Authors: Rex Burns
Speak for the Dead
Open Road Integrated Media
Herb and Dot
new to the homicide section of the Denver Police Department, and the partner who was to break him in had been sent to a three-week police seminar at Oklahoma State.
“We send people whenever we have the money, Wager; if we don’t, we lose the opportunity.” Chief Doyle’s lower teeth shone briefly in what might have been a smile. The detectives called him “the bulldog” behind his back. “You’ve had a lot of experience over in narcotics, and you’ll do all right here.
you meet deadlines, and
you follow proper procedures. We compete for funds with forty other agencies, and I don’t want any black eyes for my section.”
The deadlines were court orders interpreting Constitutional rights: seventy-two hours from arrest to advisement, one week from advisement to second appearance, preliminary within thirty days, and so on. Wager was a little peeved that Doyle didn’t credit him with knowing basics. The crack about procedures was another thing; it was the unease a conventional cop always felt toward a narc agent, ex- or otherwise.
To make sure Wager would do all right, especially without a partner, the bulldog had assigned him to the midnight-to-eight shift—usually the quietest of the three. However, two days later, on Wednesday morning, October 20th, a known-dead report came in at 7:10. When Wager took it, he guessed Doyle would want him to leave it for the day shift, due on in less than an hour; but Wager was a cop, and he knew he was as good as any other. He tossed aside the procedure manual he had been leafing through and hustled across town in that little pause of traffic that comes before the morning rush.
By the time he pulled in to the parking area above the Botanic Gardens, an overcast October dawn was seeping into the sky, bringing the kind of gray that made things visible without casting any shadows at all. In the dull light, the conservatory looked like a glass balloon held to earth by cold threads of concrete. The only other vehicle in the narrow parking lot was the police car responding to the call. A patrolman sat with his legs dangling out of the front seat to speak tersely on the radio. He nodded hello as Wager approached. “You the new homicide detective?”
“Gabe Wager. What do you have?”
The officer’s chrome name badge said “G. Bauman.” “You got to see it to believe it, Detective Wager.” Turning back a page or two in his pocket notebook, he read the specifics of the reported death. “The victim was found inside the conservatory building; a white female, age probably between twenty and twenty-five. No identification.”
“She was found inside?” Wager had assumed the body would be lying in a thicket handy to one of the roads surrounding the grounds.
“Yeah. That surprised me, too. Anyway, she’s got short blond hair, blue eyes, and no identifying marks or scars. She was found by the chief utility worker, a Mr. Salvador Solano, address 1325 Ulster, Denver. He was just beginning his work when he found it.”
“Does he always come in about this time?”
Bauman looked up, the straight brown hair swinging far beneath the edge of his cap. In Wager’s day, an officer had regulations about the length of his hair. “I don’t know. He’s in the janitor’s room with my partner. He’s pretty shook up still, so I didn’t ask him too much.”
“Cause of death?”
“I sure as hell don’t think it was suicide. The lab people are on their way, and I just gave the medical examiner another call.”
“Any indications of assault? Rape?”
“Nope.” A tiny smile said Bauman was holding back a surprise.
Wager didn’t like coyness, especially in cops who were supposed to gather information and pass it to the proper authority. At a death scene, the homicide detective was the proper authority. “Was she dressed or was she naked? Did she die here or was she brought here dead?”
“She was brought here—she sure was. But I don’t know about her clothes.”
“Then she was naked.”
“I don’t know.”
“Goddamn it, Bauman, she’s either wearing clothes or not!”
“Yeah. But we don’t know which. There was nothing to put the clothes on.”
“What do you mean?”
“All we found was her head.”
-three years old, was less than Wager’s medium height, had dark eyes and hair showing gray at the temples. He hopped up from his thermos of coffee when Wager and Bauman came into the small janitor’s office tucked beneath a stairwell that rose from the dark lobby.
“This is Detective Wager,” Bauman said. “My partner, Bill Haraway; this here’s Mr. Solano.”
“Hi,” said Haraway. “Did Gene show it to you yet?”
Gene must be the “G.” in Officer Bauman’s name. “No. Were you the only person to go in there, Mr. Solano?” Wager asked.
“Me and the two officers, yeah. Yes, sir.” He sat a little straighter and looked at Wager like a schoolboy waiting for questions.
“Want to tell me what happened?”
He took a deep breath and Wager could see that the events were sorting themselves into a story. In a few days, it would be worth a beer at a local bar and not worth a squeaky fart to an investigator. “Like I told the officer, here, I came in like I always do and turned on the lights and started the water and checked the gauges.”
“Temperature, humidity. They’re supposed to be computerized and all, but I still keep an eye on them. There’s a lot of expensive specimens here, and it wouldn’t take much to kill some of them. So I watch the gauges just in case. Even if it ain’t my job.”
“What’d you do next?”
“Like always, I went to turn on the misting system and then started my cleanup. I rake the walks to get paper and stuff out of the plants. That part ain’t so bad. Most people who come here are pretty good about using the trash cans. Even most of the kids, though school trips are something else—you get a bunch of kids on a school trip and half the time they don’t give a darn for anything, you know?”
“How did you find the head, Mr. Solano?”
“Well, I was raking the side path up by the big waterfall, and I thought I saw something across the stream, a paper bag or something. There’s this little stream that starts at the big waterfall on the west end and goes all the way down the conservatory. Well, I looked across and when I did, I saw it. Her.”
“What’d you do then?”
“Nothing. It was really weird. I mean, I knew what it was right away—my eyes told me what it was. But my mind wouldn’t believe it. I thought it was maybe a picture or part of a statue—one of them kind in the store windows, a dummy, you know. Then I saw where it bled. And I guess I stood there about five minutes just thinking, ‘It’s real.’”
“I backed right out. No, I must of turned around to get down here to the lobby—that’s where the telephone is, just over there—but I don’t remember walking. I called the operator and she called the cops. I couldn’t even dial the emergency number, just the operator. I can’t even remember what I said to her. She told me to stay here and she would call the cops.”
“We got the dispatch at”—Bauman flipped a page of his notebook—”six-forty-four.”
“Was the building secure when you got here this morning?” Wager asked Solano.
“Yeah, I guess. The door I always use was locked, anyway, and I had to unlock the front doors to let the cops in. That’s the only two ways in here.”
“Why don’t you show me the door you used?” Wager said.
Solano led him and Haraway across the echoing lobby. In the room’s still air, the heavy fragrance of a dahlia display reminded Wager of a warm funeral parlor. “It’s back here.” A concrete slab spouted a shelf of water that plunged into a long reflecting pool surrounded by the bright dahlias. Behind it, a bronze-framed glass door opened on a small landing beneath the overhang of the roof.
“Why do you use this door?”
“It’s the employee door—I’m an employee. Our parking lot’s just down there.” He pointed left past the loading ramp to a series of greenhouses separate from the domed building. A bank of earth hid the greenhouses from the main grounds. A single red Toyota pickup with a white camper shell sat next to the first greenhouse.
“The truck’s yours?”
“Yeah. I always park there.”
Because it’s the employee parking lot. Wager knelt to peer closely at the door’s metal frame. “This was locked when you got here?”
It was a dead-bolt latch, a double cylinder that required a key inside and out, and could not be opened with a sliver of stiff plastic. The weathered bronze frame showed no tool scratches or dimpled marks. If it had been picked, the lab people would spot the inevitable scratches on the tumblers. If not, then someone had used another door—or a key. “Do all the employees have a key to the outside doors?”
“I’m not sure how many people got keys. Me and a few others.”
“How many people work here?”
Solano thought a moment. “About twenty-three. There’s more in the summer—outside help. But not all of them have keys; most are people who don’t come in here to work.”
“Who keeps a record of the keys?”
“That would be Mr. Sumner, the deputy director. He keeps a record of everything. He’s that way—everything’s got to be on a chart, you know?”
Wager knew. He jotted the name in his green notebook. “You feel up to showing it to me now?”
Solano’s breath whistled in his hairy nostrils. “I guess. This way.”
Wager followed the nervous man into the lobby and through another bank of glass doors. All but one were locked, and all of the locked ones were dead bolt also. “Is this always left open?” Wager nodded at the unlocked door.
The man scratched at his cropped hair. “It’s supposed to be locked, but a lot of times it ain’t. I really don’t remember if I had to unlock it or not this morning.”
“Does the same key fit these doors as fits the outside one?”
“Sure. They’re all on the same master. If they weren’t, we’d have a ring of keys this big!”
In the conservatory, tall palm trees loomed shaggy against the glass sky, and billows of leaves and branches rose on each side of the winding sand paths. The stream hissed and splashed from half a dozen hidden corners, and humid air clung to breathe different scents as the men wound past a variety of limbs and blossoms.
“This is really pretty,” said officer Haraway. “Kind of like Eden.”
Complete with snake, thought Wager. “Did you and Bauman look around for any other parts of the body?”
“Yes, sir,” said Haraway. “In here we did. Some. But we didn’t find anything. It was pretty dark and we stayed on the paths. We figured the lab people would make a systematic, so we just looked from the paths. If you want the outside grounds searched, we’ll need more people. It’s about the size of three city blocks.”
“It smells like there’s some more around,” said Wager.
Solano sniffed. “That’s an amorphophallus. It usually blooms in the spring, but it’s got a little scent now.” The utility worker’s face grew pale and he swallowed. “It makes a smell like rotten meat to draw flies; I don’t think I’m going to be able to work around that plant for a long time.”
Wager did not like the odor either; he pointed up the slope of the curving path, “Come on, Solano, let’s get it over with.”
They passed under shiny oleander leaves and vines twisting up palm trunks to arc into a green matting that tumbled clusters of bougainvillaea. Here and there, air plants hung down their hairy tendrils. Small nameplates dangled beside each specimen; and Wager, still puzzling over how the head had got in there, gazed at the thick and breathing greenness and fragrant explosions of blossoms. And he began to puzzle over why as well.
They turned onto a smaller path that looped near a ribbon of water plunging six feet into the concrete-banked stream. “It’s over there,” Solano gestured without looking. “Just down from that fig tree.”
Stooping to peer across the stream and under the broad leaf of an elephant-ear plant, Wager saw it lying on its cheek as if someone had placed it on its neck and wearily it had tilted to one side to lie on the moist, dark earth. The eyes were half open, the jaw hung slack to gap the mouth slightly. Against the gray, drained flesh, the make-up around the eyes and the lipstick were very dark. And in some strange way, the head did not seem out of place. The straight nose, the long but gently rounding curve of the jaw had a symmetry that made Wager understand why Solano might think it was from a mannequin; and if it had been marble instead of real, it might even be picturesque.