Detective John Dark parked his unmarked Chevy Malibu by a curb in the nice part of town and looked at the scene of the crime; the home of Michael and Ellen Stillwater.
The house, like all houses on the street, was two stories of suburban materialism, decorated now in the flashing blue of police cars. Two patrol cars were parked in the gravel driveway next to a maroon SUV and an ambulance. The radio was playing one of his favorite songs but he’d heard it so many times that it didn’t register any more. Getting old meant your favorite music was now on oldies stations. John took in the scene. Neighbors stood outside in their yards, husbands with their arms over their wives’ shoulders. They were people who still cared what happened to the people in the community. Or maybe they just wanted a better look at the drama.
John stepped out of the car as the last notes of the song sounded on the radio. He pulled his coat tighter against the October rain drumming on his hat and his shoulders. He took a deep breath and walked towards the house.
Monique was waiting for him. She wore a dark raincoat and had her hair in a strict ponytail and was hunched over a little notebook trying to protect it from the rain as she jotted something down. She tucked it into a pocket and paced towards John as soon as she noticed him. Monique had broad shoulders and dark eyes that always seemed to reflect a certain disappointment with the world. Her eyes held an obsidian fire and when you had Monique’s attention, you had it completely.
“Moreno,” John said. “What are we-”
“Where were you?” she interrupted.
“I’ll tell you later,” he said.
She looked at him, like she knew. She knew.
“Call came in as domestic disturbance,” Monique said, speaking fast and low, as if sharing a secret with him. “O’Reilley had no one but us to put on it, I guess. Or didn’t realize that this was actually a homicide case. If she’d known from the start that some rich lawyer had killed his wife I’m not sure we would be here.”
John nodded and looked at the house.
“So what?” John asked. “They’re letting us in from the cold now? Maybe we should just let someone else take this.” He looked back towards his car. If someone else took this, he could go back and put some pressure on the bartender. Get better answers.
“What? No,” Monique replied. “Let’s go in and get started. A proper homicide case, John. Homicide, not helping an old lady with a flat tire or administrative fucking detail. I need this, John,” she said. “You need this.”
John was still looking at his car. He could almost see a ghost of Emily in there, waiting for him to tell her that it was alright. That he hadn’t forgotten about her. That one day he would find her. It took willpower to turn back to Monique.
“What do we know about him?” John asked. His car stood empty under a streetlight. Emily still lost somewhere.
“He’s a lawyer out in L.A., travels a lot for work. Name’s Michael Stillwater. Nothing but a few speeding tickets and an old shoplifting incident on his record. Upstanding suburban white guy, for all his record tells, though maybe not perfect.”
As if on cue, two officers led Stillwater out of the front door, hands cuffed behind his back. Blood streaked his chest, vivid against the white silk shirt he was wearing. Shoulders slumped, eyes wide open, scanning the faces around him. For a moment the scene was frozen in the flashing blue of police lights: a man being led out of his nice suburban home in handcuffs, disbelief all over his face, stern police officers leading him forward. Rain making everything glisten.
From long experience, John could judge the seriousness of any crime scene by the tension in the officers’ shoulders. Breaking up a party meant cops showed up, nice and relaxed with shoulders loose. Breaking up a bar fight gave them a little more bob, like boats on choppy water.
Murder scenes tended to put starch in all shoulders, pull them up and back and now, here, all shoulders were stiff as coffins. John watched as an officer pushed the husband into the back of a police car.
“What?” Monique asked, looking over to John, who hadn’t moved or spoken as he watched Michael Stillwater being escorted from his house into a police car.
John had no answer for Monique. He was looking at the husband, surprised to see no defiance in him, just confusion.
He didn’t do it, John thought.
The suddenness of the realization was unbidden and unwelcome. His instincts were coming alive; Stillwater’s unexpected expression sparked his homicide detective’s insight to the forefront. Ten minutes ago, he hadn’t wanted to be here. All he’d wanted for the last two years was to look for Emily. To bring closure to that wound, one way or another. But now he was intrigued.
“What? Yeah, let’s take a look,” he said to Monique and they walked towards the scene of their first homicide case since Emily Dark disappeared two years ago.
Forensics made them put on blue shoe covers just outside the house before they walked in. The foyer was neat, though there was a messy bouquet of roses and a pizza box on the floor. What really drew the eye, however, were the leaves and bark that littered the floor and made a trail from the yard into the house. The trail of leaves led from the foyer to a staircase to the second floor.
As they walked in John saw a kitchen to the left, all black marble and dark wood. A living room to the right that seemed designed to impress visitors more than anything else. The sofa was large—black leather that appeared new and unused, a coffee table with a stack of books arranged in the center.
Under any other circumstances, the house would be unremarkable, a domicile in which a well-off couple lived mundane lives, if not for the trail of bark and leaves.
An officer John knew walked towards them from a room at the back of the house and cleared his throat.
“Officer Palace,” John said.
“Detective Dark, Detective Moreno,” he said and paused. He seemed confused as to why they were at the scene of a murder. He collected himself and spoke. “All the ground floor windows are closed and unbroken. The front door itself was locked and we’ve found nothing indicating a forced entry. I’d say it was just the two of them in the house.”
“What’s with the leaves and debris on the floor and the staircase?” Monique asked.
Palace didn’t immediately answer. As if privately giving the scene the respect it deserved. He seemed surprised at the question.
“You don’t know?” Palace asked. “You haven’t seen the body?”
“No, we just got here,” John said. “Why?”
“He did something to the body,” Palace said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
John looked at Monique, who raised an eyebrow. John thought of the streaks of blood the man’s shirt just before he was pushed into the police car.
“What did he do?” John asked, trying to imagine what he could possibly have wanted with branches from a tree in his yard.
“Nothing sexual, nothing disgusting. Just…strange,” Palace said.
“Did they have a housekeeper, anything like that?” John asked.
“What? No, they have no live-in help. As far as we can tell, it was just the two of them.”
“Thanks,” he said.
He then turned to Monique. “Take a look upstairs?” he asked with more dread than usual.
He wanted to see it before checking out the rest of the rooms. He wanted to get a feel for the case, a sense of things to look for.
They went up the stairs, blue plastic shoe covers crinkling as they walked. The upper floor had hardwood flooring, dark and expensive. The lighting was minimal, just a few LEDs at ankle-height, giving the hallway a futuristic feeling without giving it much in the way of useful light. A forensics tech, Miller, was examining the bannister outside the bedroom, looking for prints or residue.
“Can we go in?” John asked.
Miller took down his face mask.
“Yeah,” he answered. “Just watch where you step.”
“I’ve been to this rodeo before, you know,” John said.
Millers’ reply was unspoken but John saw it in his eyes. Not in a while, you haven’t.
John opened the bedroom doors, and for the first time in his career, he gasped.
The room looked more like modern art than a murder scene. The body of Ellen Stillwater had been carefully arranged on the bed, naked, feet tied together at the ankles with what looked like coarse green wire. After she died, she had been placed on the bed with her hands upwards above her head and out, so she now formed a sort of Y.
There were multiple stab wounds in the torso and around the heart. Messy. Streams of blood had been tossed up onto the walls as she had been stabbed again and again, furiously. The blood trailed down the walls like bad graffiti, a shining streamer of crimson on an otherwise pale painting of boats on one of the walls. And then the madness of the scene—two branches had been attached to the top of her head and then added to; two became four became eight and so on, up and outwards from her head before climbing up the wall and expanding. Antlers of branches made into wings of leaves that spread open across the wall.
“This must have taken hours,” John whispered, taking in the scene and then the atmosphere of the room, the body. The blood. “He must have been so angry with her,” John said.
Ellen Stillwater’s dark hair was slick with blood and combed back carefully. Her eyes, a fine brown that reminded John of polished wood, were staring upwards with fright and disbelief. Her mouth was open as well, with a single drop of blood on a tooth. That’s the image John would remember at the end of the case. Not the antlers, not the spatters of blood, but the single delicate still-red drop of blood on a perfect, white tooth.
The flower of a single rose lay just above the wounds near her heart. John stepped further into the room and realized that the wiry string tying her feet together were rose stems, thorns sticking into her ankles.
The room smelled like a forest after rain. Mixed with the stink of death.
“He tied her up after she died,” he said, pointing to her feet. “There’s no sign she was struggling, her feet would have been cut up more.”
“Why do…this?” Monique asked. “What is he doing? Killing his wife and then arranging her like this, like what, a deer?”
“He was found there.” John and Monique turned to see the forensics officer, Miller, in the doorway, pointing at a location against the wall by the bed. Bloody handprints on the slick white walls. “He was sitting there, rocking and humming. I heard that when the first officers came he asked them if they were going to catch whoever did this.”
“That’s a little bold,” John said. “Hey.”
“Yeah?” Miller answered.
“No footprints in the blood apart from the husband?”
“No. Nothing we found indicates anything other than that they were alone in the room. The house was locked when the first officer got here. They had to unlock it themselves. The husband didn’t answer the door, even though he called 911.”
“And the knife?” John asked.
“Kitchen knife, found there,” the tech said and pointed to a bloody spot on the floor. “It appears to fit an empty space in the kitchen knife stand.”
“Ok. Thanks,” John said.
John approached the body, careful not to step in any of the blood. He looked at the antlers the killer had made. He pinched the bridge of his nose.
“What are you thinking?” Monique asked.
“Nothing yet. Only… It still seems a really unnecessarily brutal way to kill your wife,” John said.
“Is there a non-brutal way of killing your spouse?” Monique asked.
“What I mean is, if he had planned it he would have used a gun or poison, something quicker and less messy, and then tried to hide the body. If it was a crime of passion, like he found out she was cheating on him, whatever, and killed her in a jealous rage it seems a little odd to…” he gestured with his hand at the blood-spattered room, “do this.”
John leaned close and pointed at her hands. “Look at this. No defensive wounds. He surprised her.”
The body, apart from the blood spatter, looked peaceful. As if she might stir awake at any moment, lick the drop of blood from her tooth and say that she just had the strangest dream.
“Well, you don’t usually expect your husband to stab you to death, either,” Monique said.
“Hack,” John said, then looked at Monique. Sorry he used that word.
John paced. He walked around the bed and traced the branches as they grew into antlers. Not affixed to her head but placed, maybe as a crown but far too elaborate. He tried to envision the time and patience that went into making them. Moving the branches, cutting them down and nailing them to the wall. And then he looked back to the wounds on Ellen Stillwater’s body.
“Look,” he finally said to Monique. “This is not one thing. This is two things.”
“What do you mean?” Monique asked.
John, once he got into the force, had risen quickly through the ranks. He had a no-nonsense way of talking to people that made even the hardiest of dealers feel they could trust him. This cop was okay. John also felt crime scenes as much as he looked at the evidence. And what he felt here was all wrong.
“The murder itself, for one. The wounds are not from a stabbing, but from a furious and messy attack. There’s so much anger in there. Did the husband seem angry to you?”
“No, but angry people don’t stay angry for long.”
“Okay, but then there’s the second part. There’s love here. A delicate love. He wants her to be seen as pretty. She means a lot to him and it matters to him how she is seen. The way he combed her hair. The rose on the heart, the care that goes into the antlers. He sees her as fragile, after he kills her so savagely. It’s two things, and I can’t reconcile them.”
“Yeah. Well,” Monique said. A hint of a smile played on her lips. She might as well have said, Glad to have you back, John.
“Forensics has him now. Once they’re done we’ll get to ask him about this,” she said, her gaze lingering on the ritualistic scene before them.
John looked at the scene, at the blood on the walls and the woman on the bed. Looked at the branches stuck to the bed and wall, fashioned into antlers that made this into a tableaux of art and horror. He turned and walked down the stairs and out of the house, thinking only that this was not going to have a simple answer. Why would someone go to such lengths and then call in the murder themselves?
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