Dead bodies have a way of changing everything.
Sergeant Joe Boyd drove his unmarked car down Chambers Road toward a possible homicide. He’d heard the officer on site reporting over the radio, his voice all jittery and pathetic. Sounded like he’d completely lost it, talking about throwing up and never seeing anything like it. Have a little dignity, Boyd thought. It was a Saturday morning. Figures it would be a Saturday, the one day in the week Boyd got to sleep in.
At this point in his career, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to deal with a murder or not. Two months ago, he had been a homicide detective in the relentless, suffocating pace of Zone Five, arguably the toughest precinct in the Pittsburgh PD. He had worked there since coming out of the academy sixteen years ago and didn’t relish the idea of leaving all that excitement to move down here to neighborly little Culpepper, Georgia.
But it was either that or his family. I’m out of here, Kate had said. It’s them or me. Take your pick.
Kate had fallen in love with the town their first drive through. Boyd had to agree, Culpepper seemed like a better place to raise a family, a town the bad guys hadn’t found yet. Since moving, he had been home for dinner more often than not. Started showing up at his son’s Little League games. That was a first. At least three or four nights a week, his daughter could count on daddy reading her a bedtime story. He even made it to church most Sundays.
And now this.
Boyd pulled up to the scene, a two-story apartment building painted a cheap shade of blue. Must have been four patrol cars already there, the better part of the force. Boyd had learned in Culpepper a drunk driver rated at least two or three. “What you got, Hank?” Boyd asked, getting out of the car. Hank Jensen was the one patrolman Boyd thought had a chance of making it in the big leagues.
“Check it out, Joe. It’s pretty strange.” He met Boyd at the sidewalk and walked with him toward a black iron gate leading to the entrance of the apartment in question. Another patrolman opened the gate and walked past without uttering a word, dread all over his face.
“Hey,” Boyd said. “Take care of that crowd over there. Keep everybody by the sidewalk.”
The corner apartment door was wide open. Another officer rolled yellow tape between the pillars in the corridor, marking the scene. Boyd walked past a concrete stairway and stepped into the corridor.
“So, who died?” He walked through the door. A small two-room efficiency. Nothing unusual in the living or kitchen area. A little messy. No body. That’s right, supposed to be in the bedroom.
“White male, twenty to twenty-five years of age,” Hank said. “Probably a student at the University. Lots of them in this dump. Don’t know his name yet. Haven’t found any ID. Medical Examiner’s on his way.”
At least Hank tried to impress him. “Who found him?” Boyd looked at the busted door lock. Someone hurt his foot on that one.
“I think it was a friend.”
“Where is he? Let’s talk to him.”
Hank hesitated. “We can’t, Joe.”
“What?” “He’s not here.”
“He’s gone? The friend’s gone?” The look on Hank’s face was Boyd’s answer. He knew this scene looked too smooth, too organized for these guys.
“I didn’t let him walk–”
“Then who did?”
A troubled-looking officer sat on the edge of the couch. He lifted his head and looked at Boyd. “He did,” Hank said quietly. “That’s John Dobbs. He’s a rookie, Joe. He wasn’t thinking.”
So Dobbs was the guy he’d heard on the radio. Boyd had barely said two words to Dobbs before. A great way to get acquainted. He tried to calm down, remember his people skills. It was probably Dobbs’ first homicide, he told himself. So what if he let a principal witness, maybe even the murderer go free. But it was okay. We can fix this. “You get his name, the name of the witness?” Boyd asked Dobbs, feigning politeness. “Maybe his address?”
“Well, no…not exactly,” Dobbs said, rising to his feet. He didn’t get his name. Did you lend him your squad car, maybe a little spending cash?
“But I know he’s a student at the university,” Dobbs continued. “I’m sure I could pick him out if I looked at the school’s computer. I’m sorry, Sergeant. I know I blew it here. I’ve just never seen anything like this before.” Dobbs rubbed the sweat from his forehead. He was tall and husky. Looked down at Boyd like a football player with his coach.
“It’s all right,” Boyd said. “Just tell me what happened.”
“I got the call about an hour ago,” Dobbs said. “When I got here there was this guy standing out by the sidewalk waving me down. He was pretty upset. He got sick, right as I pulled in. Said he was the guy that called us. That his friend was inside, dead, stiff and dead. I got outta my car, and we came in here. He was the one that kicked in the door, did it before I got here. I asked him what happened, then I walked into the bedroom and saw his friend. Then I got sick.” Dobbs looked like he might throw up again just thinking about it.
Boyd listened, scribbled down a few notes. “What did this mystery friend say happened here? The exact words.”
Dobbs seemed to shake off the wave of nausea. “He said they both attend Culpepper, history majors or something. He said he knocked and knocked, but there was no answer. Thought something might be wrong because they had talked a couple a nights ago about hiking somewhere this morning, and he was there to pick his friend up. He walked around the back and looked through the blinds to see if he was asleep or had his earplugs in. Then he sees him lying there. He banged on the window a couple of times, but the guy doesn’t move. Then he knew something was wrong. He runs back around the front and starts kicking on the door and calling out his name. The door finally broke, and he went in. And there he was. Dead and his face…”
“Did you ask him if he touched anything? Did he touch the body? Move anything?”
“I didn’t ask, but I’m sure he didn’t. Soon as he knew his friend was dead, he said he ran out and got sick. Then he called us.”
“When did you lose him?” Dobbs looked down at the floor around his feet, as though the answer was down there somewhere.
“I don’t know, sir. He must have slipped out when some of the other guys showed up. I was explaining things to them, and we were setting things up for prints. I should have told him to stay put. But I really don’t think he had anything to do with this.”
“Sounds like he didn’t,” Boyd said, “but why would he take off like that?”
“I think I know why.” Dobbs looked toward the bedroom door.
“Well, look Dobbs…I still wanna talk to this guy. Go over to the school. I don’t know if they’re open on Saturday. Try the registration building. See if someone’ll let you take a look at their student files. Find out who this mystery friend is and let me know right away.”
“Yes sir.” Dobbs hurried out the door.
Guess it’s a full time job being so ignorant. “Let’s see what we got here,” Boyd said to no one in particular. He felt a pressure building in his gut. The situation was playing ping-pong with his Mini-Wheats. He rearranged his waistband, tried to make some room. It didn’t work. He walked past another officer on his knees, dusting the bedroom doorknob for fingerprints. Hank Jensen followed behind.
Boyd stood inside the doorway and took a slow pan of the room. By the way the others acted, he expected some Charles Manson scene of blood and gore, dismembered body parts, satanic slogans on the walls. Something. But there was no blood, no trashed room, no signs of violence or foul play. Just some cheap wall posters of jet planes and girls in bikinis. Some clothes hanging out of an open dresser drawer. A pair of high-top sneakers parked neatly beside the bathroom door. A pair of trousers in a pile beside the dresser. A dead body lying in a bed, looking very much like a sleeping college kid.
“Anyone take any pictures of the scene?” he asked Hank.
“I did, before you got here.”
“Good.” Boyd looked at another officer kneeling by the bedroom door, dusting for prints. “Get anything?”
“Yeah, plenty,” the officer said without looking up. “My guess is…they’re all gonna be our victim’s.”
“Why you say that?”
“That’s just it, Joe,” Hank piped in. “Look around. Except for the front door, there’s no way in or out of this place. All the windows have been locked from the inside. I’m not sure we even got a homicide here.”
Homicide or not, they definitely had a dead body in that bed. There was no mistaking that familiar smell. Boyd had never understood why people described it as sickening-sweet. Nothing sweet about it. He guessed by its intensity the boy probably died late last night, or in the early evening. He walked to the bed and looked down at the body, then at the kid’s face.
Yeah, that’s weird.