Sunday, May 21, 2017

Autopsy of Circumstance

The fresh-faced detective sleeps well at night, content cuddling the fluffy notion that there is a vast difference between the hunter and the hunted. He doses off believing that he has the ability to easily discern between a grizzled, steely-eyed beast and a sterile white, halo-appointed saint. He dreams that his pursuit of an angel has carried him deep into the forest. When he can longer resist the desire to see her face, he reaches for the tail of her flowing gown. In a splintered second the woven silk within his grasp becomes a writhing serpent he can’t turn loose of. The flickering fork strikes him between the eyes. As the debilitating venom courses through his veins his world of candy skies turns brittle black.       

The transformation may not happen in the form of a dream turned nightmare, but it most certainly will happen. Twenty-three years investigating homicide has changed my perception of people. Race, gender, upbringing, and social status—none of it matters. Fast-food worker to C.E.O, every member of the human race has both a killer and a crusader living inside them.

Every homicide case is a stark white canvas waiting patiently for its artist. He or she should approach the easel as undecided as the medium. Their duty is to deconstruct the fragile chain of events that culminated in the ultimate crime against humanity. The goal is to tell a story as completely and accurately as the facts allow. To do so they must begin at the end, ‘walking things back’, or performing an ‘autopsy of circumstance’ as I like to call it. Every murder scene begins with a series of what if’s.

If Clarence Allen’s belly hadn’t sounded like a concrete mixer with a bad bearing, he wouldn’t have stopped off at a dingy saloon. If the Angus burger and onion rings had been average, he likely wouldn’t have ordered the first shot of liquor. If that shot went down like swallowing a razor blade sideways, like whiskey is supposed to, he wouldn’t have ordered an entire bottle. If Marla Zander’s perfume had not smelled so irresistibly of ripened fruit and vanilla, perhaps Clarence wouldn’t have offered to share his bottle. If there had been no invitation to drink, she would have been less inclined to have brushed her breasts across his forearm each time she reached for the bottle. Even then, if Marla had not gripped his upper thigh and whispered something into his ear at closing time, perhaps a great many regrettable things might have been avoided that night.

In a place as dilapidated as the Plain Cactus the last thing I expected was two hours and thirty-seven minutes of high definition video and audio surveillance, but years ago I learned to take what a case gives you. The owner, who insisted upon being called Ace, was in his early thirties. Ace was a hard, sculpted man, sporting a perfectly manicured flat-top. In a world filled with posers and prophets, Ace was a breath of fresh air. He wasn’t just playing the role of a bad-ass. Ace was an ex-special forces sniper who returned from Afghanistan with what he called ‘a heightened sense of awareness’. Heightened sense of awareness, mild case of paranoid schizophrenia, who am I to judge? Only the conceited or oblivious refuse to acknowledge their own eccentricities. As a man deeply rooted in logic, I’ve always adored formulas. Ace’s paranoid tendencies plus a disposition to tinker equaled 15 cameras in 1100 square feet, which in turn equaled one ecstatic investigator. Ace informed me that Delilah Jones, the barmaid during the evening in question would be arriving for shift anytime. He said Delilah was a college student tending bar part-time to make ends meet. What Ace didn’t tell me was that she happened to be working towards a double-major in….wait for it…wait for it…..criminal justice and home land security. To borrow a line from a dearly departed colleague hailing proudly from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, ‘Are you kitten me? What fer? Cat fur to make kitten britches!’ I could almost hear his deep-bellied chuckle, laughing at the good fortune thrown my way.

Under normal circumstances the information Delilah provided would have seemed too perfect, but the surveillance supported her every word. Video and audio don’t lie, unless they’ve been tampered with, and I didn’t see any evidence of such.  

I left the Plaid Cactus with a pretty good cache of solid information. It appeared this was a first time meeting of victim and suspected killer. Player number one: Clarence Lewis Allen, a thirty-one year old burly, bearded man, probably 6’2” and pushing 275 lbs. A little subsequent research revealed a self-describe loner who made a decent living doing freelance work for a small computer consulting firm in the city. He worked almost exclusively remotely, and according to his boss, produced his best code in the wee hours of the morning from the basement of his mother’s home. I worked hard to suppress the neon marquee scrolling in my mind, flashing ‘Classic Serial Killer Material’.  

Enter player number two. Marla Marie Zander was a petite, attractive, thirty-three year old blond with shoulder length banana curls. While I try to shy away from stereotypes, Marla looked like a runner-up for an eye-candy tryout for an 80’s hard-rock video. The footage showed her wearing cowboy boots, painted-on jeans, and a pale blue tank top with the acronym Y.O.L.O. emblazoned across the chest. Delilah said she was a single mom and a regular; a no-nonsense gal who by choice drank whiskey and by necessity was a stripper downtown that went by the stage name Cinnamon. Necessity, because each of her three children had different daddies, none of them willing to commit to anything beyond the initial 15 steamy minutes in the back seat of Marla’s 74 Chrysler New Yorker. According to Ace, Marla had a penchant for ex-military guys. He estimated she’d done more entertaining of servicemen in the back seat of her car than the U.S.O had in the last 40 years.  

Right about now you’re thinking this detective stuff is easy, practically solves itself, right? A sexually deprived, introverted, computer geek living in his mom’s basement, stumbles into an attractive and willing stripper who swills whiskey like water. At closing time the odd couple zig-zags toward the door looking to finish the night on a high note. But in the backseat of a car with more square footage than a New York studio apartment, something went wrong. Maybe she laughs at his inexperience. Whatever the reason, in a fit of rye-whiskey fueled rage the mountain of a man crushes her skull with one swift blow.    

That’s where this seemingly simple case turns sideways. Two grade-school boys playing Army in a rocky ravine discovered Marla’s vehicle around noon the following day. Neither Marla, nor her body were in the immediate vicinity of the vehicle, but Clarence Lewis Allen was still at the scene— dead as a hammer, slumped over the steering wheel of Marla’s Chrysler New Yorker, presumably succumbed to blunt force trauma and brain bleed.

Claremont High School didn’t offer Rocket Science 101 or Intro to the Painfully Obvious, but something told me I needed to pay ‘Cinnamon’ a visit. I considered showing up at her rundown excuse for a double-wide, but then I’d have been preoccupied thinking about the chair I was sitting in being swallowed up in a massive floor collapse. I’d also be competing for her attention with a trio of significantly cuter, curly-headed, crumb catchers. The scenery and odds would be much improved at the Teats and Beats Night Club. Who knows, if the stars aligned completely I might get to meet the marketing brain-trust behind such a catchy and tawdry name.

I never really understood the fascination with these kinds of places—lots of fake women with plastic smiles and replaceable parts, trolling the crowd in predictable patterns, each working their wares until collectively they had separated the drooling patrons from the contents of their wallets. Word spread fast when the well had run dry, and like satisfied buzzards they flew back to their roosts, cleverly disguised as elevated stages from which they could circle and watch for fresh opportunities. Call me jaded, but that’s how I see it.

I do have to admit, Teats and Beats delivered rather quickly on both counts of their namesake. While the kid checked my ID, a strange aroma wafted past me and out the door. I swear it was a 50/50 mixture, albeit the unlikely pairing of cheap dollar-store perfume and costly, freshly implanted, silicone. Before I could get my ID back in my wallet, the source of the aroma introduced herself as Cheyenne. She had to yell her name twice because the driving base of the sound system was not only on the verge of dismantling the interior of the place, but dislodging my kidneys from their anatomical resting place. I supposed it a statistical impossibility to keep from noticing her newly added ‘features’.  They rested comfortably on either side of the drink tray she carried in front of her. Practically speaking, I supposed they were high dollar side-rails to keep the drinks from tipping over. A flash of my badge erased her smile and redirected her to a more receptive group of young men. The only connection I could draw with her chosen name of Cheyenne was that hardened missiles of that magnitude belonged in silos in the middle of Wyoming.         

My eyes hadn’t completely adjusted to the dim lighting in this den of taboo delights, but I moved expectantly toward a very large man perched on a stool near the end of the bar. Rocky seemed like a nice enough guy, and did indeed provide security for the place. After explaining the nature of my business, he escorted me back to the dressing rooms. One would think said employee was benefitting their employer rather significantly to rate their own private dressing room. My assumption would be financially benefitting the employer, but fringe benefits within such an industry brings up an entirely different level of mental conjuring, the images of which are difficult to un-think.

Call it O.C.D., but I gave three hard raps between the double n’s in her stage name stenciled upon the door. “Marla, this is Lt. Reynolds from homicide, we need to chat.”

There was a slight pause before an agitated voice answered back, “Of course you’re a cop, loser. You’ve got two seconds to get away from the dressing room door, or I’m calling security!”

I nodded toward my escort. He laid a heavy hand against the door several times in succession. “Hey Cinnamon, this is Rocky, the guy’s legit vice. You need to let him in.”    

When there was no reply or indication of compliance, I put my ear to the door and observed a good amount of shuffling sounds going on inside. I whispered to Rocky, asking if there was a back door or a window. After receiving a nod of affirmation, I turned the knob and verified the door was locked. I turned back to find a boyish grin sprawling across a grown man’s jaw. In one fluid motion he brushed me aside and leaned hard against the door. For a second the duo appeared equally matched, but then Rocky grunted and the door exploded into a million splinters. While Rocky stutter-stepped to regain his balance, I slipped behind him into the room. Inside the threshold, with my sidearm fully drawn I began scanning. Just beyond the front sight of my weapon, Marla stood in front of an open window, perched atop a wooden crate, facing us. The woman was startled and naked from the waist up, mouth gaping, and eyes bigger than areolas. Before I could issue a command, she dropped the duffle bag she was holding, put her hands in the air, and began sobbing.

I holstered my gun, grabbed a tee shirt and tossed it at her. “Put a top on and save the tears, Marla. Let me get that duffle bag for you. I’ve reserved a table for you and me in one of our finest interrogation rooms.” 

Some people come by the truth more naturally than others. I’m not saying that everything Marla Zander told me that night at the station was an outright lie, but her initial claims definitely muddied the water. Sometimes you have to be patient enough for the fish to come up for air.      

At 5:03 a.m., approximately four hours after Marla and Clarence left the bar, she showed up at the station to file a police report. She claimed to be sexually assaulted by Clarence and her vehicle stolen. The police report was setting on the table between us.

“So let me get this straight, Marla. On the night in question, you stated you left the Plaid Cactus around 1:00 a.m. with Clarence. On the way to your vehicle, he pulled a knife on you, forced you into the back seat of your car, and raped you for approximately a half-hour. Once he finished he ruffed you up a little, tossed you out on the ground naked, and drove away in your vehicle? Is that correct?”

Marla never made eye contact with me. “Yep, if that’s what the report says, that’s what happened!”

I thought her response odd, but I left it to simmer a bit, and instead pushed the narrative forward. “So you would have me believe that Clarence was so drunk that he accidently drove a quarter of a mile across a pasture and plunged over a small cliff, or he suddenly got in touch with his sensitive side and was so grief stricken with what he’d done to you that he committed suicide by driving into a ravine. Do either of those scenarios sound plausible to you?”

“I said he kicked me out of the car in the parking lot. I don’t know what happened to Clarence after he left. I was traumatized, have you ever been raped, Lieutenant?”

“No maa’m, I haven’t. But if I was raped, I’d certainly want to do whatever necessary to catch the perpetrator. The reporting officer states you declined evidence collection via a rape kit. Can you tell me why you didn’t want the analysis done?”

“I’m not answering anymore questions until my lawyer arrives.”

I rolled a cigarette the length of the table and offered a light. “Suit yourself, but it’s the middle of the night, Marla, and he’s got a two-hour drive to get here.

We sat in silence until she finished the smoke. “Marla, to be honest, there are a lot of holes in your story. I’m just trying to fill them in. I figure the rape had taken place by 1:30 a.m., why didn’t you report it until 5:00 a.m.?”

“Ace and Delilah had left, Clarence had my car, and my cell phone battery was dead. I had to borrow the phone at the nearest farm house.”

“About a quarter of a mile up the road, Mr. & Mrs. Tyler’s place, right? I’ve already talked to them. The report said you were naked when Clarence kicked you out of the car, right?”

I retrieved Marla’s duffle bag. I unzipped it and began to sift through the contents.

“Hey, keep your mitts off my stuff!”

“Right now it’s evidence, Marla. You were naked right?”

“Yes, Clarence stripped me before he raped me!”

As I suspected, the duffle bag was filled with various outfits Marla wore during her performances. I tossed a pair of shorts and bikini top in front of her. “When Mrs. Tyler answered the door she remembered specifically what you were wearing. Do these look familiar at all?”

“Yeah, minus the hat, it’s my cowgirl getup for Friday night sets, but I swear to you I didn’t have a stitch of clothes on when I knocked on the Tyler’s door!”

“Marla, surely you know Ace has video cameras all around the Plaid Cactus, right? What if I told you that within the last month he added two cameras outside? Would that help you remember anything differently?”

Her atmosphere changed significantly, from one of defiance to submission. I noticed a tear rolling over the apple of her cheek.

“Look Marla, I don’t believe for a minute you killed Clarence, but I do believe you know who killed him. Help me to help clear you in this investigation?”

I rolled another cigarette her direction. Marla’s hands were trembling so severely it took a concerted effort to do what normally came natural.

“After that much whiskey you probably don’t remember, but the video inside shows you leaving the bar at 12:47 a.m. and return at 12:55 a.m. in the cowgirl getup. Soon after you re-entered the bar, you attract some unwanted attention from a couple of bar flies, one who slaps your butt loud enough it can be heard on the audio. Clarence moved in and sent the men grumbling back to their pool game…not something I would expect from a man who is about to violently rape you. You both take your former seats. At 12:57 you lean over and kiss Clarence, squeeze his upper thigh, and whisper something in his ear. The two of you immediately get up and leave together.”

After an extended exhale, Marla spoke. “You absolutely have to protect me from him or I won’t say a word!”

“Clarence is dead, Marla, he can’t hurt you anymore.”

“Look, Clarence seemed like a nice enough guy, kind of a computer geek, but with a kinkier side. He mentioned role playing in the bedroom earlier in the evening, so I guess I went to the car and got my cowgirl outfit. I don’t remember that at all. We piled into the back seat and started making out. He was awkward and apologetic at first, because even though I was straddling him and rocking back and forth, it was apparent all his parts weren’t in working order, if you know what I mean? Then there was nothing, the guy passed out on me just that quick. I was still moving back and forth when I heard an explosion and felt glass pellets pepper my back. Next thing I know someone grabbed a handful of my hair and yanked me through the window and onto the ground. It was Harley, the daddy of my youngest. Harley’s mean when he’s sober, and I could tell he was 10 miles south of sober. He opened the car door, yelling ‘I knew it…I freakin’ knew it…who does that bitch think he is!’ Harley grabbed my shorts out of the floorboard, worked Clarence’s lips apart and stuffed the shorts into his mouth. ‘That’s about as close as you’re gettin’ to bein’ in my old ladies pants!’ He screeched. Then Harley turned his attention to me. He snatched me off the ground, bent me over the hood, and told me that I was gonna get just what I was lookin’ for. He had his way with me more than once, the second time slamming my face off the car with every thrust. When he finished with me he demanded the keys to the car. He pointed to the back seat of the car and said he needed to take the trash out. He slapped the keys to his truck into my hand and told me to meet him in an hour and half. He’d be waiting in the ditch along the side of the road just past the intersection of Laurel and Switchback Lane, and if I didn’t show he’d hunt me down and kill me! I met him and when I did, he had concocted the story I gave in the police report. But Lieutenant, if you’ve got an ounce of decency in you, you have to keep me safe from Harley. If he knows I ratted him out you’ll be investigating my murder.”

“Things are much clearer to me now. That explains the extended time between the assault and reporting of it. No rape kit, because that would have shown Harley to be the rapist and your whole statement would have unraveled. Let me level with you on a couple of things, Marla. Mrs. Tyler didn’t say anything about your outfit, actually she confirmed you were naked when she answered the door, but I wanted to prompt you to tell me about the shorts. Those shorts and what happened with them were of paramount importance. You see, although Harley went to the trouble of pushing his victim over a cliff in a remote location, Clarence was dead at least an hour before. The autopsy showed the cause of death to be asphyxiation. The medical examiner removed several white sequins from his windpipe, the very same as the ones adorning you cowgirl shorts. I needed to know how they got there. Telling you that Ace installed outside cameras was total fabrication, a calculated bluff. I was very certain things didn’t go down as you first stated, but had no real way of proving it, until now. There is enough evidence in your car with your statements today to wrap this case up. If you’re willing to press charges for aggravated sexual assault on top of capital murder, we’re going to put Harley Daniels where he belongs for the rest of his days.”

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