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Dan Speers

Citizen Poet
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Body Found

on Hiking Trail

at Winnekenni

 

 

HAVERHILL -- City and state police seal off crime scene as they seek to identify a young girl discovered by a local man who said he was hiking in the woods near Winnekenni Castle when he stumbled on the body.

The beginning . . .

 

Keith’s body and mind were out of sync. Despite the crisp morning air and a wooded trail just steep enough to elevate his heartbeat, Keith was lost in thought and did not immediately realize that the intriguing formation of snow-flecked birch twigs he saw briefly at the bottom of the ravine was a human hand.

His eyes were already turning back to the path when it struck him that he had seen something odd. He stopped and scanned the gorge, shielding his eyes from the sun and the glaring white reflections stippled in the ice-crusted underbrush. He did not want to see what he saw, but what he saw was what he was afraid he had seen. It was a body on the side of the slope, a body small and limp and tangled in a copse of hemlocks.

     He squatted to keep from slipping and leaned over the edge of the ridge. Some fifty feet below, the gully narrowed precipitously  before plunging another fifty feet to a brush and snow-filled crevice gouged by scores of winter thaws and spring rains. The body was nearer the bottom of the gorge but he could see it clearly, an incipient chest and a slight tawny triangle exposing the tentative fecundity of a girl he guessed was barely eleven or twelve.

"Hey,” he yelled. "Hey. You there. Can you hear me?"

     Snow had drifted around her right shoulder and side, and a thin crust of coruscated white crystals glistened on her face and chest, frosting her pale skin. Her right leg was twisted at the knee; her foot canted down into the snow as if her ankle had been snapped. Her left forearm was raised, her hand entangled upright in the brush and glazed with a frozen mirror of ice that glinted in a sharp shaft of sunlight that lanced through the trees.

 

“Hey,” he repeated, not quite sure why.

He looked along the sides of the ragged, v-shaped gash in the hill plunging down from the trail. The angled slope of the ravine was smothered in ricks of snow that clustered around the scraggly underbrush, its pristine surface unblemished by any undulation or depression suggesting a hidden path or even so much as a wash leading to the bottom. He considered working his way down by going from bush to bush. He tested an outcropping. The snow-crusted ice crackled as the branch slipped from his grasp.

"If you can hear me, wave your hand,” he shouted again. He shaded his eyes to detect any movement, but the girl remained still, grotesque in the way a freezing death renders flesh into hauntingly lifelike stone. He straightened and stepped back to the safety of the trail. His lips were dry and cold, his throat burning, a sour taste in his mouth. Dead, he thought. Dead.

He removed the glove from his right hand, bent over and grabbed a fistful of snow. He took several small nips, sucking the icy water into his mouth and trying to swallow. It was like that girl in West Newbury last summer. A local delivery man had pulled to the side of a country road to take a leak and spotted legs sticking out of a culvert.

Keith got the straight scoop from his brother, proving that having a cop for a brother meant finding out about the stuff that wasn't published in the newspapers. Robbie was the lead homicide detective at the scene, had told Keith the whole story, including the fact that the girl was only thirteen. “Thirteen,” Robbie repeated for emphasis. “Thirteen.”

“What about the delivery guy?” Keith had asked his brother. “You check him out?”

“Whaddaya think? Sure we did. Nothing there. Let the guy go.”

A soft breeze curled through the dry underbrush, rustling the barren branches. Keith looked back at the trail. The glaring snow was so saturated with frozen water that the glassy surface reflected an eerie blue iridescence broken only by the trail of Keith’s own footprints. Footprints. Right, he thought. Although the lone tracks certainly suggested that he had no connection with a body that had been down in the gorge since before the last snowstorm, Keith suspected the police might figure that the prints showed that Keith’s knew exactly where he was going, or rather, coming from. And the coming from was coming back to the scene of the crime. Like Robbie said, criminals will come back to the murder scene, especially if they intend to create an alibi.

It's a hobby, officer, photography, you know. Nature. Birds, flowers, that sort of thing. I read about the eagles coming back to Merrimack Valley, so this morning I was hiking up the path above the castle, not thinking about much when I saw something shinning down in this gully. And when I looked more closely, I saw . . ..

Keith took a deep breath. Who in the hell was he talking to? He shuddered. He was doing it again. Talking to himself. Rationalizing. Too much the engineer, he thought, or too long. Always analyzing, thinking ahead, visualizing potential problems. What was he even doing here? Hiking on a work day? How would that sound? And he could just imagine what the police would think if he told them that he was on medical leave from his job. That’s all it would take. Mention a head injury and the cops would look at him funny, draw conclusions, make assumptions.

Keith tugged the glove back over his hand. He was shivering, his hands shaking. Damn. Reality hurt. You can’t even dream hurt like this, he thought. Even his hair hurt. His fingernails hurt. His fingers trembled. He rubbed his hands together and grasped one in the other to hold himself still. What? He shook his head. Was he frightened? Him, the war hero? Some hero. Get the police, he thought, let the crime scene people sort it out, uncover the truth.

Damn.

It was what it was, a crime scene, and here he was, the man in the muddle. Like Robbie said, crime scene investigations were not what most people thought they were. "Real CSI takes money and that’s in short supply for most local law enforcement.” Robbie had a way of pontificating over a batch of backyard barbequed ribs and a barrel of iced Blue Moons.

“What we got is eyeballs and intuition. You want to know how it really works? It goes like this: Everyone at a crime scene is a suspect—not just the witnesses. We’re talking morbid curiosity seekers, innocent bystanders, and all the casual onlookers who turn up after the fact. And, of course, whoever actually reports the crime in the first place.

“You know why we put up that yellow police tape? Sure, we mark off a crime scene to preserve and collect evidence, but the main reason is to prevent contamination. If the perpetrator does return and somehow manages to intrude on the crime scene, it could compromise any evidence we do find.”

“Wouldn’t a criminal have to be pretty dumb to return to a crime scene?”

“You’d think, but here’s a natural fact: curiosity trumps stupidity. Some of these creeps crave excitement, living on the edge. They enjoy lording it over us cops because they think they’re getting away with the crime. But the strangest birds are those with this weird sense of remorse. They rationalize, call it an accident, say things got out of hand or that it took too long for someone to find the body. One sicko told me that he came back to apologize to the victim.”

“Did he?”

“I dunno. Didn’t matter, though. She was too dead to hear it. Anyway, the important thing is, isolate the scene and identify the prospects. See who’s hanging around. That’s the key. Give me a list of names of the onlookers, and nine times out of ten, I’ll match the evidence found at a crime scene—hair, fibers, skin, whatever—to a particular individual who was there. Believe me, it’s a whole bunch easier to eliminate the suspects you know than it is to locate the ones you don’t.”

Keith looked back down at the small, frail body. Get a grip, he thought. Stay calm. So close and yet so far. He hadn't gone near the body. No footprints. No hairs. No fibers.

He wished Robbie were here to confirm that, to tell him what he needed to do. "You have to preserve the integrity of the crime scene, isolate it from contamination, memorialize every single thing." Police talk. Isolate and memorialize, that's what Robbie would do; preserve and document the crime scene. Keith had an idea. He didn't have any tape or any physical way of marking off the scene but he could record everything that was here.

Keith unsnapped the leather cover on his camera case, took out his Minolta, not one of the new fancy digital monstrosities but the old fashioned kind with real film, and checked the settings to make sure very frame recorded the date and time. Focusing first on the trail leading up the hill, then around him at the trees and ground and finally down at the body of the girl, he snapped one scene after another, shifting his view and clicking until he used up all thirty-six frames and the only sound was the efficient whirring of the camera as the tiny motor rewound the roll of film.

Keith very carefully replaced his camera in its case and began the long trek down the hill.

* * * * *

The police car slowed and pulled up next to where Keith was standing on the shoulder of the road that led from Kenoza Avenue up to the Winnekenni Castle parking lot. The policeman remained behind the wheel, rolling down the window. "You call in the emergency?"

"Yes. I found a body," Keith said. “A girl. I was hiking up in the woods. It’s pretty far back. She's down in a ravine."

“Is she alive--hurt, moving?”

“Huh? No. I think she’s dead. It’s—uh, no, obvious that she’s been there a while, the way she looked. I called out and everything but she didn’t move. She’s down in a gorge. With the ice and how steep it is, I couldn’t climb down, not without a rope or something.”

“How far?”

“From here? Maybe a mile. Mostly up hill. What with the snow and the terrain, at least half an hour.”

 

 

 

 

The policeman frowned and pointed just behind Keith. "Sir, could you step back up a few steps, please?" Without averting his gaze, the officer keyed his radio and spoke quickly, “Yes, a 10-54. Off Kenoza at Castle Road.” He waited for a response, then grunted, "Absolutely," he said to the radio and without diverting his eyes from Keith, opened the door and slid out of the police car.

He was taller than Keith had thought he would be. "I'd like to get to get some information, please,” the officer said in a politely sterile voice. “Your name, sir?"

"What about the girl?"

"Help is on the way, sir. It'll just be a few minutes. Your name?"

"Keith," Keith said. "Keith Cadell. And you?"

"Officer Vachon. Are you from around here, Mr. Cadell?"

"Not this neighborhood," Keith answered, "but not far. I live in the Ayer's Village area."

"Pretty cold to be out today.”

"I came out to take pictures," Keith said. "It’s cold, but also sunny, a good day for hiking, after the storm and all. Winter wonderland. Birds. Bald eagles come here in winter."

"You a photographer?"

"No. Just a hobby." Keith noticed that the policeman was not writing anything down. The officer kept both hands on his hips, a casual and studied equanimity, totally calm and non-threatening, yet a stance that kept his gloved right hand only inches from his holster. This probably was not a good time to tell the policeman about the pictures he had taken of the girl.

"Where exactly did you see this girl?"

Keith turned toward the hill. "Just beyond that rock wall, there, and across the gully, there's a trail through the woods. It goes all the way to the castle.” Like most natives, Keith referred to Winnekenni Castle simply as the castle. “You can see for miles from up there."

Which was true. Back in the 1860s when Dr. James Nichols invented the soda fountain and used the money to build the castle, he could see three states, a mountain range and the ocean from the topof the castle, but he didn't build the medieval-style edifice with its stone walls, towers and turrets for the view. He was looking for a cheaper way to build houses and the one thing he had plenty of on his 200-acre farm was the tons of rocks and boulders deposited by retreating glaciers at the end of the last ice age.

The policeman stared at Keith. "You say the girl is near the castle? The front slope or where?"

Keith knew what the cop was thinking. The front slope was the public area where people gathered for festivals and concerts. Once there were gardens there, gardens where Dr. Nichols practiced his somewhat faddish if not scandalous addiction to nude gardening. Not that anybody cared. His estate was certainly secluded. He could putter around naked in his yard all he wanted. After he died, his heirs looked at the tax levy and despite the proven savings in clothing expenses, donated the castle to the city for a public park. It was a good deal for everyone and reports of the occasional sighting of a naked ghost in a gardener’s hat lurking about the premises were dismissed as urban legend.

"Off to one side,” Keith answered. “You have to climb all the way up the hill. A deer trail leads from behind the castle back down to the lake, but if you cross it and keep on going up, you come to this ridge and there's a ravine off on the side. That’s where she is.”

"No signs of life?"

"None, but then there was no way to get down to her. At least, not for me. Too steep. There's snow and ice, and it's pretty slippery. Anyway, there were no footprints—except mine, of course—and we’ve just had two days of snow." Keith told himself to stop talking. It was an explanation, not a defense.

A second police car, blue lights flashing, rocked to a stop behind the first. An officer bounded from the car, but it was the uniform that caught Keith’s attention. It was an extremely crisp uniform. Even the voice from inside the uniform was crisp. "Whassup, Bobby?"

Officer Vachon never averted his eyes, but Keith caught the grimace. "This gentleman says he found the body of a young girl somewhere on the hill."

"We'd better get up there," the smartly dressed officer said quickly, grabbing an imitation World War II bomber jacket from inside the car.

"Hang on, Harry. You can't go yet. Lt. Bledsoe said no one was to disturb the crime scene. He said to wait until he got here."

"Crime scene? What crime? Hell, if there is a girl, she could be hurt. I don't see—."

A third police car squealed to a stop behind the first two cars. There were two officers in this car, but before they could climb out, another car arrived, no insignias but obviously official. A short stocky man in a gray overcoat burst from the driver's side of the unmarked car, his mouth already opening and closing, his words tripping over the spurts of vapor from his breath, muttering, "Jesus, Lord, and a bucket full of angels, it's cold. Hey, Vachon, whatcha got?"

Another man, tall and thin in a brown parka tinged with faded puce polyester fleece, slipped from the passenger side of the unmarked car and joined the speaker half a step behind and a hiccup short of a shadow.

For the first time, Vachon looked away from Keith, turning his eyes towards the approaching voice. "This gentleman says he found a body."

The man in the overcoat grunted in Vachon’s direction, his eyes fixing instantly on Keith’s face and never wavering as the gap between the two men closed to less than a foot.

"Keith Cadell," Keith said, thrusting out his hand, a reaction more defensive than instinctive. The man was close enough to smell. Tobacco and Irish whiskey. And mint.

A grasp with the size and power of a professional wrestler seized and pumped Keith's arm. "Detective Lt. Bledsoe. So, what's this about a body?"

A siren crackled somewhere down the road. Lt. Bledsoe swiveled his head while keeping his body firmly frozen in Keith's space and barked at the young officer in the crisp uniform and bomber jacket. "Haggert. Get on the radio and tell that A-hole to kill the siren." His head swiveled back. "You were saying?"

"A young girl. On top of the hill," Keith said, "but off the trail. Down in a ravine." Keith thought he smelled something, something odd for so early in the morning, a bit like Jack Daniels.

"Think we can find her?"

"Of course, but it might be faster if I showed you," Keith said. "She's hard to spot unless you're looking right at the spot where she is." He wasn't sure about the whiskey but there was no mistaking the deep, rummy scent of a cigar.

Lt. Bledsoe nodded and relinquished his grip one pump shy of dislocation. "Vachon, you and the citizen take point."

He turned to the man in the parka. "Billy, you come with me. Hey, Smith," he shouted at one of the other policemen, "I want you and your partner to set up camp right here and wait for the others. Keep everybody here until I send for them. And tell Haggert when he gets off the radio to catch up to us and bring the crime scene tape. You got that?"

"Got it, lieutenant," the man replied.

"Well, damn it, lay on, McDuff," Lt. Bledsoe told Vachon.

"Yes, sir," Officer Vachon said quickly, turning toward Keith. "Mr. Cadell, if you'll just help us out here—show us where you found the body?"

"Sure, thing," Keith said, stifling an impulse to add, “I’d be happy to.” He started back across the field, Officer Vachon at his side, crossing the rock wall and then following the trail back up the hill. Seeing Vachon mentally evaluating the trail in the snow, Keith realized that he could have told the detective that all they really had to do was follow his footprints, at least in those places where the snow had penetrated the woods, but Keith was curious. He wanted to see what the police would do at the scene so that he could describe the investigation to Robbie later.

Keith suspected that Lt. Bledsoe had the same objective. A smart detective would want to see how Keith would react, how he would handle it. That had to be the real reason that Bledsoe was letting Keith lead them back to the body. Keith was already a suspect.

It took nearly thirty minutes to reach the escarpment. "There." Keith pointed down the slope, then stepped back from the edge of the ridge, averting his eyes. He had thought he could handle it, looking down at the doll-like figure, but now he really felt sick. Once upon a time, she had been alive. Now, she was—. He took a deep breath and tried to shake the thought from his mind.

"Good Lord, look at her arm," the parka-clad man said in a quiet, detached voice that broke the seconds of silence that even Keith had failed to notice until after they had passed. "It's like she's trying to let us know where she is. What’s that on her hand, ice? Looks all shiny, like some sort of mirror. How do you suppose she got down there? Slipped and fell, maybe?"

"Nobody walks around here naked except perverts and ghosts,” Lt. Bledsoe growled. “Certainly not young girls. Naw. Somebody dumped her, Billy," The detective looked around. "No doubt about it. This is way the hell and gone from anywhere. If those hemlocks hadn't of been there, she'd be all the way at the bottom and covered in snow. Whoever did this probably didn't expect her to be found until spring, maybe even summer. Maybe never."

Officer Haggert trudged up to the group, glanced down the ravine and then grabbed a handful of bush to lean out over the edge in order to get a better look. Keith stiffened at Haggert's bravado acrobatics and turned away.

"Are you sure she's dead?" Officer Vachon asked. “I mean, shouldn’t we get verification?”

"Look at the snow, Vachon," Lt. Bledsoe said. “It's been below freezing for two solid weeks. No footprints up here except ours and the civilian's. No footprints down there either. Billy, find out the dates of all the snowstorms up here for the past month. No, make that all damn winter. Talk to Finnegan at the airport. He's some sort of amateur weather nut. Keeps his own records. Yep, you can bet your paddy-whacker on it, Vachon. She's been dead for a while.

“Damn shame, too. Looks like she was a real cutie. Say, Vachon, you have a daughter about her age, don’t you? Ever seen this girl before?” Vachon stared down blankly, his face turning white. “No? Well, maybe when we get her out of there, you can take a closer look.” Lt. Bledsoe looked around. “Anybody know who she was? Any missing child reports?"

Vachon suddenly bent over, swallowing hard, the veins standing out on his neck. He emitted a gravelly gurgling noise, gagged and retched. Hot steaming bile spewed from his mouth and etched into the pristine snow.

"Christ, Vachon, if you're going to puke, find someplace where you won't contaminate the frigging crime scene," Lt. Bledsoe growled.

He turned to the man in the parka. "Billy, we got a real situation here. You know the routine. We're gonna need everything up here including ropes and tackle. I want the area sealed off, along with this trail coming and going, and get some Klieg lights."

Billy pushed his parka back and raised his eyebrows. “Lights?”

"Yeah," Lt. Bledsoe grunted, "I know it's still morning, but I worked crime scenes like this before. This one's gonna take all damn day and half the night. We're going to lay out a circle, fifty—no, make that a hundred—yards from the victim and work from the outside in on a grid.

“I want every twig, every leaf, every fiber, every scrap of paper, dirt samples, snow samples, anything loose and anything frozen, including especially anything that looks like snot or other bodily fluids. And I want it bagged, tagged, and mapped—even if it’s nothing more than a frozen bird turd—and bag it in paper, not plastic. I don’t want the condensation turning our evidence to mush. And make damned sure that no one, and I do mean no one, gets near her body until I get a chance to examine her first. You know how state botched the investigation of that girl in West Newbury last summer, tromping all over the crime scene like a Fourth of July blanket run.”

He spun around and stared back down at the body. "I want the creep who did this," he said to no one in particular. "Hey, Vachon. When you get through spilling your cookies, I want you to take the civilian back down to the road and get his statement." He reached between his legs, hitched up the crotch of his pants and turned to Keith. "Sorry, Mr. Caldwell, but I'm going to have ask you to hang around for a while. I'll be talking with you myself just as soon as I can."

"Cadell," Keith said.

It wasn’t so much that the detective had mispronounced his name, but that the man had taken that precise moment to adjust his underwear.

"What?"

"Cadell," Keith repeated, moving around to the back of the still doubled-over Officer Vachon. He was feeling a bit queasy himself and although Vachon's gastric incontinence certainly contributed to the way he felt, it was more than that. Intuitively, he sensed something was wrong, something that didn’t fit and whatever it was, it was making Keith nervous and a bit unsettled. He straightened and looked at Bledsoe. "My name is Cadell. C-a-d-e-double-l."

"Oh, sorry. Right. Ca-dell. Nothing personal. Hell of a situation here. Just go with Officer Vachon; he'll get it all down." A grimaced crossed Lt. Bledsoe's face as he shifted his eyes from Keith to the patrolman leaning over the bank and looking down at the body below.

"Hey, Haggert, you trying to kill yourself by hanging over the edge like that? Stop playing detective and start getting this damn trail taped—and I want you to keep everybody the hell off this hill unless I specifically say they can come up—and that includes the friggin' press."

"You got it, lieutenant," Haggert sniffed, giving the bush a quick jerk. As Haggert's muscular body started to uncoil, the combination of his weight and the abrupt application of force overwhelmed the bush. Its roots snapped free of the ground and for an instant Haggert was caught between momentum and gravity, suspended between the edge of the ridge and the sun-crisp sky, his huge frame canting away from the safety of the trail. Waving the dislodged bush in one hand and bending forward at the waist, Haggert flailed out in desperation with his free hand, grabbing air at first but then catching Keith's arm.

Keith spun around, colliding with Vachon’s backside in a brusque whack that sent the officer sprawling face down in the newly impregnated snow. The impact with Vachon propelled Keith backwards into Haggert who instinctively twisted his body to avoid the collision. Haggert's boots skated on the packed snow and flew into the air, his frantic frame falling butt first into the chasm, his hand still clutching Keith's sleeve.

Keith was suddenly flying, his body yanked over the edge of the ridge. His back smacked into the ground, jerking free of Haggert’s grasp. Keith’s feet arched over his shoulders. He slid sideways, tumbling and rolling down the slope, his eyes racked by a kaleidoscope of white and brown, snow and brush and flashes of leather and black boots, his ears assaulted by the crackle and snapping of brush and the cries of panic that caromed inside his skull, his arms and legs jabbed with random pricks of fire that exploded in slashing spikes that sent waves of pain shuddering through his head and body.

Keith suddenly realized that he had stopped, that he was no longer falling, that the ringing he still heard in his ears came from somewhere else, somewhere below him—Officer Haggert, probably, preceding him in the fall—and then, even that stopped, replaced by shouts that came from somewhere above the glaring blackness that engulfed him.

He tried to move, to move his legs, his hands. His right hand was wedged behind his back; something sharp was cutting into his left hand, his palm throbbing with unbelievable pain.

The black in his eyes turned green and bleached white as the cold bright sun burned through his eyelids. He forced himself to open his eyes. The face of the dead girl was only inches from his own, her skin a grayish ivory crusted with crystalline sparkles of ice, her pale lips a faint blue oval that faded into ashen pallor, her open eyes, empty and lifeless yet staring, staring at him, catching a glint of sunlight in a spectral illusion of reflected recognition, an imagined corporeal cognition, begging, pleading, not for life, but for retribution. The force of the impact had dislodged her upright arm and now her hand rested on his shoulder.

     Keith bolted upright, twisting at the waist, his stomach heaving into his chest, his head spinning, his brain already recoiling from the terrible certainty of another lifeless face branded forever into his memory. He instinctively tried to wipe his eyes with his hand and something sharp sliced into his cheek, but he felt no pain; he felt revulsion. He couldn't help it. He couldn't hold it in. He rolled over, away from the girl, away from the face of death, and vomited into the snow.