Under the San Luis Bridge
by Gary Clifton
At my first spoonful of Chez Pierre’s famous Cajun lifesaving gumbo, my cellphone screeched. The night before had run a tad long. I felt like death eating a cactus. After a long pull on a tall cold one, I answered: “Kratzert.”
I copped another slug of beer and heavenly music wafted in. Survival might be an option after all. Then, the headache monster took another giant bite into my brain.
“Mr. Kratzert, you prolly don’t remember me. I’m Calvin Simpson, from down in Harbor City. You busted me for shootin’ a guy in a fight back in ’04. Got me a nickel in the joint, but you spoke up for early parole. I only did a year.”
That was a lot of shootings ago. “Where did you shoot the guy, Calvin?”
“In the ass.”
“No, where were you?”
“The Rusty Bucket, down on South Calhoun.”
“Oh, hell yeah, Calvin,” I lied. “How ya been doing?” If this was a threat, he’d waited long enough.
“Still a longshoreman down on the ship channel. I heard you took a bad one in the leg and ain’t no Houston homicide cop no more. Workin’ as a P.I.? I’m needin’ a P.I.”
“How can I help you?” I couldn’t remember this guy from squat.
“Mr. Kratzert, my baby was campin’ with a dude down at Galveston and they went missin’.”
“Camping?” I sneaked a slurp of gumbo.
“They always like to sleep in a damned tent beneath that bridge where the Blue Water Highway goes over the San Luis Pass.”
He was talking about a popular camping area where the toll bridge connecting Galveston and Brazoria Counties spans the San Luis Pass. The pass was a waterway between West Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. People who could handle the sand and sand fleas, plus the heat and humidity, often put up their tents under the causeway to avoid beer bottles and other debris tossed over the bridge rail by motorists passing above.
“What makes you think—?”
“I’m callin’ from the campsite. They tent is here and all they gear, but they and they pickup ain’t.” Two guys camping across the beach tol’ me they was a couple of dudes sitting’ with them around a campfire yesterday evening. Whaddya charge, Mr. Kratzert?”
“Fifty an hour. Five hundred up front.”
“I got cash, Mr. Kratzert.”
If ex-con longshoreman Calvin had cash, it was from some branch of the parasitic crime that clung to life like the tar baby along the Houston International Ship Channel. No matter, it would spend.
“Who we talkin’ about?” I finished my beer and motioned the bartender to bring another.
“My baby daughter, Emily Sue, and a dude she lays up with, Billy Jack Crowder. They call him B.J., she’s nineteen, he’s gotta be thirty. Been outta the joint six, eight months.”
“Calvin, you’re in a small incorporated city there, Pointe View I think it’s called. I know they have a police department. Have you—?”
“Chief Dumbass and Patrolman Dumbass have both been out here. They ain’t interested.” I knew Chief Dumbass. Not dumb at all; she’d been a Houston patrol cop before she quit to move to slower and more scenic surroundings in the tiny Gulf town. I had no idea who Patrolman Dumbass might be.
“I’m over an hour away, Calvin.”
“I can wait here under the bridge for you.”
I gambled he had both cash and no intent to even up with me, finished my gumbo and beer, and headed my GMC down the Gulf Freeway.
* * *
I called Rose, my former secretary in Homicide and asked for whatever she could find on Calvin, Emily Sue, and Crowder. She snorted something about me no longer being a City of Houston employee and hung up. But I knew she’d deliver. Rose and I had history.
Siri found a number for the Pointe View Police Department. “Chief Torsola.”
“Hey, Maria, Dave Kratzert. How’s tricks?”
“Hey, Dave. I drove up to see you in the hospital, but you were so doped up, you didn’t recognize me. How’s the leg?”
“Runnin’ in the next Olympics, kiddo.”
“Great. You callin’ to come down and buy me a drink on that big money you’re makin’ in the PI bidness?”
“I’m on the way down, all right, and I’ll buy you two drinks. But a client called. Says his daughter and her boyfriend disappeared from a campsite under the San Luis Bridge.”
“Aw, hell, Dave, you’re talkin’ about old Calvin... uh, Simpson. I was just out there. That useless daughter of his disappears regularly. They live twenty miles away, but she turns tricks in those hotels and bars along the San Luis Pass Highway. Nose around the campsite and you might find a multiplicity of semen samples. That barf-bucket she’s running with, Crowder, is beyond dirtbag life expectancy. If you’re on the way to the bridge, I’ll drop by in a bit.”
My headache and I were nearly across the causeway onto Galveston Island when Rose called back from Homicide. Calvin had a pair of arrests for fighting prior to the shot-in-the-ass conviction I’d busted him for, and nothing else.
Billy Jack Crowder, 32, had a four-page sheet and two trips to the joint. Emily had been arrested three times for prostitution in Galveston County, plus an arrest for shoplifting in Houston. This bunch would definitely not be the replacement for the new TV edition of The Waltons.
“Dave, I can scan these records and mugshots and email them if you find a place to land.”
“This is gonna cost you another trip over to my place one night soon, Kratzert. Is your leg in good enough shape?”
“Good as new, Rosie.” I hung up, proud recipient of two suggestive female offers in an hour, which doubled the year’s total. Being a middle-aged sex object was hell.
* * *
I swung along Seawall Boulevard, which becomes the San Luis Pass Road. The west beach area of Galveston County had seen an explosion of hotels, bars, and seafood restaurants, intermingled with dozens of beach homes on stilts. The raised structures might avoid wet feet in an average sea swell, but the next hurricane would blow them halfway to Houston.
With the bridge looming overhead, a greasy specimen in dire need of a shave and bath sat holding a tallboy in an old Dodge pickup. I wasn’t sure which smelled worse: Calvin or the general stench of dead fish and soggy beach. He was far enough into the bag at midday that his eyes were out of focus.
“Good to see you again, Calvin,” I lied again, hoping I had the right mope. The stifling humidity backed by midday July swelter absorbed me like a wet blanket. A glut of squawking seagulls drifted just out of reach overhead, anxious to steal any food item available.
“Hey, Mr. Kratzert.”
I gestured toward the channel. “Calvin, the water under that bridge is notoriously dangerous. Currents dig deep holes just off the water’s edge. They lose tourists frequently. You sure—?”
“Emily Sue was too smart for that, and ’sides, they truck is missin’.” He pointed at a yellow pop-up tent staked in the sand nearby. “They wouldn’t a’ left without they gear.”
I poked around in the campsite. A fluorescent camp light with a dead battery, several towels, a small charcoal grill and other gear appeared untouched. The bonfire residue was still too warm to touch. “Calvin, did the Pointe View cops look for blood? Gather any sort of evidence?”
“Yessir, they looked. The lady chief crawled around in the tent and didn’t find nuthin’. The other cop stood around in a daze.”
I circled on foot in a wider area evidence search. The popular spot was crisscrossed with tire prints. One set, showing heavy, mismatched all-weather tread, had been parked within ten feet of the vacant tent. If any vehicle was related, this was it. I shot several cellphone angles with Calvin standing gape-mouthed, watching.
Beside the tire tracks, a crumpled Marlboro Black Label cigarette box was discarded atop a pile of closely smoked filter tips. Somebody, out of smokes, had probably emptied the ashtray searching for a useable butt. I scooped the Marlboro box and ashtray debris into a plastic baggie from behind my pickup seat.
A five-year old Dodge with an emergency light visibar mounted on top scrunched down the beach sand. Maria Torsola grinned and greeted, “Dave... Mr. Simpson.” She was mid-thirties, trim, with shoulder-length blonde hair. Lookin’ fresh and smokin’ hot in spite of the heat and humidity, she’d been working on her tan. She was still the looker I recalled from her days with the Houston P.D.
Calvin didn’t like it much, but we managed to convince him his best place during the “crisis” was at home. We’d be certain to call him as soon as anything developed. I said, “Uh, Calvin... five hundred.” He ponied up a fist full of cash and spun way in the sand. The stench subsided as he disappeared down the main highway.
“Maria, we don’t even know if a crime has been committed, but I gotta scratch in the sand to earn my retainer.”
“I agree, probably no crime, Dave, but I’ll do what I can. I have one officer, and he’s dumber than a day-old dog, so it’s basically just me ’n you.”
“Maria, I’m sure Calvin already mentioned that two guys told him Crowder and Emily Sue sat at a campfire near their tent last night with a pair of other guys. Those witnesses gotta be those two over there.” I pointed up the beach.
The pair were married men — to each other — who worked as computer programmers in Houston. Both provided ID, which Maria verified by radio — no record of arrest for either.
One said, “The girl and that sleazy guy with her came over here. She offered sex for cash. Yeech, nothin’ we’d be interested in.” He smiled at his partner. “Later we saw an old van over there with two additional men sitting around a campfire with them. Van had two rear doors and one of the two was white.” Of course they didn’t know the make, color, or State of issue of the license on the van. I wondered how they knew to call it “old.”
We tossed the tent again. No blood or other samples matching the fluids Maria had suggested.
“Maria, you got a clue which of those hotels or low-rent bars across the way Emily Sue might use to troll for customers?”
“More or less. The better hotels and restaurants screen for hookers pretty good. Couple of places aren’t beneath lookin’ the other way for a cut of the action.”
“Can you drive us past your station? I got photos comin’ down from Houston.”
* * *
The Pointe View police station was tucked into a small mobile home. I wondered how far it would blow in the next hurricane. I emailed Rose in Homicide. Shortly, a series of RAP sheets and mug photos slithered out in return, with a notation on the header: “Kratzert, dammit, you have my number.”
Calvin’s photo proved he was the same guy who’d just fronted me five hundred, although I still didn’t remember him. B.J. Crowder was an oily dude so skinny he could find shelter from rain under a clothesline. Emily Sue was dumpy, pimply, and ugly. “Maria, this chick could turn tricks only in a very dim light.”
“Maybe only with very drunk tricks.” Her cellular buzzed. She spoke and hung up. “Gotta assist in a major car crash back toward town.” She looked at the phone. “I’ll call you when I’m clear. Try the Hill Smith Motel. Guy named Claude Mosey runs the place. He’s a two-time ex-con, but the license is in his mother’s name. He’s off parole. Someway conned the State liquor board into allowing him behind the bar. They call him ‘Loafer’. New guy just reopened Cracker John’s, next door... a weirdo. Don’t know him yet, but word is they work together running whores.”
* * *
The Hill Smith Motel was a one-story affair, with a bar across the front, with a few motel rooms visible along the back under the same roof. At mid-afternoon, clientele consisted of one drunk at the end of the bar. The odorous stink of decay inside made breathing a challenge. A bartender slouched behind the bar, talking into a cellular. He clicked off the phone at my approach.
“Howdy, Loafer,” I said, sliding onto a wobbly barstool. He was forty, sweaty, with thinning hair receding about eight inches above the eyebrows — not the kind of guy you loan ten bucks.
“Whaddya have?” he growled.
I ordered a beer. As he plunked it on the bar, I calculated and flashed my old Houston P.D. badge. Hell, it was only a felony to impersonate a police officer. “Workin’ on a homicide. Need to see your surveillance tapes from last night.”
“I’ll ask the questions.”
He reached casually toward the bar.
I stepped back, pulled up my shirt, and showed the .38 snub.
“Hey, whoa the hell up, dude.” He stepped back, eyes wide.
I circled the end of the bar, passing behind the drunk at the end and found the revolver Loafer was flirting with beneath the cash register. I opened the cylinder and dumped six cartridges on the floor, then started back around front. I tapped the drunk on a shoulder.
“Police, partner. You’ve had enough. Don’t let the door hit you in the ass. And pay your tab, plus tip, please.”
Grumbling incoherently, he tossed a twenty on the bar and staggered out. I turned back to Loafer.
“Surveillance tapes?” he asked. “I’m thinkin’ them tapes already been used over.”
“Loafer, I’ve seen your sheet. Surveillance tapes or you’re busted for obstruction after I walk halfway to the jailhouse with my foot in your ass.”
“Damn, dude, what the hell I did?” He paled visibly as he reached up and pulled a video tape from a worn recorder. “It only shows the front door, officer.” A little inclination toward violence had once again created a cathartic transformation from badass to good citizen.
I tossed the mug shots of Emily Sue and Crawford on the bar. “We have reliable information these two were in here late last night. Mighta been with two other men. We know you were here,” I lied again. “What did you see?”
In the ex-con’s reluctance to leave fingerprints, he examined the photos without touching. He shook his head. “Ain’t never seen ’em.” His face said “liar.”
“They show up on this tape later, and you need to move to Cuba, dude.”
“Hey, hell, people come in and out I don’t always see. Besides, they’s a side door over there.” He gestured.
Despite his conversion to semi-cooperative, years of talking to losers said something wasn’t right. I had other places to canvass and his tape to examine. I played dumb, which wasn’t hard to do, and started for the door. “Have your tape back tomorrow, Loafer.”
* * *
Copyright © 2020 by Gary Clifton