera was motion-activated, and most of it was only the Judge, but occasionally Benjamin was in the office. A week before the murder, Benjamin placed mail on the desk before leaving. Later the same day the Judge went through the mail and opened an envelope and there was the note. Rodgers read it, read it again, then folded it and put it deep in the middle drawer. He walked to the first file cabinet and took something out of one of the files in the top drawer. Joe thought it was a newspaper clipping and a letter or note. The Judge touched the papers and held them for several minutes, then put them back and closed the file drawer. He took out a bottle of whiskey and a glass from a bottom desk drawer, poured three fingers and slammed them back. He did it again before leaving.
Joe found two photos and a letter where the Judge put them. The photos were identical and had been taken at night under the glow of streetlamps. They showed a young man crouched on some steps, spray-painting. He wore a school letter jacket that Joe recognized as Austin High. The number 22 was sewn on the shoulder, with a football under it imprinted with the year 2005. The spray painted message was visible: STOP POISONING THE BATS.
Joe figured this was the photo Shiobain had taken. He unfolded the letter and read it.
You destroyed my life. I lost my wife, my friends, my job. You could have shown mercy, but instead sentenced me to five years in prison. My life is over now and I have two things left to do. One of them is to tell you that I forgive you. I hope that someday you stop hating yourself and show compassion for those who deserve it.
Joe photographed everything and kept one of the photos before putting the items back in the file. An idea came to him and he turned off the lights and left the office.
He called Shiobain and drove to the Rodgers home. They sat on the couch, legs touching. Shiobain called out, “Benjamin, will you bring us two glasses of merlot?”
Benjamin’s voice called back, “Be right there.”
Joe held the photo out to her, “You recognize this?”
“It’s the one I took of the guy painting the State Capitol steps.”
“And he was convicted because of your testimony and this picture.”
“Do you remember how long his sentence was?”
“Five years.” Benjamin walked in with two glasses of wine.
Joe lay the photo on the table, “Do you remember his name?”
“Brian Thomas. He committed suicide about two years ago, if I remember correctly.” Benjamin set the glasses down for them and left.
Joe said, “Yeah, hung himself from the South Congress Bridge.”
Shiobain blew out a puff of air, “So there’s a connection.”
“I don’t believe in coincidence. You watch yourself.” Joe rose to leave.
“Where are you going?”
“I’ve got something to check. It may be what we’re looking for.”
When he was gone, Shiobain saw that he’d left the photo on the table.
Joe called David, “You still tailing Aramis?”
“Yeah, we’re driving around while I watch him have a meltdown. He’s beating on the steering wheel and having arguments with himself and losing both arguments.”
“I’m going to visit Magda and Leander Smiles, I’ve got a few questions about one of their bat loving members.”
“I’m gonna stay with crazy boy. Good grief, he just shot a blind man the finger for crossing the road too slow. Call me if you need me.”
Magda and Leander were outside when Joe pulled in the drive. Joe said, “My partner said you had one of your members die for your cause.”
Magda said, “I don’t know if it was exactly for our cause, but yes, he did die. Two years ago.”
“What was his name?”
“Did he have any relatives?”
Leander said, “A brother, actually, a half-brother. They didn’t have the same last name. He was in Afghanistan at the time of Brian’s demise.”
“Do you remember the brother’s name?”
They looked at each other, shaking their heads.
Joe wrote his number down and handed it to Magda. “If you remember, call me,” he said and left.
David trailed Aramis on his erratic meanderings until the gold Camaro suddenly lined out in a single direction. David knew then that they were going to Shiobain’s house.
Shiobain noticed the photo on the desk was missing, and called for Benjamin, but he didn’t respond. She walked to the guesthouse and knocked. No answer. Opening the door, she called, “Benjamin?” Shiobain walked through the kitchen to the living room, then to the bedroom. Benjamin sat on the bed holding the photo.
“What are you doing?”
“Looking at this photo.”
“It’s not yours.”
“This is the photo that you took, the one that sent Brian Thomas to prison.”
“Is something wrong?”
“Everything’s fine. At least it will be after today.” He handed her a note. She opened it and saw the letters had been cut out of a magazine. It read: YOU DIE TODAY.
Shiobain felt as if cold water trickled down her spine. She said, “You made all of these?” Benjamin smiled. She ran, but Benjamin caught her at the door.
He said, “I was two months shy of coming home, too late to save him.”
Shiobain tried to think, to do anything that would lead to a way out. “Was he a friend?”
“He was my brother.”
David parked a block away as Aramis pulled into the drive. Aramis rang the bell and waited a few seconds before entering. David was too far away to hear if someone had told Aramis to come in, but he had his phone and knew Shiobain had both him and Joe on speed dial, so he waited.
Aramis moved through the house and saw no one was home. He looked out the back and saw the guesthouse door open, so he eased that way. At the door he heard them.
Shiobain said, “Did you kill Matt?”
“Yes. And did anyone notice I did it on April second; the same day my brother hung himself? No, not you, not the police, no one. It was symbolic.”
“Yes. I walked him out on the bridge, killed him and put the noose around his neck. People were coming so I tossed him over and went over after him.”
“And swam to shore.”
“Give the lady a cigar.”
“I’m gonna kill you by hanging you, too.” Shiobain tried to push past him but Benjamin snapped a punch to her temple and she collapsed on the bed unconscious. Benjamin felt a presence behind him.
Aramis stood at the door in a Krav Maga stance. “You’re not taking her anywhere.”
“This why you’ve been hanging around, to protect her?”
“Just know I’m going to tear you to pieces.”
Benjamin smiled, “Bring it.”
David got antsy and went to the house. He rang the bell. No answer. Sticking his head inside, he said, “Shiobain?” David started through the house and happened to look out the back to see the red Cherokee leaving, with Benjamin behind the wheel. It disappeared before David reached the back yard.
He noticed the guesthouse door stood open. David drew his pistol and entered. Aramis lay on the floor, looking like a broken mannequin.
David rushed to his car, pulling at his cell phone as he ran. It rang just as he freed it. Joe said, “It’s Benjamin! Magda called me and told me he’s the brother of Brian Thomas.”
“He killed Aramis and left the house with Shiobain, driving the red Cherokee. I’m about two minutes behind him.”
“Don’t know yet, but I’ll call you.” David floored the Mustang and shot out of there. He checked side streets as he flashed east, hoping to catch a glimpse of red.
He looked right and saw the red Cherokee driving South on Guadalupe. He cut the wheel and pressed the accelerator, skidding around the corner. Benjamin spotted him in the rearview when there were two cars between them. He increased his speed.
David speed-shifted the Mustang and floored it. The GT 500 leapt forward, pushing David deep into the seat. He zipped around a pickup and kept his eyes on the Cherokee as he said, “I wonder if he’s seen Bullitt.”
The two cars raced through traffic, slaloming around cars and barely missing cross-traffic as they sped through red lights. David took his pistol and put it on the seat between his legs for faster access. The Cherokee drifted through an intersection and turned south on Congress, with David right on his tail.
He risked a call, “Joe, we’re on South Congress at eleventh heading toward the bridge.”
Joe said, “One block behind you.”
They passed tenth, ninth, eighth, and were almost to the bridge as David eased forward to bump the Jeep into a spin.
Benjamin cut his wheels to cross the median and drove directly into oncoming traffic. Vehicles honked and skidded and squealed tires, trying to dodge the car speeding at them like a red comet. Several crashed into each other to slide across the lanes of traffic and cause even more collisions.
David worked the brakes and accelerator to stay with Benjamin and almost caught up when the Cherokee sideswiped a brown UPS van and knocked it into an Escalade towing a twenty-four foot Silver Stream trailer. Both vehicles and the trailer flipped on their sides and slid down the street to the bridge in a metallic shower of sparks and smoke.
David slammed on his breaks and the pistol between his legs flew across the seat to ricochet off the dash, disappearing under the passenger seat.
David accelerated towards a closing gap between the van and trailer and made it through as the sliding vehicles ground together behind him to barricade the entire bridge with a wall of metal and smoke. His last glance in the rearview showed Joe on foot, scrambling across the overturned vehicles and racing after them like an Olympic sprinter.
The Jeep stopped on the bridge and Benjamin was out in a flash with the rope. He tied one end to the railing, reached into the car to grab Shiobain’s limp form and pull her across the console onto the walk. He raised her head to slip the rope around her neck as David slid the Mustang to a squealing, smoking stop. He came out of the driver’s side as if shot from a catapult.
Benjamin dropped Shiobain and David hit him flush on the chin with a hard right. Benjamin rolled backward and came up on his feet in a martial arts stance.
David said, “Give up. Every cop in Austin is coming.”
“She has to pay.”
David sighed, “I’m not gonna let you–“
Benjamin crossed the space between them in a blink and hit David three lightning-fast blows to the face. David staggered as Benjamin snatched the end of the rope and flipped loops of it around David’s neck.
David shot his right arm up and protected his throat as the loops tightened, then Benjamin lifted him, and with frightening strength tossed David over the railing.
Joe raced toward them and his heart froze when the rope went taut. He yelled, “No!” and drew his Sig as Benjamin lifted Shiobain’s limp form from the pavement to hold her as a shield.
“Toss the gun over the side or I snap her neck,” Benjamin said. Joe hesitated. Benjamin said, “You toss it, I’ll give you the same chance I gave Aramis.”
Joe tossed the pistol. Benjamin lay Shiobain down and motioned for Joe, “Let’s see what you’ve got.”
Joe charged, but Benjamin took a half-step sideways and hit Joe a stunning blow in the chest. Joe staggered and for an instant thought he’d been struck by lightning. Benjamin threw a right but Joe managed to slip it and kick Benjamin in the stomach, knocking him backward several feet.
The two men punched and grappled and kicked each other, with every blow landing with bone jarring impact. Neither one gave ground.
Below the bridge, David swung back and forth. His breath whistled because of the rope’s constriction and his right arm uselessly pointed up in the air by his head. The bats stirred in the upside-down rests, with thousands of black shiny eyes watching this large, swinging creature so near their home and their babies.
The kayakers floated below David. One of them said, “Bite through the rope and we’ll catch you!”
David swung his legs from the hips, keeping them stiff, and each swing increased the length of his pendulum motion to move him closer and closer to the bats.
Joe drew back to hit him but Benjamin landed a crushing kick to Joe’s ribs, and it was as if a vacuum sucked all the air out of his lungs. Benjamin bulled him backward to the railing until Joe’s head and shoulders hung over the side.
David’s final swing launched him up and into the mass of bats. He kicked his legs and yelled at the top of his lungs.
Bats exploded from under the bridge. Brown squeaking blurs shot upward around Joe’s head like small whirring missiles. Joe jerked his hand up and it made one large bat veer wildly just as Benjamin’s punch started toward Joe’s neck.
The bat crashed into Benjamin’s face and in a panic, it buried its small needle teeth into his cheek as its wings flapped furiously on top of his eyes and mouth.
Benjamin screamed and staggered back, flailing his arms to dislodge the creature. Joe came off the railing with a right uppercut that had his shoulders and hips in it and caught Benjamin on the chin. Benjamin collapsed backwards and landed hard on the pavement. The bat flapped away as Benjamin’s eyes glazed.
Joe flipped him over and cuffed him, then hurried to the rope tied to the railing. David looked up and said in a raspy voice, “I could use a hand here.”
Joe grasped the rope and struggled to raise him. Suddenly there were others there, the albino couple with their white Warhol hair and black turtlenecks, two Hispanic construction workers who couldn’t speak a word of English, and Manhard in his workout gear. They had David up in seconds.
David sat on the walkway, rubbing his throat, “I can’t believe you couldn’t pull me up.”
Joe held one hand on his ribs and said, “You’ve put on some weight.”
“Huh, maybe you need to work out more.” The crowd milled around, congratulating each other as the police units and the ambulance arrived. Shiobain made the paramedics roll her to David and Joe. She put her hand on David’s shoulder, “Thank you.”
“That’s what we do.”
She looked at Joe and said, “Come by when this is all over.” Joe nodded as the paramedics rolled her away.
Benjamin struggled to sit up as the officers surrounded him. Joe said, “You knew this wouldn’t bring back your brother.”
“It was retribution. I almost had it, too. The bitch that started it all.”
Joe said, “Painting graffiti on the capitol steps, that’s what started it. All she did was take a picture while he was doing it.”
Benjamin looked at Joe without blinking for a long moment, then a tear slid down his cheek. “The picture was of me, wearing my brother’s letter jacket. Brian told the police he painted the steps.” Benjamin hung his head. Dropping tears winked like tiny diamonds.
Joe told the uniformed officers, “Take him.”
As they took Benjamin away one of them said, “Gonna take about an hour to open the bridge. Those vehicles are like they’re welded together.”
A small crowd formed and beer appeared. Someone looked over the side of the bridge and said, “Hey, look down here!”
The kayakers held signs: WHO NEEDS BATMAN, WE’VE GOT BAT AND MAN, and OUR DETECTIVES ARE SWINGERS, and BAT JUSTICE-FLYING IN THE FACE OF CRIMINALS!
Two twenty-something kids wearing white tee shirts with BOOKPEOPLE in green letters across the chest gave Joe and David each a white ceramic mug of steaming coffee.
“Look at this,” David pointed at the side of the white cup. Printed in black letters was: Keep Austin Weird.
Joe said, “I love this town.”