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  • H.K. Slade

Last Gasp

Updated: Apr 16, 2023

Note: This story was originally published in Black Cat Mystery Magazine in November of 2021.

There is just something less interesting when the list of suspects is "everybody," and all the great mystery writers find an creative way to limit the characters involved. Sometimes it's a snowstorm, or a train, or a boat on the River Nile. Add to that my love of Locked Room Mysteries, and I had a story challenge I was inching to try. Unfortunately, locked room mysteries don't happen often in real police work. There was this one case, though... I only needed the right characters to solve it. Enter Friday Hampton, the capable rookie officer I met while writing Purpose Made. Right about the time this story was unfolding, she'd be in that place in her career where she'd still need a hand, and that gave me the chance to bring in my master detective, Ambrose Broyhill.

I was very pleased by the way the pair worked together, and I wasn't the only one. Michael Bracken bought the story for BCMM, and much to my surprise, it went on to appear on Otto Penzler's Best Mystery Stories of 2022 Honor Roll. I like to think it's a pretty good mystery.

Think you can solve it?

Senior Detective Ambrose Broyhill kicked open the door of his unmarked and the sticky summer heat poured in like swamp water. Instantly, his shirt stuck to his skin, and he felt his eyebrows catch an errant drop of sweat.

“Humph,” he grunted as he hefted his great bulk out of the car. The old detective thought, This is a younger man’s game. And normally it was, but with three gang-related shootings already that morning, the most senior member of the homicide squad was the only investigator free to respond.

Bright yellow crime scene tape sagged under the summer heat. A single patrol officer manned the perimeter, a rookie the same age as Broyhill’s grandson. That, even more than Broyhill’s personal presence, spoke to just how thinly stretched they were.

A murder scene like this should have a dozen cops, he thought and mopped his forehead with his shirtsleeve. It’s getting scary how few of us are left.

“Just you?” he asked the young officer. Broyhill nearly had to shout to be heard over the yapping dog in the next-door neighbor’s garage. The kid stepped out of his shady spot on the porch and squinted at the glare of the midmorning sun.

“Uhm, no sir, Det. Broyhill. Officer Hampton is in the house with the body. And the suspect.”

Broyhill raised an eyebrow but didn’t waste time hassling the kid. Did his voice actually crack? Better to just get inside and talk to Friday. Protocol said an officer shouldn’t be by herself with a murder suspect, but Officer Friday Hampton grew up under the tutelage of her father, the great Tony Hampton. The young prodigy knew what she was about.

Death had a smell, and after thirty years on the job, Broyhill was a connoisseur. He knew the stink of a victim who had defecated themselves in their last moments of terror, knew how different it was from the putrid stench of a week-old corpse. The tiny house smelled, if not fresh, almost as if nothing were wrong at all. If it hadn’t been for the body lying face up in the middle of the room, he’d have bet money his skillset wouldn’t be needed.

“What do you got, Friday?” he asked the weary-looking patrol officer standing between the corpse and the handcuffed man slouching on the couch.

“I am glad to see you, detective,” the young woman said. The relief in her voice spilled out like water topping a flooded dam. “I didn’t think they were going to be able to send anybody, and I don’t know if I’m up to a full murder investigation all on my lonesome.”

Broyhill was used to that, used to other people setting their problems on his shoulders. He’d been lucky so far, lucky to hold up under the strain for the better part of three decades. In his secret heart of hearts, though, he longed for the day when he wouldn’t have to carry that burden, wouldn’t have to be the dead’s final hope for justice. Until the young bucks learned the ropes, he thought, I have to stay with it.

“Don’t sell yourself short,” he told Friday and put her at ease with a nod.

The detective took notice of the changes in the young woman since the last time he’d seen her. Leaner, wearier, generally more… seasoned. “The way I hear it, you’re a regular crimefighter. Why don’t you tell me what you know, and we’ll take it from there?”

She pointed to the man sitting on the couch. “This is Sebastian. His English is worse than my Spanish, and I don’t speak any Spanish. I wouldn’t even know his name except that I found a Honduran ID on him. No wants or warrants. No record at all. The odds of him being a legal immigrant are fifty to one against. He’s the only person here besides you, me, and the room temperature fella on the floor over there.”

The man on the couch raised his head at the sound of his name, but nothing in his demeanor nor his expression indicated he’d understood another word they’d said.

Friday pointed behind Broyhill to the cracked doorframe. “I had to kick the door when I saw the body through the front window. The whole house was locked tight.”

“Translator?” Broyhill asked.

Friday shook her head, her tight braid barely moving. “Gomez is tied up at the hospital on that shooting. Rodriguez is at the jail. You see how it is out there.”

As if to accentuate her point, her radio blared an emergency tone as the dispatcher announced an armed robbery in-progress. Clearly frustrated at not being able to respond, Friday frowned and dialed down the volume to a low murmur.

Broyhill had the man on the couch lean forward so he could look at his hands and asked, “What about that corporal on your squad? What’s her name? Sommarriba?”

“She quit two months ago. Couldn’t take the nights and weekends anymore. Went to go work for a bank.”

And the thin blue line grows thinner, Broyhill said to himself, then squashed the thought before it reached his face. These young officers don’t need to see an old man like me wallowing. Already enough despair going around.

He studied the house. Cheaply built and worn around the edges, but for all that, neat. The couch and the coffee table looked second-hand, the room’s single floor lamp one of the cheap Walmart models. Oddly, almost uniquely, the room didn’t have a television. In its place hung a framed portrait of the Virgin Mary.

Something yellow/green beneath the couch caught Broyhill’s attention. He bent down to retrieve it, a maneuver complicated by both his paunch and his concern that the suspect might try to kick him. Luckily, neither was an issue this time. Broyhill pulled a tennis ball from under the couch, its felt matted and dirty. He held it up for Sebastian to examine. The man shook his head, either denying ownership of the ball or simply not understanding the situation.

“What brought you here in the first place?” Broyhill asked Friday and tossed the tennis ball to her.

She snatched it out of the air, looked at it, and tossed back. “911 hang up. You know, the type that turns out to be nothing a hundred times out of a hundred? I guess it’s only ninety-nine times out of a hundred, now.”

The man on the couch rocked to one side, presumably to alleviate the discomfort of sitting on the lumpy couch for so long, but his eyes never left his own feet. Broyhill waved the tennis ball at him.

“I suppose there is a good reason Sebastian here isn’t in the back seat of your patrol car?”

Friday shrugged, her body armor rising up like a turtle’s shell to touch her angular chin. “If I book him, guilty or not, they’re going to deport him, and I have this thing about not arresting innocent people. If I can be one-hundred percent honest with you, detective, I just don’t think he’s our killer.”

That caught Broyhill’s attention. A gut feeling wasn’t proof, but only the most arrogant of detectives ignored a street cop’s instincts, especially when she’d been on scene for an hour longer than him.

“Why’s that?” he asked as he continued his examination of the crime scene.

“Too calm. I woke him up when I broke down the door, I’d sure of it. He didn’t try to run or fight, he just let me cuff him. He didn’t seem surprised by the body, though. More sad, if I had to put a name to it.”

Broyhill stepped over to the body in question. Hispanic male, mid-twenties, 5’5”, 130 lbs. The dead man lay flat on his back on the scratched and dented hardwood floors of the living room, almost as if he’d been laid out for a funeral. A two-inch incision marred the dead center of his bare chest, right on his sternum. His feet, also bare, stretched out across the transition to the kitchen. The toenails were trimmed, but his soles bore the hard callouses of a laborer. The ones on his hands formed a matching set. Other than the obvious wound to his chest, Broyhill couldn’t find a single injury. There wasn’t even much blood. Barely a trickle.

“No defensive wounds at all,” he said aloud.

“I noticed that,” Friday agreed, coming to stand beside him. “The murder weapon is that giant-horking-knife on the kitchen floor. I can’t imagine someone sticking him like that without him wanting to do something about it. It’s almost like the murderer found him sleeping. Even then, you’d think he’d jolt awake, right? It’s a head scratcher.”

Broyhill wandered into the kitchen. Most of the cabinets had doors, but not all. The counters practically sagged under the weight of rice, two-liter sodas, and prepackaged meals bought in bulk from the shopping club down the street. The appliances looked older than the officer outside, the dents and dings touched up with housepaint wherever the white enamel had cracked. The refrigerator, sitting just inside the kitchen, had a coin-sized dent that was too new to have received the paint treatment but hadn’t yet rusted. The old Frigidaire hummed and clanked as the compressor fan glanced off something internally.

The knife in question lay on the warped vinyl flooring, a non-serrated, full-tang carving knife. Two sets of nuts and bolts held its aftermarket wooden handle together, still-wet blood covering the final four-inches of its ten-inch blade. Broyhill looked back at the seemingly fatal wound on the decedent.

“Right?” Friday said, reading his thoughts. “The amount of force it would take to drive Frankenstein’s meat cleaver though this guy’s chest plate like that… somebody was motivated. Or had a running start.”

Broyhill had his suspicions. The facts were already beginning to coalesce into a blurry picture, but he knew better than to let his suspicions steer the investigation. That’s what facts were for. So many young investigators confused the two.

“Your old man enjoying retirement?” he asked Friday. “Is his knee still bothering him?”

His old friend’s daughter stood silhouetted in the dusty sunlight streaming through the plastic blinds, her hands hooked into the neck of her vest to let some of the heat out. “No, the knee doesn’t bother him at all anymore,” she said. “He passed away back in January.”

Broyhill stopped in tracks, and some of his strength drained away. “I just saw him at Christmas. He only retired a year ago. What happened?”

“Heart attack. It’s been tough, but I can’t say it was a total surprise. No exercise, bad food, smoked for half his life… and you know how much he lived this job. I think when he stopped being a cop, he lost his purpose for getting up every day.”

That hit home. Broyhill wanted to say something, to tell her how much I thought of her old man. Before he could get the words out, Friday’s radio crackled to life, stealing the moment. A multiple vehicle crash on the far side of town and no one to answer.

Broyhill cleared his throat. Words weren’t going to do a damn thing. The best he could do was help Tony’s daughter wrap up this mess and maybe teach her a thing or two.

“I guess we better see if we can figure this out so you can get back in the fight,” he said.

“Step into the bedrooms and tell me what you notice. I’ll keep an eye on our friend Sebastian here.”

Friday squinted at him suspiciously. “Anything in particular you want me to look for?”

It was such a patrol officer way of thinking. Tell me what to do and how to do it. They needed a process to follow. A good investigator, however, looked at the world differently.

“The opposite,” he told her. “Forget about whatever you think happened here and just see what catches your eye.”

Friday shrugged and set off on her task. Broyhill stood in the middle of the living room and let his mind wander back to his younger days. He should have been focused on the task at hand, but more and more he found that he didn’t have as much of a say in where his mind went as he did when he was young and full of piss and vinegar.

This house was just down the road from the Sunny Acres Trailer Park where, twenty-five years ago, the South Side Rolling Twenties had spent half a year terrorizing the residents. He and Tony Hampton had rolled hard and heavy trying to catch the punks before someone got hurt. It hadn’t been enough. After the old man turned up in the park beaten half to death, the two young cops had spent a cold, miserable night standing in the rain, wrapped in their black rubber slickers and the type of inky darkness only found in truly poor neighborhoods.

After a few hours of shivering in the dark with nothing to show for it, Tony had gone off to take a leak and left Broyhill leaning in the dubious shelter of a rusted trailer. Rain ran down the neck of his slicker and trickled behind his vest. He closed his eyes just for a moment and blew into his hands to warm them. When he opened his eyes again, he was staring down the barrel of a Saturday night special, on the other end of which was a young Southsider eager to wear the mantle of a cop killer. Broyhill couldn’t move, couldn’t even breathe. The world went quiet except for the sound of the snap breaking on a departmentally issued holster and Tony’s slow, southern drawl from somewhere in the darkness: “Either that gun goes in dirt or you do. Make a decision, Hoss.”

Now Tony was dead, his watch ended, and Broyhill wasn’t that far behind. He held no illusions how long he’d make it as a retiree. The sun was setting on their day. Who’ll remember us and all our adventures when I’m gone? he thought. Little Friday? Sebastian here?

The handcuffed man looked up at him, his thick, black eyebrows arched in an unspoken plea. Broyhill looked him directly in the eyes, trying to decide if he was looking at a murderer or an innocent man.

Friday emerged from the back hallway, notepad in hand, interrupting the detective’s ruminations.

“How many bedrooms?” Broyhill asked, trying to shake off his melancholy.

“Two,” Friday said, all business. “One with the bed made, the other just a mattress and a bundle of sheets.”

“What’s that tell you?”

“The mattress probably belongs to Sebastian. Like I said, I woke him up. That means the other probably belongs to our victim. Unless he’s Sebastian’s overnight guest, which is unlikely given that there’s a cellphone, wallet, and pair of work boots in the other room that look to be a good fit for our Juan Doe.

“Money?” Broyhill asked. Always an important point to clear up.

“Someone cleaned out the wallet. Thoroughly. The leather was still stretched out from holding cards and cash.” Friday slapped her open palm with her notepad. “If it was a robbery, though, I don’t get the made bed. Or why they left the gold necklace I found hanging on a hook by the door.”

Broyhill nodded his approval of the young officer’s observation. Interesting, but not unexpected, he thought. “Was there a cross on the necklace?”

“Of course. And a rosary.”

“Anything else?”

She shrugged. “I didn’t want to try the passcode on the phone and jack things up. There was a Western Union Money Transfer folded up all nice and crisp in a dogeared Spanish Bible on the nightstand, though.” Friday flipped a page back in her notebook. “Going to one Vanessa Perez in Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala. Just a skosh under a grand, dated this morning from the Stop and Rob on the corner.”

“Anything in the hallway?”

Instead of just answering, Friday looked back over her shoulder to see if Broyhill could have seen down the hall from where he was standing. “Funny that you ask,” she said slowly. “There’s a leather tool belt. Nice one. Seen a lot of use, but it’s quality and in good shape.”

“And the tools? Wrenches and screwdrivers or a hammer and tape measure?” He knew the answer, but he was trying to walk the young officer down the path.

She didn’t look or check her notepad, but recited from memory. “Hammer. Tape measure. Speed square. That sort of thing.”

Broyhill used the drier of his two sleeves to dab the sweat from his forehead. He had enough now. But did Friday?Next time, he might not be there, and then who would speak for the dead? The kid outside who probably didn’t need to shave before going on duty this morning?

Sighing, Broyhill asked, “Have you figured it out yet, Officer Hampton?”

“Figured what out?” she snapped, clearly impatient with Broyhill’s method of teaching. “The murder? With all due respect detective, are you insane? We need the crime scene techs. Fingerprints, DNA, the medical examiner’s people. This isn’t some locked room mystery you can solve by just looking at things like Sherlock Holmes.”

“Hmm,” Broyhill hummed. “Isn’t it?”

Her attitude was typical of anyone who grew up watching shows like CSI and Bones; they expected all the breaks to come from some man in a lab coat or a woman permanently installed behind a set of flatscreen monitors. Technology had robbed a generation of cops of their ability to piece together their own observations.

“Tell your partner to head next door and start a canvas,” Broyhill told her. “Ask them when the last time they saw Mr. Perez was. And see if anyone speaks Spanish. We’ll need to get Sebastian here to corroborate a few things before we can let him go.”

Friday set her arms on her hips and narrowed her eyes. “Let him go?”

The big detective met her level gaze. She had a hard stare, just like her old man, but not as good as Broyhill’s. His had the weight of experience behind it.

Friday took a deep breath, and Broyhill saw the gears turning in her head. She was frustrated by the heat and the workload and the calls for help that she couldn’t answer, but she recognized that the old detective didn’t get to where he was by being stupid. Tony’s daughter was a good cop, and that meant she wanted to be a better one.

“Okay, you lost me,” she finally admitted. “What am I missing?”

Loosening his already loose tie, Broyhill rewarded her with a smile that stretched out his bushy mustache. “It’s all in the hands, Friday. Have your partner get started, then take a look at Sebastian’s paws and tell me what you see.”

She did. Sebastian said something meek in Spanish which Broyhill took to be an offer to let them look at his hands all they wanted if they would take the cuffs off. Friday just had him lean forward.

“No scratches,” she confirmed. “There’s a cut on his left palm, but it’s old. Nothing under the fingernails but dirt.”

“What kind of dirt?”

She thought about it, then looked again. “Grease, maybe? There’s more grease stains in the creeses of his knuckles.”

“Correct. What does that tell you?”

“I don’t know.” She let Sebastian lean back and stood up straight. “Could be anything.”

“Not just anything,” Broyhill corrected her. “What if I bet you a ten-dollar bill that when you look in his closet, you’ll find a mechanic’s shirt? Probably grey or blue with his name embroidered on a little oval patch on the chest.”

“I wouldn’t bet against you, detective, but I don’t know what that has to do with anything.”

Broyhill tapped the side of his head. “What’s an auto mechanic doing with a nice set of carpenter’s tools? And why would they be outside his door? And if it was a side hustle for Sebastian, wouldn’t he be out working on a day like today? No, the only carpenter in this house is the dead one over here. Mr. Perez.”

“Are you sure?”

“Look at the hands. You tell me.”

Friday crossed the room and knelt down to study the dead man’s hands. “Nothing under the nails. One of them has a blood blister. Probably smacked it pretty good a month or so ago. “

“Occupational hazard for a carpenter. You notice anything else?”

“He’s married. Or used to be. No ring, but that dent on his left ring finger says there was. The hands are clean. Scrubbed, even. There is something, though, right on the back. Like someone drew a little picture in green Sharpie.”

The arm of the couch creaked precariously as the detective took a seat on it. He nodded to Friday. “It’s an ink stamp. A butterfly. It means Mr. Perez went to Xenon last night.”

Friday’s eyebrows knitted together. “Xenon? The gay bar downtown? Are you thinking the killer followed him home? Maybe a jealous boyfriend?”

If only it were that easy, he thought. He only knew the stamp because he’d worked cases involving Xenon before. The bar had an excellent camera system and the owners were always happy to help the police protect their customers. “No. Someone came home with him last night, but that man’s long gone. The killer is still in the house.”

The young officer bristled. “I searched the house before you got here, detective. I’ll stake my reputation that this place is clear.”

A lopsided grin lifted one edge of Broyhill’s mustache. “No need to get your hackles up, Friday. I wasn’t questioning your ability. The opposite, really. You’ve got all four corners of this puzzle pieced together and most of the edges. You’re doing better than half the detectives in the division these days.”

She relaxed into the patrolman’s stance: thumbs hooked behind her belt buckle, feet shoulder-width apart, elbows resting on her gun and radio, respectively. “Care to help me fill in the middle?” she asked.

Broyhill laid it out. “Mr. Perez here isn’t going to come back as a citizen of these United States. Most likely, he’s only been in the country for a couple months to judge by his shopping habits. He bought in bulk, see? Where he grew up, you only went into town once a month or so. He was raised a good Catholic boy. Left his family behind to come to America and make some money. We’ll probably find he works with a family member, an uncle or a cousin, someone who cares enough about him to hand him down that toolbelt.”

Friday nodded. “Makes sense. I’m tracking so far.”

“Yesterday was payday. Mr. Perez… was probably very lonely. He went downtown to seek some comfort there, as the song goes. He met someone, someone who wasn’t his wife. Someone, crucially, who wasn’t a woman. They came home together. Spent the night together. And then his new companion left Mr. Perez alone. Alone with his Bible and his wedding ring and the crushing guilt of having not only broken his holy vow, but having sinned against God. At least according to his beliefs.” Broyhill bit his lip and pointed up at the portrait of the Virgin Mother. If he was right, it was the last face in this world the decedent had seen.

Friday stood up from where she had been kneeling and followed the detective’s gesture. “You think he killed himself?” she asked. “Isn’t that a sin, too?”

Broyhill couldn’t take the heat anymore. He unbuttoned his sleeves and began rolling the cuffs up. “You’ve been around the block a few times by now,” he said. “Haven’t you ever seen someone so deep in a hole they think their only way out is by digging?”

She crossed her arms and shook her head. “There’s no way he pushed that knife through his chest like that.”

“Take a look at the dent on the fridge. The fresh one.”

Friday looked. “What about it?”

“See the height? That match up with anything else you recognize?”

Looking down at the corpse, Friday Hampton did the math. The dent matched up almost perfectly with the chest wound. “No…” she said, not wanting to believe what the evidence was telling her.

“Yes,” Broyhill assured her. “Like you said, the killer was highly motivated. Mr. Perez held the knife to his chest and ran at the sturdiest thing he could find. We’ll have to wait for the medical examiner’s report, but my surmise is that he nicked a ventricle, took a step back, pulled the knife out, then laid down on the floor to die. When we roll him over, we’re going to find massive evidence of livor mortis. He bled to death internally. Sebastian here didn’t murder anybody. Neither did our victim’s new lover. Guilt did it for Mr. Perez. Guilt and despair.”

Friday looked at Broyhill as if he had just relayed a message from a ghost. “There’s no way, no way you could know all that.”

“It’s right here in front of us. The check to his wife? That was his entire savings. He knew he wasn’t going to have any use for it anymore. Same thing with his tools. Made his bed and folded his clothes so someone else could use them.”

“I didn’t say he folded his clothes.” It came out like an accusation.

“Were they folded?” Broyhill asked, and didn’t bother to hide the slight reproach in his tone.

“Yes,” she grudgingly admitted. “In neat stacks on the floor. But that can’t be it. There are lots of possible explanations for all that. You can’t be so certain.”

He tossed the tennis ball to her. “What do you smell?”

“Nothing.” She sniffed. “Nothing unusual.”

She probably thinks I’m talking about weed, Broyhill figured. Patrol officer thinking.

“That musty smell, right at the edge of your nose? That’s the smell of a dog. Mr. Perez’s dog. The one in the garage next door. And that’s his slobber all over that ball. The dog’s, not Mr. Perez’s. Though if it is his, this case is going to get a lot more interesting.”

At that moment, the young officer returned from his canvas. Sweat rings outlining the armpits of his still perfectly-tailored uniform. He knocked on the open door like he’d been called to the principal’s office.

“What did they say?” Friday asked him.

“The lady next door said the dog belongs to the guy who lives here, Dante Perez. He came by around eight this morning and gave her the dog and food and a bunch of toys. She said he looked weird. She was worried but didn’t know who to call.”

Det. Broyhill nodded. “A man like the late Mr. Perez doesn’t get rid of his dog lightly,” he explained to Friday. “Everything about him says he’d want the pup taken care of, though. Is the puzzle coming together for you now?”

She tossed the ball back to Broyhill. “Damn sad.”

“That it is. But at least we can do one good thing, now. Why don’t you uncuff our friend Sebastian? I’ll wait with him for the medical examiner so you kids can get back to saving the world.”

“Are you sure?” Friday asked, though she already had her cuff key in her hand.

“I’m sure,” he told her. There wasn’t anything more here for him to teach the young officer. This wouldn’t be his first time waiting with a dead body, or even his hundredth. Maybe it would be his last, though. He waved for Friday get going. “The city needs you a lot more than it needs a fat old cop like me.”

“I wouldn’t say that, detective. I wouldn’t say that at all.”

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