Cash thought that St. Paul’s Episcopal Church had once probably been a sight to behold during its glory days but it was clear those days were clearly behind it and the fading building that slumped in front of him was rapidly sinking into disrepair. It seemed, particularly in this gloomy rain to be as dark and foreboding as any other structure he'd ever witnessed. From the street the church was largely obscured behind a large swath of maple trees, high grasses, and a thousand varieties of teeming weeds who were happily spreading their progeny over the lay of the land.
As Cash accelerated the van to crest the steep grade of Montana St., his path was illuminated by bright flashes of lighting followed by deafening cracks of thunder. Each flash of light revealed a pale pond-green coat of paint that was chipped, cracked, and flaking away from the grey exposed wood beneath after years of exposure to the brutal Pacific Northwest weather. It was as if the land itself was clutching the church in place, laying to claim to it as its own. According to a broken sign that dangled from a rust stained thin chain, the building had been erected in the summer of 1967. Perhaps at one time it had been a vision of optimism, but the building before them now lacked any feature that remotely resembled romanticism. To make matters worse, its location, deep in the heart of an upper income neighborhood, only served to magnify the stark contrast.
Cash peeled his attention away from the eyesore and asked Shell. “Have you been to many crime scenes?”
“Tons of them.” she responded from the passenger seat.
As they crawled by, searching for a break in the sidewalk where the parking lot entrance used to be, they witnessed a group of uniformed patrol officers struggle to dislodge a police cruiser that had become firmly wedged in the deep, saucy mud that had become the parking lot surface. Cash suddenly had a thought. “Is there anything about working a crime scene I should know?”
“Sure. Tip one, let me do all the talking,” Shell said and leapt into the back of the van. Seated at a swiveling chair that was bolted to the floor of the van, she began flipping various switches and punching buttons. Indicator lights came on in various panels and a stack of mounted monitors came to life. “Sometimes they don’t ask for I.D. at the door. If they do, just nonchalantly flash it at them and always try to look professional and relaxed. I’ll ask all the questions. If you have a question or want to check something out, just tell me that you want to do some close-ups of whatever it is that you are interested in. If anyone tells you something is off limits, don’t offer them any lip, just obey them. Okay? It goes without saying, don’t touch anything, whether its the corpse, the clothes, a piece of furniture you find interesting. Keep your mitts off. Get the point?”
“Good.” she continued. “What I need from you is pretty simple. I need some good establishing shots of the exterior, the entrance, the interior. Focus on the getting the whole room first and then direct yourself to getting narrower shots. Give yourself at least 5 to 10 seconds with each shot. That should give us enough time to cut the footage together later. If I interview anyone, keep the camera focused on me and the subject until I wrap. Keep shooting even after we have finished speaking, until I give you this sign.” She drew her hand across her throat, giving the universal sign for cutting someone’s throat. “For the most part that concludes your primer for crime scene reporting. The key step is to stay out of their way. Its rather simple actually, if they give us access to the area, they probably won’t let us get very close, and if we do, its likely they will remove us from the property, which of course is within their rights. But if we are fortunate, we’ll get some useful film that we can use for composing the insert shots in the editing phase.”
Cash nodded. “Any hunches about how they might treat us today?”
“I couldn’t say. It could go either way.” she said nonchalantly and shrugged. “You can never tell from one scene to the next. They are supposed to treat all crime scenes equally, but, for all kinds of reasons, that doesn’t always happen. This here, is your camera.” she said and with her hand indicated a very large and bulky black duffel bag with an equally impressive shoulder strap. He of course had already assumed as much and had considered mentioning this to her but figured that ultimately it would probably be unwise to do so. Rather than dig himself a deeper hole, he let the issue go, engaged the van’s parking brake and crawled into the back to retrieve the camera bag.
“For now, stay behind me and blend. You’ll be fine.” She gave him an appraising look and dug through a narrow wardrobe closet located in he back of the van.. “Here, put this on. It should help hide your eyebrow.” She tossed him a black baseball cap with a TDIN logo embroidered in large white letters on the front that had been on the floor of the closet, buried behind other TDIN seasonal wear and gear.
He slipped on the cap, pulled the collar of his coat up, and slung the bulky camera bag over his left shoulder before he headed out of the warm and dry van into the slanting, thick sheets of the frigid, Oregon rain. He hadn’t even finished closing the van door before Shell had began to breach the wall of foliage that surrounded the church. He did his best to follow her path through the deep and thick fauna but the task was made difficult by both his awkward short legs and the large, bulky camera that bogged him down. He had cinched the shoulder strap as tight as it would go but there was still a little bit too much slack to comfortably carry the bag. As he struggled with the bag, he made an ineffectual effort to push the weeds and branches away from his face with his other hand.
Meanwhile Shell continued to chatter on about typical press procedures, and because she was facing away from him and inching further and further from his he was only able to make out bit and pieces of her monologue. What little he was able to hear seemed simply like variations on the cautionary advice she had already imparted. She either didn’t notice his struggles or willfully ignored them.
Shortly they were able to breach the imposing foliage and he could finally see the un-obscured scope of the old church. Standing within its long shadow, he was overwhelmed with respect for its builders. The base of the building was gripped by a dense blanket of moss and creeping vines. Underneath all that vegetation it was clear that it had been solidly constructed. It baffled him that anyone would willingly abandon such a structure in the first place.
They trudged through the mud, circling the perimeter of the building until they had reached the main entrance. Posted in front of the stained double doors, beneath the leaking awning was a police officer in a raincoat whose mood seemed to reflect the overcast leaden skies above them.
Shell held her I.D. next to her face, smiled brightly and casually offered the card to the officer.
He accepted the card and examined it grimly. “Press huh?” He removed a small box from his belt. Using the tip of his thumbnail, he slid a panel back, and inserted the card into the open slot. A green lamp lit up on the machine and a timid beep was emitted. “Go ahead.” the officer said. “And you?” he asked Cash.
Cash pushed his credentials into the officer’s hand. The officer nodded and placed his identification card into the machine but nothing happened. Cash’s heart paused a beat, and he felt his blood pressure swelling like a balloon as his anxiety revved up. The officer eyed Cash dubiously and gently tapped the back of the machine with his palm. Cash tried to appear calm and at the same time he began to surreptitiously plan their escape route. After an interminable silence the machine beeped and a green indicator light flashed, before the cover panel automatically retracted to reveal Cash’s card. “Thank you.” the officer said, stood aside.
Eager to get the ordeal over with as quickly as possible Cash entered the church and searched for Shell. As it turned out, he didn’t have to look far, she was perched on the dirty runner just a few feet from the doorway of the main entrance. He observed Shell as she scanned the interior of the dimly lit space that was illuminated by a solitary pale ray of sunlight that peeked through a cracked stained glass window into the musty vestibule. Below the stained glass window, a staircase spiraled downward and further into the bowels of the church. There was a buzz of activity to their right, inside the sanctuary, which was visible through another identical pair of cherry stained double doors that had been propped open with wooden wedges, that drew his attention. Cash took the opportunity to quickly slip the duffel bag off of his shoulder, unzip it, remove the camera, and attached it to a shoulder strap that he discovered in a smaller zipper pocket of the bag. The camera was heavy and awkward, but with the shoulder strap and a gyro-stabilizer that mounted around his waist he found he was able to wield the camera with far more ease than he had expected. After a few more adjustments, mostly to account for his height, he discovered the basic functions of the camera, quickly increasing his proficiency with each passing moment. Aside from the myriad of lens options, lighting settings, and zooms, the operation of the camera seemed straightforward enough. He powered the camera up, and pressed the record button. Carefully he tried to create the establishing shots that Shell had patiently described earlier. The biggest challenge, he discovered, was that his view would frequently become obstructed by milling officers and CID team members. When he was able to fit it all into frame, the sanctuary of the church, as it appeared to him through the lens was like a scene from some kind of Clive Barker horror film. Thick layers of dust and spider webs completely covered every surface, from the pews and the dilapidated candles to the towering pipe organ, in the rear of the room. Objects were easier to infer from their shape than by their color.
At the center of this bustling but solemn activity was a silver-haired gentleman who seemed to be directing everyone. He wore a tailored beige sports jacket, and olive green slacks. On his simply designed brown leather belt he had secured his shiny Detective’s shield. As Cash crept slowly behind Shell further into the sanctuary, he could see that the Detective appeared to be in the midst of a Q and A session with a younger uniformed officer. The Detective reached out and patted him on the shoulder before he abruptly turned and stomped over to the CID teams who were gathering samples.
Cautiously, and at a distance, they followed this Detective down the long red carpet runner that ran between the rows of the cracked and dusty pews. The majority of the activity seemed to be centered around a gruesome corpse that once been a young woman whose nude form reclined in a prone position on the altar. It was clearl by how her ankles and feet dangled off one end of altar that she was much too tall for it.
A police photographer with a digital camera moved cautiously around the corpse, capturing stills from one angle and then another. Each of his flashes reminded Cash of the violent bolts of lighting outside. As Cash turned to get a feel for the room, he saw that four technicians from the medical examiner’s office had begun setting up or breaking down equipment, he couldn’t tell which, in the rear of the sanctuary. Near them they used a piece of furniture in the building as a makeshift table. The table was littered with plastic bags and various small vials containing samples that had been labeled carefully on the front by hand.
A woman carrying paper sacks and a roll of duct tape passed Cash and Shell and knelt before the altar. Excluding the bags and duct tape, the image was so symbolically religious that Cash felt a shiver crawl down his spine. Carefully, with purple Nitrile gloved hands she lifted one of the victim’s pale hands and slipped it into a sack. Once she was satisfied, she used the duct tape to secure the bag gingerly around the victim’s wrist. Once she was satisfied with her work, she repeated the process with the victim’s other hand.
Another woman, who appeared to be in her forties and was just beginning to show glimpses of gray in her short hair crouched beside the technician and pushed the remains of the dress away to remove a scientific instrument that had been inserted into the victim’s liver. She stood up straight and tilted it until it became illuminated by the Halogen lights that were placed around the perimeter of sanctuary.
“68.4 degrees.” she said and cleaned the thermometer with a small fine-meshed micro fiber white cloth. “She’s been here awhile.”
“Of course she’s been here awhile, Marci.” said the detective in charge. “The question is how long?”
“Well Zhack,” she said pensively. “ rigor mortis appears to be fading from the limbs, and with a temperature of 68.4, and say........a decrease of about two degrees per hour, perhaps more because of her prone exposed position.” she squinted her eyes briefly in thought. “I’d have to say she’s been here sixteen to twenty-four hours...Roughly.”
“Sixteen hours?” the Detective sighed. “Anything else?”
“She’s suffered almost complete exsanguination.” another technician added. “Lividity of the external limbs appears minimal. We were forced to tourniquet her toe for a sample. Fortunately it should be enough for blood work.”
“Looks like she’s got plenty of injuries.” he said and indicated the cuts on her body. “No traces of blood found on the altar cloth or the altar itself?”
“She does have plenty of injuries but we haven’t located any significant traces of blood on the altar.”
“Start filming.” Shell whispered in Cash’s ear.
“All ready running.” he mouthed back.
Marci, gripped the victim’s head, near the temples, and raised it from the altar, until the chin rested on the victim’s chest. With one hand, she indicated the injuries on victim’s neck. “The incisions continue here on the back of the skull, the left and right trapezius muscles, note indications of a possible spinal tap. Incisions continue down the spinal column, including the left and right deltoid muscles.”
“Probable weapon?” Vahtel asked.
“Potentially a surgical laser.” she said.
“A laser?” Vahtel asked. He seemed genuinely surprised. “When I first saw the wounds I thought perhaps they had been created with a box knife. Are you sure?”
“As certain as we can be at this time. Cauterized skin at the edges of the wounds is more consistent with a laser than a blade. If it was a blade, we likely would have found evidence of blood loss at the wound, and jagged tissue tear that is consistent with a edged implement, and that doesn’t seem to be the case. Incisions seem to have been executed with a high level of precision. I think we will be able to answer some of these questions with more certainty once we get her back to the lab.”
The detective nodded and walked out of the sanctuary.
“Hmmm?” Cash asked, leaning towards Shell.
“Did you get all of that?”
“Good.” Shell said. “Let’s get some establishing shots like described earlier.” Cash nodded again. Slowly he turned, doing his best to get every bit of the room on film. After completing his spin he walked a few meters to the back of the church and repeated the whole process again. Shell observed this for a few minutes, careful to avoid appearing in any of the shots before she finally decided to prepare the set-up of the story. She would need to interview, if possible, the officers and technicians to lay the groundwork for the piece.
Shell walked over to the technicians located at the rear of the sanctuary, furthest from the altar. She gave her best effort to move slowly and silently as not to disturb them. Detective Vahtel spoke urgently with the younger officer that he had been speaking to when they entered. She approached cautiously ever closer to hear more clearly.
“Detective Vahtel, so far we’ve detected no fingerprints, blood stains, or clothing fragments. We appear to have some footprints and shoe-prints. With all this dust inside and the mud and rain outside.” the patrol officer shrugged. “I guess the perp must have entered after it began to rain. There’s two different pairs. According to CSI, one pair is a size seven sneaker that leads to an empty window frame downstairs. We figured that pair probably belonged to the wit who discovered the body. It appears that may of been his method of entry into the building.”
“Lets not figure or assume anything.” Vahtel said. “Double check with the witness. Find out one way or the other. I want to know for certain how he entered the building. ”
“Now what about the footprints?”
“The others were over here.” the patrolman said and led them further into the rear of the sanctuary. The younger officer eased past Detective Vahtel in the direction of the sanctuary to a section of floor located behind the altar that had been cordoned off with crime scene tape. Kneeling, he indicated four moist footprints that displaced the dust in front of the altar. Of the four wet prints, two faced the altar, a left and a right foot, while the other two formed a circular motion that blurred the image, as if someone had stepped back and turned on the balls of their feet after making the initial set. They were smudged and drying quickly. Vahtel thought it would probably be unlikely they would ever be able to determine the exact size of the foot from them, but he knew that determining such things was outside the scope of his skills, it was best to leave it up to CSI. They didn’t always take too kindly to Detectives suggesting what was possible and what wasn’t. Evidenced by the toe, the ball and heel of the depressions in the dust, they clearly appeared to be made by someone who had been walking barefoot, that much seem clear to him.
“Was our witness wearing shoes when you interviewed him?”
“Yes. He was.”
“Where do these footprints go?” Vahtel asked.
“That’s the real mystery.” the officer said and hastily explained. “There doesn’t seem to be any others.”
“Perhaps they were disturbed by the traffic inside?” Vahtel asked. He indicated the cluster of lab equipment. “Or perhaps by the movements of the boy?”
“The technicians don’t think so. We had Winks get some photos of these. ”
Marci Lebotz approached the group.
“What about her clothes?” Vahtel asked. “I haven’t seen any garments or undergarments here. Have we recovered any?”
“We haven’t found any.” Marci shrugged. “It's a possibility that she wasn’t wearing any when she arrived at her present location.”
Detective Vahtel snorted and turned around to face her. “Somehow I don’t think that was likely.” He and Marci gave each a meaningful look and said in unison “Souvenirs.”
“It’s possible.” Marci admitted. “Although I haven’t seen anything like this, at least not recently.”
“Any mobile phone, purse, wallet, backpack, mp3 player? Maybe a PDA?”
“No luck with those either.”
Vahtel sighed. “Right. Well, then how about I.D.? We have that, right?”
“Not yet.” Marci said. “The ME’s office gathered a DNA sample and dental impressions four hours ago. They’ve just been sent off to the lab.”
“What about a rape kit?”
“Completed. Samples were taken and sent with the others to the lab. I won’t be able to make definite determination whether she was raped or not until I get back the results. I’d like to observe the cuts and bruises more closely in our lab.”
“Anything else to add?” Vahtel asked the examiner.
“ That’s everything we’ve got for now.” she said and paced back over to the victim.
Shell leaned down and pursed her lips near Cash’s pointy ear. “Are you ready?” Her wispy hair and warm breath on his ear electrified him, and he nodded.
“Good.” she whispered.
The wind outside has picked up while they were inside. The effect was that they now faced thick blasts of driving rain. Glad to be away from law enforcement, Cash didn’t let it bother him as he trudged with Shell back to the van.
Inside the van an excitable Gigi greeted them. “You are such a good girl.” Shell cooed, and rewarded Gigi with a dog biscuit for her patience. “Do you need to use the bathroom honey?” Shell asked the dog.
Gigi licked at Shell’s face and kept her fuzzy head pointed at the van door. “Do you mind?” Shell asked Cash. “ It will just take a second.”
Cash shrugged, and Shell released the dog into the weather. Once free outside, Gigi bolted for the bushes, pulling the leash loose from Shell’s unprepared hand.
Gigi immediately disappeared into the brush nearer the street, just a short distance from the van. Shell’s face went pale as she imagined all the damage Gigi could do to the crime scene and clambered clumsily out of the van after her.
It was Cash who first found Gigi. Perched on her hind legs, she sniffed excitedly at the edges of a weathered and worn mailbox whose door had only been partially closed. “What is it?” Cash asked the dog. “What has you so excited?”
Gigi dug her nose determinedly in the crack, forcing the door to swing open. Now privy to the source of Gigi’s excitement, Cash reached his arm inside and withdrew a royal purple handbag made of silk..
“What do you have there?” Shell asked as she emerged from the brush.
“I’m not sure..” Cash said. “Come on. Lets take a look at this in the van.”
They cautiously made their way back to the van, keenly aware that if the police caught them with potential evidence it would mean trouble, at a minimum charges of obstruction of justice and/or tampering illegally with evidence.
Inside the news van, Shell and Cash went over the items in the purse. There were various types of makeup, a couple of lipstick tubes, some feminine pads, a few condoms, and a color coordinated wallet. As they sorted through the purse an I.D. card for the Nagasaki Corporation also fell out. Shell picked it up and examined it before she revealed it to Cash. Even in death they were able to recognize the youthful face of Jean Anne Dixon that smiled up at them from the photo on the front of the card. It listed her as presently employed as a mail clerk for Nagasaki. Clearly her features matched those of the victim that had been found inside the church. An examination of her Oregon drivers license further indicated she was five feet ten inches and weighed nearly 130 pounds.
“Think she earned enough on her mail clerk’s wages to buy this?” Cash asked, indicating the stylish purse.
“ The handbag is a Cristianini Firenze and the wallet is a Prada.” Shell said and shrugged as if that said it all.
Cash wouldn’t know an expensive gown if it bit him on the ass. “Are those expensive?” he asked.
“Lets just say they aren’t cheap. Definitely not the kind of accessories a woman would choose for a jungle adventure.”
Inside an interior satin lined pocket they discovered a piece of paper that had been folded Cash found it difficult to unfold it. Once he finally got it open, he was able to see what appeared to be a list of numbers. Each typed, in groups of ten digits each. “Bank accounts?” he suggested.
Shell looked at the numbers and nodded. “Possibly.”
Something didn’t feel quite right for Cash. The puzzle pieces didn't seem to fit. “I thought you said this was just a prostitute and her john?”
“I thought it was.”
He gave her his best knowing glance.
“What?” she shrugged. “I didn’t expect this anymore than you did.” Shell carefully put all of the items back inside the purse. “So where to next Dr. Holmes?”
“First, let’s ditch this van and get my car. You up for some breakfast? I have a friend who might know more about all of this than we do.” Cash tapped at the steering wheel thoughtfully “Particularly if she really was a prostitute.”
“Then how about we pay a visit to by 22640 West 102nd St, the vic’s address?” Shell asked. “And Nagasaki later?”
“Exactly.” Cash said.
“Sounds like a plan.”
Cash started the van up and flipped on the windshield wipers. The fierce rain ticked on the roof above fervently like the seconds on a time bomb. A cruel reminder that their three day head start was quickly evaporating like a midnight fog exposed by morning light..
Inside the sanctuary Detective Zhack Vahtel busily scribbled the thoughts he had about as quickly and freely as they occurred to him into his worn spiral notebook. Unfortunately, it didn’t appear this case was going to be much different from his other open cases. Few clues, fewer leads. His career slump was beginning to reach record proportions. He certainly couldn’t afford to have another case go cold. It was likely that if he didn’t come up with some arrests soon, he’d be back in uniform again, something that at his age he dreaded more than anything else the brass at the station could do to him. It had been over thirty years since he’d had a patrol beat. Never again, he had promised himself the day he had earned his detective rank. Now, if I could just get a break. Just one good break on any one of his cases would certainly jump-start his career again. Just one break was all he would need.
Once again he critically examined the vic again as the technicians prepared the Jane Doe for transportation.
Unlike some of the other veteran detectives at the station, the horror of homicide still bit deep inside him. Even after all these years it still dragged his kicking and screaming heart from behind his shield. It was painful exposing yourself to the overwhelming burden of being responsible for finding justice for another. Particularly when the vic happened to be a young woman. With the men it was a bit easier to accept. After all, men served on the front lines of war. Real men, he reasoned, knew that their lives were defined by the protection they gave others. Women however, and young women in particular were emotionally troubling for him, especially because inevitably he coudn't help but think of his own daughter Katja. She was nearly the same age as this woman had been. He wanted desperately to be able to ask this Jane Doe a flood of questions. Did you know you were going to die? Did you know your killer? Did you fight back?
He closed the notebook and enjoyed the feel of it in his hand. It was a constant companion. A companion that was loyal in a world that became a little more computerized everyday. It wasn’t that he hated or even disliked computers. Far from it, They could be helpful at times, but those helpful times for him seemed fewer and farthere between, and they never made up for all the times those machines drove him absolutely nuts. He slipped the notebook into the inner pocket of his sports jacket and paced slowly between the aged oaken doors of the sanctuary. It was ironic that a place whose sole purpose was that of solace had instead been the setting for so much destruction.
He was thankful that he had Rachael, his wife, and source of solace and faith in his life. When she was around, he felt at peace. No matter what kinds of horrors he encountered at work she was always able to bring him back. A joke, a smile, or a wink. Just one of those, and he was transported back from the brink of the insane and hopeless to the land of the sane and hopeful.
“Do you have a moment?” Marci Lebotz asked as she approached him. The strain of another long night of work was evident by the deep dark bags forming beneath her eyes. It would be hours before she could go home.
“Of course. What is it?”
“ I generally don’t sort the value of a case. Its not my place. I just take my notes and process the data.” She bit her lip.
He nodded, understanding perfectly, and said. “But you’re going to this time.”
“Zhack, this is more sinister than anything I’ve ever encountered before. The incisions were quite precise. Made in an exacting manner. I think it is likely they were created by a surgical laser. That doesn’t leave much for the crime of passion theory.”
“What can you tell me about such a laser? Exactly would should I look for?”
“I’m already on top of it. They are most often used in either ophthalmology, as a branding device on cattle, or for skin resurfacing performed by plastic and reconstructive surgeons. I think your best bet would be with the staff of Mid-Columbia Medical Center. If not there, then I suppose we could contact a private practice ophthalmologist.”
He nodded. “In the meantime I’m going to head back to the office. With a little luck we might be able have toxicology, DNA, and histology take a look at these before tomorrow. Who knows we might be able to get back the results as soon as Wednesday.”
“Of course. Thanks Marci.” Vahtel said and headed for his cruiser. It had been pitch black out when he’d arrived, but now he was able to see the dark leaden clouds and the misty morning fog. It would still be another hour or two before the sun dispelled the vapor.
Clearly this case wasn't going to be an open and shut case. There were already so many questions that had yet to be answered. We don’t even know who you are. Why the laser? Did it have meaning? Why the bother with the effort? Why leave her here? Does the killer have a connection to this place? If someone wanted her dead, why not just strangle, shoot, or stab her?