Friday, July 2, 2010

Family Portrait (1/12)

Part 1

Multiple ice pick punctures to the face,” the county sheriff observed. “Well now, that’s original….not.” The hapless deputy coroner, a clean-shaven man in his early thirties like me, let out a mirthless laugh upon hearing Sheriff Lyle Kasperbauer voice his thoughts. For reasons unclear, the coroner’s mild, obligatory gesture had rubbed the lawman the wrong way. “What the hell? You’re smiling to show how macho you are…that death, a horrific murder, doesn’t bother you. Is that it?”

Sheriff K, as friends and foes alike call him, turned to the chief medical examiner. “Beth, what kinds of assholes is the state sending me, huh?” The examiner returned a smirk, shrugged, and continued placing eyeballs in a plastic Ziploc bag. She learned to deal with Sheriff K’s penchant for turning indignation, if not pugnacity, on and off like a spigot. “Have some respect for the dead,” he added. The deputy coroner had the temerity to flip Sheriff K the bird once the old man turned his back. I busily snapped a few more pictures, though I already had sufficient documentary evidence: overlapping photos of the victim and crime scene. I wasn’t about to get caught in the sheriff’s crosshairs.

“We don’t have much time, people.” Dr. Elisabeth (Beth) Halleck, a “big-boned” middle-aged woman not unattractive in the face, prodded her forensic team. “It’s gonna be dark within the hour,” she cautioned, in a North Texas accent so thick that my mind punctuated her words with a y’all. The few times I’ve seen Dr. Halleck she was always fighting against the clock. Without her Sheriff K probably wouldn’t have solved half his investigations; he might be cerebral in his own way, but he’s still old school, shoot-from-the-hip, and I’m not just talking metaphorically. I knew she’d be personally involved in this case.

“Let’s get a fingerprint sweep of the vehicle and the body before the tow truck gets here. And I want all of this blood collected and sealed up. We’ll leave none of it. Take the topic soil with it if need be. Can we get a photo of me collecting the evidence?” I dutifully ambled over and she went about her work.

Yellowish elm tree leaves speckled the gravel pavement like amber droplets on an impressionist’s canvas. Between autumn breezes whisking them about and the beclouded, dusky sky casting a kaleidoscope of purplish tones, the scene of the investigation seemed to change before my lens. With the thought of approaching darkness I zipped up my jacket. This season always induces in me a heightened sentimentality that less introspective folk would perhaps deem pathetic and romanticized; yet for the few who ponder life deeply, even something as mundane as wind-driven twigs and leaves brushing up against a rotting corpse, the putative victim, evoke in me a melancholic appreciation for the human condition. The trick is capturing the moment in two-dimensional form. Trained in forensic science, I’m well aware of the different types of evidence and the best way to document them—much more than my amateur predecessor—but I’m still an artist above all.

“I have no use for a twit who’s more concerned about appearances than solving the case,” Sheriff K continued. He’s a man who liked to pick a fight, true, and this personality trait, along with the low crime rate in Mueller County and his relentless battle against corruption at the county courthouse, has resulted in his election every two years as sheriff for almost a decade. The state liked him so much they bought him a Ford Explorer. An elected official, can you believe it? But I surmised that something else was on his mind, making him especially testy, and the something else was his wife’s chemotherapy treatment.

“It’s…uh…what…Give me a word, Dennis.” Sheriff K, arms akimbo, was standing over the body, studying its position, or maybe the distance between it and the vehicle, or better yet perhaps some incongruities that only a man of his preternatural instinct could pick up on. If you believe in the transmigration of the soul, you’d likely conclude that Sheriff K was a bloodhound in a previous life. I couldn’t be sure what he was thinking, though I’m pretty good at reading people; anyway, I didn’t want to stare. It was challenging enough seeing him in those scrub shoe covers Dr. Halleck made him wear; I was at great pains to stifle a laugh.

“Insensitive?” replied Deputy Beaumont.

“No, that’s not quite it. You, Oxford boy, what’cha got?” Sheriff K had his grizzled face locked on me.

“Excuse me?” I hesitated only briefly and then offered my impromptu educational services. “Narcissistic?” The sheriff didn’t respond, but if he were to look it up, he’d probably agree that I nailed it.

That’s the third time the sheriff has slapped this nickname on me. Two years ago—September I think it was—I was taking some close-ups inside a liquor store on the south side of the city. Burglars broke in through the air vent in the ceiling, leaving behind a rickety wooden ladder with some of the rungs missing, a busted cash register (that didn’t have money to being with), an unopened safe upside down next to the entrance, a tire iron with plenty of finger and palm prints, and a huge pile of smashed bottles. You could smell whiskey and beer from the Texas border. Sheriff K’s jurisdiction falls outside the city limits, but he insisted on lending his expertise; besides, most of the cops love him and his wife because of their support for National Guardsmen overseas, not to mention his younger days as a cop himself. He noticed a pewter University of Mississippi commemorative pin dangling from my tripod, as it still does, and we struck up a brief conversation about my work. I recall him initially making some kind of joke about every wino in town either salivating or suffering torture from the sea of alcohol. “Probably both,” I replied. He advised me to take photos of the onlookers preferably without them being aware of it; from his experience and not just magical TV Land, he assured me, murderers revisit the crime scene. Next thing I knew he wanted Oxford boy to take photos of the storefront and the back alley.

I suppose I grudgingly admire Sheriff K, even if he is a bit rough around the edges, and knowing what I know about him. Despite his humble beginnings, he has a sharp intellect and is able to focus it on his work with a single-mindedness you wouldn’t expect from a man of his background. He had come a long way from the Ozarks, culturally speaking, if not geographically. He was not given to any artifice or affectation; however, I discerned with no small amount of disappointment Grecian hair formula under his Stetson. Rumor has it that his great-great-grandfather was a Confederate general. I’ve ransacked many Civil War history books, even visited a few museums and cemeteries, but never came up with a Kasperbauer of any prominence.

“You’ve seen this sort of thing before, Lyle?” asked Deputy Beaumont.

“You got an extra evidence bag there, Beth?” Sheriff K seemed oblivious to the question. He did things on his own terms, and usually those terms involved a slow, methodical pace; some (and not me) would chalk it up to arrogance. Dr. Halleck’s assistant handed the sheriff what he wanted.

“In a way… But it wasn’t an ice pick. Some wretched fool, full of self-hate, overcome with despair, takes nails—I kid you not—and jams them into his head, face and chest. Just jams them in.” He put the blue forensic bag in his jacket pocket.

“Suicide?” asked Deputy Beaumont.

“Found him slumped over his coffee table. The son of a bitch ruined my Sunday morning.” As if suddenly conscious of his disrespect for the dead with that comment, Sheriff K’s face turned sullen. “Yes,” he said wistfully to himself.

“He must have been on something, no?” Dennis Beaumont, the sheriff’s gaunt sidekick, knew the direction and rhythm of his boss’s thoughts. He played well the role of soundboard, of particular value when the sheriff was in his more laconic mode.

“Yes indeed.” Sheriff K walked a few yards in the direction of the wooded area at the end of the alley. The crime scene was literally on the edge of town, or township to be precise. “Yes indeed,” he repeated in a quieter tone that suggested his mind was preoccupied with the business at hand—finding clues, no doubt, and getting a mental picture of what had transpired hours earlier. “He must have been high as Thy Kingdom Come on crack cocaine. That was big back in the day. But still. That’s a heck of a thing to do to oneself.”

The sheriff furrowed his brow, fixated his eyes on the ground, turning from the dumpster where the body was found and back toward the other end of an old fuel depot. Within eyesight were the local waterhole, T.K. Tavern, and a convenience store, not one of those modern minimarkets but the kind you’d see in Mayberry RFD; otherwise, a row of ramshackle buildings, largely foreclosed property dating from the 1970s, haunted the alley and connecting street.

Sheriff K scratched his grey goatee. “Don’t feel sorry for him, though,” he said into his breast before squatting down at the dead man’s wallet a few feet away. He had already searched its contents, but Dr. Halleck wanted it left in place until her team completed the collection of forensic data and I took the photos.

“What’s that, sheriff?” said the medical assistant, a local yokel named Carl.

“I said I don’t feel sorry for him.”

“No, Lyle?” Deputy Beaumont didn’t miss a beat. Dennis has a noggin on his shoulders. And if I’m allowed a literary flourish, I’d say he plays Horatio to the sheriff’s Hamlet: level-headed and conventionally wise. Older than Sheriff K, he’s the only one who could call him by his first name. There’s inevitably a pecking order in these Podunk sheriff departments, at least this one, and it manifests itself usually in nicknames. You already know mine.

“I don’t care how bad things get. Nothing merits poking your head full of holes like that. I once met a man in Branson who survived Auschwitz, a Jewish fellow. You know Auschwitz, Dennis?” The deputy nodded. “He didn’t take nails to himself.”

“You’ve seen that sort of thing here in Mueller County, Lyle?”

“No. That was eons ago back in St. Louis. Saw a lot of nasty things on my beat. I won’t lie to you. And I won’t try to make it sound like it was nothing to me.” I took the latter comment as yet another parting shot at the deputy coroner, Caldwell his name, Randy Caldwell, who of course was no longer chuckling but kept his distance from the sheriff, seemingly chastised for his “indiscretion.”

“A lot of stories to tell.” Carl’s response to the sheriff’s recollections was equal parts statement and question.

“Stories I’d sooner forget, to tell the truth.” As he spoke, Sheriff K was scouring the area around him, perhaps looking for a surveillance camera or window through which someone could have witnessed the crime. “These stories often don’t have a beginning, middle, and end; they’re just episodes in the edgier parts of life, I guess. I’m a believer in the good Lord above. But the way people kill each other—the enraged husband in a fit of passion, or the boyfriend and his lover conspiring to kill her husband for the insurance money, or the gangbangers in their mindless blood vendettas, or the ex-Marine who went ballistic one day, or, well you get the point–the way folks butcher one another, you have your doubts some days. What’s all this for and who’s running the store?”