Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Verdant Paradise

What possesses a man to leave civilization for a period of time and go into the wilderness? Most simply want to reflect on the beauty of nature. Yes, they seek communion of a sort with “all living things” or they want to clear their head of the hustle and bustle of urban living. Some hope to draw closer to God and hear His voice in the quietude, an interconnection of the natural and spiritual realms perhaps not unlike the massive white pines that point toward the heavens. Even the most atheistic soul, I should think, can’t resist a mystical feeling while gazing upon the pristine, sapphire lakes and rock facings framed against a coniferous landscape. Others want an adventure and enjoy the physical challenge. Outdoors sports draw many, fishing and hunting above all, allowing young and not-so-young men to test their mettle against the dictates of nature. No doubt there is a multiplicity of factors, and they all were present in our canoe party of nine this past week.

I spent mid July at the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Northern Minnesota, my second trip there. If nature is the theater of God’s glory, as Calvin once wrote, then we traversed a most splendid stage. It’s only fitting that I first introduce the dramatis personae of our group. John, a kindred soul and bon ami, organized the event, as he’s done for some years now. Eric, an amiable fellow and avid outdoorsman, brought to the table three canoes, a keen eye for wildlife, and most notably a servant’s heart. He provided most of the photos that you see.  Mike, a rather laconic traveling companion such as myself, was handy with the fishing rod and seemed to make a catch every time he cast a line. Tim, always an interesting conversationalist, graced us with his presence and brought along four of his sons—Jake, Sam, Gabe, and Nate.

We drove eight hours north in two vans each loaded with two canoes, making an obligatory stop at Culver’s, a burger joint, before arriving in Ely, Minnesota just after midnight. We lodged overnight at a bunkhouse to get some shut-eye, however punctuated by the voices of two boys talking in their sleep. Next morning John took care of business with a less-than-sanguine canoe outfitter staff, getting permits in order and inquiring about water levels and such. I tanked up on free coffee and checked my email one last time on a computer provided by the outfitter. Tim searched out a coffee place and morning paper along the town’s main drag. Before long we were making our way through the winding country road toward launch site 14.

I’m neither a John Muir nor a Sigurd Olson, but I’ll do my best in depicting the spectacular flora and fauna we came across. Regarding the latter, I was hoping in vain to spot a black bear or moose, but we did chance upon a deer eyeing us cautiously along a marshy embankment, a beaver or two shuttling across the lake, a couple of painted turtles on their guard against man and bird, a snapping turtle biting the bejesus out of a smallmouth bass hanging on a line, what we thought might be an osprey, plenty of loons doing their thing, some bald eagles soaring aloft, and no small amount of blue falcons.

BWCAW is essentially a series of lakes connected via portage routes or marshy creeks of varying lengths. For the most part the Canadian border falls to the east and west. Everywhere you extend your gaze you’ll meet an arresting scene of nature’s bounty, from the white and yellow water lilies that decorate the rivers to the huge birch trees that tower over the pines. Once we got on the Little Indian Sioux River we entered a land that time had forgotten, and our hearts grew both adventurous and contemplative the further we paddled. I inevitably imagine myself as part of the Lewis and Clark expedition or Teddy Roosevelt’s adventure on the Amazon, full of wonder as to what lies beyond the river bend.

We camped Saturday night on a gorgeous, elevated site off of Loon Lake. Eric had coordinated the food and supplies for Tim and his boys, so his hands were full in teaching them the basics of campsite duties. John, possessing a wealth of knowledge, easily took up his role as an instructor, imparting to the boys what he would call “rustic urbanity,” that is, a different set of rules and attributes that govern the wilderness experience (e.g., courtesy, resourcefulness, respect for nature). The boys wanted to know about my experiences in the Army and asked many questions about the conflicts abroad and military culture. I tried to balance my role as an adult with my need for solitude. For a time I withdrew to a rock ledge at the water’s edge to rejuvenate myself. Eric, bless his heart, stayed up into the wee hours of the night playing cribbage and Bullshit with the boys.

After breaking camp, we had a group devotional and sit-up contest with the boys.  We set out for a more remote area, negotiating the arduous 280-rod portage to Heritage Lake. Our efforts paid off, because Heritage is an emerald tucked away, plentiful in fish and lacking in human primates. The fishermen in our party, namely everyone but me, brought back a couple of northern pike, a bass, and a walleye for a nice feast on the third day of the trip. The boys gathered around as John and Eric filleted the fish. On Monday everyone had a gay old time jumping off a cliff into the lake. The boys spoke in a fake Scottish brogue and Jake, the eldest, impressed even some of us adults with his wit; that’s saying something, for we take humor quite seriously. For the record, I finally had a bowel movement on Monday, and my mellifluous grunts and growls ringing through the forest gave testimony to this breakthrough.  Discussion at the campfire revealed that Tim and I had much more in common than I had thought; our spiritual odysseys, it would appear, have taken us down paths we didn't perhaps think possible in simpler times.

Four days into the trip, Wednesday morning to be precise, six members of the party returned to civilization while John, Eric and I launched out on an ambitious trip that would ultimately involve three campsites, five lakes, and navigation through marshy labyrinths. We had one logistical problem to resolve, however: we had one canoe and plenty of gear. Through trial and error, we eventually arrived at a system that worked. The first trial didn’t wait long. A harrowing moment occurred when we endeavored to porter into the headwinds across Loon Lake. John struggled hard at the stern so that we wouldn’t tip over. We came close, and the experience was a “lowlight” of the trip.

We always enjoy reviewing the highlights of a canoe trip on the way home, even if it’s difficult to settle on just a few experiences. I fondly recall swimming across the lakes, and the higher the watershed, the better, as the lakes got cleaner and more rejuvenating the further we went. Engaging and convivial discussion at the campfire was plentiful. There’s something about embers and the crackle of knotted wood that brings out the philosopher in all of us. Perched on a log before the glow of flickering flames like a couple of cavemen, John and I reflected with fondness on the love between a father and son after overhearing Tim and Nate, his eleven-year-old, wrestling in the tent one evening. Tim’s snoring moments after this rigorous activity, we remarked, sounded like the sleep of the righteous. Eric, John and I agreed that a swim break next to a cove on Steep Lake was just what the doctor ordered after a considerable morning of paddling and portaging with little hydration. It became one of the fondest memories for the three of us.

Some of the portages could be a bear and the mosquitoes, godless and unrelenting, took a toll, as my pockmarked appendages still testify; but all in all the solitude, tranquility and verdant splendor that surrounded us compensated us hundredfold for whatever discomfort we experienced at times. We came out of the wilderness five pounds lighter, bristled in the face, kissed by the sun, and more than ready to digest a pizza or two. John has weighed in on the ascetic nature of wilderness camping. We leave behind our iPhones, laptops, and Starbucks coffee and enter an environment that demands resourcefulness, physical stamina, and forethought. We can imagine how are forebears used to live.

Presumably the world we’ve inhabited for seven or eight days still exists outside our experience of it; yet it gradually recedes from our mind as if it were a pleasant dream once we return to civilization. Does this pristine place really exist? There’s always next year to reassure ourselves when we can again launch our canoes and seek to regain paradise lost.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Family Portrait (7/12)

I never knew my father, my real father. My mom first saw Russ, my stepfather, at a business luncheon in the bygone days when he had a full set of hair and a vintage ’75 Corvette Stingray. She was working as a server at a restaurant hotel. At the time he operated a livestock supply store, and had little success to show for it apart from a car he inherited from his deceased brother. Still, he probably struck my mom as a knight in shining armor, as difficult as that is for me to picture. He had twenty years on my mom, and never understood her or cared to understand her. Alcohol made him an angry son of a bitch and gave license to his inherent depravity. I can forgive my mom for hooking up with this reprobate when I was three; but telling me he was my biological father is the unpardonable sin. If I had a father figure in my life, and I didn’t, it would have been Woodbury, the old man who owned the studio in Batesville.

From bashing in my stepfather’s head I learned a valuable lesson. Control, power, joy—in short, all the things that I value in this life—come by inflicting pain and humiliation on others. Ideally, they would be conscious that I am the cause of their torment and misery. Honestly, nowadays I tire of the fleeting joy that comes with inflicting physical pain, notwithstanding the mental anguish that comes when my prey realizes its life is about to be snuffed out. As in my second kill, a mother cognizant she’ll never see her daughter again or be able to say goodbye is like sweet, dark poetry. What I seek is inducing a moral dilemma in someone who fancies himself a paragon of virtue or is perceived as such by the community. Peterson’s death, as you’ll discover if you keep reading, is merely a means to this objective, and his physical features only made my job easier.

I kill neither out of anger nor passion of any kind; neither for sex nor because my mommy beat me. True, I do generate some anger during the bloody deed, but it’s not rage, as Sheriff K postulated. After all, who does not deserve to be slaughtered? Certainly my stepfather did, and he’s lucky he lived on with a traumatic brain injury resulting in severe memory loss and depression.

I mentioned before that I knew how I would kill Peterson but the timing wasn’t right. You see, I get these visions, and everything must be precise. Vision probably isn’t exactly the right word for it. I’m speaking metaphorically, for I don’t know how to explain it otherwise. I get these frames in my mind, snapshots, which I try to duplicate in reality, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say I reify the images flickering in my brain. Usually the entire picture comes instantaneously, but sometimes I get it in a drawn-out series of “revelations” lasting for days or even weeks. For example, the killing implement had to be a Phillips head screwdriver I had spotted at Wal-Mart, size 2, with an orange and chrome-plated handle.

Under the guise of “Brad Stevens,” I would tell Chad that my company, Shadow Tree Grove and Associates was starting up a coffee shop and would be highly interested in his consulting services. (Shadow is a neighbor’s cat I buried alive in the backyard when I was eleven. My house was located on Tree Grove Lane 17.)

I take great pride in my ruses. Behind the name of Mr. Stevens I had developed an intricate background so rich in details, idiosyncrasies and fabricated anecdotes at the ready that I could easily stay in character and never contradict myself or pause to make sure I was getting my story straight; no one listening to me would think something amiss. I’ve taken on this persona before mutatis mutandis, the name and many of the biographical details, so it’s easy to remember my clever lies.

In the past I’ve used the name Joris van Bowenkamp, believe it or not, and, since I could pass for a Dutchman, spoke with a Dutch accent. I met a man at a train station, a dapper fellow from Pine Bluff, who asked me to translate a letter his daughter received from a pen pal in the Netherlands with a Dutch poem written on the bottom. I looked at my watch with alarm, pretending I had almost forgotten an appointment and apologized for having to rush off.

The initial vision, you see, doesn’t include a how-to kit when it comes to some of the planning operations; the false identities I create are the product of reflection and study after the original insight. I’m not a con man coming up with an alias and just enough to get the job done; no, I develop a detailed biography, or autobiography, thanks in no small part to my voracious reading in history, forensic science and true crime. Living alone these days I read as many books as and watch as many documentaries as I can.

I also see the outcome of these killings, or at least the desired outcome, even if sometimes things go awry. I need only be faithful to the mission as best I can. As an artist the Muses drive me and yet I actively involve myself in the creative act. Just because I get a blueprint in my head doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvisation.

On most occasions I don’t act upon these visions. As we were driving through the countryside to her aunt’s house, for instance, I started to fantasize about killing my “girlfriend” Melissa, an assistant chemist at the state crime lab in Little Rock. It wasn’t the first time, but the details became so vivid as I intermittently watched her at the wheel and looked out the window at the scenery flying by. I could already see myself taking photos as they’d fish her corpse out of Copper Rock River—I still can. She would be wearing that apricot v-neck top that she dons once in a while.

After strapping her head to a floorboard, say, I would make an incision into her neck slowly, eventually hitting the carotid artery and severing it. I’d be wearing my uncle’s tattered Air Force uniform, something I could just incinerate afterwards or maybe, as in the case with Peterson, I’d wrap myself in cellophane, and easily dispose of any evidence. (My cousin in St. Louis is the night supervisor at a polyethylene factory that manufactures shopping bags for various clothing stores.) In either case I’d prefer to do this work in my studio, not in the woods, even if the “vision” has given me a precise location, about 25 yards or so from my tool shed, next to a dilapidated brick wall.

I’m not delusional, and I happen to agree with Sheriff K’s assessment that those who commit crimes always have a purpose. Fantasies are one thing, reality quite another. Here’s what happened to poor Mr. Peterson.

I called him up on a prepaid mobile phone that law enforcement wouldn’t be able to trace. I told him that I’d like to meet him at my office to discuss some advertising for an innovative start-up coffee company. The address I gave him was a real one, an office building I had scoped out, because Peterson could always Google it. I had been impressed with his clientele and work ethic after having sought out the best advertising agencies in the area. He of course concurred with my conclusion. Oddly enough, he failed to bring up his company’s work, or lack thereof, for a prominent car dealership in the city, the one and only time it tried social media marketing. I’m being sarcastic of course.

I’m giving you the abbreviated version of events here, for I had to make a series of phone calls, and more often than not I would get his secretary, a woman by the name of Rhonda or Wanda, I couldn’t be sure.

Once he was en route I called him and said I was having a bit of car trouble. “You’re not going to believe this, and I’m rather embarrassed, but I can’t start my engine and I’m waiting for Triple A to show up.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he says.

“I’m parked at the outlet mall on Exit 5 off I30. Perhaps we could meet here and discuss business.”

“I don’t know…” At this point he tried to handle business on the phone and possibly even cancel our meeting. Evidently my slight change in the plan threw him off, but after verifying that he was alone, I was insistent. It’s now or never.

“Listen, my business friends are advising me to consider Johansen Communication Associates…” I barely mentioned his chief competitor when Peterson cut me off.

“They’re overrated, trust me. I have a client, a real estate agent in Russellville, who went to them for web and print communications and fora  hefty sum got shoddy service. The state university there also hired them for online advertising but canceled the contract three weeks in.” With these words he coughed into the phone, and I could tell he was smoking up a storm. “Pardon me. You’re at the outlet mall, huh?”

“From your direction it’s on the way.”

“Okay. I’ll phone you in a few minutes. Look for a Chevy Tahoe.”

“Tahoe, okay. Got it.”

Again, it took a bit more convincing than I’m relating here, as Peterson had built up a fair-sized clientele since he had come for the family portrait two years prior—that is to say, three or four people.

I was waiting for him in the middle of the parking lot. I called him up again to direct him to my location and waved him over once he was in sight. No cameras on the parking lot.  That's good.

Given his obtuse mind, and the fact that almost two years had elapsed since the family portrait, Peterson didn’t recognize me, not at first anyway. Apart from the Van Dyke I’ve been sporting lately, I didn’t bother with a disguise. He exited his vehicle and shook my hand.

“Nice to meet you. Chad Peterson.” He reeked of cigarette smoke. “Want me to drive you to a service station? Or perhaps we can discuss business in a restaurant until help arrives?”

“No, I’m fine. Really. If you don’t mind, we could just go over the basics in your vehicle. I’ll be able to watch for my wife. I gave up on AAA and called her to pick me up in about an hour. She’s at a church meeting until 9pm. We’ll deal with my it tomorrow. Damn foreign-made car!”

Once I got into his car the plan involved getting him to drink coffee laced with roofies, or “joy juice,” as the dealer in Little Rock called it. Once the drugs had incapacitated him I could kill him in my portrait studio.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Family Portrait (6/12)

Personable when I want to be, maybe I inadvertently gave him some kind of hope for a business opportunity. When I was setting up the camera and lighting I feigned an interest in his musings about family life. He saw I had no ring on my finger and encouraged me to find a “good woman,” presumably someone like his portly spouse. I didn’t bother to tell them I was divorced and happily single. What business is that of his? I don’t like people who talk too much, who feel some kind of need to fill up the void of space and silence with their meaningless drivel. How is this glib speech an improvement over silence? We ought to use those pauses as a breathing space to reflect and take in experience. How else would I have learned so much about Sheriff K!

I could deduce quite readily that Peterson was one of those supercilious fellows, full of bravado and low on self-cognizance. When you have a gift for sizing up a person, knowing his temperament, the way he’ll respond to a comment or situation beforehand, you can either sit back in detachment like an anthropologist observing strange animal behavior or you can opt to manipulate them for your good pleasure, causing them to react in a way you have choreographed. I do both.

People in general feel at ease around me, at least at arm’s length. April and her slutty sister, and some of their friends, not to mention my odious chain-smoking mother-in-law who didn’t like me from day one, ultimately concluded that I am an unfeeling, evil person; the ski trip to Germany served only to confirm their presupposition. Their assessment, beclouded by selfishness and what sociologists call groupthink, couldn’t be further from the truth.

Out of a gracious heart I have allowed April and my in-laws to live, and don’t think I’m being facetious. (Besides, since her parents own a horse ranch, there are other ways to make a point than by human sacrifice.) I’m not stupid, notwithstanding many unsolicited and mean-spirited comments from Russ and my Ex. I learned early on, before my college education, not to kill someone you know; detectives will almost always found out or at least have a better chance of solving the crime. I violated this important piece of information once, and almost twice, and for all my fantasies described below, I most certainly wouldn’t kill a spouse or girlfriend. I could kill them with absolutely no witnesses and without leaving any DNA whatsoever, and the cops would still be at my door within minutes of discovering the body, presuming they would find a body.

I would be exaggerating if I told you nothing fazes me. Peterson was starting to get on my nerves; the mystique of his eyes and neck were momentarily wearing off.

“I’m also getting into the promotion and advertising business.” He nodded with a confident air, thinking he had found in me a sucker when he was in reality starting to dig his own grave. “I could help you sell yourself, your photography business. You do quite well for yourself, I can see, and you can even go further with some professional consultation and planning. That’s where we come in.” Who’s the 'we'? I wondered. And while it’s true that I turn a decent profit in this dying profession, how would he know? He doesn’t. He’s trained himself to tell would-be clients what they want to hear.

His gesticulations and wielding of the catalogue like a sword repulsed me. I served nearly three years in the Navy Reserve and one useful skill I got out of that experience—other than the virtue of attention to detail—was to express myself with well-chosen words and arms to my sides. His wild flapping and chopping of the air like a buffoon reminded me of my Ex in a social setting or on the phone. Small wonder she couldn’t hold a job.

“It’s all about image and showmanship,” he lectured. I easily pictured him a cartoon figure with a literal sparkle escaping his winking eye. “It’s about getting your name out there, and once you do, people respond to someone with confidence. I can help you with that too—confidence. I mean, we can uplift your portfolio, as it were—a little pun there!” He laughed at himself. “You’ll notice on the card the other number. That’s my advertising partnership with Phil Kruschek, a big wig with celebrity connections; we have offices in Russellville, next to the university.”

Not that it matters to me, but if he had such famous clientele, he would have rattled off a few names.

“Our clientele is ever increasing but we’d make you a priority. Listen, if you give me a call, we’ll set yourself up for success, and I assure you, before you know it, you’ll be able to move out of this rustic setting, quaint as it is, and set up your own office space in the city.”

I gazed at his eyes and evidently starting smiling at him, for he asked what I thought was so amusing. “You’re a funny man.” He didn’t know how to take these words and probably thought my response was a playful way of initiating discussion. He was about to say something, but I cut him off. “Tell you what, Chad, if you tell me the color of your eyes, I’ll promise to call you up some time and we can talk business in more detail.” He was taken aback by my response momentarily, I could tell, but he thought he smelled an opportunity and played along.

“Blue, definitely blue. My wife sometimes calls me Old Blue Eyes.” He guffawed. “I always thought they were periwinkle myself…”

“No. They’re grey, grey like…a tombstone.” I became more curt and impatient with him after the unnecessary lie about his wife calling him Old Blue Eyes. Does he think I’m an idiot?

“You think so? Yikes, that’s rather grim. Hmm. Well, Mr. McMasters, Matt, I hope I’m close enough!” His laughter turned more nervous as he put out his hand. “Do keep in touch.”

“I will. Rest assured.” Our “conversation” didn’t end up the way he had anticipated. “For the record,” I added as he walked out the door, “I have no intention of moving to the city. I like the woods. It brings me solace and peace of mind. You can understand that, surely?”

“I surely can,” I think I heard him say.

Really, ever since he handed me his business card, I had tuned out his verbiage and was thinking about how I could get him alone. I knew what I wanted to do before he left, but of course the time wasn’t right.

I’m betting you’re a serial killer sleuth or true crime aficionado with a penchant for snappy, pop psychology on what makes me tick. You probably have a need to situate me into some kind of category like Deputy Beaumont. You will not succeed, provided you’re honest with yourself. I wouldn’t say I defy categories as much as categories are worthless. I am conscious of being unique, different from most people, and whether my idiosyncrasies are good or bad, you can decide. I’ll help you along by providing some biographical details, not because you will find me exceedingly interesting, but because you’ll want to know my background. There’s nothing here to trumpet from the rooftops. The accident of birth placed me in a middleclass suburban environment sufficient for a decent education and a less-than-stable social foundation. Mediocrity, I lament, characterize my time in school and the military.

When I turned 17 I became an apprentice at Woodbury Family Studio in Batesville and continued to work there when I attended UM to study philosophy and criminal justice. One day the owner, Woodbury, died at his desk; I was the one who found him. I know what you’re thinking, but I didn’t kill him. The old man took pills for everything—a heart condition, diabetes, and arthritis. He was a disaster waiting to happen and I learned as much as I could about photography expecting him to keel over at any time. Ironically, it looks like I killed him, and yet they’ll never suspect me for the so-called murderers I did commit. I’m not sure why, but though he was kind to me, I wanted to kill him. Attribute this impulse to my Teutonic ancestors perhaps.

After graduating from the university I got my IAI Crime Scene certification. What with my professional photography and training in forensics, the Pulaski County Sheriff department, convinced by my argument that one should master photography before taking on the complications of crime scene photography, hired me on the spot. Now I do a lot of work throughout Mueller County; before I came along Deputy Beaumont used a Polaroid camera and had no training whatsoever. I rarely do murders; mostly small time thefts and insurance claims. Who knew someday I’d open up my own portrait studio, McMasters Family Studio.

Up to this point in my “story” I’ve killed two people, and two victims hardly qualify me as a serial killer; the FBI requires three in their definition of the term.  I’ll take the label if you insist, eager that you are to pigeonhole me, but you should know that I didn’t light fires, wet my bed, or torture animals as a child. I did examine the hearts of cats, squirrels, raccoons, and even dogs when I was an adolescent, but I carefully, painstakingly made sure they died with as little pain as possible—in the beginning. I cut their heads off quickly with Russ’s army knife or sometimes an axe in his shed. Even as a young teen I was interested in what makes life work. Eventually I learned it’s not about the biology, but the spirit, and there’s no dissecting that.

I admit that I lied—well, told a half-truth—about the pleasant melancholy that death and nature evoke in me. That’s true, but it’s also a sheer thrill and it transports me, if you will, to a higher level of consciousness. I don’t believe in God, not a traditional deity in any case, and most certainly not Sheriff K’s Lutheran God; nonetheless, killing is a spiritual experience for me. Since my divorce I stopped going to church, but I still read the Bible on occasion and have encouraged people to seek the Lord.

I don’t rape my victims, either during or after the killing. I’m not a sexual sadist. From the time I was seven, my stepfather tried to rape me and threatened to cut off my penis if I ever told my mom. I didn’t, and I didn’t end up a male prostitute or a sniveling kid in a lawsuit later in life. One day, when I was twelve, after watching a crime show on TV, I took a hammer and, to use the colloquial, fucked him over really good. It was an act of liberation and he never revealed what happened. Since he worked in an aluminum plant people, my mom included, thought it was the result of an industrial accident. He died years later when I was a senior at UM and though I didn’t attend the funeral. Instead, I drove home from Oxford at the semester break for the sole purpose of urinating on his grave.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Family Portrait (5/12)

Part 2

I’m sure you’ve figured out by now that I am in fact the killer. I certainly would have. And for what it’s worth, I say killer, not murderer, for only innocent people get murdered. The sheriff’s wrong about the ice pick; I used a small Phillips screwdriver, which the autopsy report will reveal soon enough. He’s also mistaken about the familiarity of his assailant, though I don’t blame him for making this understandable mistake. Dr. Halleck and her forensic team will discover, moreover, that the victim, Chad Peterson, did not struggle against his killer, namely me, even if he was somewhat conscious, barely, of what was happening to him. I actually extinguished this disgusting creature, slowly, methodically, with malice aforethought, and to my amusement, after subduing him with electrical cords around his neck, arms and legs. I stabbed the bastard in the comfortable confines of my portrait studio. We should be honest and call it what it is: chastisement. Chad the Chastised, shall we say, was a naughty little monkey, yes he was.

I’ve never forgotten his ashen eyes and Adam’s apple. For these physical characteristics alone, tacit signs of human depravity screaming in my ear, I told myself he would regret the day he traipsed into my studio two years ago, his family in tow, making me practically deaf. The way he conducted himself, recounted below, merely provided nails for his own coffin.

The photo session went well enough, despite his four-year-old son crying at the outset. I had to use every trick in the book to get this kid’s cooperation: the plush animals, the promise of M&Ms from my candy dish (“If your mom and dad agree of course.”), or a little circus jig I perform—anything to get him to smile and sit still. His mother, Mrs. Peterson, was evidently incompetent to silence the boy. Before our separation (but after losing her job at the bank), April, my Ex, would sometimes come in and get the kids to sit for the picture; since then I’ve learned how to keep them entertained.

I had the Petersons wait in the anterior room after the shoot while I tinkered with the digital images at the computer. Professional that I am, I could turn this loathsome, ugly family into something less painful to the eyes. If I were a rich man, I’ve often fantasized, I’d takes photos of exclusively beautiful or affluent people, my ample-bosomed secretary having screened them before I enter the room. Because owning a portrait studio and freelancing as part-time crime scene photographer are not lucrative occupations, I can’t afford to be so discriminating, and, granted, my studio is not exactly in the middle of the business district.

Fifteen minutes later I displayed for them an overview of the photos on a big screen, allowing them to pick out the ones they wanted. I then printed out the photos and put them together in the package they had specified upon their arrival. Since they chose one of my more pricey deals, I gave them doubles of everything for free and threw in an additional 5X7 glossy.

“Did you take this? Look at this picture, Chad. Is that Switzerland?” Mrs. Peterson, her sausage finger extended, was looking behind me at a poster on the wall. Most of the framed pictures throughout my studio are mine, minus a couple of black and white Ansel Adams photographs that I’ve gazed at for hours.

The poster Mrs. Peterson specified is one I’m quite proud of: an arresting scene of the German Alps with a cow pasture in the foreground, taken when April and I, and her sister and their parents, took a vacation to Oberammergau, Germany. The tranquility of the pastoral scene not only moves me to tears when I take the time to reflect on it, but its beauty deflects my otherwise keen memory from the unfortunate part of the trip–to wit, the deep animosity that developed over finances and a host of other petty issues.

Mrs. Peterson elicited from me a brief discussion of the difference between good and great photography, though I’ve learned over the years to bridle my exuberance when discussing refined or lofty topics with someone of limited attention span. It always leads to disappointment when the person I’m unguardedly sharing my passion with changes topics or otherwise shows signs of boredom. I hate getting worked up only to be let down by indifference; one should not cast pearls before swine.

Take for instance my attempt to have an intelligent conservation last week with a simpleton about Ansel Adam’s famous 1927 photograph of Half Dome in Yosemite. I started to explain his genius—the compositional balance, the textures he achieved, the subtle and judicious contrasts–and I didn’t use fancy jargon or technical terms. I was also trying to make the point that the photo is the result of his original approach to visualization; it came with painstaking work, as Adams would spend hours upon hours getting just the right exposure. The artist is no less the artisan, the genius no less the experimenter. And what did this philistine have to say in response to my explanation? Still, it would look better in color.

Peterson’s wife seemed at least mildly attentive to my excited response, but as I was explaining my approach to photography, Chad had the audacity to slip me his business card. He started out suggesting that I could get some business from him by making brochures for his company. I soon realized this friendly suggestion was just a ploy to foist his sales pitches on me. His “company” consisted solely of him working with an import wholesaler based in Dallas, and he had no intention of making brochures.

“How much do I owe you?” he asked. I pointed to the LCD display on the pin pad and smiled politely. He got out his wallet and continued to expound on his company’s success and expansion over the years. I heard his words, and subjected myself to his nicotine breath, but I was not listening.

“Our competitors have been left in the dust, unable to match our prices and quick service.” I could see dollar signs in his eyes as he uttered these lies and half-truths. The way he licked his index finger before thumbing through a wad of cash from his wallet reminded me of my stepfather who did the same thing, until his “accident” anyway. I winced with the recollection Russ’s slimy tongue and dirty beard.

“Will you take a credit card? I usually don’t carry cash with me,” he explained, as if his billfold betrayed him as less than the high roller he would have others believe him to be. I had already detected a curious disconnect between Peterson’s words and intentions; this lame explanation did not surprise me.

“Yes, that’ll be fine.”

Once he swiped his card and I made the transaction for services rendered, I couldn’t help myself from staring at his neck while he spoke. It was not my intention to make him nervous, but I could sense his unease. I got a rise out of his discomfort, but being a man without much below the surface, whatever self-awareness he was capable of didn’t last long. His apparent lack of self-awareness puzzled me in so far as his eyes bespoke of an enigma. How can a man like this, a vapid conversationalist and servant of mammon, be so mysterious? He kept prattling on mindlessly. I managed to get a word in edgewise, a brisk Thanks for coming in!, and I used body language to reiterate my intentions. I turned away from him to organize files I had stacked temporarily on the printer when they, the Ugly Five, had entered my shop ahead of their appointment. (You’ll forgive me for these unkind words, but such epithets make life bearable, don’t you agree? And to think, April, that bitch, alleged I didn’t have a humorous bone in my body!)

Were it not for Peterson’s evil neck and mesmerizing eyes I would have erased him from my mind after they left; but just as I was trying hard to forget their existence, Peterson strolled back into my studio with a book in his hand, wearing a mischievous grin as if to concede that our banal chit-chat a minute earlier had concluded with some degree of finality, or so I thought.

“Can I call you Matthew? Matt? Yes? Call me Chad.” Raised eyebrows were my only response. Back already are we? “Matt, I’m sure you’ll find something here to your liking.” He opened up a catalogue of wares, at the same time trying to read my face. I could have given him the fiercest countenance, the most horrific scowl to make the angels of hell tremble, but it would have no effect on this husk of a man, resolved as he was to waste my time and his.

“I got storage cabinets, taper candles, plush animals, rosewood cabinets, even picture frames.” The randomness of his list had much to do with him paging through the catalogue—not a riveting style of salesmanship, to put it mildly. “I do jewelry too, the best of the best, diamonds from South Africa, De Beers—and not blood diamonds, don’t worry about that—quality at a cheap price, and I can tell that you’re a young man of refinement and at the same time frugality. I respect that. If you are interested in gems, I’ll fetch some brochures from the car. Maybe something for that special someone?”

Social custom would have me confirm whether there was a special someone in my life, but I gave him nothing. Undeterred by my silence, he continued with his spiel, convinced that I could, or should, spruce up my studio with one of his worthless products. I’d even find something in his showroom, he assured me, that would improve my outlook, reduce clutter, and improve work conditions. What does he know about photography? About anything? What would I do with this garbage? Did I solicit his services? Does he even have an associate degree? All the while his family is waiting in the car: his corpulent wife, his chocolate-stained son, his bucktoothed eight-year-old daughter. Yes, I remember the details, but most of all I recall those eyes and that damned Adam’s apple.


Hi folks! A few days ago I fixed the comment option for this blog. I didn’t realize that someone would have to fill out identification papers and upload a resume just to make a brief comment on something I wrote! So please feel free to give me your two cents once and a while, but keep the F-bombs to a minimum—no more than three per paragraph, say.

As you’ve perhaps noticed, I’ve uploaded installments of a short story entitled “Family Portrait.” I thought it’d be nice to switch to some fiction for a while. For the record, the story is pure fiction, but my writing is based on research into forensics, the criminal mind, and Arkansas.

This Friday I’ll be leaving for a 9-day canoe trip to the Boundary Waters in Northern Minnesota, so blog entries will be few and far between for the rest of July. Just four guys canoeing in a wilderness area. I’m bringing my combat knife and baton; it might not be the Appalachian backwoods, but nobody’s going to make a Ned Beatty out of me. Also, I’ll be in South Carolina for military training from the end of August until late November. I’m hoping for some R&R time to explore the southeast part of the country. I’ll be driving from my current residence to South Carolina and plan to make a couple of sightseeing stops along the way. Alone on the road. Fun.

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.

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!”

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Blind Faith

One thing that makes my gorge rise, gets my goat, and drives me nuts all in one fell swoop is people who subscribe to a religious tradition but for the life of them can't articulate their reasons for doing so. Like a dog coming back to its vomit, I’d like to discuss religion again, but this time around I’m more interest in people’s views of religion than religion per se.  I often come across expressions of ignorance and apathy when I ask—and I rarely ask such a question outright—why someone is Catholic, Lutheran, Mormon, or what have you.  They don't seem to know and they don't seem to care.  Once in a while I get a look of embarrassment, however.

What are you looking for, Der Viator?  Someone to articulate the theological and liturgical characteristics of their faith and how they differ from others?  Yes, that's precisely what I want!  Why shouldn't I?  Listen, I don't expect everyone to know the reasons and basis for everything that they do.  I like to drink Coke but I couldn't give you all the ingredients if you asked me on the spot.  I teach the social sciences at a university but don't expect students outside these disciplines to know as much as perhaps they should.  Again, everyone can't be a polymath.  But religion?  Shouldn't you have a fairly rich and deep knowledge about what you believe and why you believe it when it comes to your eternal destiny?  And it's not like I'm asking someone to be fully abreast of the theological nomenclature and church history for crying out loud!  I just want an explanation that touches the essentials as to why you've embraced this particular faith.  That's all.  I won't try to argue with you.  Why is it so important that your kid go through bat mitvah or confirmation if you don't even understand the reasons why these rites of passage came about?  Ritual for ritual's sake isn't a good enough reason.  I want answers to life's riddle and as I get older, as time goes by, I have less and less toleration for these people's complacency, blind tradition, and intellectual laziness.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Family Portrait (2/12)

Another gust of wind whipped up, this time knocking over a couple of photo evidence markers I had set up—little yellow A-frame indicators with numbers. Seemingly capricious, marker number 4 next to the discarded wallet simply tipped over, while marker 7 next to a dried pool of blood slid across the gravel about five feet toward Dr. Halleck’s state vehicle. As I scrambled to reset them, I was surprised to hear Sheriff K continue his soliloquy, the disturbance providing little more than a semicolon to his reflections.

“These days I don’t dwell on these big-picture questions. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to become numb to the lying, cheating, robbing and killing that I see on a daily basis. No, if I did that, well, shit, I guess I’d go ahead and stick those damn nails into my head too!” He looked at Deputy Beaumont, Carl and me to see if his words registered on our faces. “No, of course not. You gotta rise above the madness…for your own sanity. If Darlene can face adversity the way she does every damn day with such grace and courage, heck. It’s about the little things in life.” The sheriff’s words only confirmed my view that his wife’s health was competing in his mind with the work at hand. “Darlene’s way of coping is digging around in her vegetable garden. Didn’t Socrates or one of those thinkers of old say that all we can really do is cultivate our garden?” Originally a philosophy major in college, I had the correct answer to his question, Voltaire, but I wasn’t about to offer it up.

Cognizant of becoming too ethereal (though he’d use a more straightforward word like reflective or even philosophical), Sheriff K abruptly switched gears. “You got that vehicle description in your report, Marcus?” A hulking oaf of a man in a sheriff department visor cap was making his way toward the sheriff.

Deputy Urquhart had been responsible for cordoning off the area and keeping the public at bay, but only a handful of people in this backwoods township were standing around, most of them in front of the Andy Griffith convenience store sipping sodas and gawking like idiots. Now the deputy was taking down information, likely to be rewritten later at the station. The sheriff was really just keeping him out of the way, with the understanding that he absorb as much insight from his elders as possible. Sheriff K clearly had an avuncular relationship with his young deputy, appropriately enough, considering Urquhart was his nephew!

Marcus was a big boy, the kind you’d see in a red and black flannel shirt, Corona bottle in hand, leaning up against his Chevy pickup and chewing the fat with buddies about the Razorbacks, an unlettered post-Sunday commentary contributing yet more noise pollution to the city’s suburbs. He lives in a home with a framed blue-eyed Jesus on the wall, a mama’s boy who like his father carouses and womanizes most days but will recite the Lord’s Prayer on Easter. They say an acorn never falls far from the oak tree.

“Yes sir.”


The sheepish look on Marcus’s face was priceless. “2006 Chevy Tahoe. Champagne color….”

“Whoa! Hold on, Cochise! What did you just say?” The deputy had a raccoon caught in the smokehouse kind of look, as my eighty-year-old neighbor used to say. He went through the description again, his lips moving but his mind wondering what he got wrong.

“I have, uh, 2006 Chevy…”

I had already figured out the source of Sheriff K’s irritation. He was a no-nonsense guy; he didn’t much care for fancy ways of saying something simple. For the record, I’m quite the opposite. If life is a painting, if it’s a snapshot of time in which one forges meaning, to fill the existential vacuum, or in layman’s terms, if it’s what we make of it, I want to have at my disposal the biggest palette possible, all the better to savor the nuances, enhance every observation, or enrich each experience. I already mentioned I’m a stickler for details; my ex-wife will testify to that.

“Christ, Marcus! Isn’t that a light brown SUV? What’s this champagne?” Sheriff K used a voice that, to his mind, I’m sure, best mimicked the way a French homosexual would say champagne. I’d never tell the sheriff that I drove a Peugeot sedan during my freshman year in college.

“You want to call it tan or beige? Then do so. But… You got me swearing, Marcus. Now don’t go telling your ma I took the Lord’s name in vain. She’s still getting on me for church attendance.”

Dr. Halleck and I caught each other’s eyes as if to say in jest, Yeah, he’s the county sheriff, believe it or not!

Sheriff K carefully stepped around the body and walked the five or six yards to the Tahoe. “How about that tow truck?”

“Jerry’s on his way,” said Deputy Urquhart.

“I should have known.”

“He’ll be here in twenty minutes. He said he’s exchanging trucks at the…”

Sheriff K cut the young deputy off. “Marcus, that’s good enough. I don’t need a blow-by-blow.”

Jerry Lekranović, a Serbian-American who for obvious reasons doesn’t go by his given name Jerko, at least not in print, operates his own Auto Repair and Towing service with over ten employees, and he won’t let you forget it. Nor does his exclusive working relationship with the sheriff department diminish his pride. Despite his accent, he fancies himself a good old boy, and is a regular at the courthouse poker night along with Sheriff K and Deputy Beaumont. He initially got his way into this exclusive club, I’m told, by offering to bring some imported Slivovitz that, he assured everyone, would make them forget about their Jim Beam.

He could have any one of his underlings bring the truck, but when it comes to homicide, he sniffs blood and wants to be at the scene. He likes to put on a tough front, and uses his height to intimidate, like LBJ used to do, I’ve recently read; but it doesn’t work on me, not that I’m around the guy often. Some think that his second wife left him because of his arrogance and the fact that he perennially reeks of deer urine. I’m not discounting these infelicitous personal attributes, but I happen to know that Karen, a petite, pretty forty-year-old administrator at the technical college who seems to choose the wrong men in her life, had her reasons. As you’ll soon enough discover, I’m more interested in her biography than Jerry’s.

“Beth, do you have an estimate on time of death?” Sheriff K was finished with Deputy Urquhart.

She had already performed a hasty, preliminary check on the victim to assess, roughly, how long the victim had been dead; but for good measure she felt around the body again. “He’s been here for 10 to 12 hours.”

“He’s been dead for 10 to 12 hours anyway,” responded Sheriff K.

Dr. Halleck instantly caught his meaning, a corrective to her assumption. I think the sheriff was already operating under the premise that the homicide originally occurred elsewhere and an individual or probably two killers brought their victim to this site for reasons unknown. “We’ll confirm this at the forensic lab by midnight,” she assured him.

Sheriff K turned to his senior deputy. “Nobody saw this vehicle or body for twelve damn hours?” Deputy Beaumont looked around him and gestured with his hand as if to say, Who would be walking around this hellhole? And the vehicle is partially concealed by a dumpster. The sheriff knew what he meant and let out a sigh of frustration.

“The tavern owner’s on his way,” reassured Deputy Beaumont. “He must have seen something.”

Just as the deputy spoke these words we could hear rotor blades of a helicopter slicing through the blustery afternoon, getting louder and louder. Channel 7’s Sky Eye Chopper finally came into view and swooped down from the twilight sky, hovering above the crime scene with a swirling light. Taking the Lord’s name in vain in response to Marcus proved to be mere warm-up, evidently, for I heard a series of more creative, colorful curse words under Sheriff K’s breath at the sight of the helicopter; I won’t bother to recount them, for the sake of Marcus’s pious mother.

Why he got so worked up like that when he knew the news crew was coming is beyond me. We all knew. The Mueller County Sheriff’s Department information officer had phoned Deputy Beaumont who in turn made the announcement. Sky Team 7’s doing an aerial report, so be forewarned. It’s possible that the sheriff missed the memo, since he was the last one on the scene. It was his day off and he had taken Darlene to a surgical oncologist for a consultation in Little Rock.

The aerial coverage had been arranged in part because Sheriff K has a reputation for giving on-the-scene reporters little access and much aggravation. Sometimes he can be cordial and accommodating, however; it just depends on the crime, the reporter, and of course his capricious mood. For this reason the press has tried to screw him over, portraying him as either a media ham who likes to trumpet his merits in the spotlight or a dangerous maverick whose big city ways don’t work here in the sticks. The latter charge is ludicrous when one considers his family roots, on his mother’s side, in this county.

Once the crime scene is circumscribed, he treats it like his own living room. In most cases you might get fined or arrested for crossing police tape without authorization. God help you if you cross his barrier; that’s a declaration of war. He has no open door policy with any reporter, not even the relatively new, attractive 40-something gal I’ve seen him and Deputy Beaumont eyeball.

When I watched the news on TV later that night, I could only make out Sheriff K from his grey cowboy hat. They played his brief statement to the press via telephone over the visual shots from the chopper. The first time I actually saw Sheriff K was on TV in a suit and tie; he appeared in one of those crime shows giving his perspective on a famous homicide case. Last week, at a press conference on new policies at the county prison, he looked weary and stilted, unsure of himself, stumbling over a few words, not at all the commanding presence on the TV show or at the crime scene presently described. Maybe his less-than-stellar performance in recent days accounts for the phone interview on the evening news.