Earl was not Sherlock Holmes; he wasn't any kind of big city homicide cop. He hadn't even worked a murder before, that is, as opposed to a killing, where the killer's identity was obvious from witnesses or known grudges. This was different: a body, abandoned for close to a week. It was a true mystery. It went way beyond anything Earl had ever tried before. But Earl Swagger was a serious professional law enforcement officer, committed to, perhaps even obsessed by, the twin masters of duty and justice. His mind was so rigid that he could only see one possible outcome of events before him, the execution of the murderer, and until that happened, he would feel a serious hole had been blown into the wall of the universe. It was up to him to plug it.
He set about it methodically, oblivious first to the odor of death which attended, second to the flies that hung and buzzed and finally to the obscenity of the crime itself. First thing: drawing the scene. Let the photogs do what they would later, he wanted to record, for his own uses, the overall look of the body, its relationship to the setting. He used the triangulation method, useful in outdoor settings where no baseline such as a road could be located.
He chose as his three points the closest tree, about 25 feet beyond the child's head, the edge of the vegetationless shale on which she lay and, off to the right, a stone humping out of the surface of the earth. Crudely, he did a stick figure version of her broken body, placing it between the landmarks.
Then he began an immediate site search for foot prints or other signs of disturbance in the earth, as well as other bits of personal evidence of the man or men who'd brought or dropped her here. But the land was so hard and dry it would register no such impression; instead a breeze kicked up, unfurling Shirelle's dress, throwing vapors of dust. Then, just as quickly, it subsided.
Earl went to the body itself. Later the criminal investigation team, the professionals, could make a more intense examination in search of microscopic information: fibers, body fluids, possible fingerprints, blood stains, that sort of thing. But he wanted to learn what he could from the poor child.
Speak to me, honey, he said, feeling such an aching tenderness come over him he could hardly abide it. Something in him yearned to take her up and cradle her against the pain. But there was no pain, there was no her anymore, only her swollen remains. Her soul was with God. He shook his head clear, and spoke again to her in his mind: Come on, now, you tell Earl who did this to you.
He looked into her blank and depthless eyes, at her utter, broken repose, at her bloodstains and bruises and cruel abrasions, and something hot and hopelessly unprofessional stole over him: he saw a vision of his own child, that serious, somber, hardworking little boy who seemed almost never to laugh: saw Bob Lee, snatched and brutalized like this, left to swell so much it spread his features over his face and for a second Earl stopped being a police officer but became any avenging father and through a red fog had an image of blowing a shotgun shell into the heart of whoever had done the thing, in the name of all fathers everywhere.
But then he had himself back and was cool again, asking dry professional questions, things easily measured, easily known. She was quite dusty. Was it from lying here these many days? Possibly, but more likely, he now believed, she'd been murdered somewhere else and dumped here. If indeed that rock was the murder weapon, there'd be a lot more blood. He bent and looked at the bloodstain congealed under her skull. The pattern of dispersal was regular and there was no sign of spatter, only a pool: that suggested that the blood had thickened and leaked out, slowly. Surely if the girl were thrashing as she was being killed, the blood would be more widely scattered. So he thought that whoever had done this had simply bashed her dead skull with a rock in order to make it look as if he'd killed her here. But why? What difference would it make? He bent close to her throat: yes, it was bruised under the gray swollen skin. Had she been strangled, not beaten, to death? He recorded the fact in his notebook.
Then he saw on a sliver of shoulder revealed by her twisted blouse a red smear, not wet but dry. He touched it: dust, red dust. Hmmm? He turned to her hand, and gently opened it. He bent and looked at her nails: under each of the four fingers was a half moon of what might have been blood but looked more like the same red dust he'd found on her shoulder. The forensics people would have to make that determination.
Red dust? Red clay, possibly? It hung in his mind, reminiscent something. Then he had it: about ten minutes outside Blue Eye, out route 88 near a wide spot in the road called Ink, was an abandoned quarry noted for its red clay deposits. It wasn't so marked on any maps but by the consensus of oral folklore folks called it Little Georgia, in homage to the red clay state.
He wrote "Little Georgia" on his notepad, among his other wordings.
He went to the other hand, which was twisted under her, still clenched in a deathly fist. But he thought he saw something in it, a scrap of paper or something. He should leave it, he knew but the temptation to know more was overwhelming. Gently, with his pencil as a kind of probe, he pried open her tiny hand, trying not to disturb a thing.
A treasure fell out. In Shirelle's left hand was a ball of material, crumpled and desperate, something she'd grabbed from her killer as he killed her. With his pencil, Earl opened it up. It appeared to the pocket of a cotton shirt. And it wasmonogrammed!
Three letters, big as day: RGF.
Could it be that easy? Earl wondered. My god, could that be all there was to it? Finding Mr. RGF with a shirt with a pocket missing?
"Lawdie, lawdie, lawdie," someone was chanting.
Earl looked up. Lem Tolliver's considerable bulk was moving through the trees under the propulsion of great agitation.
"Earl, Earl, Earl!"
"What is it, Lem?" said Earl, rising.
I called em, Earl, and they gonna git here when they can."
"Earl, Jimmy Pye and his cousin Bubba shot up a Fort Smith grocery store. Oh, Earl, they done killed four people, even a cop! Earl, they got the whole state out looking for that boy!"