A Thin Veil of Innocence
by Christopher J. Ferguson
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
A week and a half after Christmas, 1988, the last of the holiday cheer was wearing off the souls of most people, replaced with the dreary melancholy that recognized another year passed, largely the same as the one before. In the yards of some homes, multicolored lights still shone, fighting a rearguard action of denial against the reality that the holiday season was gone, and all the people of Rhode Island had left was many months of cold, gray weather.
Beside the driveways of many houses lay discarded pine trees, like so many used and unwanted corpses. People returned to their work and their lives, and whatever moment of sharing and giving had existed in late December was extinguished, at least until next year.
These were the observations Detective Alan Stieger made to himself as he watched the people of the suburban town of Cumberland pass by in the passenger window of his partner’s gray sedan.
Marcus, his partner, ranted with his usual zeal about the upcoming presidential inauguration, but Stieger’s mind was elsewhere. He thought of his son, Joshua, who had protested vehemently the return to the dreaded prison of Community School, and of his wife who was back at a job she hated. Stieger, at least, enjoyed his work, though it was not an occupation that brought much cheer.
“Hey, are you listening to me?” Marcus asked suddenly, the odor of coffee strong on his breath. He had just become aware that his political observations had gone largely unnoticed.
Stieger shrugged without looking at his partner, “Just getting nostalgic, I guess.” Unlike Marcus, this was his neighborhood, he and his family lived not far from here, which may have had some impact on his thoughts. His mind was stuck on the joy of spending time with family.
Marcus grunted with sympathy, knowing better than to ask his existential friend and colleague for much elaboration. “Better get your thoughts collected, we’re almost there.”
Their car, unmarked, sped along Abbott Run Valley Road, a windy street that had supposedly gotten its name in the seventeenth century during a skirmish between colonists and hostile Narragansett Indians. During Pierce’s fight, nine armed colonists lost their lives and were forever immortalized in the landmark Nine Men’s Misery, while the tenth, Abbott, had escaped by following a path that was alleged to be the now well-traveled thoroughfare.
Their destination was a small historical cemetery that housed those who had passed away largely in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This cemetery now had a new resident: the first homicide of the year. The body was on state-owned property, hence it was State detectives and not local police who were called to the scene.
“I should have just driven here from home,” Stieger complained, realizing that he was whining. It was a valid observation, however; he lived barely a minute’s drive away from the crime scene. Had he had the prescience to realize he would only end up driving back to his home town from the state barracks, he could have saved himself a trip.
“Cheer up,” Marcus said. “First homicide in the state of Rhode Island all year, and who would have thunk it would fall into our lap?” Rhode Island typically had fewer than thirty homicides in the entire state in a given year, and most of those were handled by local police departments, not the state police. He raised a gloved hand and pointed out the frosted window: “There it is.”
A single Cumberland Police Department car sat on the edge of the road next to what appeared like a small hill surrounded by a stone fence and gate. Behind it was the gray van of a coroner. Still, the cemetery was situated directly in a community environment, and three police vehicles was more than enough to attract the attention of the local populace. A small gathering of individuals braved the cold across the street, their view hampered by the clouds of steam rising from their own breath.
This particular section of the town had come into existence long after the cemetery had been placed where it was, and some houses actually sat next to or even between its several parts. An interesting location to have a house.
The section of the cemetery they were visiting was the largest, which was not to say it was particularly large, no more than an acre, and most of it was out of view from the road, over the top of the hill. Only a single mausoleum and a row of headstones were visible from the road.
Stieger grimaced. Cemetery murders tended to be weird. He still remembered a case in Pawtucket, where a woman had her head crushed with one of the headstones itself. Their supervisor, Lieutenant Starling, had not seen fit to give them too many details about what they could expect to find on the current case. Yes, it was going to be weird.
Steeling themselves against the bitter January air, Stieger and Marcus darted from their car and crossed the small road, trudging through a shallow layer of old snow up the embankment. A small plaque announced the entrance into the cemetery, otherwise it was only moderately well cared-for, the dead grass deep enough to make their steps treacherous.
Within this cemetery, the plaque told them, lay not only the usual dead, but also four soldiers of the Revolutionary War. Stieger cast a quick glance about at the graves which flew flags above them, wondering which of those were the Revolutionary War soldiers. Some of the headstones actually mentioned it right on them. Others quaintly mentioned the cause of death, whether a person had drowned, or frozen to death, or died suddenly.
Some grave markers were tiny, barely a rock with the deceased’s initials. Others were made of shale, and though archaic enough to include the faces of angels, had been cracked and cast aside, no longer above the bodies of the dead. Many of the remainder were worn or covered with moss so that the inscriptions could not be read. The stones from the nineteenth century were sturdier, larger, with deeper etching, and these had fared much better.
The Cumberland police officer, and two coroner’s attendants crowded around a little cluster of cloth near a row of black shale eighteenth-century stones. The police officer casually smoked a cigarette, a mark of carelessness, and he would need to be severely berated. Who knew how badly he might be contaminating the crime scene.
The cloth in question that held their interest was small, barely noticeable, not nearly large enough to conceal an adult. For a moment Stieger feared they might be looking at the body of a child. He was wrong.
One of the coroner’s attendants saw them coming and shrugged, “It’s a cat.”
Marcus stopped short. “Huh?” he said with his eyes wide and his breath hanging in the air like that of a dragon.
The same attendant shrugged again, “I guess your boss didn’t tell you, huh? Can’t blame her, I don’t know why she wanted us to stick around. The object in question,” he nudged the cloth with the toe of his shoe, “is one Siamese feline, recently deceased. Frozen solid, I’d guess it’s been here all night. Wrapped in a wool hat and missing its head. Barring an autopsy, I’m guessing that to be the cause of death.” He pointed down toward where the little cluster of local residents were gathered. “Neighbor took his dog up here for a walk this morning and discovered it. Called it in to local police.”
The local cop looked thrilled. “Yeah,” he said, “somehow it went up the chain to you guys and your boss said to hang onto it. Must be a slow year, huh?”
“I guess,” Stieger said, befuddled. He could now make out, though just barely, the back paws and tail of the cat protruding from the rim of the hat. He reached into his coat for his cell phone. “I think the Lieutenant must not have understood that this is a cat. I’ll give her a call to clear things up.” Marcus nodded and stepped closer to the dead cat. He did not berate the local cop for his lack of crime-scene integrity.
If Stieger had hoped that his call to the Lieutenant would result in their being excused from investigating the death of a cat, he was to be disappointed. “Lieutenant,” he said, once he had her on the line, “Marcus and I are over here in Cumberland. Did you know that the body you sent us to look at is a cat? I mean the homicide victim is a cat.”
She sighed, sounding mildly irritated at the phone call, “Yeah I knew it was a cat, and I also knew I’d get all kinds of trouble from you two if I told you ahead of time.”
“So what you’re saying is that you want us to investigate the death of a cat. Isn’t this more the territory of the SPCA?”
She sighed again, her irritation growing, “Perhaps you aren’t familiar with a body of research that suggests those who are cruel to animals often go on to abuse humans as well? Wouldn’t it be nice to be proactive for a change instead of scooping up human bodies?”
A brisk wind picked up as if on cue, and sent a shiver down Stieger’s spine. “Odds are this is a couple of kids. Even if it is an adult, what could we expect from a cruelty to animals charge, a year’s probation? Besides, how does one exactly go about investigating the death of a cat? Should we try to find out if it was involved with the catnip trade?”
Starling didn’t laugh, but explained to him patiently, as if to a child, “If this is a kid who killed the cat, we might be able to force him or her into therapy, maybe help a troubled kid before it is too late. Listen, you guys run with this for an eight-hour day and, if you catch the perp, I won’t yell at you for a week. Sound like a deal?”
Stieger was not impressed, but he acquiesced, knowing she was intent to have her way. Snapping his cell phone closed, he commented to Marcus, “Looks like we’re pet detectives for the day.” The coroner’s attendants snickered at the detectives’ misfortune.
“I wouldn’t get all giggly if I were you,” Marcus snarled, displeased, “You mooks get to be pet coroners. Get some detailed pictures of the crime scene, and then bag the body. That cat is evidence, I want it kept in a freezer like any other corpse.” The two attendants looked at him with disbelief, then shrugged and set off to do his bidding.
Stieger returned to Marcus’ side and regarded the dead cat lazily, “Well, the good news is that if it’s a local cat, people are likely to remember a Siamese.” Assuming it was an outdoor cat, he thought.
Marcus prodded the edge of the hat with a pencil. “Not much blood here; I’d guess the cat was killed somewhere else, then brought here.” He stood and looked around for splotches of blood, in case the animal might have been killed nearby, but the cemetery snow was clean. “I don’t see any usable footprints either,” he observed. “Wind overnight must have covered them up.” Or the local cop and coroner’s attendants had trampled them.
“So,” Stieger said thoughtfully, “if you decapitated a cat, why would you bring the body here. I mean, if killing cats gave you a buzz, you could just bury the body, or toss it in the trash. No one would ever be the wiser.”
Marcus nodded. “You think it was left here to be discovered on purpose?”
“Yeah,” Stieger agreed with a wave toward the nearby houses, “houses on either side, people must walk through here every now and again. Bit of a risk an opossum or dog might make off with the corpse but...” He trailed off, losing his own thought.
Extending an arm lazily to point toward the small cluster of people who had gathered across the street from the cemetery, “Maybe one of them offed this cat, and is even now getting their jiggles watching us standing here scratching our heads. Let’s go chit-chat with them, shall we? See where it gets us.”
What it got them was an ID on the cat. The cluster of onlookers had mainly consisted of middle-aged and elderly retired persons and a single housewife who had been so enthralled with the scene she had taken her infant child with her into the cold. None of them struck the two detectives as a likely cat-napper, and most seemed mildly disappointed to learn that the deceased was not human.
The detectives took names and numbers, and the crowd dispersed when the coroner’s van drove away with the body in a small plastic sack. It was the housewife who remembered the cat, a friendly Siamese whose owners let her out at night to hunt. The Siamese had hunted by scratching at neighbors’ doors until one or another came out with a plate of tuna or saucer of cream. This behavior had made the cat something of a neighborhood celebrity. It also meant the cat could have come across almost anyone in the community.
“There,” the housewife had told them, pointing up the street toward a house that was veritably surrounded by second-growth forest. “The cat lived with that family. Doubt they ever needed to feed it.”
Despite being surrounded by trees, the house’s lawn was neatly manicured, if made somewhat desolate by the winter. It was a pretty house: brick face with white trim about the windows. Probably built back in the 1960’s like most of the houses in this area, it was cozy, with a sizeable section of forest in which any children might play.
Back in the woods, perhaps four hundred yards behind the house, the detectives could see the form of an elaborate treehouse resting in the branches of one majestic oak. The treehouse looked complex enough that an adult with some engineering skill must have designed it. Whatever child lived in this house, his or her parents were doting. In the driveway was a single car, a Honda Civic, and smoke was drifting out of the chimney of the house.
Marcus shrugged his shoulders to warm himself as they stood in the driveway. “Which of us gets to tell this family their cat got dead?”
Copyright © 2015 by Christopher J. Ferguson