Authors: Stacy Dittrich
NEW YORK CITY
I heard Michael grab his keys before opening the garage door. I leaned my head back, closed my eyes, and smiled. Michael was, and has been since I’ve known him, therapy for me. He was a man I loved like no other man. Hearing the fire crackle interrupted my thoughts. I stood up with the intention of closing the fireplace screen but was thrown against the wall beside me.
All I could hear was an explosion and glass breaking and I felt the air being sucked out of the room. My ears felt like they, too, had exploded. It took a few moments to realize what exactly had happened.
It was only when I crawled to the large hole in the wall where the windows used to be that I saw that Michael’s car was engulfed in flames.
The past had finally caught up with me…
To my loving family, Rich, Brooke, and Jordyn
Zamboanga City, Philippines
“Two hundred fifty thousand U.S. dollars, my friend…as promised,” the man said as he handed the American the large yellow envelope.
The American slowly opened the envelope, pulling out the crisp, clean bills, flipping through half of the stack like a deck of playing cards. He was making a conscious effort to keep the bills hidden from view.
An intimidating man, the American
, thought the Filipino as he eyed him up and down. Standing well over six feet tall, and wearing a shiny black suit that most likely cost him thousands of dollars and polished black shoes, the American never spoke during their meetings. After the quarterly packages were delivered to the hospital by those who worked for him, the American would meet the Filipino to collect his money in the crowded marketplace. Then, with no more than a nod and the slightest glimpse of a smile, the American would be on his way. The noise of blaring motor scooters, cars, and street merchants would make it difficult to engage in a lengthy conversation even if the Filipino insisted. But today things
would be different. Today the American would have to speak. The Filipino’s boss wanted a definitive answer from the American and his employers.
Satisfied he had accurately counted the money, the American turned to walk away.
“Sir, one moment, sir…” the Filipino began in his broken English.
The American turned and faced him with a look of unconcealed curiosity. Remaining silent, the American nodded for the Filipino to continue, his expression changing to disdain.
The Filipino was nervous. He knew who the man was and where he had come from. He’d heard the stories from his boss. This man, his employers, and their colleagues were among the FBI’s highest priorities, but even they couldn’t touch them. His mouth dry, the Filipino did his best to swallow before speaking.
“Sir, he want more and he want them quickly. He say he double money if packages come sooner. Here’s list.” The Filipino handed the man the small piece of paper and noticed his hand was trembling. “He want answer from you before you get on plane.”
The American looked intently at the list before focusing back on the Filipino. The man’s eyes narrowed to mere slits before the tiniest hint of a smirk formed at the corners of his mouth. The Filipino, worried the American would see his heart beating through his shirt or the sweat that had formed above his brow, did his best to smile. He was terrified while waiting for the man’s answer, which came sooner than expected.
“Tell him…we’d be happy to.”
“Are you ready for this one, CeeCee?”
My good friend and fellow detective, Jeff Cooper, stuck his head into the doorway of my office. Coop wore his trademark grin, and his blue eyes were sparkling. Married to the boss, Captain Naomi Cooper, Coop was our division comedian. We were all detectives in the Major Crimes Division of the Richland Metropolitan Police Department in Mansfield, Ohio. I, Sergeant CeeCee Gallagher, was working diligently on a rape case when Coop interrupted.
“If it’s the one about the retarded guy in the pool, you already told it to me yesterday,” I said, referring to Coop’s endless jokes.
“No, it’s not a joke.” He walked into my office and sat down in one of the chairs facing my desk.
“Spit it out. I’m busy on the Taylor rape case.”
“You might as well put it aside. You and I are headed down to Bunker Hill Road. A lady was driving south toward State Route 97 and a buzzard dropped a hand on her car.”
I stopped shuffling papers and looked at him. “A what?”
I quickly caught on. “Coop, I don’t have time for this…”
“I told you, CeeCee, it’s not a joke. The lady was driving and said she saw a couple of buzzards on the road chewing on something. She thought maybe it was a dead possum. When she got close enough, it scared the birds off the road, and one of them kept the chew toy in his little claws when they flew up. Or are they called talons?” His hands rose up, mimicking claws. “Apparently, the damn thing couldn’t hold it very well, because he dropped it right on this woman’s windshield, and yes, it was a human hand. Needless to say, she freaked out and wound up smashing into a tree.”
“Is she okay?” I asked, knowing I’d have done the same thing.
“Yup, physically, but you can imagine how you’d feel if you just left a shitty day at work and then had a hand dropped on your car.”
“Since you haven’t mentioned it, I’m assuming the mystery of where the hand came from is still going on?” I couldn’t imagine a living person who recently had their hand cut off would leave it lying around for the damn buzzards.
“The uniforms are walking the woods right now, looking for either a body or other parts. We’ve already called the hospitals to see if someone came in missing a lefty. Maybe from an industrial accident, or a car mechanic—who knows? But none of them have.” He ran his fingers through his thick dark hair.
The “uniforms” Coop referred to were the uniformed patrolmen who drove marked cruisers and worked out on the road. In the southern part of Richland County, the woods around the area where this
had occurred were very dense. I was sure there had to be at least fifteen to twenty uniforms down there. I started shoving files into my briefcase while Coop stood and waited impatiently, tapping a pen on my desk.
“You should ask your dad about the time someone found an entire arm in the middle of the road. I guess some motorcycle guy was drunk off his ass and wrecked. Tore his arm clean off. He got back on the bike and drove away like that.”
“I don’t need to ask. Uncle Max probably took a picture of it, and I’ve probably seen it already.” I grabbed my keys, ready to leave.
My father, Mitch Gallagher, and his brothers Max and Mike were old-timers with the department—all lieutenants. Each supervised a different shift of road patrol; my father was in charge of the night shift. I wasn’t joking about the picture, either. My uncles, thanks to their morbid sense of humor, had albums full of homicide pictures and body parts that they passed around to my cousins and me during family functions. Needless to say, growing up surrounded by cops made for a less-than-normal childhood. My father’s other brother, Matt, was shot on duty in the late 1970s and had to retire early. He lives in North Carolina.
“Yeah, I’m sure you have. God knows I’ve seen Max’s album plenty…Don’t remember an arm in the road, though. Of course, he probably has ten to fifteen different albums of that shit.”
I laughed and shook my head as I walked out of my office behind Coop. We were going to ride to the scene in Coop’s car, and after I had gotten into the passenger seat, I looked at my watch.
“Damn,” I muttered.
“What?” Coop started the car and began pulling out of the parking lot.
“I need to call Michael and tell him I’m going to be late.” I pulled my cell phone out of my briefcase.
My husband, Michael Hagerman, was a supervising agent with the FBI in Cleveland. We had met several years ago when we worked together on a case. We didn’t have any children together, but my two daughters from my previous marriage, six-year-old Isabelle and thirteen-year-old Selina, would be getting home from school soon. Michael needed to be there to get them off the bus. My ex-husband, Eric Schroeder, a uniformed officer with Richland Metro, and I share custody of the girls. Michael’s seven-year-old son, Sean, stays with us every other weekend. It took several rings before Michael answered his phone. I explained the circumstances.
“I’m still up here in Cleveland, Cee. There’s no way I’ll get home in time.”
“All right, I guess I’ll have to call Eric and see if he or Jordan can do it. How come you’re still up there?”
“I’m up to my ass in this case I’ve been working. I don’t know when I’ll be home.” He sighed into the phone. “I wouldn’t wait up if I were you.”
I imagined Michael rubbing his temple with his free hand, which he sometimes did when he was stressed. The thought of not seeing him tonight upset me. I loved him more than I could ever explain, and even regular workdays seemed too long until we saw each other. I imagined his handsome face, which put most famous actors to shame. His thick brown hair, bright green eyes, and dark complexion made even the most masculine of men take a second
look. Not to mention his tall, muscular body. I myself was no slouch. I modeled in New York right out of high school and still maintained my tall, athletic body and long, blonde hair. My large chest and green eyes still turned quite a few heads, but I had just as much insecurity as anybody else. To be with a man like Michael upped my daily self-maintenance to an entirely new level. He says I’m nuts, and I say, “Not all of us were born perfect, buddy.”
After I finished talking to Michael, I called Eric’s house and spoke to his wife, Jordan, who like everyone else is a uniformed officer with the department. On her days off, she had no problem picking the girls up and keeping them at her house until I got home. Crisis solved.
“What’s Michael working on?” Coop asked as he drove toward Bunker Hill Road.
“I haven’t a clue. Normally he talks about his cases, but not this one. It’s some Secret Squirrel, hush-hush investigation. If he doesn’t discuss it, I don’t bother to ask.”
It was another twenty minutes before we pulled into the scene of the crashed car and cutoff hand. By then, most everyone had finished up with their duties and was getting ready to leave. I saw our crime-laboratory van parked by the wrecked car and thought that would be as good a place to start as any. One of the laboratory technicians was loading evidence bags into the back. It was Bob English.
“Whatcha got for me, Bob?” I peered inside the van.
“Hey, CeeCee. Not a lot, but what I do have is freakin’ weird. Here, look at this.” He pulled out a
plastic, Tupperware-looking box and opened the blue lid, exposing the hand.
“Oh my God!” I turned my head away and, for entertainment purposes, made a loud, gagging sound.
The hand looked like a Halloween prop—except for the smell. Most of the flesh had been chewed away by the buzzards and probably other animals. Some flesh was still attached, but the protruding metacarpals were very evident. It was large enough that I took a wild guess and assumed the hand was from a male. The pinky finger was the only digit in decent shape.
“Are you going to be able to print the pinky, Bob?” I held the box up and looked underneath to see if I could see through the plastic.
“I should be able to.”
“If you get anything back on it, let me know ASAP. Where’s the female that was driving the car?”
“A uniformed sergeant took her home. She was upset as hell, as you can imagine.”
“I needed to talk to her!” I started to get angry.
“Relax, CeeCee,” Coop interrupted. “I talked to her on the phone, which is how I knew what happened. I told her when she settles down, we’ll be over to talk to her more extensively.”
“How do we know she isn’t some whack-job that cut off her husband’s hand and drove around with it? Maybe he’s in pieces somewhere else.”
“We don’t, and the uniforms found nothing, but if you want to start walking the woods looking for her husband’s severed penis, be my guest,” he quipped.
“I do believe I’ll pass on that offer.”
Once Coop and I had gotten all the necessary information and taken our own photographs, there
was little else for us to do until the fingerprint came back from the lab. Or until someone showed up wanting their hand back.
We got the results on the fingerprint back the next day. The pinky print belonged to forty-two-year-old Daniel Huber, address unknown. When Coop and I tracked down family members, we learned that none of them had spoken to Daniel in years. After Daniel had battled a drug addiction that included stealing from his parents, the family gave up on him and he became homeless. And now handless.
It was while Coop and I were sitting in his office pondering our next course of action that our captain, Naomi Cooper, came in. A beautiful woman by most standards, Naomi had transformed her severe businesswoman look over the years. Now, with her dark blonde hair falling loosely on her shoulders, and exchanging dark suits for the khaki pants and light blue blouse, she made Coop’s eyes light up. Naomi was a very close friend of mine, but that hadn’t always been the case. When we’d both started in major crimes, it was like oil and water: the darkest sides of our personalities continuously clashed. After several close calls on the job (meaning near death), Naomi and I learned to work together and became friends in the process.
“Hey, sweetheart, come over here and give daddy some sugar.” Coop puckered out his lips.
Naomi blushed and smiled. “Later at home, knucklehead…”
“Thank you, Naomi,” I interrupted. “If I had to look at his lips for one more second, I believe I might have fainted.”
She giggled. “Actually, I just popped in to see what
the deal is on the hand. If it amounts to anything, I’ll assign your open cases to the other detectives.”
I explained to Naomi where we were in the case. She agreed that unless we found the rest of Daniel Huber, there wasn’t much more we could do.
This was a short-lived theory, because exactly two days later, the rest of Daniel Huber turned up. It was two o’clock in the morning when Coop called. Michael was still awake, working in his home office, and answered the phone. It took more than several shakes from him to rouse me from the coma I was in. I was only half-awake when he handed me the phone.
“Yeah, it’s Gallagher,” I whispered, my voice hoarse and scratchy.
“CeeCee, it’s Coop. Sorry to call so late, but we found the rest of Daniel Huber.”
“I’m assuming, since you’re calling me this late, that he’s no longer among the living?”
“You assume right. He’s got another piece of him missing, too.”
“His other hand?” Still lying down, I looked over at the alarm clock on my nightstand.
“Nope…We think it’s his liver.”
I sat straight up, now wide-awake. “His liver!”
“Right. Just meet me behind the E&B Market on Fourth Street. That’s where he was found about half an hour ago by the garbagemen. I’ll fill you in on the details when you get there.”
He hung up. I got out of bed and dressed while Michael sat on the bed and watched silently. It was unusual for him to not ask me a million questions when I got called out like this.
“I guess they found the rest of the guy that lost his
hand,” Michael said. I had given him details of the case earlier.
“It looks like they also took his liver out. Can you believe that?”
“I heard.” He stared at the floor.
“Michael? What’s the matter with you?” I stopped putting my shoe on and looked at him.
He looked at me with a halfhearted smile. “Nothing. I’m just tired is all.”
“Then instead of staying up all night like you have been, why don’t you try and get a good night’s sleep?”
“Can’t.” He stood up. “I’ve got too much work to do.”
He walked over and kissed my cheek before heading back downstairs to his office. I merely shook my head. Michael was highly intelligent. He was one of those people whose mind never shuts down, not for a minute. When he was really involved with something, it was hard for him to focus his attention elsewhere. I’ve learned to live with it, but I had yet to see him as involved as he was now. I didn’t bother to say good-bye when I left; he probably wouldn’t have heard me anyway.
The E&B Market was on the north side of the city, in the worst neighborhood. The Hot Zone, or THZ, we called it. It was where the Detroit and Chicago drug dealers fought their battles. It was also where we wouldn’t be able to find one cooperative witness. In that particular area of town, no one dared to be caught speaking to the police. The ramifications of doing so had in the past proved fatal. Coop had beaten me there and was talking to one of the garbagemen when I arrived.
The entire area behind the market had been cordoned off with yellow crime-scene tape, with the county coroner and the crime lab inside the perimeter. The crime lab had erected mobile lights to illuminate the scene. I could see several lab techs hard at work. Some were taking photographs, another was on his hands and knees, and one was carrying evidence bags to the van. One uniformed officer stood just inside the tape. He would be keeping the crime-scene log, documenting every person that went in and out of the crime scene.
Standing on the outside of the tape was a group of uniformed officers, mainly rookies, hoping to get a quick glimpse of blood and gore. There was always a group like this at every homicide scene. We kindly referred to the group as the “pigpen.” One rarely saw senior officers in the pigpen. They had seen enough murders and dead bodies in their careers, so they began driving in the opposite direction as soon as a homicide call was put out. I felt their pain.