Sam goes to a crime scene.
Approximately 2500 words.
The Hounds of Hollenbeck
Saturday, October 6
Sam leaned against the wall of the Tool Box, Hollenbeck’s only gay bar, and tried to ignore the rockabilly music that thundered from the speakers hanging over the dance floor. Disco lights whirled across a dozen guys pirouetting with each other, while at least a hundred more jammed every corner of the bar. He longed for the quiet jazz place he’d frequented in Los Angeles and once again questioned the wisdom of moving here. Maybe he’d over-rated the chance to earn his masters in criminology at Browning College.
He sighed and scanned the crowd. It was the same tiresome mix of cowboy queens, muscle boys, and yuppie clones as every other night. That skinny blond huddled in the corner was the only one who appeared remotely interesting. With his spiky hair and serious blue eyes, he looked like he'd be more at home in a library or a science lab. He was cute, sure, but it was that air of intellectual innocence that made Sam want to get into his head.
He pushed away from the wall to make his move, but some Izod-wearing pseudo-preppy chose that instant to latch onto his target. Sam frowned as a tipsy muscle boy with no shirt jostled him, but he kept his gaze on those grave, crystalline eyes that had first caught his attention. A nervous grin flickered on the blond's face as the preppy clone chatted him up. Sam chewed on his lower lip. It looked like another lonely Saturday night after all. He returned to his perch against the wall.
When his cell phone buzzed, he was almost glad for the interruption. He recognized the dispatch number for the Hollenbeck Police Department. It wasn’t his shift, so why were they calling? He punched answer, held one hand over his right ear and the phone to his left ear. "Sondergard here."
"Sam, that you?" Chief Hartman’s voice crackled from the phone.
Of course it’s me, you idiot. "Yes, sir. What’s up?" He kept his voice respectful.
"What’s that racket? Where you at?"
Great. The last thing he needed was to out himself to that homophobe Hartman. They couldn’t fire him for being gay, but they could sure make his life miserable. "I’m at a party, sir. Let me step outside." Sam maneuvered through the gyrating male torsos and angled toward the entrance.
"Yeah, whatever. Look, patrol’s found a body out by the old lawn mower factory."
"A body, sir?" Sam's skin prickled. The music still thumped from the interior of the bar after the door slammed behind him, but he no longer needed to plug his right ear. He hitched his leather motorcycle jacket tighter against the chilly night air and headed toward his aging Honda.
"Yeah. Looks like it’s been there for a while. If you ask me, this is just some homeless faggot who offed himself with drugs. Just the kind of thing you used to work in LA. I want you on the case, Sondergard. The Mayor don't want no bad press."
Sam rolled his eyes. Saying homeless people "offed themselves" blamed them for their situation, as if they chose to be poor. Besides, he could care less what the city's publicity hound of a mayor wanted. Patience. Sam kept his voice steady. "Yes, sir. Where did you say this was, again?" He fished his keys out of his pocket and opened his car trunk.
"I told you, the old lawn mower factory. It's off of Jenkins Avenue, not far from the Eagles Cemetery."
"Sir, I've only been in town six months. Can you give me the address?" Sam pulled his weapon from the kit in the trunk, belted it on and hung his badge and ID on a strap around his neck. His backup pistol was already strapped to his ankle.
The Chief huffed, but then said, "2183 Geary Street. How soon can you be there?"
Sam settled into the driver's seat and punched the address into his GPS. "Sixteen minutes. Who's the officer at the scene?"
"Cliff Murdock. The Medical Examiner's on his way."
Murdock. He was young, but a good cop. Sam started his car. "I'm on my way, sir."
"Good. I'll expect a report first thing in the morning. Say nine AM. Wrap it up nice and clean, you hear me?"
Sam looked at his phone. The jerk had hung up without waiting for an answer. He was better than the mayor, but they were both hacks. Unprofessional. That masters degree had better be worth it. He couldn't get out of small town politics soon enough.
Away from the isolated night spots like the Tool Box, Hollenbeck turned into a ghost town by eleven o'clock most nights, even Saturdays. After Sam crossed the railroad tracks that marked the transition to the old industrial heart of the city, the only vehicle he passed was a rattle-trap of a van that spewed foul exhaust. It disappeared into a side street next to a boarded-up warehouse as Sam sped by. Twelve blocks to go.
A black-and-white police cruiser was parked in an alley at the address, the flash of its lightbar chasing red-hued shadows into the depths of the alley. Sam pulled up behind, blinked his lights and called dispatch. "Sondergard here. Can you tell Murdock I'm at the scene?" Best to check in rather than surprise him.
"Will do, Sam."
From the sound of her voice, it must be Karen running dispatch tonight. "Thanks. Anything else for me?"
"I've called for a wagon, but they were out for a fender bender. It'll be about thirty minutes before they get there. That okay?"
"Yeah. The ME's not here yet, either. That it?"
"Yeah. The asshole said he had to finish his hand at the club. It's poker night, you know."
"Just so he keeps his priorities straight. Thanks, Karen. I know you do what you can. Sondergard out."
He stepped out of his car as Murdock approached, carrying a clipboard. Sam spoke first. "Hey, Cliff. What do you have?"
Cliff's eyes locked onto Sam, and his fingers twitched although his voice was rock solid. "It's some kid, Sam. A boy, from the clothes, but it's hard to tell. The decomp is pretty advanced."
Sam frowned. Cliff wasn't a rookie, but DBs weren't exactly routine in Hollenbeck. He sounded steady enough, though. "It's been here long enough to decompose? In the middle of town? And no one reported it?"
Cliff shrugged. "Ain't like anybody comes here to work no more. This part of town's been pretty much abandoned since the Crash. I stopped because I thought I saw a light inside the building. Weren't nothing, but when I got out, I caught a whiff. Decomp's hard to miss, once you've smelled it."
"So, can you show me the scene?"
"Sure. Ain't much to see." Cliff led Sam deeper into the alley. "It smells pretty bad."
"Be patient and try to breathe normal, through your nose. It'll numb your olfactory glands in a few minutes, and then it won't be near so bad." Sam braced himself. Advanced decomp was always bad.
Uncollected trash piled high against the brick walls on each side of them, and the stench was unmistakable. A pathetic heap of bloated, decaying flesh and tattered clothing lay under the loading dock at the end of the alley. Cliff illuminated the scene with his flashlight, while Sam circled the body snapping pictures with his cell phone. Flies buzzed around the corpse, and beetles scuttled away from the light.
You move anything?" Sam asked.
Cliff shook his head. "No, sir. I know better."
"Good man." He knelt next to the body and examined jacket. "This looks like a letter jacket. Orange and Black. That tell you anything?"
"Them's the colors of OSU, over in Corvalis."
"I was thinking more of a local school." He turned his attention to the victim's legs. The blue jeans were torn and something had ripped them open at mid-thigh. He peered closer. It looked like there was bite missing out of the kid's leg muscle. What would do that?
Cliff shuffled his feet. "Halsted uses those colors, too." He named a small town about twenty miles away.
"Well then, if he doesn't have an ID, that might help identify him." Footfalls sounded from the street, and both men whirled to face the sound.
A heavy baritone called out, "Anybody there?"
"Detective Sergeant Sam Sondergard. Who are you?"
"Doctor Forrest Twilling. The ME." A tall, spare man with a halo of thinning white hair coalesced from the shadows, backlit by the strobe of the red lights on the cruiser. He clutched at his sport coat and pinched his features into a greeting. "Damned cold out here. Stinks to high heaven, too. The Chief seemed to think this wash...was...important enough to call me away from my poker game at the club."
Sam let him approach. Sure enough, he reeked of alcohol. This just kept getting better and better. "We've got a dead body, male, late teens or early twenties. From the state of decomp, it looks like he's been here a few weeks."
Twilling waved a hand under his nose. "Phew. They could have warned me about the stench." He held a handkerchief over his face. "Can't tell much. Probably some homeless kid who ODed on drugs."
Sam controlled his annoyance. "Maybe. Maybe not." He pointed to the leg injury. "What's that?"
Twilling scowled at him, but then peered at the body. "I'm not sure." He knelt, pulled out a ball-point pen from his jacket pocket, and probed. "It looks like an animal got to the body. Those are bite marks on the bone." He stood. "There are lots of stray dogs around here. The city really needs to do a better job with animal control."
Drunk or not, at least he looked at the body. The LAPD would have had a full CID team here, but Hollenbeck was too small and too broke for that. Sam really should call in the state police. He quirked his lips. Like that was going to happen. The chief would go ballistic over the bad publicity. He turned back to the Twilling. "I thought it might be an animal bite, too. Postmortem or perimortem?"
The physician shrugged. "Really, who knows with the shape the body's in? Microscopy might tell us something, but why bother?"
Sam snapped, "Because he's dead, and he deserves answers. Like any human being."
Twilling stood and glared at Sam, but the ambulance crew chose that moment to enter the alley. He scowled at Sam while the EMTs wheeled a stretcher toward the body. "If you need a release, Detective...Sondergard, is it?"
"Yes, sir." Yelling at the ME wasn't smart, not if he wanted to solve this case. "I'm sorry sir. I know your job is difficult, and you want to solve this as much as I do. I shouldn't have snapped at you."
Twilling waved a casual hand at him. "Forgiven. Forgotten. It'sh...it's late, and I'm sure you don't want to be here either. In any case, you have my official release of the body. Is there something I need to sign?"
Murdock flipped to a form on his clipboard and held it out for Twilling to sign.
"There you go. I can't tell anything more here. I'm returning to the club. You'll have your autopshy...autopsy...in due course." He stalked away.
Sam watched him until he vanished around the corner, and then turned to Cliff. "Good work to have the forms ready. Thank you."
The officer grinned like a puppy getting a treat. "Thanks, Sam. I try to be ready."
"Well, you handled it better than I did. Thank you." He turned to the EMTs. "Can you folks wait a minute? I want to examine the body and check for ID."
The lead tech shrugged. "Sure, officer." She tipped her head at the body. "We'll need a shovel to get this one in a body bag. It's bound to come apart."
Sam knelt next to the body and waved flies away from his face. The stink didn't seem as bad. The trick he'd learn from the assistant ME in LA was working: his olfactory glands were numb.
The Chief might be an idiot, but he had been right about one thing. Sam had seen far too many scenes this bad or worse when he was on the LAPD. They still got to him. His nose could turn numb, but never his heart. He turned to the medics. "You got some latex gloves you can spare?" He had them in his kit, but didn't feel like walking back to his car.
"Sure." She opened a pouch on the stretcher and handed Sam a packet.
He snapped them on and gently tilted the body to one side, trying to ignore the squishy sounds the remains made as they oozed to a new position. No ID in the jeans' pockets. Nothing in the letter jacket, either, but it did say Halsted Beavers on the back. That was something, at least. He looked again at the kid's head. "Hey." He paused to read the medic's name tag. "Susan, take a look at this, will you?." He point to a wound in the body's head. "What's that look like to you?"
She squatted next to him and extended her hand to Cliff. "Can I borrow your light?" She shined it onto the wound in the skull and poked a latex-clad finger two knuckles deep into the head. "Something or someone hit him pretty hard, Detective. Hard enough to crack his skull and kill him, if that was antemortem."
"Yeah, that's what I thought, too." The ME would probably be able to tell more on autopsy. "Okay, I'm finished. Go ahead and transport him."
He stood next to Cliff and peeled off the gloves. "We should work the scene, even though I doubt we find anything. He's been lying here for weeks. Still, maybe we'll turn something up, some clue as to what happened."
"Whatever you say, Detective." Cliff's voice trembled. His eyes bulged as the EMTs began to scoop the remains into a body bag. "Uh, I think I'm going--" He bolted to the front of the alley and the sounds of projectile vomiting filled the air.
Sue glanced up and chuckled. "Get's 'em every time."
Sam waited a moment before approaching Cliff. "Don't worry, man. It happens to everyone. You did good work tonight."
Cliff stood and wiped his mouth. "God. He was just a kid. And now--" He stopped for a round of dry heaves. When he was done, he turned stricken features toward Sam. "Detective, I'm sorry. That was unprofessional. How do you get used to things like that?"
"Cliff, if you get used to it, I wouldn't want you as a fellow police officer. You never get used to it. You learn to control your reactions some, but you never get used to it."
"What you think happened to him, Sam?"
"Hard to say. But I don't think he ODed. There's no works here--no needles, no syringes, no baggies. No evidence at all of drugs. And there's that hole in his skull. I think we've got ourselves a homicide."
"But he was just a kid. Who would kill a kid?"
"I don't know, but I'm going to find out." Sam wanted a cigarette, despite having quit over a year ago. "I'll tell you this, though. I'm afraid this might not be an isolated case."
Cliff's eyes widened. "What you mean? We haven't had anything like this in Hollenbeck ever, as far as I know."
"Right. But I've been reviewing open cases since I got here. Missing persons cases in particular. There's over a dozen of them in the last thirty-six months, including surrounding communities. They all involve young men in their late teens and early twenties."
"Runaways." Cliff's tone was dismissive.
"Some of them, maybe. That's what the case files say. But that's a lot of missing kids, and all with the same basic profile. They even look kind of alike. Thin, blond hair, same approximate age. At least five or six had been kicked out of their homes for being gay. It wouldn't be the first time a predator targeted vulnerable gay kids."
"Jeeze, you mean like that Dahmer guy? Right here in Hollenbeck? I can't believe it."
Sam chewed the side of his cheek and thought about the hole in the victim's thigh. Like the ME, he'd thought it was an animal bite, but maybe it was something else. Still, no reason to be an alarmist. "Probably not. Serial killers are pretty rare." Even so, they could be anywhere, including here. After all, he learned in class that the FBI estimated there were between twenty and fifty serial killers active in the US at any given time.
Sam slapped Cliff on the back. "Whatever happened, this kid deserves our best, right? The EMTs are done, so let's take this place apart. Maybe we'll find a clue." Serial killer or not, something wasn't right here. There were too many missing persons cases and they were too similar for pure coincidence.
Sam thought of the guys at the Tool Box earlier tonight. His victim could have been dancing and having fun at the bar a few short weeks ago. Shit, the next victim could be Sam, or that cute spiky-haired guy he'd watched from afar. He was the right type, that was for sure. The homophobic city administration, from the mayor to the chief, would hate it, but he wasn't going to let this drop. He couldn't.