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Toilets and dead bodies don't mix. If the thought hadn't occurred to me before, it certainly did now as I stared down at the well-dressed man whose head had been shoved into one. In a public restroom at the Greyhound bus station, no less. Not a pleasant place for anyone to be this time of night--especially if you were dead.
The place stank. You would expect a bathroom to smell, but this went beyond smell. It reeked. And it wasn't the smell of death. That I understood. This was different. This was nothing but the stench of human waste. For some reason, whenever people get together in a public place, the bathroom is always the first casualty. Take sporting events. By the end of a game, all the bathrooms look as if the plumbing got sick and threw up all over itself. I often wonder how those people treat their own bathrooms.
"What a way to die," I said, disgusted but trying not to show it. I'm a homicide cop after all. I'm supposed to be used to filth. But nobody gets used to it, no matter what they might tell you. "Wonder if they flushed first."
"Why should he care?" my partner, Eddie Dover, said. "He's dead."
"Yeah, but he wasn't dead when they shoved his head in."
Dover visibly shuddered. I chuckled. Rookies. They hadn't yet learned to hide their disgust at a murder scene. The messier the scene, the messier their reaction. This one was nothing--I'd seen worse. Much, much worse.
I turned to Syzinski, the first officer to arrive on the scene. He was a no-nonsense cop, hard working and dedicated. I had to look up at him. I might be tall for a woman, but at six foot five he was a good head taller. "What do we know so far?"
He shrugged. "Seems to be apretty straightforward case. As far as we can tell, the victim drowned when his head was shoved in the toilet."
"Time of death?" I asked.
"Can't have been dead for long. Fire Department's already been and left. They estimate maybe 8:00-8:30. Have to wait for the coroner to say for certain."
I checked my watch. Just after 9:30. I picked up his blue-tinged hands one at a time. They were still limp as rigor mortis hadn't yet set in, which meant he couldn't have been dead more than an hour--hour and a half.
"Who found the body?"
"Homeless man. He's being questioned right now."
"I'll want to question him too."
"Have we ID'd the victim yet?"
"Yeah, found the wallet next to his body. Name is," Syzinski glanced at his notepad, "Fred Turner. Lives at 1351 33rd Street."
"Fred huh? Doesn't look much like a Fred to me. Okay, get the lab guys out here. I want no toilet seat left unturned, got it?"
Syzinski shrugged and handed a page of notes to Dover. "I'll pass on your message, but I don't know how much good it'll do. Do you have any idea how many people have used this bathroom and left their fingerprints and ... uh ... other ... things behind?"
"Just tell them to do their best."
"I'm sure they're adding you to their Christmas list as we speak."
I rolled my eyes and turned back to the body. "I can hardly wait."
Once Syzinski left, I pulled on some rubber gloves and leaned down to examine the body while Dover took pictures of the stall, the body and everything I did. The victim was on his knees, his arms slumped on the floor to each side of the toilet with his head shoved inside the bowl. I picked up his blue-tinged hands one at a time and examined his forearms. No bruises. Next I checked his head and the water in the bowl. No blood. It didn't make any sense.
Drowning was a violent way to die. I'd seen enough to know. The panicked victim struggles wildly, scratching his attacker, sometimes bruising or injuring himself. If this man had been drowned, as appeared to be the case, I'd expect to see bruises on both arms from banging them against the toilet and bits of skin and blood beneath his fingernails. Yet there were no signs of struggle at all.
Which meant he'd either been unconscious--or already dead--when his body was placed here, and the drowning just a cover up. But a cover up for what?
I didn't like this. Not at all. It reminded me of a case I'd handled while still part of part of the Los Angeles Police Department. A woman drowned in her own bathtub, but we found no evidence to indicate it was murder. Just like this. The coroner ruled it accidental. It wasn't. And because the investigation was dropped, a little girl died. An innocent. I still see her face. It stares at me when I look in the mirror at night.
Dover read the notes Syzinski left, his voice pulling me back. "There's no cash in his wallet. Think he was mugged? His clothes look pretty fancy for this part of town."
I'd noticed the same thing. I looked around a little more, checked the floor and the toilet, setting the scene of the crime and the position of the victim's body firmly in my mind. Once satisfied, I stepped into the main bathroom and looked around there too, careful not to touch anything.
It was the same kind of public toilet you find in gas stations or fast food restaurants, only bigger and dirtier. Once off-white walls were grimy from cigarette smoke and covered with graffiti. Half the stall doors were missing and the ones still attached hung at odd angles, ready to fall at the slightest touch. Both the toilets and the urinals were stained yellow with a thick layer of scum, desperately needing a good scrub. The remaining fluorescent lights flickered off and on in a nauseatingly irregular rhythm.
As I continued to inspect the place, I couldn't help but catch a glimpse of my reflection in the tarnished excuse they called a mirror. The silver bleeding through the glass made my skin look pockmarked and the fluorescent lights darkened the bags under my eyes to a shade resembling dried blood.
I grimaced. Nothing like bad lighting and a dirty mirror to make a girl feel attractive.
I peeled off my gloves and dropped them in the overflowing trash can. Even though I hadn't touched anything, I still felt unclean. I couldn't wait to wash my hands.
"Maybe he came from Morton's," Dover said. "They're only a couple blocks away. He's dressed for it."
"Then what's he doing here?"
"I don't know, Castle, maybe his car broke down."
Before I could answer, I felt a chill, the kind I get when I know someone's watching me. I turned to look but saw nothing. I felt silly. No one watched me.
Before Dover could ask what happened, I said, "Why didn't he call a cab?"
"No money? Unless things have changed, cabbies don't take IOUs."
"He have any credit cards on him?"
"So, you think old Fred here went to Morton's, one of the most expensive restaurants in town, had dinner then got stuck when his car wouldn't start?"
"Stranger things have happened."
"And just how did he plan to get home? Walk? More than fifty blocks?"
"So why'd he end up here?"
Dover shrugged. "Maybe he had to go to the bathroom."
I put my hands in my pockets and thought for a moment. "Doesn't make sense. A guy dressed like that wouldn't walk anywhere he didn't have to. Okay, assume for argument's sake he came from Morton's. Where's his dinner companion? No one eats at Morton's alone. I think he sent his wife or girlfriend home with the car, which would explain the lack of keys, and he hoofed it over here. But why..." I still couldn't figure out why he walked when he could have called a cab. Suddenly the answer hit me. "What if he called a cab, but instead of picking him up at Morton's the driver was instructed to pick him up here? What if he planned to meet someone?"
"You don't think it could be a mugging?"
"No I don't. Think about it. Would a mugger kill his victim, drag him into a public bathroom and shove his head into a toilet just to make it look like a murder? Why bother? It makes no sense."
"What if he was mugged inside the bathroom then drowned?"
I shook my head. "I don't think it happened that way. If he'd been drowned, there would have been signs of a struggle, bruises, cuts on his arms. There weren't any. No, I think he had an appointment to meet someone and whoever he met killed him and left him like this. Now we have to figure out who and why."
Dover rolled his eyes.
I grinned. "You didn't expect this job to be easy did you?"
"What about the missing money?" he asked, ignoring my question.
"I think that can be explained very simply--"
At that instant, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash as one of the remaining fluorescent lights went out with a loud pop. Again, I felt that strange chill, yet when I turned my head no one was there. I shivered; glad I didn't have to stay here much longer. This place gave me the creeps.
Before going downstairs we checked out with the community service officer, Cooper, who'd been assigned to keep careful track of everyone who entered or left the crime scene. As we descended into the waiting area I could see several benches with bodies huddled under layers of tatty coats. Situated downtown near the hub of state government and financial commerce, and barely a block from K Street Mall, the bus station used to be the center of public transportation into and out of the city. But as the years passed, Regional Transit appeared, the Light Rail was built and suddenly that same station became a hub of homeless activity.
The police were supposed to chase off anyone sleeping where they shouldn't, but apparently none of them had bothered. On a cold and rainy night like tonight, I really couldn't blame them. Other people, either waiting for buses or for someone to pick them up, watched our activities with varying degrees of interest. At this time of night both busses and passengers were few and far between.
Officers Stone and Capcheck stood at the bottom of the stairs interviewing an older, bearded man in a grungy, red wool coat. His gloves were missing several fingers and his shoes were scuffed and stained and looked to be about five sizes too big.
"Are you the man who found the body?" I asked.
He shuffled his feet. "I was jus' telling these officers here all 'bout it."
"What's your name?"
"Billy. Billy Randle."
"I'll take it from here, boys." Stone and Capcheck turned away with a chuckle and I wondered who they were laughing at, me or the witness. I glanced back at Stone, admiring the way he fit his uniform then pulled my mind back to the job at hand. I'd need sex soon, or I'd be totally unable to think about anything else.
"Well, Billy," I said, putting my hand on his shoulder and guiding him towards the nearest bench. Dover followed a few steps behind, clicking pictures like a deranged tourist. "I'd like to talk to you if I may?"
"'Course. What ... what did ya wanna know?"
I steered him to a quiet section where no one could overhear and sat him down. Dover put aside his camera, took out a notebook and sat on the witness' other side. I gently turned the man so he looked directly at me, though right away I knew I'd made a mistake. His breath stank worse than the bathroom I'd just left, and he certainly bathed for at least a month. As I appraised him, I noticed something white peeking out of his coat pocket.
"You found the body?"
"Already told ya I did."
"What did you do next?"
Billy fidgeted in his seat. "Whatcha mean? I went out and told the guy sellin' tickets and he called the police. Didn't do nothin' else. Honest."
"Are you sure? You're not lying to me are you, Billy?"
Billy shook his head defiantly. "I ain't lyin' to ya, I swear."
"Then what's this?" I asked, pulling the white paper out of his pocket. A bus ticket, just as I suspected.
"Thas mine! You got no right to my personal business. If you mus' know, I'm goin' on a trip."
I read the ticket carefully. "You purchased this at 9:13? This says you're going to Florida. That's quite an expensive ticket for someone of your ... financial means. Where'd you get the money?"
Billy jumped from his seat. "Jus' what is you gettin' at? I didn't take that dead man's money; I wouldn't do that. It's mine. I had it 'afore I found the body. I swear."
"Sit down, Billy." When he didn't comply, I lowered my voice. "Sit. Down."
Still looking defiant, he sat and tried to snatch the ticket out of my hand. I let him have it. "How did you know the dead man had any money?"
Billy looked up, his smile evaporating like water dropped on a hot rock. "I looked. I couldn't help it. But I didn't kill him! You can't accuse me of nothin'!"
"It's all right, Billy. I know you didn't kill him. You can tell me. You took that money didn't you? After all, he didn't need it anymore, did he? He was already dead. All that money and it was just going to waste..."
Billy sat for a moment, turning the ticket over and over in his hand. "He had no use for it," he finally said. "And I needed it bad. You gotta understand! He was dead already, I swear on my mother's grave. I ... I didn't kill him." Tears streamed down his face now, digging furrows through month old grime. "I was ... I was married ya know. For five years. Then my wife and baby were ... were kilt in a car accident. I started drinkin'. Lost my job, my house ... couldn't think of nothin' but gettin' drunk. I lost everything. You don't know what that's like do ya? When I found all that money in the dead man's wallet, I thought God was givin' me a new start. I got relatives in Florida who can help me get back on me feet. But I swear, I didn't kill him!"
Upon closer examination, I realized Billy was much younger than I'd first thought. He couldn't have been more than thirty-five, but the ravages alcohol and malnutrition had taken on his body made him look at least fifty.
"Okay here's the deal. If you're totally honest with me and you swear you're going to get some help, I'll let you go. But! If for one instant I think you're lying to me, I'll tear up your ticket and land you in jail so fast you'll think you were still sitting on this bench. Got me?"
"Okay. Tell me what happened from the very beginning. And don't leave out anything, no matter how trivial it may seem."
Billy looked around to make sure no one was watching then leaned in closer. I took slow, shallow breaths, fighting the urge to gag as an almost visible wave of whiskey fumes rolled from his open mouth. I wondered how long I could hold my breath before passing out. "It was the aliens what did him in. I seen 'em." He nodded, looking oddly serious. "It was them aliens."
"Aliens? Illegal aliens?"
"'Course not! They's from outer space. Space aliens."
I glanced over Billy's head to Dover who rolled his eyes and mimed drinking from a bottle. I agreed. This guy's head had already turned to fermented mush.
Deciding to play along, I said, "And, uh, what did these ... space aliens look like?"
Grinning wide enough to show two missing front teeth, Billy leaned even closer. "See, I knewed you'd believe me. Well, they's this green color and they wear fancy silver clothes, them one piece thingies. What's they called? Oh yeah, jumpsuits. And they got these fancy silver boots, too. When I come in the bathroom to ... you know ... uhm ... don' wanna mention bodily functions in front of a lady, tain't seemly. Anyways, I seen him walkin' right into the wall. And he didn't come back neither. Oh, almos' forgot. As he walked away, there was a flash a light and a loud pop. I don't know where that alien is now, I swear. Prolly back on his space ship."
Hysterical laughter bubbled up from my stomach. Get a grip, Jen. It's okay. You can do this. Aliens. My God! I nodded, trying to look concerned. "Yeah, probably. I don't think we'll ever find him."
"And did you tell the other officers about the aliens?"
"Yeah, but they laughed at me. Thought I was makin' it up, but I ain't, I swear!"
Now I rolled my eyes at Dover. Great. Just great. Now I knew why the uniforms had laughed when I took Billy aside. Tomorrow we'd be the laughing stock of the department. I could hear Stone now, "Hey Castle, catch any 'aliens' today? Shall we call in Mulder and Scully to help you?" Sometimes I think Stone only exists to give me a hard time. Though with his military short hair and broad shoulders, he sure was cute. And cute can get away with things ugly can't. And that man got away with far too much.
"My bus is leavin'. Can I go now?"
"In a minute. But first, I have one more question. Remember, if I think you're lying, I'll have you arrested. Exactly how much money did you find on the dead man?"
Billy looked scared, his eyes darting from me to the officers by the front door and he shifted in his seat as if getting ready to bolt. I put my hand on his arm and immediately he seemed to deflate, all the fight gone from his scrawny body. "I don' know how to count so good, but there was lots. All twenties. I ain't never seen so much money in my life. But it weren't in his wallet. It was in a brown envelope inside his ... his jacket."
"Give it to me."
"But ... But I spent it! I don' have it no more! I swear!"
"Billy..." I warned. "You're lying. You haven't had time to spend anything except what you used on the ticket. Give it to me. Now."
Bowing his head, Billy stuck his hand inside his coat and pulled out a fat envelope. I opened it, counted the cash, estimated the cost of the ticket and decided Billy had given me everything he'd found on the victim. I pulled out a twenty, tucked it into Billy's pocket along with one of my business cards and told him to go catch his bus.
After he left, Dover slid over to sit next to me. "Why'd you let him go? Not only is he a possible witness, but you gave him money that should have been evidence. If anyone finds out, you'll be in a lot of trouble."
"Guess I'm an old softie. Besides, who's to say how much money was in the envelope to begin with?"
Dover pulled back in disgust. "Are you ... are you suggesting we take a cut?"
I glared at him. "Of course not. I'm only saying the cost of a bus ticket and twenty bucks won't hurt either the department or the investigation. In fact, I think it's money well spent, even if I have to make it up out of my meager salary. Can you imagine what the defense would do to our case if our only witness was a drunk who claimed aliens did it?"
"This is turning out to be one nutty case."
"You got that right." I stood and stretched. "We'd better get busy. We've got about fifteen more people to interview tonight before we can go home. Might as well get started. We'll be lucky if we're done by midnight."
I headed back towards the stairs where the patrolmen were already lining up people for us to interrogate. Dover matched me step for step, or tried. Since he was taller than me, I either had to speed up for him, or he had to slow down for me. As his superior, I felt it only right I make him do the slowing down. He needed to be taught a little humility.
As he took the first witness aside, I stood there for a moment to catch my breath. I wondered if all the other people we had to talk to tonight smelled as bad as Billy, and if so, could I get away with delegating the interviews to Dover and Stone and the other officers? Hell, I was the primary. I could do whatever I wanted. Besides, Dover needed the experience.
But a few minutes later, when Dover motioned me over to help him interview an old lady with all her possessions stuffed into the plastic bag at her feet, I knew I could no more tell someone else to do my job than I could win an argument with my mother.