Death’s blood stained the four boys who stood in a ring, dressed in jackets zipped to the top and hoods pulled around their faces, which served to thwart the moist night air and conceal their identity. Naked trees stretched out above their heads, with branches of bony fingers pointing down as though accusing. An oppressive stillness surrounded them, threatening to suffocate their labored breaths.
“Hurry up. I’m cold!” the first boy demanded.
“Shut up. I can’t go any faster,” snapped another.
The sound of a shovel scraping against small rocks as it dug into the soil produced an unnatural sound to accompany the dark setting.
“You do it.” The boy passed the shovel to a third who stood holding a flashlight. The scuffing sound continued to fill the air until at the center of the boys’ circle there was a shallow grave.
“Come on,” said the first boy as he led the others to a piece of plastic sheeting and pulled. The others grabbed hold and helped pull, then the smallest of the boys let go and the weight of his corner dropped to the ground. The boy fell, scrambling backward until his back was against a tree.
“What the hell!” yelled the first boy.
The smaller boy hugged his knees to his chest. “It’s moving.”
The boys released their hold, letting the plastic fall to the ground, and fixed their eyes on the heap in the center. A small clawing sound came from inside the wrapped sheeting, and the first boy picked up the shovel and brought it down on the plastic, making a sickening thud. A soft whimpering came from inside, until repeated blows brought deafening silence and stillness again.
The first boy dropped the shovel. “Let’s go.” He resumed picking up the plastic, and the other two followed.
The smallest boy curled into a ball on the damp ground, and his body shook as he tried to conceal his weeping. “Shut up,” hissed the first boy, and the smaller boy held his breath and pulled himself up, scraping his back against a tree. He placed his palm on the tree trunk to steady himself and felt a carving on the tree and looked down at it. Underneath his hand someone had crafted a heart with two sets of initials inside. It seemed misplaced.
As the smallest boy studied the tree, the other boys pulled the lifeless heap, and the plastic easily slipped into the grave. Without looking down, the second boy picked up the shovel and began redepositing the soil into the hole.
The morbid task complete, the boys mutely walked through the trees, but dead foliage cracking under their feet would not allow them to leave in peace. The boys flinched at the rustling of a small animal in the undergrowth, their only witness.
The boys retreated to a wooden structure obscured by trees that easily blended with a small stone mountain. The first boy reached for the handle on a fortified wooden door that marked the entry into a discarded mining tunnel and turned to the others before he let them pass. “We will never speak of this again.”
Dressed in her charcoal gray suit, her skirt respectfully at knee level, attorney Elizabeth Campbell sashayed down the sidewalk, keeping time with the Madonna song pumping in her ears, butchering the words as she sang. Song lyrics were never her strong suit. Before reaching the storefront of the legal clinic and transforming into a respectable attorney, she belted out one last lyric that made even the tone-deaf cringe.
Southern Indigent Legal Center, better known as SILC, was founded nearly fifty years ago by Joseph Manderson, whose vision was to offer competent legal services to the underserved of the city, the hardworking poor, the forgotten. Although its visionary founder passed on, SILC continued its noble service through grants and donations from larger, more prosperous law firms, whose donations relieved them of any guilt for overlooking pro bono services of their own.
With her morning savior in its Styrofoam cup in one hand, she hoisted her shoulder bag higher with the other and cautiously stepped over a sleeping bag occupied by one of the forgotten who made camp near the front door. She startled him awake, and the sleeping bag quickly rose, causing her to jostle her caffeine fix just enough to leave brown splatter across her crisp, formerly white blouse.
She yanked open the glass door and entered, throwing the cup in a small metal trash can with more force than necessary, which caused it to ricochet and leave a spatter mark on the scuffed white wall behind the can. She stared at the pattern on the wall, noting how it resembled an old woman with a head scarf, and she considered cleaning it up, but was saved from her internal debate by the voice of an intern. “Oh good, you’re here. Dan’s looking for you.”
“Thanks, Jeff.” Elizabeth’s office sat in the back corner of the clinic, not quite the corner office her parents had envisioned for her when they paid the hefty bill for her Ivy League law school. She crossed the threshold into her modest-size office and tossed her bag on a pile of folders sitting on a worn black chair across from her desk. Behind her scarred wooden desk sat a matching black chair on wheels that Elizabeth had nicknamed BD, short for Black Devil for its propensity to flip over its occupant who sat too far back. Only a person experienced with Black Devil dared approach it.
Behind her desk were two sets of windows that offered light in addition to the fluorescent bulbs that stretched across the ceiling. Black iron bars partially obstructed the view of the alley and the row of trash cans that seemed perpetually full and that were currently being scavenged by Fred, her pseudo pet rat. She knew it was Fred because he had part of his tail missing, which she learned was a result of an encounter with a sharp knife and the owner of the diner across the way. What she wasn’t sure was whether the injury was a result of the proprietor chasing away the unwanted critter or whether Fred was meant to be dinner and made a timely escape, minus a full tail.
Unlike the offices of many of Elizabeth’s law school friends that boasted contemporary and expensive artwork, her wall proudly displayed a large corkboard adorned with papers and a to-do list haphazardly fastened with multiple colored pins. Her right wall exhibited two inspirational posters, offering words of wisdom including, “Don’t put off to tomorrow what you can do today because today is yesterday’s tomorrow.” This made her dizzy thinking about it. However, it was better than the second. “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Elizabeth’s definition of insanity and contrary to her adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, break it; it will make you feel better.” She had little need for the posters’ secrets of life but left them in place because they offered covering for a few holes from obvious mishaps of the past.
The walls were lined with file boxes with neat script on the outside indicating that they were organized in alphabetical order; filing cabinets were a rare commodity and never seemed to make it into the clinic’s budget. She switched on her computer before exiting her office, allowing the computer to boot up in her absence.
In the center of the clinic, a series of gray cubicles stood side by side like a lineup, and small offices ringed the outside walls. She crossed the clinic to Dan’s office, which sat in the opposite corner diagonal to her own, and gently knocked on the door frame before passing through and unceremoniously plopping herself on a worn leather chair. Dan, with a telephone to his ear, barely glanced up as he sat with his profile to her. She patiently studied a crack in the leather of the chair and noticed the yellow foam threatening to spill out. The decor of Dan’s office was much like her own, mismatched furniture with a brown-and-gold plaid couch from an era past against the side wall. The only item out of place was the soft leather high-back chair that Dan occupied, which offered a seat warmer and vibrating motion. She briefly contemplated the chair but quickly shook off the thought and turned her attention from vibrating furniture to study Dan. He was an average-looking man, with salt-and-pepper hair that contained more salt than pepper. Slightly pudgy in the midsection, he depicted a well-fed, happily married man who didn’t feel the need for a gym membership. Unlike her tailored suit, Dan’s dark blue suit and matching blue and gray striped tie were probably purchased from the rack at a department store.
Dan Hastings had been the supervising attorney at SILC since she started four years ago, and she wasn’t quite sure how long he had been with SILC or what compelled him to stay. Although he carried the title supervising attorney, it carried no tangible benefit that she could see. She knew with his experience he could earn a six-figure salary in a law firm of his choosing. Yet Dan seemed to find emotional prosperity in what he did that compensated for the lack of financial riches.
Elizabeth understood this all too well. She was drawn to SILC after a summer internship while awaiting her bar exam results. The people touched her and kept her coming back, much to her father’s dismay. Charles Campbell, Elizabeth’s father, corporate attorney and founding partner of Campbell, Roberts, Addelstein, and Krass, was the polar opposite of Dan Hastings. Charles Campbell was refined, with an office that oozed opulence and an assistant at his beck and call. Charles expected the same for his daughter, reserving an office for her down the hall from his own. Instead, she turned her back on CRAK, the nickname her father detested, but one that she threw out every chance she could. Her father continually reminded Elizabeth that her office awaited her when she was done “slumming it.” At first, she tried to explain the importance of her work at SILC, but her father could never see beyond her five-figure salary. In the end, they agreed to disagree.
Elizabeth was a trust fund baby, and her modest salary from SILC was like a small bonus. The Campbell family came from old money. When she was young, Elizabeth’s father liked to tell stories of how her great-grandfather built an empire from shining shoes on a street corner. In her later years, she realized that her family’s early fortunes did come from boots, but more like the bootlegging kind.
Dan finally hung up the phone and blew out an exasperated breath. He turned to face Elizabeth and stared down at her blouse. “Tough morning?”
Glancing down at her chest, she remembered her morning mishap with her coffee. “It was the sleeping bag,” she said as if that explained everything.
He scratched his head, and she sensed that he was warring with himself as to whether he should explore the sleeping bag comment or let it go, but he opted to let it pass.
Dan placed his arms on the desk and leaned forward. “Mayor Reynosa is running for the governor’s seat. He has his agenda to sell. He promised the people a full review of convictions from the DA’s major crimes division over the last five years because of the scandal over in Brewster.”
“Brewster’s three counties away. This means…what exactly?” she asked with suspicion.
“The mayor is reaching out, asking for assistance from clinics like ours to help because the PD’s and DA’s offices are overwhelmed.”
“And we’re not? Why are we even considering this?”
Dan leaned back in his chair, giving her a stern glance. “We’re considering this because we’re funded by grants and donations. If we don’t play nice when they ask for help, they don’t play nice when we ask for help.”
She sank back in her chair. Brewster County had been rocked with scandal after an investigative reporter revealed a kickback system between the mayor, city officials, and the major crimes unit of the district attorney’s and public defender’s offices. Reynosa had been mayor as long as Elizabeth could remember, and she surmised that he and his people probably had plenty of closets full of skeletons scattered throughout the city. It made good political sense to open a few empty closets to give the appearance of transparency. For this reason, she knew the review would turn up no impropriety.
“Look,” Dan said, “they’re only asking us to review three cases. Look them over, give them your stamp of approval, and move on.” He handed over a short stack of files. “It’ll take two hours tops.”
“Right,” Elizabeth mumbled as she stood and grabbed the stack. “I serve at the pleasure of the mayor.”
On the trip back to her office, she stopped in the communal kitchen, better described as the communal closet, for another try at a cup of coffee. A small counter space contained a brown microwave with twist dials with the numbers rubbed off, a toaster that had two settings—raw and burnt—and a new, state-of-the-art coffee machine, compliments of Elizabeth. The kitchen could fit one person comfortably, two people if they were well acquainted, and three if someone would risk being charged with lewd and lascivious behavior.
With a coffee mug that proudly announced “World’s Best Dad” in one hand and the stack of files in the other, she carefully traversed back to her office, determined not to wear her second cup. After plopping the files on her desk, she scanned her emails and opened one from BestChef:
Hey Girl, we still on for tonight? I have perfected my sauce and you are my first
She typed a quick affirmation and turned to her dreaded task, opening the file on top—Mark Waters, drug dealer, convicted of second-degree murder. It seemed he and his customer had a disagreement as to the quality of the product, and Mr. Waters decided to end the dispute in the most diplomatic way he knew and pulled out a semi-automatic weapon. Elizabeth reviewed the rest of the file and noted that Mr. Waters was convicted by a jury after three separate witnesses, who were in the park across the street, testified as to the exchange of words and shooting. Satisfied that the conviction was clean, she closed the file and reached for the second one.
Helen Akbajian, homemaker and part-time receptionist, was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon and mayhem. Mrs. Akbajian had learned of her husband’s infidelity with the young clerk at his butcher’s shop and decided to take matters into her own hands. She waited until he was sleeping, took a meat cleaver—apparently Mr. Akbajian’s favorite, to add insult to injury—and removed his appendage. To ensure that Mr. Akbajian would have no chance of further indiscretions, she stuffed the appendage in the garbage disposal and turned it on.
“Ouch.” Elizabeth giggled. “Hell hath no fury.” As she scanned the crime photos, which included a close-up of the meat cleaver, the garbage disposal, and Mr. Akbajian’s naked body, minus his private parts, she started humming Chuck Berry’s novelty song “My Ding-A-Ling.”
Comfortable that Mrs. Akbajian had been caught red-handed, literally, she closed the file. She was starting to enjoy her little assignment.
She opened her third and final file—Raymond Miller, unemployed, convicted of first-degree murder. Her jovial mood from the prior case quickly faded as she carefully read the file. Raymond Miller confessed to the killing of a Catholic priest.
The folder contained a manila envelope with the flap sealed by its metal clasps. Elizabeth lifted the envelope and bent up the metal prongs, releasing its hold on the flap, and removed a stack of photos. Father Francis Portillo was discovered naked with his bloody body left hanging on a large black metal gate on an abandoned property on the outskirts of the city. His body bore grotesque gashes, some deep enough to expose muscle and ligaments. His wrists and ankles were bound by rope and lashed to the gate, with his arms spread to the side, forming a sickening scarlet T. The ligature bruising around his wrists and ankles indicated that he had been tied up for an extended period, likely the full three days he had been missing. However, the evidence suggested that he was killed in a different location and left hanging on the gate for display.
There were a series of crime scene photos in both color and black and white, and as Elizabeth flipped through them, the photos almost seemed surreal. The wounds were so graphic, with flesh ripped apart, that it looked more like Halloween macabre created for thrill seekers than a true human body, but then she picked out a haunting black-and-white picture of the priest’s face. A rope tied around Father Portillo’s head held it up so that his vacant eyes stared back at her. A fly was perched on his cheek, feasting on an open wound. Those eyes did not find peace in the end.
Elizabeth placed the photo at the bottom of the pile, fearing his eyes would stay with her long after she closed the file. She selected another depicting the priest’s lower abdomen, where the killer left a distinct mark. A circle containing three congruent triangles with their points joined at the center was deeply carved into the flesh. The triangles were formed by peeling back the skin, creating a stark color contrast. The circle remained flesh colored and the triangles a bloody red where the skin had been torn away. Elizabeth pulled out a sketch that she passed over earlier, now understanding its significance. It was a rendition of the carving on the father’s body.
In other circumstances, the carving might have seemed creative and aesthetic, but on a human body, it was grotesque. She shoved the photographs back into their home inside the envelope and closed her eyes. She pressed the heels of her hands to her eyes and bowed her head. If there was ever a time that a prayer was needed, this was it. After a brief debate on whether to forge on, she sat up and picked up the file again.
The autopsy report indicated that the wounds were likely the result of a rawhide whip, with steel spikes strategically placed near the end. Fragments of the metal were still lodged beneath the priest’s skin, and the spikes accounted for the particularly deep wounds and tearing of the flesh. The medical examiner believed that the carving on the abdomen was likely done postmortem due to the lack of blood compared to the other wounds, and the cause of death was substantial blood loss.
Unable to read on, Elizabeth dropped the documents on her desk and left her office. With no real destination in mind, she walked to the restroom and roughly pushed the door open with her shoulder. She grabbed the cold ceramic of the sink and stared into the mirror mounted on the wall. She barely recognized herself. Her eyes were streaked with red lines, her skin bore red blotches, and her bangs sported a cowlick. She could have gone a lifetime or two without seeing those images.
“Are you okay?” Elizabeth turned to see Amy, SILC’s receptionist and resident mother, standing with the upper half of her body leaning inside the partially opened bathroom door.
“Yeah, thanks. Just looking at a tough case.” She squirmed a bit under Amy’s careful scrutiny.
“Well, Rosa Sanchez is here for you. Do you want to see if she can come back a bit later?”
“No, I’m good. I’ll be right out.”
Amy gave a sympathetic smile and backed out the door.
Elizabeth leveled a glare at her reflection. “Suck it up. It’s not like your husband is beating you and threatening to have you deported.”
“I’m sorry to keep you waiting,” Elizabeth said as she strode into the reception area.
Rosa Sanchez stood and pulled her eight-year-old son Hector up by the hand, which nearly caused him to drop his handheld Nintendo DS. “No problem, Attorney Campbell.”
“Hi, Hector, how are you?”
“I’m good,” Hector said with his eyes fixed on his coveted black device.
Rosa removed Hector’s baseball cap from his head. “Hector, please put that away.”
Elizabeth winked at him. “Have you ever played Pac-Man? It’s my favorite.”
“Pac what?” Hector asked, scrunching his nose.
“Oh come on, you know Pac-Man, where the mouth eats the balls.”
Rosa’s eyes grew wide, and Hector simply giggled.
“No, I mean little white balls.” She gestured with her thumb and forefinger to demonstrate the size. She could see Amy with her head resting on the front desk and her shoulders moving up and down, trying to conceal her laughter.
“Oh, never mind,” Elizabeth said as she turned and led the way back to her office. “Sorry, there never seems to be enough space,” she said as she cleared a stack of files resting on her guest chair. “I’ll be right back.” She rolled a second chair in from outside that protested with a high-pitched squeak the entire journey.
Elizabeth pushed the Raymond Miller file to the side and stroked Black Devil as she cautiously sat. She ritualistically patted BD before she lowered herself to its clutches as an offering of goodwill.
“How’s school going, Hector?”
“Good,” came the simple reply.
She realized that her conversation with Hector would be one-sided and gave up. “Why don’t you go back to playing your game while your mom and I talk?”
“Okay.” Hector didn’t have to be told twice and whipped the game out of his sweatshirt pocket.
“Rosa, have you thought of what we talked about?”
She started fretting with the hem of her shirt. “Sí, but it is very hard thing to do.” Her accent became more pronounced.
Rosa had been on the receiving end of her husband’s drunken fists more times than she would admit. She feared her husband Jacob’s fury if she filed for a restraining order. She knew that Jacob didn’t fear losing her. She was expendable. It was Hector he wanted. As cruel as he was to Rosa, he worshipped his son.
“He says he’ll have me deported. I’ll lose Hector.”
Rosa’s mistrust in the legal system was well founded. She’d fled Guatemala when she was seventeen after being raped by her drunken father. When the police brought her back to her father’s home after the attack, she learned that women were merely property in Guatemala and fled, seeking asylum in the United States. Unfortunately, Rosa’s asylum case was mishandled by an unscrupulous legal assistant, better known in the Latin American community as a “notario.” The notario not only took Rosa’s money, but more importantly, because of his incompetence, he took her only chance at an asylum hearing. She never got her day in court and was left with a deportation order. She’d been living under the radar ever since.
Elizabeth glanced at Hector, who was immersed in his electronic world, before she spoke. “I know you’re scared, but he doesn’t have that power over you anymore. You took control the day you walked out the door.”
Rosa looked down at her hands tightly clasped in her lap. “Okay, I can do this.”
“Great, I have the documents ready. I just need you to sign them.” Elizabeth turned to her computer, clicked a few icons, and hit print. “I’ll be right back.” She exited the office and approached the central copy and printing machine, where her printer, along with everyone else’s, was wirelessly connected. She found the intern, Jeff, with his head inside the open door at the center of the machine, pulling large wads of paper from its belly. The toner cartridge and other parts were strewn about the floor around Jeff’s feet like spilled guts.
“This can’t be good,” she mumbled and returned to her office. “I’m sorry. We seem to be having some technical difficulties with our equipment.” That’s an understatement. This place is going to hell in a handbasket. “I can bring the documents by your home this evening when we have things up and running.” More like when I run to Kinko’s and print it out.
“I don’t want to trouble you,” Rosa said with a concerned look.
“It’s no trouble. This way I can get the documents filed tomorrow as I planned.”
After escorting Rosa and Hector back to the reception area, Elizabeth proudly carried the “World’s Best Dad” cup to the communal closet for a recharge before resuming the task of going through the Raymond Miller file. She passed Jeff as he continued his struggle with the copy machine, and a loud grinding noise burst from the machine as though the beast had been awoken. Elizabeth paused, unsure if she wanted to get involved.
“Come on, you piece of shit,” Jeff yelled and shook it. The copy machine responded with a deep, angry growling noise, and he jumped back and turned to see Elizabeth watching the display. “That thing just growled at me.”
Clearly not done with its rebellion, the machine started spewing black smoke from its back. “That’s not all,” Elizabeth said, pointing to the copier, and Jeff turned to witness the smoke rising. “Well, don’t just stand there. Unplug it.”
He yanked the power cord from the wall. “Do you want to tell Dan?” he asked hopefully.
“Not on your life,” she said as she walked away.
Elizabeth resumed the task of the Raymond Miller file and reviewed a profile work-up that predicted that the killer was a Caucasian male between twenty-five to forty years of age with a deep hatred for organized religion. Ya think? She read on. The killer had likely been raised in a home that strictly observed Christian practices and harsh penances for any infraction.
Taking into consideration the victim, manner of death by whipping, and the display of his body in a cross formation, the carving was also believed to be religious in nature. A detailed report discussed the history of the triangle as a common Christian symbol of the Holy Trinity or triad of the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost, and the number three a lesser-known symbol of the same.
Elizabeth found the profile unremarkable and moved on to the discussion specific to Raymond Miller. A psychological evaluation revealed that Raymond’s IQ was well below normal. Although he was twenty-two when he was arrested, he had the intellect of a child.
Raymond lived in a shed converted to a living space behind his mother’s home. He was unemployed but was known throughout the neighborhood as “the trash digger,” as he supported himself by riffling through trash, looking for recyclables.
What was thought to be a routine call to chase off a vagrant Dumpster diving turned out to be an arrest of a lifetime for a rookie officer. When the officer searched Raymond, he had a set of black rosary beads with a large silver crucifix in his pocket. Testing of the beads revealed traces of blood from Father Francis Portillo.
A search warrant for Raymond’s shed and his mother’s home was easily obtained, although probably not necessary. According to the notes of Detective Patrick Sullivan, Raymond’s mother was more than happy to allow the police to search the premises. Raymond was the only child of Delores Miller, and his father was unknown. Delores relished the attention as the poor mother who had been carrying the burden of a defective son all alone for twenty-two years; however, the photos of the shed put into question how much caring she put into raising him.
The shed was nothing more than a wooden tool shack with weathered boards that offered little insulation. Inside, the shed was surprisingly tidy, with a mattress in one corner covered by stained floral sheets and a blue cotton blanket with cigarette burns throughout. Two wooden crates lined against the opposite wall and contained most of his worldly possessions—a pair of pants, three shirts, a sweatshirt, two pairs of mismatched socks, and three pairs of superhero underwear.
A wooden shelf above the crates held an assortment of Matchbox cars, a box of crayons, a Superman action figure, a small stack of comic books, and a blue toothbrush with a crumpled tube of toothpaste. The walls were decorated with colorful crayon pictures that depicted a life very different from Raymond’s. There were plenty of trees filled with green leaves, neatly kept homes, and a bright yellow sun with a smiley face. In each picture, there were two smiling stick figures holding hands that, based on the height difference, appeared to be parent and child. Each picture was proudly signed by its artist, much like a child would, with uneven lettering and the second letter of his name written backward.
Despite Raymond’s age, he still saw himself as a child. Even with the squalor in which he lived, he held his mother in high regard, as if he were ignorant of his world.
If she had stopped there, she would have been convinced that they had the wrong man. However, concealed under the clothing in one wooden crate was a rusted metal box with a broken latch. The box held a Bible belonging to the priest, another memento from his savagery.
A recorded confession, memorialized in a typed transcript, came shortly after the search of the shed. The confession was simple:
Detective Sullivan: Did you kill Father Francis Portillo?
Raymond Miller: Yes.
Detective Sullivan: Why?
Raymond Miller: To make God happy. Pappy is happy.
Detective Sullivan: What does that mean?
Detective Sullivan: This interview is recorded. Shrugging your shoulders is useless. I’ll ask again, what does that mean? What was that? Oh, never mind.
Knowing that he would never really know why and possibly because he didn’t care why, the detective ended the interview.
In exchange for his confession, the death penalty was taken off the table, and Raymond was now a permanent resident of the state penal institution for life.
With a flash drive containing the Rosa Sanchez documents packed into her leather bag, Elizabeth shut down her computer and headed for a gated parking lot a block down from SILC that offered security monitoring of her vehicle. The clinic offered parking for its employees adjacent to the building, but that wasn’t good enough for her baby. She loved her red two-seater BMW Z4 Roadster. There were some definite perks to her trust fund. She loved cars, and in particular, fast cars, and was consequently on a first-name basis with the officers around her home.
After a brief visit to the local Kinko’s, she drove her Roadster down a boulevard that was lined with storefronts much like her clinic. Metal gates were drawn closed for protection. The awnings on the buildings were faded and exhibited a few holes where the weather proved to be unkind. In time for its 100-year anniversary with its multitude of celebratory festivities, the city boasted of a financial revival, an economic boom. Although it was true for many, the inhabitants of this part of town had not fared so well under the economic revolution.
She turned onto a smaller street that contained residential structures where the apartment buildings had more dirt than lawn, and black metal bars were a common feature on the windows of the residences. A group of children played soccer in front of a two-story building, and an errant ball bounced into the street with a young boy closely behind it, causing Elizabeth to hit the brakes. She chose to keep her speed at a pace slightly above a crawl, an unfamiliar feeling to her. The slow speed allowed her to take in the neighborhood, which was a world away from her own community and not even in the same universe as her parents’ home.
As she drove on, she recognized a street name and turned onto the block with rows of simple two-story homes that were likely built in the 40s. Many of the decaying homes had chipped and peeling paint with entire pieces of side paneling missing. She stopped in front of a now familiar address that contained a faded light blue home with a chain link fence surrounding the property and the gate to the walkway missing. The lawn was a sickly yellow with patches of dirt. She sat in her car and debated what to do. Were she religious, she would have deemed it divine intervention. She opened the car door. “To hell with it. Here goes nothing.”
She ascended a set of wooden stairs that creaked to announce her arrival and rang the doorbell, but uncertain as to its working order, followed it with a knock on the door. A woman in a floral dress that hung loosely on her figure pulled open the door.
“Yes?” the woman asked in a curt tone.
“Yes. Who are you?”
“I’m Elizabeth Campbell. I am an attorney with the Southern Indigent Legal Center. I’ve been asked to review your son Raymond’s case.”
“Why? What good does that do?”
Elizabeth hesitated a moment before responding. “I’m just ensuring that nothing was overlooked.”
Ms. Miller crossed her arms and puffed out, “I’ve helped you people before, and I got nothing from it. They paid me nothing.”
“Paid you nothing?” Elizabeth asked.
Ms. Miller jerked at a small gold cross hanging around her neck and held it between her fingers as she spoke. “I let them come through my home and search that godforsaken shed. What did I get for it? Nothing. That’s what I got.”
“Well, it’s not customary for the police to pay to search a home, ma’am.”
“I spent my best years raising that boy. He’s been nothing but trouble since the day he was born. He’s not right in the head.” She let out a deep cough of a smoker and continued once she regained her breath. “I should have gotten something for spending all those years cleaning after him, dressing him. He couldn’t even tie his own goddamn shoes. Now he’s someone else’s problem.”
Elizabeth remembered the shed but held her tongue. “Do you believe your son killed that priest, Ms. Miller?”
“Who knows what that boy is capable of? Spending all his time by himself. Talking in riddles. If he said he did it, well then, he did it.”
“Do you mind if I see the shed?” She was unsure what she expected to find, but figured she had come this far, she might as well go all the way.
“Well, I charge ten dollars for that.”
“You charge?” Elizabeth asked incredulously.
“I have to make a living somehow. It was very popular after he was arrested. Not many people get to see firsthand where a killer lives.”
Elizabeth stood staring with her mouth open. After a moment, she found her voice. “Did you let people in the shed before the police searched it?”
“Psshht, nah. I didn’t know Raymond was a killer until the police came. I might have gotten more.”
Exercising restraint she didn’t know she had, Elizabeth remained silent. Her other option was to tackle the woman and shake her senseless.
“Do you want that tour?”
Elizabeth dug her hand into her bag for her wallet and, after handing over the bill, was led to the backyard. Ms. Miller entered a combination into a twist dial lock and opened the door, and a wave of stale air hit Elizabeth. It was obvious that Ms. Miller hadn’t had a paying customer in a while.
The shed looked just as the pictures depicted, but the clothing items in the wooden crates appeared rifled through. The mattress still sat in the corner with the same blanket and sheets. Wrinkles in the covers indicated that a few of the voyeurs had lain on the bed to get the full experience. The toys remained on the shelf and the artwork still hung on the wall, but had faded with time. Elizabeth stopped in front of the picture with the two stick figures holding hands. As she stood in the middle of the shed, a deep sense of despair traveled through her. Who is Raymond Miller?
With nothing new learned from her visit to the shed, she turned to Ms. Miller, who stood guard at the door. “It seems that there’s nothing for me to do here. Thank you for your time.” She walked out of Raymond Miller’s former home and waited as Ms. Miller secured the lock. She took several cleansing breaths as she retreated back to her car and drove on to Rosa Sanchez’s apartment, which was only three short blocks from the Miller residence.
After completing her task with Rosa Sanchez, Elizabeth headed home with a large glass of white wine in mind. She lived in a ranch-style, three-bedroom home with the proverbial white picket fence. A large willow tree proudly took center stage amongst a meticulously cut lawn and colorful flower beds that lined the walkway. She chose this quiet middle-class neighborhood because nothing about it reminded her of her childhood home with its protective gates, massive lawns, and marble columns. Her parents’ disdain for Elizabeth’s common home rivaled their disdain for her corner office. This was another perk, in her eyes—her parents never came to visit.
What really sold her on the home was the fully remodeled, state-of-the-art kitchen with professional-grade stainless steel appliances and a granite slab center island. Not that she enjoyed cooking. She was deemed culinarily challenged by her friends. In college, she was caught red-handed boiling a box of frozen vegetables, box and all. In her defense, the instructions never said to remove the vegetables from the box before boiling. That part was assumed, unless you were Elizabeth Campbell.
However, she enjoyed the culinary mastery of her former college roommate and closest confidant, Michael Chan, aka BestChef. Michael assumed control over her kitchen the day she signed the escrow papers, and he hosted legendary dinner parties, Elizabeth’s presence being optional. Tonight was not a legendary dinner night, but a test run of Michael’s latest creation.
As Elizabeth opened her front door, she was assaulted by Charlie, her large gray cat, who greeted her every evening without fail. He sat perched on the windowsill watching her stride up the walkway, waiting for the right moment to start his wailing of starvation. Charlie often told complete lies of never being fed, even though his bowl was filled to the brim with food; however, he scoffed at this inferior dry food. He only dined on the expensive wet food that came in the small square containers that had to be refrigerated. He knew when Elizabeth tried to substitute with a cheap imitation from a tin can and would repay her faux pas by regurgitating the food in her bed, so she could enjoy the scent of the food a second time.
As Elizabeth and Michael worked fluidly together in the kitchen moving past each other with comfortable ease, she recited a CliffsNotes version of her day, editing out the grisly details.
After a quick squeeze of her shoulder, Michael said, “You know, what you really need is a quick roll in the hay. That will fix things right up.”
This earned him a playful slap on the arm.
“Seriously, how long has it been?”
She gave him a warning look, and Michael turned his back and resumed his chopping with curt but elegant movements. “Will you peel the carrots.” It wasn’t really a question.
Instead of tending to the carrots, she approached a pan of simmering sauce and lifted a wooden spoon. Michael turned on her, pointing his knife. “Step away from the sauce.” She stopped with the spoon poised halfway to her open mouth and quickly debated whether to run her tongue up and down the front and back of the spoon, just to goad him. She realized that might be a bit immature and plopped the spoon back in the pan and sulked her way back to the sink to peel the carrots.
After successfully scalping the carrots to within an inch of their lives, she pushed the discarded peels into the drain and flipped the switch for the garbage disposal. As the grinding noise filled the kitchen, she unconsciously began to hum “My Ding-A-Ling.”
“Damn it. You distracted me with your daily drama, and I forgot to start the roast. Can you tie the roast while I finish here?”
She measured out a sizeable piece of butcher’s twine resting next to the small piece of meat and tied a bow around the roast like a Christmas present. “Now what?”
He looked over to inspect her work. “What is that!”
“What do you mean WHAT? We aren’t giving it away as a gift. It needs to hold the stuffing in.” He stormed over and untied Elizabeth’s bow and set about retying the roast. “You’re hopeless.”
“How was I supposed to know? You said tie the roast, so I tied—” She froze mid-sentence, her gesturing hand still suspended in midair.
“Forget it. No harm done.” Michael’s annoyance quickly faded.
“No, don’t you see? His mother said he couldn’t even tie his own shoes.” Elizabeth recalled the reports in the file. “Then how could he have tied up his victim?”
Elizabeth pushed open the glass door to the police station and briefly paused at the large sign that listed prohibited items. She studied the list—knives, firearms, explosives, dangerous chemicals, flammable liquids, brass knuckles… She observed the various pictures beside the list and tilted her head sideways when she came to a photo of a power saw. Nope, I’m good.
She stood in the queue waiting her turn, curious as to how so many people could have business at the police station. When she advanced to the front of the line, she was summoned to approach by an officer in a dark blue uniform. His stomach threatened to pop open a button as it strained against the shirt. She figured he didn’t spend much time in the field, at least she hoped not.
“Morning, I’m Elizabeth Campbell. I’m an attorney. I’d like to speak to Detective Patrick Sullivan.”
“Who?” the officer responded none too politely.
“Detective Patrick Sullivan. I’ve been asked to review an old case that was handled by the detective. I have a couple of questions.” She briefly explained the mayor’s request to review the Raymond Miller case.
“One second.” The officer pushed himself off his swivel chair and disappeared through a side door. As the minutes passed, she felt the impatience of the others in line behind her mounting and felt responsible. Not wanting to face the crowd, she decided to commit to memory the mission statement that was boldly printed and framed on the wall behind the counter.
At long last, the portly officer returned. “Detective Sullivan’s not here anymore. He’s retired.”
“Well, who else may I speak to, then?”
The officer huffed and again pushed himself up off his chair, shuffled toward the door, and disappeared.
Nope, definitely not in the field. She returned her attention to the mission statement. Now, where was I?
When the officer returned, she not only had the mission statement memorized, but also the officers’ work schedules for the next two weeks, which was taped on the wall.
“Have a seat. Detective Donovan will be out in a bit to talk to you.”
“Thank you.” She finally turned to face the line and heard a not too faint “Finally” from the crowd.
She sank down into a hard plastic chair and squirmed a bit in an attempt to get more comfortable before she gave up, realizing it was useless. The chair didn’t even offer armrests, so she leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched a wooden side door open and two figures emerge. A striking blond woman in a well-fitting gray suit walked beside a balding forty-something stout man with a suit that was not as complimentary. Fascinated, she discreetly watched the sleek woman who had her hair pulled into a loose ponytail accented with a few loose strands framing her soft oval face.
As they approached, Elizabeth stood and nonchalantly acknowledged the woman with a small smile before turning to the stocky man and thrusting out her hand. “I’m Elizabeth Campbell. Thank you, Detective Donovan, for taking the time to talk to me.”
“My pleasure,” answered the woman with her arms crossed and a smirk firmly on her face.
Flustered, Elizabeth turned to her. “Uh, I’m sorry, I—”
“I’ll catch you later, Grace,” the blonde’s companion interrupted as he turned away and continued walking out the front door of the station.
“I’m Detective Grace Donovan. How may I help you?” she asked in a professional tone.
“I’m sorry about that,” Elizabeth said and quickly debated whether to explain that her misjudgment was not because the detective was a woman, or better yet, an attractive woman, but simply because she was younger than most detectives. Elizabeth pegged her to be in her early thirties, only a few years older than herself. However, she missed any opportunity of redemption when Detective Donovan nodded with slight impatience, which Elizabeth took as a sign of accepting the apology and moving the conversation along.
Uncharacteristically flustered, but with no time to evaluate its meaning, she drew in a breath and straightened her shoulders. “I’m Elizabeth Campbell,” she said, and with her usual confidence returning, proceeded with a quick rundown of her assignment with the Raymond Miller file.
“Why don’t we step back to my desk?” Detective Donovan’s tone remained neutral, and she turned to key in a code in a large oak door, clearly expecting Elizabeth to follow. She trailed behind the detective as they walked through a hallway, passing glass offices that Elizabeth feigned great interest in to avoid staring at the lean body confidently striding in front of her. She guessed Detective Donovan to be about two inches taller than her five foot seven. As she sized her up, she couldn’t help but note that the suit jacket came only to the detective’s waist, giving Elizabeth a full view of her backside in her tailored slacks. Oh wow, look at that office. Elizabeth mentally pulled herself away, hoping she wasn’t sporting a blush. Elizabeth had always been able to appreciate the beauty of another woman, but somehow this felt different. The sensation was deeper and more primal.
When they reached a large open room that offered several desks neatly arranged in pairs, Elizabeth felt exhausted. She swore the walk down the hallway was more than a mile, but her watch told her it was under a minute. Detective Donovan gestured to a chair beside a metal desk near the corner, clearly unaware of Elizabeth’s mental discourse on their journey. After seating herself in the designated chair, Elizabeth plopped her bag at her feet and rubbed a knot building in her shoulder. When she returned her eyes to Detective Donovan, she was startled to find the detective wordlessly watching her hand movement.
Having been caught staring, Detective Donovan returned her eyes to her desk and picked up a pencil with a set of teeth marks pressed into the yellow wood and began twisting it. Elizabeth tried to imagine her unconsciously biting down on the pencil, deep in thought.
“So, how may I help you?” Detective Donovan asked, breaking Elizabeth out of her thought.
“I was hoping to discuss the Raymond Miller case.”
“I don’t get the sudden interest in the Miller case,” Detective Donovan said in a curt tone. “The guy had all of the victim’s things. He confessed.”
“You remember the case?” Elizabeth asked, pulling herself mentally back to where she needed to be.
“Not too many sadistic murder cases around here. Besides, I was the officer that arrested him.”
“You were the rookie officer that arrested him after the vagrancy call?” she said, but it came out as a surprised statement more than a question.
“That arrest got me my gold shield early.”
She realized that this would be a sensitive case for Detective Donovan and got to the point. “Well, there’s just something that bothers me. I was hoping you could put it together for me.”
“Go on. What is it?”
“I spoke with Raymond Miller’s mother, and—”
Detective Donovan broke in. “You spoke to his mother? I thought your job was to review the file, not conduct an investigation and harass witnesses.”
“I don’t believe she was a witness, and I’m not conducting an investigation. I simply asked a few questions.” Elizabeth took a calming breath. “Anyway, Raymond’s mother mentioned that Raymond couldn’t even tie his shoes.”
“Well, if he can’t tie his shoes, then how did he bind his victim with ropes?”
Detective Donovan tightened her grip on the pencil. “I don’t know. But he is guilty as sin. Even he said so. Why don’t you spend your time helping the people that say they’re innocent?”
“Is it possible that he worked with someone else, an accomplice?”
“No! Miller didn’t name an accomplice. He said he did it. I think we’re done here.”
Detective Donovan stood and started back for the doorway. Elizabeth rose and took one of the detective’s business cards out of a neat stack resting in a holder at the edge of the desk and stuffed it into her bag, then quickly walked in her wake, attempting to catch up. When they reached the large oak door, Detective Donovan held it open and offered, “Have a good day,” as her parting words.
Elizabeth watched the wooden door close. Wow, what was that?
Grace held open the glass door. “Evening, Mrs. Correll. Heading for your evening stroll?”
“Gotta keep this body moving,” Mrs. Correll responded as she attempted to move at a quickened pace with her walker.
“Well, you’re looking great,” she said as Mrs. Correll passed her.
Grace strolled into a bustling lobby that was made to resemble a living room with several couches strategically situated around a large fireplace that was glowing orange and radiating warmth throughout the room. She made small talk with two elderly men hunched over opposite sides of a checkerboard as she passed and then nodded to a trio of women who momentarily acknowledged her before they resumed their whispering gossip. Grace shook her head as she cleared the women. It never changed; there was always that one gossiping group, whether it was high school or Crestview Assisted Living. If anyone had business in this retirement community, these three women knew it.
Grace could hear the roar of the ballgame long before she reached the doorway of her father’s room. “Evening, Pops,” she shouted to compete with the noise as she entered.
“Gracie.” George Donovan smiled as he looked up at her from his reclined position in his chair. “Let me turn this down,” he said, pointing the black remote at the television and bringing the volume down to a more tolerable level. “How’s my beautiful girl this evening?”
“I’m well, Pops. How are you feeling today?” She leaned over and kissed his forehead.
“Still here and causing trouble.”
“I expect nothing less.” Grace smiled, but it pained her to see how much her father had changed. He looked to be only a fraction of the man that filled her memories. Gone was the man that would toss her in the air and effortlessly catch her with his meaty hands, calloused by his years in construction work. Now he looked frail and vulnerable with hands that bore translucent skin and blue lines. She knew if she had to, she could carry him.
Her father had been a resident of Crestview for the last two years after suffering a moderate stroke. Although he regained much of his faculties, she felt better knowing that he was being looked after on a continual basis. The cost of the facility set her back, but she lived modestly to compensate. Knowing that her father was cared for was well worth the sacrifice.
Growing up, it had only been Grace and her father, as Grace’s mother passed in childbirth. She only knew her mother through photographs that her father kept prominently displayed throughout their home, and although they never spoke of it, she knew how much he loved her and never fully overcame the heartbreak of her loss. It was Grace that gave him reason to keep moving on after she was gone. She envied the love that her parents shared, doubting that she would find something that pure and all-consuming.
“You got the goods?” her father asked, interrupting Grace’s thoughts.
She opened her coat, pulled out a grease-stained brown paper bag, and held it out. He eagerly grabbed it and peered inside, inhaling deeply. “Now this is worth living for.” He pulled out a chili-covered French fry and savored it. “Did those old biddies see you?”
She knew he was referring to the trio of gossipers. “No, our smuggling operation is still in business.”
Grace pulled up a chair next to her father, reached into the bag, and snatched a fry. “So, who’s winning?”