Monday, July 12, 2010

Family Portrait (4/12)

As far as I can tell, Sheriff K turned to locate the dumpster, the body, and the back entrance of the bar to visualize the veracity of Sandley’s account. “Did you come near the body or touch it?”

“No. I ran straight for the phone.”

“And dialed 911,” said the sheriff, thinking aloud.

“Actually I puked first, but that’s right.”

“Did you vomit on the victim, Mr. Sandley?”

“Excuse me?” Sandley was nonplused, but I understood the sheriff’s question. He had noted dried vomit on the victim’s lapel and had discussed it with Dr. Halleck and Deputy Beaumont earlier. “No,” came a sharp response tinged with disgust. “I was but three yards or so from the body and that was enough to lose it.”

“Right over there?” Sheriff K pointed to brownish-green stain on the pavement; he already knew the location where Sandley threw up before he even asked the question.

“Yeah,” Sandley responded.

“Did you know the victim? His name is Peterson.” The sheriff consulted his notepad for a moment. “Chadwick Thomas Peterson.”

“No.” Sandley shook his head.

“Did he ever enter your bar?”

“No. I mean, I can’t say never, but certainly not last night. We get mostly local folk in here—bikers, hillbillies, rednecks and such, people looking to forget the workweek for the most part. I can tell you that I don’t recall a tan Tahoe before, but, again, that don’t mean it’s never been here before. As far as the dead man goes, I’ve never seen him before, but...I still haven’t really seen him—his face, I mean.” Sandley grimaced at the thought of the macabre image lingering in his brain.

“That’s okay.” Sheriff K bridled his impatience.

“Why does he have to die that way? That’s sick.”

The sheriff ignored the comment. “So you haven’t seen him before?”

“That’s right. I’d remember someone like that.”

“What do you mean?”

Sandley motioned with his forearm toward the body about 10 yards away. “A fellow who wears penny loafers and a get-up like that is something you don’t see much around here.” He was referring to the dead man’s polyester pants and suspenders.

Sheriff K commented on a scratch above his right eye. He probably noticed it as Sandley was walking toward him. I usually can spot details like this, but even I missed it. “How did you get that cut, Mr. Sandley?”

“Pardon me?”

“Your eye.” Sheriff K gestured towards his own right eye.

Sandley touched his eye. “Ah shit! When I ran to make the phone call I tripped over the floor mat at the back door of my place and bumped my head on the door latch.” He paused. “God damn it! Is it bleeding?”

“No, but we’ll get someone to look at it.”

“I’m fine, I’m fine.”

As he spoke, Sheriff K, with a serious look on his face, nodded his head. I think he caught me watching him. I looked into my camera case and bent down to grab something, anything to give him the impression that I’m preoccupied with my work and oblivious to his questioning. Hopefully my movements weren’t too abrupt; I told myself I’d use peripheral vision henceforth.

“I didn’t kill this guy!” protested Sandley, the implications of the sheriff’s query starting to dawn on him. “If that’s where you’re heading…”

“Nobody said you did. Simmer down. These are standard questions.”

“Fuck, man! I don’t believe this! First I find this bloody pulp in the God damn wee hours of the morning, worrying that this sicko is still out there somewhere! And now you’re accusing me…”

Of all the nasally, winy voices I’ve heard, Sandley’s tops the list. I almost chuckled aloud with the image of him running like a scared little rabbit from the “sicko,” his nasal screams serving only to strengthen the latter’s resolve to slash not only his eyes but his mouth as well.

“Slow down and take a breath. Nobody’s accusing you of anything, but if you use that language around me again I’ll take you in for disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace!” The sheriff shifted his tactics. “We’re merely concerned about your injury.”

Deputy Beaumont came up to Sheriff K and spoke in a low voice. Whatever it was, it didn’t distract him from his questioning. “So you didn’t see this car parked here when you closed up at 3.”

“No, I told your deputy. If I were looking, maybe I would have seen it over here. I didn’t see it until an hour ago when I was taking out the garbage.”

Sheriff K read his face. “I see. Okay, well, you can go back in your place of business there, but we’ll probably have more questions for you later.”

“Still, sheriff, I’d check those old vacant buildings over there. We’ve had transients hole themselves up in there and I wouldn’t be surprised if….”

“We got it, Mr. Sandley. Thank you.” I already knew from Deputy Beaumont that a K9 team would be arriving later for a manhunt.

Could Travis the Tavern Keeper be the killer? He’s a natural-born asshole, not a butcher, I presume was Sheriff K’s assessment of this worthless man, and I agree with it. Otherwise they would bring Sandley to the station, have him pull off his shirt, and I’d be taking photos of any cuts or bruises he might have.

I know what I’m talking about. I’m surprised he didn’t call me over, or more so Dr. Halleck, to document the scratch above his eye. Here’s yet another indication that the sheriff largely operates on intuition, for it would be the height and depth of folly to forgo the collection of forensic evidence unless you’re almost certain that the man who first discovered the body and who clearly evinces an aggressive personality is not stabbing darts in poor Mr. Peterson’s ugly face. And it’s surprising, astonishing, that he or anyone else didn’t notice the vehicle and corpse next to his place of business for the past twelve hours! Nobody saw the victim lying here supine for hours in broad daylight? This area isn’t Grand Central Station, granted, and the person who snuffed out poor Mr. Peterson’s little life had undoubtedly chosen the site, I would argue, because of its remoteness. The ice-pick-wielding killer likely assumed someone would discover the body much earlier; to all appearances, if one takes a close read of the scene, that’s exactly what he wanted.

A man killed his wife of twenty-years-plus marriage after discovering she was cheating on him with a university chancellor. The cuckolded husband tried to make her death look like a suicide and even planned long in advance by dropping hints to friends and family about her increasing bouts of depression and dependence on alcohol. Neighbors found her facedown in the Jacuzzi on their back patio, pills spilled out on the bed stand and a couple of bottles of hard liquor on the lawn. The husband was supposedly three hundred miles away at an annual Knights of Columbus convention in Memphis. In my first crime scene gig after college, my photos provided key evidence at the trial. Her fingertips and the husband’s chest and neck revealed that a struggle between them had occurred. Based on my work, the police arrested him and the medical examiner found bits of his wife’s fingernails in his forehead. The moron got twenty-five years in the state pen, if memory serves.

The sheriff, his deputy and Sandley walked out of earshot and I couldn’t make out the rest. The wind died down momentarily, but it didn’t matter; with the sun now hidden by the hills, a cold air seemed to descend upon us. I instinctively grabbed the knit cap I had stuffed in my camera case before I left the studio.

Since it had been an eternity or more since I had set my eyes on the sheriff, ten minutes to be exact, I figured I was due for another glance in his direction. Sheriff K struck me as a solitary figure standing amid the flurry of an investigation. Carl, Caldwell, and Dr. Halleck had already bagged the body, loaded it on the gurney, and were wheeling it to the coroner wagon. Deputy Urquhart had been setting up floodlights. Deputy Beaumont was now at the convenient store talking to the cashier. The unmistakable sound of Jerry’s GMC rollback tow truck was rounding the corner. And yet Sheriff K, in a scene so surreal I had to blink a few times, had his hat in one hand and was scratching the back of his neck with the other, staring at….God knows what….the trees?

Deputy Urquhart piped up at this point. “Do we have, you know…”

“No, I don’t know.” Sheriff K was impatient. “It’s getting dark and we need to finish, so speak up.”

“…one of those serial killers on our hands.”

“Deputy, stop watching that CSI shit!”

“Maybe he’s making a statement about Halloween. He’s creating a mask of some kind. What’s with the eyes? I mean…”

“Two weeks away? Horseshit with sauce.” Sheriff K turned to Dr. Halleck. See what I have to put up with?

“I’m just thinking,” responded Deputy Urquhart, the only time I’ve heard him defend himself before the old man.

“Don’t think on my watch, Marcus. We’ll sort this out at the office.”

Deputy Beaumont offered his two cents. “Well, I don’t know about the Halloween angle, but he, or they, or, heck, she set this murder up for spectacle.” Like I said, Beaumont’s a clever fellow, and I think he knew he was on to something here. “He wanted us to find the body here.”

“Maybe.” I didn’t think Sheriff K would so readily concur. “A deranged fellow who stabs the bejesus out of a man’s face doesn’t have to be a serial killer, but it certainly is personal. It’s the result of rage or hatred. You know what I mean? And statistically the murderer would be a disgruntled family member or estranged business partner. Beginner’s course in homicide: the more gratuitous the murder, as a rough rule, the more familiar the killer to his victim. That’s all we can see at this point. We’ll let the forensic evidence we’re gathering here tell us the story. I wouldn’t write off a random act of violence, but if you ask me for an off-the-cuff assessment, I’d say this crime scene looks staged.”

Beth looked up at the sheriff with a face as if to say you might be right. Sheriff K registered her glance and continued. “I don’t see signs of a struggle, but I could be wrong. We’ll get a statement from everyone who was at the bar last night.”

“Staged?” Deputy Beaumont followed up.

“Not so much staged, but, well, I don’t think this is the location of the murder.” The sheriff paused in thought. Deputy Horatio always knew to give him space for reflection; young Marcus and other fools would walk into his lingering thoughts, where words were always sure to follow, regardless of where the conversation has gone since the sheriff’s last utterance. That trait of being a step behind the conversation due to rumination on what’s already been said is not unusual for a man of his age. My mentor as a teenager, a man named Woodbury, and my stepfather Russ, was like that, but the latter probably isn’t the best example because, sadly, he suffered from brain damage in his fifties.

“Like I said, the forensics will do the real talking, but I see no defensive wounds on the victim’s arms. And where’s the blood? I mean, there’s blood here, but not near enough. If I’m right, and this guy was killed somewhere else and brought here, why? Why not bury him out in the woods?”

“If this isn’t where the killer committed his crime,” suggested Deputy Beaumont, “if it’s staged as you say, maybe he’s trying to say something.”

“The killer?”

“Yeah. Remember that lady we found years ago, her body sprawled out on the hood of a…”

“Suburban,” Sheriff K responded. “Joan…something….Chestnut.”

“Joan Chesnik.”

“Yeah, I remember.” Sheriff K turned wistful with the memory. “I had her photo pinned to my corkboard for the longest time. Her uncle raped her but tried to make it look like some satanic cult slaying. He had her arms and legs spread out and etched crosses in her abdomen and chest. Gruesome. Senseless. What’s your point, Dennis?”

“I’m just making the point that murder for sexual sadists and psychopaths is spectacle.”

Sexual sadists and psychopaths. What pitiful creatures of categorization we are, I thought to myself, upon hearing Deputy Beaumont’s ill-chosen words.

“Was that here in Mueller County, sheriff?” asked Deputy Urquhart with trepidation in his voice.

“No, just over the river,” answered Deputy Beaumont. “Those boys in Breckenridge wouldn’t know how to deal with a crime like that for the life of them! They brought in a number of outside agencies, including us.”

“You’re wrong about one thing, Dennis.” The sheriff was ready to move on from the discussion after giving his final counsel on the matter.

“What’s that?”

“It’s gruesome, but not senseless. Killers killer for a reason. We might not understand these reasons, and we certainly don’t agree with them. Even the schizophrenic—and I’ve seen a lot of defense attorneys in criminal cases spoutin’ off about schizophrenia—has his reasons, weird as they are.” Sheriff K looked the Tahoe over once again before going on. “I still say this whole thing….I don’t know.” Sheriff K would not be diverted from the dictates of his intuition, in spite of the speculations of his deputies, off the mark as they were, not to mention the cancer eating away at his wife of thirty years. “It’s funny. Why would the killer, or killers, leave the body here on display? If they didn’t kill him here, why did they stage it as if they did? Obviously Beth and the lab will have the last word, but it’s too nice and tidy, you know what I mean?”

“I’m with you on that, sheriff,” said Deputy Beaumont.

“Yes,” I echoed. “It makes a perfect photograph.”

“I’ll be damned,” quipped Sheriff K, “even Red Head wants in on the action.” Only when Carl chuckled politely and looked at me like a straight man in a comedy routine did I realize I was wearing my maroon beanie, the one I had worn last night. I guess it stuck out in the sheriff’s mind, but for reasons explained below it had a kind of sentimental value to me.

My comment was rather daring, I concede, but I like to push the envelope. For the first time that morning Sheriff K cracked a whimsical smile; I wanted to return with my own but decided it would come off rather irreverent and maybe suspicious at a crime scene.