By popular request, we bring you the complete ten part murder mystery Potato Noir, otherwise unaltered from its original format.
The call wakes me up from the bottom of a bottle and bottle slumber, a coma induced by cocktail, equal parts Nyquil and Jack Daniel’s. I grumble into the phone, creating coherent words an unspeakable chore. A voice I don’t recognize spits an urgent stream in my ear. I only make out the important details. A body. Gashed. Potato Town. I want to say I’ll be right there. I hang up and get dressed instead.
I arrive on the scene. Uniforms have already scattered the crowd, holding back a few key witnesses. Apparently there’s some kid, Peewee, may have seen the whole thing. I need to examine the body. Figure out who the poor bastard was. Get a grip on what I’m dealing with. A yellow brick road of police tape leads the way.
Shit. It’s a Russet. My job just got a lot harder. The Russets are the elite and powerful of Potato Town, bigwigs with big wallets, the charitable ball type, fundraising the easy way, just tell me when to stop writing zeros. I need to solve this case fast. It’s going to be all over the news. That means my ass if I don’t find a perp to pin this on soon. What was the dumb bastard doing down here? Doesn’t make sense that a Russet would be in this part of town, mixing it up with the bargain bin spuds.
The body’s in a bad way, chunks of skin cut straight from the face, a pool of blood coagulating around a gaping wound, serrated knife still lodged in deep. At least I’ve got the murder weapon. That’s something. Whatever sick fucker did this enjoyed himself. Took his time. This was deliberate. And brazen. Don’t normally see this type of hack job in the middle of the street. It’s more of the closed door type of affair.
I cover the body and head for the witnesses. I need to talk to the kid…
It’s best to interview the kids right away, while the incident is still fresh. The longer you wait, the more wild their stories grow. A couple minutes into my questioning and I realize I’m too late as it is. The grip of imagination has clasped around the kid’s tiny mind. He starts spouting off nonsense about a huge monster, an abomination with claws and teeth and four eyes.
His babble isn’t entirely worthless. If whatever deprived potato that did the Russet in was large enough to come off as a monster to the kid, then that eliminates a large section of the potato populace. No sense in chasing after Fingerlings or Petites. I’m looking for something big. Bigger than the Russet at the very least.
I let the kid finish off his horror story. It’ll do him some good just to speak about it. That’s the problem with seeing sick shit like this. It’ll stay with him the rest of his life. He’s as much a victim here as the Russet was, caught up in some scumbag’s storming wrath, winds that’ll rip through his mind well into later age. It’s hard enough growing up in a place like this with a name like Peewee, add seeing a man slaughtered in the street, and this kid hardly has a chance. Hell, in a few years this might be an interrogation, not a witness statement. Life’s a cruel bitch that way.
I thank the kid for his time. I pause before I leave him, wishing I had some advice for him, some soothing saying. But I don’t. So I say nothing. I nod as I walk away, leaving the kid to deal with Potato Protective Services. They’re stretched thin, but at least they care. I head for the next witness, a potato named Red. Fully grown, hopefully he can shed a little more light on our shadowy monster…
I can tell right away I’m going to hate Red. He’s of the seat belt wearing, minivan to church, middle class, always play it safe crowd. No way did this guy get close enough to see anything useful. I gave up gambling, the vices got stacked a little too high, but if I was in a betting mood, I’d say this guy saw nothing. It’s hard to see when you’re cowering behind drapes.
I have more tolerance for the company of lowlifes than I do for the gutless asswipes like Red. He’s all yes sir, no sir with his answers, giving me his best by-the-book citizen demeanor. You can see his sense of worth inflate with every response. I can’t stand it. There’s not an ounce of man in this potato.
My hunch is right. His story is equal parts pathetic and unhelpful. He heard a loud noise, maybe some arguing, he couldn’t make it out clearly, and wasn’t about to venture outside. He’s got a family to look out for ya know? Better the nuclear dream than a spine, I guess. He did see something though, a big shadow. Extra emphasis on the big. Gives me pause. The traumatized kid was telling the truth. Well, a traumatized version of it anyway.
I ask him if he’s got anything else for me. Anything at all. He tells me he heard a kid crying. I fight the urge to sock him in the jaw. The coward probably could have stopped the whole thing. Could have saved little Peewee a life of flashbacks. But he did nothing. Protecting his family. I spit out a quick thanks and walk away, leaving the jackass to preen in his hallucinatory helpfulness. He’ll never understand how truly worthless he is.
I ask a uniform who the last witness is. Fuck. The honorable Yukon Gold awaits my questioning. And here I thought I’d already dealt with the biggest asshole of the day…
The honorable Yukon Gold is a retired judge, a soggy old man, aged in barrels of xenophobia and nepotism. He’s got a son in the DA’s office, will probably be assigned the case if the bastard I’m hunting is lucky enough to get cuffs over a bullet in the brain. Yukon is annoyed, wanting to know why I’m wasting such an important potato’s time. He makes it clear he should have been the first to give a statement. I tell him I’m just going by alphabetical order of first name. He hems and haws as I wipe the shit off my grin.
He’s confident he knows exactly who the killer is. Says he saw him flee the scene. But something about his description of the suspect doesn’t jive with me. The details don’t add up. He says some green junkie name Ed pulled the job. Claims it was a robbery gone bad. I ask him how he could know that. He says Ed’s “type” always lurk around the neighborhood, plotting schemes, eyeballing the wealthy that pass through. Yukon figures Ed did Russet in for a quick dollar, kindling for a pipe. I don’t argue with him. Yukon’s playing some other game. I know better than to believe he’s fingering the right guy. I also know better than to ignore his lead. That’s a quick route to reassignment, a land of paperwork and evidence bags. Not the life for me. I’m no good with a pen.
I tell him I’ll look into it and he’s far too eager to give up an address, a rundown building, an abandoned lot on the edge of gentrification, a graveyard for needles and rubbers. Suddenly Yukon’s interests are very clear. Family wealth runs deep. Probably looking to turn the neighborhood over. Create a safe haven for spineless cowards like Red. Keep the “others” out. I’d press him on it, but powerful men don’t talk to guys like me. Not unless I can prove intent. Yukon’s guilty of plenty of things, but murder isn’t in play here. He seems satisfied in the knowledge that I’ll bring Ed in. I think about thanking him for his help, a useless lie, but he’s already gone, headed back to whatever crypt he crawled out of for the night.
And just like that, I’m off to see what Ed doesn’t know…
The second I see him, I know Ed’s not our guy. No way someone Ed’s size took out the Russet. Hell, the knife the Russet was killed with is bigger than Ed. Still, there’s something here. Ed’s nervous. He’s got information he doesn’t want me to know. I plan on getting it out of him. Ed’s a bug and bugs get squashed.
I had a uniform pull Ed’s file on my way to see him. No surprises. He’s a junkie through and through. A couple of possession charges, a trespassing ticket, and a warning for pawning stolen goods. Never finished high school. Meaning, Ed’s not smart enough to know we don’t have a three strike rule in this state.
I tell Ed he’s looking a little green. Maybe there’s something he saw he needs to talk about. Or maybe he’s just strung out and looking for a third strike, a hard twenty in the slammer. I tell Ed a guy like him wouldn’t do well in prison, wouldn’t be able to fight, would end up getting pimped for cigarettes. Guys like Ed are too dumb to see through the clichés. It works. He panics and starts running his mouth. He tells me he was just following the Russet, that’s all. That the Russet was dead by the time he caught up to him. Says he was hired, promised an all you can snort buffet on mirrored glass. Says it was going to be the good shit too. Not the crap cut with gravel he’s been snorting, powdered rock with powdered rock, a cure for the healthy nose.
I ask him who hired him. No answer. But he’s starting to sweat. Ed’s a dinner plate in an earthquake. A little pressure and he’s going to break. He knows it too. Can’t even make eye contact with me. I ask him again who his boss is, throwing a little violence into the question, the threat of physical harm a growl in the back of my throat. He gives up the name. Guys like Ed always give up the name.
It’s a big name too – J. Icama. I thank Ed and let him go, a quiet fuck you to the honorable Yukon Gold. I gather my thoughts as I walk away, a light rain starting to bead down on the sidewalk. Icama’s a mob boss, nearly untouchable. But he’s definitely got a mean streak and the size to be my guy. Not sure what a Russet would be doing with Icama, but from what I know, Icama is more than capable of gutting a man. Looks like I’ve got my first suspect…
The rain picks up as I head to an unmarked bar, a nameless chunk of brick and mortar, built for concealment of profit, not the pursuit of. It’s not exactly a secret that J. Icama runs most of the organized crime in Potato Town. It’s also not exactly a secret that he’s in good with a handful of judges, and has dirt on a handful more. Charging him for drug trafficking or money laundering is about as effective as handcuffing water. The only thing that’s going to stick on a guy like Icama is murder one. And even then it needs to be an ironclad case. You don’t want to be the badge that went after Icama and lost. That’s a recipe for life on the run. And it gets real hard to run in cement shoes.
A thunder clap announces my arrival at the bar, echoing in from behind me as I enter. Icama’s already waiting. Looks like Ed tipped him off. Don’t blame him. Might have saved his life. Potato Town’s streets are lined with rat traps, and only Icama has that map. Icama waves me over with a confident smile and a hearty laugh, cigar smoke twirling in the air around him, dancing from his fist. I don’t bother to take off my coat. No matter how this goes, I won’t be here long.
He greets me with one word, more a statement than a question, detective, a rehearsed moment from a life memorizing mob flicks. There’s times where this job doesn’t feel real, like it’s all a play, that I’m caught in narrative. This is one of those moments. Or maybe that’s just the feeling of fear getting bashed down by denial. Either way, I’m thankful for the heat supported by my shoulder holster, a safety blanket with a safety. I get straight to the point. He’s not offering pleasantries so neither will I.
I tell him a Russet’s been murdered, done in by a real cold blooded bastard in the middle of the street. He gives no response, no sign of recognition or surprise. He’s a damn good poker player, even when he’s not holding cards. He deliberates before talking, weighing the reputational hit a conversation with me might entail. When he speaks, it’s slow. Intentional. He tells me he hired the tail at the request of one of his workers, a night club entertainer. Gives me her name, Madame Crinkélcute. Says he had no part in what went down. I don’t doubt him when he tells me he could produce a hundred witnesses that would confirm that. He suggests I ask the dame, the emphasis on a dame an invitation to leave.
So I do. But not before lingering at the door, sending back a knowing glare. I see you Icama. And now you see me. Then I’m gone, back into the crying night, another suspect to interrogate.
I hop on the horn and learn that Madame Crinkélcute is the headliner for a small jazz lounge downtown, only a couple of blocks away. I decide to hoof it. The rain always helps me think. I pull the collar of my jacket up around my ears, an overcoat cocoon against the splashing slog. I don’t know if it’s the adrenaline, the lack of drink, or the lack of sleep, but my hand’s got the shakes. I shove it deep into my pocket and ignore it.
The door to the lounge is bathed in the neon glow of Crinkélcute’s name, a pulsing, permanent ad, not yet peaking in popularity, the inevitable decline into sad, washed-out irrelevance hiding on the other side, just a plug’s pull away. For now though, she’s in. And she’s big. Her poster is checkerboarded on the lounge’s door, her image all sex and style, only a few squares from the pattern missing, masturbatory mausoleums for aging men.
From the moment I walk in, she has me curled around her finger like cigarette smoke. She glides through the room to meet me, shadows breaking apart in her golden light. I’m mesmerized by her. She knows it, too. She’s had that effect on men her entire life. What she’s still doing here, I have no idea. She’s more Hollywood than Potato Town, but then again, even the best placed flytrap catches a few butterflies.
She asks if I want a drink. I want to tell her I want more than that, instead gladly accepting a bourbon and ice, a heavy-handed pour, more than two fingers to tease. She takes a seat across from me, martini in hand, her first sip a tattooed red kiss on the glass’s lip. We make small talk. Her eyes always two levels deeper than mine, searching for something. The drink settles me down, and I remember why I’m here.
I bring up my work and she’s not surprised. I bring up the Russet and she plays coy. I bring up his death and that’s when she breaks down. Turns out even angels can cry. She comes clean about everything she’s done. But all that’s she done is hardly a crime. Says she called in a favor from a powerful guy, wanted to know for certain that the Russet had moved on, to find out if it was true when he told her she was the other one. Crinkélcute’s no killer, just a victim of the first and oldest disease, that toxic decay called love.
I don’t console her. I just press for the other potato’s name, and move on. Sometimes it’s best just to leave, swallow down the longing. That’s the way it goes in this life. That’s the way it goes when you forever live in the shadows of crime.
I call back in to the station. I need a last known address. Name? Sweet Potato.
I need another drink. The lounge’s lights reach out after me, trailing behind in the reflective splashes of puddled precipitation, longing ghosts glowing out against the night. I force myself on, leaving the past to whither, knowing well it’ll never die. The address dispatch had for me isn’t far from here, an old Victorian building on Fascia Street, converted into one room studios, simple solutions for the young, single, and artistically inclined.
I announce my arrival with a sturdy knock, repocketing my fist after three raps. Best not to keep the shake in plain sight. I hadn’t noticed it at the lounge, but then again, I had no conscious control over my eyes. A women fitting the description answers the door. I ask for Sweet Potato and get no reply. I tell her I’m a cop, and ask her name. She introduces herself as Taeo Stewpot, her eyes shifting back inside. Says she’s busy and can only spare a little time. This isn’t my night.
I ask her if she knows a women by the name of Sweet Potato. She asks why? I tell her about the murder, explaining she might have some information that could help us catch the guy. Some spark of recognition ignites in her eye. Asks me to hold on a minute. Comes back holding some envelopes. Claims Sweet Potato was the tenant before her. Shows me a letter. Says she wishes she could be more help. But before I can ask anything else, she leaves me with the stack of mail and closes the door. For a second, I think I see her hesitate, but sounds of muted laughter from beyond her door erases that thought.
Another dead end reached, I reverse I head back to my place. I need to refuel my slowing brain. The bourbon feels like hours ago, its taste still ringing, but its buzz having long ago died. The Russet, Madam Crinkélcute, and Sweet Potato, a Bermuda love triangle. Everyone lost. One heartbroken. One dead. One missing. And me. Where do I fit into all of this?
I run back through the meeting at Fascia Street, my mental VCR scanning through the grain and noise, searching for inconsistencies. Her questioning doesn’t sit right with me. She’s holding something back. I can feel it. But what am I missing? With such a brief encounter, it all seems plausible but incomplete, road construction failing to fill a pothole. Taoe Stewpot… what are you hiding? I stare and drink, willing the truth forward, a séance for the cold trail. That’s when I look back at the pile of junk mail and it hits me, an epiphany in rhythm with the rising feel-good of a finished drink. That tricky bitch. I was an idiot for not noticing sooner.
Of course it felt like she was holding something back. Her entire existence is a lie. Taoe Stewpot, a name so rigid and forced, so unnatural, it could have only come from lie. It’s a pathetic attempt at a pseudonym, born in the desperate froth of an uncreative mind. A simple anagram. Taeo Stewpot… Sweet Potato.
I grab my coat. This time she’s mine.
I sprint back toward Fascia Street, my heels clicking on the curb, my soles squishing through soggy cigarette butts and straining sewage. As I round the corner, I see Taeo Stewpot aka Sweet Potato up ahead, luggage in tow. She’s not going to escape. Not this time. I’m putting her away. This ends tonight.
I dig into another gear, my legs bursting forth, my hamstrings creaking, unused to the strain. I pull my piece and I yell. Don’t move motherfucker. Shit. That came out all wrong. Should have thought of a better line. I see her cringe, a freezing halt. She raises her hands. I slowly lower mine. But before I can make my next move, before I can whip out the brush and finish painting my masterpiece, she begins to cry.
She tells me I don’t understand, that she’s not running away. She’s moving on. Has moved on. Says Taeo Stewpot isn’t some trick. It’s her new name. Her new life. She admits to having loved the Russet once a long time ago, but says she was hurt by him. Says she took some online advice, found herself a nice Yam. Is settling down, making Thanksgiving dinners and holiday pies. I don’t buy it. It doesn’t make sense. Everything points to her. That gutted Russet deserves justice. Justice this chick is trying to deny.
Then up walks the Yam. Tall, handsome, confident, he shakes my hand and introduces himself. Yam Stewpot. He tells me he doesn’t know what this all about, but he knows she couldn’t have done it. Says she was with him earlier in the night, out in public, catching a show. Says there should be dozens of witnesses and he’s happy to come down to the station to sort this all out. I begrudge the Yam. He’s no want-to-be helpful Red, or no power manipulating Yukon. Hell, compared to the lot I’ve talked to tonight, he’s no potato at all. He’s a man.
I walk away. I don’t need to hear their proof. I know it’ll check out. When you’ve been doing this as long as I have, you learn to predict the closure of plotlines. You learn to tell when to move characters back to the fringe. You learn to pull back out the scratchpad. You…
My train of thought is interrupted by my own fist, its insistent shake rising up to say hello once more. I don’t try to stop it this time. I let it go. I let it all go. I let it shake and shake and shake. And then. And then I laugh. I laugh so hard I cry. I cry so hard I weep. I weep so hard I have to choke back the rising bile, the snotted virtue logged deep in my throat. I cough and I spit. And just when I’m on the edge of losing my lung, my thought train returns to the station. I stop.
You know what you learn to do when you’re deep in this job, when you’ve seen it all, when you’ve bottled up the trials and tropes, when you’ve staggered yourself against the end of the canyon wall? You know what you learn to do then? You learn to solve mysteries. I know who did the Russet in. And I laugh once more…
I bathe in the glow of a street light, my shaking hand flinging broken shards of shade down upon the puddled road below, the slow, creeping flood of Potato Town now building up around my shoes. I can’t believe it took me so long to figure it out. I can’t believe I couldn’t see it. I can’t believe any of this. It’s all so unbelievable isn’t it?
I look back through the portraits of potatoes. What do they all have in common? What one link connects the chain? Those painted, still faces. Their frozen expressions aren’t captured moments of time, but wordless expressions of art. I was looking for a killer armed with a sharp object. I should have been looking for a killer armed with a sharpie.
I’ve been searching for a twisted, demented bastard, capable of corrupting children, capable of brutal destruction, capable of creating something just to watch it die. I’ve been searching for a potato, but no potato is capable of that. No potato can cast shadows over an entire town, tormenting, ripping through hearts, spreading death like the plague. No, it takes a vile, sentient disease to do that. It takes time. It takes an actual mind.
My hand shakes more violently now. Its up and down quaking, its terrible rift, building to its final crescendo. Don’t you see it yet? Don’t you see how this ends? That shake isn’t for the drink. That shake isn’t my withdrawal from the titled slant of a self-poisoned divine. That shake and the killer are the same. That serrated silverware stabbing was mine. Every last word of this… It’s all mine.
Can’t you see it now? Can’t you see the heavy handed metaphors, the ambivalent foreshadowing? The thick layers of classical tropes and the over-saturated color of clichés? Can’t you see where I paved over plot holes, skipping loose ends, dropping in clues only where I needed lifelines? Where’s the dialogue? Why have you only heard my side? Monster, man. It’s all me. It’s always been me. I create and I destroy.
I bask in the shake now, its manifestation my ultimate drug, my red herring and my red hand. The shake spreads, rippling holes through the city around me, collapsing everything to one point, one point inside my eye. It’s here, in this rounded pupil, this minute black hole, it’s here where this all started. And it’s here where this all dies. I pull my gun and I whisper a laugh, its echo fleeting, fading out into the written night.
I put the chamber up against my temple and I squeeze. But nothing happens. It couldn’t. I never did write bullets into the gun did I? It just clicks empty. Again. And again. And again. There’s no real death in Potato Town. There’s only me and my beautiful, broken brain. Oh, but we’re here now. We’ve reached the final station. There are no more lines. So I push aside the trigger, and I click submit instead. And I walk away, waving goodbye to the madness of my own creation.
Au revoir Potato Town, we hardly knew thee. Well, you hardly did. It’s forever lived in my mind.