A Suspense Novel of Mystery and Crime
Joe O'Riley, the long-retired Memphis Chief of Police, sat on the top step of his tiered front walkway, brown eyes gazing down North Avalon Street. A box of glazed doughnuts, to be delivered to the Police Department Homicide Division, rested by his side. He barely noticed the hot, damp air of early morning August as he took a breath. How little North Avalon had changed.
Some things had, however. His white stucco house had turned a dirty grey and his once-dark crop of auburn hair had become handsomely laced with streaks of silver. But the house was part of him, an old friend.
He scanned the front yard, a large, sloping bed of dark-green ivy so thick only an occasional weed took root. The shade of the two red oaks, huge with age, would have allowed little grass to grow even if there were no ivy. O'Riley grinned. That fact surely made his father, Paddy, smile in Heaven.
Inside, the house had remained nearly untouched by the passage of time. The same furniture, the same oriental rugs stood where they had for decades. Interior decorating had not been a priority for his wife, Evelyn, much to O'Riley's delight. Being from a modest family, Evelyn brought few material possessions but much love to their marriage in 1951. Her mild-mannered sweetness balanced the stress of police work, constantly lifting O'Riley's spirit. Her inability to have children was never a source of conflict between them. They had each other, and that was enough.
But all this was shattered with Evelyn's brutal murder in 1957 at the hands of the so-called Hollywood killer who terrorized Memphis in the late 1950s. The grieving policeman began sleeping upstairs, taking refuge from the loneliness of their downstairs bedroom, which still seemed to belong to the two of them. Nights spent in the starlight of the sleeping porch made him feel closer to Evelyn, comforting him as in 1947 after the death of his father. Sleep came easily there, especially after a couple of stiff shots of Bushmills, his nightly habit.
After Evelyn's death, O'Riley threw himself into his police work. He personally took on the case of the Hollywood killer and managed to catch the criminal, Jimmy Seabold, responsible for the murder of his wife and nine other women. His efforts were rewarded when he was named Chief of Police in the early 1970s. Then, after twenty years of service as chief, he retired.
For someone used to twelve-hour workdays, this became a burden. O'Riley's neglect of hobbies his whole life in favor of police work left him sitting in a recliner staring at television. Boredom quickly set in, and he soon was visiting his old friends in Homicide. Once a week at first, then twice, sometimes three times. But trips to police headquarters tapered off to once a week when Nancy Summerfield dropped into his life like an unexpected southern spring shower--cooling, calming, leaving vibrancy in its wake. O'Riley was in love. His faded memories of what it was like to touch and be touched, physically and mentally, rushed through him, renewed. She had saved his life.
And he ended up saving hers when another serial killer surfaced, mimicking the case in the late 1950s that had claimed his wife. Nancy had been the final target. But Joe had saved her and caught the killer.
Now Nancy was teaching in France as part of a Memphis University School faculty exchange program, an opportunity that couldn't be passed up. But for O'Riley, four months in France were too many. His one-week stay in Paris convinced him of that.
The saucy food clashed with his meat-and-potatoes tastes. Gruff people. Uppity. Not like Americans, especially not like Southerners. And the language. He couldn't understand a damn thing.
Their love would endure. They knew it and accepted their fate along with the prospect of monstrous phone bills. When Nancy returned, they would settle down together. The shiny diamond he had slipped on her finger that last night in Paris made sure of that. She wasn't going to let him slip away either, ring or no ring.
Thinking of her, O'Riley sighed and eased his nearly six-foot frame up when he heard his German shepherd barking inside. "I'm coming, I'm coming," he bellowed, as he opened the front door and walked into the living room where the black and tan dog rocked back and forth, tail wagging furiously. The shepherd lunged upward, planting his front paws firmly on the comfortable softness that hugged his master's waist.
"You're nothing but a big baby, Bullet," O'Riley said with a smile, scratching the dog behind the ears. He had had many dogs over the years, all German shepherds named Bullet. "Get down now, boy. I've got to go to the station. I'll be back," he promised, tossing a large dog biscuit into the dining room to mask his escape.
Twenty minutes later O'Riley's footsteps crunched across the loose gravel on the freshly repaved street in front of Memphis Police Headquarters. Behind him cars whooshed down Second Street amid an occasional honk and the squeal of brakes. Waves of heat shimmered up from the sidewalk as he paused at the curb, wiping small beads of perspiration from his upper lip with the cuff of his white dress shirt.
Suddenly a familiar voice pierced the sounds of morning traffic.
"Hot out here, ain't it?"
O'Riley nodded. "So damn dry I saw two trees fighting over a dog."
The aged, black shoeshine man grinned. "How's it going, Chief Joe?"
"Top of the morning to you, E.," replied O'Riley, moving quickly toward the man like an athlete, shoulders broad, back arched.
"And the rest of the day to you," said E., finishing off the Irish greeting he had shared countless times with O'Riley over the years. "Want a shine?"
"You know I do." O'Riley climbed onto the rickety, portable red-cushioned chair and placed his feet on the worn, grey metal stirrups. "Where you been lately? The guys said you were here one day, gone the next. I figured you packed it up and finally called it quits."
The old man shook his bald head. "I ain't never quit nothin'. Had a problem with my ticker. Been laid up for close to a year."
"Almost. Had to do one of them highway procedures on me."
O'Riley tilted his head, squinting into the bright sunlight. "Bypass?"
"Yep, that's it. Bypass."
"Double? Triple? Quadruple?"
The old man pulled his lower lip through his dentures and shook his head. "Never could understand what they was tellin' me. But think of a four-way stop and I'm smack dab in the middle of it. They worked on my heart from every direction."
"Quadruple," O'Riley said with a slight smile. "But why the hell are you out here in this heat and not inside at the shine stand?" He glanced toward the 100 North Main building across the street.
"I feel cooped up inside," E. replied, soaping down the dull finish of O'Riley's black leather shoes. "The heat don't bother me none. Cold don't neither. Only thing drive me inside with them softies is the rain. I like it out here." He looked up, eyeing O'Riley's blazer and grey slacks, and scratched the top of his head. "How come you all dressed up in your Sunday go-to-meeting clothes? I ain't seen these shoes in years."
"Today's special. The chief wants to see me. Says he's got a big surprise. Thought I'd dress up for the occasion. You don't suppose he wants to give me a case of Irish whiskey for my years of dedication, do you?"
"I doubt that, but you can dreams all you want. Me, I'd settle for a bottle of Jack Daniel's Black Label," E. said, as he dabbed a piece of cloth in a small round tin and began spreading a layer of polish on O'Riley's shoes. "You minds if I asks you somethin' else?"
"You been coming down here, what? Once, maybe more a week since you done took retirement, right?"
"Yeah, I guess so."
"And every single time you done come down to the station, you get your shoes done 'the E. way,' am I right again?"
O'Riley grinned and nodded. "What's your point?"
"Well, all these years I been meaning to tell you. Your shoes don't never need shinin' or saddle soapin'. 'Cepting these old ones today. They usually in good shape from the last shine. I bet you don't wear but three pairs of shoes anyways. How comes you keep getting 'em shined?"
"It's like this," said O'Riley, as the old man buffed his wing-tips with a fraying rag. "I guess I just enjoy sitting down and talking to you. Make sense?"
"Makes damn good sense," he replied. "I talk to myself all the time. I can be plenty amusing, if I do say so myself." He paused again, his cloudy brown eyes focused on O'Riley. "But you don't have to pay to talk to me, Chief Joe."
"I know that, E., but did you ever stop to think that paying for a shine I might not need makes me happy?"
"Well, by golly, you keep right on paying, if it makes you happy. I ain't one to keep a man from parting with his money." He made a popping sound with the buffing rag across the toe of each shoe. "There you go," he said, drying off the edges.
O'Riley handed him a crisp five-dollar bill but his old friend shook his head vigorously.
"Just this once, I'm afraid I gotta make you unhappy. The shine's on me."
"I can't let you do that."
"You got no choice."
O'Riley smiled and opened the box in his lap. "Doughnut?"
"You got enough for all the boys?" E. asked, arching his grey eyebrows.
"If there's not, I'd rather you have one than Driscoll."
"Oh, if it might be Driscoll's, I'll take one. He don't never stop for a shine," E. said with a laugh.
O'Riley eased from the chair. "Thanks for the freebie." He winked. "And the conversation."
"You remember me if they gives you some booze. Hear?"
"I will," replied O'Riley, walking quickly toward the front steps of the building. "Promise."
The former chief shifted the doughnuts from his right hand to his left as he grasped the heavy metal door handle. "Jeez, you'd think that door wouldn't be so hard to open after all these years," he muttered, stepping into the grey marble entryway.
"What's the matter, old man?" echoed a voice from the second floor balcony overlooking the atrium lobby. "Getting a little hard at your age?" Sergeant Ken Driscoll, the youngest detective in the Homicide Department, looked down at the former chief with a barely concealed sneer. "Looks like you forgot to eat your Wheaties this morning. Or was it the Geritol?"
"You're a perfect example why brothers don't marry sisters, Driscoll," shouted O'Riley.
Driscoll scowled, then vanished through the swinging glass doors into Homicide.
O'Riley turned to his left and continued down the hallway past the wide marble staircase that led to the second floor.
Within minutes he was sitting in a brown leather swivel chair facing the cluttered desk of Memphis Police Chief Charlie Perry, awaiting the chief's arrival. The walls were lined with pictures and clippings chronicling Perry's rise as the first black Memphis officer to attain the highest rank on the force. A large bookcase filled with volumes pertaining to the law and its enforcement stretched across the wall behind the desk. Photographs of the chief's wife and two grown sons were interspersed between the books. An autographed picture of famed Grambling football coach Eddie Robinson was the only reminder of Perry's alma mater.
O'Riley heard voices outside the door. Sounded like men. Two, maybe three voices. One was Perry's.
He picked up the previous day's USA Today sports section from the chief's desk and glanced at the headlines. Yankees win. Braves win. Detroit loses. Some things never changed.
"Hello, Joe," boomed the chief as he burst into the room, his round eyes smiling behind thin-framed tortoise shell glasses.
"It's nice to see somebody around this place getting some work done," said O'Riley, shaking Perry's strong outstretched hand.
"I see retirement still hasn't softened the edge on your humor," Perry said, laughing. "Of course, not too many police chiefs come out of retirement to catch a serial killer." He shook his close-cropped head, wide mouth arched in a grin. "You sure you won't come back to help us in Homicide a couple of days a week? I still have you classified as an inspector."
O'Riley shook his head. "Not just yet. But I won't rule it out. Whatever it takes to get Sergeant Driscoll's blood pressure up to dangerous levels."
"Off the record, I hear that's the game plan of every detective down there," said Perry, running a knuckle along his salt and pepper moustache.
"What's the reason for the dress blues?" O'Riley asked, eyes fixed on the gold trim on the chief's uniform.
"The reason is you. You know that new training center going up under the Poplar Avenue viaduct?"
"Sure. Costing eight million bucks, right?"
Perry nodded. "Plus change. Anyway, its official name is going to be the Chief Joe O'Riley Police Training Center."
"You're kidding," O'Riley said.
"Bring him on in, John," yelled Perry to his administrative assistant, who quickly ushered The Commercial Appeal photographer into the room. "Come back here behind my desk, Joe."
The two shook hands and smiled as the camera flashed. Black spots danced in O'Riley's eyes.
"Thanks, guys," said the photographer as he left. "You'll be in the funnypapers tomorrow."
"I don't know what . . . what to say, Charlie," O'Riley stammered. "I'm honored, I'm embarrassed. I thought you had to be dead to have something named after you."
"You deserve it, Joe. This department wouldn't be what it is if it weren't for you, and you know it." He planted a firm hand on O'Riley's shoulder.
"I better let you get back to work," said O'Riley, trying to hide his pleasure. He held out his hand. "Thank you, Charlie, from the bottom of my heart. I'll never forget this."
Perry gripped O'Riley's hand. "Not so fast. You're not getting off the hook that easy. The boys down in Homicide have a cake for you. I'm the escort. You might as well dump the doughnuts."
"Cake for breakfast," O'Riley said. "I've had worse."
"Maybe not," added Perry. "Harris made it."
O'Riley stopped dead in his tracks, clutching the box to his chest. "Dump 'em, hell. You eat cake. I'm eating doughnuts."