ANGEL

 

The Indian Pines Motor Lodge was just beyond the Dayton city limits, outside the official jurisdiction of its police force, but its reputation was well established and no one would have imagined Lieutenant Pratt might need directions.

Interstate 675 was a good five miles away and the road, which was used mainly by farm trucks, led to nowhere in particular.  There was no reason to stray out here among the apple orchards except that you could park your car behind one of the tiny clapboard cabins without anyone knowing you had ever been there.  These days you wouldn’t think people would take the trouble, but they did.  So far as anyone knew the same elderly couple named Daniels had been running the place ever since the invention of sin.

Not that there hadn’t been problems—there were always problems—but mainly it was just the odd jealous husband or, more often, the lovers’ quarrel that led to lots of shouting and maybe a black eye.  Once some college kids had staged a party and one of them had ended up falling off a roof.  When things got out of hand Perry Daniels phoned the state troopers, who would drive out in one of their black-and-whites to send everybody home.  At worst somebody might have to finish the night in the district lockup.

Usually, though, it didn’t come to that and, when things had settled down again old Mrs. Daniels would fix up the Officer-on-the-Scene with a cup of coffee and a slice of pecan pie and no hard feelings.  That was how the place stayed in business, by accommodating everyone’s needs, by preserving a certain drowsy calm in the midst of baser passions.

But not today.  All the way out from town Pratt had been listening to the radio traffic on his two-way, and when he turned into the gravel drive that led past the office to the guest cabins he counted six patrol cars.  More were coming, including the meat wagon from the county coroner’s office.  This was going to be very bad for trade.

It was a hot morning, even at 8:30, and when Pratt looked around the yard it was clear there was no shade.  The only air conditioning that came out of the vents below his dashboard was like a dragon’s breath.

The troopers were always very touchy about jurisdiction and Pratt had been up half the night on a particularly nasty case.  He wasn’t sure he could muster the patience to be diplomatic, so when he saw Josh Carlson, District Commander, standing in the doorway of one of the cabins and frowning under the brim of his Smoky-the-Bear hat, he almost turned around and drove back to town.

But he didn’t do that.  Instead, he nosed his car into a flower bed, got out, dropped his keys into his jacket pocket and smiled.  The two men had quietly disliked each other for fifteen years, but business was business.

It was only then he noticed that the expression on Carlson’s face had nothing to do with the arrival of a city cop on his turf—whatever was eating him, it wasn’t that.  In fact, he didn’t even seem to notice Pratt until he was spoken to.

“How are you, Josh?”

When Carlson glanced up, recalled by a human voice from whatever was darkening his inner world, he seemed actually relieved.  His manner for the next four or five seconds was by his own standards practically cordial.

“Better check a map, Pratt,” he said as his eyes narrowed in a not-quite-convincing display of suspicion.  “Looks like you’re off your beat.”

He stepped a little to one side and Pratt was able to read the number on the cabin door—lucky Seven.

With his right hand Lieutenant Pratt made a little circular movement in the air, seeming to dismiss himself from all official attention, and smiled again.

“I only drove out here to ask a few questions, Josh.  I promise not to put my foot into any of your shit.”  He took a few absent-minded, sidewise steps away from his car and glanced around like a man trying to remember something.  “You feel like telling me what you got here?”

Carlson was a big man, a bit paunchy in middle age but heavy with muscle through the arms, chest and neck.  The creases in his face and his heavy black eyebrows gave him a look of sullen self-confidence, as if he had never in his life experienced a moment of doubt.  Only his eyes betrayed him now, and only for an instant, until the shadow of anxiety steadied into something like triumph.  He might have been about to enjoy some long sought-after revenge.

“A homicide,” he announced, as if the fact amounted to a personal vindication.  “A white male probably in his late twenties or early thirties, but it’s a little hard to tell.”

“No chance the guy slipped in the bathtub or shot himself in remorse over an unpaid library fine?”

“No chance.”

“He check in last night?”

“About a quarter after ten.  It’s in the office registry book.  ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith.’”

“So there was a woman with him.”  Pratt raised his eyebrows.  He didn’t mind letting that much surprise show.  “I don’t suppose she’s anywhere around.”

Carlson shook his head.

“The car is gone too—and his wallet.  Either she took them or they had a visitor.”

“Who found the body?”

“Mrs. Daniels.”  Carlson let his gaze drift up to a spot about two feet above Pratt’s head.  It was his way of distancing himself from any suggestion of failure.  “We haven’t taken a formal statement yet.  Perry and his wife were still both pretty rattled when we first got here.  We’ve let ‘em hole up in their apartment, give ‘em a chance to settle down.”

Pratt didn’t say anything—it was a point he felt he could make better by not saying anything—but he knew, and probably Carlson knew, that leaving witnesses alone together was always a mistake, since they tended to check their stories against each other and smooth out all the little inconveniences.  So for about two beats he let Carlson feel the weight of his silent disapproval, and then he managed a tight smile.

“How long have you been on the scene?”

Carlson made a show of checking his watch.  “A little more than an hour.”

“That’s long enough.  You mind if I sit in while you question them?”

He didn’t like it, but Carlson agreed.  He couldn’t very well disagree without implying he thought he owned this case, and that wouldn’t give him a chance to share the blame later.  So he managed another of his ponderous nods.

“Sure—come on.”

They found the Daniels sitting at their kitchen table, a massive wooden affair with a top at least five inches thick and polished as smooth as a butcher’s block.  Their chairs were drawn close together and they were holding hands.

Both of them were pale and delicate-looking and rather small, and age had bleached their hair to the same perfect whiteness.  Perhaps their long marriage and the privacy afforded by the Indian Pine Motor Lodge had worn away a lot of differences, because they looked so much alike they could almost have been cloned.

With a slight tilt of her chin, Mrs. Daniels indicated the chairs on the other side of the table.  She seemed relieved when the two policemen had sat down and she no longer had to look up at them.

“This is Lieutenant Pratt, Dayton Homicide,” Carlson said.  Pratt nodded acknowledgement and took a pen and notepad from his inside coat pocket, the message being that he was present as a mere observer.  This seemed to satisfy Carlson who, for the first time, took off his hat and set it on the table beside him.

“Now, the gentleman in Number Seven,” he began, “which of you folks signed him in last night?”

The Daniels exchanged a worried glance, as if they feared that any response might somehow be incriminating.

“Perry did.”

“I did.”

The two replies followed each other so closely that they blurred together.

“And that was when?”

“It was just ten-fifteen.”  Mr. Daniels was the one who answered, but his missus nodded in confirmation.  She might have been punctuating the sentence for him.

“You have any other guests staying with you?”

Mr. Daniels shook his head.  “It’s the slow season.”

“And a weeknight,” Mrs. Daniels added.

“That’s right—Mildred ‘s right.  A weeknight.”

“Did you hear the car drive off?”

“No.  That would have been after we went to bed.”

“On weeknights Perry turns the sign off at one.”

“And before then, did you hear anything to indicate a disturbance?”

“No,” they both said, this time in unison.

Carlson touched the brim of his hat with the tip of one finger.  It was a perfectly unconscious movement but an admission nonetheless.  He was not gifted at this sort of thing, which did not fall within his normal duties.  He wished he were somewhere else.

“I notice you have a drop box in the front door,” Pratt said, speaking for the first time.  “Was the key to Number Seven in there this morning?”

“No.  Hardly anybody uses that thing.”

“Mostly we find the keys in the rooms.”

“Or people carry ‘em off for souvenirs.”

“That’s right.  Souvenirs.”

Pratt nodded, as if he had never expected anything else.

“So, Mrs. Daniels, you let yourself in this morning with a passkey?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Why not?  It’s our place, isn’t it?”  Mr. Daniels seemed ready to take offense until Pratt smiled and opened his hands in a gesture of submissive agreement.

“Absolutely.  Why not?  And you saw that the car was gone, so you . . .”

“That’s right—so I knew the room was vacant.”

When Mrs. Daniels realized what she had said, tears started in her eyes.  She and her husband exchanged an anguished glance.

“Was the key in the room?” Pratt continued, trying to make the question sound as insignificant as possible.

For a moment there was no answer.  Mrs. Daniels didn’t seem to understand what he was talking about.

“Did you find the key in the room?” he repeated.  “Was it on the bed or the chest of drawers or anyplace like that?  Do you remember?  You could have let yourself in, seen the key and put it in your pocket.  Then after you found the corpse you might have forgotten all about it.”

“It didn’t happen like that.  The second I opened the door I seen his feet stickin’ out from the other side of the bed.  After that I didn’t worry about any key.”

Pratt wrote the words “no key” in large letters across the first page of his notebook, leaned back in his chair and smiled benignly.  If he asked another question these people would turn against him, and Carlson was beginning to look like he remembered this was his case.  It was time to shut up.

“I can understand that, Mrs. Daniels.  Thank you.”

“Did you see the woman?” Carlson asked, aiming the question like a weapon.  Probably he was just angry at Pratt, but it didn’t come out that way.

“She stayed in the car.”

“Did you see her in the car?”

“No.”  Perry Daniels looked uncomfortable, almost embarrassed.  “But where else would she have been?”

“So you can’t even be sure he had a woman with him.”

“Now why in hell would a man sign in ‘Mr. & Mrs.’ if he didn’t have a woman with him?  Can you tell me that?”

“Could’ve been another man.”

This was too much for Perry.  Almost from one second to the next he became very pink in the face.  He leaned against the table as though he meant to stand up.

“I saw her,” Mrs. Daniels said, putting a hand on her husband’s arm.  “I saw her through the back window—I always check.”

“Why, Mildred . . .”  Mr. Daniels could not have looked more surprised if his wife had admitted to theft, but the elderly woman, who seemed to have regained her self-possession, merely shook her head.

“Perry’s too trusting, so it’s up to me.  If we rent to a couple, I like to know it is just a couple and not all the uncles and cousins for good measure.”

She took a deep breath, making it seem as if the admission was a load off her conscience.

“I saw her just for an instant while he opened the door for her.  A pretty woman.  Small, fair-haired.  Elegant.  Not the usual sort at all.”

Mrs. Daniels nodded to herself—apparently “the usual sort” was a clearly defined category for her.  Then, for the second time, her eyes filled with tears.

“I suppose now you’ll be finding her dead somewhere too.”

In the uncomfortable silence that followed, Pratt took something out of his jacket pocket.  It was a 2 by 3 color snapshot of a man in a blue polo shirt holding a little boy on his lap—both of them were smiling, the way people only do for the camera.  The photograph had a couple of white crease lines at the corners to suggest that it had been in somebody’s wallet for a long time.  Pratt slid it across the table toward Mr. Daniels.

“You ever seen this man before?” he asked.

Mr. Daniels took his glasses out of the case in his shirt pocket and studied the picture.

“That’s Mr. Smith,” he said, clearly taken by surprise.  “Is he a suspect in something?”

“Not anymore.”

. . . . .

“You want to tell me about this?” Carlson asked, once he and Pratt were outside again.

“Everything, but it’s a long story.  I think I’d better have a look at your stiff first.”

“Okay.  It isn’t very nice.”

Pratt would have known that much blindfolded. He had been a cop for nearly twenty years, the last eight in Homicide, and he had long since learned to recognize the smell of stale blood.

It was not a large room, no more than ten feet by twelve, with a couple of closets with sliding doors in the far wall and a half-open door that led predictably to the bathroom.  The wallpaper was yellow with age and its floral pattern had faded almost to invisibility.  There were lines running down the wall where the paper didn’t quite touch, as if someone had scored them with a knife. A double bed with the pale green coverlet wadded up and thrown onto the only chair; one night table on the side closest to the bathroom—the lamp was still on—a chest of drawers painted white, its top scarred with cigarette burns and the dark circles left by drinking glasses.

The room was already crowded.  There were four evidence technicians in their white coveralls, all very busy, all seeming to ignore each other’s existence and that of the corpse lying on the floor on the other side of the bed so that only his legs and one arm, the hand already encased in a plastic bag, were visible from the door.

“You boys want to give us a minute?” Carlson asked in the growly whisper he used with subordinates.  It worked, because in less than ten seconds the technicians had cleared out, without even a glance at the Commander and his fellow tourist.  Somehow their departure seemed to take all the air out of the room.

Pratt stepped around the bed for a better look.  The dead man was naked, lying on his back, his head was up against a leg of the night table.  He looked like he had kept himself in pretty good shape and there was no gray in the hair on his chest and arms.  Judging from the appearance of his hands and feet, Pratt would have put him a year or two under thirty, but it was difficult to be sure without seeing the face.  There was no face.  It was just gone, peeled off like the skin from a grape.

“Since you’re here, I wouldn’t mind an opinion,” Carlson said.  He was still standing by the doorway.  He looked like he would have preferred to leave.

Pratt didn’t answer at first.  He was kneeling beside the body, telling himself that he had seen worse messes—hell, a lot of traffic accidents were worse—that he was long past being affected by such horrors.  A murder victim with his face cut away was just a novelty, a little unexpected but nothing else.

There were other wounds at well.  The guy’s genitalia, the whole standard issue, had been neatly sliced away, making him as smooth between the legs as any woman.  And his throat was cut, from one side to the other in one clean, careful stroke, right under the chin.

The carpet was soaked in blood and there was blood on the night table, on that corner of the bed, even on the wall.  It was always a little astonishing how much people bled when the carotid artery was severed.

“He was lying on the bed when he got it,” Pratt said quietly.  “You can see that from the spray pattern—it’s pretty evenly horizontal and there isn’t any blood on the wall higher than about three feet.  Our perpetrator did him from behind, cutting from left to right.  A very neat piece of work.

“I’d guess the guy was too busy dying to put up any kind of a struggle.  His heart was still beating when he hit the floor, since that’s where he did most of his bleeding, but there was no fight in him.  He might have been still alive when he lost his dick.  You find a weapon?”

Carlson shook his head.

“Well look for a knife, not a straight razor—come around here and take a peek at this.”

Commander Carlson finally did step away from the door, but he didn’t come any nearer than the foot of the bed and you couldn’t say he took a particularly close look.  Except that cops weren’t supposed to be so fastidious, you couldn’t really blame him.

This murderer seemed to do wonderfully careful work.  The incision followed the hairline precisely, right down to the sideburns where it angled back to the corner of the jaw and then ran straight down to the slash which had severed the victim’s throat and, presumably, ended his life.  Then the skin had been peeled away—eyelids, lips, everything, probably in one piece, like removing a mask—so that the muscles and bones beneath were exposed as if for anatomical inspection.  It must have taken some time. The only hint of haste or carelessness was that one of the eyeballs had been pierced and was somewhat collapsed in its socket.

Pratt regarded the fleshless face without the slightest trace of pity, which surprised him.  Even after all these years murder victims, with their terrible exposed vulnerability, almost always exercised some claim on his sympathy, but not this one.  Possibly that meant he should take retirement when he was eligible in another month.  When you can’t feel anymore, it’s time to get out.  Or maybe it was just that his sympathy was all used up.  It had been a bad night for a lot of people.

“See these scratches along the brow ridge?” he said at last.  “And these nicks in the cheek muscles?  I think our perpetrator was using some sort of knife, something with a point.  It would be tough to get under the skin and cut it away from the supporting tissue with a straight razor.  Maybe a surgeon’s scalpel—something with a blade two or three inches long.  I assume the detached portions of our friend here are nowhere around.”

“We haven’t found them.”  Carlson continued to stand here, staring at nothing.  He wasn’t having a good time.

“I don’t suppose you will,” Pratt answered, nodding to himself.  “Why go to all this trouble if you didn’t plan to keep a few souvenirs?”

He stood up, locking his knees and putting a hand out to steady himself against the wall.  He was more tired than he realized.

“Have they done the bathroom yet?”

“Sure.” Carlson looked him straight in the eyes while he answered, as if he felt the need to assert himself.  “Lots of prints—Mrs. Daniels doesn’t do much more than change the bed between guests.  We sent the towels off to the state lab.  Seems like somebody took a shower.”

“Wouldn’t you?”

Pratt checked his watch.  It was just three minutes shy of 9:00 a.m.

“My guess is he’s been dead about twelve hours.  He smells like twelve hours.”

“You finished in here?” Carlson asked, with evident distaste.  “My boys ‘d like to finish up before the coroner arrives.”

“Sure.”

Outside the heat was building fast, but at least the air didn’t carry the smell of death.  Pratt took a couple of deep breaths to clear his lungs and decided he was thirsty.  But he was a lot of other things too, and they would all have to wait.

Carlson let his gaze drift back to the cabin doorway as if he wondered whether he ought not to go have another look.

“You think that’s the guy in your picture?” he asked.

“It’s a working assumption.”  Pratt took the photograph out of his jacket pocket again, glanced at it and handed it to Carlson.  “We’ve wired the FBI for his prints, so we’ll know by this afternoon.  I think it’s him.  His name is Billinger, Stephen W. Billinger.  The ‘W’ stands for ‘Wentworth’.  The address is 2343 Standish Road—it’s in one of those new developments up by Shiloh.”

“Any family?”

“A wife and two small sons, all deceased as of about two-thirty this morning.”

“Jesus.”

Carlson returned the photograph to Pratt, who put it back in his pocket without looking at it.

“Somebody phoned, said they’d heard shots.  We sent over a squad car and they found the front door wide open.  Mrs. Billinger was at the foot of the stairs in her bathrobe.  She must have heard something and come down to investigate—maybe she thought hubby had finally found his way home.  She got a hollow-point bullet in the face at close range.  It damn near took her head off.  The two boys were in their beds upstairs, each shot through the top of the skull.  From their positions it was evident they had died in their sleep.

“It’s one of those little box houses on a small lot, and as far as we can tell the neighbors slept right through everything.” Pratt went on, looking at nothing as he spoke.  “You know what?  I don’t think anybody heard anything.  I think whoever did it got in with Billinger’s house key and then used a silencer.  I think the report was phoned in by our perpetrator.  I think somebody wanted us to hurry up and find the key to bungalow Number Seven in Mrs. Billinger’s dead hand.”

“And that’s why you’re out here?”

“And that’s why I’m out here.”

“So somebody killed Billinger here, sliced him up, drove into Dayton to do his family, and then phoned the cops.  And maybe if Billinger hadn’t been catting around last night his wife and kids would still be alive.”

“Maybe.”

“Jesus.”

Pratt turned to watch the county coroner’s wagon pull into the driveway and stop in front of cabin 7.  The man who got out on the passenger’s side was about sixty, ponderously heavy and dressed in a dark suit that was in obvious need of cleaning and looked half a size too small.  He ran the palm of his hand across his bald head and wiped it on the lapels of his coat.  Then he looked over toward Pratt and Carlson and executed a cheery little wave, the circular lenses of his eyeglasses twinkling in the sunlight.  He had lost interest and turned away even before they had a chance to return the greeting.

“One of the worst things about getting murdered in this county would be having Big Jimmy Lipson handle your corpse,” Carlson said under his breath.  “I’ll bet he’s sorry Billinger’s girlfriend isn’t in there.  I think he gets off on this sort of thing.”

Lieutenant Pratt, Dayton Homicide, didn’t say anything.  Carlson worked for the state, but coroners were elected in Montgomery County and after six consecutive terms in office Jimmy Lipson, M.D. was a figure of some importance in local politics.  Of course that didn’t mean he wasn’t a creep.

“Where do you guess we’re gonna find her?”

“Well, wherever it is, I think she’ll be safe enough from Big Jimmy.”

“Huh?”

Pratt looked back toward the doorway of bungalow 7.  How many bedrooms just like it had he seen over his career?  In the thousands, probably.  The cheap furniture and the worn nylon rugs, the cigarette burns and the faded wallpaper and the bloodstains—it was enough to make you think that nobody ever died in good hotels.

There was a room on Wayne Avenue, three flights of stairs above a Chinese restaurant, where five years ago a prostitute named Amelia Terlecki had tried to kill her pimp, one Georgie “Iron Dong” Davis, known for giving his women a bad time.  She had waited for him to climb up on the bed with her and then, after offering enough of the preliminaries to get him good and up, she had reached under her pillow for a straight razor and sliced him right off at the root.  The poor son-of-a-bitch had lived to press charges.

It was a woman’s trick to shave a man off like that.  It took a woman’s deep sexual hatred.  Pratt had seen a lot of homosexual homicides, and a lot of them had been pretty nasty, but he had never known of a case in which one man mutilated another in that particular way.

And Billinger had been lying on his side when his throat was cut, his back turned as the murderer either crouched or lay beside him.  One imagined he was expecting something much more pleasant.

It all fit together.  Probably by now someone had tracked down the telephone operator who had taken the call on the Billinger case, and it seemed a good bet she would report that the caller had been a woman, probably fairly young.

“A pretty woman,” Mrs. Daniels had said. “Small, fair-haired.  Elegant.  Not the usual sort at all.”  That was for sure.

“I mean, if you find her it won’t be half naked in some cornfield after the birds have been at her,” Pratt answered finally.  “None of us have to worry about that, because she did it.  She’s our murderer.”