Fort Worth, Texas




Lead Detective Maxx Watts smelled death as he approached the old ranch house nestled among shade trees and scattered homes. Rubbing the raised scar on his left shoulder, he dropped his hand when he noticed his partner Blaine Spartan watching.  The home's mortar was cracked, its shrubs nearly gone.  All was brown except a thin strip of grass running from a corner like spilt green paint.  Cicadas screeched like Banshees.  A dog barked incessantly.  Trees rattled like vipers in the scorching wind.

Badging his way into the house, the stench led him to a side room where a middle-aged man lay slumped over a desk, hands and feet bound behind him.  Patrol Officer Porgy Mulberry briefed him that the vic was a mystery writer and small publisher.  Another beat cop waited in the living room with the vic’s widow.  Watts nodded, but wasn’t ready to see her yet.

First impressions are crucial at any crime scene.  Being told the vic was slumped over his desk wearing a flowered shirt and Bermuda shorts wasn't much to go on.  He could study the photos until he went blind, but nothing compared to seeing things first-hand.  How else could he experience the smells, the struggle, the blood, the death?  The smell told Watts this guy had been dead for hours, the urine on his shorts already dry. 

The setting flashed Watts back two years when that bullet took him down.  Partner Blaine Spartan was supposed to be covering him, but Spartan never drew his gun.  That event affected both of them, but in different ways.  Spartan turned to drinking, and Watts no longer trusted his partner.  Reunited a mere week after Spartan completed his rehab, Watts wasn’t sure they were ready to work together again. 

Although Spartan might be the catalyst to this recurring nightmare, Watts realized that ever since the shooting, he also found himself ending his personal relationships after just a few dates.  Since none of his post-trauma counseling had helped, he refused to date anyone new until his head was on straight. 

As far as Watts was concerned, Spartan had it easy.  Rehab was nothing like taking a bullet.  Bullets tear through flesh and then scar the mind.  His one father had unknowingly taught him that alcoholism was the result of choice.  With Spartan near, he continued walking through the crowded home office, taking in the scene.  His scar became even more irritated when he bent over to observe the scene from a different angle.  An inch lower and that bullet would have killed him.  Knowing that Spartan could have prevented the shooting had the memory lingering like the stink in the room.  Not a single night passed without Watts thinking about it.

The screeching cicadas made Watts tense.  “Christ!  It’s like those damned bugs are inside!”

Spartan calmly pointed to the window.  “It’s open, Maxx.”

Overly sensitive to noise and smell, Watts went to the window, shooting an angry gaze as if he could influence the bugs.  Suddenly, it got quiet again.  While there, he took a moment to scan the grounds.

“The temperature feels the same inside and out, but that strip of green grass suggests the swamp cooler on the roof is operational.  So why isn’t it on?”

“Good question,” Spartan said, loosening his tie.

Watts ambled through the twelve-by-ten room while the Crime Scene Special Unit documented the scene.  He flipped his notebook open to jot a few notes:  Vic bound to his chair with plastic tie straps.  Hands and ankles identically bound.  Head face-down on a bloodied document.  Nothing else appears disturbed.  Trash can upright, framed Manhattan photo level.  A woman's voice caught his attention.  He barely turned in time to see her leave the room.  If she was with CSSU, he had never seen her before.  He went back to searching the room.  

The constant wind and sweltering heat reminded him why he loathed summer.  Now ready to touch things, he pulled some latex gloves from his pocket and slid them on as he walked.  To his left, two EMTs stood next to Officer Mulberry.  On his right, CSSU photographers clicked like paparazzi, one shooting stills, the other videotaping.  Tired of them following him like he was part of a reality show, Watts quickly turned and made a face in their cameras.  Not amused, they lowered their lenses and backed away. 

Satisfied, he turned to Spartan.  “The vic’s name is Charlie Coulter,” he said, “although with no prior arrests or run-ins with the law he may as well be John Doe.  It’s an interesting murder, Blaine.  He’s bound but not gagged, his hair is perfectly groomed, and his Hawaiian shirt is neatly pressed.  From the back, you might think he’s asleep.”

“Yeah,” said Spartan, moving around the desk for a better look.  “Dead asleep.”

Watts ignored him, inhaling the scent of dried urine and blood.  "Urine flows with death, but it also streams from fear.  I wonder if Mr. Coulter knew his attacker." 

“Beats me, but his blood pool on the desk suggests a frontal assault.”

“I agree, but the amount seems too minute to be fatal.  I wish the ME would get here so we could move the body.”

Watts said that out of frustration, but also with intent.  He squatted near the vic's chair to examine the body's position, clothes, chair placement, and the floor.  Had the floor been carpeted instead of being hardwood, he may have seen footprints.  As it was, he saw nothing but dust. 

        Standing again, everything on the desk looked tidy, the computer, printer, and overhead light still on.  The desk drawers were closed, as was the closet door.  The only things in the closet were reams of printer paper, old travel magazines, and a dusty pair of black wingtip shoes.  The dust layer on the top shelf meant nothing was missing. 

He found his partner as he closed the closet door.  “Nothing remarkable in there.” 

Spartan nodded, reading the scene.  “I know what you mean.  Remove the body and the bloodied papers and there’s nothing remarkable anywhere.”

Spartan’s comment sent Watts crouching behind the chair to peer under the desk again.  Everything looked as it should for a drafty room.  The wood was polished where Coulter’s feet rubbed.  The corners had dust where they didn’t.  Coulter’s Huaraches were still on his feet.  Still crouched, Watts stepped back a few feet pondering the setting.  The modern swivel chair with its chrome spine and leather pads looked out of place in this setting, but its design perfectly accommodated the killer.  A single tie strap through Coulter’s bound ankles secured him to the base.  Another through his bound wrists secured him to the chair’s spine.  The million dollar question was how did the murderer get Coulter into this position when Coulter should have been able to resist?

Watts reluctantly faced his partner again.  "I have to wonder if the killer knew about this chair ahead of time.  I mean, how many murderers do you recall using tie straps?" 

“Not many,” Spartan said, inspecting the chair’s design.  “Tie straps certainly wouldn’t work on an executive-style chair.”


Beads dripped from Watts’ brow as he stooped again.  He preferred dressing like Coulter and knew some undercover cops that wore bowling shirts and shorts to work, but considering the seedy places they hung out, wearing a suit didn’t seem so bad. 

One of the EMTs seemed offended when Watts pressed his finger to Coulter’s jugular vein.  Watts returned the look and said, “You didn’t move the body did you?”

“No, sir.  I just checked his vitals is all.  He’s exactly the way we found him— cold and blue.  He was long gone before we arrived so we made no attempt to revive him.”

“I understand.  Hang around until the ME shows up.  He might want to talk to you.”

“Yes, sir.”

Watts eyed Officer Porgy Mulberry who was leaning against the far wall.  Their history together dated back to their childhood.  Back then, Mulberry was skinny.  Now, he resembled the donuts he favored.  People like Porgy motivated Watts to work out.  No doubt unable to give chase in this condition, Mulberry would have to be lightning-quick with his Taser. 

“So, Porgy,” Watts said, “when did you arrive on scene?”

Mulberry gazed back with his thumbs tucked under his Sam Brown belt.  “Maybe two minutes after the EMTs.”

Watts snubbed him as he studied the small marble block on Coulter's desk.  Carefully lifting it, he estimated it to be three inches square by one inch thick, every corner sharp, its surfaces polished smooth, weighing perhaps a pound.  The engraving on the top had a menacing guillotine within a circle, blade drawn, painted blood dripping from it's edge.  The front had a brass plaque that read "Writer's Block."  He glanced at Spartan, returning it to the desk.

“Interesting paperweight,” he said to Spartan.

“Yeah, and also a potential weapon.”

Watts nodded as he suspended his right palm over the block.  Pretending to hold it in his hand, he swung his arm in an arc toward where Coulter's head would be if he was sitting upright in his chair.  He had no way of knowing whether the block was used as a weapon or not, but its desk placement made it likely.  He straightened himself and faced his partner.

Blaine, striking Coulter with the flat side of this block might stun him long enough to get him tied up, but it wouldn’t split his skull.”

“But an edge strike would sting and spill blood.”

“I agree, but the only red on this paperweight is what’s painted on the guillotine blade.”  Sliding the block into an evidence bag, Watts said to CSSU Tech Tim Westin, “So there are no prints on the paperweight?”

“It appears that way.  We’ll check it over at the lab and let you know if we find anything.”

Watts nodded his understanding while staring at the desk photo.  He presumed it was of Coulter and his wife since they both wore million dollar smiles and little else.  The sapphire ocean in the background looked like Hawaii, but since he had never been, he didn't mention it.  Several unpaid bills jutted from a giant paper clip.  Two pense sat idle; one red, one black.  A dental appointment reminder from three weeks ago lay near a corner.  The half-empty Kleenex box and used tissues in the trash inferred that Coulter had allergies.  Westin would study them, too.  When his gaze shifted to the floor, Westin pointed to an area near the chair. 

“I found traces of blood splatter here, but it’s invisible to the naked eye,” Westin said. 

“So, the murderer cleaned up?”

“No, Maxx, it’s microscopic spray like you’d find from a gunshot.”

“Except there’s no gun wound.”

“Not that we can see.”

Watts sighed.  "I'm still thinking the killer cleaned up.  I'd like every piece of trash in this house bagged and taken back to the lab.  Make sure you label them by room."

“No problem.”

Watts moved on to the plastic tie straps binding Coulter.  They looked generic, like the ones sold in nearly every hardware store.  It seemed unlikely they would have much value, but sometimes the smallest shreds carried the most weight. 

He found it interesting that the blood pool under Coulter’s head had been confined to the paper.  A closer look revealed the soiled document was actually Coulter’s own manuscript titled Deadly Wrap.  If the killer intended to leave an impression, he or she did a fabulous job.  He pointed this out to his partner.

Looking over Watts’ shoulder, Spartan lifted a corner with his pen.  “The numbers imply four pages are missing, but since they were printed front-to-back, only two sheets are missing.”

“I concur,” Spartan said.  “Did you notice the business letterhead is The Guillotine Press, and the logo matches the engraving on the Writer’s Block paperweight?”

“I did.  So, did Coulter create this paperweight as a memento or is it something else?”

“Perhaps his widow can answer that one.”

Watts mopped his brow.  The heat was hard on everyone, especially the vic who was swelling by the minute.  Since the ME had yet to show, Watts decided to expedite matters by sitting Coulter up in his chair.  Normally, he wouldn't touch a body without the ME's approval, but considering that CSSU had documented the scene and the heat was accelerating Coulter's decay, he believed the breach was justifiable.

Blaine, get on the other side and give me a hand.”

Understanding his partner’s intentions, Spartan took a position across from Watts.  Their action set the photographers in motion, clicking and shooting footage of the detectives raising the dead.  But rigor mortis wasn’t allowing it, and that caused the detectives to back away.  Watts started to remove his coat, but thought better of it when it was half-way down his arms.  Deciding the coat was a good germ barrier, he would keep it on and drop it off at the cleaner’s on the way home.  When he moved back into position, so did his partner. 

“Okay, Blaine, one hand on his shoulder, the other on his thigh, push on three.”

With considerable effort, the body gave way and sat up in the chair like a Ken doll.  Watts smiled for the first time.  “Seeing Coulter like this gives a whole new perspective, don’t you think?”

Hands on hips, Spartan nodded.  “I understand why his face is covered in blood and his skin is dingy gray.  I can even accept his wide eyes and parted lips, but that gash on his forehead looks pretty deep.  I’m willing to bet it came from the marble block’s edge”

“X-rays should confirm that, but it’s the fear in his face that concerns me.  The gash on his forehead doesn’t look deep enough to kill him instantly.”

“I concur.  And he certainly didn’t bleed to death.”

Watts noted that Coulter's nose and lips were both undamaged.  Leaning closer, he noticed something odd and waved the photographers over.

“I need close-ups of Mr. Coulter’s face, particularly his mouth,” he said.

That drew Porgy Mulberry, who inadvertently bumped into Watts.  “Sorry, detective.  What’s so interesting?”

          Watts looked beyond the patrol officer he detested to find the EMT.  "Do you have any tongue depressors on you?" 

The EMT handed him one, which Watts used to part Coulter’s lips.  He thought he might find a killer’s note inside.  When he saw the giant obstruction, his body tensed and face flushed. 

“The blow to the head didn’t kill him, Blaine.  Mr. Coulter suffocated.”

After saying that, Watts cast an evil gaze at Mulberry, unable to harbor his years of disdain toward the portly patrol officer.  “What do you think, Porgy?  Can you imagine anyone gasping for air like that?”

“I’d have to take your word on that one, Maxx.”

Mulberry’s reply sent Watts back to his childhood where he was held under in a neighbor’s pool, staring at the sun, his lungs ready to burst.  Even underwater, he heard Porgy’s distinctive Ha, ha, ha, hee laugh.  And with all the laughing and splashing, no one noticed Watts struggling for his life.  Desperate for air, he kicked Porgy in the groin and swam free.  Once on deck, he stormed off, vowing never to speak to Porgy again.  Their reunion at the police academy shocked both of them.  Today’s unexpected rendezvous reminded Watts why he would never be able to exorcise Porgy Mulberry’s demon from his mind.  Seeing his own drowning eyes in Coulter’s face, his heart hammered his chest, his lungs ached, his vision narrowed.  Fists bunched, he gulped in a breath to calm himself. 

Spartan moved closer.  Keeping his voice low, he said, “You don’t look so good.  You okay, Maxx?”

Watts nodded, staring at the ground.  Heavy blinking helped shake off this panic attack.  When he looked up, he noticed the smug look on Mulberry's face.  Yes, that fat bastard still remembered, and that's why he could never forgive him. 

Spartan touched his partner’s shoulder, calling his name.

“I’m fine,” Watts said, still eyeing his rival.  

A squeaking gurney announced the ME’s arrival.  Dr. Frank Morton slowly came through the door hunched over, wearing thick black-framed glasses.  He took a moment to look around before acknowledging Watts.

“Smells like I’m in the right place,” Morton said.  “The body stinks, too.”

“Back atcha, Doc.  You look worse every time I see you.  Why don’t you retire?”

“Careful, detective.  As I recall, you’re the one that got shot, so the odds favor me outliving you.”

“Thanks for the thought, Doc, but I hope to attend your funeral.  Anyway, glad you could join us—not that Mr. Coulter has any pressing engagements.”

Morton frowned, pulling some Latex gloves from his pocket.  “Are you upset because I had another commitment?  I assure you I came as quickly as I could.”

“No, Doc.  My mood stems from a suffocated victim, not your arrival time.  There’s a large obstruction in the vic’s throat.  Mr. Coulter must have suffered terribly before he died.”

Morton drew his sleeve across his brow, studying the body.  He showed little concern other than being physically uncomfortable.  He looked up a moment later.  “Why is it so hot in here?” he said.  “Didn’t this guy pay his electric bill?”

Spartan flipped the light switch on and off.  “Everything works except the a/c.”

“Doesn’t matter, we rarely had a/c in the old days.  Let’s have a look at your vic.”

Watts raised his palm.  "Before you get too involved," he said, "did you need to speak to these EMTs?  They've been here all morning.  I asked that they wait for you."

Morton gave them a cursory glance and shook his head.  Watts nodded his apology to the EMTs and they took off...