I was admiring the view from my second story window when the screaming started.
Below me, sunburned tourists, plastic champagne glasses clutched in their hands, ambled along the sidewalk while in front of the Western Heart Gallery a Mariachi band swung into a Mex-Rock version of “Mi Rancho Grande.” Across the street, in flagrant cultural competition, two African tribal dancers made eight feet tall by stilts bebopped to the accompaniment of conga drums.
A typical Thursday evening in Arizona.
Typical, that is, if you lived in Old Town Scottsdale in July, when the Summer Spectacular Art Walk was in full swing and thousands of tourists from Maine, Minnesota, and Vancouver hoofed their way through the scores of art galleries that lined Old Town’s streets. They drank, they grazed, they bought. Even though I’d been taught the difference between good art and bad, the cynical part of me loved watching the tourists get fleeced. Arizona could use the additional sales tax, and if the tourists had more money than taste, hey, that was their problem. For free entertainment, you couldn’t beat the show. I tapped my foot in time to the congas and was getting ready to take another sip of Diet Coke when I heard a woman scream.
“Ooooaaaahiiiiieee, sheeee’s d-d-ddeeeadddd!” The screams were coming from the Western Heart.
Talk about stopping the party.
Once a cop, always a cop, so I didn’t waste time on puzzlement. Adrenalin spiking, I snatched my snub-nosed .38 from my carryall and thundered down the stairs, taking them two at a time, ignoring the fact that I hadn’t been a cop in eight months. When I hit the landing, though, I remembered why I wasn’t a cop anymore. The bullet fragments lodged in my hip hurt like hell. “Deeeaaaad!” the woman still keened, and as I reached the street, gun waving, the tourists scattered.
“What’s going on?” I yelled to no one in particular. Had something happened to my friend Clarice Kobe, owner of the Western Heart?
The screaming woman picked that moment to emerge from the gallery. She was plump, in her fifties, her manicured hands and bone-colored linen dress smeared with blood.
“She’s dead!” the woman sobbed. “Dead!” Then she pitched forward onto the hot cement, shredding her sheer pastel nylons and bloodying herself even further.
As a bald, pot-bellied man stooped down and wrapped his beefy arms around her, I spotted a cellular phone dangling from his Gucci belt.
“Call 911!” I snapped, then, holding my .38 high in the air, sidled past the two and into the gallery.
Not wanting to take another bullet from the armed-and-desperate, I ducked behind a table-top fountain shaped like a pregnant dolphin. The acrid scent emanating from it hinted that it flowed with wine, not water, but this was no time for a wine tasting.
I lifted my head and shouted down into the gallery’s long, narrow length, “Drop your weapon and come out with your hands up!” My voice echoed back at me over the sound of trickling wine. All else was silence. No tell-tale rustlings. No ragged breathing, other than my own.
Cautiously, I raised myself up until I could peek around the dolphin’s fat belly. Track lighting illuminated row after row of paintings of doe-eyed Indian maidens and craggy-faced cowboys, the usual over-priced Western clichés Clarice’s gallery was infamous for. Only one painting appeared remotely original, but not because of any talent on the artist’s part. Jay Kobe, Clarice’s estranged husband, had never displayed originality in his entire life, so why did this particular canvas project such impromptu energy? I squinted at it. Surrounded by a gilt frame more fitting for an Impressionist master than a contemporary hack, a solitary white horse stood on the edge of a cliff, the wind fluffing out its mane and tail until they blended into the overripe cumulus clouds behind it. Jay’s horse was no scraggly, range-roving mustang. Instead, it looked like someone’s pampered horse-show-circuit Arabian—with one peculiar difference.
The horse sported red spots all over its body, spots of crimson so bright even the hokiest hack would avoid them. The spots began at its withers, oozed down the shoulder to the leg and from there, onto the gray granite cliff edge. In a marvelous feat of trompe d’oeil, the spots then spilled out over the frame’s edge and trickled down the buff-colored wall.
I lowered my eyes to the floor beneath the painting, knowing what I would find there.
“Oh, shit,” I muttered when I saw her.
It was Clarice, all right, and as the woman outside had so loudly proclaimed, she was indeed dead. No one could possibly live with an eye bulging from its socket like that, or with a nose battered into mush, or with a neck twisted at such an ungainly angle.
Goddamn you, Jay! I cursed under my breath.
But before I could go hunting for Clarice’s abusive husband, I had to first make absolutely sure. I lowered my gun and crept up to her body, careful to touch nothing but the artery at her neck. No pulse. Although her body was still warm, her skin looked waxy and her fingernails were pale. No rigor, though, so I estimated that she had probably been dead anywhere from two to five hours. Now I could smell the other signs of death, the released contents of the lower intestine, the emptied bladder. Poor Clarice. She had always been so fastidious.
I swallowed the bile that rose in my throat and took a last look around. The killer had been careless. Two bloody footprints led away from Clarice’s body and out the blood-smeared back door to the alley. Both the footprints and the blood on the door appeared dry.
I looked back at the front door, which had been standing open ever since the poor tourist from wherever had walked in. Something wrong about that. I pressed my lips together and thought. What? Then I got it. The front door, as well as the back, should have been locked. On Art Walk nights, Clarice always locked both doors at five o’clock, then she and the hired help readied the gallery for the big party. They poured champagne in the fountain, set out canapés, and did all the little things necessary to keep customers inside and spending. She didn’t unlock the door again until seven sharp.
Then who had opened the door this evening? Surely not the killer. He would be more concerned with getting his ass out of there than keeping the tourist traffic flowing.
But that was a problem for Scottsdale’s Violent Crimes Unit, not me.
My police training standing me in good stead, I backed out of the gallery the same way I entered, not disturbing the crime scene any more than necessary. As the smell of hot concrete began to replace the scent of death, I heard sirens wailing towards me.
In a little while, I’d be able to grieve for my friend, but now I had to tell the police what I knew. At least I wouldn’t have to talk to Jay, wouldn’t have to look at his vicious face until we got to the courtroom, wouldn’t have to slog through the reams of paperwork that were a homicide cop’s lot. Thanks to the felon who’d shot me eight months earlier, I didn’t have worry about any of those things.
At least, that’s what I thought at the time.