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Authors: James Neal Harvey

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BOOK: The Headsman
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Jud had never been in the house before, but he’d passed it often enough. Braddock had no really elegant section, just a few big places like this one scattered through it, some of them built a hundred years ago or more, in the days when a sawmill and paper manufacturing business had flourished just outside the town on the banks of the Nepawa River. He was standing now in a wide hallway with deep carpeting and blue-and-white papered walls. A stairway led to the floor above, but the sobs seemed to be coming from down here, from one of the rooms off the hall. He went into the room.

Apparently this was the living room. It looked a lot more formal than what Jud was used to seeing around Braddock. There were two sofas and groupings of chairs and a desk and a marble fireplace and tall windows with drapes that came down to the floor. Helen Dickens was sitting on one of the sofas.

Jud had met her a few times, but he wasn’t as well acquainted with her as he was with her husband. She was on the heavy side, with stringy brown hair and a face that might have been pretty when she was younger, but that had become bloated from age and maybe too much booze and rich food. At the moment it looked even worse, her nose red and her eyes swollen from crying. She was holding a handkerchief to her mouth and shuddering.

Kramer was standing beside her and seemed to be awkwardly trying to comfort her. The cop didn’t look too great either, Jud thought—his skin was pasty and his expression looked as if somebody had kicked him.

Jud raised his eyebrows questioningly, and Kramer replied by pointing upward. Jud nodded and left the room, heading for the stairs. He took the steps two at a time, instinctively putting his hand on the .357 Magnum Smith & Wesson in its holster on his right hip. When he reached the upstairs hallway he saw several doors, one of them standing open. He made his way to it and looked into the room.

Dear God. Sitting on a dresser top, facing the door, was Marcy Dickens’ head. The eyes were staring straight at him.

2

Death was no stranger to Jud MacElroy. He’d seen plenty of it in the army and in his eight years on the cops. And a mangled body was nothing new, either. He’d encountered them torn apart, disemboweled, crushed, blown to pieces, ripped every which way. And often enough over the years so that he could almost take the sight of one in stride. Horrifying, but part of the job. Something you’d seen before and knew you’d see again.

This one, however, was a different experience. Somebody—or some
thing
—had deliberately and savagely cut the head off what had been a healthy, pretty, teenaged girl. And judging from the horror frozen on her features, she had known what was happening to her. For all his experience, he felt like puking. He took a deep breath, and then tried to look objectively at what he was seeing.

The head was resting on a white dresser scarf, in a pool of dried blood. The rest of the body lay on the floor, on its back, wearing a short pink nightgown that was twisted around the waist. The legs were sprawled apart, the arms flung out to the side. A rug under the body was discolored by a large dark stain, and blood had seeped out from the rug onto the surrounding floorboards as the body had exsanguinated.

Jud immediately thought of sexual assault, but there was no way to be sure of that until an autopsy was performed. Moving very carefully so as not to disturb anything in the room, he stepped to the body and crouched beside it.

From what he could see, there were no signs of a struggle on her flesh—no cuts, no bruises. The skin was as white as goat’s cheese, without even the usual dark spots from cyanosis. That would be because so much of the blood had drained from the corpse. No wonder the rug and the floor were such a mess; the human body holds six quarts of the stuff, and that was a hell of a lot of blood.

He glanced around at the rest of the room. No evidence of a fight anywhere else, either. The furniture seemed all in place, nothing overturned or broken.

He stood up and stepped to the dresser. Up close, he saw that the girl’s eyes were glazed, the pupils dilated. Their wide stare was exaggerated because the eyeballs had been distended, as if from a blow. It looked to him as if her head had been severed with one swipe. From a sword, possibly, or an ax. The neck was sitting in the dried blood, but he could see the wound well enough to confirm his hunch; the edges of the cut were clean, not ragged as they would have been if the killer had used a knife or some other sharp object to saw through the tissues and the spinal column.

Jud was about to turn away when her hair caught his attention. It was dark brown, almost black, and the ends were stuck in the viscous pool. On top of the head, however, the strands were tangled and sticking up. Whoever had done this must have picked up the head by the hair and set it on the dresser top. A picture of the act came into his mind and again he felt his stomach turn over.

“Holy shit.”

He turned to see two more cops, Dick O’Brien and Charley Ostheimer, standing in the doorway and peering into the room. Jud hadn’t heard their siren, if they’d used it, and hadn’t heard them come up the stairs, so deeply immersed had he been in his thoughts. O’Brien was an oldtimer, Ostheimer had been on the force only a year. But it was O’Brien who’d spoken.

“Don’t come in here yet,” Jud said. “You bring a camera?”

O’Brien was gaping at the headless body on the floor. He swallowed. “It’s in the car.”

Jud felt a twinge of embarrassment for the girl, her legs spread, the black pubic patch in full view. “Go get it,” he ordered.

Ostheimer hurried down the stairs and Jud stepped out into the hall. “Anybody call the coroner?”

The older cop looked sheepish. “Naw, Jud—we just got out here quick as we could.”

“All right,” Jud said. “I’ll take care of it. Ambulance here yet?”

“Yeah, it was right behind us. I told ’em to wait outside.”

“Okay. You and Ostheimer start taking pictures. Nobody else is allowed in here until the doc gets finished. And for Christ’s sake be careful, will you? Don’t touch anything. We’ll need the state guys in this and I don’t want to hear a lot of crap from them.”

As Jud made his way downstairs in search of a phone the front door burst open and Ed Dickens stepped into the hall. Jud had been dreading this; he slowed down as he got to the bottom of the stairs. Dickens looked stunned and frantic at the same time. His usually immaculate topcoat was rumpled, his tie was askew. His dark hair was disheveled. He started to push past and Jud stopped him by grabbing both his arms.

The banker struggled. “Let go of me, goddamn it.”

Jud hung on. “Ed, listen. Don’t go up there. You hear me? Don’t.”

Dickens went on trying to pull free. “But Marcy—I’ve got to—”

“No,” Jud said. “Stay down here. You can’t do anything for her now.”

That registered; Dickens’ body sagged. He stared at the chief. “Then it’s true? She’s dead?”

Jud nodded and released him, and Dickens buried his face in his hands. “Oh my God,” he said. “Oh my God.”

Jud let him cry, putting an arm around his shoulder. After a minute he said to him, “Your wife needs you. She’s in the other room there.”

Dickens drew back, making an effort to get himself together. He pulled a handkerchief out of his back pocket and wiped his eyes. When he looked at Jud he thrust out his jaw. “What happened—who did this?”

“We don’t know who did it. We’re just starting our investigation.”

“But what happened—how did she die?”

There was no way to soften it; he’d know sooner or later. “She was decapitated.”

Dickens flinched. “Jesus.”

“Yes.”

“Who could have done such a thing? Marcy didn’t have any enemies—she was just a kid. You think it could have been a burglar?”

“We don’t know, Ed. Please go to your wife now, will you?”

Dickens directed his gaze up the stairway for a few moments, and then he straightened up. He shook his head once and turned away, walking slowly down the hall and into the room where Helen Dickens was.

There was a telephone on a table near the front door. Jud went to it and called police headquarters. He got Sergeant Joe Grady on the line and told Grady to call Doc Reinholtz, the coroner, right away. Also to call the New York State Police barracks at Franklin and ask them to send a homicide investigation team.

“What about a medical examiner from Memorial,” Grady asked. “To assist Reinholtz?”

“Yeah, call for one.”

“And the county attorney?”

“Notify him too.” Jud knew Grady was subtly needling him by asking about procedures that would be standard practice under the circumstances. It was Grady’s way of reminding Jud that Grady had been a sergeant in the BPD longer than Jud had been on the force.

But Jud refused to let this kind of petty shit get to him. “Any news media contact you, dust ’em off,” he went on. “Tell ’em there’ll be a statement later. Also send more cops out here. I think we’ll get a lot of rubbernecking.” He hung up and went down the hall to the room where the Dickenses were.

When he walked in, Ed Dickens was sitting beside his wife on a sofa, holding her hand. She wasn’t crying any longer, but was staring glassy-eyed at the floor, clutching the sodden handkerchief. Dickens had removed his topcoat and it lay over one of the chairs. Bob Kramer was still standing there, looking even more uncomfortable that he had earlier.

Jud motioned to Kramer and when the cop came over to him he inclined his head toward Mrs. Dickens and spoke in low tones. “She tell you anything?”

“No.”

“All right. Go on out there on the porch. Don’t let anybody near the house unless they have business here. No newspeople. There’ll be more cops to help you in a little while.”

When Kramer had left, Jud took off his cap and approached the couple. “Excuse me,” he said to Helen Dickens. “I know this is very painful for you, but I need to ask you some questions.”

Ed Dickens started to protest, and Jud said, “It could help, you know.”

Before Dickens could reply, his wife said, “It’s all right. I’ll try.”

Jud took off his jacket and dropped it onto the carpet along with his cap. He pulled a chair closer to them and sat down, taking a small spiral notebook and a ballpoint from the pocket of his uniform shirt. “Mrs. Dickens, I understand you discovered your daughter’s body?”

She nodded, continuing to stare at the floor.

“What time was that?”

“About nine o’clock. I called her a couple of times, and she didn’t answer. I don’t like her to sleep too late. Saturdays she has things she’s supposed to do for me.”

He noticed she was speaking as if the girl were still alive. “And so you went up to her room?”

Helen Dickens’ head came up, her puffy eyes widening and her mouth dropping open, as if she was living the shock of the discovery all over again. A low, tortured wail erupted from her throat.

I don’t blame you, lady, Jud thought. I don’t blame you a goddamn bit.

She was shuddering again, stuffing the handkerchief into her mouth, while her husband tried to console her.

This isn’t going to work, Jud thought. She’s in no shape to tell me anything.

But Helen Dickens surprised him. She struggled to get herself under control, speaking with obvious difficulty. “Yes. I went up there.”

“Had you noticed anything wrong in the house? Anything out of place, any sign there might have been an intruder?”

“No, nothing.”

Jud didn’t know what the coroner would say about the time of death, but considering the condition of the body and the dried blood, it was apparent Marcy Dickens had been killed sometime during the night. “When was the last time you saw her, before this morning?”

“It was—at dinner last night. We ate early, because she was going to the basketball game and the dance after.”

“Did she go to the game with anyone?”

“Buddy Harper.”

“Harper. That Peter Harper’s son?”

“Yes. He came by and picked her up at about seven-thirty.”

Peter Harper owned a drugstore on Main Street. Jud vaguely recalled his boy was a teenager who liked to fool around with cars. “Were they going together? Seeing each other often?”

“Fairly often, yes.”

“Was she dating anyone else?”

“Not for several months.”

“And before that?”

“A few different people, nobody special.”

“So the Harper boy was the first one she’d ever gone steady with?”

Before his wife could answer, Ed Dickens said, “They weren’t going steady. They were just dating.”

“They were going steady,” Helen Dickens said.

“What about some of her other friends?”

“She runs around with a crowd of seniors at the high school. Pat Campbell, Jeff Peterson, Alice Boggs, Billy Swanson, people like that.”

“Any of them ever get into any trouble that you know about?”

Both parents were quiet for a moment, then shook their heads.

Jud made some notes. He looked up. “Don’t be offended by this, but I’m sure you know a lot of kids drink these days, and smoke pot. Could you tell me if Marcy did either of those?”

“I think she drank a little beer now and then,” Helen Dickens said, “but that’s all.”

“No dope of any kind,” Ed Dickens added. “I’m sure of that.”

Jud nodded. “Okay. What time did she get home, do you know?”

“I think around twelve,” Helen said. “We were in bed, so I’m not positive. Our bedroom is downstairs, at the other end of the house.”

“Would she have come in the front door?”

“Yes.”

“Is it usually locked?”

“I always lock it before I go to bed. She has a key.”

“Was it locked this morning?”

“Yes. I unlocked it when I got the paper off the front porch.”

“Did you hear any noises during the night, either of you?”

Both shook their heads.

“What time did you leave this morning, Ed?”

“Usual time. Eight o’clock. We’re open until noon on Saturdays, as you know.”

“Yes. Did anything seem out of order to you around the house—anything at all?”

Dickens thought about it. “No. Helen made coffee for me and I had that and some juice and toast and then I left.”

“Was your car in the garage?”

BOOK: The Headsman
13.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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