Less Dead

A Niki Alexander Mystery
A Niki Alexander Mystery


 Fifteen-year-old Jessica Keeling’s eyes stung as she forced them open. Milky eyes stared into hers, the eyes of a dead man. For a moment she couldn’t breathe. She opened her mouth to scream, but instead tasted death. The smell of stale urine and dried blood filled her nostrils.

Her knees scraped against the cold, damp concrete as she scrabbled to her feet. Early morning sunlight filtered down to the bottom of the outdoor stairwell, providing enough light to see the brick-colored ribbon across the man’s throat. She squeezed her eyes shut to block out the sight, but not soon enough. Not before she recognized him.

Shit! Could she have done this? Her stomach lurched at the thought. She tried to reach back through time to recapture the night, but her drug-splintered mind flashed only psychedelic fragments.

Her knees wobbled and she leaned against the wall for support. Jessica forced herself to focus on a dark smudge of dirt on the opposite wall a few feet away. Any place but on the body next to her feet.

Think, stupid! Where was she? Birds chirped overhead, the wind whispered through the trees, a bus rumbled close by. August humidity plastered her black dress to her moist skin. She looked skyward, a move that caused her to cry out and her head to throb.

Squinting into the sun, she recognized the glass towers that dominated downtown Houston. Damn! How did she get here? She didn’t want to think about what happened to the dead guy. What was his name? Peter something.

Jessica had a vague memory of meeting him at Numbers, a nightclub in the Montrose section of Houston. Mostly college kids went there because the gray square building was large, dark, and noisy—great for dancing, and listening to live alternative bands. Way off the chain, in her opinion.

Funny thing about memory, how some things come back but not others. She remembered being surprised that Peter had picked Numbers to meet. He was too old, for chrissake—old enough to be her father.

Her father. Damn it! He wanted to talk to her about her father. A tidal wave of anger burst over her and pounded the memory deeper into oblivion. Her father had left her. A deserter.

She didn’t believe Peter at first. How could she? The last time she had seen Daddy Dearest was eight months ago after they drove here from Pine Cove. First time they’d been back to the city since Mom died. Daddy Dearest dropped her off at a Starbucks on the corner of Westheimer and Montrose.

“Be right back,” he promised as he kissed her on the forehead. Those words burned into her heart as she waited, and waited. But he never returned and his promise left a taste in her mouth like coal dust.

Then Peter finds her, after all these months, claiming to be daddy’s friend, saying all the right words. Why didn’t dear ol’ dad come for her himself? She should have known it would be a scam, another betrayal. It was enough to make her spit.

Her anger gave way to more tears as she gazed down at Peter’s crumpled, blood-stained body. She remembered something else from the night before. Someone handing her a drink—against the rules because of her age—but she was with Peter so it must have been okay. Then her world swallowed into a black pit until she awoke to this surreal nightmare.

Who did this?

Why was she spared?

She shuddered. She’d seen dead people on the street before, but never this close and never someone she knew. She couldn’t have done this. Wouldn’t have! Had she tried to help him? Had she seen his killer? Her throat felt dry as sand. The rough surface of the walls, the part the sun didn’t touch, was dark green with mold and dirt, and threatened to close in on her like a cheap casket.

She couldn’t stay there. Already distant voices grew louder above the stairs. There would be questions and she had no answers.

She examined the door next to Peter’s body. It had to lead somewhere. But the knob had been hacked off and replaced with a deadbolt. She looked up and saw the sign: “Theater Parking.”

She choked out a laugh that sounded like a sob. The door used to open to underground parking which led to tunnels that fed Houston’s downtown mall of businesses, stores and restaurants. Not today.

She gave one last look at Peter before trudging up the stairs. She emerged in a sea of red flowers and green shrubbery. She blinked at the brightness of the sun. A brick path circled pools of water that mirrored a green bottom. Fountains shaped like bronze pistons, water shimmering down the sides, caught the colors of the rainbow like an artist’s palate.

She recognized City Hall across the street to her left. She knew the old building by the medieval carvings edged along the top, and the old clock centered in the weathered dirty-white plaster, ticking away the minutes. Okay. Cool. She knew where she was—Tranquility Park. Tranquil? Shit, not likely.

Her world blurred and spun. She closed her eyes to stop the ground from shifting. After a moment, the hammering behind her eyes slowed to a dull thump, but the image of Peter’s face flew at her full throttle. Her eyes snapped open and earth settled.  Don’t fall to pieces now, she told herself. It wouldn’t bring Peter back. She had to look out for herself, figure out how to get back to the familiar streets and faces of Montrose.

She wiped a dribble of spit from the corner of her parched mouth, smearing leftover black lipstick on her hand. She eyed the pools with longing. The water, calm mirrors reflecting nearby skyscrapers, would feel cool against her clammy skin. She’d splash some on her face, maybe drink some. She’d had worse.

She jumped at the sound of voices. A young couple walked across the park, heads tilted toward each other, hands clasped. She couldn’t catch their words but those two were tight and made her think of Rube. Rube, her best friend. Her only friend. She suddenly felt sad and scared and more alone than ever.

Three boys about her age whizzed past on skateboards, flying high over curbs, arms out, laughing in the wind. She ducked out of sight. Any other time she would be right there with them. But not today.

A distant church bell pierced the quiet. Eight chimes. Sunday morning in the park. What happened to Saturday night at the club? What happened to Peter?

Where was her father?

She didn’t have to worry about foot traffic. Downtown slept until noon on Sunday unless a parade or art festival woke them up.

A homeless man stared at her from a bench near the street. Something about his scruffy beard and purple suspenders made her sad. She lowered her head and turned away.

Behind her a Metro bus chugged down the street, spewing exhaust fumes into the air. A man in jeans and a white short sleeve shirt hopped off at the corner. He strolled across the street in front of the bus without glancing her way.

The park felt empty, quiet, almost safe. No one paid her any attention. She sat at the pool’s edge and leaned forward, and caught her breath. A freak stared back at her. Black makeup streaked white cheeks. Spiked hair dyed blue-black with blood-red tips made her look ghoulish in the daylight. At night her Goth look became one with the dark, but now she would stand out and that wasn’t good. She splashed green water on her face, but the oily makeup only smeared. She needed to find a restroom, but where? All the restaurants were closed on weekends until the theaters opened their doors.

The clip-clop of horseshoes alerted her to a new kind of danger. She sank to the ground, shrinking against the bushes. The mounted cop rode past.

Had Rube seen her with Peter? Rube had a part-time job at Numbers parking cars, but she couldn’t remember if he worked last night. She wished he were with her right now. He’d tell her to stay off the main streets, find a safe place for a night or two, away from the cops.

She could go to Open Palms, the shelter for runaways. They took anyone in and asked no questions. She particularly liked Niki, the counselor who taught karate classes and always had a kind word for her.

An older couple in jogging suits entered the park and headed her way. Jessica crawled to the other side of the pond and waited until they disappeared before straightening. With quickening steps, she passed the old man on the bench and felt his eyes follow her. The hot sun dried her face. Her black dress collected the heat like a shroud.

She almost made it to the sidewalk when a woman screamed. The sound tore through her like a train whistle and she spun around. The two joggers stood at the top of the stairwell. The man pointed at her.

The mounted cop spurred his horse. Jessica broke into a run and, when she reached the corner, raced across Bagby. By the time she dared to look back, a knot of activity buzzed by the stairs. She hadn’t much time before they’d be after her.

“Hey, Jade! What’s up?”

She jerked to a stop. Someone knew her street name. An old beat-up black pickup pulled up beside her. A beefy face hung out the window. He looked vaguely familiar. Sandy hair cut in a buzz, a crooked nose. He reeked of sweat and cigarettes.

He grinned, showing tobacco-stained teeth. “Jade! It’s Simon. From the shelter. Come on, I’ll give you a lift.”

She started towards him, hesitated. Didn’t remember seeing him at Open Palms. Another memory lapse? But what was worse? This cowboy or the cops?

Sirens wailed. A police car rolled past and she ducked behind the pickup until the blue and white turned the corner. She headed down the street, trying to keep to a normal pace. The pickup stayed alongside her.

“Mighty hot out here,” Simon drawled. “‘Specially in that get-up. You’d be wantin’ to get back to see Niki. She been looking for you.”

He knows Niki! Maybe he was a volunteer. But he didn’t look like a volunteer and he gave off weird vibes. Strange he had picked this moment to appear. If only her brain would shed the fur so she could think straight.

Another cruiser slowed and this time the cop stared directly at her. She didn’t trust cops, not when she might still be high. Anyway, what could she tell them if they asked her about poor Peter? She couldn’t remember a thing.

She’d take Simon’s ride. What choice did she have? But once back on the familiar streets of Montrose, she’d lose the cowboy and find Rube. He’d know what to do.

She yanked the door open and hopped in. Simon reached across and pulled the door shut. That’s when she realized there was no door handle. Her heart beat quickened and her cheeks burned. She glanced at him but his expression didn’t change as he rolled up the window.

“Hellava excitement going on out there, huh? Lucky I found you instead of them finding you.” Simon jerked his head toward the police. He put the truck in gear and pushed down on the accelerator.

She felt like someone kicked her in the gut. A sour taste filled her mouth as the truck made a left and swerved onto Interstate 45 heading north.

She gripped the dash. “You’re going the wrong way.”

He laughed in a way that made her skin crawl.

“I changed my mind,” Jessica said, trying to keep the desperation out of her voice. “Lemme out. Now!”

Panic rose to her throat and she pounded the glass with her fist. “Stop this fucking truck or I swear I’ll jump!”

He leaned toward her, his breath smelling like week-old garbage. “If you want, I can hand you over to the police.”

“Good! Do it.” The bastard had to be bluffing. Even if he weren’t, she’d rather take her chances with the cops. “I’m not afraid.”

“’Course you ain’t. But wouldn’t they be interested to know you were with your dead pal last night?”

Chills rippled down her back. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Simon grinned. “Honey, you can’t hide anything from ol’ Simon. I know all about you.”

“You’re so full of shit.”

His lips curled. “Saaay, you didn’t kill him, did you?”

“No!” She shrank back against the door.

“Don’t remember, do ya? Got any more of them good drugs?”

She stared out the dirt-streaked window, but couldn’t ignore the paralyzing dread that took over her limbs. The traffic stayed light even after the 610 Loop merged with I-45. She watched the trees near White Oak Bayou disappear and fast food restaurants and strip malls take their place. Further down the road flashy bargain furniture billboards competed against each other.

“Where are we going?”

He patted her knee. “Don’t worry, little girl. I won’t let the cops find you.”

She shifted in her seat away from him. “You said you were taking me to Niki.”

“No,” he drawled. “I didn’t say that. You like that nosy counselor, don’t you? Used to be a cop, you know.”

Niki, a cop? Couldn’t be. “Sure I knew,” she lied.

He went on as if he hadn’t heard her. “The bitch quit the force. Want to know why? ‘Cause there’s blood on her hands. Killed a street kid not much older’n you.”

She wanted to slap him, but then another idea came to her. “You’re lying. If you ain’t, then prove it. I want to hear it from her.”

“Maybe some other time.” He licked his lips. “What do you think she’d say if she found out you killed that poor bastard?”

Jessica burrowed further into the seat. “I told you, I didn’t kill nobody.” Her voice sounded small and thin even to her own ears.

“How do ya know?”

She turned away so he couldn’t see the tears forming in her eyes. “I ain’t talking to you no more. Just pull over and let me out.”

He reached over and touched her thigh. “What do I get in return?”

She pushed his hand away. “I didn’t ask you to pick me up. I didn’t ask you to take me nowhere, you pervert.”

Simon drew back. “You got me all wrong, Jade.  I’m just trying to help out a friend in need. Say, you hungry?”

She hadn’t even thought about food. Her stomach flipped at the mention of it. No way could she eat.

But wait. If he stopped, she could run. A restaurant was a public place. If he tried to stop her, she’d make enough noise to attract attention. He wouldn’t dare grab her.

She shrugged, feigning indifference. “Sure. I could eat.”

She watched the road with renewed hope. New and used car lots took over the landscape followed by outlet stores, cheap motels and men’s clubs. Freeway signs pointed the way to Intercontinental Airport. Greenspoint Mall, office buildings and high-priced hotels flew past. Sam Houston Parkway merged and angled upward, resembling rollercoaster tracks twisting in opposite directions. Past the mall the scenery changed again and the land became flat with a smattering of restaurants and low rent offices between empty fields.

Simon pulled into a Denny’s parking lot. Jessica gripped the armrest on the door. She’d pretend to go to the restroom and beat it out the rear.

But Simon had a different idea. While the engine idled, the door was jerked from her grasp and a small, wiry man slid in beside her. His dirty T-shirt and torn jeans smelled like greasy fried onions. He grinned as he snaked a well-muscled arm around her shoulders. Her eyes riveted on a pair of dice that hung from a chain inches from her face.

She was going to be sick for sure. Her voice cracked. “Aren’t we going to eat here?”

“Naw, we’re going up the road a bit,” Simon said.

“What’s wrong with Denny’s? I really like Denny’s.”

Simon’s friend exploded with a high-pitched giggle. He leaned over, exhaling cigarette breath next to her ear, and whispered, “We got other plans, honey.”