Measure Twice, Cut Once
by Gary Clifton
Detective Gordon Makowski was inching his way toward downtown Houston in his battered, city-owned, “take-home,” hubcapless Dodge. His cellular buzzed. A Houston cop twenty-two years, assigned the past three years to the greater Houston Metropolitan Police Homicide Task Force, Makowski had learned cellular phones were about equally divided between convenience and bad news. This was the latter.
“Detective Makanski?” The young dispatcher asked, a trace of apology in her voice. The department had gravitated to the greater privacy of cellular in recent years to combat the army of news media types who could easily monitor the P.D. radio system.
“Close enough.” Makowski was as fit as twenty years of sin and degeneracy would allow, with an invasion of gray gradually winning the battle against his carefully coifed combover.
Tall and slender, Makowski was widely known in the department for of the dime-sized .38 caliber bullet scar on both cheeks; living proof of a doper’s lack of marksmanship years earlier. The guy had been aiming at his temple but shot low, only managing to knock out two upper jaw teeth on each side while not decapitating his tongue.
“Triple homicide in the Batista Auto Repair Shop in the Heights on 20th. You and Detective Spinelli are up. I’ll call him.”
“I can get there in about fifteen minutes. Show me as out at the scene.”
“Yes, sir,” she hung up.
Makowski glanced at his watch. The time was 6:55 a.m. He wondered if the crime had occurred early in the morning or after closing the night before.
He eased the Dodge among the tangle of emergency vehicles, found vinyl gloves in his glovebox, and slipped under the yellow crime scene tape. An unusually sharp January wind cut through his clothes. By afternoon, a breeze from the Gulf of Mexico would bump the temperature to shirtsleeve comfortable.
A uniformed sergeant at the door caught his eye. “Bloodbath in there, Ski. Two adults and a nine-year old kid. Looks like they’re all dead of a combination of shotgun and an axe.”
Detective Geno Spinelli strolled up. Stocky, nearing mandatory retirement, he was distinctive in a crowd for his full head of snow-white hair, which he frequently, to the constant complaints of the brass, did not keep cropped as short as regulation dictated. A head shorter than Makowski and twenty years older, Spinelli was well known and widely feared by a sizeable portion of the Houston criminal element, with good reason.
“Like me, you hopin’ this isn’t a part of the Los Cubanos beef with the Bloodlords?”
“Geno, that’s more a matter of too many hookers occupying territory in close quarters with two factions and all wantin’ to run the most girls on the street. If I recollect rightly, the guy that runs this repair shop is a shaker and mover in the Bloodlords outlaw biker gang. Surely all that talk we’ve been hearing from the gang unit is just that: tough talk, but still talk. It just isn’t the type of deal that calls for mass murder, even though running two rival whorehouses so close together is pretty damned stupid.”
The Bloodlords owned a ramshackle building only a block up the street from the murder scene, which served as a hangout, a club, or a house, depending on who was describing. A few cots inside offered a place to flop for members down on their occupancy luck or for Bloodlord prostitutes to use to ply their trade. Makowski knew Batista Auto repair, now a bloody crime scene, was also a nest for use by Los Cubanos street girls. As long as they didn’t kill one another, the geography was not his worry.
A distraught woman of about forty was sitting in the back seat of a squad car parked at the curb, obviously a relative of one of the victims. They’d interview her after they got a grip on the crime scene.
A burly man with “Medical Examiner” across his back was bent over the body of a child.
“Gilberto Batista,” he looked up at the two detectives. “No ID, but that woman you can hear screaming in the squad car out front is his mother. Says he’s nine. She says the fat guy over there” — he pointed at a corpulent man on his back on the floor, his head smashed in a pool of crimson — “is her husband, Herman, 42. Guy in the back room is Herman’s brother Oscar, a couple of years younger.”
Inspection of all three bodies showed each had been disabled by a shotgun blast in the hips or legs, then bludgeoned beyond recognition with a bloody axe, which lay near the child’s body. Both cops could tell from the conditions of the bodies, the killings had occurred within the past hour or two.
“Doc?” Makowski asked the M.E. “That mother out there say why the kid was up so early?”
“Said his daddy was gonna take him to Christian school up on State Street in a couple of hours. They live way out in the Third Ward, and that’s how the kid gets to school every day.”
Spinelli rolled his cigar stub to a corner of his mouth. “Ski, if the Cubanos and the Bloodlords were fighting over space for their hookers to work, it seems to me they’d just drift a block further down the sidewalk in opposite directions. Once retribution-type killing starts, it’s hard to stop, especially if it’s about whore space.”
“I figure there’s gotta be a bigger problem here than sidewalk space, Geno. We need to go visit the Bloodlords. Any of them staying in that place will be asleep this early. We can round up some Cubano guys later.”
* * *
Not surprisingly, the front door to the storefront the Bloodlords called a clubhouse was locked. Spinelli banged until a dirty man of thirty with black, greasy, shoulder-length hair answered.
“Spinelli, whut the hell?”
Spinelli pushed past him to find three of the cots occupied by similarly unsavory men and one by a nude blonde saturated with tattoos. A nude man and an equally tattooed nude woman, both thirty going on sixty were lying on a mattress in a far corner.
“Greetings, citizens,” Spinelli boomed. “Everyone get their asses on or around this sofa here.” To the nude woman from the mattress he said, “Good grief, ladies, cover yourselves. I got a weak stomach.”
“Whut the hell, Spinelli?” repeated the man who’d admitted them. “We ain’t did—”
“Save it, Two Jumps. Somebody strolled down to Batista’s a couple hours ago and offed three people, one a nine year old kid. Now we know you want to give consent to search this rats’ nest so we don’t gotta get a search warrant, arrest the whole damned bunch of you, and bulldoze the building.”
Two Jumps — so named because he’d had a disabled foot shot partially off by a cop years earlier — said, “Spinelli, we ain’t killed nobody. Search all you damned please.”
In three minutes, Makowski found a loaded .12-gauge pump shotgun hidden inside a wall where the Sheetrock had been shattered to make a hole. He sniffed the chamber and smelled fresh cordite. The weapon had been fired.
“Two Jumps, you know the rules. Somebody’s gotta go to jail and you lose. Put on some clothes or go to Sterrett in your whitey tighties. It’s nippy outside this morning.”
They booked Two Jumps into the Sterrett Center, checked the shotgun into evidence, and spent an hour digging through DPD computerized records.
Herman Batista, now in the morgue, was a member in good standing with the Los Cubanos, as was his brother, Oscar, and fourteen other members who’d been identified by the Gang Unit.
Two Jumps, real name Jacob Wilson, was listed among the Bloodlords along with twenty other identified members.
“Ski, we have here one hell of a mess and not a clue beyond general stupidity to go on.”
“Try dispatch records, complaints, freshly reported crimes of violence someway associated with the name Herman Batista. Something had to have started this.”
In a half hour, they struck gold or, at least, gold dust.
“Spinelli, a woman, Ruby Dent, 31, lives up on Little York Road in one of those crappy apartments, reported her daughter, Jessie Sue, 12, raped three days ago and badly beaten. She’s still in Harris Hospital, looks like. Ruby told the uniforms Herman Batista was the rapist, but there was no evidence to pursue.”
“She say the perp was our Herman Batista, now in the morgue along with his brother and son?”
Makowski said, “No, she just says Herman Batista, calls him Mexican, not Cuban; but she wouldn’t know the subtleties. She’s not involved in the Bloodlords-Los Cubanos squabble as far as I can tell.”
“How did she conclude our dead guy was the rapist?”
“Looks like Ruby is a hooker, also, multiple arrests. She said she knew him from previous ‘business transactions’.”
Spinelli punched computer keys. “Sure as sundown, there are three Herman Batistas on file here. One is deceased three years past, one is a mechanic who we just saw with his head bashed in, and the third’s last known address was up north, not too far from Ruby Dent.”
Makowski’s radar flicked on. “That might be a lead worth lookin’ at.”
* * *
They found Jessie Sue Dent’s room in the vast caverns of Harris Memorial Hospital. A slender man of thirty with a scraggly goatee, his forearms covered with tattoos, was just stepping out of the room into the hallway.
Experience told Makowski to act. “Houston police, mister,” he flashed his badge. “What say you just step back inside?”
The man tensed, as if to run.
“Or you can run, at which time we’ll catch you, and Detective Spinelli will pull off your left ear. Then you go to jail tired and will never be able to wear stolen sunglasses again. Detective Spinelli already doesn’t like you.”
Spinelli assumed his “pull off an ear” expression.
The man wilted.
“What’s your name, ratface?” Makowski asked.
“Jesus, man, chill. My name is Darryl Smith.” He dug in his rear blue jeans pocket and produced a Texas driver’s license with his picture and the name Darryl Smith trapped beneath the celluloid.
Spinelli rolled his unlit cigar stub. “We find this counterfeit, Darryl, and it’s back to the joint.”
“What makes you think—
“Cuz’ you smell like ex-con, dude.” Spinelli grinned.
A hard-looking female, attracted by the noise, stepped out of the room.
“You’d be Ruby Dent?” Makowski flashed the badge again.
“What’s it to you, cop?” Her eyes said she’d already been at the stash this early in the day, probably while spending the night in her daughter’s hospital room. “Death warmed over” came to Makowski’s mind.
Makowski said, “We’re genuinely sorry about your daughter. Is she gonna be okay?”
“You ain’t sorry for crap. Whuda y’all want?”
“Herman Batista?” Spinelli said.
“Bastard raped my baby. Beat her half to death. She’s got female injuries. They’ll keep her down for weeks.”
Makowski and Spinelli exchanged glances. “Female” injuries to a hooker, especially a juvenile, tended to be more a job interruption than among people in normal society.
Makowski asked, “How well do you know Herman Batista?”
“He just comes ’round. Likes little girls. But I ain’t admitting Jessie Sue was turnin’ tricks,” she added hurriedly.
Spinelli asked, “Herman live out there around you?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Stays in the apartment complex next door to me.”
The veteran cops again exchanged glances. Herman’s widow had just stated they lived in Third Ward, ten heavy traffic miles distant.
“He run that auto repair shop in the Heights?” Makowski asked.
“I see his name ever’ time I go by there. That’s gotta be him.”
“You send this maggot to get even, Ruby? We have eyewitnesses.” Makowski was bluffing.
Both cops caught the slight facial twitch of Darryl Smith.
Spinelli rolled his cigar stub. “Darryl, we’re gonna find your DNA on something in that murder scene. It’s the needle for you, dude, and this heifer walks. She still turnin’ tricks, and you spend years in a cage, then they stick needles in your useless ass.”
Smith turned to Ruby, confession prominent in his eyes. “Ruby, dammit, you said—”
Ruby, stoned and belligerent, lost it. “Sucker rapes your baby, I believe in payback in kind. Kill his damned kid.”
Darryl Smith made a desperate lunge down the hall. Makowski had him handcuffed behind in seconds.
Spinelli said, “Ruby, you toked-out idiot, you and this dirtbag murdered the wrong Batistas. The Herman Batista in the auto repair shop was a family man who had no idea who your daughter was. Now you’re both looking at the three-needle cocktail.”
“Darryl done it all. He was pimping Jessie Sue. I’m innocent.”
Darryl squirmed. “Bitch, you’re a damned liar. The shotgun — you bought it at the same time you bought the ax at Ace Pawn — it’s under my bed at the apartment. I ain’t getting no needle on account you ain’t got enough sense to know who to kill.”
Makowski said, “Hard luck, Ruby. I’ll call patrol to transport you two to jail. Spinelli, if you get started on the search warrant affidavit for Ruby’s apartment, I’ll run down to Sterrett and release a biker.”
“Don’t give him back that shotgun. Gotta be stolen.”
“My God,” Ruby wailed. “What’s a mother to do to protect—”
“Try not to put her on the streets until she’s at least a teenager,” Spinelli said sarcastically as he snapped the cuffs on her.
Copyright © 2017 by Gary Clifton