Saturday, September 4, 2010

Family Portrait (11/12)

About ten minutes after midnight I slipped on my gloves, grabbed a balaclava from the backseat, and put my digital camera in my jacket pocket.  I walked about a block before jumping a wood fence and slipping on my mask.  I was careful to avoid the light and conceal myself in the shrubs and trees that line the hillside next to the condominium complex.  I had no choice but to hazard about a twenty-yard stretch to Melissa's back patio, namely a back alley that was exposed by street lights and lamp posts.  I ran faster than lightning and was fairly certain no one had seen me, in part because the parking stalls and garages prevent a direct view into this area from a window.

Melissa lives with a roommate, Carla, but she was on vacation with her family; they have two cats but no dog. I simply went to the back patio, popped out a glass panel, and unlocked the door.  I've been inside her place only once, but since I had no intention of killing her until yesterday I never bothered to look for opportunities or identify vulnerabilities.  You'll recall that I had a fantasy of dumping her body in the river after cutting her with almost surgical precision, but that's all it was—a fantasy.  The only useful bit of information I picked up in our inane conversations, apart from some advice on muscle relaxants, was that she had no home security system.

When I was thirteen I snuck into Cory Bellingham's house, found a pair of scissors from a kitchen drawer, and cut the heads off his sister’s hamsters. Later in the week at school I overheard Cory telling a friend that his parents believed he was the culprit despite his protestations of innocence. They were seeking psychological counseling for him and even pulled him out of school for a time. As I walked through Melissa’s apartment, trying hard to avoid a creaking sound from the hardwood hallway that led from the kitchen to the front door, I thought about those two hamsters.

Once I got to the base of the stairs I took off my shoes. I was momentarily startled by a pair of cat’s eyes shining bright yellow in the darkness at the top. A passing car cast its headlights for a second through the blinds of the front window and reflected back in the nocturnal creature.  It scampered off the second my foot touched the first step.

I won’t lie to you. I was nervous, uncharacteristically so, for I was about to commit my deed in an uncontrolled environment. Melissa had neighbors on the other side of the walls, so the margin for error was virtually nil.  Someone could spot my car or could have seen me walking down the sidewalk.  Most of all, I'm the boyfriend, the boyfriend who would be the last person to have seen her alive.  I'm certain that the more perceptive among you have picked up on my perfectionist tendencies.  Here I was, "winging it" with no forethought; somehow, for some reason, my need to strangle her resulted from Sheriff K's visit to my place the day before.  Call it an "unintended consequence," if you like.

She awoke as I approached the foot of her bed, but I slammed her in the head and face with a porcelain vase before she could utter a sound. I procured my weapon from a console table in the upstairs hallway.  I had one of the butcher knives strapped to my thigh, but I didn’t want blood. I strangled her with all my might; she wasn’t unconscious but sufficiently weakened by the blows to the head not to put up a fight.  I didn't have the time or presence of mind to enjoy her agony; I can relive it in my mind, but it's not the same as the real act.

I didn’t bother to make it look like a burglary gone wrong; I didn’t have the time or resources.  Even with my knowledge of crime I couldn't fool a detective.  Nobody falls for a staged crime scene.

In the morning I sat in my studio rehearsing over and over where I was and what I was doing the night before. I had no alibi, but I also had no record of violent behavior and at best they’d have only circumstantial evidence.  In the end this is not really the issue, is it? Sheriff K, not me, has blood on his hands for poor Melissa’s death. My interest in the intensification of the sheriff’s moral dilemma overcame concern about explaining my whereabouts and relationship with Melissa to the authorities. Any time now someone would discover the body. I’m sure her co-workers and mother have tried to reach her all day, and her roommate would be returning soon.

I received a call from the sheriff's office to document a fatal car collision on Highway 549 near Doddridge. A young man in his twenties, it appears, had driven his Ford Mustang head on into a family of five.  Deputy Marquardt was on the scene waving me over.  I took the photos and filed them at the department, but my mind was on Sheriff K.  I already knew that he was once again in Little Rock with Darlene, or so I was told.

As I pulled into my drive I spotted Sheriff K's Ford Explorer. He got out of the vehicle upon seeing me. He wasn’t wearing his trademark hat and uniform; rather, he sported a suit with a huge badge, his standard wardrobe for press conferences.  He looked volatile.  I acknowledge him with a nod as I parked the car in my drive.

“What can I do for you, sheriff?”  I wore a confident demeanor.  I couldn't help but think of the famed, mighty Sheriff of the county crawling to me like a supplicant.  Perhaps a more fitting analogy comes from the animal kingdom.  I'm the cat and he's the mouse.  Peterson and Melissa, I suppose, are the hamsters.

“Cut the small talk," he barked, cautiously approaching my vehicle. "Did you murder Chad Peterson?”

I didn’t answer immediately, for I was relishing this moment. His sternness caught me off guard, but I stood my ground. He is on the dock, not me.

“I think you already know the answer to your question, sheriff.”  As I got out of my car I grabbed my camera case from the passenger seat.

"You can leave that on the seat."

"Easy, sheriff.  It's not a weapon.  Just my camera...well, not a weapon in the conventional sense."  I left it on the seat.

“Who are you? What are you? A psychopath?  You have no prior record of arrest or violence in your background.  Why would you throw everything away like this?  Explain what you have in mind to me.”  Sheriff K glanced over his shoulder nervously, but except for Shannon the Pumpkin Head looking on from her perch on a stony wall a few yards away, we were alone.  His left temple was twitching so fast that I wondered if he was having a nervous background.

He adjusted his belt buckle in such a way to reveal he was wearing a shoulder holster underneath his suit jacket. I found the gesture odd, as a physical confrontation was probably the last thing I had on my mind. For what it’s worth, though I have youth and vigor on my side, I’m not so sure I could take the sheriff even if I wanted to. We have the same build and body type, but the old man used to be a combatives instructor when he was a policeman years ago and he’s still got a handgrip like a vise.

“Psychopath?  That's all you guys can ever come with.  You don't understand people like me and so you reach for the easy label.  Are you going to arrest me? You have a confession.”

Sheriff K hesitated to respond. “Yes. You can enlighten me about people like you at a latter time.”  He drew his weapon, a .40 caliber handgun, and held it in the low ready position.

“How is your wife doing these days?” Sheriff K probably came to terms with the prospect of his wife knowing about his affair, at least I should think that he did.  But I wanted to bring the matter up and confront him with his own transgressions, even if conventional morality would differentiate murder from infidelity in the hierarchy of sin.

“That’s not your concern. You think you're going to blackmail me?  Is that what you think?  You're sick."

"Yes and no, I suppose would be my answer.  Sheriff, I...."

"You think you can pull out those photos and I'm going to disregard a brutal crime?"

"You have it turned around.  I killed Peterson to bring about this moment, you might say."

"What are you saying?"

"Sheriff, in all due respect, I think there are some things you need to know before you arrest me."

"Such as?"

"For starters I need to show you something.  It's in my studio, however."  Sheriff K gave me a suspicious look.  "Photos," I explained, as if I needed to explain.

"Turn around."  Sheriff K proceeded to cuff me.  "Let's go."  With those words I wasn't sure if he was taking me back to the station or directing me to my front door.  He didn't disappoint me: it was the latter.

Once we got inside my studio I nodded my head toward him an envelope on my work desk.  He looked at me with fear and shock in his eyes.

"What is this?"

"Open it."  I waited for his question as he flipped through the photos.

"Who is this woman?  Did you kill her?"

"Her name is Melissa Stalter.  She works at the state crime lab in Little Rock.  She lives in Benton.  I strangled her last night, sheriff.  You should have arrested me yesterday but you didn't.  What do you make of that?"

The look on his face could tell you everything.  He had let a murderer go because he feared public disclosure of his extramarital affair, and now, as it turns out, the murderer has struck again.  Sheriff could have done the "right" thing; he no doubt regrets that he didn't.  But my assessment of his moral fiber is sound. And I haven't revealed everything yet!

"Why did you kill this woman...if in fact you did?"  Sheriff K's twitch was turning into a violent facial spasm.

"I'm a psychopath, remember?"

"You seem to like the label."

"Not true.  It's inaccurate.  I'm just not in the business of disabusing people of their complacent viewpoints.  Sheriff, if you answer some questions for me I might be inclined to destroy any evidence I have of your "infelicity" with Mrs. Lekranović.  Detectives will easily connect me to my less-than-perfect crime last night; there's nothing I can do about that.  Not my best work.  But I certainly won't spill the beans about...well, what you knew about Peterson's death."


"Suspected, if you like."

"You have a wild imagination and it will be useful when you're sitting in a cell for the rest of your life."  He turned me around with his hand to my upper back to escort me out the door.  "Why did you kill these people?  I don't understand.  Taking photos of your victims gives you some type of sexual pleasure, I take it."  Sheriff K's remark was rather combative, but I let it go.  "And what's your beef with me.  You're an obsessive sadist...."

"There we go again with the name-calling, sheriff.  You gotta get your story straight.  Am I a sadist or psychopath?  You know as well as I do that these terms refer to a different set of attributes."  The time had come for the sucker punch, that is to say, to confront him with the ugly truth of his youthful indiscretions.  "Perhaps I am a psychopathic, sadistic, murderous monster, huh?  If so, thanks for the genes, pops."

Sheriff K stopped in his tracks and grabbed my shoulder to turn me around.  "What the hell are you talking about?"