Friday, July 9, 2010

Family Portrait (3/12)

“Forgot to mention that Bill from WKBJ-TV is here,” said Deputy Beaumont. “Kate says we gotta feed the beast.” Kate McAllister is the aforementioned information officer.

“Yeah, I know, Dennis. I see him. I’ll fill him in in due time. We got a murder on our hands. We have yet to notify family members. Tell him to enjoy a cold one for a few and I’ll give him a statement.”

“Yeah, right.”

“What happened to that lady reporter, anyway?”

Deputy Beaumont cast him a wry glance. Yeah, she’s a real looker, ain’t she?

Ironically, the light cast down from the camera crew above brought Sheriff K’s attention to a shredded strip of plastic or cellophane almost a foot in length and tucked under a back tire of the SUV. He saw it and probably stared at it awhile before it registered. Perhaps it could be the key to solving the case? He bent down, grabbed a ballpoint pin from his coat pocket with which to pick it up, fumbling for the bag he had put away. “Beth?” He motioned her over.

“Plastic bag, sheriff?”

“Well, it’s something, most likely.”

Sheriff K opened the passenger-side backdoor of the vehicle with gloves, his mind fortunately diverted from the Elephant in the Room, a chopper circling about overhead; even I was tiring of his profanity. “The victim likes…liked his coffee,” I heard the sheriff tell Deputy Beaumont. He was referring to the strong aroma that wafted out when he opened the door.

“What I find puzzling, Dennis, is that there’s no coffee cup or mug in the vehicle.”

The mention of coffeee reminded me of “chance encounter” with Sheriff K and Deputy Beaumont about three weeks ago.  I was walking from the courthouse to a Walgreens about a block or two down and heard, for the second time, “Oxford boy!” The two of them were standing in front of Sun Drop Café as the co-owner of the place, Mel, was apparently entertaining them with his impressions of Italian mobsters. The sheriff was feeling uncharacteristically social and offered to buy me a cup. He was in this mood, I figured, because he was the godparent to Mel’s daughter. “No thanks, sheriff. I’m not a coffee drinker.” He didn’t believe me. “I figured you for a coffee shop whore, Oxford boy.” That’s an interesting juxtaposition of epithets, I remember thinking. Deputy Beaumont shrugged his shoulders, as I went on my way. I looked back probably thirty seconds later only to see Mel animated and bemusing the two senior lawmen.

After the news team climbed into the night sky and headed for the city the sheriff and his deputy were making some preliminary observations about the crime. You’re not exactly a fly on the wall when there are six or seven law enforcement and forensic personnel on a small stretch of a street and alley cordoned off from the public. I wanted to hear more, but I can only pretend I’m busy for so long. I made out only bits and pieces of their discussion. It’s relatively isolated here. I’m surprised nobody saw anything until now. But with this stack of crates, dumpster and those empty drums in the way, you can’t really see over here from the bar or the convenience store. We’ll need to do a door-to-door search of them buildings.

Would that I could hear all of their speculations! Would that I had planted a bug on Sheriff K’s hat or jacket. Then again, while I find his crime-solving skills a work of art—art loosely defined, anyway—and even though I want to know beyond a doubt whether he relies mostly on intuition, as I do, or if he breaks information down analytically, at the same time I’m fairly confident that I can anticipate his thinking process.

The sheriff and his deputy abruptly stepped in my direction, but they were looking past me toward T.K. Tavern.

“Let’s have a word with the bar owner,” said Sheriff K.

“Travis Sandley is the name,” Deputy Urquhart reported, trying to make himself useful.

“Better yet, bring him out here.”

“He’s a bit shaken up,” said Deputy Beaumont.

I could almost read Sheriff K’s unspoken reaction on his face: Tell him to join the club. You think I want to behold this grisly scene?

“Bring him over,” responded the sheriff brusquely. Evidently he thought it important to have Mr. Sandley give his statement at the crime scene and enable the sheriff to get a better picture in his head. That’s a speculation on my part, but, as mentioned not long ago, I have a knack for crime-sleuthing and, on a side note, have considered broadening my considerable forensic skills to become a private investigator.

While he waited for Mr. Sandley, Sheriff K watched Dr. Halleck and Carl prepare the body for transport. The reporter whom Deputy Beaumont shooed away moments earlier, I could see, was trying to worm his way back into the crime scene, but Big Marcus was doing his best to keep him at arm’s length. I fished for another roll in my camera case, taking everything in but trying to be as inconspicuous as possible.

Dr. Halleck inquired about Darlene. “What did the specialist say, Lyle? Good or bad?”

“Not the time, Beth,” Sheriff K responded sternly, before his voice settled into a more appreciate tone. “Thanks for asking.”

A rotund man in a denim jacket, about the same age as the sheriff, sauntered up. I watched Sheriff K study the man’s gait as he approached. In an old Western I vaguely remember a cowboy saying that the way a man walks can reveal much about the soul. Or perhaps it was the way a man treats his horse? In any event, I believe the first statement to be true, and I have a hunch the sheriff thinks likewise. At the risk of attributing too much to his perspicacity, I can easily see Sheriff K summing this man’s character before he utters a word. Conventional wisdom says that you can’t judge a book by its cover. This inane, conventional maxim applies in only rare cases.

“You own that bar, sir?”

Mr. Sandley sounded exasperated. “Yes I do. I already told your deputy I did.”

“Well, you’re telling me now, aren’t you?” Sheriff K had already sized up the man: the tavern owner standing before him was agitated from his experience in finding the body, but he also was a son-of-a-bitch otherwise, snippety and confrontational like a bulldog. Sheriff K would be understanding of the former but not tolerate the latter. Honestly, the way the sheriff manhandled his uncooperative, if not belligerent, responses to questions both repelled me and gained my respect. Because Mr. Sandley strikes me as a nasty piece of work, I’m dropping the Mister in my reference to him here on out.

“I understand that you’re ex-Army. You’ve seen a dead body before, huh?”

“What makes you say that?”

“The Army of One bumper sticker on your truck yonder.”

“My son’s an Army Ranger, stationed at Fort Hood,” he beamed. “I was just a weekend warrior back in the day—a reservist. I missed Nam by a year. I’ve never seen something like this.” He glanced over at the covered body. “It’s grotesque.”

“Thank you for your son’s service. As for the murder, soldier up. You’ll be fine. Just gotta buck up, read me? Yeah? Okay. We’re good to go.” Sheriff K has an exquisite ability, I think, of co-opting someone into his perspective and making them forget their own feelings on the matter. This Sandley fellow was testing the sheriff’s skill, however. “Mr. Sandley, it’s my understanding that you locked up the place at about 3 am. Is that right?”

“That’s what I told your deputy.” Sandley looked around, clearly distraught and distracted, as law enforcement officials and the press were scurrying about in front of his place.

“Well what is it?”

“Yes, 3 am. Give or take five minutes. Kris usually helps me throw the bottles out at about 2:30 and…”

“Kris?” With the question Sheriff K took off his hat and ran his hand through his balding head.

“She’s my partner and tends bar. I just make sure no one gets out of hand. Most of my clients are regulars, friends. We get a rowdy bunch once in a while. I had to throw out a yahoo who was threatening another patron with a dart. But last night? No. Had no problems. So much so that Kris left early last night, about 11 pm. I ended up taking out the trash latter than usual, around, yeah, like I said, three o’clock.”

“So you called 911 upon discovering the body.”

“Come again?”

“I say, you dialed 9-1-1 right away?”

“Damn straight I did!”