I’m writing a new noir serial, “The Galveston Island Art Caper,” for Galveston Monthly Magazine.
Part I ran in the September edition of the monthly Texas Gulf Coast magazine. Part II has just posted.
I’ll wrap up most of it with the third installment in the November edition, then write a short, 500-word epilogue for December.
A new serial will start in January.
Here are the first two installements.
The Galveston Island Art Caper:
An Eddie Montrose Mystery
By Mark Yost
Tuesday, Aug. 12
I’d been coming to Murphy’s Irish Pub, just off the Strand, for about a year. I like it because it’s mostly a locals’ hang out. Sure, you get a handful of tourists on the weekend, but they’re the kind of tourists you can tolerate. The kind that walk past the t-shirt shops and fudge stores and fancy boutiques, look at a place like Murphy’s, and say, “Let’s go in here.”
I also liked to come here because they have trivia on Monday nights. I like to work my brain, as well as my elbow, when I drink.
But this was the first time I’d come here and there’s been crime scene tape strung across the front. Cop cars? Yes. But never crime scene tape.
“What’s going on?” I asked Dave, one of the day bartenders.
“They found Phil, dead out back.”
It took my brain a second to catch up.
“You mean homeless Phil?”
“Yeah,” Dave said. “Who’d wanna kill him?”
Good question. I recognized one of the cops working the scene.
“What’s up, Joe?”
“Homicide, Montrose,” he said. “Right up your alley.”
“Yeah, especially since the vic was found in an alley.”
“Good point,” he said, immediately recognizing my cop’s humor.
“Problem here, Sarge?” one of the other cops asked.
“No, Rodriguez” Joe said, more annoyed than grateful that a rookie would be asking if he needed help.
“Let me introduce you to Eddie Montrose,” Joe said by way of introduction. “HPD Homicide.”
“Retired HPD Homicide,” I quickly interjected as I stuck out my hand. “Live here now.”
“He thinks he’s an islander,” Joe said. “It told him he doesn’t have enough time in grade yet.”
“How long you been here…umm…umm,” Rodriguez struggled with my rank.
“Lieutenant,” I said. “But you can just call me Eddie. And I’ve been here about 18 months, but I used to come down here whenever I could. It used to be my getaway from the city. Now it’s my home.”
“Montrose thinks that because he doesn’t like leaving the island, it makes him a local,” Joe said.
It was true. I’d heard people talk about it when I lived and worked in Houston. The fact that year-round residents don’t like to leave the island…for anything. Before, I thought it was just an interesting quirk. But the more I lived here, the more I understood it.
There was something about crossing the causeway. I’d felt it somewhat when I’d come down here for long weekends when I was still living and working in Houston.
My blood pressure would drop.
I wouldn’t drive as fast.
I’d roll down the windows in the car even if it was 50, which to islanders is like -10 to people in Chicago and Minneapolis.
Now, I hated leaving the island. And in my book, that made me an islander. I don’t care what Joe said.
I’d retired after 30 years on the force, having worked some of the worst neighborhoods in Houston. When I was younger, one of the older detectives who broke me in warned me about homicide.
“There’s things you’ll see that you can’t unsee,” he said.
But what did I know. I was 25, just out of the academy and a few years out of the Marines. I thought I knew it all. Twenty-five years later, I realized I didn’t. But I had no regrets.
Well…maybe one. Like a lot of cops, I was divorced. Spent too many nights away from home and wasn’t really there when I was. I didn’t blame Michelle for leaving. But the trouble was, I still loved her.
I have one son. Trumpet player in one of the bars on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Not sure what he’s going to do with the rest of his life. I don’t think he knows either. But he doesn’t ask me for money – anymore – so it’s just fine with me.
Other than that, it’s just me.
To keep myself busy, I bought a little fixer upper near Postoffice and 10th. Just far enough away from the beach to keep the tourists from asking me where to eat and the local kids from pissing in my rose bushes.
The house was actually a double shotgun. I renovated the side I didn’t plan to live in myself first and rented it to a nice, young girl from Austin who was studying nuclear medicine at the medical center. That was the other benefit to this location. I knew I could rent the other side of the house to people like her instead of the beach kids.
You know the kind.
Move down here after dropping out of school. Work just enough to keep themselves in beer and weed. Always behind on the rent.
“So, what do you know so far?”
“Can’t get it out of your blood, huh?” Joe said, ignoring my question.
“Something like that.”
“Not much,” Joe said. “One of the hotel shuttle van drivers found him early this morning. Was going into work and saw something in the alley. When he realized what it was, he called 9-1-1. The forensics guys just got here. For what, I don’t know.”
“What do you mean?”
“Come on, Eddie,” he said, calling me by my first name for the first time. “We’re gonna spend like 10 minutes on this and it’s going to go into the unsolved file, where it’ll stay until Kingdom Come. Nobody gave a hoot about this guy when he was alive, and nobody’s gonna care now that he’s dead.”
I hated to admit it, but Joe was right. Even when it comes to solving crimes, money buys results. If this had been one of the wealthy oil and gas execs who’d retired here, or one of the art gallery owners, Galveston P.D. would be all over this. But a homeless guy? He’ll get toe tagged, there’ll be a quick autopsy, and then the city and county will fight over who pays to cremate him. Sad, but true.
Joe could see that my wheels were turning.
“What?” he asked. “You gonna come out of retirement for this? You gonna put your shield back on for Phil?”
“Nah,” I said.
But in my head, I was really saying “Maybe…”
The only thing I was sure of was the fact that I wasn’t getting a drink at Murphy’s. Not today.
So I got in my truck – a beat-up Chevy S-10 I’d picked up used and gotten into shape – and headed over to the Gumbo Diner on the Seawall for a Seafood Po Boy and a cup of gumbo. After that, I swung by the house, checked the mail, slipped into a pair of ratty shorts and my beach shoes.
(Unlike the tourists, who ruin their regular shoes on the beach because the car is overloaded with other crap they don’t need, we islanders have shoes we just wear on the beach. I should have added that into my argument to Joe that I’m an islander. “I got beach shoes.” Maybe that would have convinced him.)
Then I grabbed my fishing pole and hopped on my beach cruiser. I pretty much only use it to go fishing, so I have my small tackle box with my shore lures and rigs strapped onto the back with a few bungee cords. I rode up to Seawall, out past Apffel Park to the South Jetty. I wanted to clear my head and think about this case. And there was only one place to do that. Besides, the winds had shifted and I heard that the redfish and sheepshead are running.
After two hours of catching about all the fish I could eat in the next week or so, I decided, “What the hell. What else do I have to do?”
Wednesday, Aug. 13
After fixing breakfast at home and taking care of a few things around the house, I went back down to the Strand and started to ask around about Phil. A good place to start was the House of Spirits, a dive bar at the south end of the Strand that was even too rough for the bikers that came in on the weekends. But this time of the morning, most of the regulars were still fairly sober.
When I walked in, there were just two scruffy-looking guys sitting at the bar. About average for the clientele in this place.
I recognized them as part of the regular panhandlers around town. Some days they’d work the Strand, other days they’d work the Seawall. Most people who saw them on the street – myself included – would probably guess that they were homeless. But for all I knew, they may have owned one of the old mansions on Broadway.
Like most people, I’ve always wondered about these guys (and girls). One of the beat cops in my old station house told me that if they hustle, they can make $200 a day, tax-free. That’s $4,000 a month, working five days a week. Not bad. Especially if you and three of your buddies are living together and pooling your money. Then again, maybe they weren’t that ambitious. Maybe they begged for just what they needed and spent most nights sleeping on the beach or behind a dumpster somewhere.
“What do you want, cop?” one of them said shortly after I walked in and ordered a draft.
“It’s that obvious, huh?” I asked with a laugh. “I’m actually retired. Houston P.D. Live down here now.”
“And…??” the other one asked.
“And what can you tell me about Phil?”
“Is that what some people called him?”
“Yeah,” the first drunk said. “Those that crossed him.”
“What about you two? You ever cross him?”
“We don’t want no trouble,” the other one said. “Just trying to scratch out a living here in paradise.”
“Good luck…” I said as I knocked back the rest of my beer and walked out.
They clearly weren’t going to be any help. In fact, most people either didn’t want to get involved or had nothing to say. That’s how it went most of the rest of the morning as I made my way up the Strand, stopping into the shops to ask the locals what they knew about a guy that everyone knew, but no one seemed to care about.
I got my first break in the case in the alley behind the Lunchbox Café. One of the bus boys, Miguel, was out back emptying the garbage.
“Sure, I know Phil,” he said.
“What can you tell me about him?”
“He was one of the quiet ones,” Miguel said, speaking about Phil in the past tense.
“What do you mean by that?”
“Well, a lot of times when I come out here they’re waiting to sift through the garbage. Phil was never like that.”
“Hmm…” I said. “I’ve heard from a few people he had a temper.”
“Yeah…” Miguel said. “When they hassled him. Otherwise, he was pretty chill.”
“Did you remember anyone in particular hassling him?”
“No, not really. It’s busy here, especially in the summer. I come out, dump the trash and go back inside.”
I walked back down the alley and back out onto the Strand. I had a few other places to check when Miguel saw me walk by the front of the Lunchbox.
“Senor,” he said, calling to me from the front of the café. “I just thought of something. You should go speak to Sister Martha Marie, over at the food pantry. I remember Phil telling me that she was the only person who was ever nice to him.”
“Thanks, Miguel,” I said. “I’ll do that.”
Thursday, Aug. 14
I left the Strand and drove over to the food pantry behind Holy Family. It was closed, but a guy mowing the lawn told me they opened at six every night.
So I went home, made some lunch, then hopped in my truck and drove down the coast road to Surfside. Technically, it’s off the island, but I like going there anyway.
Surfside Beach is a little town about 20 miles west of Galveston. Mostly just beach shacks and dive bars. Sometimes I go a little further down the coast, across the inlet, and fish in Quintana. It’s even more rundown and remote than Surfside. Mainly because there’s some sort of petrochemical processing plant just inland from the beach. But I’ve never glowed in the dark and the fish sometimes run better over there than they do at Surfside.
Also, you can drive on the beach over in Quintana. I have a favorite spot I like to go to, park on the beach, set up my chair, break out a cooler full of beer, and just listen to the waves.
About 7 every night, I pull out my little portable radio and listen to the Astros games – even if they are mostly losing. My son makes fun of my beat-up radio. Tells me I should get an iPod. Clearly he doesn’t get it.
I packed up in the sixth inning. The Astros were winning 4-1. I stopped to wet my whistle at Sharkies and watch the last three innings on TV.
I was on my third bourbon when I heard a commotion in the back. I walked past the pool table and the hallway that leads to the bathrooms and stepped into the doorway to the patio deck that most no one knows about unless they come here regularly. One of the girls I’d half noticed playing pool earlier was pinned down on top of one of the tables on the deck by some bikers that were already at the bar and well-oiled by the time I got here.
Two of the bikers held down her arms while the third one was struggling to unbutton her tight-fitting cut-off shorts. The girl was putting up a pretty good fight, but it was clear that she was going to eventually lose.
“Get off her,” I said as I stepped through the doorway.
The two guys holding her arms looked up and froze. The guy struggling on top of her just looked over his shoulder. He kept his hand on her midsection and leaned into her to keep her pinned down.
“I’d turn around and walk away if I were you, old man,” he said with a sneer.
“I might have done that,” I said, “but then you had to call me ‘old man.’”
“Then I guess you’re gonna get your ass kicked,” he said.
He turned around and took two steps toward me before I pulled my snub-nosed .38 out of my belt and put one in his thigh. He fell to the splintered wooden deck with a thud, the sound of the gunshot still echoing in the air, and began to cry like a baby.
“You shot me!” he managed to blurt out.
“Yeah…I’m too old to fight.”
It was 1:30 a.m. by the time I got finished with the cops and drove back to my place.
The light was on in the apartment next door. That meant one thing: Sheri, my tenant, was up late studying.
“You’re coming home late, Eddie,” she said as I got out of the truck and she stepped into the porch light.
“Out fishing,” I said.
“I was hoping you were out with that woman you like who works over at MOD Coffee.”
Sheri’d lived here for two years and for a year-and-a-half she’d been trying to fix me up. We’d occasionally go to coffee together. It didn’t take her long to figure out I liked the day manager over at MOD, one of our local coffee shops.
“I’m going to bed,” was all I said.
And that’s exactly what I did. I slept in until 9 – which was late for me – and then spent most of the day running errands and doing work around the house.
I went over Holy Family about 7. I figured by then the line at the food pantry would be down and Sister Martha Marie would have time to talk.
“I’d heard about what had happened to Phillip,” she said after I introduced myself, told her I was a retired cop living here on the island, and I was looking into a case I knew the cops never would. “What a tragedy.”
“You’re one of the few people I’ve heard call him something other than ‘Crazy Phil,’” I said.
“He wasn’t crazy,” she said, her sadness visible on her face. “He was just lost.”
“How do you know that?”
“He sometimes helped me out around here,” she said, still struggling with the fact that she was talking about Phil in the past tense. “With the food pantry and other chores around the rectory. I’d give him a little bit of money, let him take a shower in the rectory.”
“What did you know about him?”
“Not much,” she said. “He didn’t like to talk about himself. But it was obvious to me that he was educated.”
“How do you know that?” I asked.
“One day, I asked him to help me move some furniture in the rectory,” she said. “Cardinal DiNardo has two Albrecht Durer reproductions hanging on the wall outside his office. ‘The Carrying of the Cross’ and ‘Praying Hands.’ Phillip immediately recognized both of them and pointed out lines and technique that I never learned in my art history class at Sacred Heart.”
“He doodled,” she said.
“One day, after he’d helped me around here, he was sitting at one of the tables in the pantry doodling on some papers that had been left there. It was quite good.”
“I signed him up for a class at the Galveston Art League,” she said. “I thought it might be therapeutic for him.”
“Do you mind if I ask you something?”
“Of course not,” she said.
“How did you become a nun?”
I could tell by the look on her face that it was a question she’d been asked before. She was gorgeous. Not in a runway model sort of way, but like the girl-next-door. Like my tenant Sheri.
And a smile that lit up the room.
I was almost embarrassed for noticing.
“It’s a long story,” she said. “But thank you for asking.”
“I’ll let you know what I find out about Phil,” I said.
“I would really appreciate that,” she said as a single tear dripped out of the corner of her left eye and trickled down her full, rosy cheek.
I turned around as I started to leave.
“By the way,” I asked. “How’d he do in the class.”
“Not well,” she said. “He came to one session and then never showed up again.”
“No, Edward,” she said, making her the first woman to call me “Edward” since my mother. “Thank you.”
I went out back and got in my truck. As I backed out, I saw Sister Martha Marie come out of the pantry. I leaned over and rolled down the passenger window. I hate power doors and locks. Something my dad taught me.
“Just one other thing to break,” he used to say.
“What is it, sister?”
“Maybe you should go talk to Jeannette Miller over at the Art League,” she said. “I remember she called me when Phillip didn’t show up again. But she said he had talent.”
Friday, Aug. 15
I got lucky.
The Galveston Art League was having an open house this evening. So I dug a nice pair of slacks, a shirt and a jacket out of my closet.
I stopped off at Medicinal Purposes, another one of my regular hangouts, for a few drinks before I went over to rub elbows with a segment of Galveston society that was probably the least familiar to me. I was more comfortable in the tattered shorts and fishing pole crowd. But I’d learned that the guy up the jetty from you, in the car that wasn’t quite as nice as yours and the tackle box that wasn’t nearly as full, could be a former CEO worth eight figures. Galveston’s that kind of place. It’s one of the things I liked about it.
The reception was actually at the Water’s Edge Studio, one of the smaller studios away from the main art district. I walked in and hoped that the stunning red head in the middle of the room was Jeannette Miller.
As I tried to make my way toward her through more hot pink, lime green and banana yellow clothes than I’d ever seen in one place in my life, I was intercepted by a white-jacketed waiter with a tray of wine.
“Sure,” I said, grabbing a glass of the closest thing to me.
“There’s really some wonderful artists here on the island doing fabulous work,” she was saying as I walked up to the little circle around her. “I don’t know what those people up in the Heights think they have over us.”
“Crime,” I said.
That got her attention. And, yes, the stunning redhead turned out to be Jeannette Miller.
Up close, I realized she wasn’t really a redhead. Her hair was actually more of a brown with a red tint to it. Maybe it was just like that in the summer.
She had a gorgeous figure.
Her tight-fitting, sleeveless, summer-print dress showed off sculpted yet feminine biceps, a flat stomach, and powerful thighs. I guessed she ran or played a lot of tennis. I was trying not to stare, but got caught.
“What’s that you were saying?” she asked me a second time.
“They have more crime up in the Heights,” I said.
“Yes, I suppose they do,” she said, looking me up and down.
“No,” I said. “They do. I used to be a cop up there.”
“Really,” she said, showing enough interest that the little crowd that had been gathered around her slowly started to break up.
“Yeah,” I said. “But I’m retired now. Live down here.”
“What do you do down here?” she asked.
“Right now,” I said. “I’m looking into the death of one of your former students.”
I told her about Phil, my meeting with Sister Martha Marie.
“He definitely had talent,” she said. “So much so that I went looking for him.”
“Looking for him?”
“I’m known for taking an interest in lost causes,” she said.
“That’s good news for me.”
“Maybe it is,” she said.
“So what did you find out?”
“How about if I tell you over drinks when this breaks up?”
“The Black Pearl,” she said. “We’ll talk over a plate of oysters and see where that leads.”
“I’ll be there.”