Louisiana State Police Detective Cooter ‘Cadillac’ Holland is asked to determine whether the dog that killed one of New Orleans’ most notorious felons was the murderer or just the murder weapon. The investigation finds far more than an answer to this question, including a rogue FBI operation, the blackmailing of a Hollywood actress, and even the elusive answer to his own father’s disappearance following Hurricane Katrina.
Targeted Age Group:: 18+
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I was looking for a way to tell stories about the recovery effort from Hurricane Katrina and chanced upon the Foyle's War series. I pieced together a jigsaw puzzle of actual and fictionalized pieces from New Orleans' storied past and used the recovery to cause my fictionalized detective problems in solving the case. I incorporated hyper-aware PTSD into his character as well as an additional hurdle, which was mitigated by the extensive PTSD of the storm's survivors he interacted with on a daily basis.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Detective Cooter Holland came about from my way of killing time while driving cross country, which is to create names for characters based on highway exit signs. Cooter Holland is actually exit number four on Interstate 55 in the boot-heel of Missouri. He kicked around in my head for years and finally became literary flesh when this mystery series began to form as well. I still use highway signs to name a number of minor characters in the books.
The Chief of Detectives and I walked past the bank of television reporters using the murder scene as a backdrop as they recounted the life of the deceased for the audience of their live-on-location newscast. The victim, ‘Biggie’ Charles Lynley, was a product of both the Calliope Projects and a failing criminal justice system. He was dealing drugs by the time he finished high school and was solidly in control of the heroin trade between St. Charles Avenue and the river by the time he was twenty-two. His undoing was the cold-blooded execution of two undercover DEA agents, but his murder trial was so poorly prosecuted that the DEA agents were being cast as the bad guys by the time the judge accepted a plea bargain to end the travesty. Biggie Charles was sentenced to fifteen years in Angola State Prison and paroled after serving only seven of them over the strenuous objections of everyone who could make one. He returned to New Orleans to build a rap music empire with money from an unknown source, which only added to his mystique. He spent a small fortune, but his label never posed any competition for other local labels because his acts lacked the level of talent at studios such as Cash Money Records.
BC Studios was better known for generating substantial income as an after-hours club. They catered to local bad-boy athletes, twenty-something liberal college coeds, and thirty-something young white-collar wannabe bad boys who wanted to pal around with what they thought were gang members who had managed to pull themselves off the path of destruction. Biggie Charles Lynley’s background ran the smarter celebrities off, yet Biggie continued to show up at places and events he should have been barred from and in photographs with people who should have known better than to stand so close to him. Avery’s detectives mentioned Lynley from time to time in connection with an unsolved murder or some sort of drug or weapon sale on which they couldn’t make a prosecutable case. The guy was more of a boogeyman than a crime lord. Maybe better yet, he had become a catch basin for any major crimes NOPD couldn’t solve but needed to pin on somebody.
Avery led me to the knot of NOPD detectives dressed in sports coats who were milling about while their supervisors, all dressed in suits, were trying to decide how much effort to put into the case. A single New Orleans homicide detective might be assigned more active cases at one time than the entire police department of some communities will see in a year. Their active cases are often an intertwined mess of back-and-forth retaliation for some incident none of the participants can even remember. A detective’s failure to make prosecutable cases on most of these homicides will have nothing to do with their personal ability to figure out who killed who, or even why. The arrest rate for the nearly two hundred homicides the previous year was under sixty percent and consequences were not something the city’s gang members seemed very worried about. It was becoming an accepted fact that most homicides in post-Katrina New Orleans involved turf battles over drug dealing or other minority-on-minority crimes, both of which tended to be settled on the street and not in the courts even before Katrina.
“Big Chief and Cadillac have arrived. We can all go home,” the beleaguered head of the Homicide detectives laughingly greeted us. Avery had been known as Big Chief for as long as he had carried a badge. NOPD’s fleet of squad cars was sacrificed to the absolute necessity of patrolling neighborhoods still flooded with brackish water following Katrina. Sewell Cadillac’s inventory was appropriated and pressed into service when the shortage reached a critical point. Avery assigned me one of these sedans when he decided I was no longer going to partner with his men. It gave NOPD’s patrolmen and detectives an easy derogatory nickname for me. I was still patrolling in a Cadillac, but now I bought my own. This only served to justify the nickname.
“Back off, fellas. This is well in hand,” one of the other detectives said. He held up a hand in a not entirely insincere effort to keep us at bay and whistled as he looked the two of us up and down. Avery was in his best Brooks Brothers suit and I was way over-dressed for this scene. We should have already been sipping cocktails at my father's birthday party. “Did you two just come from a James Bond convention?”
“The hell you have this under control. You don't even have coffee yet,” I countered.
“Whataya got?” Avery asked bluntly. It is one of those things he gets to do as Chief of Detectives. A large part of the respect and deference he gets has to do with his habit of reaching over and thumping anyone he feels is not in line with the program.
“Charles Lynley’s new pit bull got hungry with just the two of them in the vehicle.”
“How do you even know what kind of dog it is?” I asked. The afternoon’s rain probably washed away anything of investigative value from the parking lot, but I thought there was little to have been lost by the look of things. The crime scene seemed neatly contained within the interior of the Land Rover. Its side windows were tinted to start with but were now further darkened by what appeared to be gallons of blood. The front windshield was nearly obscured by fresh splashes of arterial spray.
“Biggie’s fiancée gave him a pit bull for a birthday present. She and the bodyguard had left the two of them alone for about twenty minutes and came back to this.”
The Homicide Chief spoke up in an effort to regain control of the scene. “Who is going to shoot the dog? You can't see the thing so someone will have to open the door so someone else can shoot it.”
“You can’t do that!” We turned towards the unexpected objection. I had not noticed my sister’s arrival at the scene. I wondered if Tony sent her or if she had noticed us as her cab passed the scene. “You can't just shoot the dog.”
“Damn it, Tulip, the dog just killed a guy. What's the problem?” Avery didn’t need to explain himself to her. My kid sister is thirty-two years old but looks considerably younger. She has been saddled with a name, Tulip Holland, our parents found even more amusing than my own.
I was over-dressed for the occasion, but Tulip was absolutely distracting. She had her auburn hair in a tight chignon and the salon-applied make-up accented the dark brown of her eyes. Her floral-print dress was short and featured a display of her cleavage that was distracting the detectives from the topic at hand. My kid sister is thirty-two years old but looks considerably younger. She has been saddled with a name, Tulip Holland, our parents found even more amusing than my own.
“Dogs don’t attack their owners without some sort of provocation,” Tulip persisted. “And a trained pit bull would certainly be unlikely to attack its owner.”
“It's also the only witness to the crime.” I wasn’t trying to make a joke. I turned to one of the uniformed officers who had been first on the scene. “Did they say it was acting funny?”
“No,” he conceded and handed Avery his notes. He gave my sister and me a particularly nasty look as he left.
I looked at the Land Rover and then to where Biggie’s dinner companions were huddled together. They looked a lot more nervous than sad about the way the evening was going. Perhaps someone told them they were going to have to take the dog home with them.
I walked over and introduced myself as Detective Holland, figuring that they could believe I was an NOPD detective if they wanted. I was not at the scene in any official capacity at the moment. The burly Black male identified himself as Bumper Jackson, Biggie’s bodyguard, and the woman as Tyshika Barnes. She claimed to be Biggie’s fiancé, to which the bodyguard nodded his head.
“How long has Biggie owned the dog?” I asked the bodyguard. He was probably in his mid-thirties and carried a lot of muscle on his nearly seven-foot frame, which he used quite effectively to block my access to the fiancée. I couldn’t help noticing that Tyshika was not crying. She just seemed especially angry.
“Since today. It was supposed to be a surprise birthday present from Tyshika. She picked it up on the Northshore a couple of hours ago.”
“Well, I guess the surprise worked.”
The fiancée did not react if she heard me at all. Bumper did flinch and started to say something, but he hesitated. This might have been because of his confusion over my possible rank because of the way I was dressed. My clothes certainly cost more than those of anyone else he had spoken with that evening.
“So are you guys going to shoot the dog or what? Because I will if need be.” The bodyguard’s heavy revolver was in a shoulder holster which was exposed now that he had draped his jacket over Tyshika’s shoulders.
“We were just discussing that. Can you tell me if the dog was at all aggressive towards either of you?”
“It's a trained attack dog, man. It’s aggressive towards everyone.”
“A trained dog should protect from attacks. It also should have protected your boss from an attack instead of attacking him.” I avoided commenting on Bumper’s own dereliction of duty.
“Look, her cousin works at the kennel and trains guard dogs for a living. He wouldn’t give us a dog he thought would do this. This animal is just nuts. Shoot it.”
I assured the pair that NOPD had the situation in hand and walked back to where the detectives were beginning to trickle away. The arrival of DEA and FBI brass and their own agents suggested that there might be a jurisdictional turf battle over who handled any investigation.
“How are they going to get the dog out?” I asked Avery as I returned to the group, which now included SAC Michael Conroy of the local FBI office. I could not remember ever seeing him at a murder scene before. Tulip was still at Avery’s side as well. She continued voicing her objections to any discussion of killing the dog.
The SWAT commander had been reached by phone and summarily refused to shoot any dog in front of a bank of TV cameras that desperately needed something interesting to happen. The K-9 unit also distanced itself.
“There has to be a better idea than shooting the dog!” my sister shouted in frustration. The Federal agents and patrolmen around us did not share her view and universally favored putting the dog down over opening the door and turning the beast loose upon the crowd.
“I can’t think of one good reason to stop them,” Chief Avery responded just as loudly and then led us both aside. “I do agree that the dog may prove more useful alive than dead if someone wanted it to kill Lynley. But, unless one of you has an idea, I’d say that removing it from the vehicle alive seems impossible.”
The three of us stood there, studying the vehicle and the problem inside, while everyone else continued to kick around ideas on how to shoot the dog. Something had to be done before the vehicle could be processed as a crime scene. This would be a dead-end case for the detective that drew it and nobody would object if this was closed as a dog attack right now. The assembled representatives of the city, state, and Federal authorities all agreed that justice, long delayed, seemed to have finally come to Biggie Charles Lynley.
“I’ll tell you what. If your sister has convinced you that this is anything more than a dog mauling, you can pursue it. You just have to go arrest the suspect.”
I could tell Avery was barely able to hide his glee at coming up with a means of passing any blame and bad publicity for what happened next to the State Patrol instead of his own department. Even Tulip agreed that there were but two likely scenarios here. The first was for the dog to be shot while still in the vehicle. That would make using the dog to prove Biggie’s death was anything but a dog mauling impossible. The second possibility was that the dog might attack anyone trying to remove it from the SUV. That someone would now be me.
“I have never done a murder investigation and you know it.” I didn’t want to actually refuse the assignment.
“I’ll watch over your shoulder. What are the odds this is ever going to wind up in court anyway?” There was no reason to believe the district attorney’s office would want to do anything but pin a medal on anyone I might prove killed someone as loathsome as Biggie Charles Lynley. Tulip told me to hurry up as the three of us were already late to dinner.
“Fine, I’ll take the case, but we’ll both probably regret this.” Tulip gave me a peck on the cheek and hugged Avery. He reluctantly agreed to open the Land Rover’s rear driver’s side door so I could capture my suspect.
I was now cornered into being the guy who got to arrest a murderous pit bull on live television. The thought of acting like I was going to do so and then shooting it in self-defense came to mind. This was not really an option because my sister was going to tell people about tonight and cast me as either her hero or as a dog killer. I stripped off the white dinner jacket and silk tie I was wearing and handed them to Tulip, telling her to bury me in them if this turned out poorly. I then borrowed a ballistic vest from one of the patrolmen and a set of heavy coveralls and jacket, as well as a helmet with a face shield, boots, and leather gloves, from a bemused fireman. What I really wanted was one of the training suits from the canine unit, but all they offered me one was one of their long-handled animal control snares so this hasty improvisation was going to have to work. I was going to have to rely on how fast the fire department was with a fire hose because I did not have a hand free to hold a pistol. My only hope would be if they could knock the dog off me before I was added to the beast’s dinner menu.
I would like to describe the way I bravely wrestled the murderous animal into submission and awed the crowd, but I can’t. Avery opened the rear driver’s side door and pressed himself against the front wheel well with his pistol in hand. The crowd took a collective breath as the door opened, and shared a massive laugh in relief when nothing happened. I looked through the open door and found the dog was now calmly licking its victim's face, which was frozen in an expression of unimaginable terror. The dog had a metal choke collar on, with the heavy leather leash still attached. All I could think to do when I saw the grisly sight was to whistle for the dog to come to me.
The dog gave me a quizzical look and then simply walked across the bloodied interior and jumped down to sit at my feet. I could tell the breed only by the square shape of the head. The dog’s fur was matted with blood. He shook himself, spraying gore all over everything within a ten-foot radius. I exchanged wry grins with Avery. I thanked him for his assistance before turning to the crowd and taking a deep bow to their greatly amused, and quietly relieved, applause. I then marched the four-legged murder suspect to the fire truck. One of the firemen offered me a hose to wash the dog.
Avery handed my borrowed costume back to its owners while I held the dog steady for the Crime Lab technician to photograph it and take swabs of the matted blood on its fur. The first question in the investigation came to mind as the technician washed the blood from the dog’s fur with a slow stream of water. The coat of short hairs had been dyed a very deep indigo blue, so dark I could not make out the dog’s actual fur color. The technician took more photos and wrote down my email address to send me copies of the pictures.
“Here's your dog, Tulip. Want to hold his leash?” She did not.
“I’ll call Animal Control in Algiers and see if they can keep him until he can be evaluated,” Tulip offered. We were going to have to make up a plan as we went along. “I do some pro bono work for one of the pit bull foster groups and they may be able to help.”
“Let me know if you need anything else,” Avery said and walked off to smooth the feathers he was going to ruffle when he announced his personal State Police detective was going to be investigating the dog’s attack as a homicide.
Everybody believed this was a dog attack an hour ago, and nobody wanted to deal with the dog just ten minutes ago. Now that this had become The Blue Dog Murder Case everyone was going to want a piece of it. The news photographers and tourists were busy capturing the Land Rover’s exposed interior for posterity, but the death tableau was never going to be broadcast or see the morning paper.
“So, tell me what kind of evaluation is necessary for a pit bull that ripped a three hundred pound Black man apart like something from a horror movie,” Avery wondered as he came back to where I held the dog while the crime lab techs took more photos and blood swabs from its fur. “Crazy is crazy and knowing why it’s crazy isn’t going to matter, right?”
“Not unless I’m crazy,” I tried to joke. “Maybe they can rule out whether or not anything biological triggered the attack. If it wasn’t sick or deranged then something else had to make it attack.”
“Even if someone found a way to remotely make the dog attack, what are you going to do with a healthy and sane dog that kills people?” Avery barely caught himself before he started to pet the quiet canine sitting between us.
“I guess we’d have to find it a new home,” Tulip smiled at Avery. “Say, don’t you have a birthday coming up?”
H Max Hiller's love affair with New Orleans began with his first job as a cook on Bourbon Street over forty years ago. His resume now includes many of the city's most storied eateries and clubs, and he uses characters and incidents from his long career to bring authenticity to the fictional world his detective occupies. The author currently divides his time between writing in a home overlooking the Mississippi River and training cooks on a towboat traveling the inland waterways.
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