A Welcome Grave: Excerpt
Sometime after midnight, on a moonless October night turned harsh by a fine, windswept rain, one of the men I liked least in the world was murdered in a field near Bedford, just south of the city. Originally, they assumed the body had only been dumped there. That Alex Jefferson had been killed somewhere else, dead maybe before the mutilation began.
They were wrong.
It was past noon the next day when the body was discovered. A dozen vehicles were soon assembled in the field—police cars, evidence vans, an ambulance that could serve no purpose but was dispatched anyhow. I wasn’t there, but I could imagine the scene—I’d certainly been to enough like it.
But maybe not. Maybe not. The things they saw that day, things I heard about secondhand, from cops who recited the news in the distanced way that only hardened professionals can manage . . . they weren’t things I dealt with often.
Jefferson was brought from the city with his hands and feet bound with rope, duct tape over his mouth. A half mile down a dirt track leading into an empty field, he was removed from a vehicle—tire tracks suggested a van—and subjected to a systematic torture killing that was apparently quite slow in reaching the second stage. Autopsy results and scenarios created by the forensic team and the medical experts suggested Jefferson remained breathing, and probably conscious, for fifteen minutes.
Fifteen minutes varies by perspective. The blink of an eye, if you’re standing in an airport, saying goodbye to someone you love. An ice age, if you’re fighting through traffic, late for a job interview.And if your hands and feet are bound while someone works you over slowly, from head to toe, with a butane lighter and a straight razor? At that point an eternity isn’t what the fifteen minutes feel like—it’s what you’re begging for. To be sent to wherever it is you’re destined, and sent there for good.
The cops were preoccupied with the basics for most of the first day: processing the crime scene, getting the forensic experts from the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation involved, identifying the body, notifying next of kin, and trying to piece together Jefferson’s last hours. The locals were interviewed, the field and surrounding woods combed for evidence.
No leads came. Not from the basics, at least, not from those first hours of work. So the investigation extended. The detectives went looking for suspects—people whose histories with Jefferson were adversarial, hostile. At the top of that list, they found me.
They arrived at ten past nine on the day after Alex Jefferson’s body was discovered, and I hadn’t made it to the office yet, even though I live in a building just down the street. Below my apartment is an old gym I own and from which I occasionally make a profit. I’ve got a manager for the gym, but that day she had car trouble. She called me at seven thirty to say her husband was trying a jump start, and if that didn’t work, she might be late. I told her not to worry about it—no rush for me, so none for her. I’d open the gym and then leave whenever she made it in.
I’d gone downstairs with a cup of coffee in hand and unlocked the gym office. There’s a keycard system that allows members to come and go twenty-four hours a day, but Grace, my manager, works the nine-to-five in the office and at the cooler. We make most of our money off energy drinks and protein shakes, granola bars, and vitamins, not the monthly membership dues.
There were two women on treadmills and one man lifting weights when I opened the office, our typical crowd. One nice thing about working out at my gym: You never have to wait on the equipment. Good for the members, bad for me.
I checked the locker rooms to make sure there were fresh towels and found Grace had taken care of that the previous night. I was on my way back through the weight room when I saw the cops standing just inside the office. Two of them, neither in uniform, but I caught a glimpse of a badge affixed to the taller one’s belt, a glint of silver under the fluorescent lights that made my eyebrows narrow and my pace quicken.
“Can I help you?” I stepped into the office. Neither one was familiar to me, but I couldn’t pretend to know everyone at the department, especially now, a few years since I’d last worked there.
The one whose badge wasn’t clipped to his belt, a trim guy with gray hair and crow’s feet around his eyes, slid a case out of his pocket and opened it, showing a badge and identification card. Harold Targent, Detective, Cleveland Police Department. I gave it a glance, looked backed at him, nodded once.
“Okay.What can I help you with, Detective?”
“Call me Hal.”
The taller one beside him, who was maybe ten years younger, lifted his hand in a little wave. “Kevin Daly.”
Targent looked out at the weight room, then back at me. “You mind shutting that door? Give us a little privacy?”
“My manager’s late. Don’t want to close the office up until she gets here, if that’s okay.”
Targent shook his head. “Going to need some privacy, Mr. Perry.”
“That serious?” I said, beginning to feel the first hint of dread, the sense that maybe this had nothing to do with one of my cases, that it could be personal.
“Serious, yes. Serious the way it gets when people die, Mr. Perry.”
I swung the office door shut and turned the lock. “Let’s go upstairs.”
* * *
To their credit, they didn’t waste a lot of time bullshitting around without telling me why they were there. No questions about what I’d done the previous night, no head games. Instead, they laid it out as soon as we’d taken seats in my living room.
“A man you know was murdered two nights ago,” Targent said. “Heard about it?”
My last contact with the news had been the previous day’s paper. I hadn’t seen that morning’s yet, and I get more reliable news from the drunk who hangs out at the bus stop up the street than I do from the television. I shook my head slowly, Targent watching with friendly skepticism.
“You going to tell me who?” I said.
“The man’s name was Alex Jefferson.”
It was one of those moments when I wished I were a smoker, just so I could have something to do with my hands, a little routine I could go through to pass some time without having to sit there and stare.
“You remember the man?” Daly asked.
I looked at him and gave a short laugh, shaking my head at the question.
“Yeah. I remember the man.”
They waited for a bit. Targent said, “And your relationship with him was, ah, a little adversarial?”
I met his eyes. “He was sleeping with my fiancée, Detective. I spent two hours working my way through a twelve-pack of beer before I beat the shit out of Jefferson at his country club, got pulled over for drunk driving, got charged with assault. Pled the assault down to a misdemeanor but got canned from the department. All of this, you already know. But, yes, I suppose we can say that my relationship with him was, ah, a little adversarial.”
Targent was watching me, and Daly was pretending to, but his eyes were drifting over my apartment, as if he thought maybe I’d left a crowbar or a nine-iron with dried blood and matted hair stuck to it leaning against the wall.
“Okay,”Targent said.He looked even smaller sitting down, as if he weighed about a hundred and twenty pounds, but he had a substantial quality despite that, a voice flecked with iron. “Don’t take it personally, Mr. Perry. Nobody’s calling you a suspect. Now, if I can just ask—”
“Were you there when she was notified?” I said.
“Karen. His wife. Were you there when she was notified?”
He shook his head.”No, I was not. Lots of people are working—”
“I can imagine. He was a very important man.”
Targent blew out his breath and glanced at Daly, whose eyes were still roving over my apartment, looking for any excuse to shout “probable cause” and begin tearing the place apart.
“I was out with a friend till about eleven Saturday night,” I said. “We had dinner, a few drinks downtown. I’ve probably got the receipts. Came back here, read for an hour, went to bed. No receipt for that.”
Targent smiled slightly. “Okay. But you’re getting ahead of us.”
“Like he said, nobody’s calling you a suspect,”Daly said.
“Just covering bases,” Targent said. “You were on the job not long ago, you know how it goes.”
He leaned back and hooked one ankle over a knee. “So you had an admittedly adversarial relationship with Mr. Jefferson.”
“Three years ago.”
“And had you—”
“Seen him since? No. The last time I saw him he was on his back in the parking lot, doing a lot of bleeding, and I was trying to make it to my car.”
That wasn’t true. I’d seen him twice after that, but always from a distance, and always unnoticed. Once in a restaurant; he’d been standing at the bar, laughing with some other guys in expensive suits, and I’d walked in the door, spotted him, and turned right back around and walked out. The other time was the day he and Karen were married. I’d parked across the street and sat in my car, watched them walk down the steps as people clapped and whistled, and I’d thought that it was all kid stuff, really, the marriage ceremony, and that when people like Jefferson—nearly fifty years old and trying a third wife on for size—went through it in public, it was pretty sad. Pathetic, even. Almost as sad and pathetic as being parked across the street, eighty-eight degrees but with the windows up, watching another guy marry your girl.
That was during my bad phase, though. Fresh out of the job, shiftless and angry. Time had passed, things had changed. Alex Jefferson, while never really gone from my mind, no longer weighed on it, either.
“You’re wasting time,” I said. “I understand you’ve got to go through the motions, but this is a dead end, gentlemen. I hadn’t seen him, I hadn’t seen her, and I didn’t kill him. Happy he’s dead? No. Sad? Not particularly. Apathetic. That’s it. He and his life were of no concern to me and mine. Not anymore.”
Targent leaned forward, ran a hand through his hair, and looked at the floor. “They took their time on him.”
He looked up. “Whoever did kill him, Mr. Perry? They took their damn sweet time doing it. Slow and painful. That was how he went. With forty-seven burns and more than fifty lacerations. Burns from cigarettes and a lighter, lacerations from a razor blade. Sometimes the blade was used to cut deep, like a knife. Other times, it was used like a paint scraper across his flesh. He had duct tape over his mouth, and at some point, trying to scream, maybe, or maybe just going into convulsions from the pain, he bit right through his own tongue.”
I turned and stared out the window. “I don’t need the details, Detective. I just need you to scratch me off the list and move on.”