by Helene Baron-Murdock
A group of amateur mycologists in the pristine timberlands of R. K. Turas State Park found a freshly severed big toe at the base of a pine where amanita muscaria were growing. At first the blood red end was indistinguishable from the bright red of the mushroom’s cap. Then blood dripping from nearby ferns only added to their initial horror.
Donavan was a little late but he’d already heard the initial report. Now he was watching Derrick Voss, the new Captain of Detectives, go through the power point on the screen in semi darkened Conference Room Two. The entire squad was in attendance for the briefing, excepting Rick Nelson who had taken time off while his wife had their first child. The grizzly aspect of the murder had caught everyone’s attention.
Voss was pointing to the photos of numbered placards each designating a body part strewn across the forest floor. “They found the head” he said referencing another slide, “floating down the Acre River near Sharon’s Crossing on some kind of rude raft made of branches.” He paused to give Donovan a nod and then said, “Glad you could make it, Detective.”
Donovan hadn’t liked Voss when he first met him, an outside promotion hire from a department down south. And now he liked him even less. He spotted the subtle twist of Lieutenant Mike Jackson’s lips in a grimace, the dive of the lines of his forehead into a frown. The Loot was ten times the cop that Voss was and should have been the automatic choice for promotion after Krazy Ed Kryzinski retired. Because Jackson was a black man that wasn’t going to happen. Voss was the new breed of cop, white and ambitious, giving truth to that old saying, meet the new breed, same as the old breed. Or something like that. “HR took longer than expected, Cap, lots of paper work to read through and sign.”
“Try not to make a habit of it,” Voss admonished and turned back to the PowerPoint. “These three women are our primary persons of interest.”
Donovan glanced at the head shots, a trio of pretty hard to look at gals, and then at his squad mates seated around the table looking at him with expressions of questioning disbelief and surprise. Had he finally done it? Burdon gave him a subtle power fist and Townsend flashed a thumbs up. He had filed his retirement papers.
Back at his desk, Donovan cleared the file he’d been looking through, an old case that had caught his interest dating from back before he’d made detective. He’d been a Deputy then, patrolling the rural country around Hades Acre Lake in the northern part of Weston County, when he caught the report of the ten-fifty four over the unit’s radio. And he was one of the first officers on scene. He wasn’t going to forget the flayed condition of the body in this lifetime. Something about the current case was giving him pause. And his phone rang. It was Veronica, the Sheriff’s secretary.
“I hear that congratulations are in order.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to talk to Nelson. It’s his wife’s having the baby.”
“I’m going to miss your smart mouth.”
“That’s more like it.”
“The Sheriff would like to see you in his office.”
Donovan avoided elevators. You never knew who you were going to meet on an elevator and he always felt so exposed when the doors parted at the destination. He took the stairs four flights up to the top floor passing through the administration wing of Justice Hall where he was familiar with many of the employees, mostly women, and who greeted him with more congratulatory best wishes. He muttered his thanks and appreciations and waved back in greeting. Veronica was on the phone when he got to the Sheriff’s outer office but she smiled and mimed him to go right in.
He hadn’t been expecting champagne or even cake so he wasn’t disappointed, but he was surprised to see Voss seated in one of the two chairs in front of Phil’s large ornate frieze-like desk.
Phil greeted him without getting up from behind the desk but Donovan noticed the crutches leaning against the cabinet behind and figured that the gout must be acting up again.
“Have a seat, have a seat,” Phil insisted. “You know Captain Voss, of course. I was just telling Derrick that it was a tough break to be less than a week on the job and get hit with this horrendous crime, murder, repulsive dismemberment. It’s a tough job and it isn’t made any easier with the pressure from the DA’s office. And the media. To get a handle on this outrage in a hurry. And I assured him that he had a crack squad of experienced detectives already on the case, especially you, Jim, you’re one of the old timers, you know the lay of the land, and you’ve established impeccable sources.” Phil paused a breath. “Are you familiar with the three women who are being held as witnesses? Are we getting anywhere with them?”
Donovan shook his head. “I saw the mugs, runaways maybe. My guess, by the location, living rough on the Bare Ranch.” He referenced the notebook he’d slipped from his jacket pocket. “Melanie, Dora, and Laurel, no last names because last names are patriarchal, so I hear.” He recalled his reading of the booking photos, the insolent stare of the leader, the vacant stare of the next smartest, and the clueless stare of the last. Dumb, dumber, and, dumbest, the three ingredients for mayhem. “You won’t guess who they’ve been talking to.”
The sheriff winced like his gout was acting up. “May Naddy?”
Voss leaned toward the desk’s edge after glancing a scowl at Donovan. “I’ve got Jackson on the interview panel with a couple of the other senior men, Sheriff. Detectives Donovan and Nelson are chasing down identification on the victim. I’m sure they’ll piece it all together.”
Phil roared, “Piece it together! That’s a good one, Voss!” He thumped his desk and wheezed out another laugh. Donovan figured that maybe the gout medication was making the boss loopy, not his usual high and mighty aloofness, or maybe he’d self-prescribed a three martini lunch. And he watched Voss’s face go blank and then register a flicker of recognition as he realized what exactly the “good one” was.
“Nelson’s on family leave. His wife just had a baby.”
Voss glared at Donovan, obviously displeased at being corrected. “I thought I had ordered all critical staff back on duty. Why does Nelson think he’s excluded from that order?
The Sheriff nodded sagely. “His job was done nine months ago, why didn’t he take the time off then?”
Donovan ignored the remark, more annoying than inappropriate and confirming his hunch that the boss had had one too many olives with his martinis. “It doesn’t take two of us to get the ID on the vic. I can have the techs work up a composite sketch from the remains of the head and get the picture distributed through the usual channels by the end of the day.”
“I would expect no less, Detective, but you have missed the point. When I make an assignment of personnel to staff a vital function in an investigation, I expect them to report for duty no matter the circumstances.” Voss had turned to him, grim faced, and rose, “But you’re retiring soon, is that correct? I hope we can have this cleared up before then and you can retire on a high note.” Nodding to the Sheriff, he said “I have to get back for a meeting with the Medical Examiner. I hope you’ll consider my suggestions for streamlining the unit.”
After Voss had left, Phil Collins cleared his throat and raised his eyebrows. “So you went and did it. Finally going to pull the plug. I’m kinda of jealous. What are your plans for, you know, after?”
“I’m not going to be dead, Phil. Contrary to what people believe, there is life after retirement. I’ll finally have the time to work on fixing things around the house, remodel, dig up that slab covering most of my backyard. Travel, maybe, go east, Baltimore, look in on Marion.”
Phil wagged his chin leaning back in his chair, eyes narrowing. “Marion, that the colored gal you were dating, from the hospital?”
Any regrets about retiring from a job that had been his life for over 30 years evaporated in the heat of his slow boil. “Yeah, the ER nurse.”
Phil leaned forward. “We go back a ways, Jim. We were rookie deputies together. You were a module or two ahead of me in the Academy, I remember. We may have had our run-ins over time, but I knew I could always count on you doing the job. I think sometime that temper of yours can get in the way, cloud your judgement. I also think you picked a good time to go out. Voss is more of a manager than a cop, and I don’t doubt that you and he would bump heads over proper or improper procedure. If you get my drift.
“Anyway, just to say I’m going to hate to lose your years of experience and knowhow on a case.” The Sheriff paused to look down as if he were holding a hand of cards. “So I’m going to put this on the table for you to consider.” He looked up. “Retired annuitant.”
“Doing what? Paperwork?”
“Yeah, pretty much. Cold cases, sorting, filing, creating a data base.”
Donovan shook his head. “I don’t know anything about data bases. Besides I thought Krazy Ed was going to do that. Wasn’t that why he retired? It would give him time to solve the case of the century or last century, his obsession with the Lopes clan.”
Tim shook his head. “The problem with Krazy Ed is that he’s crazy. Or to put it more politely, demented.”
“That’s not more politely. You mean dementia?”
“Keep that under your hat, but it was a medical retirement.”
“I don’t know. It sound boring, a lot like my current job which if it weren’t for the occasional axe murder would be unbearable.”
Collins chuckled his acknowledgement of the dig from the dark side. “You don’t have to commit to anything just yet. I can get a grant from the State through the Justice Department for Data Enhancement, meaning put together a coherent archive of cold cases with links to a nationwide network. I need an experienced officer who knows how to read a file and I can hire an assistant to do the data entry. We’re a small county. We don’t have a big cold case backlog. You can do it in your spare time. What have you got to lose?”
Mary Fisher, the crime scene tech, wore her own version of scrubs, a cross between a nurse and a lab tech, utilitarian blue pants and jersey under a long white lab coat. She was pointing at the image on the screen. “I took photographs of the head from various angles and then fed them into this reconstruction program that puts it together in a 3D image. He was missing an ear, lower lip, part of the nose, the whole left side of his cheek, and the hair from that side of his head.”
“Vehicle accidents are worse. So I’ve heard.” Mary was plumpish, dark hair almost always in a braid pinned in a bun at the back of her head, quiet brown eyes, diffident in the way of her people, and with a quiet way of speaking. “So far, it’s just bits and pieces. Chunks, like someone or something torn up a loaf of bread and dipped in tomato sauce. We haven’t recovered the torso. Nor the hands. We can’t identifying him by fingerprints until we find his fingers.”
“You’re sure it’s a him.”
Mary colored a little, her lips clamped together. She was used to Donovan’s banter. “Unless he’s a bearded lady.” She indicated the composite on the screen and the obvious beard swathing the jaw of the otherwise wild haired gaunt visage depicting what could only generously be described as a vacant eyed mad man. “And one of the bits we found would confirm his gender.”
Donovan nodded and smiled. He’d had his fun. He’d known Mary since she was hired a dozen years ago when he was just finishing up his stint in narcotics and moving on to Violent Crimes, or Robbery Homicide, as it was known back then. And she’d been Mary King in those days, newly engaged to Jay Fisher. After he’d got to know her a little better, he’d inquired idly as to why she hadn’t hyphenated her name so she could be Mary King-Fisher. He thought he was being cute. Her answer had shut him up. “That is not his clan. He is an otter.”
“Were you part of the recovery team?”
She nodded, “Yeah, I photographed most of the physical evidence and then came back here to prep the lab. Why?”
“You familiar with the area?”
“It is a good place for mushrooms. Of all kinds. My uncle would load us up in his truck and we would range through the forest hillside. This was before the State made it a park. But then, better that than condos. He taught us little songs that we would sing when we picked the mushrooms. They included a description and a thank you to be sung when we lifted one out of the ground. We were only allowed to pick the edible ones. The older boys picked the stronger ones and sold them at the High School.”
One raised eyebrow answered the question. She handed him the printed sketch of the 3D model and said, “I hear you put in your paper. Sorry to see you go.”
He tugged at the sheet and she released the sketch. “I thought that was privileged information.”
“My cousin works in HR.”
Donovan stepped into Mike Jackson’s office with a handful of sketches to be distributed by the shift commander to the patrol units. He’d started a facial recognition search at his desk and was waiting for results. The Lieutenant had the same mug shots of the three women he’d seen earlier at the briefing up on his monitor. He shook his head and looked up at Donovan. “What would make them do such a thing? How could they do such a thing? They’re just women. Tear him to pieces like that.”
“They admit it? Maybe they had help.”
“Bloodied clothes would be the indication. And they’re not making much sense. Like they’re from another dimension or reality.”
“Think it could be ritual?”
“I don’t want to rule it out, but Voss isn’t interested in that angle. He wants straight out drug induced murder and mayhem. Reads better in the press, and besides ritual always leaves too much unanswered.” Jackson indicated the papers in Donovan’s hand. “Something you want to see me about, Jim?”
“I’ve got a facial recognition match in progress, thought you might want to take a look at the sketch that’s going out to the field.”
“Now there’s a face you don’t want to be staring back at you in the mirror.”
“Yeah, sociopath poster boy of the year.”
“How old you think he could be?”
“Anywhere from late forties to early sixties.”
“Right about our ages. I hope I look better than that when I go.”
“Yeah, he looks like he’s been rode hard and put away wet.”
Jackson laughed his appreciation. “Claymore?”
“Yeah, he was my sergeant years ago. I don’t know where he gets them.”
“I’d like to say, ‘last of the cowboys,’ but that isn’t so. There are newer and younger ones coming up every day.” He leaned forward, amused as Mike Jackson would ever get. “You had the rep of being something of a cowboy yourself, at least when you were in drug interdiction.”
“You have to be a cowboy if you’re going to play in that game, and you don’t have a choice. When it goes down, it goes down hard. Armed interdiction is high risk, you got to be like them but more so.”
“If that’s your logic, do you have to think like a murderer to work in homicide?”
“Most homicides are no brainers, husband, wife, ex, ex-lover, son, daughter, relative, neighbor, gang. You walk up on it, look around and you know right away which one of those Einsteins did it or knows who did it. You learn to read the scene, the people. If there are no witnesses, someone will know why, and maybe who. Unless they’re stone psychopaths, they have tells, twitches. Or come right out and confess before you ask the first question. Other times you have to negotiate. The paper work is the same, and it’s up to the DA to make the case with what I give him.”
“Well, things won’t be the same around here without you, Jim. Hell of a note to retire on, though. I hope we can wrap it up before you head out the door.”
“Unless it turns into a Krysinski case then it will never end.”
“Oh jeez, the Lopes. I’m glad I don’t have to listen to that horseshit anymore. He wasted a lot of manhours, his own, and some of the squad’s, on the Lopes Loop.”
“Collins offered me the annuitant job on cold cases. More paperwork, but I’d have an assistant to do the computer stuff.”
“That was Krysinski’s deal, wasn’t it.”
“Yeah, I don’t think I’ll take it. I don’t want to get tied down. There’s a waiting period before I can go back to drawing a county check. Hopefully I can find something that doesn’t have anything to do with asking questions of corpses.”
“I got another five before I even consider it. Be nice to go out with a promotion, but. . . .
“Yeah, I know. . .the new guy? I’m not sticking around to find out. And another thing that’s bugged me. When Krysinski retired, why didn’t Collins promote you to acting COD until the hiring freeze was lifted instead of taking it on himself? And then to promote from outside the department? What kind of message does that send?”
“You don’t have to ask. You know. And it’s the same old question. When I passed the detectives exam and placed in the first rank on the list I knew that I would never promote within the Santa Lena PD. The Chief told me right to my black face. I took the first offer that came along and that was with the Weston County Sheriff’s Office. I heard the word was out that I got the job because of the color of my skin. The Sheriff’s Office had been slammed by the grand jury for being noncompliant with County diversity guidelines. And they grabbed the first chocolate chip they could get their hands on. So maybe they were right. I did get the job because of the color of my skin. Not that it’s changed anything. And Santa Lena PD has yet to hire and retain a person of color in their sworn ranks.”
“Like you say.”
“I did my job, and I got good at it, and people that mattered said I had good leadership qualities. I think that my annual Fourth of July barbeques, where they got hammered and did stupid shit and knew that I knew they had, might have had something to do with it, too. Still when I got promoted to Lieutenant, the word going around was that I got the job because of the color of my skin. Now if I’d been made Captain of Detectives, the same thing would have been said.
“And since you weren’t.”
“Now therein lies the salt to rub in the wound, to paraphrase Willy. The irony is that you could say that I didn’t get the job, and I did interview for the position, you could say that it was because of the color of my skin.”
“Your pocket is buzzing.”
Donovan retrieved his black clad device and glanced at the screen. “Ok, got an ID on the vic. He’s got paper, and. . .that’s interesting.”
“He’s a poet.”
“Dead poet now, and as my old English Lit prof used say, the only good poet is a dead poet.”
Next Time: Picking Up The Pieces