The White Room—I

 by Helene Baron-Murdock

coast

Abalone divers found the body floating in the surf tangled up in bull kelp. The call landed on Detective Jim Donovan’s desk. He called down to the Weston County Sheriff’s dispatch and talked to the shift supervisor. “Do you have a deputy at scene? I can’t feature driving all the way out to the coast if it’s just a 10-55.”

“Let me check the log. . .appears like it came in as a 10-54 from one caller at Acropolis Cove. Someone else called it in as a 10-32. With all the divers out there, that sounded about right. Then the local volunteer fire and rescue got on scene and when they pulled the body out of the water they thought it might be a 10-71, but definitely a 10-55.”

“Ok, dead body, possible drowning, and a definite coroner’s case, but a shooting? Whose jurisdiction is that out there?”

“That’d be Mount Oly Volunteer Fire Department.”

“Baxter?”

“The same. He’s even saying that it might be a 187.”

“ Murder? Figures, he’s such a drama queen. Where’s the coast deputy? Is he on days off?”

“No, he’s handling a 415 domestic right now at the Sparta Creek Beach trailer park. It got pretty dicey for a bit. They’ve got the abuser in custody but he’ll be tied up for a while.”

“Alright, I’m on my way.”

“Look on the bright side, you’ve been freed from paper work in a stuffy office and you get to enjoy a nice pleasant drive out to Weston County’s gorgeous coast.”

Donovan grunted, not all that convinced. “I’ll 10-97 when I get there. Advise the coast deputy I’m on my way and have him meet up with me when he clears the domestic.”

Donovan headed south out of Santa Lena on the main four lane. He exited the freeway at Corinth Bay Road and drove west. He could tell by the mass of gray clouds on the horizon that the coast was fog bound, so much for enjoying the gorgeous scenery. It would take him forty minutes to reach the coast highway and another quarter of an hour to Acropolis Cove.

Traffic slowed as he approached Dardanelle, the little upscale arts community astride the Corinth road. The tiny burg with its one way streets tended to be a bottleneck but as he got closer to town he saw a fire and rescue unit and Highway Patrol directing cars around a demolished piebald  junker, windshield trashed, twisted like a candy wrapper. The meat wagon was just revving up to head for the hospital and let out an ear splitting howl as its siren screamed down the road back toward Santa Lena. A yellow tow truck was parked at the shoulder with a disgruntled but not too severely damaged tinted window black Suburban on the flatbed. Once clear of the wreck and west of Dardanelle he followed a caravan of cars all in a hurry to get to the coast and the fishing village of Corinth Bay, the coast highway, and points North and South.

Traffic thinned out the further north  he travelled as the highway got windier, steeper, and narrower, cornering around sheer cliffs and then whipping down gullies into hairpin turns and then back up again only to repeat the same course in the next few miles. By the time he reached Acropolis Cove with its distinctive escarpment of eroded columns resembling those of an ancient Greek temple, his arms were cramped  and his neck was stiff. The parking lot was crammed full of RVs and pickups with camper shells.

Donovan notified dispatch he was at scene and parked behind the red Fire & Rescue rig and the bright yellow ambulance. A stiff breeze hit him with a frigid seaborne slap as he exited the sedan and he regretted not bringing a heavier windbreaker. He could tell from Baxter’s expectant expression that he was not a happy camper. `

“You took your damn time!” Baxter accused. He was a short man with a ruff of curly gray hair escaping out from under his fire department ballcap. He had the dark and weathered complexion of a man who lived his life outdoors. Donovan seemed to remember that he was a cattleman or a sheep rancher when he wasn’t being the volunteer chief.

“Someone should have been out here sooner but apparently the coast deputy was delayed on a domestic.”

Baxter nodded in resignation that that was all he could expect in the way of apology for taking up his time. “Yeah, heard that on the radio this morning. Sparta Creek is a cesspool of surfers, druggies, and the homeless. The county needs to clean out that rats nest. It’s a blight on our coastal community.”

Donovan had heard the spiel before. “That our customer?” he asked looking down the embankment to the beach to where a blue tarp bulged over an elongated shape. The wide stretch of sand was dotted with men and women in their black wetsuits and snorkel gear, some emerging from the surf with mesh bags and pry bars. The oppressive overcast like a lead plug gripped everything in its gray light accompanied by the tang of cold ocean air and rotting seaweed. Panoramas of sheer red cliffs, driftwood littered dingy beige sand, spray dashed craggy monoliths, roiling surf, wave after choppy wave all the way out to the swelling shimmering steel gray horizon seemed somehow dreary and unsettling.

Baxter led the way and pulled back the tarp. Donovan made a mental picture of the prone figure before crouching down for a closer look, taking note of the clothing, complexion, hair, and any signs of injury or unusual markings such as tattoos: pale blue coveralls, one tattered sneakers, white, brown, and contusions around the forehead and jaw. He guessed male by the body type. Appeared to be wearing a harness of some sort, straps from the shoulder crossing the back to a belt cinched at the waist.

“Looks like one of them hang glider types. They like to jump the cliffs a little further up Sparta Creek ways,” Baxter offered. “They use that long stretch of Sparta Creek Beach to land.

“No helmet.”

“Yeah, saw that. Banged his head on the rocks a bit, I’d say.”

“The wounds look clean. Could have been washed in the surf.”

Donovan straightened and gazed out at the field of guano covered monoliths splashed in stolid indifference by breakers. A stiff icy breeze pushed against him and he resolved to get back in his sedan as soon as possible. “Where’d they find him?”

Baxter pointed to a pair of almost identical smaller crags closer to the shoreline at the foot of a precipice topped thick with conifers. “Wedged between those two, tangled in the kelp. The divers like that spot beyond the furthest twins where it drops off deep to an underwater cliff jammed packed with sea slugs. They call that spot the New York City of single-footed critters there’s so damn many!”

“You go out there and pull him in?”

Baxter looked at him like he was crazy. “We had the divers run a line out to the body and pulled it to shore.” Then, “What? They were already wet!” And as if to change the subject, he pointed at the left side of the body. “What d’you make of this?”

Donovan had noticed the ragged hole in the jumpsuit just above the waist and below the harness belt. It was surrounded by a large area of discoloration. “Could be blood. Or grease.”

“I think it’s a bullet wound.”

“You looked.”

Baxter didn’t deny it.

“You didn’t happen to find his wallet or identification while you were looking, did you?”

“Nope, not that I could see, and he’s completely nekkid under that jumpsuit.”

Donovan noticed two men descending the path to the beach with a gurney. “Coroner’s van is here, you can release the ambulance and your boys. Thanks for the help.” Then he saw a deputy peering  down from the edge of the parking lot. He recognized him as a kid name of Royce. “Did you get details on the guys who found the body?” he asked Baxter.

“Yeah, a couple of guys from the valley. They’re in their trailer. I told them you probably want to talk to them.”

campgroundDonovan headed back to the parking lot after he’d watched the coroner’s assistants turn the body over and load him onto the gurney. Facing up, the corpse did nothing more than confirm that he was a white male. Royce met him at the top of the path.

“Sorry about the delay, Donovan, but I had a live one. Some dirtbag using his woman for a punching bag. Again.”

Donovan nodded sympathetically. “All in a day’s work. I get paid the same sitting on my ass in the office or freezing my ass off in the fog. Baxter here has the info on the guys who found the body. They’re in a trailer here somewhere in this parking lot.” He pointed with his chin. “Probably those two guys in wet suits over there looking like they have more than a casual interest in what’s going on. Get the story from them and file the interview so I can add it to my report.”

“No foul play like I been hearing on the scanner?”

“Naw, straight up accident. Some people just have an overactive imagination. He’s got some contusions and probably other injuries related to getting banged against the rocks. We’ll let the ME sort that out.”

“Ok, I’ll get to it.” The deputy turned to Baxter whose face had gone a bright red and then as if he’d forgotten to ask something. “Any truth to the rumor that you’re thinking of retiring?” He said it with a boyish expectant grin.

Donovan made a wry face. His retiring would open up the ranks to promotion for certain ambitious young officers. He remembered when he was one of them. “Still in the thinking stage. Been there for the last couple of years. Could be a couple more years before it stops being a rumor.” He laughed at the transparence of the deputy’s disappointment.

“Retire? You gonna retire?” Baxter acted indignant to cover his irritation at the slight. “You don’t want to retire. Man, that’s the last thing you wanna do!”

Donovan and the deputy turned their attention to Baxter to hear his reasoning.

“I knew this guy, worked for Fish and Feathers, put in thirty years. Up and retired, dead in three months.”

“Now there’s a happy thought.”

He didn’t often dream of the dead although in his line of work he’d come across his fair share of corpses. Every once in a while he was awakened by a vivid dream of a dead body, the images lingering in his consciousness as he transitioned to a wakeful state. Sometimes he was in the uniform of his early days as a deputy, other times in his civvies as a detective, and often the corpse belonged to someone he knew or had known even if they were not currently deceased. And at times he had had conversations with them as if being dead was the only way they could get his attention. Always he had the feeling that he was being guided or escorted in these encounters by an accompanying shadow or shade.

“He had to assume the wound would have been fatal had the subject not drowned. That made him primary on a possible homicide. He hated to admit it, but Baxter was right.

The images were still with him as he drove into the office the morning after his trek to the coast. He was on a beach crowded by large crags on all sides anxious to avoid getting doused by the cold ocean spray. There was a covered body hovering at his feet, a long dark, barely discernable cigar shape. There was also a party in progress, drinking, and drunks raising a ruckus, getting soused, shouting it seemed, and singing. The beach transformed into the interior of a bar, and stretched out on the pool table surrounded by votive candles, the body of someone he knew, someone from long ago. He’d awakened with a start at that moment of recognition. They had been in the same class at the Academy, Lopes, Larry Lopes, aka “Lucky” Lopes.

Lucky had been hired as a patrolman for the better paying Santa Lena City PD upon graduation which was how he got the name “lucky.” They weren’t necessarily good friends but buddy enough to grab a beer or two on occasion. Donovan remembered him as wild, cowboy impulsive.

Lopes had responded to a domestic on the west side near the city limits. Protocol demanded that he stage and wait for backup. It had been a busy night for the PD and all their other units were tied up elsewhere, Dispatch had called for mutual aid from the County Sheriff. Donovan had been the closest County unit and was there in five minutes, but it was five minutes too late. The radio had crackled with alerts of shots fired, and then the dreaded triple 9, officer down. Later it came out that Lopes had advised dispatch he was going in alone, not that that had lifted the weight of residual guilt from his shoulders, and it revisited him from time to time.

Deputy Royce’s report was waiting for him when he signed in. It tallied with what Chief Baxter had said. Hector Royas and Charles Yu, both from the burbs south of the Capitol, had suited up and gone out for their first dive of the day, approximately 0900 hours. A large raft of bull kelp obstructed their passage to their dive spot. In moving it out of the way, they discovered the unidentified victim. Originally believed that it was another diver but on closer examination saw that the subject was not wearing diving gear. They hailed someone on the beach to call 911 and stayed with the body until Fire & Rescue arrived. They assisted the volunteers in bringing the body to the beach and awaited the arrival of law enforcement. Dispatch log shows the first report of possible 10-32 at approximately 0913.

The medical examiner had filed a preliminary report cc’d to him and the shift commander. He always marveled at the obfuscating bureaucratese they were couched in. You had to crack them like a walnut just to get at the meat.

The still unidentified decedent, white male, 5 foot 7 inches, 200 pounds, approximately 30 years of age, died in a manner consistent with drowning. Because he was in the water for an indeterminate amount of time, the TOD was between 12 to 36 hours prior to recovery. Contusions on the head and hands were post mortem. Entry and exit wound to lower right side of torso consistent with gunshot was not.

He had to assume the wound would have been fatal had the subject not drowned. That made him primary on a possible homicide. He hated to admit it, but Baxter was right, it was a 187.

Toxicology report indicated traces of amphetamine, cannabis, and a few other as yet unidentified residues, possibly psychotropic. The harness found on the deceased appeared to be nonmanufactured for its specific purpose. Identity via fingerprinting and facial metrics still pending.

Donovan knew he’d need another cup of coffee if he was going to continue to read the passive voice mind mush. He made his way to the breakroom and immediately realized that he had been elected to make a fresh pot. As he was banging around, tossing out the old grounds and looking for the filters, Nina Vaughn, the Violent Crimes Unit SOA and de facto den mother, looked in smiling and asked, “Anything I can help you with, short timer?”

Nina had one of those husky sassy voices that made you pay attention.

“What do you mean,  short timer?”

“You know exactly what I mean.”

“I’m just looking for some coffee filters.”

“Don’t change the subject.”

“What was the subject?”

“Don’t play dumb.”

He smiled at her. “I’m only as smart as my pay grade will allow.”

“That is definitely a short timer attitude.” She smiled back at him in a rather flirtatious den mother way. “Did you get the message that Chief Baxter called early this morning. I left the number on your desk. He said it was important.”

“If it’s from Baxter, it’s self-important. No I didn’t, but then you know the state of my desk.”

“Not only are you a short timer, but you’re short sighted as well. I put the pink sticky note right in the middle of your keyboard.”

“You should’ve put it on the mouse. I avoid the keyboard whenever I can. In fact, I hate the keyboard so much once I’m retired I’m never going to touch another keyboard again.”

“Aha! I was right!”

The phone answered after the second ring. “Mount Oly Volunteer Fire Department, Chief Neil Baxter speaking, how can I help you?”

“Baxter, Donovan, what do you have for me?”

“Hey, detective, yeah, thanks for calling back. I found something, or rather one of my boys found something yesterday when we were out on a call for a cliff rescue. Some damn tourists, like they always do, think they can climb down to the beach but never think about how they’re gonna get back up. And then the tide comes in. . . .”

“Cut to the chase.”

“Well, like I said, the boys were doing a cliff rescue and one of them found your victim’s wing.”

“Wing? I’m not getting what you’re talking about.”

“Well, going on the assumption that he was a hang glider, this would have been his gear.”

“You’re the only one going on that assumption. What makes you so sure it belongs to the deceased?”

“Remember that harness he was wearing? I’ve done a lot of hang glider rescues and I never seen one that looked like that. Theirs are more like cradles. And if I don’t miss my guess, that guy’s harness looked DIY.”

“Do-it-yourself?”

“Right, and this wing we found is definitely homemade. What you wanna have me do with it?”

mountoly sta

Mount Oly volunteers had brought the wing back to the station in Orcala, a coastal community of the retired well to-do with prized coastal vantage just off the main highway consisting of a post office convenience store gas pump, a hotel restaurant, a driftwood souvenir shop, and the volunteer fire station. Numerous dwellings dotted the steep hillside overlooking the Pacific like the nests of sunset worshipers.

“Not like any hang glider sail I’ve ever seen.” Baxter had propped the wing up against a wall in the engine bay. A collection of odd fabric squares resembling a quilt was stretched over most of a lattice made of interlaced bamboo lashed with fine wire. It had suffered some damage in the surf but was still remarkably sturdy for something that appeared so delicate. “And I think it had a twin. If you look at the design, it actually looks like a bird’s wing. And see this little do-hickey here, with the handle? I’ll bet if you pull on this mechanism it makes the wing flap at these hinges.”

“Can you show me where you found it?”

“I can take you there or I can show you on a topo in the office.”

“Whatever’s most convenient.”

Inside the small office with a desk, a radio squawking staticky incomprehensible chatter, and a jumbled assortment of firefighter turnouts and helmets, Baxter pointed to the wall map. “This here is our jurisdiction. We go as far south as Argo State Beach and as far north as the county line.” He placed his finger on a spot on the map. “This is Acropolis Cove where we found the body. And here, less than a mile up is where we found the wing.”

Donovan stared at the map. It meant a whole lot of nothing to him, and even though he had a general knowledge of the county’s topography he once again thanked his lucky stars that he’d never been assigned coast duty. Nothing said out in the middle of nowhere as much as this stretch of coast did.

“This up here is Sparta Creek Beach, right?”

“That’s right, and right there in that bow in the hillside is the Sparta Creek drainage and where the trailer park is nested.”

“So if I was a hang glider, where would I launch from?”

“This highpoint here at the south end of the beach.”

“Why not from up here? The elevation’s considerably higher.”

Baxter grinned. “Right there is an abandoned Girl Scout summer camp, Camp Wannaseeme, as the locals used to call it, cause the gals liked to go skinny-dipping in the dammed up feeder to Sparta Creek and weren’t particularly shy about it. That’s a hush-hush restricted zone of the Area 51 variety now.”

“You pulling my leg?”


In Part Two: Moonshine Maneuvers

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