BY: ALAN BRENHAM
Temple, Texas Police Detective, Barry Marshall hunts for a hardened serial killer with the ultimate endgame, one intended to strip Marshall of everything he holds dear—his career, his wife Erin, and his reputation. Unbeknownst to Marshall, the killer had dated Erin years ago, and seeing Marshall with her pushes him over the edge. Determined to punish Marshall for stealing his beloved, the killer plays a deadly cat-and-mouse game of murder. As the body count rises, Marshall is forced to face his worst nightmare.
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Game Piece by Alan Brenham, Barry Marshall, a Temple, Texas Police detective, is having a really bad month. A serial killer is targeting victims with a connection to Marshall. Not only is the guy killing people connected to Marshall, he is trying to destroy Marshall’s reputation and his marriage. As the bodies pile up, Marshall frantically searches for clues to the killer’s identity before more innocent people die.
Well written, fast paced, and intense, this one will keep you glued to the edge of your seat, turning pages all the way through. A really great read.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Game Piece by Alan Brenham is the story of an average police detective who is targeted by a serial killer. But the killer isn’t trying to kill Detective Barry Marshall, just everyone he has crossed paths with, as well as ruining his reputation, his career, and his marriage. After each murder, the killer calls Marshall to gloat. Then things start going very wrong for Marshall. His wife thinks he is having an affair, his boss thinks he knows who the killer is and is covering for him, and the mayor and city politicians think he’s incompetent. It seems the killer used to date Marshall’s wife, Erin, and he is obsessed with her. Believing that Marshall stole Erin from him, the killer is determined to destroy Marshall and get Erin back.
Game Piece is both fast paced and chilling, the plot filled with twists and turns that will keep you guessing from beginning to end. This is one mystery fans should love. Bravo to this talented author.
Temple, Texas, Friday, 4:50 p.m.:
I snatched the phone off the cradle like it was a contest. Like there were ten other guys reaching for it. Ha. Right. Close to five p.m. on a Friday night, and everyone who could be gone already was. Except me. The Boy Scout they called me. Joking. Friendly. Except when it wasn’t. Behind my back it was brownnoser. Probably worse ones that I didn’t know about, but I was smart enough to guess at anyway. And all because I liked to show up on time. Answer my phone. Stay on top of the paperwork. In other words: do my job.
I answered like I always did. Crisp. Cool. Professional. “Detective Division. Marshall.”
I half-expected to hear the gruff voice of a man demanding to know when I’d pay up on a delinquent account. Four of those types of calls had already come in today. Identity theft.
“Y’all lookin for a stolen Chevy truck?” a gravelly male voice asked.
Just so happened I had an active Chevy truck case. I’d need a name to go with the information for the report. “Who’s calling?”
The silence that passed made me wonder if this guy was for real or screwing with me. The seconds ticked off. Did he hang up? “Who is this?”
My cop sense clicked in. Who was this guy and how did he know I was working a stolen Chevy pick-up case? I heard a faint whirring noise in the background. Some machines or a motor. Couldn’t make out what.
“A concerned citizen,” he said. “Look, man, I know who stole it, and I’m sitting here looking at it. If you want the dude, meet me out here at the south parking lot at Temple Lake Park. Hurry the hell up, too, ’cause I kinda doubt the truck’ll be here much longer.”
“First, tell me who this is.”
“You wanna play twenty questions, or do ya want this goddam truck?”
Folks I never knew have tendered information helpful in solving a case but this guy…something about him seemed off. I was a hardcore believer in the truth. It always had a nice ring to it. A ring I wasn’t getting from this John Doe. But blowing off a lead, no matter who supplied it, was a division-wide no-no. I’d have to explain why I didn’t follow it up. What could I say? You ran leads to ground every day. Some panned out. Some didn’t. “Describe it.”
“What the fuck, man?”
“Describe it so I’ll know what you’re telling me matches up with my case.” Not too tough of a question to answer.
“A twenty-ten black Chevy Silverado, Fifteen Hundred. Happy? Now quit wastin time. The guy’s gonna be back any minute.”
Some enterprising thief stole a 2010 Silverado truck recently. That meant his information fit. One hitch though. This guy could’ve gotten the truck’s description from reading the newspaper. Either way, I still had to investigate. “Be there in ten minutes.”
“Make it five. If he catches me here, he’ll slit my throat.”
Understandable. Any thief hated exposure. “Meet me elsewhere. How about at the north parking lot?”
“If ya get your ass in gear, meetin here won’t be a problem. If ya keep askin fuckin questions, you’ll lose out.”
If I kept asking questions, I might not be wasting my time. “Seriously? If you know the guy like you said, how would I lose out?”
He sighed right into the phone. Probably to remind me to hurry up. “Tell ya what,” he growled. “There’s one of them covered picnic tables back off the road near the south lot. Ya know the one I’m talkin about?”
“Yeah.” I didn’t but finding it shouldn’t be a problem.
“Meet me there and hurry up.”
Again, with the hurry-up. Okay. I grabbed my jacket off the back of my chair and headed for the elevator, thinking of Erin’s reaction. As if I didn’t know what it’d be. Every Friday night was our date night. Supposed to be anyway. For the last umpteen Fridays, I’d had to work late or was out of town on a case. Appears that another date night with my wife was about to go down in flames. I’d reserved for two at Dibz, one of Temple’s better Italian restaurants. It’s where I had taken her on our first-ever date. And for each of our six wedding anniversaries. About now, she ought to be on her way home with our daughter Cailey. I dreaded telling her we had to take a rain check. Again. I’d done that too often. Plus, she’d been dropping reminder hints about Dibz all week. Those and other more demanding ones.
Ever since her uncle was murdered a year ago, Erin had been badgering me to quit the police department. She urged me to take a faculty position at Temple College. Her anxiety level shot up like a puck ringing the bell on a carnival strength tester every time I’m late coming home. No thanks to the recent killing of that deputy sheriff up near Amarillo last week. I got the silent treatment when I missed Cailey’s fifth birthday party two months ago. Not my fault I missed it. I had to go to two counties over to interview a witness I’d been hunting before he disappeared again. I bought Cailey that bicycle she wanted so much and tied a red bow to the handlebars. Even remembered to get training wheels with it.
Erin and Cailey weren’t on my mind as I drove west on Adams Avenue from downtown Temple. Through several intersections. Through the screwed-up Adams-Central-Interstate construction. Past the turnoff to our house. All I could think about was finding the person who had stolen my identity and run up those damn delinquencies. Whoever did it ought to be waterboarded. At the very least. Other forms of torture intrigued me as I drove past the PD’s West Division substation. The one shared with FD’s Station No. 7. Wiggling straight pins under the fingernails. Electrodes connected to their nuts. Thumbs pressing on their eyeballs.
When I passed the turn-off to my house, my thoughts returned to Erin. I’d be on her shitlist for the next month if I had to cancel our date night again. Not much I could do about it. I replayed the snitch’s words in my head: ‘You the cop working a stolen Chevy truck?…If you want the dude, meet me out here at the south parking lot…Hurry the hell up.’ If this prick was playing me, making me drive all the way out here, screwing up my evening, he’d better pray I never found him either. ‘A twenty-ten black Chevy Silverado, Fifteen Hundred. Happy?’
West Adams Avenue dead-ended at Temple Lake Park. This park bordered Lake Belton. The lake was a recreational and sportfishing mecca for central Texans. It also provided a local water supply for area cities.
Still, I wondered how he knew I was the investigator. That wouldn’t have been in the newspaper. Something to ask him once we met. If we met. I slowed long enough to flash my badge at the park attendant. I made the left turn toward the south parking lot. My plan was to drive past, eyeball the truck, and park four or five spots away. From there, I’d locate the picnic table, cross the park road, and swing in behind the covered table. Instead, I saw a Mini Cooper sitting in the parking lot about fifty feet from the rocky shoreline. No Chevy pickup truck in sight. Shit!
The Cooper had to belong to the caller. I parked next to it. Nobody inside it. I saw the table. Nobody around it. He better be in the woods taking a whiz, I swear to god. I trekked across the lot toward the covered picnic table he mentioned. A metal barricade blocking the road stood about ten yards away. As I got closer, I saw nobody. I almost turned back for my car, a few choice words forming in my mind for whoever this prick was. A sixth sense made me move closer. That’s when I spotted the bodies.
A young Hispanic woman, I guessed in her early twenties, dressed in a forest green running suit. She lay flat on her back, a few feet from the table, her eyes fixed in a death stare, her throat slit open. Her arms were posed across her chest. Lying next to her was a white male on his back, also dressed in a running suit. Dark blue. Like her, his throat had been slit open and his arms folded over his chest. One difference—a stab wound to the side of his chest. Twin drag marks in the dirt. They’d been killed elsewhere and brought here. Still no one else in sight.
The deceased male must’ve been the caller, and the woman was his unlucky companion. Where were they killed? A crime scene search team from the Texas Department of Public Safety in Waco would provide that answer. Using my cell, I phoned the patrol shift supervisor, requesting two patrol cars. My next call went to Communications. I asked for a license plate registration check on the Mini Cooper. A third call went to my supervisor, Lieutenant Cullen Mendez. He’d need to approve overtime for two detectives, plus he’d want to know why.
I pulled on a pair of gloves and went over to the Mini Cooper. Both doors were locked. Two unopened Corona beers in cup holders and a man’s brown wallet on the console. Communications called back with the vehicle information—a 2009 Mini Cooper Clubman registered to Jerome St. John with a west Temple address. I crossed back to the picnic table and waited for the cavalry to arrive. Not much else I could do.
Erin needed to know that our dinner reservations had to be canceled. I’d rather tiptoe through a bed of rattlesnakes than make this call. My watch had the time as five thirty-five.
About now, she’d be feeding Cailey a chicken nugget dinner, so she’d be ready for the babysitter. I punched in our number. As soon as she saw my name on the caller ID, she’d know. I braced myself for the nuclear fallout. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t planned to take her. I’d ordered flowers from Astoria Floral to be delivered to Dibz for our table. She’d be super pissed but what could I do?
“Hey, look, um, I’m sorry, but I’ve got to cancel our dinner reservations. I’m at a homicide scene now.” I waited for the nuclear fallout. This would be like the, I don’t know, sixth straight date night cancellation. I haven’t exactly been Mr. Spend Much Time at Home the last few months.
I hated to say we’d make new reservations. She’d heard that too often.
“Dammit, Barry. We had this night planned all week. I had to persuade another pharmacist to cover for me so I could leave early.”
“I know, sweetheart. I—”
“Why do you do this? You’ve canceled our date night for each of the last eight Fridays.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me. You don’t even remember? See? That’s what I’m talking about.”
“I’ll make it up to you. I promise.”
“That’s what you say every time,” she hissed. “You promised that when those last two cases finished, you’d slow down. You swore we’d spend more time together. Those other detectives spend their evenings and weekends with their wives and children. Why can’t you?”
I tried to keep my cool, but I couldn’t hold back anymore. She’d been pushing my buttons for the past few weeks. First, she’d whined about the hours. Then the weeks I spent away from home. Next, it was missing date nights. Following that came her badgering about taking a teaching job. Nag. Nag. Nag. “Don’t start on me, Erin. You knew damn well I was a cop when you married me.”
“Fine. You do your cop thing. While you’re at it, you better figure out why we’re getting calls from collection agencies.”
“It’s an identity theft, and I’m working on it. The Experian rep gave me a list of the accounts. I’ll file a complaint with the PD. They and the Secret Service’ll handle it.”
A beat of silence passed.
“Whatever. The babysitter’s here, so I’m calling Liz. I’ll go to dinner with her. At least when she says she’ll do something, she actually does it.”
“I gotta go.”
I headed back to the picnic table, rehashing Erin’s words. Liz. There’s a real piece of work. A caseworker for Child Protective Services who moonlights as a home wrecker. Bet she’ll have a ton of advice for Erin about what to do with a hubby who’s hardly ever home. Bet she’ll be drooling over the chance to add my name to her scorecard of destroyed marriages. Not much I can do about that right now and not much to do here until the cavalry arrives.
The caller directed me to this specific picnic table for a reason. I boiled several theories down to two. First, the male victim was the caller, and the thief murdered him. The female died so there’d be no witnesses. Or, second, the murdered couple had no connection to the call or the stolen truck. Either they’d been targeted or randomly chosen and killed. If that theory held water, the whole thing was a clever ruse to set me up. If that was the case, why me? Whoever the caller was, whatever his motivation, he’d done his homework to know I’d been working that truck case.
Finding answers would wait until I got the victims’ ID which’d wait until the crime scene team did their job. Had to keep the scene secure til back-up arrives. If I’d known what I’d find here, I sure as hell would’ve passed the ball to the on-call detective and spent the evening with Erin. Not here working a double homicide. But…I was here now, and the proverbial football belonged to me.
All right, what did I have? A call to meet a possible source of information about a stolen truck. No such truck and no guy who called. Two homicide victims, one of whom may be the owner of that car. And may also be the guy caller. He said the truck thief would slit his throat.
Two patrol cars arrived. Right behind them came a third car occupied by one detective: Don Rheims. Great! Of all the detectives, why did it have to be him? He and I had gotten into it three months ago over his rendition of case facts during our meeting with a prosecutor about the Walmart robbery. I had needed a warrant to wrap up a case, and Rheims had showed up unprepared. His lack of preparedness meant I didn’t get the warrant until the grand jury returned an indictment. With that warrant, I could’ve leaned on the suspect. Gotten him to cooperate in the recovery of a bunch of stolen property. I should have complained to Mendez. I didn’t because it would’ve only made for hard feelings. If I needed help in a hurry, I wouldn’t want Rheims stopping for every cat and dog crossing the road in front of him.
I’d briefed everyone on my findings and the anonymous phone call. As the lead detective, assignments fell on my shoulders. One patrol officer repositioned his car to block access to this area of the park. Another acted as a roving guard, keeping a log of all persons entering the crime scene.
Rheims, the absolute last choice I’d ask for as back-up detective at a crime scene, dogged me. If detectives had Yelp ratings, the best Rheims could hope for would be a one-star. Lowest case clearance rate in the division. Notorious as an out-the-door-before-five man.
“So…boy scout. You don’t have enough to do? You have to stumble into a double homicide?”
I ignored his snide comment about a boy scout. “Didn’t stumble into it. More like I got led into it.”
“Uh-huh. No idea who your mystery caller is?”
“Not one clue.”
“Sounds like he knows you. I mean having knowledge of you working that truck case and all. Sure you don’t know him?”
“If I did, don’t you think I’d have told you?” I looked toward the park’s entrance gate. No sign of the DPS crime team or the mortuary team or even the justice of the peace.
“Guess so. Don’t suppose you have an ID on the victims yet.”
“Already told you I didn’t.”
“Right. So…looks like they sat at the table and the killer came at them from behind and slit their throats,” Rheims said.
“I didn’t see any indications they’d been here though. No food or drink containers. No trash. No blood spatter but DPS will spray Luminol all around. Then we’ll know.” I pointed at the drag marks. “Appears they may’ve been killed elsewhere and put here.” I looked at the Mini Cooper. “Possibly there.”
With two possible locations for the DPS team to comb for evidence, I’d need Rheims to cover one. If DPS found anything at either location, Rheims or I would have to note it in our reports.
“What do you need me to do while we wait?”
“Cover that Mini Cooper. Might start making notes for that part of the scene. I’ll do the same with the picnic table area.”
As Rheims crossed the lake road, I wondered if he’d screw up this case like he did with the Walmart robbery case.
The sun dipped behind the crescent of the hill overlooking Lake Belton. It painted the far shore a bright orangey-red. Lengthening shadows of cedar, live oak, loblolly pine, and mesquite stretched down the hill.
Thick undergrowth about three quarters of the way up the hill from the lake road shrouded the killer. Seated on a dead tree trunk, he had the perfect vantage point to watch the cops at the double murder scene below. Perfect except for having to stand to brush fire ants off his boots and jeans. Looking down at the log, a river of ants swarmed over the top. Great. Of all the damn spots to sit, he’d picked a friggin fire ant mound. Got to be a million of the little fuckers under that log. They’d already left three pimple-sized bites on his leg. Itched like a son of a bitch. He packed up and moved, hunched-over, to another tree stump.
He studied the detective through camo-colored binoculars. The occasional mosquito forced him to lower the glasses so he could slap the sides and back of his neck. If only he’d remembered to douse his exposed skin with Backwoods mosquito repellant.
The better part of the past twelve years searching for Marshall. Now he had Mister Bad-ass right where he wanted him. He’d savor every minute watching Marshall twist in the wind. Payback’s gonna be a motherfucker.
He reached inside his camo jacket and pulled the cigarette pack from his shirt pocket. He tapped the pack on his palm then eyed the pack before dropping it back in his pocket. Last thing he needed would be for an observant cop to see the match light up or the burning glow off the cigarette. Wait until I get back in the truck. Instead, he picked up the water canteen, unscrewed the cap, and raised it to his dry lips. “Here’s to the beginning of the end for you, Marshall. You sorry prick.” He swigged back two mouthfuls, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand then capped the canteen.
He drew a large hunting knife from his belt and carved notches in a tree trunk. If only that tree trunk was Marshall. Down the hill, Marshall walked from the picnic table to the little car and back like the friggin fire ants he’d left a few yards away. He’d done his homework on Marshall. He’d even picked up useful tidbits from that convict, Robin Jackson. He also made use of a local source. A bitter, greedy and malicious local source. One who educated him about all things Marshall. “Take a good look at that dead guy, Marshall. You remember his face? You should.”
Two people wearing white coveralls getting out of a van. He raised the binoculars. Yep. Body haulers They’ll toe-tag that dead guy and his little muchacha. Pretty Mexican bitch, too. On a scale of one to ten, she was an eight. In a different time and place, he might have gotten into her pants. Only for trophy sex. Now, his real love interest—she’d peg the freakin beauty meter at a fifteen or a twenty. It depended on whether she had gotten all made-up.
Teams of people piled out of two vans. KTVZ News and WGPT News. Crowding the cops. Cameras capturing the whole scene. About time. He’d phoned them right after he hung up from jacking with Marshall. If they did their job right, they’d memorialize Marshall’s first steps toward hell. If only that prick cop treated him with a little respect back in Dayton. If only Marshall hadn’t made him look like a dumbass in front of his girlfriend. Not Marshall. Uh-uh. The big man with the badge and gun. He acted as if it put him above the law. That’s cool though. Because Marshall’s time to pay the piper had arrived. And the price tag’s high.
Something crawled up his leg. He raised his pants leg only to find an army of fire ants. Shit! They must think he was trespassing on their property. He swiped them off his leg and the jeans. Only he didn’t get them fast enough. The little bastards nailed him again and again. His damn leg looked like a blister farm. He stomped his boots on the ground, knocking a couple more ants off. They won. He packed up the canteen and the binoculars and headed up the hill. On his way home, he’d buy a bottle of rubbing alcohol to smear over the bites. That’d stop the itching. Later tonight, he’d plan the next step in his own version of the Marshall Plan.
© 2018 by Alan Brenham
“This fast paced, exciting thriller has twists and turns right until the very last page. The author, Alan Brenham has used his lifetimes experience as a Texas law enforcement officer, a criminal prosecutor, and later, criminal defense attorney to give his readers a real insight into what life is like when your world revolves around protecting the innocent, and those you love.” ~ Susan Keefe, Book Reviews by Susan Keefe
San Francisco Book Review:
“A fast-paced game of cat and mouse that will have you guessing until the very end. Detective Marshall is tenacious and commendable as he plays with fire to find a serial killer that has a personal vendetta against him. If you’re a fan of suspense and mystery, this should be your next read.” ~ Kristi Elizabeth, San Francisco Book Review
Midwest Book Review:
“A gripping psychological, edge-of-your-seat thriller that goes beyond murder and mayhem.” ~ Diane Donovan, Midwest Book Review
A killer is messing with Barry Marshall’s head—and with everything he holds dear. That sets the stage for Alan Brenham’s chilling, twisting, rocketing thriller, Game Piece (Black Opal Books), in which Marshall is the game piece that the killer is coldly, cruelly maneuvering…Marshall must draw upon everything he has to find the killer, stop the killer and protect the people he loves. It’s a deadly game of cat and mouse. Just as the killer has messed with Marshall’s head, the author has wonderfully messed with ours. ~ Jim Parry of BookTrib READ FULL REVIEW