by Patricia Brown
Here is yet another Christmas mystery short story, this one has never before been published and is set in Fresno. Patricia Brown is a member of the San Joaquin Chapter of Sisters In Crime and this is her second published short story and KRL has another coming in 2012 in this same series.
Dr. Aurora Callicoat stuck the teaspoon in the peanut butter jar to reach the last, delicious gooey glob. It was one of many vices she not-so-secretly harbored.
“You know, Alfred, in gang’s slang “peanut” is a derogative term for a rival gang member?” They sat with their rum and eggnog in her secluded ivy-covered brick home on the corner of Butler and Clovis Avenues in Fresno. She had purchased the enclave with the royalties from her last best-seller, Prison Gangs Unleashed. Susan Boyle and her Christmas carols kept them company as the fire crackled and nutcrackers on the mantle stood at perpetual attention.
Alfred was not as enamored as his employer at the intricacies of the over 100 gangs that haunted the Central Valley of the once-almighty San Joaquin River. They defaced walls and overpasses with vile graffiti marking their territories like a dog lifting its leg. Taggers often mark their own bodies with the same signatures they spray on buses and storefronts. And, they often kill each other.
Self-mutilation and murder by domestic warfare was not in Alfred’s play book. A knee injury had derailed his tennis career, and he had found a home being a confidante and sidekick to the good doctor’s Sherlock. Feeling the warmth of the eggnog kick in, Alfred was going to humor her in order to mask his overwhelming desire just then to change the subject. He didn’t have time.
Aurora’s cell phone rang. At close to midnight, it could only be homicide Detective Myrick London. He worked the westside, downtown and southeast areas of Fresno and had relied on Aurora’s expertise on gangs to solve the last three gang executions in the City, including the one at Wong’s Tea Garden of General Vang Her. He marveled how the Cal educated doctor could decipher the gang graffiti and tats like an art historian evaluating a piece for an upcoming Sotheby’s auction. Although Christmas eve, he knew he could lure Aurora out in the tule fog to help on Fresno’s record 76th homicide of the year.
“I’ll be there in fifteen, Myrick.” Alfred noted the first-name basis, but kept it to himself. He climbed into the driver’s seat of Aurora’s red Jaguar. There hadn’t been enough booze in the eggnog, thank God, to make an ant drunk. A bit ostentatious he thought to have your “valet” drive you to a crime scene, but Aurora wasn’t an ordinary sleuth. And he was the designated driver since he had had one less swig of eggnog.
He took Butler to Chestnut to Church and then under Hwy 41 and Hwy 99 at a reasonable speed given the dense tule fog. He wished he had a leader car. As soon as they went over three sets of railroad tracks, the manicured hedges of Aurora’s section of Sunnyside gave way to run-down wineries, vacant lots, and sleazy motels. The street lights were few and far between. He turned right onto Elm and as he got 100 yards closer to the Valley Gas station he could finally see the police lights and crime scene tape. Blue icicle Christmas lights dripped from the rooftop and radiated a blue aura in the fog. The body lay outside between two pumps covered with a sheet that can only mean someone’s demise on the holiest of holiest nights.
Aurora zippered her ski coat up tightly to her neck to ward off the wet chill. The gas station sat eschewed on the lot facing out towards the intersection, so the black spray from the graffiti was still dripping on the side of the building where she and Alfred had pulled up. Aurora had to hand it to the murderer, almost all the words were spelled correctly: “The theef comes only to steal and kill and destroy.”
“A calling card no doubt.” Det. Myrick London emerged from the fog. He was tall and handsome and with that moustache was teased too often for his own good by the other officers as being “the Black Tom Selleck.”
Aurora was eyeing the graffiti Alfred could tell with her art historian’s hat. She noted right away that it was not a tagger’s normal, run-of-the mill calling card.
“It doesn’t reveal his identity and for a tagger, identity is everything. Unless he killed a rival gang banger and didn’t feel in the bragging mood.”
“Do you think he misspelled “thief” on purpose and his real name is an anagram for “theef,” doctor?” Det. London always addressed Aurora by her title in professional settings. Alfred suspected they had been on more familiar terms years ago.
“No. It doesn’t seem like an m.o., more like a quote or a clue. We need a Bartlett’s or a Bible or a Torah or Koran. Alfred, do you have an app on that cell phone of yours that could help us?”
Another detective approached them. “Det. London, looks like the peanut was a Bulldog gang member definitely out on parole. Hispanic, age 22, named Efren Javier Eduardo Valenzuela. Did three years in San Quentin for thirteen residential armed robberies. Father deceased. We’re trying to contact his mother. He had a 9mm with a full clip. Shot in the back walking out of the gas station. Found this in one of his pockets, we’ve already fingerprinted it.”
Myrick lifted the baggie to see a tiny white Bible, maybe two inches at that. “Hand me some gloves, Bailey.” He carefully pulled the miniature Bible out of the Ziploc. It held only the New Testament.
“Too small for a concordance,” Aurora noted. But she noticed that some verses were highlighted in yellow. Flipping through, they hit the jackpot at John 10:10. Myrick read it aloud,” The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.”
“So, this could be the calling card of a religious zealot or someone who was kind enough to give the victim a warning. That’s it! The killer’s name is John!” Aurora had the best deductive reasoning in the business.
Aurora took the mandatory look-see under the sheet. Efren was lying on his stomach, so Aurora could see the tats on the back of his neck where they peeked out from the baseball cap. On the right was a dragon, a symbol of the Bulldog gang, and the left–a bit harder to see because the head was tilted to the right–was a tat of a perfectly folded pair of hands in prayer. Another religious reference, Aurora thought.
She was fascinated by tattoos. Mainly, because she couldn’t understand how anyone could desecrate themselves that way. Because of the metals in the tattoo ink, anyone with a tattoo couldn’t get an MRI if their life depended on it. And because of the avocation of gang members like Efren, sometimes their lives would literally depend on it.
She and Alfred followed Detective London around the corner to Poppy Street off California, about a short block from the gas station. Efren’s body was already in the van back to the morgue.
His mother’s home was a blue clapboard in the middle of the block surrounded by a black, ugly steel fence which obviously didn’t keep crime from intruding in the occupants’ lives. Aurora never got use to using her best doctor’s bedside manner to notify a mother of her child’s death. She was glad she had that egg nog to ease her sting.
As they climbed the porch, they noticed that LED had come to Poppy Street and the blue icicles framed the window where a very sad Charlie Brown Christmas tree in the window displayed its lack of gifts. Santa had passed over the Valenzuela home and the chihuahua’s excessive yapping heralded the fact that the shadow of death was about to enter instead.
Olgalidia Valenzuela couldn’t contain herself and let out the expected, but nonetheless chilling, scream of a mother’s pain, waking her other two children. Her husband, Efren’s stepdad, Alejandro Nicollini, crossed himself and yelled out not Efren’s name, but “Johnny!” Both the name and the gesture were not lost on either Aurora or London.
“Who’s Johnny?” London asked.
“My son, Efren’s stepbrother. I told them both never to join the gangs, but nothin’ we could do would stop them. They both left about ten. Efren said he was going to get the stash of toys from Santa at his Aunt’s for his sisters. Johnny was just going to get his stash, I guess. I don’t know where he is. He ain’t come home.”
It was four on Christmas morning when Aurora and Alfred returned to her home and crashed in opposite ends of the house. To his chagrin, London never managed to get Aurora under the mistletoe that night.
*****SIX MONTHS LATER*****
Aurora noticed that London was standing too close to her chair while she perused the mug shot book. With all the budget cuts, Police Commissioner Dyer hadn’t laid London off–yet. But the department had reverted to cheesy printouts of mug shots instead of the glorious digitized versions of the department’s flush years. Dyer opted for keeping the field force like London and had let the support techies go.
Aurora couldn’t help but notice how good London smelled. She couldn’t remember if it was Hilfiger or Perry Ellis, but she didn’t care. It reminded her of how incredibly sexy their tryst had been and for a nano-second, she regretted she had cut their affair off. But, just for a nano-second.
She tried to stay on task.
She was looking for a peanut who had killed a Bulldog gang member named Efren on Christmas Eve. The department had finally gotten hip and had photographed gang members picked up for tagging or for some other non-violent crime without their shirts on to record their tattoos. Aurora knew from her research on her best seller that the number “13,” for instance, was a signature tattoo of a prison gang. She was on her fifth mug shot volume when she found it.
“It” was the most unusual tat she had ever seen. On this Hispanic kid’s chest was a story, really. It showed a peanut–a picture similar to the one in the Mr. Peanut commercials, but without the top hat and cane. On this kid’s chest, the peanut was falling forward on its face, shot in the back. She looked at the identification: the kid in the photo had been picked up for driving with a suspended license and no plates in a stolen car just last week. He had been released.
She put the magnifying glass to the photo. She could clearly see the peanut fall between two pumps. She could see the Christmas lights draped from the station roof. And, then, amazingly, she could read the words on the guy’s chest: “The theef comes only to steal and kill and to destroy.” Aurora couldn’t believe her eyes! But, there was more.
After the misspelled Bible verse was all the evidence needed to put the kid away for life for the shooting of his stepbrother. The killer had tattooed his confession to the murder on his own chest. Tattooed under the verse was “John 10:10.”
Detective London put the all-points bulletin out immediately. Johnny Nicollini’s arrest at his stepmother’s blue clapboard house on Poppy went viral on the Internet after the media got a hold of his mug shot chronicling his stepbrother’s murder. The tattoo “artist” in the Tower District who had drawn the murder freehand on Johnny’s chest during the three-hour sessions over the course of the last six months got jail time as an accessory after the fact. And Aurora got a hefty advance from her publisher on the sequel to her book on gangs, this time called The Case of the Tattooed Confession.
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