The nightmare is over. Alexander “Rotten” Carter is dead. But when his body is dumped in Cleveland Homicide Detective Jesus De La Cruz’s neighborhood, there are more questions than answers. Rotten was dressed up like the king of hearts, right down to the dagger in the suicide king’s temple. The elaborate staging is perplexing at the same time seems to be sending a message.
As Cruz investigates, he discovers Rotten Carter was more complex than the simple villain he had painted him to be. So is his murder, which is related to the deaths of his two lieutenants months prior. Both were strangled and found, with playing cards in their mouths. Jacks.
As the body count climbs, connection tie back to a dead CI and an accident that made a cop a widower. A web becomes apparent with one man in the middle: Narcotics Detective Matt Yablonski. But is he the spider or another fly?
The crime scene was around the corner, no more than ten houses from Cruz’s own. Two streets came together at a sharp angle, creating oddly shaped yards. An island was formed at one of the peaks, surrounded by roadway. It was the length of one of the yards facing it. Geometric colors showed brightly in the morning sun, giving the landscape a third dimension it didn’t naturally have. Cruz approached, his mind transforming the lines and shapes into the macabre corpse.
“I called 9-1-1 and, thankfully, no one else has come out,” Binnie, the girls’ father, said. He stood guard over the island in worn sweatpants and a sweatshirt. He was barefoot.
“Aurora kept the girls. She’ll settle them down.”
“Good. I didn’t want them to see this, not any more than they had.” Binnie turned until he and Cruz were side by side. “The island was part of the city’s Color the Corners Chalk Festival. It took the artist two days to do it.”
That explained the background, a mosaic reminiscent of a stained-glass window, but not the character on it. Cruz thought Francie’s description of a costume was accurate. The victim, male, White, was in his twenties. The torso was covered by a tunic, the kind a knight might wear. Instead of regal, the tunic was decorated with hearts in groups of twos and threes, some facing up, others down. The costume was thin fabric. Details were printed on, not embroidered. The legs were dressed in a pair of tights, the red color coordinated with the tunic. The feet were bare.
The arms were bare as well. One was bent at the elbow with the hand resting on the lower abdomen. The other was positioned upward. The hand curled around the hilt of a long dagger, the blade buried in the head. It was an unnatural position that forced the wrist, elbow, and shoulder out of a flat alignment.
Cruz rounded to the base of the figure. He recognized it. “Someone made him into the king of hearts. Better get shoes on, Binnie,” he advised as vehicles began arriving at the scene. “This isn’t going to be quick.”
“I’ll put some coffee on,” he said and headed to the house directly behind them.
There was no estimate on when the man had died. His body temperature was lower than was naturally possible given the weather. The nighttime low bottomed out around fifty degrees. The body was low forties. The Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner would use methods more sophisticated than temperature to estimate time of death.
A cursory review of the body found no cuts, wounds, or contusions aside from the knife in the head. The blade had been driven in above the left ear. The handle was wrapped in leather, the complicated over-under weave spoke of skill and craftsmanship. Cruz examined the round, silver ball at the end and found it to be slightly flattened and marred with scratches.
Something about the position of the mouth drew Cruz’s attention. He applied pressure on the chin, opening the jaw. Inside was the white edge of folded paper. Widening the opening, he gently pulled. The folded item came easily. It wasn’t paper exactly. It was thicker. Coated. He turned it over, both sides printed in a blue elaborate pattern reminiscent of…a playing card.
He unfolded it, revealing the king of hearts.
Rising, he compared the body position to the card. It was a match.
He pictured the man resting his head on a table. His killer standing over him, holding the dagger in position with one hand and using a hammer in the other to drive the point deep. There were no defensive signs. It was as if the man simply lay down and allowed the knife to be driven into his head. The ME would tell him if the man was incapacitated via drugs or other means.
Wherever happened, it didn’t happen here. Beneath the body was the chalk of the drawing. The lines separating the colors were disturbed directly beneath but even that was minor. There was minimal transfer to the back of the clothing. The man was set in place, not dragged, which meant either multiple people were involved or one person strong enough to handle a body. The man was average to short with sinewy arms and legs. Cruz put him in the 160-pound camp.
Ready to tackle the timetable, Cruz went up the short walk to where Binnie waited with a cup of coffee.
“It’s nice and hot,” he said, holding out the insulated Cleveland Browns cup.
Cruz went up one step to accept. “I appreciate it. Tell me what happened this morning.”
“You know, Cruz, I can’t tell you much. I was dead asleep when Sunny screamed. You know how it is, one second out cold, then wide awake. I went to the front door. I could tell there was something on the island but not what it was.” He pointed to the screen now hiding the crime scene. “It didn’t make sense until I was nearly to the sidewalk. I told the girls to go get you and ran back in the house to get my phone. I didn’t even think about shoes. I called 9-1-1 and waited for you or them to arrive.”
“What time was this?”
Binnie pulled out his phone and searched for outgoing calls. “Eight minutes after seven. The sky was light but the street still dark. You know. You arrived just a few minutes later.”
Cruz did know but wanted details to supplement his own observations. “What about cars on the street? Anyone leaving the area? Any vehicles that didn’t belong?”
His witness thought for a moment, then shook his head. “Everything was quiet. I didn’t even see anyone walking their dog yet.”
“I had someone go house-to-house. Anyone who was awake was in their kitchen or backyard. There was no answer next door. Any idea where your neighbor is?”
“Metro General Hospital. He works first shift in the maintenance department. He left at twenty to seven. When he started his car, I woke enough to read the clock and decide it was too early to get up.” Binnie pointed to a pair of patrol officers waving their way. “I think they want you.”
“We’re close to wrapping up here. Let me see what they need, then we’ll go to my house. I need to ask your daughters a few questions.” Cruz left the porch, turning his attention to the officers. “What do you have?”
“The victim has been identified as Alexander Carter, age twenty-seven,” the leading officer answered. “His listed address is his parents’, but he’s spent a lot of time as a guest of the county. In and out for possession, assault, petty theft. He’s—Detective?”
Cruz stalked to the protective tent.
“Detective? Cruz?” The officer hurried to keep up.
Cruz took a knee next to the dead man’s shoulder and studied the face. He’d seen it in pictures a dozen times, only twice in person. In every case, the eyes had been narrowed with hate, the chin tipped up in challenge.
“Do you know this guy?” the officer asked.
“Not just me. We’ve been after Rotten Carter since July. Send me the information on his next of kin. I’ll make the trip after we wrap here, and I follow up with the girls. Go back through the neighborhood, see if anyone here knows our vic.”
The officers left the tent to execute orders while Cruz studied the man he daydreamed about killing. Without the attitude he wore like skin, Rotten Carter had a clean-cut look. He didn’t have ink tatted across his body or battle-earned scars saying the man fought his way through life. He could have been a family man with a white-collar job.
He could have been an ordinary guy earning an honest living.
But he wasn’t.
Rotten Carter was a mid-level dealer who had been on Cleveland police’s radar for years. His sister, Natasha “Sasha” Carter was a confidential informant to Cruz’s best friend, Narcotics Detective Matt Yablonski. Sasha snitched with her brother’s permission or at least knowledge. She fed information on Rotten’s competition, keeping her brother’s territory solid.
One day last January, Sasha got in touch with Yablonski and asked for a meetup. She didn’t follow their normal protocols, wanting Yablonski to come to her place. He arrived at the agreed upon time and found Sasha overdosing. Yablonski called for backup and began CPR. Rotten walked in and misread the situation. While Rotten and Yablonski fought, Sasha died.
Rotten blamed Yablonski. He focused his energy and resources on finding the man who killed his sister. Bad luck or bad timing put Rotten in the same place at the same time as Yablonski, and Yablonski’s wife, Erin.
Rotten saw his opportunity for revenge and took it.
That night, Erin and Aurora were driving to a restaurant for a celebratory night out. Rain poured down, making the street dark and the road slick. There was no evidence Rotten Carter tracked Erin’s car through downtown Cleveland. There was no proof Rotten drove the car and instigated the crash. There were no witnesses to point to Rotten as the reason Erin Yablonski was dead and Aurora’s legs might never be the same.
And yet there was no doubt.
Alone in the tent with the corpse of the man he hated, Cruz felt empty. This didn’t fix a damn thing. And now, it would be his job to find the killer who had done him and the rest of the city a favor.
Cruz didn’t want the job, but he wasn’t going to pass it on. He was going to use it to his advantage and prove Rotten Carter was behind the crash.
Closure. That’s what he could give Aurora and Yablonski.
Excerpt from Playing Dead by TG Wolff. Copyright 2024 by TG Wolff. Reproduced with permission from TG Wolff. All rights reserved.
TG Wolff writes mysteries that play within the gray area between good and bad, right and wrong. She specializes in puzzles, giving you everything you need to solve the mystery. Diverse characters mirror the complexities of real life and real people, balanced with a healthy dose of entertainment. TG Wolff is the co-creator and co-host of Mysteries to Die For podcast. She holds a Master’s Degree in Civil Engineering and is a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime.