Excerpt from Heat Lightning
Beneath the vapor lights past moonrise, all color is corrupted. From the humid, summer night sky to the paint of cars in a parking lot to the ski mask worn by the single, sweating man there, nothing appears natural. Nothing appears real.
But the man inside the ski mask doesn’t notice, absorbed as he is by the small, square SUV whose lights have just winked out. His full attention is commanded by the slender figure emerging from the vehicle and by his own, vise-like grip on the steel shopping cart he has maneuvered into prime position.
That focus is his gift, the blessing left to him in place of the fool’s burden of a conscience. Tonight it serves him well – or would, except he fails to note the other vehicle that slips into the lot, its headlights dark despite the dim illumination. The movement is peripheral, no more important than the stirring of hot breezes or the first pulse of distant thunder . . .
Or the question of what color blood will gleam beneath these eerie lights.
If anyone in Houston should avoid a poorly-lit grocery store parking lot after sunset, it was Luz Maria Montoya, who had spent the past three years pissing off people for a living. Not that she lost much sleep worrying about it. Her job, as spokesperson for the Voice of Poverty, charged her with speaking out for those who couldn’t afford the fancy lawyers of the select citizens she offended during her frequent appearances on the evening news.
The trouble was, the business leaders, politicians, and prominent sports figures she went after could afford more than just attorneys. And some of the “help” they hired didn’t hesitate to color outside of the lines. Besides that, a number of public figures, especially the sports icons, had unbalanced fans, who wrote her equally unbalanced letters. And then there were Luz Maria’s own “admirers,” men – and the occasional woman – caught up in the drama of a fresh-faced twenty-six-year-old against the system. With her wavy, waist-length hair, her flowing skirts and tinkling bracelets, Luz Maria had apparently become a gypsy warrior goddess in the pantheon of the slightly off. So far this summer, along with the usual hate mail, she had received twenty-seven letters of admiration, eight marriage proposals, and a good many more less traditional invitations – the kind that would have her mama insisting she give up tilting at windmills, or at least cut her black hair short and dress en ropa profesional. Luz Maria sighed, thinking how Mama’s version of business attire would likely involve a suit of armor bristling with padlocks.
But as she hustled through the scattered parked cars at 10:37 on a suffocatingly-humid August night, Luz Maria Montoya wasn’t thinking of the nasty phone messages or the even uglier e-mails and letters she had received in recent days. Her work attracted such things, as naturally as her exhalations drew mosquitoes angling for a late-night snack.
She swatted at a small cloud of the insects as thunder murmured in the distance, then teased her with a half-hearted breeze that stirred the heavy air. Heat lightning licked at the horizon, and Luz Maria thought of turning back for her umbrella. Instead, she flipped her single braid over her shoulder and picked up her pace, eager to escape to the air-conditioned store and grab the only necessities she would be desperate enough to stop for on her way home from a late meeting: Chicken Nibblets canned cat food and a box of tampons.
The nibblets were for Borracho, the battle-scarred old tom cat who had wandered into her life – and the open window of her apartment – about six months earlier. The yellow-eyed tabby, with his torn ears, scruffy black-and-silver fur, and broken-off fang, had been so put out after she had had him neutered that ever afterward, he yowled with outrage if she dared present His Majesty with anything less than the most expensive cat food known to man.
Neutered or not, Borracho – Spanish for “drunkard” – had no use for the tampons. But as crampy as she felt, Luz Maria figured she would need them any time now. And a pint of vanilla Blue Bell ice cream, too, since Borracho wasn’t the only one known to compensate with a little pampering.
Heaven only knew that she could use some TLC after this evening’s meeting with the board of Tex-Rid, a company planning to build an industrial incinerator a couple of hundred yards upwind from the only low-income daycare center in a rural corner of the county. She’d even put on pantyhose – in this heat – for those idiotas, yet neither her sacrifice nor the half-dozen adorable toddlers she’d rounded up had dented their resistance.
“Certainly, we would have considered other locations” – Not bothering to hide his sneer, their pompous piojo of an attorney paused to clean his half-moon glasses with a linen handkerchief — “had there been any licensed childcare facilities in the vicinity.”
She would see how smug the louse was when she took reporters to film the sweet-faced grandmother hugging her little charges and serving homemade soups and tortas – irresistible Mexican sandwiches. That, in addition to the air quality reports her assistant had unearthed from other areas where Tex-Rid ran incinerators, ought to poke some anthills.
With her thoughts wandering toward a petition demanding a public hearing, Luz Maria was slow to see the movement out of the corner of her eye. Slow to recognize – was that a shopping cart pushed forward by the breeze? Reflexively pulling her shoulder bag beneath her elbow, she jerked her head toward the dull gleam –
And cried out at the sight of the steel cart rushing toward her, or more accurately, of the man running behind it, his face obscured by a ski mask.
With a grace borne of years of Latin dancing, Luz Maria whirled out of the cart’s path. Letting go of the handle, the man leapt at her.
Their collision abruptly cut off Luz Maria’s scream. She found herself pitching forward, her body twisting in mid-fall to land hard on her side.
A fraction of a second later, her attacker hurled himself onto her, slamming her rib cage against the asphalt and bumping her head painfully. There was a metallic clang – the cart striking a parked car. The shrill blast from its alarm cut through the buzzing in Luz Maria’s ears and the terror ripping through her.
Now straddling her, her attacker had his hands around her throat, the fingers digging painfully into the soft tissue. She struggled to scream again, but her lungs refused to fill. Fighting to pull his hands away, she ripped nails digging into what felt like gloves. Too late, she remembered the self-defense lessons her sister-in-law had taught her and slashed at her attacker’s face in a desperate struggle to reach the dark mask’s eyeholes.
Luz Maria’s world exploded into shards of sound: the buzzing in her skull, the wailing of the car alarm, an angry snarl of thunder and a distant voice – all overlaid with a torrent of profanity as her assailant shook her by the throat like a pit bull throttling a stray cat.
Behind her eyelids, heat lightning strobed, and there was a series of pops a moment before the cacophony inside her head rose to a crescendo . . .
But in the end, a deathly silence reigned.
“The way I see it,” Grant Holcomb’s newly-promoted partner, Billy Devlin, went on, “there’s not an honest man within a hundred-mile radius who’s got a ski mask in his closet. If we could get Wal-Mart and the like to track sales, we could just go ahead and bust the guys before they did any harm.”
Grant knew his young partner was deadly earnest, but if Grant laughed at him, the red-headed rookie investigator would simply stare back in confusion. Sucked the joy right out of teasing Howdy Doody.
“Interesting concept, Billy.” As Grant turned the corner, the unmarked Crown Victoria’s balding tires squealed, and it rent the thick night air with a greasy-sounding backfire. Unlike the “real” investigators in Homicide, those assigned to the Major Assaults Unit’s night shift always drew the shittiest heaps. “But what about all those guys preparing for their ski trips?”
Grant shrugged, then decided to screw with the kid despite his cluelessness. Grant told himself he was doing it to keep his skills sharp for the day he’d finally be assigned another partner evolved enough to appreciate his sense of humor, another partner who would get him the way John Zeman had. Besides, jerking chains was just as good as a fresh jolt of caffeine when it came to revving Grant up – or getting him through what promised to be one of the toughest victim interviews he’d ever conducted.
“Oh, yeah,” he said with a mock seriousness that would put the veterans in his unit on alert. “Most of ‘em are headed somewhere south of the Equator. Probably the Andes Mountains, down in Chile.”
“Don’t tell me they got skiing down there, too.” Billy’s blue eyes widened, looking lonesome in their nakedness, since his pale blonde brows and lashes were almost invisible. The effect was to make him look younger than his twenty-eight years and somewhat dim, too, which Grant figured could come in handy in their line of work.
Provided that Billy turned out to be smarter than he seemed. After a week together, the jury was still out on that question. If it proved to be the case, though, Grant thought they could get a lot of mileage out of the Good Cop-Dumb Cop routine.
“Oh, yeah. It’s a well-known defense among criminals in this part of the city,” Grant said as they rolled up to a red light on Fannin. “Just before popping on their ski masks to commit a violent crime, they book Chilean ski trip packages on the Internet. Then if they don’t get caught, they cancel.”
During the pause that followed, Grant could’ve sworn he actually heard gears grinding inside his partner’s head. As Grant wondered who the hell had given the kid the answers to the investigators’ test, Billy burst out with, “I’ve been warned about you, Holcomb. By more than one of your ex-partners. You like to fuck with people. Well, I’m here to tell you to save it for the suspects.”
Billy shot him an intense stare and Grant flipped on the dome light. Amazing. Though he was clearly pissed, without visible eyebrows, the kid couldn’t muster a facial expression if his very life depended on it.
“What the hell are you looking at?” asked Billy as he switched off the light.
“An edge,” Grant told him seriously. “And I can damned well guarantee we’re going to need one to get through an investigation involving this particular victim.”
“Luz Maria Montoya? I saw her on the news last week, demanding that somebody tear down those crack houses off of Navigation. Sure, she stirs up her fair share of shit now and then, but what’s the big deal? It’s the city she goes after, and rich jerkoffs who can’t think past their wallets. Not regular guys like us.”
After crossing the light rail tracks, Grant pulled into the hospital parking lot, swung into a space reserved for a day-shift administrator, and jammed the brakes on hard. His gaze locked front and center, he said, “The Z-man was a guy like us. A guy better than us – or me at any rate.”
Billy gripped the door handle, then hesitated before saying, “Aw, hell. I forgot about that. I – uh – I’m sorry, Grant. I heard he was your partner, but I completely forgot she was involved. I was still with the Northwest Patrol then, and I’d only been with the department for a few . . . Listen, you think you can handle this tonight? You don’t want any trouble your last shift before vacation. Let’s call the lieutenant to see if somebody else can take this –”
Grant popped the steering wheel with the heel of his hand, then ripped his shaking fingers through his short-cropped, wavy hair. “Lieutenant Mouton’s out on leave – and I can do my job. I just have to remember that this time, it’s Luz Maria Montoya who’s the victim, and looking into it’s my duty.”
If he was going to get through this investigation, he needed to keep focused on those two facts, instead of his regret.
The regret that Montoya’s assailant had fallen short in his attempt to kill her.