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Doing the Devil’s Work

by Bill Loehfelm

Doing the Devil's Work by Bill Loehfelm
“I may be on the side of the angels, but do not think for one second that I am one of them.”
 
–Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock, “The Reichenbach Fall”


Doing the Devil's Work by Bill Loehfelm
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The first bottle exploded twenty feet behind the patrol car. Maureen didn’t even turn around. The next hit ten feet in front of her. She’d expected it, but she started at the impact anyway. The piss inside the bottle sprayed her bumper. She heard yelling and laughter from the people lining the sidewalk. Maureen glanced in her rearview mirror. The men couldn’t help themselves. They were hunched over, leaning on each other and laughing, covering their mouths with the backs of their hands as if that would hide their mirth, as if their mothers were watching while they giggled in church. They raised their eyes to the rooftops, looking for the next missile. For the boys throwing them. She wanted to roll down her window, reach for her spotlight, and shine it along the rooftops. She wanted to drag those punks into the street by their braids and slap them senseless. She left her windows rolled up and kept the car moving forward.

The Saints had won their big Sunday night prime time game. Undefeated into October. If that wasn’t enough to get the streets buzzing, the autumn parade season had started a couple of weeks ago, and a neighborhood second line had rolled nearby earlier in the day. Since before the parade had started, people had been out in the streets of Central City with their barbeque grills and their coolers, their massive car speakers pounding out bass-heavy hip-hop and brass band music. Now it was eleven o-clock at night and things were not only going strong, they were getting unruly. Maureen would’ve preferred to let the party run itself out.

Another bottle hit the street, not as close this time. She was pretty sure they didn’t want to hit her car. They knew that if they did that she’d call for backup. She’d have to. The other units would roll in and break up the party for good. Then the grown-ups, the ones with weed in their pockets, purple drank in their go cups, or guns in their waistbands would be angry. It was all fun and games, Maureen thought, until somebody’s parole got violated. She hit the light bar to send a message. Blue and red lights flashed over the faded gray and yellow house fronts like dance floor lights at a club. She waited for another bottle to hit the street. It didn’t come. Good. As long as everyone on the block was on the same page, she thought, about when enough was enough.

The party wasn’t why she was on Magnolia Street, anyway. The dead body was the reason. She rolled down her window halfway. The music was earsplitting. She could feel the bass notes in her chest. The piss smell wafted into the car, along with a bouquet of marijuana, spilled beer, and cheap charcoal briquettes. The smell of anything good to eat was long gone. Death was dominant, though, over the odors of the block party. Nothing smells quite like a dead body, Maureen thought.

She had picked up the scent as soon as she’d turned onto Magnolia Street, the air conditioner pumping it through the cruiser.

She slowed the patrol car to a crawl. The smell intensified as she moved down the block. She lit a cigarette and hit the cruiser’s spotlight, searching the block in front of her for the source of the smell. She radioed her location to dispatch, telling them she’d arrived on scene, had found nothing specific yet, and asking them to wait for more detail.

She panned the left side of the street with the spot, wishing the anonymous caller had given a more specific location, looking into the dark and narrow alleys between houses and the shallow crawl spaces underneath them. The eyes of feral cats gleamed back at her. The houses on the block were occupied, worn and weary, but kept up and cared for. Most were owned. Some were rented. A few had porch lights lit. Flowerboxes and sun-faded secondhand children’s toys cluttered their scraggly yards. Saints banners and signs hung in the windows. Someone had cut the music on the block. No one was laughing at her now. A group of men had gathered in the street, their matching red T-shirts peeking out from underneath their Saints jerseys, their red ball caps tilted sideways or turned backward. Hostile eyes watched her. Word had traveled about why she was there, she figured. The people on the block had to smell it, too.

Down the far end of the block, beyond the party, the street dead-ended against a sagging chain-link fence, tall weeds growing through it. Overhead, small dark forms moved against the stars, scurrying along the power lines. Rats. Like the cats, like her, they had noses, too. Maureen felt she had the block’s full attention. Every few moments the shrill whir of cicadas cut through the air. Across the empty lot, a couple hundred yards beyond the dead end, glowed the well-lit backyards of the Harmony Oaks subdivision, the new mixed-income development that now sprawled where the brick boxes of the Magnolia projects had once loomed, back before Maureen’s time in New Orleans.

She’d heard stories about the Magnolia, tales about cops and even National Guard taking fire from the project rooftops in the first days of the flood.

A frightening thought clicked in her brain, and she braked the car to a stop, her taillights throwing ruby light behind her. If someone wanted to set a trap for a cop, an ambush, she thought, this block of Magnolia Street was a perfect place to do it—the dark end of a narrow dead-end street. There were fifty people, most of them men, drunk, high, some of them armed, between her and the corner. She was a cop, and armed and armored as such, but she was also five-four and a hundred and twenty pounds. Outnumbered and outgunned. Her mouth had dried up. Her pulse accelerated. She breathed deeply through her nose, staring hard into her rearview mirror, trying to settle herself and stay focused, fighting back the anxiety. They weren’t a mob, she told herself, they were just a crowd, they were the neighborhood and they didn’t want trouble. She was a white girl cop, and she had crashed their party. I don’t wanna be here, either, she wanted to say, but one of you called us.

Tonight, like most nights, like most cops in New Orleans, Maureen rode alone in her cruiser. Solo patrols were a risky strategy, but the policy put more cars on the streets at a time when the NOPD’s manpower was at its lowest since the year after the storm. The superintendent was working hard to clean up the department, a years-long project, and tolerance for malfeasance, mistakes, and the appearance of either was also at an all-time low. Unfortunately, recruitment had not come close to matching the attrition. The papers and community leaders made a fuss over it, but the situation didn’t much bother Maureen. She preferred riding alone. She didn’t want a partner. The idea of spending hours and hours each night in a car with another human being horrified her. She liked making the decisions. She liked the quiet. And so far, in her short time on the job, when she’d needed reinforcements, they had come when she called. Behind her, the crowd of men inched closer to her car, trying to look casual doing it.

She stuck her cigarette in the corner of her mouth, rubbed her sweaty palms on her thighs. She unbuckled her weapon, slid it from the holster, placed it in her lap, careful not to let the men behind her see. She flexed the fingers of her right hand, rolled her wrist. She wasn’t afraid of her gun. She put her time in at the range. She hit what she shot at.

She put the cruiser in reverse, depressing the brake. She held the radio mic in one hand, and using the other, scanned the street in front of her with the spotlight. Nothing on the pavement. Nothing in the overgrown weeds beyond the fence. Nothing around or under the parked cars. The last house on the block. The only empty one. The body was there.

Shifting the patrol car back into drive, she rolled it forward a few yards, the engine knocking, the bald tires crunching on the gravel and grit. She exhaled a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding. She rooted around the messy front seat of the cruiser until she found her pack of peppermint gum. She unwrapped a piece and put it on her mouth, cracking the outer shell with her back teeth. Once she got close to the body, a cigarette wouldn’t be nearly enough of a defense against the stench. She re-holstered her weapon, grabbed her flashlight and radio, and secured the radio on her belt, clipping the mic to her shoulder. She got out of the car, dropping her cigarette in the street. She lit another, grinding her gum.

The weeds in the front yard of the house stood two feet high. The green paint was cracked and flaking. The brown shutters hung at odd angles beside the windows, their hinges rusted and useless. The neighbors had tacked up large signs on the front of the house, their messages hand-lettered in red marker on the white poster board. One said, “Cut this grass.” Another said, “Blighted property!” One simply read, “SHAME.” Someone else, with different handwriting, had scrawled a name and a phone number along the bottom border of each sign. The property owner’s name and number, Maureen guessed.

Maybe, she thought, the dead guy in that house was the guy who owned it. Counterproductive strategy, she thought. If the owner was the corpse, squaring away the property would take the city that much longer.

At the walkway to the house she turned in a slow circle, shining her flashlight into the shadows in front of and between the nearest houses, over the faces of the people watching her. She said nothing to them. None of them spoke. The streetlight over her head flickered and went out. Perfect. That seemed to happen to her a lot, the lights going out. Too much darkness on these streets, she thought. So many places for people to hide. She paused for a moment, listening for sounds from the block, from the empty lot behind a fence, from inside the house she was about to enter. Everything she heard was distant—the whine of an ambulance headed down Napoleon Avenue, the imitative howl of a dog in a nearby yard, the long deep note from a ship on the river. The cicadas had gone quiet. People on the block murmured to one another. A couple of people talked on their phones.

She turned her back on the crowd, headed up the walk, kicking trash out of her way. She swatted away the small insects fluttering and hovering above the grass, the stench getting stronger with each step she took. She pushed thoughts of an ambush out of her mind. If someone were going to shoot her, they would have done it already. She couldn’t think about shit like that. How could she do her work if she couldn’t get out of the car?

The wooden porch steps creaked under her boots. Furry things scattered into the high grass from under the steps. She hoped the front door was unlocked, that she wouldn’t have to search the yard or the alley for another entrance, for a back door or a broken window.

She heard them before she saw them, the ultimate signifiers, big black flies. Hundreds of them, wings beating and buzzing, crawling on top of and over one another as they crept around on the dirty window of the front door. They almost completely covered the pane of glass, which seemed to vibrate with their activity.

Flies that size, Maureen knew, collected in those numbers only around dead things. The sound of the flies, their eager, busy humming, brought on a strong wave of nausea Maureen tried breathing and blinking away. She realized she stood in something slimy. A puddle of puke. Fantastic. Most likely left in the doorway, she figured, by whoever had found the body.

Closing her eyes and mouth tight, Maureen leaned her shoulder into the door. It opened easily and she stumbled across the threshold. Flies streamed into the air around her like tiny bats from a cave. She stepped through them into the entranceway, the bend of her elbow covering her mouth and nose, and deeper into the house. At a doorway she turned right, shining her flashlight into what would’ve been the living room. And there he was at the end of her beam—her dead body, purple and bloated, oozing fluid into the floorboards. She sighed with relief.

It’s funny, she thought, the things being a cop does to your brain. Bizarre, the comfort that comes with finding what you were looking for, no matter how gruesome a thing it was. She hated surprises, in life and on the job.

The dead guy was a white male, Maureen saw. That was a surprise.

She approached the body. He appeared to be in his late twenties to early thirties, though it was hard to tell from the swelling and decomposition. He was flat on his back. He’d died wide-eyed with surprise, his mouth hanging open, his chest soaked in blood from a heinous wound slashed across his throat. She’d discovered a homicide.

The deceased’s hands were sticky to the elbow with blood from his failed efforts to staunch the massive bleeding that had killed him. Blood had pooled around him on the floor, the stain looking like a dark hole opening beneath him, waiting to swallow him. He had dirty blond hair, grown long from neglect more than style, Maureen guessed. She had no idea what color his T-shirt had been before all the blood. His jeans were undone and pulled down around his pale, hairy knees, his little dick lying shriveled against his fat thigh. He had taped-up work boots on his feet and his belt had a large round buckle bearing the number 88. He looked like the kind of guy, Maureen thought, who hadn’t smelled much better when he was alive than he did when he was dead.

She considered for a moment going back to the unit and getting some latex gloves. She could take some time to herself, as long as she could stand the smell, and spend a few minutes with the crime scene. She could see what she could learn, give the detective who caught the case a head start. Whether or not that was a good idea, though, depended on which detective showed up. Maureen couldn’t know who would arrive to take over. She didn’t need to be stepping on the wrong toes. And the reek of a body, it had a way of feeling like it was seeping into your skin. She walked out onto the porch, keyed her radio, called in her discovery, her location, and a request for a homicide detective.

Behind her on the block, she heard the shuffle of feet and the distinctive creak of screen doors. People were headed inside; they knew more cops would be coming, and asking questions. The party was over. The scent of a corner-store cigar drifted her way. Hushed voices came nearer. Other neighbors were curious and lingering, emboldened by THC and alcohol. Good, she thought. The block party meant less knocking on doors and rousing people out of bed. As soon as she got some help securing the scene, she could start canvassing the block and asking questions. Until then she had to stand guard over the body.

Maureen wrinkled her nose, but not from the smell of the cheap cigar or the dead body. Thanks to her job, she was growing accustomed to both odors. She scrunched her lips into a tight bud, her brain up and running. She’d found what she’d expected: a body. But that of a dead white boy with a savage neck wound, who’d been left for days in a black, gang troubled, working class neighborhood like Central City—that didn’t fit. That didn’t belong. Not at all.

Bill Loehfelm is the author of The Devil in Her Way, The Devil She Knows, Bloodroot, and Fresh Kills. He lives in New Orleans with his wife, the writer AC Lambeth, and plays drums in the Ibervillains, a rock-and-soul cover band.

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