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Detective Tia Suarez drove the plain-wrapped Crown Vic down the rutted fire lane until its high beams lit the yellow tape that blocked the narrow wooded road. The sight struck her as odd, if not damn near comical. Cops and routine: inseparable partners. Three o’clock in the morning, surrounded by miles of heavy forest in a remote corner of Waukesha County, Wisconsin, there probably wasn’t much in the way of mopes and lookie-loos, but by God, the yellow tape had to go up.
Considering the nature of the call, Tia figured it best to leave room for other vehicles to come and go. She steered her newly assigned squad off to the side of the road, but the car fought back. The power steering had crapped out a month ago just as the odometer hit 150K, and the lumbering sedan was granted a long-overdue retirement out of the patrol pool. That’s when some pencil-neck geek in the mayor’s office got the big idea to strip off the red-and-blues, slap on a coat of battleship-gray paint, and call it a detective car. When Tia complained to the city mechanic, he shrugged and said, “Get in line.” She maneuvered in behind the lone marked cruiser and killed the engine but the car refused to die, coughing and sputtering like a four-thousand-pound emphysema patient.
Twenty minutes removed from a warm bed, Tia sat balanced on the greater Milwaukee yellow pages, listless and still waking up. The phone book provided the support missing from the seat springs, long since worn out by a decade of weighted-down patrol cops who pushed the sled twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Such was life in the Newberg PD, where the most recent round of politically driven budget cuts hadn’t been with pens and pencils, but hatchets and cleavers. A long sip of the hot coffee she’d brought from home provided an energetic lift, but she couldn’t help but think a shot of Patron would sure as hell liven the drink up a bit.
“Thirty-seven days,” she said out loud, glancing at herself in the rearview mirror. With a quick shake of her head, she pushed off against the near-constant temptation and turned to the task at hand. Time to get to work.
Tia gathered up her writing pad and pen, ignoring the department-issued computer tablet and body-cam recorder buried in the center console. Not for the first time, she wished the feds in Washington would fork over some grant money to replace her car, instead of handing out whiz-bang monitoring equipment that was just more Big Brother bullshit. She slammed the console shut and grabbed the five-cell flashlight from the charging dock between the seats, then tucked the twenty-inch metal tube under her armpit, preferring the substantial steel to the lighter and brighter Mini Mags most young cops carried nowadays.
A pen, a spiral notepad, and a five-cell. Old school or just stubborn? Hard to say. The way she saw it, technology in law enforcement had gone too far. There were time-tested methods of police work that couldn’t be improved on by electronic gadgets or pre-populated drop-down forms. Methods that sure as hell included handwritten detective notes made at a crime scene. But Tia had to admit, even at the fairly young age of thirty-one, her way of doing police work was fast becoming eccentric.
Through the windshield she saw the beam of a flashlight bobbing in the darkness, twenty or so yards into the woods. Still balancing the hot coffee, Tia used her shoulder to push hard on the door, but the tilt of the road made for a tough angle. She got her boot into it, kicked the door all the way open, and pulled herself to her feet. Scalding liquid sloshed over her notepad, windbreaker, and jeans, just before the door swung back and knocked the cup out of her hand. The coffee pooled on the soiled remnant of floorboard carpet, the latest addition to the car’s long list of deviant odors.
Tia looked down at her soiled jacket and blue jeans, mumbling obscenities that would have her well-meaning but pious Catholic mother lighting candles for a month. She tore off a chunk of soggy pages from her pad and dropped the wet, shriveled sheets onto the pool of coffee. Good as new, she thought, looking at the now fresh writing surface.
“Try doing that with an iPad,” she said as she finally dragged herself out of the car.
A cool breeze whipped through the trees and blew across her face, signaling rain might be on the way. A chorus of a million or so cicadas and the steady snore of nearly as many northern leopard frogs filled the night air, accompanied by an obnoxious, all-too-familiar voice from somewhere up ahead.
“Ah, shit.” Tia rolled her eyes.
Again her number ran through her head, but with noticeably less conviction.
Tia slammed the car door, along with the door in her mind that led to a dangerous way of thinking. If she got through the day, her number would be thirty-eight. All things considered, pretty impressive. No reason to think back further than that. Bygones. History. Bury that shit. But now, she had to suck it up and spend a little one-on-one time with the most relentless prick on the Newberg Police Department. Times like these left her feeling that sober living was highly overrated.
Standing at the tape line, she whistled loudly and gave two quick bursts from her flashlight, but the deep voice droned on without pause. She whistled again and called out, “Yo, Jimmy.”
The talking stopped.
She yelled out, “Am I okay to walk in from here?”
“Yeah,” the voice came back. “You’re good.”
Tia ducked low to pass under the tape. As she stood up on the other side, a stunning white light swept across her eyes. Turning her head away, she raised an arm to block the beam.
“Damn, man. Watch it.”
The beam dropped to the ground and Tia tried to blink away the thousand points of light, knowing she’d be seeing spots for the next hour. A young trainee she’d passed a few times in the hallway at the PD walked toward her. She squinted hard and jammed at her eyes with a thumb and forefinger, making no effort to disguise her irritation.
“You’re that new hire?” His name came to her. “Puller, right?”
“Yes, ma’am. I’m Officer Puller. Sorry about that.” He stood awkwardly in a uniform that even in the low light appeared a bit baggy, but pressed and new. He was rail thin—Tia put him at about a buck-fifty, including the stiff leather gun belt that cinched a waist so narrow there were no empty spaces between the items of issued gear. A light dusting of acne covered his pale, fuzzy cheeks and Tia figured he probably shaved every other week, whether he needed to or not. Perfect, she thought. We’re recruiting from Newberg High School.
“Show some light discipline, all right? Guys can get pretty pissy when you sweep up like that. Point it at your feet. That’ll give you all the light you need.” Tia looked deeper into the woods. “You riding with Youngblood?”
“Yes, ma’am. Last phase of field training. One more week.”
“Knock off the ‘ma’am’ shit.”
“Uh, yes, ma’am,” he said nervously. She really had him flustered. “I mean, right. Okay.”
Vision clearing, Tia managed eye contact. Cowed like a puppy that had shit the carpet, the kid didn’t show much in the way of command presence. More like a crisis of confidence. No surprise, considering who was training him. “Dispatch called me out. So where’s this dead body at?”
Puller looked back over his shoulder and pointed with his flashlight, orienting the beam toward the ground. “Right over there, next to where Officer Youngblood is standing.”
“Really? Next to where he’s standing?” Tia didn’t try to hide a growing sense of frustration. “So tell me, has he trained you in the concept of an inner perimeter?”
Puller stared back, slack-jawed, as if trying to answer a trick question. Tia pushed past, done with the clueless trainee. She walked up to Youngblood, who was talking on his cell phone. She hung back ten feet and he gave just the barest jut of his chin in acknowledgment. She put her left hand on her hip and her right on the back strap of her Glock 23. A bell rang in her head, signaling the beginning of round one.
Officer James “Jimmy” Youngblood had recently been named the department field training officer, after the previous FTO had left to join the force up in Green Bay, where cops were paid much better and the overtime policy was all-you-can-eat. Youngblood got the FTO job after being turned down a third time for a detective’s shield. Most cops, Tia included, figured his appointment had been some kind of consolation prize.
“Gotta go, Stan. She’s here. Wait for me at the station. I’ll be there in twenty minutes.” He paused, then laughed and said, “Yeah, no shit.”
Youngblood looked Tia up and down in a way that signaled his last comment had something to do with her. She tried to let it go but her effort was halfhearted, and when he ended the phone conversation and turned to her, the challenge in her voice was obvious.
She stood with her hands on both hips. “‘No shit,’ what?”
“Huh?” Youngblood tucked his cell phone into a cargo pocket of his trousers.
“You said ‘no shit’ just now. ‘No shit,’ what?”
“Just talking to Hansen.” Youngblood gave a dismissive shrug and Tia picked up on his satisfaction at so effortlessly getting under her skin. He did his best to convey confused innocence. “We’re blowing out of town tomorrow. Coupla days in Vegas.”
Knowing she’d given his juvenile nonsense more acknowledgment than it deserved, Tia decided to push back from a different direction. Her gaze shifted to the dark outline on the ground, less than two feet from where Youngblood stood.
“What? We don’t train inner perimeters anymore?” Tia looked to the ground and picked up on the trampled leaves and boot prints in the dirt. “In kind of close for a DB, aren’t you?”
Youngblood launched a gob of tobacco spit over his shoulder. He shoved his hands under his external load-bearing vest, making his arms resemble chicken wings. Like most senior officers, Youngblood wore black, military-style gear instead of the traditional blue uniform required for trainees and probies. He turned back to Tia, dark flecks clinging to his thick mustache.
“Yeah, it’s a dead-body call. But for a crime scene perimeter, you need a crime.” His face displayed a well-practiced look of deadpan disinterest. “Last I checked, when it comes to suck-starting a shotgun, it’s still a free country. Anyway, here’s your stiff.”
His flashlight clicked on and the intense beam lit a ten-foot circle on the ground. Tia studied the body, starting at an ordinary pair of high-top tennis shoes, traveling up past jeans and shirt to neck and throat. After that, there was a violent departure from the expected. A mass of red, chunky gel, the size and roundness of a small truck tire, replaced what had once been a human face. A shotgun alongside the body served as the scene’s exclamation point.
Tia drew a breath through clenched teeth and turned away. “Ah, Jesus.”
“Sorry, Suarez.” Youngblood laughed. “Didn’t figure on you being squeamish. You need a minute? A tissue, maybe?”
Tia ignored the apology, knowing the shock treatment had been intentional. She’d seen more than enough dead bodies, mostly during her three years in Afghanistan. But this one, fresh, violently violated, and obviously youthful, made a strong impression. Youngblood went right on yucking it up.
“I wish you could’ve seen your face just now. Fucking priceless.” He feigned a high-pitched squeal, waving his hands in the air. “Oh, Jesus. Oh, Jesus.”
She stared back, determined to match his disdain. “You done dicking around? Can we get on with it?”
“Take it easy, Suarez. Calling you was just routine.” His voice carried the same attitude she’d seen since her first day in the department, almost eight years ago. The guy couldn’t accept the idea of women cops. It didn’t help that even though he had four years seniority on her, Tia had transferred to the Investigations Bureau while Youngblood still pushed a patrol sled. Most of the patrol dogs had convinced themselves that she only made detective because of her brown skin and female gender, but Tia knew better. The career kick-start for a double minority might play in the city, but in a small town like Newberg, it didn’t count for shit.
“Your buddy Sawyer wants one of you to come out on all unattended deaths involving a weapon. I’d say this qualifies.”
“‘One of you’?” Tia was determined to make him say it.
“Detectives.” He sniffed, his voice resentful. “One of you detectives.”
Tia let it fester. That’s right, dipshit. Detective.
Looking him over, Tia was reminded how the upside-down life of graveyard patrol played hell on the body. The black watch cap pulled down to just above Youngblood’s eyebrows couldn’t hide his pasty complexion or the meaty sag of his jowls. The Glock forty-caliber was strapped low against his thigh, the tactical nylon belt mostly buried under the hang of his ample gut. Too many midnight drive-through burgers followed by beer and eggs for breakfast. Then a fitful two or three hours of daytime sleep before heading back to work loaded up on Red Bull. Yeah, Youngblood was looking rough. Ten more pounds, she thought, and he could carry an extra pair of handcuffs under one of his sagging man boobs, along with a backup thirty-eight in the crack of his fat ass.
She pulled out her pen and notepad, shook off her shock and sorrow, and saw the scene for what it was: the unexplained death of a human being, in need of investigation.
“Give me what you’ve got.”
“Time of call was zero-two-eleven. We got to the scene at zero-two-thirty-eight. By then, the RP had split. We—”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa.” Tia cut him off, looking at her watch. “Twenty-seven minutes? On a dead-body call? Damn, Jimmy, I got here faster than that and I was sound asleep. Where were you coming from?”
The trainee looked at his feet but Youngblood avoided the question, saying only, “Busy night.”
“All right, but what do you mean the RP split?”
Youngblood spoke as if every question was a personal inconvenience. “I mean he split, Suarez. He’s gone. Guy called Dispatch, ID’ed himself as Henry. We show up and there ain’t no Henry. Just the stiff.”
“No RP? On a DB?” Usually the reporting party on something as significant as a dead body would stick around. Losing the RP was a lousy way to start the investigation.
“Yeah. Well, whatever.” Youngblood hunched his shoulders in a show of obvious disinterest and offered no further explanation.
“Dispatch got recall info, though, right? Captured the number?” she asked, prodding. “Have you reached out? Tried to get him to come back?”
“Ask Dispatch. All I know is we got a call about a body off county Highway Twelve, a mile north of the campground. Took us a good twenty minutes to find the guy. Hell, my trainee practically tripped over him.”
“Wait a sec,” Tia looked up, pen poised over paper. “You mean another twenty minutes, after the twenty-seven it took you to arrive on scene?”
“No.” Now Youngblood was flustered. “I mean—yeah, so what? We had to search around. Jesus, Suarez, what’s with the third degree?”
“Take it easy, Jimmy. I’m just trying to get the time line straight. So we can figure time of death, right?”
Youngblood scoffed, “Because it really matters what time this guy blew his face off?”
Tia ignored him and moved on. “So, this Henry guy. Have we tried calling him back or not?”
“Like I said,” Youngblood enunciated each word, “ask Dispatch.”
Tia looked him up and down. This guy’s our training officer?
Granted, in a case like this, the first patrol officer’s only job was to freeze the scene, then document and pass along all activity up until the arrival of detectives. But most cops actually took the initiative to start the preliminary investigation. Check out the crime scene. Locate possible witnesses.
Not Youngblood. The man dodged more work than any cop in the department.
Trapping the Maglite under her arm, Tia pulled out the pair of blue latex gloves she’d shoved into the pocket of her jeans before leaving her house. She slid on the first then snapped the second one on her wrist. Meeting Youngblood’s gaze in the bouncing ambient light, she made no effort to hide her opinion of the man’s ability. “The guy found a body, Jimmy. We probably ought to have a talk with him. But no worries. I’ll handle it.”
“Relax, Suarez.” Youngblood did his best to downplay his own incompetence. “He’ll turn up. Probably just got a little spooked. How many folks you know have the sac to hang out at two o’clock in the morning with a headless body? In the woods, no less. But it don’t even matter. This shit ain’t exactly complicated.”
“Is that right, Jimmy? You got it figured?”
“Damn right. This here’s the human chum of a fella who was by no means just toying with the idea.” Looking at the body, Youngblood nudged it with his boot, like a boy might poke at a dead cat with a stick. “Whoever he was, he was not fucking around.”
Tia’s frustration boiled over. Taking a quick step forward, she reached out to shove at his 250-plus pounds, to no effect. “Knock it off, Jimmy. Holy shit, man. This is a crime scene, get it?”
He shook his head dismissively and pushed his hands deeper into his vest. “Whatever, Suarez. Like I said, I got travel plans. Just do your thing so we can get out of here. I gotta take a piss.”
With that, he walked over to a nearby tree. His shoulders hunched up and she heard the sound of his zipper.
“Oh, hell no,” she shouted. “Keep walking.”
Youngblood muttered objections but moved further into the woods, until his dark silhouette dissolved into the night. She heard the strong stream hit leaves and dirt, coupled with the sounds of other bodily functions.
“Pig,” she said out loud. She wasn’t talking about his occupation.
The trainee took a step back, into the shadows, probably not certain how to deal with two cops who so clearly despised each other. Tia figured that was a good place for him.
“Get on your radio, Puller. Ask Dispatch to try the RP’s number. Get them to come back out.”
Puller began to fumble with his radio and Tia turned her attention back to the body. Irritating as Youngblood might be, his assumption was hard to argue with. First impression was that the death was a straight-up suicide. Still, the other officer’s dismissive attitude aggravated the hell out of her. She closed her eyes for a moment to clear her thoughts; a roll of far-distant thunder helped quiet her mind. She took a deep breath and checked her watch. Be daybreak before too long.
“I’ll be damned, can you believe it?” Tia looked down at the dead body and to the general area of where the eyes might have been. “I made it to thirty-eight.”
Copyright © 2018 by Neal Griffin