Authors: Nile J. Limbaugh
For My Father
Thanks to Arlene Rentz of the Bainbridge Public Safety Department for helping me to size the TO&E of the Trinidad Police Department.
January 19, 2004
out of Galveston labored northward through the night-black gulf water a mile and a half offshore. Her ancient diesel engines drummed unevenly belowdecks and her rusty hull groaned and creaked as she slid from trough to trough. The lookout at the bow leaned against the rail, alternately dozing and thinking about the girl he had met in Jacksonville two days before. She looked, he thought, like Dolly Parton from the neck down. Unfortunately she looked like Clint Eastwood from the neck up. He was willing to endure the face and enjoy the body, but she thought otherwise.
He turned his thoughts to known quantities, such as Trudy back home in Lubbock. Suddenly he was yanked back to reality by the squawk of the walkie-talkie hanging from his belt.
“Hey, Leo, did you see that?” the radio asked.
Leo thumbed the switch to answer the bridge. “See what? It’s pitch black out here.”
“That light off the starboard bow. You been beatin’ your meat again? Pay attention. It looked like…there it is again.”
Leo looked quickly to the right and was rewarded with a brilliant flash of light that came and went in a split second. Temporarily blinded, it took a moment for his eyes to adjust enough to see the dull glow that remained at the horizon. He punched the switch again.
“If it wasn’t so low, I’d think it was lightning,” he said into the instrument. “Is there a town over there?”
“Let me think.” The radio was silent for a moment. “We passed Steinhatchee a while back. The next town would be Trinidad. That must be it. Hey, look. There it is again.”
The next flash seemed to fill the horizon with a horrid white glare laced with green lightning and surrounded by a purple aura. And then the storm came out of nowhere. The wind shrieked through the ship’s rigging with unearthly fury and threatened to roll the old coaster over onto its port gunwale. Leo was driven across the ancient wooden deck and slammed against the side rail. Gasping for air, he teetered on the rail as the water seemed to rush up to meet him. Leo frantically waved his arms and managed to grab something solid, first with one hand, then the other. He hung on for dear life. Everything that had led up to this moment was quickly forgotten.
The storm came and went so swiftly that it made only momentary blips on the radar screens at the Coast Guard Stations along the gulf coast. But when it hit Trinidad at six minutes after six on Sunday morning the resident — those who were already awake—stopped what they were doing and wondered if they should go in search of the storm shutters. Just as they made up their minds the wind and rain disappeared as quickly as it had come. But the silence that followed was worse than the storm preceding it and left the seasoned residents waiting for the wind to whip around and clobber them from the opposite direction.
The gulls that rose in the wake of the storm in search of breakfast found the body first. A few of the brighter birds recognized the sodden lump as being somehow human and approached warily to perform the time-honored sea gull version of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” When their squawking and bobbing produced neither breadcrumbs nor cheese snacks the feathered beggars lost interest in the useless pile of humanity and swooped off in search of a more promising venue.
The wind and rain caught Charlie Banks halfway between Perry and Trinidad and nearly blew his old pickup truck off the road. Unable to see past the end of the hood, he pulled onto the shoulder to wait it out. No sooner had he settled down with a cigarette than the thing was over. As he drove back onto the roadway he wondered if the storm had done any damage to the structure. Dawn was prying open the lid of darkness that covered the gulf when he finally turned the pickup off the road and onto the site. Charlie took a flashlight from under the seat and climbed down from the cab to see if anything needed to be repaired. He was prowling through the wind-blown trash, making mental notes, when the beam of the flashlight picked out a mound in the center of the steel skeleton that would support the main entry hall. He frowned and wondered how something that size had come to rest there. When he bent down and saw one lifeless eye staring back at him, he froze for a moment. He swallowed twice, backed slowly away then galloped to his pickup and punched up 911 on the cell phone.
Gerhart rolled over and fumbled blindly for the receiver. He hated calls that came in the small hours of the morning. They seemed to disrupt his sleep the most.
“Chief? This is Ford. We got a D.B. at the mall.”
“The new…Hell! We just got the one!”
“Glad you’re awake. Accident?”
“Don’t know. The foreman just got there. He called it in. Name’s, let’s see…Banks.”
“Did you call Holloway?”
“First thing. Said he’d be right over with the wagon.”
Chief of Police Gerhart Kable hung up the phone, swung his legs off the bed, stretched and shambled into the bathroom. Ten minutes later he was dressed. On his way past Virginia’s room he glanced in at his wife, but she was still sound asleep. Gerhart shrugged and went out to his unmarked cruiser.
Patrolman Mazack was already on the scene, rolling yellow tape around the base of the steel framing, when Gerhart parked next to Mazack’s patrol car. He got out and walked over to the Patrolman.
“Where is it?” he asked.
Mazack stopped rolling long enough to point into the center of the building framework. “Right smack dab in the middle, close enough.” He indicated a dusty Chevy pickup with a nod of his head. “Guy who found it is over in the truck. He don’t look so good.”
Gerhart nodded. “He’ll get over it. Stay here and keep out the gawkers. I’ll take a look.”
He ducked under the tape and walked into the structure. The sun was now high enough to bounce light from the steel beams and columns that framed what would become the entryway into the shopping mall. The floor was cluttered with bundles of reinforcing bars, stacks of concrete forms and piles of girts and purlins. A welding generator stood in one corner and in the center of everything lay a mound of clothing that appeared as though it had been there since the turn of the century. Gerhart stopped five feet from the motionless figure and looked the area over carefully.
The storm had swept the floor clean of anything that weighed less than five pounds and had obliterated any footprints that might have been left in the dirt on the concrete floor. Gerhart walked slowly in a circle around the body. As he finished his circuit he heard a vehicle pull into the lot and come to a stop. He looked up to see Jonathon Holloway climb out of a black Dodge van with “Coroner” stenciled in small letters on the door. Gerhart thumbed at the body as Holloway walked up to him.
“Howdy, Jonathon. Happy Sunday.”
The coroner grunted. “You finished looking around?”
“Yeah. Go ahead. I want to talk to the guy who found it.”
Gerhart walked off as Holloway squatted carefully next to the body. Charlie Banks was sitting in his truck and had composed himself enough to pour a cup of coffee from his thermos bottle. Gerhart leaned on the truck door.
“I’m Chief Kable,” he said. “You found the body?”
Banks nodded slowly. “Right where it is, Chief.”
“What brings you out here on a Sunday? You running the crew today?”
“No. But we’ve been working six-day weeks trying to make the deadline. When I got home last night I remembered somebody saying we were short on high strength bolts. I promised the family we’d spend today in Tallahassee, so I figured if I ran out here early, I could check it out, call the supplier if I had to and leave a message on his machine. That way I could get the bolts out here by Tuesday or Wednesday.”
Gerhart nodded. “What time did you get here?”
“Just about sunrise. Must have been a little after six.”
Gerhart straightened up. “Thanks, Mr. Banks. Could I have a number where I can reach you if I have any questions?”
“Sure.” Banks leaned across the seat, fumbled in the glove compartment for a moment and produced a business card. “Here you go.”
Gerhart took the card, nodded his thanks and walked back to Holloway. “What’s the verdict?” he asked the coroner.
“Male cauc, mid-50s, no external marks that I can see right now. Dead as Elvis. You want pictures?”
“Don’t I always? Ford will be sending somebody around. We’ll leave things alone till he gets here. You had breakfast yet?”
“Neither have I. Mazack!” Gerhart yelled. “When one of the guys shows up with a camera, call me. We’re going to The Plate for breakfast.”
Mazack held a thumb in the air then fished in a shirt pocket for some chewing gum.
Holloway called Gerhart at home about five that evening. “Sorry to interrupt what’s left of your Sunday, but I finished the autopsy and thought you’d like to know about it.”
“It’s a stinker,” the coroner confessed. “It wasn’t a brain-buster finding the cause of death, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out the details.”
“What do you mean?”
Holloway sighed audibly. “He was killed…are you ready for this…by falling from a great height.”
“Define a great height.”
“Oh, something like twenty or thirty stories, I should think.”
Gerhart frowned into the phone. “Have you been sniffing your own formaldehyde?”
“I know, I know, but that’s exactly what killed him. Although he looks pretty good from the outside, his internal workin’s are all mixed up and splattered against each other. It’s unreal.”
“Well, hell, Jonathon, how can somebody drop thirty floors and not smash himself flatter than a crepe suzette?”
“Beats me, but you saw the stiff yourself. You want to come down here and have a look before I shut the hood?”
Gerhart squinted at the ceiling. “No, thanks. I’ll take your word for it. Besides, how would I know what I was looking at if it’s all stew, anyway? Close him up. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Did you find out who he was?”
“I think so. There was an old Pontiac parked on the beach about two blocks from the mall. It had a tag sticker from Pinellas County. Nobody seemed to know who owned it, so we ran it through the DMV and came up with a Joseph Lucas from Dunedin. I called the Dunedin cops and they’re checking him out for me.”
Holloway was silent for a moment. “Do you think the guy could have been dumped in the mall after he died?”
“I suppose so,” Gerhart said, “but that doesn’t explain how he got his guts screwed up without making hash out of his face. He was in the mall before that freak storm hit. He was all covered with sand and dirt from the wind and rain.”
“At last, a real mystery in Trinidad, Florida.” Holloway said with a deep announcer’s voice.
“I can do without it,” Gerhart said. As he hung up the phone Virginia walked into the room. “Who was that?” she asked.
“Holloway. About the body they found in the mall this morning.”
“Oh.” She opened her purse and retrieved her keys. “I’m going to the Bransons’ for a while. There’s a meeting for the cancer fundraiser. Meat loaf and green beans are in the fridge. I should be back around ten.” She turned to leave.
“I thought we were going out for dinner this evening,” Gerhart said. She stopped and looked at him with raised eyebrows.
“I told you about this last month. Did you forget?”
Gerhart nodded slowly. “I guess so. I seem to forget a lot of your meetings. I wish you could forget a few.”
“Sorry,” she said lifting a shoulder. “You’ve got your life and I’ve got mine.” Then she turned and left as her husband stared, frowning, at her back.
The following Thursday, Gerhart was out the door and headed for lunch when Sergeant Chambers yelled down the hall for him. Gerhart went back into his office and picked up the phone.
“This is Lieutenant Orselli in Dunedin, Chief Kable. I’m afraid there isn’t much we can tell you about your D.B. He lives alone and doesn’t have any relatives that we can find. His next-door neighbor told us she thought he was an engineer, or something like that.” Gerhart heard Orselli stop to slurp something. “We checked with the state certification board, but he wasn’t registered. Then we started calling around. Found out he was an architect, not an engineer. Worked for an outfit called Southeast Commercial Design over in Tampa.”