Authors: J. A. Jance
TAKING THE FIFTH
If all the world’s a stage,
then God must be the head carpenter.
THE AID CAR WAS THERE, SITTING NEXT TO the railroad track with its red light flashing. But for the guy on the ground, the guy lying on his stomach with his face in the cinders and dirt beside the iron rails, it was far too late for an aid car. He didn’t need a medic.
What he needed was a medical examiner. And a homicide detective.
That’s where I came in, Homicide Detective J. P. Beaumont, of Seattle P.D. I was there along with my pinch-hitting partner, Detective Allen (Big Al) Lindstrom. After working until midnight on our regular shift, we had been called back when the body was found. Now we were standing by, waiting for Dr. Howard Baker, King County’s medical examiner, to arrive on the scene.
Doc Baker isn’t a morning person, and this was very early morning. It was ten to five on a cool summer day, just after the longest day of the year. Although the horizon was hidden from view by the Alaskan Way Viaduct directly above us, a predawn glow was breaking up the darkness around us, and the waterfront odor, heavy with wet creosote, filled my nostrils.
We waited in a small, hushed group until Doc Baker’s dark sedan came tearing through the parking lot and jerked to a stop less than two feet from where we stood. Nobody bothered to move out of the way.
“All right, all right,” Baker grumbled, easing his more-than-ample frame out of the car and taking charge. “What have we got?”
“I’m betting on a drunk,” Big Al told him. “Some wino from up by the market who got himself clobbered by a passing freight train.”
Al was referring to the Pike Place Market, which sat on the bluff directly behind us, a hundred or so steep stair steps above our heads.
The market is a popular Seattle tourist attraction during the day. At night, parts of it still maintain an upscale, touristy atmosphere. But there are other parts of it, dark underbelly parts, that do a Jekyll-and-Hyde routine as soon as the sun goes down. For instance, almost every night the blackberry-bordered parking lot beneath the market itself becomes a savage no-man’s-land, a brutal setting for beatings, rapes, and muggings that is all too familiar to officers assigned to the David sector of Seattle P.D.
Doc Baker glowered at Al for a moment. The medical examiner’s shock of white hair was uncombed and standing belligerently on end. “We’ll see about that,” he said, grunting, and rumbled away, dragging a train of technicians as well as a nervous young police photographer in his wake.
A squad car stopped nearby. Two uniformed officers got out and walked over to us. “Any luck finding out who reported it?” I asked.
They shook their heads in unison. “Not so far,” one answered. “The call came in to 911 from a pay phone down by the ferry terminal about three-fifteen. Near as I can tell, that’s the closest public phone at that hour of the night. The caller was a woman, but she didn’t leave a name.”
I nodded. “That figures.”
Turning away, I looked back toward Doc Baker and his group of assistants. They were gathered in a small, closely knit clump around the body, which was sprawled within inches of the track itself. To one side yawned the entrance to the Burlington Northern Tunnel, a railroad tunnel that cuts through a rocky bluff and then burrows south and east under downtown Seattle, from Alaskan Way and Virginia to the King Street Station a mile away.
I felt the rumble of a train long before its warning whistle sounded or its bright headlight flashed from deep inside the tunnel. Doc Baker and his cohorts scurried out of the way.
The freight train emerged from the black tunnel like a slow-moving demon escaping the jaws of hell, with a heavy, evil-smelling cloud of smoke, laden with diesel fuel, boiling around it. Minutes after the caboose had disappeared from sight, the dense smoke still eddied around us like a thick, gritty fog.
As the haze began to clear, Doc Baker charged back toward the body. The photographer, a young woman in her mid- to late-twenties, seemed to hang back, but Baker ordered her forward with an imperious wave of his hand.
Al Lindstrom favored the photographer with a bemused grin. “She’s a looker, all right,” he commented, “but I bet this is the first time she’s taken pictures of a real body. Understand she’s a journalism major who just graduated from Evergreen.”
Evergreen College is an exceedingly liberal liberal arts school in Olympia. “A journalism major!” I croaked. “What’s she doing working for us?”
I’m of the common law-enforcement opinion that anyone remotely connected with journalism can’t be trusted. Even the good-looking ones. Especially the good-looking ones.
“Jobs must be pretty scarce in the newspaper racket these days,” I added.
By then the young woman in question was squatted next to the body, pants pulled taut across the gentle curve of her backside, a detail that didn’t escape any of her appreciative audience, except maybe Doc Baker. Attempting to follow the M.E.’s barked orders on angle and focus, she lost her balance and tipped to one side, scrambling to right herself in the railroad-track dirt and debris.
I didn’t envy her. It’s not so bad workingwith Dr. Howard Baker. He accords detectives a certain amount of grudging respect. But I think it would be hell on wheels workingfor him, especially as a lowly peon.
At last Baker got up off his hands and knees and strode over to us. By now our little group consisted of Al Lindstrom; the two uniformed officers; a pair of criminalists from the Washington State Patrol Crime Laboratory; Sergeant Lowell James, Seattle P.D.’s night-shift Homicide squad leader; and myself.
“How’s it going, Dr. Baker?” Sergeant James asked.
James is a soft-spoken black man whose careful observance of protocol and keen instinct for detail has moved him steadily and deservedly forward in the department while his less able counterparts are still squawking about racial discrimination and quotas.
“Have anything for us yet?”
Baker shrugged. “The officers found a wallet, probably his, on the ground next to the body. No money, but they tell me there’s an uncashed payroll check. He has a pearl earring in his right ear.”
“Doesn’t sound like robbery, then,” Big Al put in.
Baker nodded. “You’ve got a driver’s license for a change. Picture looks about right, although it’s hard to tell for sure. His face is pretty badly messed up. The name on the license and the paycheck is the same, Richard Dathan Morris. Address is 1120 Bellevue Avenue East.”
I took out my notebook and jotted down the name and address. “You handling this case, Beau?” Baker asked.
“Looks that way. Big Al and I wound up pulling call duty after we finished our regular shift at midnight.”
The medical examiner nodded. “All right. The paycheck is written on the account of some outfit called Westcoast Starlight Productions. We also found a union card from IATSE Local 15.”
“Wait a minute. Hold up. What’s the name of the union?”
“IATSE. International Alliance for Theater and Stage Employees.”
“And the other thing. What was that?”
“Westcoast Starlight Productions.”
“What the hell’s that?”
“Beats me,” Baker replied. “You’re the detective.”
“A matchbook from the Edgewater Inn. It was under the body. I can’t tell yet if it was something that belonged to the victim or if he just happened to land on it.”
“Any ideas about the cause of death?” Al asked.
“No sign of booze. At least, no noticeable sign of booze or drugs, either one. He has some puncture wounds.”
“Knife?” I asked.
Baker frowned and shook his head. “Definitely not a knife. But I’m not sure what. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”
“Is that what killed him, you think?”
“The punctures? I doubt it. None of those injuries look that serious.”
“So we wait for the autopsy?” Al added.
Baker smiled a cantankerous, superior smile. “You got it,” he answered lightly.
“And when will you schedule that?” Sergeant James asked.
“ASAP. The minute we get him into the office. It’s too late to go back home to bed. If we finish up soon enough, maybe I can take off early this afternoon.”
The photographer had completed her picture-taking and had moved quietly to the outskirts of the group. There she waited patiently for a break in the conversation.
I confess to some slightly lecherous mind-wandering when I looked at her closely. She was a small-boned girl, slightly built, but the curves were there in all the right places and proportions. She wore beige cords, cinched tight around a delicate waist. At first glance my thought was that a strong wind would blow her away. She had large, luminous gray eyes and a somewhat waiflike appearance. A beguiling smudge of dirt from the railroad bed darkened one cheek, and a meandering wisp of hair had broken loose from a supposedly businesslike knot at the back of her neck.
“I’m finished now,” she said.
Doctor Baker wheeled on her. “Well, it’s about time.” He grunted as if the delay was somehow all her fault. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for her.
“Let’s load him up and move him out,” Baker continued, calling to his waiting technicians. “No sense wasting any more time.”
He turned and started toward the body, then stopped and looked back over his shoulder. “You two will notify the next of kin?” Baker asked, addressing the question to Al and me.
“We’ll handle it,” I told him.
With Baker’s departure, the group disintegrated as the crime-scene team set about their business and the David-sector patrol officers returned to their squad car. Within seconds I found myself standing alone beside the photographer, who was busily stowing her equipment in a shoulder-strapped camera bag.
She looked young and vulnerable. I felt an awkward, middle-aged urge to smooth over the medical examiner’s brusque manners.
“I’m sure Doc Baker’s bark is worse than his bite,” I murmured. It was small comfort, tentatively offered.
Zipping the camera bag shut with a decisive tug, she glanced up at me, still with the dark smudge on her face but with a smile tickling the corners of her mouth. “Don’t worry about me, Detective Beaumont. Doc Baker doesn’t scare me. I’ve had my shots.”
She turned on her heel and walked away, leaving me wondering how she had known my name when I didn’t know hers. So much for being blown away by a strong wind.
So much for first impressions.
I tagged along after Sergeant James and Big Al, who were bird-dogging the crime-scene investigators. They were carefully surveying the area from which the body had been removed. By now the sun was well up, and it was easy to see that the entire length of railroad track was littered with loose garbage blowing this way and that in the early-morning freshening breeze off Puget Sound.
There were empty pizza boxes and paper cups still with plastic tops and straws attached. There were paper towels and napkins and more than a few used disposable diapers. There was the usual assortment of beer cans and wine bottles, some shattered and some not.
Nobody who ever worked crime-scene investigation thinks of it as glamorous. It’s tough, painstaking, stinking, dirty work.
It requires persistence, skill, attention to detail, and a certain amount of luck. And judgment. It’s always a judgment call to determine whether the jagged shards of a smashed cheap wine bottle should be picked up or ignored, to tell if one piece of junk is in its natural habitat, if it is somehow out of place, or even if it’s important.
It’s human judgment, too, that sets up the limits of the crime-scene area, that decides how big an area should be searched.
Al and I were almost ready to leave to follow up on the Bellevue Avenue address when one of the Washington State Patrol criminalists gave an excited whistle. He was nearly a block away, standing next to a blackberry bramble that virtually covers that side of the bluff. He motioned us toward him.
“What do you think of that?” he demanded, pointing toward something on the ground.