Heather Dune Macadam is a professor at Suffolk County Community College and a former dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company. She is the author of Rena’s Promise, a nonfiction memoir about Auschwitz, which was nominated for a National Book Award. Her writing has appeared in Newsweek and the New York Times Sunday Magazine.
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If you take up one koan and investigate it unceasingly, your mind will die
and you will will be destroyed. It is as though a vast, empty abyss lay
before you, with no place to set your hands and feet . . . --Master Hakuin
The crime scene had already been roped off with DO NOT CROSS POLICE LINE tape flapping in the bitter New Year's wind as lead Homicide Detective Lochwood Brennen and his partner, Detective Gary DeBritzi, watched the Crime Scene van pull part of the way up the drive and stop. Lochwood could see her through the window of the van talking with her partner. She didn't look too upset, but then Devon knew how to hide her feelings.
"I'm going to go talk to Halsey," Brennen told his partner, and started across the whitening lawn. His feet crunched through the thin layer of ice now hidden beneath the new fallen snow. The sleet had begun before midnight, about the time he and Devon clocked in -- late -- but now the big flakes floating to the ground were forming deeper drifts.
Usually he felt an electric charge when they arrived on a crime scene; the challenge of deciphering the unknown fed his craving for excitement and problem-solving. Tonight he felt only the dismal reality of knowing how the friend of a victim -- victims -- feels. There was no one to soften the blow, no one to assure him that they hadn't suffered needlessly -- that was his job. And one look at the scene told him just how much they had endured. He kicked the turf under his shoe. He'd done it again, thought of the victims as they. Hell, he didn't even know if they both were victims.
It was part of his job to make it easier for civilians who had lost a loved one. He knew what to say in those cases, but Devon Halsey was a cop and his girlfriend. He always called her Halsey on the job, but that did not seem appropriate now. He wasn't sure what befit the situation in which they suddenly found themselves. He stopped halfway to the Crime Scene van to watch Devon and her partner, Frank Landal, begin to unload their equipment. Frank looked older than usual. Maybe it was the way the snow blended with his silver hair; maybe it was the time of night. Frank hated working third shift. Devon caught Loch's eye, then dropped her gaze to the ground.
He wished there were some way to help her. Codependent. That was the term people liked to toss around nowadays -- it used to mean compassion. Somehow, her hair was shimmering in the dark; he wanted to touch it -- bury his nose into it -- and hold her as close as he had two hours ago. His chest ached as she wrapped a hair cap around her head and slipped into her white Tyvek suit. The jaunty self-assurance she normally brought to a crime scene was gone -- she looked pale and stern, as if the simple act of zipping up was taking severe concentration. He wanted to wrap his hands around her waist and tell her it was going to be all right. Such a useless and meaningless phrase, yet that's what he wanted to say because he didn't know how to change the fact that Beka Imamura and her husband were both dead. He opened his mouth but she shook her head, looking beyond him and up at the house where her best friend had lived until a few hours ago.
* * *
Devon felt her stomach drop and a sudden wave of nausea wash over her as she looked at Beka's house -- a house she had helped Beka decorate the year Beka moved into her husband's Hamptons estate.
A group of police officers and detectives milled around the perimeter of the house as she and Frank made their way up the drive. It was always like this outside a murder scene; everyone showed up but no one could do a thing until Homicide did a walk-through and Crime Scene finished recording the vicinity -- everyone was waiting for them. As they walked past the local cops, she scanned the crowd for any brass.
"The lieutenant isn't here yet," Frank whispered to her. "That means we may still have a scene."
She felt a small smile crease its way along her lips; Frank always had a way of getting her to lighten up.
Dressed in disposable paper Tyvek suits and their Suffolk County Crime Scene winter coats, she and Frank signed the roster and ducked under the yellow tape.
"Landal, how you doing?" Lochwood stepped over to them. Frank nodded his answer. "Halsey, are you sure you're up for this?"
"I have to call my dog-sitter." Devon punched in the numbers of Aileen's cellphone. It was late to be calling, but Devon wanted her to know that Boo would need a walk in the morning. She ignored Lochwood's protective eyes as she left a message on the voice-mail. "I won't be home until tomorrow afternoon -- something's come up." Devon did not say anything more about where she was, or why. It was not the sort of thing one left on a message: Our friend is dead and so is her husband. She hung up the phone wishing suddenly that she had a nice cushy job in a boring office where the only backstabbing was figurative, not literal.
"If you run into trouble . . ." Lochwood looked like he was going to try and comfort her in front of everyone.
"I'll tell you, Brennen." She knew she sounded irritable, but couldn't help herself.
"What she can't handle, I can," Frank told him.
"Okay, then. I'm our lead on this one. You know the drill. We've got two bodies, one in the house and one up the hill." Devon looked up the hill, straining to see who had died outside but unable to ask.
Sergeant Houck came up from behind them. "Detective Landal. Halsey." He shook hands with the two Crime Scene detectives. "Brennen tells me you knew both of the victims. You have my condolences."
"Thank you, sir."
"And I don't mean to be unfeeling," he continued, "but I need to know before you start, can you finish the job?"
"We could always call in another team."
"Frank's my partner and this is our job." Her voice sounded grave. She'd meant to sound less troubled; she didn't want the sergeant to think she was weak. She shifted the yellow clapboards and a stack of six-inch-high orange traffic cones in her right hand while cradling the Nikon in her left.
"All right, I'm going to call Headquarters to see if I can get some of our lab guys on overtime. It's a holiday though, so don't count on it. If you flag something we need a rush on, let Brennen know ASAP. The more reason I have for overtime the better chance we have of getting it." He pulled his cellphone out and started to walk away, then stopped. "Oh, and your lieutenant is tied up for the night." He winked at them and turned away.
They started back toward the house. "I still have her number on my beeper," she whispered to Loch.
"I tried to call you, but you were already on your way here." He paused. "I wish I'd been the one to tell you."
She inhaled so sharply the air hurt her lungs. Her eyes teared in the wind. "Did you find her phone?"
"Has anybody tried calling her?" He shook his head. She pulled her cellphone out of her pocket and dialed Beka's number. The night was silent of any ringing.
"I want to be here," she said, more to convince herself than Lochwood. "Make sure Houck knows that. If there is something out of place, I'll know it quicker than any of you."
"That's what I was thinking."
Devon cast her gaze up at the house. "The last time we were here was last August."
"Last time you spoke to her, too."
She knew he wanted to take her hand, but couldn't. "It was a stupid fight. Stupid."
"Can I do anything?" He meant it sincerely, however it sounded.
She shook her head. She didn't want his assurances, just his silent support, and to be left alone while she did her part of the job. If he gave her any more than that, she'd lose it.
Detective DeBritzi met them on the front steps leading into the house. "He's inside. She's up there," he said. They all looked up a small incline where police tape flickered in the wind. She could just make out the outline of Beka's body and shuddered as an arctic blast of wind sank its teeth into the flesh of her neck.
Frank hoisted his video camera up onto his shoulders. "Let's go, then. If it gets rough in there you take a break, Devon. I'll work the area around her. You don't have to go up there, okay?"
She nodded, reminding herself that she had spent two months working Ground Zero. This was not -- nothing could be -- worse than that. She knew how to detach from a scene and observe everything without any emotion. She just wanted to do her job, and do it well. She knew if she could keep her mind focused on her job, she'd be fine.
She followed Frank into the house to begin their assessment. He would record the physical pattern of events while she reconstructed each incident the physical evidence revealed: prints, bloodstains, trace evidence. Deciphering all the road maps of the crime -- that's what the Crime Scene Unit did. She swallowed and reminded herself that it didn't matter how well she knew the house; her job was to follow the trail. If she slipped up and thought about whose blood she was following, she would never be able to finish processing the scene, and that was more important than grieving her loss -- she could do that later. She turned her feelings off like a faucet and thought only about the evidence around her.
"It looks as if it started in the living room," Loch said, "but shoot it how you see it. He's back in their bedroom."
Devon noticed the slip of his tongue. Normally, they would have referred to the bodies as the victims or corpses, but not this time. Loch had bequeathed them the gift of gender-specific pronouns, although no one had uttered their names, yet.
Involuntarily, Devon checked the neatly placed shoes on the rice mat in the mudroom. Beka's shoes were there, but Beka was outside, dead. She must have fled in a hurry.
Devon's mouth creased as she fought the urge to remove her shoes as she had done so often before upon entering the house. Instead, keeping partway with Japanese tradition, she slipped Tyvek booties over her shoes. Next she pulled latex gloves over her hands and raised the camera to her eye to take the first of many scene-establishing shots.
* * *
Beka Imamura had been Gabriel Montebello's model since the early '80s—long before they had finally married -- and appeared in almost every objet d'art in the house. Gabe had said he would make her a star through his art, and he probably had. Whether it was a sculpture, an abstract, or a portrait, Beka reigned supreme even in death, and Devon had the feeling that her friend's eyes were following her every move through the living room. Twenty-foot ceilings arched above her, and the picture windows reflected the light of the room rather than the moon on the pond outside. Furniture was an afterthought, as if the necessity of sitting down were a curse upon the space.
A path of dark red spatter marks lapped the inside wall almost to the ceiling. It was a stabbing. She saw the Buddha and, raising one hand in line with her forehead, gave an imperceptible bow. There were even spatter marks on his enlightened face. A six-foot-high halogen lamp lay across the floor, and on a rough-cut, marble-slab coffee table sat a bottle of Jack Daniel's. The house smelled of bourbon and blood.
Devon and Frank walked through the house examining each room, from the front door to the bedroom and back again. Once the sequence of events was clear, she placed the first yellow number-card, numbered one, under Gabriel's nine-by-six painting over the fireplace. Lochwood was right; this was where the violence began, under the painting that Gabe had given to Beka for a wedding gift. Her Red Shoes was an oil with a lot of red in it already. Beka had always said that dance was in her blood. The painting had now become more than a metaphor for her statement -- Devon could barely tell the difference between the killer's spatter marks and the painter's.
She lifted the camera up to her eye and began photographing the room, moving from the painting outward in a spiral. Residue from the blade's point left an arc of red splotches, indicating that the knife had been raised high in the air and thrust into Gabe several times, but the light color of the spatters suggested that the assault had hit muscle tissue, not arteries or vital organs.
She photographed the bottle where it lay, focusing first on position and then moving in to cover a latent print coagulating on the glass. It was probably too thick to be accurate, but Devon would try to pull the whorls and ridges later in the lab. She scraped the residue of nude color-stick -- Beka's color -- creased along the lip of the bottle. With a white number-card by the bottle she photographed the finger and lip prints, then shot the black label -- the Jack portion had been torn off and carefully pushed down to the glass. The adhesive had bunched into small ridges where a fingernail had plowed through the paper. The last time Beka drank Jack Daniel's was in 1984 -- of that Devon was certain.
Acts of violence have a story line, and Devon knew how to read them. It was her job to paint the pictures that would help Homicide tell the story to the DA, who would later tell the story to the jury. Like a complicated version of the child's game of Telephone, they passed on the information from one to the other and hoped it didn't get withheld, suppressed, or ruled inadmissible, because leaving out one part of the story could change the entire ending. Devon rarely felt bothered by the stories she read -- it was simply her duty to help the victims speak so justice could prevail.
"I'm done here." Frank balanced the video camera casually on his right shoulder as he walked back down the hallway. "You need more clapboards?" Devon shook her head, but couldn't find her tongue. "You okay?"
"Fine," her voice squeaked.
"It gets kind of rough back there."
She swallowed. "I'm okay."
"Just go slow."
She started to inhale deeply but stopped herself. It wasn't the sickening sweet stench of blood invading her nose that was making her queasy, but whose blood it was. Frank squeezed her elbow and headed out the door.
* * *
The medical examiner's Ford Taurus station wagon pulled up to the crime scene just as Lochwood and his partner were coming back outside. It was always best to let the Crime Scene Unit shoot the house with as little activity as was feasible, and Lochwood always tried to keep a scene as free of people as possible.
Dr. Pankow was already dressed in the departmental issue paper suit. She hated the things, but lawyers had found so many problems with evidence collection in recent years that police departments across the nation now treated crime scenes very differently. She stamped her feet in the snow and looked at Lochwood coming down the drive. "Brennen, you just get handsomer and handsomer with every gray hair. Why is it men always age so well?"
"Jo, if you weren't a married woman, I'd tell you."
She slapped his arm. "I'm going to tell Ken you were flirting with me again!" Dr. Pankow leaned her heftiness back into her car to pull out an equally rotund purple leather medical bag, and Lochwood smiled for the first time since the news that Gabriel Montebello and his wife Beka were dead had reached the Fourth Precinct.
Dr. Pankow sighed as she stood upright. "How come you folks can't put a moratorium on holiday violence?" Her North Carolina twang strummed words like a bluegrass banjo player made music.
"I was just asking myself the same thing."
"You just had to call me up outta bed for the first one of the year, didn't you?" Despite all her years above the Mason-Dixon Line, Jo kept true to her roots. She had once told Brennen that it took too much energy "to talk Yankee."
"This one's hitting a little too close to home tonight, Jo." Brennen quietly told her who the victims were.
"Poor Halsey." It was the shortest response he'd ever heard her give.
"Don't say that to her."
He held out his arm. "We're up here." The big-bodied woman squeezed his elbow tightly in her hand and let him lead her up the hill to where the corpse of Devon's best friend lay, face up.
* * *
There were footwear impressions throughout the house that Devon captured on film; some of them were left by the local authorities who had arrived first on the scene. She was always cautious on this point because it was hard to tell at first glance which footwear impressions pertained to a case. More than one Crime Scene detective had photographed the perfect footprint only to find out it belonged to a paramedic or cop. There had been no need for paramedics tonight.
She took close-ups of the footwear impressions in the living room in hopes that they might later be able to distinguish which bloodstains belonged to the perpetrator. The living room carpet had soaked up too much, though, and Devon knew the tracks she wanted would be farther away from the scene, on the wood floor perhaps, or outside on the pavement now being covered by snow. Blood tended to stick up inside of shoe treads and drip down yards away from a crime scene, leaving nice latents in unsuspecting places. Even when the soles looked clean on the outside there could be blood up in the treads . . . unless the someone was barefoot, Devon reasoned, like Beka. She placed a small orange cone and turned her mind like a camera lens. Focus. She clicked the frame, then stopped to change rolls and mark the outside of the cartridge with a black Sharpie. When the living room was done, she had shot two rolls.
She turned her focus to the hallway where something, a blow perhaps, had brought him to his knees. Handprints on the floor verified her quickly forming theory. The scene played out in her mind; she could see how he crawled away on all fours down the hall toward the bedrooms. Like feet, palms were just as unique as fingerprints; she photographed the palm imprints on the maplewood floor. Next to his struggling crawl were the curved ridges of someone's bare foot, about the size of Beka's. Devon clicked the shutter twice, then a third time. She would be able to compare Beka's feet with the photograph later, when she got back to the morgue.
The hall revealed how the violence had escalated. The floor beneath the samurai sword that had once belonged to Beka's grandfather had smear tracks on it. He had probably been dragged the rest of the way to the master bedroom. Smears on the wood-paneled walls indicated that the victim had started to struggle for freedom halfway down the hall but had found nothing firm to grasp until the master bedroom doorjamb. His fingers must have gripped the molding, leaving little fingernail crescents in the wood. Devon focused on these elements as if she were adding detail to an oil painting that was anything but abstract -- these were the ambient factors of the story she had to tell. Whoever had dragged him had been exceptionally strong. She left a cone by the fingernail marks in the doorjamb so they wouldn't miss them when it came time to collect evidence.
The master bedroom still had a night-light by the door casting an eerie green glow. Surveying the room in one sweep Halsey snapped the first of several wide shots, then entered. His corpse was wedged upright against the closet door. The stomach wound gaped like an open mouth trying to tell her something she would never hear. Whoever killed him had wanted him dead -- very, very dead.
There were no more arcs of spray, just the simple gush of life spewing from the body of a dying man. The face had been disfigured by long slashes across the eyes. In cases where an attack was perpetrated upon an acquaintance or loved one, the eyes were often assaulted, as if this one feat could stop the dead from identifying the murderer.
She leaned down to get a closer look at the marks strangely crisscrossing his chest. The blood had clotted in the wounds, meaning he was not alive when they had been carved. They seemed oddly familiar, but she could not figure out why. She clicked off six photographs and twisted her lip around in puzzlement. Why had this one act occurred after death?
Her camera flashed. She blinked, then angled the light away and to the left of the body before drawing the lens of her Nikon even closer. The light bulb flashed involuntarily.
Focus, she reminded herself. Her eyes felt dry. Stay in control. It wasn't the gore that was distracting her concentration. She had been on the scene in the TWA Flight 800 crash, been brought in to assist at the Long Island Railroad massacre. She focused the camera once more and clicked the shutter. It was the light flashing that made her think about the party. There had been a camera then, too.
"Shit." Devon stood up and changed rolls of film while surveying the scene around her. "I should have returned her call," she told the corpse sadly. "Maybe it wasn't about Todd. Maybe she was in danger."
She had said the name -- Todd.
Focus. She reminded herself and wound the film. Take your time. She stooped down, looked right at Gabe through the lens of her camera, and reeled off three strobes. One, two, three. Devon's eyes ached.