The Hungry Ghost
A novel by
Michel David Lowe
It ended the day Elmore Leonard stepped aside. Fitting I suppose that all the misery and blood would come to an end the same day we lost one of our masters. You remember Elmore Leonard, he gave us Maximum Bob and they made a pretty good movie out of Get Shorty with John Travolta and Gene Hackman. I think Dennis Farina passed that same summer. He was in the movie, too. I lost track of current events what with the other current events I was participating in.
It ended in August in 2013. It began the winter before, but really, it began a long time ago. Elmore said not to start a story with the weather report and maybe I’ve already broken his first rule. I’ll just say it ended on an August day in northern Virginia, hot with air thick as syrup. I’ll leave it at that.
* * *
Sandy Norcross was exhausted at the end of the day. As a Twenty-First Century Latina tiger mom she did it all: she managed the household finances, day-to-day activities like groceries and laundry; she scheduled and chauffeured the kids to their extracurriculars, and, as an equity partner in a leading St. Louis law firm, pulled down nearly as much in salary as her stock trader husband.
To do all this she rose before six, did thirty minutes on the treadmill then showered. She dressed in her walk-in closet and, emerging from the dressing room, shook the foot of the bed rousing her husband, Peter.
Peter Norcross showered and shaved, helped Sandy dress and feed the girls and get them to their bus stop in time to catch their ride to Kennerly Elementary where Gabbie was in third grade and Rosita was in Mrs. Robinson’s fifth grade class.
Sunset Hills in southwest St. Louis County was an older town but it still felt the development pressure of the recent nationwide housing boom. Peter drove past neighborhoods of 1980’s ramblers, like his and Sandy’s; these houses sat on large lots canopied by mature oaks and maples, surrounded by lush lawns and sheltered from the road by privets, ewes and flower beds. Open design and the Great Room was the recent architectural improvement over the boxy 50s and 60s ranchers with their picture windows and split foyers. Unlike the New Millennium subdivisions of two story colonials set on postage stamp lots with a single Bradford pear in a sea of rolled sod, Peter appreciated the character of his split level Tudor.
Out of the developments and subdivisions he made his way onto Lindbergh, north across Watson Road, onto the I-44 ramp to I-270 then north to Manchester Road east and to his office at Edward Jones in Des Peres.
At the same time Peter drove his commute to Des Peres, Sandy also took I-44. But at the Laclede Station Road exit she turned north until Laclede became Hanley Road, continued north across I-64 – everyone in St. Louis still called it US 40 – to wind up her drive in her assigned parking slot at Fulbright & Jaworski LLP in Clayton.
As the county seat of St. Louis County, Clayton was the perfect example of Joel Garreau’s Edge City. Though Washington Post reporter Garreau was writing about Northern Virginia in the D.C. suburbs, Clayton was a perfect fit for his uptown model: a satellite city at the western orbit of St. Louis now grown up with mid-rise office buildings, malls, and heavy reliance on automobiles and surface parking at the expense of pedestrian traffic.
Sandy marched into the building promptly at 8:15, collected a Starbucks in the lobby, and elevatored to her office on the sixth floor.
Partner track work at a major firm like Fulbright meant long, billable hours and late, late nights, last minute briefs, and wining and dining clients. Today and tonight were no different from most Fulbright nights.
Peter Norcross picked up the girls at after school day care and marshaled them through homework, dinner, bath and bedtime before Sandy made it out of Fulbright’s parking lot. Traffic was light and she made good time, but as she unlocked the garage door and dropped her briefcase in the hallway she was completely ragged out.
Lean Cuisine awaited her in the fridge and a half bottle of merlot washed her dinner down.
She stood at the foot of the bed in her slip watching Peter read. He looked up over the top of his reading glasses and set Patricia Cornwell face down on the bed.
“You look beat,” he said.
“I feel beat,” she said slipping out of her slip and into a flannel night gown.
“Well, that sexy negligee says no romance tonight,” he observed.
“Give me a break. Unless you feel like fucking the dead.”
“You don’t have to do anything,” he said, “I can take care of the action for both of us.”
“I’m not even up for necrophilia tonight.”
“Well, I’m almost done with this chapter, I’ll finish with my book.”
“This weekend, I promise,” she said.
He patted the side of the bed and she crawled in, pulled covers up around her shoulders and was asleep at once.
* * *
The next morning the phone rang until it rolled over to the answering machine.
“Mrs. Norcross, this is Miss Jones from Kennerly. I’m calling because the girls are absent and no one called them in sick.”
Sunset Hills patrolman Ronnie Branson played the message for Detective Roger Hilbert, St. Louis County Major Case Squad.
“I checked with Miss Jones at the grade school, she’s the attendance officer at Kennerly Elementary.” He flipped opened a palm-sized notebook and said, “She calls all the unexplained absences, said she called the Norcross house around nine-thirty.”
“Thank you officer,” Detective Hilbert told the younger cop. “So you came to investigate the absent children?”
“No, Mrs. Norcross’s office at Fulbright & Jaworski called the station, asked if we could send a car by. Mrs. Norcross missed a partner meeting at ten and didn’t answer her cell or the home phone. Her admin was frantic.”
“So you found the crime scene pretty much as it is right now?” asked Hilbert.
“The front door was ajar, like an invitation to come on in…”
“So you came on in.”
“Right,” said Branson.
“And nothing looked out of the ordinary except for the open door,” said Hilbert.
“It’s pretty fucking cold this morning, the furnace was blowing full blast but the house was freezing. I called out, but no answer from inside.”
“You checked the main floor then went upstairs.”
“Yeah. I went on up.”
“The girls were in their respective rooms…”
‘They looked like they were asleep,” said Ronnie Branson. “I checked but didn’t feel a pulse. And they were cold.”
“Did you attempt resuscitation?”
“I mean, what was the point? They were like ice.”
“And then you went to the master bedroom.”
“Yeah. The master bedroom.”
“You want to take a few minutes, get a cup of coffee before we go on to the master bedroom?”
“Detective Hilbert, I’m sorry, I can’t go into that room again.”
Hilbert placed a reassuring hand on Officer Ronnie Branson’s shoulder and said, “No problem. You just sit here on the stairs. Major Case can take it from here.”
Ronnie sat on the steps and nodded. “I’m really sorry. I mean, I’m supposed to be a law man and all, but I just can’t go back in there again.”
Major Case Squad Detective Roger Hilbert sat on the stairs beside Officer Branson and said, “I know what you mean. My first couple of bad murders were really bad”
Branson nodded and said, “Oh, and the puke’s mine. Sorry.”