a short story by Jerry Zinn
Never seen anything like it in thirty-two years, thirty-three if you count the first one, which I don’t. When I arrived on the scene the yellow tape was up, the road closed off. Four patrols, Engine 22, and an ambulance. I don’t like being briefed. I want my mind fresh: no preconceptions.
Every case is unique. Don’t get me wrong, that older stuff helps. You just can’t use it as the answer key. That’s the easiest way to end up looking for roses in a bedpan.
I sniff around when I arrive on scene. Picked up a bit of burned rubber. Hardly more of that tinny dried blood smell than what comes from a paper cut.
“Detective O’Neill,” one of the young kids said, holding up the tape like I’m an invalid. He pours coffee for me and stuff. What he doesn’t know is that it wont do him any good. “Here’s what we kn—“
“Stop,” I said, trying to shut him up.
Normally I don’t like sir. But it kept a safe distance between he and I. I’ll have a beer with him some day, but not till he climbs in the sewer for evidence. Once a guy’s been covered in shit, I’ll hear what he has to say.
There was a little daylight left. I could size it up before the floods went on. Everything turns sanitary, and then red herrings pop up everywhere. The car that made the tire marks didn’t kill that man. That was indisputable. Stopped too short. That kid was gonna mention the marks, bet the house on hit and run. Looking at the vic it was obvious a car didn’t do it. He was a bag of bones. The skin was just there to make a neat pile. Just a little bit of blood out of the nose, and a pint trapped under the body.
Whoever was driving that car slammed on the brakes early. Probably texting or filling out a W-4, so they couldn’t be sure if they hit him or not. When people think they’ve done something horrible they run. Guilty, innocent, doesn’t matter. It wasn’t worth figuring out who almost ran him over. Incidentally the almost hit and run works in finance. They get the sport tires. Suckers for advertising and insecure about everything. Inverse relationship between horsepower and manpower.
Wasn’t an entry wound, and even though people erroneously think it’s pointless to check, this time there wasn’t an exit wound either. No stab marks, no bruises, no marks on the neck. I was tempted to say an orthopedic surgeon did it, cut him open and broke the bones, then sewed him up. Arthroscopically, cause there weren’t any slice marks.
So that was the question: how the hell’d all his bones break? Almost like he was just walking, and an anvil crushed him. Problem was, no anvil.
“Must not have been a milk drinker,” I said.
Without a twisted sense of humor, you’ll end up on the watch list real fast. Clean-cut, upstanding men and women? Hard for them to survive when they see the messed up crap.
“Hah…” the kid chuckled. Me being a “sir” and all he was thinking, “God, this guy’s a real prick.” Upstanding man. “What do you think, sir?”
I prefer to keep my thoughts private. At least until I’ve had a chance to think em. “Kid,” I said, “never whip up a cake till you’ve read the recipe.”
“O’Neill!” The Fire Chief’s voice is strong as he is. Saw him snap a bat over his knee once to make starters for a campfire. He’s a salty dog but a smart guy. Abrasive as a brick if you don’t know him. The kid didn’t know him. “What’d’ya think happened to that sorry sonuvabitch?”
“World still on fire?”
“Working on it.”
“Have they ID’d yet? I haven’t talk to anyone,” I asked.
The kid removed himself. At least he understood subtext.
“They got the license from his wallet. No idea why he looks like this though. I was thinking you should call Aunt Jemima in for questioning.”
The Chief’s not afraid to be cold. I don’t mind sharing ideas with him. He wouldn’t tell his shoes what I said.
“Course when I want coffee that kid’s scarce.”
“New guy?” Chief asked.
“He came with the uniform.”
Chief cleared his throat, a real hacking sound. Scares people away, so I like it. There’s something going on there, something about smoke and lungs. Chief’s the kind of guy you’d expect drinks a lot, but he’s a teetotaler. Not the righteous kind. He’d just rather drink Diet Coke.
“I’ve got an idea,” I started.
“What’s tippin’ you?”
“The best clues are the most overlooked. Look at the shoes.”
“What about em?”
“Little cold out to be wearing slip-ons, don’t you think? Other one’s way over there too, at that far end. I came in that way, walked right past it.” I pointed for his benefit.
“If he’d been hit…”
“Yeah, but you and I both know he wasn’t hit by a car. You’ve seen enough head-ons.”
“So, whadda you think? Murderer took the shoe off and beat the guy to death, then threw the thing?”
“If someone could cripple like this with shoes that soft, don’t you think they could throw better?”
“Look Chief, there’s not a mark on him. I never heard of rapid-onset osteoporosis either.”
“So, what about the shoe then?”
“They went through the pockets already. Let’s take a look at that bag. Our answer’s in there. Time of death? Ballpark?”
“Morrison put the range between two and four PM,” the Chief said.
“And the call came in at 4:30. I heard it on the radio. No way that body was lying on this street for two and a half hours before the call. Tighten that to between 4:00 and 4:30.”
“Detective O’Neill, thanks for coming out.”
I recognized the face, but the name was gone. I shook his hand all the same.
“I need to see the personal effects,” I said.
“Nothing useful. We were able to ID him. John Malkovic, age—“
He led us into the trailer. Some idiot parked it on an embankment, so the stairs were more of a ladder.
“Figures. How old?” I was curious, but it didn’t matter.
“Fifty-one. He’s from Chicago, works in Big Pharma. C-Suite.”
The part about Chicago was interesting. I was seeing someone there for a while. Once it got cold we were inside her apartment a lot. Isolation begets clarity. I could see the clear plastic bag, and what I was looking for was in it.
The guy kept at it, “Just one big mystery. How’s a guy get run over but stay in one piece? All the bones are shot, but not a bruise or anything from gettin hit. Just some blood. Impossible…”
“Uh-huh. I’d like to take a look at the personals now,” I said, hurrying him along.
“So?” asked the Chief.
I drew it out for suspense, examining each item as though it might hold the answer. A calfskin wallet, supple and scoff-free. Definitely a swindling drug dealer’s money keeper. There were keys to a BMW, reliable cars if you don’t mind paying for em. I mind. That and I can’t afford one. An extra button, kind that comes with a new suit, and an unreadable movie stub. Then there was the answer. I held the thing up and waved it at the Chief.
“Get it now?” I asked.
I’d already done the first-grade math; it checked.
“I see what you’re holding,” he answered, clueless.
“What’s the date today?”
“Yeah. And what’s this say?”
Now I felt like I was the first-grade teacher, and the Chief was that sir kid.
“And the time on here?”
“Probably an hour from Chicago that way… Tell me I don’t have to write it out. Please.”
“Wait a second. You’re not seriously saying he—“
“There were no marks, Chief. He wasn’t hit by a car. Nobody beat him. All his bones are toast. The timeline matches up. The Goddamn slip-on shoes! Christ!”
“Ho–ly hell… You’re a fricken genius.”
“Just a guy who knows when everybody’s looking down, the answer’s up.”