A TASTE OF BLOOD.
“I'm not afraid of death; I just don't want to be there when it happens.”
― Woody Allen.
“Confusion now hath made his masterpiece.”
― William Shakespeare, Macbeth.
She remembered that it was very cold and very wet on that day; the rain beating a resounding tattoo against the fragile glass windows of her house. She knew that she would have been far more afraid of the downpour than she was, if circumstance had been different. The brass knocker on the front door was sturdy and beautifully wrought, it was also substantial enough to drown out the sound of the weather with its ominous clang.
From her corner of the hall, quiet, secret, and still, she saw him. Big and burly he was, clad head to toe in black, with shiny brass buttons singularly out of place along the front of his jacket. His face, although pasty white, was highlighted by two rosy cherub-like globes on his cheeks. He had a booming voice, and of all the unbelievably nasty things that were that week, he was the worst.
She watched as he circled Cook Janie, she saw Janie stare transfixed at the toes of her shoes as he questioned her. She knew, by instinct alone, that Janie would tell the truth, to the best of her ability anyway...
Questions echoed around the great rooms, and the constable seemed to swell with each new one, as if the facts, as abhorrent as they were, were somehow of his own making, without ever being his fault. His measure took the weight of it and multiplied it into a case for his own self-importance. It made much of him, and little of her. You would think people would be kind when they came to announce a death to a child, he treated her as if she were the culprit.
Thoughts of that dreadful day were a cloud across her mind, a mind that was swiftly drifting away from the world in a rank anonymous motel room splattered wall-to-wall, in blood.*
The cliché, ‘hair like spun gold’, was simply the best way to describe the shiny coil of blonde nestled between her shoulder and her neck. Sunlight peeking through the shutters glinted on the strands, reflecting sharp metallic shards back at me.
Perhaps it was the sheer beauty, so unsettling, so out of place. Perhaps the cliché, which had popped into my mind unbidden, so apt in its provocative truth. Whatever it was, the scene stabbed a chill into my veins.
I have dealt with death so very often in my life, most of it violent, most of it ugly that familiarity has made me immune. This blood-soaked corpse with its perfectly preserved vibrant young locks cleaved cleanly through my toughened hide.
The motel, known to cater to the call girl industry, was comprised of a series of independent rondavels, with perfunctory patios separated from the en suite bedrooms by aluminum framed glass sliders. They overlooked an almost bald path of grass behind each room ahead. There were about a hundred individual structures making up the whole, each with an attached carport, which made them private--which I guessed was the point. There was a central reception-cum-entertainment area, with the usual selection of restaurants, bars and sports facilities offered by motels in the price range. The room, itself, was expensive but shamefully dirty. Laminated mahogany surfaces littered with the dregs of last night’s party--empty wine bottles, beer cans and cigarette packs--looked forlorn and sad. Lots of strewn, rumpled cellophane, which sparkled incongruously in the reflected light like garish tinsel advertising a good time. Despite their price tag, the rooms were dark, cramped and unimaginatively decorated. Not a space anyone would willingly choose to spend their last moments in.
The girl was probably in her late twenties, but the vulnerable angle of her neck above her naked form made her seem younger. She had been securely fastened using, of all things, white cable-ties. A dark red gash at the base of her throat, partly hidden by the fall of her hair, looked to be the cause of death, but then again--although in the face of murder it is impossible not to speculate--I have learned never to judge the ingenuity of killers, nor the workings of their twisted minds. On my mental checklist, I added a tick next to getting someone to interview the service staff. Experience had taught me that hospitality employees were usually reticent to a fault, but one simply never knew, persistence might have a payoff.
"Try not to contaminate this set-up, guys, I would hate the perp to walk on a technicality." I was talking to the room in general, nevertheless, I knew I had been heard.
A tap on my shoulder gave me an excuse to tear my eyes away from the girl and give my attention to Andy, one of my ‘fiber and spec’ guys. “Weird one, Frank, guy’s all but given us his address. This place is like a forensic gold mine;” he held out a woman’s handbag for me to get a look at what he meant, “see... girl's ID, driver's license everything... Hanging outta here. Why would he leave this behind, do you think?” I nodded my head at him, then gave the place a more studied look. Andy was right there were even clear footprints outlined on the blood-streaked carpet.
“Fingerprints too, Frank. He made no attempt to clean up really sloppy, or just plain crazy.” Andy was muttering more to himself now than to me, shrugging his shoulders, after dropping the bag into an evidence pouch. The oddness of the scene should have piqued my sense of judgment immediately, but I didn’t have my customary distance to use as a mood detector that day, the room was way too structured.... Even calculated, but I didn't visualize purpose in it.
Andy and his team quickly dispensed with final mop-up. Remarkable, I thought, how they always managed to wipe out every trace of most crimes in a few hours. They had scrubbed and scraped. The room looked spotless, but try as I might I was unable to eliminate the broken image of the girl, or the thickness of the congealing blood that had filled the space only a heart-beat ago.
"We're off to Nick's after," Andy threw a friendly arm over my shoulder, "why don't you tag along?" I could no longer disengage myself from the scene unnoticed.
"Thanks, sounds good." Rather than going home to my empty apartment I had been lassoed into a boys’ after party, never the right gift for any participant’s liver.
Out on the highway I rolled down my Jetta's window to get a current of fresh air into my nostrils. Death has a stink to it. A stink that tends to cling to anyone who has been close. It mingles into your hair, puts an invisible stain on your clothes. Clean air helps, it's not capable of dispensing with the reek entirely, but at least it makes you feel better.
I checked my rear-view mirror before switching lanes. A heaviness behind my gray-blue eyes - already sweeping into dark circles of fatigue under them - alerted me to the fact that this girl, so defenseless in her nudity, her senseless vicious death, had already begun to reel me in. The answer was always amongst the labyrinth of objects at the scene, it's a truth, a fact of crime. A killer never leaves the root of the deed without polluting it with something personal. The frustrating thing is that it's almost impossible, without hindsight, to identify that something. When the body had been finally removed, a scrap of note paper, with what looked like scientific jargon had been fished out from under it. The script was barely distinguishable, having been in a position of much friction with the writhing skin above it, but I had my hopes.
Nick's establishment was located across the road from our offices; a drinking hole, would probably suit as a description to anyone coming across it without having experience of Nick's special brand of personal attention, and great food (a surprise in any bar). The brick entrance-way, next to its grassy parkade, smelt like home. "How's the wife and 'wickeds'?" Nick, the bartender, asked once I was seated in front of him. He prided himself on knowing tidbits about all of his regulars, and since our department tended to spend more time in his establishment than in our own offices, it wasn't surprising that he knew a little about most of us, as well as any interesting gossip attached.
"All good." I loved my kids, or 'wickeds' as Nick liked to call them. I had been separated from my wife, Marissa, for a few years, but we hadn't actually managed to get divorced yet. My life, or rather the department's demands, interfered with normal existence. Marissa hated living under siege, as she called it, during my investigations. I also suspected that she couldn't take the fear anymore--never knowing if I would come home at all, let alone in one piece. She had known I was committed to being a cop when she married me, and in the early years she hadn't minded it much, but after the girls were born, Shiloh first, then Natasha, everything changed.
I was constantly on call - she called that 'detachment from family'. I drank tequila to relax - she called that 'alcoholism'. The list of my offenses was indeed long, and she had that list pinned to her heart.
I'd moved into my own apartment four years ago. It was meant to be a temporary arrangement until I could find something better. Time had simply washed over my intentions, caving into procrastination, and carrying my plans away on its relentless tide. Psychologically, I knew, I would never be able to truly make a space of my own seem comfortable without my family, but that's simply the way it crumbles.
Andy slipped into the chair next to me,
"So, what are your thoughts, Frank?"
"We'll have to wait and see. I hate the cable-ties, the cigarette ends, pity she had to have those as her last memory."
I meant it to be non-committal, but Andy's shock would have been comic, if his features hadn't worn such a tragic look.
"What, am I not allowed to view the victim in a personal way?" I snarled, the day’s stress cutting into my voice. I felt lousy,
"Sorry, Andy, that wasn't ....."
"Forget it, Frank, I know, believe me, I know..." He stemmed the flow of my sentiment with a weary sigh.
After that, except for the background music, and the sounds of people jostling for liquor, we simply drank.... a lot, in silence. Eventually the sky through the bar's windows turned from royal to pitch, the day's melancholy; a weighty thing, grim with the swirl of fate it wanted to cloak us in, while sending us into the midst of its confusion.*
Our offices were in the upper section above the Rosebank Police Station. Homicide Special Operations--emblazoned in gold lettering on our door--was the only nod the department offered by way of status. The room was functional, and held a few more techie gadgets than others in the building. The layout was open plan; each cubicle joined to its neighbor by a low padded, fabric covered screen. The interior designer could not possibly have been a cheerful personality, since the coloring was a mismatch of clashing dingy greens and grays. However, huge windows drew in the sunlight and the sounds of the sidewalks below, real old-fashioned 'vensters' as they would be called in the local dialect. It was refreshing to work under the glare of natural, rather than neon, light.
My desk, with its paraphernalia of loose-leaf files, and various linked and unlinked laptops was the tidiest thing about me. Generally, despite my job, and the fact that I think I have a logical mind, I'm not a very orderly guy. Clean, yes, neat, not at all. I pulled over one of my favorite computers, and was about to begin my report when Seth, my partner, jutted his blade of a nose over my screen,
"Hey, Frank... fuck, you look somewhat bedraggled. Any party I should have known about?" I grinned, despite myself.
"Not unless you can call a visit to Nick's a party, no."
"Ah, so you have been gallivanting without me. I'm crushed, how will I ever be able to trust you again?" I laughed at that, and when I looked up he was making his way around the divider into my section. He was always full of rancor and spunk. Our relationship had grown from being thrown together in a way only cops could ever understand. The proximity created by crime on its minions invents a unique type of peer identity, as close as a sibling, with the type of heightened trust only necessity brings to the party.
"Been looking into your latest, Frankie," he added without ceremony.
"You're fast, you are," I countered, my mood swinging back into sobriety,
"Fingerprints on a glass, and on the handbag from the motel room," Seth informed, setting himself at a jaunty angle on my desktop,
"This guy, Frank, obviously doesn't watch TV, or read many novels. Her name was Stacey Cornish, seems like she worked for an escort agency based in Sandton, classy joint. Apparently the John left proof of payment in the bedside drawer; he paid by credit card. Case is weird, you know, Frank.... nasty weird." He nodded his heavy jaw in the direction of the central computer terminal, then added, "I'm going to run his prints through, Pixie. See what it throws out." (He used the nickname the office staff had christened me with--my daughters had modernized my hairdo with gel and highlights, I'd quite liked the effect, but my staff had never forgiven me).
I knew, instantly, that we were going to find our man, but there was something off about it, and the oddness was beginning to nag at the corners of my better judgment. However, when the prints matched a guy who had been nicked for possession and dealing, my fears disappeared, druggies often got lazy, or stupid (or both). Damon Harris, now aged thirty-four, had been hauled in on three occasions between the ages of nineteen and twenty-one.
Vices: On the first count, possession of cocaine. On the second, possession. On the third, possession and dealing.
He had done a stint of a year, and been released on good behavior. I shook my head in amazement, once again, at how our system insisted on putting criminals back on the street, who would be re-arrested, time and again, for similar, or worse crimes.
"Seth, check the domicile on Harris. Take a few boys and go and see what our deviant is up to these days." Seth looked enthusiastic about that.
"Sure thing, this boy looks like he hasn't seen cuffs in a while, maybe we can remind him what they look like."
Seth was, what you would call a 'Ham'. He was a big redhead, with the proverbial temper that went with the hair. Although he was no Einstein, he could be relied upon to get the job done thoroughly, and usually with 'that' smidgen of insight that made a cop a detective, rather than merely a police officer. He was hard not to like (as long as you weren't on the other side of his temper, that is). I would have liked to meet Mr. Harris, but both sides of the crime had to be tackled. So rather than tag along I found the correct number on my terminal, and phoned to make an appointment to interview Stacey's boss.
A tinny sing-song voice answered, instructing me that I had been allocated to slot twenty-three in the throng of waiting callers. Business must, indeed, have been brisk at the agency, because I was kept on the line for at least fifteen minutes before the click of connection echoed.
"Satin and Lace, how may we be of service?" God, unbelievable. Sweet candied voice; dripping with sexual promise.
"Hi, my name is Detective Frank Harlow, I'm looking into the Stacey Cornish affair. I need to speak to the manager or owner of your agency."
"Oh, police..." Silence.
"Yes, can you arrange an interview, or must I arrive unannounced?" Subtle pressure.
"No, sir, I mean detective, I'll speak to Miss Forrester right away. If you'll hold on, I'll confirm, then be with you again in a bit."
True to her word, it didn't take long, I had an interview arranged for the next morning. I wanted to cover all the angles, get a feel for the environment the victim had inhabited.*