Monday, December 23, 9:00am
The sheriff did not look up when Lt. Frio came into his office and sat in the padded chair facing his desk. Leaning back in his chair, he kept his eyes fixed vacantly on the documents before him. At length he turned to the lieutenant.
“So what’s gotten under your skin, boss?” she asked.
He shook his head. “I’m trying to decide, Rosaria. Did I leave this party and accidentally come back? Or did the party just not end?” When she did not respond, he continued. “When I first came to Rojo Duro County, I sort of resented it because I assumed nothing was going to happen here. Where I had been in the city, there was enough excitement—enough car chases and domestic violence and shoot outs for any crime-junkie cop like me to get my weekly fix. I came here to the suburban high desert and thought nothing interesting was ever going to go down. I figured I was going to be a very bored, over-qualified, well-armed school crossing guard.”
He sighed. “Then Riley died. A little girl stuffed in an old TV cabinet. That was tragic and a little bizarre. Then it became eerie as little by little we unpacked the dark secrets in all the private closets of this little subdivision to catch a killer. . . .Then Morris Sinclair got carved up. And this job became as absurd and, and—”
“Yeah, kinky. And looney.” He leaned forward, putting his elbows on his desk. “And we will never find all the pieces of that guy, even though every horror movie groupie and zombie want-to-be in California had descended on us to help with the search. And now, by god, we got another corpse.” Slowly he shook his head. “Why couldn’t we just have some gang warfare or drug cartels, like a nice normal county?”
“Well, gangs and drugs, those two are usually one and the same, Sheriff.” As always, her demeanor was business-like and professional. “You asked me to let you know when Sweetum was ready to start the autopsy.”
They stood and walked out of the sheriff’s office and down the hall toward the elevator to the courthouse basement and the morgue. There was the sound of a distant chime as Seth Bryan pushed the call button. Arms crossed, they stood waiting side by side.
“You don’t have to see this if you don’t want to, Rosaria.”
“It’s okay, boss. Comes with the territory. . . . Uh, I heard you knew this victim.”
He nodded. “Very well. As God is my witness, I just pray Sweetum can give us some reason to believe her death was accidental, so we don’t have to go looking for another murderer.”
“A woman whose only apparent wounds are skid marks is found dead under the plastic motorcycle wheels of an inflatable Santa. And you want that to be an accident?”
He glanced at her. “If Morris’ death taught us anything, it’s that dead bodies—or their parts—sometimes get moved around. The same was true with Riley. And her dad. . . . The dead sure move around a lot here in Rubicon.”
The elevator door slid open and they stepped in.
“Maybe some joker found her dead body and put it under the inflatable motorcycle as a sick gag.”
“Okay, that’s possible,” Frio replied. “In fact, that she was moved is obvious. But what do the skid marks tell us?”
He shrugged. “That this probably wasn’t a suicide?”
“Well actually it might have been. Suppose it’s Christmas and she’s got the holiday blues. She gets nicely dressed and goes out at midnight and leaps out in front of a car. The driver stops, gets out to look at her body, panics, pulls Nancy up into the yard. Then gets back in the car and drives away.”
He focused on the floor of the elevator as he considered her words. “Wouldn’t that be lovely? That’s way too simple and clear for Rubicon Ranch though.”
The door before them slid open. They walked through the winding corridor that led through the bowels of the courthouse. The hallway seemed supremely bright for an area ten feet beneath the earth where the sun’s light was never seen.
“There’s something you have to do, Lieutenant.”
“You have to investigate me. As a ‘person of interest.’“
“Really. Why is that?”
Bryan pulled open the outer door to the morgue and they stepped into the viewing area, the small room adjacent to the lab where families were brought to gaze through the thick glass and identify their next of kin.
Standing tall and austere in the center of the room, swathed in a rubberized suit and elbow length surgical gloves and waiting for his observers, was Dr. Sweetum. Before him, on a stainless steel table replete with tiny drain holes, lay a naked, pasty white body. The woman, eyes and mouth half open, somehow still bore an expression of amazement and disbelief. Red burn marks, resembling tire treads, lined up one bare shoulder to her cheek.
Sweetum raised his eyebrows, seeking assent from the sheriff to begin. And when Bryan nodded he instantly lifted a scalpel and made a long Y-shaped incision under the throat of the corpse. Inner body tissues, lined with yellow fat and red muscle appeared bloodlessly.
“Sweetum always reminds me a little of Christopher Lee.” The sheriff’s voice had a forced casualness to it.
“Christopher Lee. He played Dracula in a lot of old vampire movies in the 50’s and 60’s. Then he moved on to be the bad guy in a lot of newer movies.”
“Oh. Tall, dark-headed guy. Looked like he had fangs even with his mouth closed. I think I know who you’re talking about. Sweetum does kind of favor him. . . . So, boss, why should you be considered a person of interest?”
He nodded toward the table. “Do you see that round mole on the top of her breast? I bet every single time we made love, she told me to take it easy, that I was irritating that mole. And I—after I caught my breath—would ask her why she didn’t just have it removed.”
“. . . So you knew her really, really well.”
“Biblically well.” He sighed. “I expect there is only one thing a person could do to know Nancy better than I knew her—inside and out. And Sweetum is in the process of doing that.”
Frio turned to the sheriff. “Maybe you’re really the one who doesn’t need to be here watching this.”
“Like you said, this goes with the territory. It’s been over between us for—I don’t know—six months.”
“Why did you quit seeing each other?”
“Yes, you should ask me that question. And a lot of other’s like it. Only you should do it officially with another witness or with a video running. You know the routine.” He shrugged. “So I won’t say anything else to prejudice you. I’ll answer all your questions. Just let me know when.”
“Seth . . . should you recuse yourself from this entire case?”
“Maybe. Maybe not. The county commissioners or more likely the sheriffs’ association may get wind of the situation at some point and ask me to step back. But if we proceed quickly, we may apprehend the responsible person before the question gets asked by anyone—” He returned her gaze. “—but you.”
She smiled. “I’m not asking you not to participate in the investigation. I will, though, if the time comes that I need to. . . . You know, and I guess this is a sensitive topic too, I guess—you might consider taking some time off. Maybe taking your wife away for a couple weeks while we sort this out. That way she won’t have to hear any questions about your dead lover.”
He laughed. “Now wouldn’t that look suspicious? It’s not like Nic hasn’t dealt with extramarital crap before. And where would I take her that she would think is special and I could afford adjoining rooms? I need to ask Sweetum a question.”
Bryan opened the interior door and stepped into the lab. The coroner stopped, poised over the body with a small rotary saw in one hand. He looked like an artist who had been interrupted between strokes.
“Hey, doc. You have any initial guess about the cause of death?”
“Well I can tell you what it wasn’t.” He gestured toward the red tread marks. “Whatever ran over her did not kill her. There was no bleeding from that injury, meaning it occurred postmortem. When whoever ran over her body, she was already dead.” He gazed down at the table reflectively. “As to what did cause her death, there are no apparent clues. As I examine her internal organs, I should be able to make some rough guesses.”
“Thanks, doc. Let me and Lt. Frio know what you find.”
“I can have something preliminary for you within the hour if you want to wait.”
“Nope.” He reached behind him for the door. “That’s all of this I can enjoy.”