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He breathed. For now, that was all he could do, drawing air into his lungs as shallowly as possible, thankful for the clouds that hid a quicksilver moon and the endless ambient song of the Arkansas woods. Levi would have scoffed, but Erwin felt that nature was on his side. He waited. He blinked. His eyes focused on the cabin door. He remembered Levi’s words.
Don’t get jumpy, Smith. Don’t get cocky either. Don’t you dare come through that door until you know you’ve got the situation in hand, understand?
He had understood. He thought that he heard the dull thwack of a fist against flesh. There were at least four men in that room…he winced. This time, he was sure that it was a punch he’d heard, maybe to the face, maybe to the gut, the sound was too obscured to tell. His hand twitched. There was no telling what shape Levi would be in by the time he got there. It was true that Levi wasn’t any stranger to pain, but how much was he supposed to take? How was Erwin just supposed to stand there like some dumbshit coward, hiding behind a tree in the woods? He’d let himself get pulled into this psycho web, he’d promised Levi he would follow the plan; there could be no backing out now.
An impact. A groan. Erwin flexed his hand, ground his teeth together, his jaw tight. Don’t you dare come through that door, Levi hissed in his head. He had to wait. This was all about opportunity now. Timing. If he fucked it up, this cicada song would be the last he’d ever hear. He held perfectly still. He waited. And for some reason, with that backwater night music sounding more and more a dirge, he thought of the day he’d met Levi.
Erwin couldn’t be sure if meeting Levi felt momentous because it was, or because he had imbued it with some deeper level of meaning later, but the moment that he first clapped eyes on the detective felt as though it carried a weight that nothing else in his life ever had. The thought struck him with an undercurrent of guilt…there were moments that were far more momentous, of course — his wedding day, the births of his daughters — but they lacked the critical mass of Levi’s entrance into his world. They were momentous, but expected. They didn’t invert everything about him in one broad stroke, which Levi seemed to do without even trying. He still couldn’t be sure that he didn’t regret that meeting, especially now as the tension radiated off his body, swallowed by the muggy darkness of the Arkansas hills.
He didn’t even know the full scope of Levi’s plan, just that he was supposed to be able to get into that cabin, take on five men, and get Levi out of there…along with one of his captors. A big man, a blond, a death’s head tattooed on his neck. The whole situation was so stereotypical that it was hard for Erwin to believe that it was even real. These tweaked-out thugs, their backwoods meth-cooking cabin, their bulging veins and trucks and confederate flags and the incongruous crosses around their necks. Like a hillbilly’s fever dream…
A door creaked. Erwin stiffened. Three men emerged, stomping about the porch, lighting up cigarettes, muttering to one another. This was it. He had to take all three of them as quickly and quietly as he could. He pulled in a breath, pushing the image of his daughter’s faces from his mind. When he was a boy, his pop had taught him how to bow hunt. Hunting with a bow meant blending in with your surroundings. It meant silent movements and careful camouflage. It meant now he could melt in and out of those woods, unknown to any but the cicadas and frogs. He extended the baton in his hand and began creeping closer to the men who laughed, who took swigs off a bottle of cheap whiskey, who puffed away on their smokes. He was fifteen feet away. Ten. Five. He was taking in a deep breath. He was hoping it wouldn’t be his last. He was launching himself into the men. He was praying to a god he wasn’t even sure he believed in that he wasn’t too late.
Nine Months Previous…
“…so this bitch, hand to god, was out of her god damn mind. I mean completely crazy, like a cat in heat, maybe worse. And she’s throwin’ herself all over me, and here I am, just trying to carry a drink back to Marie, but she won’t fuckin’ let up, all rubbin' up on me, you know, and I mean, she was hot, like, don’t get me wrong, she had these nice tits hangin’ halfway out and her dress barely covered her ass, but hey, I’m a happily married man and I ain’t tryin’ to change that, you know? So I’m all “Ma’am, ma’am, please, I’m sure there’s someone else here wants’a dance wi’ you, but I gotta girl already, ma’am, ma’am,” and all tha sudden, outta like…nowhere, man, like nowhere, there’s Marie just barrelin’ up and sluggin’ away, just knock-out brawlin’, I aint never seen a woman brawl like that, hand to god! I was so shocked I just watched it all happen, but god damn! I never thought my baby could move like that!”
“You know, Dawk, it’s a wonder they didn’t partner you with Nana, since you’re so into your ass bein’ saved by women.”
“Shut the fuck up, Ness, it was hot, and besides, I don’t need a fucking woman to save me,” Nile paused, his eyes catching Nana’s who had one pale brow raised.
“I’ll keep that in mind, Dawk,” she said flatly.
“Shit, Dawk, you better hope that skinny ass of yours never lands in hot water on Nana’s watch, now.”
“Shut the fuck up, Zackarius. I didn’t mean any offense, Nana.”
Nana laughed and shook her head, “If I had a dollar for every time I heard that in this place, I would retire to the Myrtle Beach and let ya’ll rot up in here with your paperwork and your goddamn hillbilly tweakers.”
“Maybe you should start a jar…” Mike offered with a grin.
“You know, that ain’t a half-bad idea,” Nana winked back, shooting a significant look toward Nile.
“God damnit, stop givin’ her ideas,” Nile grumbled, looking vaguely distressed, “I got braces to pay for.”
“Then you better stop pissin’ people off, huh?” Erwin shrugged and winked at Nana, slipping into the conversation and out of his jacket as he tossed a grin at Mike. “Mornin’, ya’ll. Did I miss anything important, or did Dawk do all the gabbin’ this mornin’?”
“Pretty much just Dawk. You bring the goods?” Mike asked, shaking his shaggy hair out of his eyes.
“How could I forget? I think ya’ll would rip me limb from limb without that baker’s dozen. Brenda’s got ‘em up at the front.” Erwin shook his head with a chuckle. “Cops eatin’ donuts. Ya’ll know that’s…”
“Like a bad joke,” Nana said, rolling her eyes, “Yeah, you tell us every damn morning, Smith. Get some new jokes.” She patted Erwin’s arm as she slipped toward the front desk, continuing, “Stop bringing them bearclaws and I’ll stop eating them, promise.” Erwin shot her a smile, shrugged. “Hey, you know I just like to keep ya’ll happy.”
“Nicest guy in the place, aren’t ya?” Mike smirked.
Erwin opened his mouth to reply, but Nile interjected, “Wait,” and then in a slow drawl, eyes wide, “Who the fuck is that guy?”
Erwin followed his gaze over to the boss’ office door, where he caught sight of a man he’d never seen before emerging next to the Sergeant. At least, he thought it was a man, though he was short, like a child, his suit ill-fitting, like something he’d found in his daddy’s closet, complete with a terrible tie. His hair had been brushed into something resembling a bad Sunday-School haircut, but it was too long and stuck out around his ears. He looked like someone’s surly teenager who’d been brought to work and told to try and fit in, to try and behave. Nile was snickering. Mike was inhaling. Erwin was intrigued.
“Can’t get a read on him from here,” Mike said with a shrug. Erwin nodded back to him, his eyes slipping up to catch the Sergeant’s.
“Smith, c’mere,” Pixis said with a small smile. Erwin nodded, shot a raised brow at Mike, and obliged.
As he walked closer, he tried not to stare, but it was difficult. That small guy in the bad suit stuck out like a sore thumb. Was it his first day on the job? Was he even a detective? Still Erwin smiled, gave a solid nod as he drew closer. “This,” Pixis started, gesturing toward the small man, “Is Detective Levi. And Levi, this is Detective Erwin Smith. Your new partner.”
Erwin offered his hand with a smile, tried not to react to the way that it swallowed the other detective’s hand, tried not to react to the expression on Levi’s face which he assumed was supposed to be a smile. “Pleased to meet ya,” he smiled around his words, “You from around here?”
“No,” Levi said in a voice that was, in Erwin’s opinion, shockingly low.
Silence hung heavy over them for a moment, long enough for Erwin to notice his new partner’s fine bones, sharp features, light grey eyes and dark lashes. Long enough for him to feel uncomfortable, awkward, to question what he should possibly be saying to break the moment and, furthermore, why this Detective Levi wasn’t volunteering any information. Finally, Pixis cleared his throat, and Erwin’s eyes snapped up to meet his. Pixis just smiled benignly and nodded toward the bay of desks in the middle of the room. Erwin nodded.
“I’ll uh…I’ll show you to your desk. There’s donuts too, if you want them.”
Levi nodded, and after one more look at Pixis, Erwin turned and walked toward the desks. Levi followed after him. “It’s uh. You look young, you been at this job long?” He asked, turning around just in time to catch Levi muttering “Longer than you think.” Erwin nodded, his stomach churning with something uncomfortable. “Ya know, it wouldn’t kill you to be…friendly. I mean, I don’t know where you’re from, detective, but folks ‘round these parts? They have a…neighborly attitude. Just…so you know.” Erwin stopped in front of his desk and gestured to the empty desk across from his. Levi walked toward the desk and then turned toward Erwin with a grimace.
“Look,” he said, looking pained, “My last assignment was…different. Sorry. I’m just no good for shop-talk.”
“Yeah, alright, just…you don’t want folks thinkin’ you’re…unfriendly, ya know? Anyway, this is your space. There’s a typewriter for paperwork, and you can always ask Brenda at the front if ya need anythin’. People ‘round here are friendly, so ya don’ need to worry, just ask for whatever ya need.”
Levi nodded up at him, and then, as if on second thought, offered a, “Thanks, detective.”
“Just…call me Erwin. Or Smith, I don’ care, ya don’t gotta be formal, I mean.”
“Alright Smith. I’m just Levi, then.”
Erwin nodded, smiled, and sat down at his desk. He thought about offering the name of the local tailor, but figured that could wait.
“Oof, Christ, I been gone no more’n’a day an’ you’ve already grown? How did you do that, huh? You been eatin’ your Wheaties?” Erwin let himself be hauled down by soft pale hands, calling out over mirthful giggling. He found Evelyn’s ribs and tickled them as she giggled and shrieked for help from her little sister Stephanie, who pounded ineffectually on Erwin’s back and screamed right along with her sister. Erwin gave a roar and turned, tickling Stephanie now as Evelyn took her turn climbing all over him, pulling at his ears and kicking at him while she shrieked, “Daddy stop! Bad Daddy!” over and over again. Finally, they all lay in a heap on the floor, Erwin breathing heavily and looking up just in time to see his wife’s smiling face. “Hey there,” he said, returning her smile with one of his own. “Smells nice in here, baby, what’s cookin’?”
“Steph had soccer practice until five, I just picked up a chicken from the deli.” She smiled, reached a hand out to help him up off the floor. “How’d your day go?” and then, before he could respond, she was telling the girls to go wash up for dinner and taking off his coat. Erwin waited until the girls had run giggling down the hall, and fixed his wife’s big, brown eyes with his own. “Well, it’s better now that I’m home,” he offered smoothly. Jackie swatted at his arm. “You can turn off the charm, Erwin Smith, I’ve known you long enough to see when your eyes are tired, you know. What happened?”
“Ah, ya got me,” he smiled, following her into the kitchen. “It wasn’ a bad day or nuthin’, jus’ got a new partner is all.”
“I was wonderin’ when they’d replace Nile. How’s he doin’ with Ness?”
“He’s ‘is usual lovely self, near as I can figure. Thanks, babe,” Erwin accepted the beer she held out to him, popping the tab as she opened her own.
“So, tell me about ‘im,” she urged, brows raised. “Is he cuter than you?”
Erwin laughed, nearly spatting out the beer in his mouth. “Like I would know. You women got your own ways about that. Ask Nana. Anyway he’s…quiet. And strange. I’ve never seen a fella so small. And he needs a tailor.”
“Sounds like a delight.” Jackie smiled and took a swig of beer as the girls came running in, arguing about something or other. Erwin let his mind wander as Jackie settled the girls down and got them to the table. He really was tired, Christ. When did he start feeling so…old?
“Come on, you, the girls are hungry,” Jackie shuffled him toward the table and Erwin complied, reaching over to rub Evelyn’s white-blond hair as she squealed. “Enough, you two. Dig in!” Jackie opened up deli containers of mashed potatoes, corn, gravy, and a rotisserie chicken. Erwin was just glad to eat. He found himself wondering, briefly, if Levi had a family. He was so quiet and morose, it was hard to imagine him interacting with children at all. As Jackie and the girls chattered on about their days, Erwin tried to imagine how quiet, how solitary his life would be without them, and felt a momentary pang of sympathy. His pop had always told him a man’s value was in his family. Erwin couldn’t help but agree.
“…your new partner for dinner, you know,” he tuned in to Jackie just long enough to catch the end of her phrase.
“Huh?” he asked, shaking his head.
“You need to bring him over for dinner. Your new partner.”
“Oh man, Jacks, I don’t think he’s gonna be a…good guest. He’s weird, ya know?”
“Still,” she said, firm, “He’s your partner and we’re gonna have ‘im over, so find out when he can come. It’s the right thing to do, baby.”
She had a tone, and Erwin chose to let it go, hoping he could put her off for at least a little bit but knowing it was useless to fight.
“Alright, alright. I’ll…talk to ‘im.”
“Good. Now Stephy, why don’t you tell your daddy about that goal you made today?”
“He’s fucked up, mark my fuckin’ words,” Nile hissed across the table. They were in the break room, the door closed, but the walls were thin and no one wanted to be heard. “He barely talks, his suits look like he done scraped them off the bottom of the bargain bin at the damn Goodwill, an’ Mike says he smells funny.”
“I didn’ say funny,” Mike protested weakly. “I said he smells like an ashtray in a’ empty room.”
“Seems pretty fuckin’ funny to me,” Nile spat out, standing to pace. “Where he come from anyway, Smith?”
“Why should I know? He don’ talk to me anymore’n’ya’ll.”
“Then he don’ fuckin’ talk at all,” Nile muttered. Erwin had nothing to say to that, it was more or less true. They had been partnered up for two weeks now, and aside from talking about their cases, which had been minimal, Levi had barely spoken to him at all. Most of the time he was punching away at the keys on his typewriter, but once or twice Erwin had looked up to catch him staring off blankly, his face more unguarded and expressive than Erwin had been prepared to expect. Perhaps those moments were a glimpse behind the veil…Erwin couldn’t possibly be sure, but one thing was undoubtable; Levi was different. He wasn’t like them. He didn’t even remotely fit. Not here, and Erwin privately thought, not anywhere. He was one of those folks that really didn’t fit anywhere, and it was unsettling to the folks who did.
“Well, I’ll tell ya what, Dawk, he’s a sight smarter ’n you’ll ever be. So just…keep it to yourself, okay?”
“Yeah? Tell me, Smith, he carry that big ole’ sketchbook with ‘im on all your calls?”
“Sure does,” Erwin smirked, “I’ll admit, that shit’s pretty fuckin’ weird.”
“Right?” Nile puffed up a bit, now that Erwin seemed to be on his side. “He’s like some fuckin’…like them fuckin’ audit guys, when they come in here’n fuck with us once a year, them IRS guys.”
“Like a tax man,” Mike offered with a small smile.
“Like a tax man, yeah!” Nile was gaining steam. Just then, the door opened, and Levi walked in. Erwin shared a quick look with Mike, who looked away.
“Hey there, Taxman,” Nile smirked. Levi stared at him for a moment, then turned toward the coffee machine. “Why you carry that big ole book aroun’, anyway?”
As if he hadn’t heard Nile’s question at all, Levi reached for a mug, poured himself a cup of coffee, and mixed in a fairly generous amount of sugar, but no cream. Finally, just as Nile was opening his mouth, Levi turned and fixed him in his gaze. “I like to gather data,” he said simply. “You never know what’ll end up being important later.” Then he walked toward the door. Just before he slipped out, he turned and let his eyes fall on Erwin. “The Taxman,” he said, a bare twitch in the corner of his mouth. “Not bad.”
One way or another, the nickname stuck.
“Just got a call from the local force. Smith, you and Levi are on this one. Potential homicide, juvenile victim.”
Erwin felt his stomach sink. Juvenile victim. The worst phrase in the English language, as far as he was concerned.
“Steel yourselves, this one ain’t pretty. You’ll have to drive on over to New Iberia. They got the tech people on the scene already. I’ll send you more while you drive.”
Erwin nodded, tight-lipped, and began gathering his things into his briefcase. Levi grabbed his State Detective jacket, which had been specifically ordered to accommodate his size, and a small black bag. “You driving?” he asked, looking up to meet Erwin’s gaze, mouth set into a grim line.
“Why not,” Erwin shrugged. A minute later, they were out. Most of the ride was spent in their usual silence, with Levi scanning the countryside as they drove, Erwin fixing his gaze on the road. Juvenile victim. A kid, murdered, a kid with a family and parents, a kid just like his own. The thought of it made Erwin sick. He had seen no end of sickos in this line of work, but there was something different about the involvement of a child. It was true that he thought about his daughters in these moments, but it wasn’t even just that. A child was…something sacred. Something not to be desecrated by the evils of men. Not having that barrier, whatever it was, that kept you from hurting a child…Erwin thought that could be the true definition of evil.
He tried to keep quiet, but something was burning in his gut, and the closer they got to New Iberia, the more he felt like it had to be asked. Finally, as they passed the sign welcoming them to the town of New Iberia, Parish Seat of Iberia, Erwin couldn’t hold it in any longer. “Look. I…I dunno what kinda cases you took ‘fore you came here, but you ever…you ever seen a juvenile homicide?”
Levi was quiet for a moment, his eyes fixed out the window as the town rolled past. “If you don’ find me to be competent…” he started, but Erwin cut in, “No, look, no it’s not that. You always turn in your paperwork on time and carry your weight. I just. Kids are…it’s different, man, it ain’t easy, you know?”
Levi turned and looked at him then, his eyes hollow, face set. “I know,” he said simply. With one look at the way his features had become dark and drawn, at the way his mouth was pulled tight and his neck strained, Erwin knew that Levi was no stranger to these scenes. He nodded, grimaced, and took a turn to the left, pushing away the all-too-familiar feeling that he didn’t know Levi at all.
Five minutes later they were parking on a tree-lined street, cordoned off with police tape and surrounded by curious neighborhood onlookers who were being shuffled about by harried officers as they demanded answers. Levi was the first one out of the car, grabbing his black bag and his oversized notebook while Erwin internally cursed the crowd and the local police force who hadn’t been more aggressive with keeping them away. They didn’t need the sensationalism. Finally, he stepped out of the car as well and caught up to Levi, who was making for the police chief. The chief was a man that Erwin new, though vaguely. Being dyed -in-the-wool law enforcement around these parts meant knowing everyone, at least vaguely, and as the man turned and caught Erwin’s eye, he breathed a visible sigh of relief.
“Detective Smith!” he exclaimed, the relief in his voice tempered by the grim set of his lips. “I was wonderin’ when you boys’d show up. Where’s Dawk?”
“Back at the station’s my guess. I’m partnered with Detective Levi now. Levi, this is Chief Ames.”
The chief looked at Levi for the first time, his eyes having skipped over the small man before. He stared at him dumbly for a moment, then shook his head. “Yeah, pleased ta meet ya, or as much as I can be, considerin’.”
“Pleased to meet ya,” Levi muttered, giving the Chief’s hand a solid shake.
“Alright well, ya’ll come over here and get to workin’. Victim was found by a neighbor, seems like a rush job. Evidence of strangulation and uh…sexual assault. We wouldn’a called ya’ll but…we have reason ta ‘spect this may be a…“racially motivated crime,” ya’know.”
A few years earlier, it had been mandated that all hate crimes were to be handled by the State Police, based on the theory that they were less likely to bring their racial biases to the jobs than the local precincts. Erwin had heard the shop-talk around the station and wasn’t sure he bought it. Crime didn’t have a color, but officers did, and juries did, and State Police were just people anyway. At the end of the day a white officer and jury were going to look after their own first, that was the way of things. As far as Erwin was concerned, he mostly just did his job like anyone else. What else was there to do?
“What made ya’ll think that?” Levi asked. He was always more talkative on a case, and was already scribbling in his sketchpad.
“Well, the kid’s got….some kinda cream on him real thick? I didn’ know whatta make of it, but my deputy Jardin’s wife is uh…well, she darker n’she’d like ta be, an’ he says tha’ kid smells jus’ like her whitenin’ cream. It’s a real unique smell, ya’know? Kid’s a spic, ain’t many of ‘em ‘round here, so it uh…it sticks out, ya’know?”
Erwin nodded. “I think we know, Ames. Try’n keep these fine folk back away as much as ya can, we’re gonna do our best ta get cleared out, but we need some space, alright?”
“O’course, Smith. Ya’ll take ya time, we doin’ what we can here.”
Erwin nodded and turned to find Levi pulling latex gloves from his small black bag. He looked up and Erwin nodded. He wasn’t in a big hurry to examine the body, and didn’t mind getting more information from the responding officers while Levi investigated the boy.
Levi made his way over to the body, a boy no older than five, dark hair and cinnamon-colored skin, crusted over in places with the white cream. His eyes had been closed, and Levi scribbled a note to himself to find out if he was found that way. Officers should know better than to disturb a scene, but these small-town outfits weren’t always used to these kinds of cases, and sometimes a dead kid could overcome sound logic. The boy was crumpled in a heap, like a piece of garbage tossed away, forgotten. The mental image sent a surge of anger through Levi, but he swallowed it away, scribbling it into a note to be examined later. The boy was on his side, his neck marked with classic signs of strangulation and sitting at an odd angle, but when Levi peered at his wrists, there were no ligature marks to be seen. His hair was only a few inches long, and blew slightly in the breeze, giving the impression that he could wake up any moment, but the part of his face sitting on the road was purpled where the blood was settling. Levi made notes about lividity, about the cracks in the boys lips, about the bruising that seemed to have formed around his eye prior to death. He was wearing a red, yellow, and blue striped shirt, little jean shorts, Goodwill sneakers with a cartoon hero on them. His shirt was ripped, his mouth clamped shut. Levi took it all in, scribbling notes, sketching.
Erwin came over, his face going a bit pale at the sight, his stomach dropping. He’d had to get used to bodies a long time ago, but he wasn’t so hardened that it didn’t affect him at all. He figured the day his stomach didn’t churn, he’d probably need to quit the force. He cleared his throat, looked up and shook his head before willing himself to look back down. “Alright, Levi, what do you got?”
“Position of the body and the scrapin’ on his face indicates he was tossed from a higher location, probably a car, mos’ likely out the back of a truck or van. He was killed by stranglin’, but he was beaten ‘fore that, at least ta’ the extent that ‘is eye got bruisin’, not long ‘fore he died. Possible defense wounds on ‘im too, bruisin’ on the arms, dirty fingernails, could be blood, we gotta test ‘em. Killer didn’t tie ‘im up though…no ligature marks far as I can see. He can’t’a been here more’n’a few minutes…fifteen or so, ‘fore he was found. We gotta canvas the neighborhood, somebody saw sumthin’, I guarantee it. It’d be best we could keep a lid on the uh…race issue, for now, people’r gonna be more cooperative they think this’a neighbor kid and not the kid from the help. My guess is…he struggled ‘fore he died, the rip in ‘is shirt looks fresh, jus’ like ‘is bruises’. I’d like ta know what kinda sexual assault we got goin’ on here. My guess is he wasn’ ‘sposed ta struggle. Caused a bigger stink than the murderer thought he would, got dumped here’n’stead of a more…discreet location.”
Erwin nodded throughout Levi’s monologue, inwardly impressed; it was the largest number of words he’d ever heard Levi string together. He hadn’t known the man was capable. “One thing’s botherin’ me,” Erwin started.
“The cream,” Levi said with a nod.
“Why…why is he puttin’ lightenin’ cream on the kid jus’ta kill ‘im? Don’t make a whole lotta sense if ya ask me…”
“It don’t, ‘cept if you consider…” Levi pursed his lips, nodded, “‘Cept if you consider he might’a wanted’a save ‘im for later, somehow.”
“Yeah,” Erwin nodded, “‘Cept if you consider that.”
“Erwin,” Levi said, sketching wildly in his book, “I’m thinkin’ we might have ourselves a serial.”
Erwin scoffed, shaking his head. “What’s ta say he ain’t the first? Where’s the fuckin’ evidence? Judgin’ by the way it’s been botched up, I’m thinkin’ we got ourselves a new guy here. I ain’t sayin’ he’s not a potential serial, but this piece’a’shit ain’t…experienced.”
“Nah,” Levi shook his head. “This ain’t no new guy. I’m tellin’ ya, Smith, he had a plan, he fucked it up, he panicked. Plain as the nose on your face.”