Four days later Sheriff K and his senior deputy showed up at my portrait studio. It had been raining all that morning, but I now felt warmth on my face through the window as if they brought the sun and a clear sky with them. I was multitasking on the computer and paying some bills, all the while enjoying a cup of hot cinnamon spice apple cider. I was using Adobe Photoshop to whiten the teeth of a woman who sat for me yesterday with her three children.
The two sixty-year-old coots climbing out of the Suburban struck my artistic sensibility, so I quickly grabbed my digital camera and snapped a couple photos through the window. A bead of water was streaking the windowpane right down the middle of the two men. They walked near my car and said something to each other in a cryptic manner. I realized that they weren’t here for a social visit.
Life is full of irony. I thought someone would discover Peterson’s body within an hour, and I didn’t expect Sheriff K to suspect me so quickly. I was off on both counts. Sooner or later Sheriff K would be sniffing down my porch. I’m not underestimating his detective prowess, but I thought I covered my tracks sufficiently.
By the time the two lawmen were at my door, my temporary nervousness had already evaporated like the morning dew. I took another sip from my mug. As I went to answer the door, I laughed under my breath with the thought of me being the deranged protagonist in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, and Sheriff K and Deputy Beaumont the two constables.
It didn’t take too long for me to figure out that they suspected me of the murder. I put on a disposition somewhere between equanimity and mild surprise as I opened the door.
“What brings you here on a fine Monday afternoon, sheriff?” I nodded toward his gaunt partner, who remained expressionless. “Deputy Beaumont.” Sheriff K had his Stetson tilted slightly forward on his forehead, a clear sign, I’ve come to learn, that he meant business.
“Afternoon, Mr. McMasters.” For the first time Sheriff K didn’t call me Oxford boy or some such epithet. I was so taken aback by his formality with me that I momentarily forget what it meant: I’m a suspect.
“This is quite a surprise.”
“Of course. I don’t usually have the county sheriff at my front door. Do you have a question about a crime?”
“A question about my photos?”
“No, not exactly.”
I ignored his response. “You were here years ago, remember? You were investigating an assault up at the penitentiary. You asked me about some photos of the perpetrator.”
“Callaway, a nasty son of a bitch. He killed five inmates and a guard. I remember well. He’s sitting in solitary to this day. You were helpful. We’re not here because of your work.”
“Do you mind if we come inside?”
“Where’s my manners! By all means. Please come in. I was just putting some final touches on some photos.” I led them to my office and studio. “It’s just that I’m not used to personages such as yourself visiting a simple crime scene photographer at his home.”
“So this is your home?”
“And workplace too. I operate my business here and have a small residence in the back. Makes life simple.”
“You live alone?”
“I do nowadays. My wife left me a few years ago. We divorced.”
“Sorry to hear that,” Sheriff K said. “Didn’t know that about you.”
I’m not stupid. I knew that they had some evidence of my involvement or at least some questions they needed answered. I couldn’t lie. I had to concede that I was in fact in the area at the time of Peterson’s delicious demise.
“So you do family portraits, I take it?” Sheriff K was looking at my work on the walls.
“I could have told you that, Lyle,” said Deputy Beaumont.
“Photography, well, art, is a passion with me.” As I was talking, I noticed Deputy Beaumont’s roving eyes. He looked at my cabinets, a card table full of magazines, and a tripod, before finally settling his gaze on a stack of crime scene photos I had set on top of a book shelf. Self-conscious of my gaze, he looked at me and said, “May I?” I nodded.
“Are these your work? Pretty nasty stuff.”
“Some of them are.” I was a bit perturbed that the deputy couldn’t pick up on the obvious. They don’t have my signature on them; besides, some were clearly taken in the early twentieth century!
“I gathered most of them from crime labs across the South. It actually helps my work. I don’t usually leave these out in my studio here. I was about to put them away. Don’t want to have such things laying around when customers come in. But everything you see on the walls is mine, minus the Ansel Adams of course.”
“Your work is impressive, Mr. McMasters. It’s a far cry from a Polaroid!” Deputy Beaumont guffawed and grinned. He was the previous crime scene photographer, and a rather bad one too, an undeniable fact he had already conceded to me when I got the job.
“It must be odd taking these kinds of photos and then next minute photographing families, I should think,” commented Sheriff K.
“Odd? Maybe. Never really thought that much about it. I suppose these two professional activities make me think. Life is so tenuous. I mean, I see a smiling family or a graduating senior and try to capture their essence on two-dimensional medium. Then, I take these photos of blood-soaked, mangled bodies. Helps me reflect on the ebb and flow of life, I guess.”
“You’re a philosopher, Mr. McMasters. You have an interesting take. I like that. Never did too well in school myself. Some people think about what they do; others go on in life without a clue. You’re the first sort.” Another red flag went up with Sheriff K’s self-deprecating demeanor. I got the sense that he was humoring me. His conversational tone was merely a screen behind which he could observe me.
“I find this one particularly gruesome.” Deputy Beaumont held up a photo with one of my post-it notes stuck to it. I had it copied at an archive in Jackson, impressed as I was that a crime scene photographer in 1913 (the year according to the archivist’s best guess) had such insight and skill. It was a full-body shot of a child’s decaying corpse in the woods, partially covered with brush.
Curiously, the face was almost fully skeletonized, whereas the rest of her naked body still had most of its skin. Somehow the lower body, perhaps less exposed to the elements or shaded from the sun, remained relatively preserved. Only on closer inspection would one see a knife stuck in the genitalia. I’m not sure if the deputy saw the knife. Though there wasn’t much of a fleshy face left, you could clearly see such agony and horror expressed in the eyes and mouth. The neck was arched back as if the child reeled in excruciating pain as the killer thrust the knife slowly inside. This is how I imagined the scenario. I didn’t see his expression as he showed the photo to Sheriff K, but Deputy Beaumont probably gave him a wink. This sick fuck must be our man.
“I must admit, Mr. McMasters,” said Sheriff K, “despite my years of experience in homicide, I’ve never gotten used to the sight or scent of a murder victim, especially one such as this photo.”
“Or one like poor Mr. Peterson.”
“Now that you mention it…”
“It makes you human, sheriff. I see things a little differently, however.”
“You’re not human?”
“I try to put aside my humanity, or emotions I should say, and analyze the evidence as objectively as possible.”
“Well, I can’t fault you for that.”
“I take pride in my work, yes. And I never leave fingerprints.” I was addressing Deputy Beaumont, who was getting a smudge on one of the photos. He looked at me sheepishly.
“I’ll come straight to the point.” Sheriff K’s tone became stern. “We want to ask you some questions about Thursday.”
“Thursday? The aforementioned Peterson murder, you mean?”
“Actually we’re interested more so in your whereabouts on Wednesday evening,” said Deputy Beaumont.
I made a face and uttered a sound of absolute credulity. “Is this an investigation…on me?”
“Just routine questions. You know how that goes.”
“Of course.” I figured they knew something, so lying about my whereabouts would be futile and risky.
“Were you here at home on October 17?”
“No sir. I visited my mother in Batesville. Afterwards I came home, but first stopped off at the store to pick up some things. The market. Gas station. Odds and ends.” I could tell my answer didn’t satisfy them.
“We’d like you to come down to the station for further questioning—an interview, not interrogation, mind you.”
“If it’s all the same, I’d rather answer questions here and now. I have nothing to hide.” I remained insouciant outwardly, but I wasn’t going to let them question me at the sheriff’s department. Coming to the station means control; they want to ask me questions on camera and study my body language and facial expressions over and over. It was getting time to deliver a message to Sheriff K. I was wracking my brain: What did they know and how did they know it? I figured the plastic shred could be traced to my cousin’s factory. I hadn’t considered that angle. Or did they discover that I did his portrait two years ago? Or did they find fibers of my hair in the Tahoe? Or maybe someone had spotted my car? It could have been anything.
“We saw you on camera getting coffee at the Exxon mini mart near the corner of North Wood Avenue and Glatman Drive.”
“Yes, I stopped in. Not a crime, it is?”
“I wouldn’t have recognized you were it not for the red knit cap you were wearing. You wore it the other day too….at the crime scene.”
“Yes, I was…”
“You don’t drink coffee if I remember correctly?”
“Yes and no. I was up late working on my portraits. I’m not averse to caffeinating myself when I have deadlines. Is a late-night run of concern, sheriff?”
“Also,” Sheriff K ignored my question, “you didn’t get any gas. The outside cameras don’t show your vehicle anywhere around the premises.”
“I parked across the street.”
Sheriff K continued to explain. “Mr. Peterson entered the store about a half hour prior to you. Is that a coincidence?” Now I understood. They followed his credit card usage. The asshole went into the mini mart not long after I had been there.
“Did you see him in or around the store, or at all on Wednesday night?”
“Of course not. Well, given what happened to his face, maybe I saw him but I wouldn’t know.”
“He went in for smokes and gas between 8:05 and 8:12pm. He’s on camera, as you are, Mr. McMasters. What were you doing after this time? After you went to the store, that is?”
While Sheriff K was grilling me, I observed Deputy Beaumont looking out the window at a stack of Jack o’ Lanterns I had placed along a white stone fence that keeps my lawn from sliding down the hillside. I tried to rope him into the “conversation” and divert his attention, for I couldn’t afford him to find out my secrets.