“St. Croix, you’re coming with me.”
Lieutenant Jim Connelly, Manhattan NYPD, spoke with an air of authority. Connelly rolled up the sleeves of his conservative white shirt. A creature of habit, he wore a long-sleeved white shirt to work each day, just as he kept his graying hair cropped military short. Sergeant Lou Minetti who usually partnered with Connolly on homicide investigations raised bushy eyebrows questioningly.
Bert St. Croix knew what was going on and could have explained it to Minetti. She’d been promoted from uniform officer to detective third grade recently and then quickly moved up to a coveted spot in the homicide division. This was all well and good, except that the fellow detectives she was now working with did not think she could handle the job. She was certain Lt. Connelly was planning to test her. Bert had every intention of winning his respect and that of other detectives who worked homicide division. But she knew it wasn’t going to be easy.
She’d overheard Minetti talking with some of the others behind her back.
“St. Croix must have kissed some serious butt to get moved up so quick.”
There was a general buzz of agreement. Then Detective Randall, a rosy-faced, burly cop said, “I think St. Croix got the promotion because she’s black and a woman. That’s killing two minority requirements at once. The brass just loves that.”
Bert didn’t bother to let them know she’d overheard the conversation. There wasn’t any point. Their minds were closed. She walked quietly away. As far as Bert was concerned, she had nothing to prove. She’d gotten the job because she’d done quality work as an officer and passed all the requirements for detective. No, she didn’t have to prove herself. She’d just do her job. They would discover the truth in time. Being a female cop and a woman of color besides wasn’t an easy path to travel but she had no regrets. This was the right job for her.
“Ready?” Connolly asked.
“Right with you,” she said, pulling on her leather jacket.
It was a freezing cold, fall day in the city. The wind cut across her face like a switch blade. Bert said nothing. No use complaining or stating the obvious.
Connolly took quick strides toward an unmarked vehicle. Bert at six feet tall had no problem keeping pace with him. He was a man in his late forties and fit, but Bert, only in her late twenties, worked out every day. He wouldn’t find her lacking in that respect.
“So where are we headed?”
“Between Chinatown and the Bowery.”
“What are we expecting to find?”
“The uniforms who caught the call say it’s nasty.”
Connolly turned away and concentrated on his driving.
He didn’t speak again until they arrived at their destination. Bert wasn’t fully prepared for what she saw. The outside of the building said “hotel” except it certainly didn’t look like one. It was an old, dilapidated structure that appeared ready to fall under its own weight. It turned out the inside was much worse. She followed Connolly upstairs to the fourth floor and began looking around. She shuddered involuntarily. A chill slithered up her back.
“Is this an animal shelter?” Bert asked, eyeing the tiny cells bounded by chicken wire.
Connolly shook his head.
“Single room occupancy. Only men allowed up here. Ten bucks a night. We used to call places like this flop houses in the old days. Only winos and addicts were willing to stay. The space is smaller than a solitary confinement prison cell and not as clean either.”
“I can see that,” Bert said, observing the filth surrounding her in disgust.
She nearly screamed when a furry creature rushed by her.
“There’s rat and roaches here,” Connolly said. “Bedbugs and fleas in the bedding as well. So don’t sit down anywhere,” he cautioned.
Bert swallowed hard. She spotted garbage in the hallway stacked up. Thanks God the place was freezing cold. She couldn’t imagine how badly it would smell here otherwise. How could anyone live in such squalor, no matter how down on their luck they were? The ironic thing was that they weren’t far from the wealthy, trendy part of the city.
“They’ve even got black mold on the walls.”
“Gross. Has it been reported to the city?”
“They know,” Connolly said. “The owners have been cited and issued summonses. They just ignore them.”
“And nothing happens?” Her voice held a note of incredulity.
Connolly gave a grim nod.
“Those people have juice.”
They found two uniform patrol officers in a hallway talking to a man covered in blood. Not far away lay a dead body. The corpse barely looked human. The younger of the two uniforms let out a deep sigh, visibly relieved to see them. The older and stockier officer turned to Connolly, flipping open a small black notebook.
“This is Jean Remais. He says the other fellow, Hon, was on something and went crazy. When Remais tried to calm him down, Hon pulled a butcher knife from behind him and tried to stab him. Remais says he tried to get away, but Hon kept coming after him. They fought. Hon ended up losing his balance and fell on his own knife.”
Bert studied Remais. He was of medium height, middle-aged, with skin much darker than the mocha color of her own. His head was clean shaven as was his face, which held no expression.
The older uniform officer shook his head.
“You know how it is in a place like this. Nobody wants to talk to cops.”
“Okay, we’ll take it from here. Crime scene investigators should arrive in a little while.”
“Thanks. We’ll be glad to get out of this dump. Gotta warn you. Be careful not to touch anything in the dead man’s room. I accidentally brushed up against a coat and a flood of roaches dropped out.”
Bert shivered as she pulled latex gloves from her jacket pocket and placed them on her hands. She observed Connolly doing the same. It was standard procedure regardless, but more necessary here than usual.
Connolly turned to Remais. “How well did you know Mr. Hon?”
Remais shrugged. “I hardly knew him at all.”
Bert recognized the man’s accent as Haitian.
“Any reason he would come after you with a knife?”
Again, Remais shrugged. “Who knows with one like that? He was Asian. They are inscrutable.”
Bert thought Remais could be dissembling, trying to use a stereotype to obfuscate his connection to the victim. For one thing, Remais avoided looking Connolly in the eye. Something else about the man troubled her. He did not appear down and out. This man was not a derelict. She was certain of it. His eyes were clear and sharp. Remais looked physically fit as if he ate regularly. He didn’t seem to belong in a place like this. Bert was suspicious of the man.
“Lieutenant, a word please.”
Connolly raised an eyebrow. They walked away from Remais.
“What is it?”
“I think this guy is lying.”
Connolly’s eyes, the color of the sky on a cloudless day, opened wide. “What’s makes you say that? It all seems cut and dry to me.”
“I have a strong hunch. I think this man could be a bokor.”
“And that would be?”
Bert sighed. “I’m not Haitian but my mother came from Jamaica. In the Caribbean there are stories about bokors which are kind of like witch doctors. They either use magic or strong drugs to turn men into mindless slaves. Some say they raise the dead and make them do their bidding.”
Connolly stared at her, his mouth hanging open. It was almost but not quite a comical sight. “Christ, you’re not trying to tell me you believe in zombies. I mean that’s strictly out of movies.”
“Not really. There’s an oral tradition of folklore of zombies in Haiti and the Caribbean. I think Remais may be a voodoo practitioner. It’s possible that he could have given the victim some powerful drugs to induce a zombie-like state. Voodoo started in Africa where tales of the dead being brought back to life under a sorcerer’s control were common.”
Connolly shook his head and raised his bushy eyebrows.
“Tell me the truth. Are you on something, St. Croix?”
Bert crossed her arms over her chest and stood her ground. “I understand this may seem bizarre to you.”
“Look, I know this crap captures the popular imagination. The word voodoo conjures images of bloody animal sacrifices, evil zombies, dolls stuck with pins, and dancers gyrating through the night to the rhythm of drums. But I don’t buy it as real.”
“The important thing is that others do believe. I think we should examine Remais’s living space for evidence.”
“Fine, I’ll humor you.”
They rejoined Remais who stood silently. Bert made her request. Remais shook his head.
“Why don’t you want to allow us to examine your room?”
“There is nothing there to see. I am but a poor man. It shames me.” Remais sounded good; however, Bert trusted her intuition, her well-honed cop instinct, and it was telling her that there was something off about this man. He was hiding something.
Connolly spoke up. “Buddy let’s just go along with the lady. You know how women are? She won’t be satisfied until we satisfy her curiosity.”
Bert tossed him a murderous look, but Connolly merely smiled at her. Infuriating man!
“So, which one of these cells is yours?” Remais didn’t budge. “Hey, you don’t want us waiting here all night for a search warrant, do you?”
Finally, Remais relented and led them to his space, but he moved slowly with the greatest reluctance. Bert observed that he had a corner spot much larger in size than the others, and unlike the other so-called rooms it was meticulously clean.
Remais read the look on Bert’s face. “I pay monthly here, not by the night. So, I have a better room.”
Bert did not respond, merely taking her time to look around. “What are those?” she asked pointing to a series of bottles set on top of a wooden shelf. They were the only decoration in the Spartan room and as such stood out as being incongruous.
Remais appeared startled. “Them? They are nothing.” He moved to stand in front of the shelf blocking further view.
Bert shoved him out of the way. Her cop instincts told her he was trying to hide something. She carefully examined the bottles. “These jars are labeled with men’s names. One of them reads Hon. Why is that?” She had the uneasy feeling this was significant, that they were signs connected with a strange ritual or practice.
Remais’s eyes opened wide. “Please, I don’t know what you are talking about.”
“No? Well, why don’t we locate these men.” Her eyes narrowed, screwing into bullets.
“They will not talk to you.” Remais sounded smug.
Bert’s temper began to flare. It was all she could do not to shake the man. She turned to Connolly. “We should try to find these men.” Bert pointed to the labeled bottles which seemed to glow with an odd, ethereal light.
Remais’s expression changed to one of rage. He looked from Bert to Connolly. Then he turned away from them and reached into his jacket pocket. Remais removed something and swiftly pivoted toward them again. Bert sensed what was about to happen and grabbed his arm, twisting it behind his back.
Remais struggled to break free, but Bert wasn’t letting go. She twisted harder.
“Stop, crazy woman! You’re breaking my arm.”
Connolly stared at her. “St. Croix, let go of him.”
“Not until he drops that packet he’s holding.” She tightened further. Gasping, Remais released the packet. As it floated to the floor, Connolly bent to pick it up.
“Don’t touch that!” Bert said.
Connolly straightened. “Why not?”
“I have a hunch it may contain a dangerous drug. He intended to toss it into our faces and eyes to immobilize us so he could escape.”
Connolly handcuffed Remais and used his cell phone to call for back-up. He arranged for Remais to be taken into custody.
“I’m curious what the forensics lab will turn up on the powder.” Bert wasn’t feeling confident, but she wasn’t going to admit that. “I think we have to start interviewing the men who live here and see what we can find out. There could be witnesses.”
“Yeah, good luck with that.”
Bert refused to be intimidated by the task. She knew something about herself that Connolly didn’t. Growing up in poverty in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy with only a single parent, she had used pit bull determination to raise herself up in the world. Her mother had struggled and worked hard for very little money. Bert wanted a better life. So, she’d give more and do more.
She copied down the names written on the bottle labels on Remais’s shelf, leaving them for C.S.I. to examine. Then she walked downstairs and located the building’s superintendent, one Jose Sanchez, a swarthy man in his fifties.
“Those uniform cops already talked to me. I give them a statement. I got nothing to do with that killing.”
“Nobody says you do. I have some names here. I want to talk to each of these men. You must know them and where they might be.” She read off the names.
“Those are Remais’s guys.”
“What does that mean?” Bert watched his facial expression.
“They work for him. He sends them out on jobs.”
“I want to talk to each of them.”
“Well, Hon’s dead,” Sanchez said. He rubbed at a thick mustache above his upper lip. He seemed to be stalling.
“Are the other men dead too?” Bert persisted.
Sanchez shrugged, looking uneasy. “They kind of are.”
Was Sanchez inferring they were spiritually possessed? Could be she realized. “Do you know what led up to the stabbing?”
Sanchez’s dark eyes darted around as if he were looking for an escape. “You know what today is, right?”
It took a moment and then came the realization. Halloween. She’d forgotten. This wasn’t just a day for children to trick or treat and overdose on candy. Bert recalled reading that Halloween had started as a pagan tradition. On the night of October 31, the Celts celebrated Samhain, believing that ghosts of the dead returned to earth. The Spanish called it Day of the Dead, Día de Muertos. She sensed the presence of the dead and shuddered. Anything could happen on Halloween–anything.
It had grown dark in the hellhole hotel. Night came early on Halloween. She turned back to Sanchez. “Aren’t you going to put on the lights?”
“No electricity here. I got a flashlight though.” He produced one from his coat pocket.
“Good. Take me to these men.”
“They’re still working. They’re laborers. Guess you could say they’re on the graveyard shift.” Bert decided Sanchez had a nasty laugh.
“I’ll be back tomorrow,” she said. “They better be here. Tell them they have nothing to fear. We’re taking Remais into custody.”
“Yeah, right, I’ll be sure to tell them.”
The following day, Bert discovered that all the men she wanted to question had mysteriously vanished from the hotel. She talked to Sanchez again, but he merely shrugged.
“These men you’re asking about, they’re vagrants, transients who come and go. Happens all the time. That’s the way it is with bums. Most of the time, they’re homeless. Maybe they sleep in deserted subway tunnels underground. Who knows for certain? They come here when they earn a few dollars.”
Bert talked to some of the other men on the fourth floor. One was crippled with arthritis; another was missing an arm. All swore they had no idea what had happened the previous night. None of them would admit to knowing the missing men.
“We don’t talk much,” the man with one arm told her. “It don’t pay to be nosy around here. Me, I mind my own business.”
Discouraged, Bert returned to headquarters.
Lieutenant Connolly called her into his office. “St. Croix, Remais stuck to his story about Hon dying by accident. He lawyered up and we had to release him. Find any witnesses who’d say different?”
Bert shook her head. “What about the powder in the packet?”
Connolly handed her a report. “Read it.”
Bert scanned the analysis. “It says here that there were two drugs, tetrodotoxin, a powerful and frequently fatal neurotoxin found in the flesh of pufferfish and another one called datura. Together, these powders can induce a deathlike state, a kind of suspended animation.” Bert handed the report back to Connolly. “So, when they awake in a psychotic state the victims would be subjected to the will of the bokor. The witch doctors can keep their zombies in a state of pharmacologically induced trance for years and use them as slaves.”
Connolly frowned. “I guess you called it right.”
“What bothers me is Remais getting away with his crime.”
“I’m not thrilled about that either. But there isn’t any evidence that Remais actually murdered Hon. Without witnesses, the prosecutor’s office won’t have a case.”
Bert understood but that didn’t make it any easier to accept.
“Forget about it. We got plenty of other cases. I want you down on Houston Street. There’s been a hit and run for you to investigate.”
Bert wasn’t ready to give up on the flophouse killing just yet. The following day, she went back to the Bowery during her lunch break. She found Sanchez smoking in the basement.
“Did any of those men return?” she asked him.
Sanchez shook his head.
“What about Remais? Is he in his room?”
“Haven’t seen him either.”
Bert discovered the super was not lying. When she climbed up to the fourth floor, Bert found Remais’s space was empty. Even his jars were gone. He’d taken the souls of his zombies with him. The magician had disappeared without a trace. Harry Houdini couldn’t have pulled off a better escape trick. The trail had gone cold. Another time, another place. For now, this case would have to go on the back burner because there were a lot of other perps to bring to justice. But with grim determination, Bert vowed this would not be the end of the case. No matter how long it took, she would eventually find and arrest Remais for murder.
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Descriptive physical elements, insightful thought exposes, and engaging narrative. A well crafted and unique story.
I'm hooked on Bert St. Croix. Her quiet strength, wisdom, and determination to prove her worth, make her a perfect hero.