I was hung over as hell when Detective Ron Peters and I hit the crime scene at ten after eight on a gray and rainy Seattle Monday morning. Peters, my partner on Seattle P.D.'s homicide squad, was quick to point out that it could have been worse. At least I had some hope of getting better. The black man lying behind the dumpster at the Lower Queen Anne Bailey's Foods didn't.
He was dead. Had been for some time. The sickish odor of decaying flesh was thick in the air.
Partially wrapped in a tarp, he lay propped against the loading dock, the whole weight of his body resting on his shoulders, his broad head twisted unnaturally to one side.
The human neck is engineered to turn back and forth and up and down in a multitude of combinations. This wasn't one of them. I didn't need the medical examiner's officer to tell me his neck was broken' but it would require an autopsy to determine if a broken neck was actually the cause of death.
Fortunately, the medical examiner wasn't far behind us. Old Doc Baker, his fall head of white hair wet and plastered flat on his head, turned up with a squad of youthful technicians. Baker supervises departmental picturetaking and oversees the initial handling of the corpse.
Crime-scene etiquette comes with its own peculiar pecking order. In phase one, the medical examiner reigns supreme. Baker barked orders that sent people scurrying in all directions while Peters and I stood in the doorway of the loading dock trying to keep out of both the way and the rain.
The store manager, with a name tag identifying him as Curt, came to stand beside us. He chewed vigorously on ahangnail. "This is real bad for business," he said to no one in particular, although Peters and I were the only people within earshot. "Corporate isn't going to like it at all!"
I turned to him, snapping open my departmental ID. "Detective J.P. Beaumont," I told him. "Homicide, Seattle P.D. Is this man anyone you recognize?" I motioned in the direction of the dead man.
It was a long shot, checking to see if Curt recognized the victim, but it didn't hurt to ask. Every once in a while we get lucky. Someone says sure, he knows the victim, and provides us with a complete name and address. Having that kind of information gives us a big leg up at the beginning of an investigation, but it doesn't happen often. And it didn't happen then.
Curt shook his head mournfully. "No. Never saw him before. But it's still bad for business. Just wait till this hits the papers."
"Optimist," Peters muttered to me under his breath. To Curt, he said, "Who found him?"
"Produce boy. He's upstairs in my office."
"Can we talk to him?"
"He's still pretty shook up. Just a kid, you know."
We followed Curt through the store, deserted except for a few anxious employees who watched our progress down an aisle stacked high with canned goods. At the front of the store, he led us through a door and up a steep flight of steps to a messy cubbyhole that served as Curt's office. From the debris and litter scattered on the table, it was clear the room doubled as an employee lunchroom.
The produce boy was just exactly that, a boy, a kid barely out of high school to look at him. He sat by a scarred wooden desk with his tie loosened and his head resting on his arms. When he raised his head to look at us, a distinctly greenish pallor colored his face. The name tag on his blue apron pocket said Frank.
"How's it going, Frank?" I asked, flashing my ID.
He shook his head. "Not so good. I've never seen anybody dead before."
"How'd you find him?"
"The lettuce," he said.
"Not lettuce exactly. The produce trimmings. I was taking them out to the dumpster in a lettuce crate. That's when I saw him."
"After seven sometime. Don't know exactly. I don't wear a watch."
"And you didn't move him or touch him in any way?"
"Are you kidding? I dropped the crate and lost my cookies. Right there on the loading dock. Then I ran like hell."
"What time?" Peters asked, turning to the manager.
"Twenty after seven. I checked when I dialed 911."
We asked the full quota of questions, but there was nothing either Frank or his boss could add to what they'd already told us. Finally, thanking them for their help, we left the office and returned to where Doc Baker was still throwing his considerable weight around.
"What's it look like?" I asked when he heaved himself to his feet, motioned the techs to pack up the body, and came over to where Peters and I were standing.
"Death by hanging from the looks of it," he said. "Rope burns around his neck. That's probably how it got broken. I'll be able to tell you for sure after the autopsy."
"When will you do it?" Peters asked.
Baker scowled. "Don't rush me. This afternoon, probably. We have another one scheduled for this morning. What was it, a full moon over the weekend?"
Peters shook his head. "You've got it wrong, Doc. According to what I read, rapes and robberies go up during a full moon, not murders."
Baker gave Peters another sour look. They never really hit it off. Baker didn't have much patience with Peters' photographic memory for everything he'd read, and Peters regarded Baker as a pretentious old fart. Young detectives who hang around long enough, however, eventually figure out that Howard Baker is a very wise old fart... Trial By Fury
. Copyright © by J. Jance. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.