Detective finds more than just a murder mystery
|Fifty miles west of Bloomington lies Hillsboro, a monument to middle-class malaise. Barely an off-ramp of the interstate, it was too far to be a bedroom community of anyplace. Not a place I would normally visit, but those were my orders.
“Go up there and talk to the chief of police. According to him, he’s got a stumper of a case and asked for our help.”
“Why me?” I knew why. As the new guy in I&I’s (Intelligence and Investigation Command) Field Support Section, it was my turn to make nice with the locals. But, I figured there was no harm in trying to get out of it.
“Because I said so. Now you can take your car or requisition one, but be there by six tonight. They close the office then.”
Driving across the state was not my idea of how to spend a summer day. It was hot, but the SUV I borrowed from the motor pool had an air conditioner and satellite radio, neither of which were in the second (or third) hand truck I bought when I got out of the service. Pulling up to a building labeled “Town Hall / Police Station” around 5:30, I was just in time to see a middle-aged man with a row of stars on his uniform collar locking up. Assuming that like many small-town police Hillsboro’s chief overinflated his rank, I figured this was the guy I needed to talk to.
“Yes, sir. What can I do for you?”
“I’m Investigator Thomas from the State Police. You asked for our assistance.”
“Oh, yeah. Didn’t think I’d see anyone this soon. Or at all, to be honest.”
“My boss believes that small town police are key to detecting trends early.” I remembered that line from an editorial my boss had written. Well, one of the other investigators with an English degree had written it, but it still sounded good.
“I read that, but I thought it was just bull hockey. Nice to see he meant it.” My boss would owe me for that.
“So, what can I do for you?” I didn’t want to get dragged into a discussion of the relationship between state and local police.
“Well, I’m about to go home for dinner and then I have a lodge meeting. So, why don’t we get you settled tonight and we can start fresh tomorrow?”
Great, this was going to be more than a trip up and back. I hoped that at least there was a good place to stay in town, but I doubted it. The Chief must have been reading my mind.
“We don’t have any big hotels, but the Campbells run a small bed and breakfast that’s nice. They’re good Christian folk. Bill passed a few years ago, so now it’s just Becky and her daughter, but they’ll make you feel real welcome. I’ll walk you over there.”
The Campbells had inherited one of the massive houses built at the end of the nineteenth century for one of the local business barons. Somewhere along the way, it had been turned into a bed and breakfast. The Campbells lived in the back while the upstairs rooms, formal parlor and dining room were turned over to guests. Mrs. Campbell was very welcoming (I was probably the first customer in a while) and rates were reasonable (not that I cared since the State was paying).
“Mary will show you to your room.” Her daughter was a good-looking, short haired brunette with an athletic build. Dressed in cutoff jeans and a T-shirt, she looked like most other college students home on break, but probably looked pretty good if she put her mind to it. Grabbing a set of keys on a large ring, Mary told me to follow her. My view as we went upstairs improved my evaluation of Mary.
Stopping at a large oak door, Mary opened it and walked in. “So, here’s your room. This is the room key and this is the key to the front door. We lock it at ten, so if you come in later than that, make sure you relock it. The bathroom is that door there. There’s a bath and a shower down the hall. You’re the only one here, so it’s all yours. There are towels in the bathroom. Just leave them in the bin when you’re done. Breakfast is laid out at 7 AM, but we could make it later if you want. It’s coffee, juice, toast, bagels and homemade muffins. Mom makes the muffins. If you let me know when you come down, I can make you some eggs.”
Handing me my key, she shifted from what was obviously a standard script. “You must be here for the body.”
“The Hendersons found a body in their field. No one knew who it was or how it got there. Chief must have called the State police for assistance.”
“And how did you figure all that out?”
“You’re a stranger. Your car has state fleet plates. You have a habit of checking your right hip which means you’re probably used to carrying a weapon there. When you opened your jacket, your belt had a wear point on the front left side where you would normally clip your badge, but you’ve been driving, so I guess you took it off so it wouldn’t dig into you. Best conclusion – your law enforcement.”
“Very good, Sherlock. How did you catch all that?”
“I’m studying to be a forensic pathologist. My Profs are always on us to observe. So, I’m guessing I’m correct. By the way, the body is over at Moore’s funeral home. They’re closed right now, so you probably won’t be able to see it ‘til tomorrow. Let me know if you need anything else.”
“Thanks.” Mary gave me a mock salute and left.
Once I was alone, I unpacked my computer to check e-mails (just office spam) and send my boss a quick report (“Arrived, Chief went to Lodge meeting. Will start investigation tomorrow.”). I spotted a place called the Chatterbox across the street and figured it would be my best bet for a meal. It was about what you expected for a small town. Food was good, but not gourmet, not that I cared. After eating MREs for months, anything that didn’t come in a brown plastic bag was a plus. After dinner, I headed back to the Campbell’s and settled in for the night.
The next morning, I went down to what would have once been the formal dining and was now set up for guests’ breakfasts. There was Mary putting out coffee, muffins (still hot) and fruit. Unlike last night, she was dressed in a tank top, running shorts and running shoes.
“Sorry, running a bit late. Do you want eggs or anything?”
“No, coffee and muffins are fine.”
Mary put the coffee pot on the table and gave me a copy of the local paper before sitting down herself.
“Mind if I join you?” This was a bit after the fact.
“No.” I figured telling her anything else won’t make a difference. I was hoping that burying myself in the paper would at least give me some peace. No such luck. She had an agenda.
“You have time. Office won’t be open until 8:30, and then it’ll just be Ruth, the secretary.” I met this with some silence. “Listen, you don’t mind if I trail along. There’s nothing going on here and it would be interesting to see how things work before they get to the lab.”
“Not my case. You’ll have to get the Chief to approve.”
“Trust me, it will be your case. The reason the state police were called was nobody here knows how to investigate anything more severe than vandalism.”
“Still have to follow protocol. His jurisdiction. I’m here to assist.”
“I’ll take that as a yes. Let me clean up the kitchen and take a shower. I’ll join you at 8:15.” Then she was up and gone.
There were probably worse things than having a cute assistant tagging along. Having quickly scanned the paper, I realized the dead body was the biggest news in a long time. I spent the time waiting for Mary jotting down some questions in my notebook. Given what Mary had said and the vibe I got from the Chief last night, I figured I had to start at the beginning. True to her word, Mary was back at exactly 8:15 dressed in jeans, T-shirt and hiking boots. I gathered my computer and field investigation pack and went over to the police station with Mary in tow. We were greeted by a middle-aged woman who was trying to hide her age with too much hair dye and too tight a skirt.
“You must be the man from the state police. Chief Roy called and said you were coming. He said I was to give you the file and let you use his office. He’s running a little late.” Turning to Mary. “Mary, can I help you?”
“No thanks, I’m trailing the detective for extra credit.”
I let that pass and sat down at the Chief’s desk, plugged my computer into an outlet and made sure I had a secure connection. Judging by the size of the monitor on the Chief’s desk, I doubt that it could do much more than check e-mail. Besides, I didn’t want to open access to our databases on a questionable line. A detective had done that last year and had to explain why a hacker was publishing sealed case files. It was not pleasant for him or anyone else. Mary got me a coffee and started texting while I reviewed the file.
“Fuck!” The ‘file’ was nothing more than some notes and papers stuffed in a folder. I realized that I had to start like it was a fresh case. Except that evidence was probably corrupted or missing.
“Excuse me? Most guys buy me dinner first.” Looking up, I caught a smirk on Mary’s face.
“Sorry. Tell me, what did the Chief do to get this job?”
“Get elected. Anyway, I texted Harry Moore, his dad runs the funeral home, and he said that Doc Michaels will be over there at nine to do the autopsy. Doc’s the coroner and a no-nonsense guy. You two will get along.”
I packed my gear and told the secretary where we were headed. I figured the Chief could catch up.
The funeral home was a brick Victorian style house with a ramp in the back to the basement. I was beginning to wonder if every business in town was in a converted house. Mary went straight to the back and down the ramp, so I followed. Going into the basement, we were greeted by the sight of a thin, grey-haired gentleman yelling at a large, slightly overweight young man.
“Damn it Harry, I know I didn’t drop you on your head when I delivered you. Now who opened up this body?”
“No one Doc. I swear. We picked it up two days ago and put it in the freezer until you got back.”
“Well, someone opened this stiff up.” Noticing our presence, the old gentleman turned toward us. “Mary, what are you doing here? Lab rats belong in the lab. And who are you?”
Mary jumped in before I could answer. “Doc, this is Inspector Carl Thomas from the State Police. He’s here to assist in the investigation.”
“You mean take-over. Good to have someone that knows what they are doing. Hi, Sorry to be a bit upset, but someone has already opened the body and Harry here has no idea who. We need to make a note in case it comes up in a trial.”
“What do you mean opened the body?” I looked at the body and saw a long scar that I looked like abdominal surgery had been performed at one point.
“I mean there was no report of this and now it’s there. It should have been noted. If it was post-mortem, it wouldn’t be healed over, so I have no idea about what’s going on. Maybe the autopsy will give us a clue.”
The Chief may have been an amateur, but the doctor knew what he was doing as a coroner. Mary and Harry started to prep the body, while I fingerprinted it and scanned the prints into the computer program that would run them against various databases to ID the victim. Meanwhile, the Doc laid out an autopsy kit and set up a video camera and voice recorder.
“Okay, this is Doctor Victor Michaels conducting the autopsy of a John Doe found at the Henderson farm, its location is in the written report. In attendance are …” Looking at me and snapping his fingers, he mouthed ‘name’ “Inspector Carl Thomas.” He continued “…of the State Police, Mary Campbell who will be assisting me and Harry Moore, who better stay out of the way. The victim is six feet, approximately 175 pounds and around 30 years of age. An external exam of the body shows no distinguishing features except what appears to be a recent longitudinal incision. It was not reported by ambulance services when the body was retrieved and does not appear to be the cause of death. I am going to do a Y incision and conduct an internal examination.”
Dr. Michaels leaned over to make the incision and then stopped. Putting down his scalpel, he picked up the paperwork and started flipping through it.
“Problem?” I’d attended a few autopsies and paperwork review usually occurred before it started.
“Just checking to see who declared him dead.”
“Why? Is something the matter?” I hated to think the victim was just unconscious.
“Don’t know.” Dr. Michaels must have suspected something because he checked for a heartbeat using his stethoscope and jammed a thermometer in the body to check liver temp. There was no reaction from the corpse until he pulled it out and was reading the thermometer. Then our victim blinked.
“What the . . .?” I’m not sure who actually said it, but I know we all thought it. The body blinked again, sat up and then looked around the room while we stared at it. He scooted off the table and walked over to a coat rack. Putting on a raincoat that was hanging there, he turned, bowed and then left through the door that Mary and I had used. The whole time, none of us moved or said anything. Later we debated whether we were too dumbfounded or we weren’t able to move. But like a debrief after a firefight, no one had a good recall of what happened.
A minute or two after the body walked out, the Chief came in to find us all still standing around. “Ruth told me you all were over here. So, what do you know?” We all looked at him. “Don’t tell me you’re done already. Where’s the body?”
“You almost ran into him. He just walked out of here.” Dr. Michaels was the only one with the presence of mind to say anything
“What? You mean someone picked him up?”
“No, he just walked out. He sat up, grabbed a coat and left. All on his own.” I was finally able to do more than stand there.
“But . . .” The Chief was as clueless as the rest of us.
“Here Chief, let me show you.” Doc Michaels started to replay what he had filmed.
We all watched the video to see if we had really seen a body just get up and walk away. There it was – the autopsy starting; Doc Michaels checking for life signs; his jabbing the corpse with the thermometer; the corpse opening his eyes a few minutes later, getting up, taking the coat and then leaving.
“How does that happen?” Chief Johnson asked the question for all of us.
“Damned if I know.” Doc Michaels answered. “This thermometer has him at room temperature. That makes him dead in my book.”
The Chief’s asked, “But, Doc how does he just up and walk out of here?”
“Chief, that is a problem for you and this young man to figure out. I just deal with bodies. I’m going to my office. Call me if it shows up.” With that, the doctor packed his stuff and left.
Finally, the sheriff spoke up. “Detective, what if we say there was no body? That is was a mistake? No body, no crime, nothing to investigate.”
“Then you have to explain why you asked for someone from State Investigations to come here and where I got those prints I sent for matching.”
The Chief shook his head. “Didn’t think of that.”
To which Mary guffawed. I stepped up before the Sheriff could say anything. “The only answer is to find the body. How many naked men wearing overcoats are there going to be?”
“Depends if Cousin Frank is back.” It was clear that Mary had a strange sense of humor and thought it was all very amusing.
“Mary Campbell, you mind yourself.” Chief Johnson was not happy after all he had the state police involved and didn’t have a body to show for it. “We might as well get started. And Harry, you say a thing about this to anyone and I’ll talk to your Dad about what happened to his hearse. Understood?”
“Yes, Sir. But what do I tell him if he asks where the body is?” The poor kid was obviously out of his depth, although he was probably used to the shallow end of the brain pool.
“Tell him it is a matter of interest to the State Investigations Service.” That should hold off questions for a while. And it was a matter of interest. Mostly, where was the body and how did it leave under its own power?
The Chief and I decided to split our efforts. People might ask questions if he wasn’t around, so he would stay in town to see if the body had stopped someplace or had been seen. Taking a chance that the body would go back to where it was found, I said I would start at the Henderson’s and backtrack. Mary jumped at the chance to stay involved so volunteered to show me where how to get to the farm where the body was found.
“Shotgun.” Hauling herself into the SUV, she made herself at home turning the Sat radio to classic country. “Slick sled. Nice to see our taxes at work.”
“Just tell me which way to drive.”
“Trust me, I will.” Looking over there was that smirk again. I couldn’t tell if there was some interest, or just some of the college girl flirting that I remembered from my short time at school before money and motivation ran out.
“So, why’d you became a cop?” The farm was on a county highway ‘where the paving ended’ so there wasn’t much need for directions.
“I was an MP so it was a natural fit when I got out. The state gave you credit for time and training so I could make inspector quicker.”
“Iraq or Afghanistan?”
“Germany, mostly, with one tour in Iraq. No war stories.” A lie, but didn’t want to go there. I had already run into a few war porn fans.
“Why forensic pathology?”
“I was good in science, and Mom and Dad were fans of crime shows. Crime labs looked like fun. So, wife? Girlfriend? Boyfriend?”
“None of the above. And preference is women.” Mary was proving to be as big a mystery as the missing body.
“Hurray for our side. Here we are. Pull up and I’ll open the gate.” Beyond the gate was another dirt road and I could see a cluster of buildings about half a mile away. After letting Mary back in, I headed toward them thinking I would find someone to talk to about the body.
Suddenly Mary screamed, “STOP!”
“What?” I jammed the breaks causing us to skid on the road and raise a dust cloud.
“Over there. There’s the guy.”
All I could see was dust. “You’re sure it’s not a scarecrow?”
“You don’t leave a scarecrow when you’ve pulled in the harvest. Besides, this one’s walking.”
With the dust settling, I could see a figure moving across the fields. Mary indicated a track that would lead us to where he was headed. We pulled in front of him and got out of the SUV. I had to grab Mary to keep her from running out to him.
“Get behind me.” For once she seemed to be willing to listen. Turning to the body, “uh, Sir. I need to talk to you.”
He turned and cocked his head. As I walked toward him, he brought his hands up pointing at us. I moved my hand to my gun, but stopped. Iraq had taught me not to assume bad intent.
“You are a warrior. You have many questions.”
Mary had come out from behind me. The stranger (since it was talking, calling it ‘the body’ didn’t work anymore) turned to her. “You are a scientist. You wish to mate with this one.”
Mary shrugged, gave a guilty smile and whispered to me, “We’ll talk about it over dinner.”
I started questioning the stranger. “Sir, could you answer some questions?”
“You are curious as to who I am and how I ‘came back from the dead’ as you believe me to have done.”
“That’s a good start.”
“I am what you would call a tourist. I visit planets like you would visit other countries. But, I do not kill the natives as you did.”
“What?” Mary grabbed my arm.
“I’ll explain.” Turning back to the stranger. “It was an accident.”
“You ended four very short timelines. Their existence is ended. But I am confused, you think it right and wrong. How can that be?”
“I thought they were suicide bombers, so I shot them. It turns out they were just kids trying to make curfew.” This was as much for Mary as for the stranger. “Now back to you. What do you mean tourist?”
“Tourist. One who travels for pleasure. You traveled to kill.”
“I was in the Army.”
“You are hostile. I would rather talk to the smaller one. She is just curious.”
“I’m …” I quit talking as the stranger approached Mary.
“You produce offspring.”
“I can, but I haven’t.” I wasn’t sure if the last was for the stranger or me.
“Is that why you want to mate with this one? Because you have to fulfill your purpose?”
For the first time since we had met, Mary seemed to be at a loss for words. She was also turning a very bright shade of red.
“Listen, there’s more to it than producing offspring. Women aren’t just baby machines.”
“Machines are mechanical. You are both biologicals.”
“Now you get it. We have many purposes for mating. It gives us pleasure as well.”
Turning back to me, the stranger continued, “That is why I visit here. You are very interesting. You and your people are still driven by your chemistry.”
“And what drives you?” Since the stranger didn’t appear to want to talk to me, Mary had taken charge of the interview.
“Curiosity. You are an interesting species. You often seek and do that which is forbidden. You kill knowing it is wrong. The small one wants to mate although her belief system says it is wicked. This makes you puzzles. I find that interesting.”
“So, we’re …” I wasn’t sure I wanted the answer.
“You are worthy of study. Most animals are simple. They are driven by their biological needs – food, sleep, mating. You have mixed motives. This should cause you problems. But you continue.”
Answering the stranger, I jumped it. “It does cause problems. It is what we call a conscious. It’s why we feel guilty.”
“Is guilty what you call the negative feelings you hold? You are intolerant of your own behavior. You question what you did.”
“Yes, and probably always will. They died, I killed them. At the time, I thought it was the right thing, but now I don’t know.”
“Will you always believe this?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know how I can ever forget.”
“That is what makes you so special, what you call guilt and regret. It changes you. You try and improve. This is unusual, I approve of this. Now, I must be going.”
“NO! I have tons of questions.” Mary had retreated behind me. “You need to come back with us.” We still had to answer his coming back from the dead.
The stranger took off the coat he had borrowed, grabbed the edges of the scar and started to pull it apart.
“Please, Sir, stop.”
Mary pulled on my sleeve. “I don’t think he’s paying attention.”
Mary was right. The body kept splitting like a Velcro’ d wetsuit. As it got wider, it revealed . . . nothing. The skinsuit was all there was. Eventually the rip went from his groin to his neck and then it collapsed. Mary and I looked at each other.
“What was, or is, that?” I asked.
“Don’t ask me, forensic classes don’t deal with empty skin suits.”
We walked over and squatted next to the skin. Mary grabbed a corn stalk left from the harvest, poked the skin and then picked it up with the stalk. It looked like someone’s dirty laundry. We walked back to my SUV and put it in one of the large garbage bags we use for evidence. After placing it in a cooler back there, we climbed back into the front and sat there. Finally, Mary broke the silence.
“I don’t know about you, but I could use dinner and showing you how to drive.”