I'm staring at the insurance man and he's staring at me, two cold gray eyes behind old-fashioned tortoiseshell frames, and I'm having this awful and inspiring feeling, like holy moly this is real, and I don't know if I'm ready, I really don't.
I narrow my eyes and I steady myself and I take him in again, shift on my haunches to get a closer look. The eyes and the glasses, the weak chin and the receding hairline, the thin black belt tied and tightened beneath the chin.
This is real. Is it? I don't know.
I take a deep breath, demanding of myself that I focus, block out everything but the corpse, block out the grimy floors and the tinny rock-and-roll Muzak from the cheap speakers in the ceiling.
The smell is killing me, a pervasive and deeply unpleasant odor, like a horse barn that's been splashed with French-fry grease. There are any number of jobs in this world still being efficiently and diligently accomplished, but the late-night cleaning of twenty-four-hour fast-food-restaurant bathrooms is not among them. Case in point: the insurance man had been slumped over in here, lodged between the toilet and the dull green wall of the stall, for several hours before Officer Michelson happened to come in, needing to use the john, and discovered him.
Michelson called it in as a 10-54S, of course, which is what it looks like. One thing I've learned in the last few months, one thing we've all learned, is that suicides-by-hanging rarely end up dangling from a light fixture or a roof beam, like in the movies. If they're serious, and nowadays everybody is serious, would-be suicides fasten themselves to a doorknob, or to a coat hook, or, as the insurance man appears to have done, to a horizontal rail, like the grab bar in a handicapped stall. And then they just lean forward, let their weight do the work, tighten the knot, seal the airway.
I angle farther forward, readjust my crouch, trying to find a way to share space comfortably with the insurance man without falling or getting my fingerprints all over the scene. I've had nine of these in the three and a half months since I became a detective, and still I can't get used to it, to what death by asphyxiation does to a person's face: the eyes staring forward as if in horror, laced with thin red spiderwebs of blood; the tongue, rolled out and over to one side; the lips, inflated and purplish at the edges.
I close my eyes, rub them with my knuckles, and look again, try to get a sense of what the insurance man's appearance had been in life. He wasn't handsome, that you can see right away. The face is doughy and the proportions are all just a little off: chin too small, nose too big, the eyes almost beady behind the thick lenses.
What it looks like is that the insurance man killed himself with a long black belt. He fastened one end to the grab bar and worked the other end into the hangman's knot that now digs brutally upward into his Adam's apple.
"Hey, kid. Who's your friend?"
"Peter Anthony Zell," I answer quietly, looking up over my shoulder at Dotseth, who has opened the door of the stall and stands grinning down at me in a jaunty plaid scarf, clutching a steaming cup of McDonald's coffee.
"Caucasian male. Thirty-eight years old. He worked in insurance."
"And let me guess," says Dotseth. "He was eaten by a shark. Oh, wait, no: suicide. Is it suicide?"
"It appears that way."
"Shocked, I am! Shocked!" Denny Dotseth is an assistant attorney general, a warhorse with silver hair and a broad, cheerful face. "Oh, geez, I'm sorry, Hank. Did you want a cup of coffee?"
"No, thank you, sir."
I give Dotseth a report on what I've learned from the black faux-leather wallet in the victim's back pocket. Zell was employed at a company called Merrimack Life and Fire, with offices in the WaterWest Building, off Eagle Square. A little collection of movie stubs, all dating from the last three months, speaks to a taste for adolescent adventure: the Lord of the Rings revival; two installments of the sci-fi serial Distant Pale Glimmers; the DC-versus-Marvel thing at the IMAX in Hooksett. No trace of a family, no photographs in the wallet at all. Eighty-five dollars in fives and tens. And a driver's license, with an address here in town: 14 Matthew Street Extension, South Concord.
"Oh, sure. I know that area. Some nice little town houses down that way. Rolly Lewis has a place over there."
"And he got beat up."
"The victim. Look." I turn back to the insurance man's distorted face and point to a cluster of yellowing bruises, high on the right cheek. "Someone banged him one, hard."
"Oh, yeah. He sure did."
Dotseth yawns and sips his coffee. New Hampshire statute has long required that someone from the office of the attorney general be called whenever a dead body is discovered, so that if a murder case is to be built, the prosecuting authority has a hand in from Go. In mid-January this requirement was overturned by the state legislature as being unduly onerous, given the present unusual circumstances—Dotseth and his colleagues hauling themselves all over the state just to stand around like crows at murder scenes that aren't murder scenes at all. Now, it's up to the discretion of the investigating officer whether to call an AAG to a 10-54S. I usually go ahead and call mine in.
"So what else is new, young man?" says Dotseth. "You still playing a little racquetball?"
"I don't play racquetball, sir," I say, half listening, eyes locked on the dead man.
"You don't? Who am I thinking of?"
I'm tapping a finger on my chin. Zell was short, five foot six maybe; stubby, thick around the middle. Holy moly, I'm still thinking, because something is off about this body, this corpse, this particular presumptive suicide, and I'm trying to figure out what it is.
"No phone," I murmur.
"His wallet is here, and his keys, but there's no cell phone."
Dotseth shrugs. "Betcha he junked it. Beth just junked hers. Service is starting to get so dicey, she figured she might as well get rid of the darn thing now."
I nod, murmur "sure, sure," still staring at Zell.
"Also, no note."
"There's no suicide note."
"Oh, yeah?" he says, shrugs again. "Probably a friend will find it. Boss, maybe." He smiles, drains the coffee. "They all leave notes, these folks. Although, you have to say, explanation not really necessary at this point, right?"
"Yes, sir," I say, running a hand over my mustache. "Yes, indeed."
Last week in Kathmandu, a thousand pilgrims from all over southeast Asia walked into a massive pyre, monks chanting in a circle around them before marching into the blaze themselves. In central Europe, old folks are trading how-to DVDs: How to Weigh Your Pockets with Stones, How to Mix a Barbiturate Cocktail in the Sink. In the American Midwest—Kansas City, St. Louis, Des Moines—the trend is firearms, a solid majority employing a shotgun blast to the brain.
Here in Concord, New Hampshire, for whatever reason, it's hanger town. Bodies slumped in closets, in sheds, in unfinished basements. A week ago Friday, a furniture-store owner in East Concord tried to do it the Hollywood way, hoisted himself from an overhanging length of gutter with the sash of his bathrobe, but the gutter pipe snapped, sent him tumbling down onto the patio, alive but with four broken limbs.
"Anyhow, it's a tragedy," Dotseth concludes blandly. "Every one of them a tragedy."
He shoots a quick look at his watch; he's ready to boogie. But I'm still down in a squat, still running my narrowed eyes over the body of the insurance man. For his last day on earth, Peter Zell chose a rumpled tan suit and a pale blue button-down dress shirt. His socks almost but don't quite match, both of them brown, one dark and one merely darkish, both loose in their elastic, slipping down his calves. The belt around his neck, what Dr. Fenton will call the ligature, is a thing of beauty: shiny black leather, the letters B&R etched into the gold buckle.
"Detective? Hello?" Dotseth says, and I look up at him and I blink. "Anything else you'd like to share?"
"No, sir. Thank you."
"No sweat. Pleasure as always, young man."
I stand up straight and turn and face him. "So. I'm going to murder somebody."
A pause. Dotseth waiting, amused, exaggerated patience. "All righty."
"And I live in a time and a town where people are killing themselves all over the place. Right and left. It's hanger town."
"Wouldn't my move be, kill my victim and then arrange it to appear as a suicide?"
"Yeah. Maybe. But that right there?" Dotseth jabs a cheerful thumb toward the slumped corpse. "That's a suicide."
He winks, pushes open the door of the men's room, and leaves me alone with Peter Zell.
* * *
"So what's the story, Stretch? Are we waiting for the meat wagon on this one, or cuttin' down the piñata ourselves?"
I level Officer Michelson a stern and disapproving look. I hate that kind of casual fake tough-guy morbidity, "meat wagon" and "piñata" and all the rest of it, and Ritchie Michelson knows that I hate it, which is exactly why he's goading me right now. He's been waiting at the door of the men's room, theoretically guarding the crime scene, eating an Egg McMuffin out of its yellow cellophane wrapper, pale grease dripping down the front of his uniform shirt.
"Come on, Michelson. A man is dead."
I'm not crazy about the nickname, either, and Ritchie knows that also.
"Someone from Dr. Fenton's office should be here within the hour," I say, and Michelson nods, burps into his fist.
"You're going to turn this over to Fenton's office, huh?" He balls up his breakfast-sandwich wrapper, chucks it into the trash. "I thought she wasn't doing suicides anymore."
"It's at the discretion of the detective," I say, "and in this case, I think an autopsy is warranted."
He doesn't really care. Trish McConnell, meanwhile, is doing her job. She's on the far side of the restaurant, a short and vigorous woman with a black ponytail jutting out from under her patrolman's cap. She's got a knot of teenagers cornered by the soda fountain. Taking statements. Notebook out, pencil flying, anticipating and fulfilling her supervising investigator's instructions. Officer McConnell, I like.
"You know, though," Michelson is saying, talking just to talk, just getting my goat, "headquarters says we're supposed to fold up the tent pretty quick on these."
"I know that."
"Community stability and continuity, that whole drill."
"Plus, the owner's ready to flip, with his bathroom being closed."
I follow Michelson's gaze to the counter and the red-faced proprietor of the McDonald's, who stares back at us, his unyielding gaze made mildly ridiculous by the bright yellow shirt and ketchup-colored vest. Every minute of police presence is a minute of lost profit, and you can just tell the guy would be over here with a finger in my face if he wanted to risk an arrest on Title XVI. Next to the manager is a gangly adolescent boy, his thick mullet fringing a counterman's visor, smirking back and forth between his disgruntled boss and the pair of policemen, unsure who's more deserving of his contempt.
"He'll be fine," I tell Michelson. "If this were last year, the whole scene of crime would be shut down for six to twelve hours, and not just the men's john, either."
Michelson shrugs. "New times."
I scowl and turn my back on the owner. Let him stew. It's not even a real McDonald's. There are no more real McDonald's. The company folded in August of last year, ninety-four percent of its value having evaporated in three weeks of market panic, leaving behind hundreds of thousands of brightly colored empty storefronts. Many of these, like the one we're now standing in, on Concord's Main Street, have subsequently been transformed into pirate restaurants: owned and operated by enterprising locals like my new best friend over there, doing a bustling business in comfort food and no need to sweat the franchise fee.
There are no more real 7-Elevens, either, and no more real Dunkin' Donuts. There are still real Paneras, but the couple who owns the chain have undergone a meaningful spiritual experience and restaffed most of the restaurants with coreligionists, so it's not worth going in there unless you want to hear the Good News.
I beckon McConnell over, let her and Michelson know we're going to be investigating this as a suspicious death, try to ignore the sarcastic lift of Ritchie's eyebrows. McConnell, for her part, nods gravely and flips her notebook to a fresh page. I give the crime-scene officers their marching orders: McConnell is to finish collecting statements, then go find and inform the victim's family. Michelson is to stay here by the door, guarding the scene until someone from Fenton's office arrives to collect the corpse.
"You got it," says McConnell, flipping closed her notebook.
"Beats working," says Michelson.
"Come on, Ritchie," I say. " A man is dead."
"Yeah, Stretch," he says. "You said that already."
I salute my fellow officers, nod goodbye, and then I stop short, one hand on the handle of the parking-lot-side door of the McDonald's, because there's a woman walking anxiously this way through the parking lot, wearing a red winter hat but no coat, no umbrella against the steady drifts of snow, like she just ran out of somewhere to get here, thin work shoes slipping on the slush of the parking lot. Then she sees me, sees me looking at her, and I catch the moment when she knows that I'm a policeman, and her brow creases with worry and she turns on her heel and hurries away.
* * *
I drive north on State Street away from the McDonald's in my department-issued Chevrolet Impala, carefully maneuvering through the quarter inch of frozen precipitation on the roadway. The side streets are lined with parked cars, abandoned cars, drifts of snow collecting on their windshields. I pass the Capitol Center for the Arts, handsome red brick and wide windows, glance into the packed coffee shop that someone's opened across the street. There's a snaking line of customers outside Collier's, the hardware store—they must have new merchandise. Lightbulbs. Shovels. Nails. There's a high-school-age kid up on a ladder, crossing out prices and writing in new ones with a black marker on a cardboard sign.
Forty-eight hours, is what I'm thinking. Most murder cases that get solved are solved within forty-eight hours of the commission of the crime.
Mine is the only car on the road, and the pedestrians turn their heads to watch me pass. A bum leans against the boarded-up door of White Peak, a mortgage broker and commercial real-estate firm. A small pack of teenagers is loitering outside an ATM vestibule, passing around a marijuana cigarette, a kid with a scruffy goatee languorously exhaling into the cold air.
Scrawled across the glass window of what used to be a two-story office building, at the corner of State and Blake, is graffiti, six-foot-tall letters that say LIES LIES IT'S ALL LIES.
I regret giving Ritchie Michelson a hard time. Life for patrol officers had gotten pretty rough by the time I was promoted, and I'm sure that the fourteen subsequent weeks have not made things easier. Yes, cops are steadily employed and earning among the best salaries in the country right now. And, yes, Concord's crime rate in most categories is not wildly elevated, month against month, from what it was this time last year, with notable exceptions; per the IPSS Act, it is now illegal to manufacture, sell, or purchase any kind of firearm in the United States of America, and this is a tough law to enforce, especially in the state of New Hampshire.
Still, on the street, in the wary eyes of the citizenry, one senses at all times the potential for violence, and for an active-duty patrol officer, as for a soldier in war, that potential for violence takes a slow and grinding toll. So, if I'm Ritchie Michelson, I'm bound to be a little tired, a little burned out, prone to the occasional snippy remark.
The traffic light at Warren Street is working, and even though I'm a policeman and even though there are no other cars at the intersection, I stop and I drum my fingers on the steering wheel and I wait for the green light, staring out the windshield and thinking about that woman, the one in a hurry and wearing no coat.
* * *
"Everybody hear the news?" asks Detective McGully, big and boisterous, hands cupped together into a megaphone. "We've got the date."
"What do you mean, 'we've got the date'?" says Detective Andreas, popping up from his chair looking at McGully with open-mouthed bafflement. "We already have the date. Everybody knows the goddamned date."
The date that everybody knows is October 3, six months and eleven days from today, when a 6.5-kilometer-diameter ball of carbon and silicates will collide with Earth.
Excerpted from The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters, Ben Winters. Copyright © 2012 by Ben H. Winters. Excerpted by permission of QUIRK BOOKS.
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