Published in Detective Thrillers Short Stories
“Alligator attack at Kimball Botanical Gardens. Animal control and EMS are on their way.”
I hit the lights and siren, and accelerated down Tower Road toward the park. My partner said nothing as the blood drained from his face, both of us hoping for a false alarm.
At the gardens we bumped through a mine-field of rocks and axle-threatening holes disguised as an innocent field of coarse green grass. We stopped near a small group huddled around a figure on the ground.
The victim lay on his back, eyes closed, face glowing white in the early morning sunshine. A woman hovered, caressing his cheek. His right arm lay across his abdomen, his left at his side, wrapped in a red towel. No, not a red towel, a bloodied white towel. The arm was too short, much too short, with a belt cinched mid-biceps.
An ambulance siren cut through the thick morning air, still too far away. While my partner stood frozen, I knelt beside the victim, the metallic tang of blood nearly overpowering and introduced myself while I felt for his pulse. Fast. “I’m Detective Yarborough. This is my partner, Detective Black.” I opened the First Aid Kit, found the tourniquet, and apologized as I wrapped it tightly above the belt. The man barely winced.
“Tell me your name, sir.”
His eyes remained closed, but his lips moved. Barely a whisper. I didn’t catch it.
“Richard Simpson,” one of the huddled men said. “He’s our groundskeeper. Sheila’s his wife.” He put an arm around the woman’s shaking shoulders.
In my peripheral vision, Matt took out his notebook and started writing.
Sheila let out a sob.
“Can you tell us what happened?” I asked.
“Rick was thinning out the swamp grass,” the man continued. “Must have disturbed a nest. We heard thrashing and him hollering. He managed to twist away and get to shore.”
The ambulance crew arrived at last, and moved everyone back, including us, for which we were grateful. Moments later, Mr. Simpson lay on a gurney, legs elevated, IV fluids pouring. The EMTs hoisted him into the ambulance, joined by his wife.
“You catch that gator and bring his arm,” she said, to no one in particular, as the doors closed. My stomach churned a little at that image.
Matt and I collected names and contact information and were about to depart when the wildlife officer arrived.
“I don’t want to see this,” Matt said, quickening his pace toward the cruiser. “That gator was just doing what gators do—defending her home.”
I didn’t disagree, but once they attacked, they had to be destroyed. Getting a taste for human flesh or something. Made me shiver. As we drove away, I glanced in the rearview mirror, curious how one caught a man-eating alligator. But we had reports to file, and other cases, with actual criminals to pursue.
My phone rang. Gerald Baker…again. The man had lost his daughter, literally lost, like no idea where she was. His suffering struck close to home for me. Largely based on Mr. Baker’s testimony, her boyfriend, Jeremy Hoyt, was tried for murder, but without a body, the jury found him not guilty. He was released yesterday, and her father wasn’t handling it so well. Neither were we. It had been our case. Losing sucked.
“Mr. Baker,” I said over the car’s Bluetooth.
“He’s packing up to leave.”
“That would be within his rights,” I said.
“So he can just move away? Start a new life? What about my Jillian?”
I said nothing. What could I say? I had told the D.A. to wait, that we didn’t have enough evidence, but that whole constitutional “speedy trial” thing got in the way, more so in an election year. Other than threats she’d communicated to her father and a friend, and Jeremy’s lack of alibi, there was nothing. Her blood in his car and house were easily explained away by the defense. “They lived together. Everyone has cuts and scrapes.” Beyond that we had no tangible evidence to show the jury. No smoking gun, no bloody knife, no body.
“What are you doing for my daughter?” Mr. Baker said through angry sobs.
“I’m sorry, sir. We hope new evidence will surface, but as we discussed, Jeremy Hoyt cannot be re-tried.”
“What if we catch him with drugs, or stolen property?”
I exchanged a here-we-go-again look with Matt. “Sir, I must warn you against any contact with him, including his home and vehicle.” Mr. Baker was on the edge, understandably, but nothing good could come from his current state of mind.
I groaned. Matt’s was even louder. “That man’s got to let it go.”
“Let it go?” Words came on reflex, in a harsh voice not my own. “His daughter’s gone. You can’t let that go.”
Matt stared straight ahead, an uncomfortable silence between us. We’d been partners less than a year, but he knew about my family. He knew I visited the cemetery weekly. He knew I hadn’t let it go.
But his comment wasn’t directed at me. “Sorry,” I said.
After several hours catching up on paperwork, Rachel called from dispatch. “The Medical Examiner wants you at the morgue asap.”
I parked the cruiser along the access road behind the medical center. With no receptionist on duty at the morgue, we followed the increasing odor of formaldehyde, and knocked on the cold metal door. Dr. Karey opened it clad in his white coat, with matching hair color. As he ushered us inside, goose flesh erupted on my arms as it always did here. Disgust? Anxiety? Or maybe just the cold. He escorted us past several mercifully empty autopsy tables. On the last was a body…of sorts. Not a human body. An alligator, on its back, its light-colored underbelly splayed open, its tail hanging just off the end of the eight-foot table.
Dr. Karey said, “Since we were hoping to get the arm back in time to reattach it, we brought the gator here, and Professor Blair came over from the vet school.” Dr. Karey nodded at another man returning from the sink. His green scrubs appeared clean, if wrinkled. He tossed a paper towel into a nearby trash can and offered his hand. I introduced myself and Matt.
“Any luck?” I asked.
“Depends on what you mean by luck. We did find a forearm.” Dr. Karey pulled the sheet back from a nearby specimen table, revealing the lower part of an arm.
"That's great," Matt said, moving closer.
“But it’s not his," Dr. Karey said.
Matt froze and met my eyes, his wide, mine too, probably. Dr. Karey chuckled, actually chuckled, in a morgue. "You should see your faces. Did I tell you, Blair?"
The vet nodded, a smile on his face as well. The whole scene was surreal.
An arm, but not our victim’s? Another victim? What are the odds?
“How can you be sure it’s not his?” Matt asked.
“It belongs to a woman,” Dr. Karey said.
He was right, the arm, though discolored, was clearly a woman’s. As I moved around the specimen table, I noticed a dark mark on the side of the wrist. “Can we turn it over?” I asked.
Dr. Karey slipped on a glove and turned the arm, revealing a butterfly tattoo on the inside of the wrist. Jillian Baker had a butterfly tattoo on the inside of her wrist.
Matt let out a low whistle.
“Fingerprints will be tricky,” Dr. Karey said.
“It’s Jillian Baker,” I said.
Stunned silence. Blank looks. Except for Matt, his huge round eyes met mine.
“The young woman who disappeared a year ago,” I said.
Matt snapped out of his fog. “But this arm can’t be that old, right?”
“It hasn’t been in this gator’s belly for a year,” Professor Blair said.
“And it shows up right after her killer is released from prison,” Matt said.
“Thought he was found innocent,” Dr. Karey said.
“No. Not guilty,” I said. “Not the same thing.”
After several moments of silence, Matt said, “So what happens now? Are they going to kill another gator?”
“Already did. It’s on the way,” Dr. Karey said. “Too late to reattach, but the victim's wife wants his wedding ring.”
We thanked them and walked through to the hospital to check on Mr. Simpson.
In the ICU, Mrs. Simpson sat at her husband’s side, their hands clasped, his eyes closed. A nasal cannula crossed his face, multi-colored leads snaked from under his gown, and several lines traced across the monitor. The bandage on his arm was clean and white, and his face was somewhat less pale.
“Officers Yarborough and Black from this morning," I said, softly.
“How is he?”
“I’m awake,” Mr. Simpson said, his eyes opening narrowly. “Did she get away?” He sounded hopeful.
I hedged. “We don’t know yet.”
“It wasn’t her fault.”
“Yes, sir,” Matt said. “But that’s not our call.”
“How many alligators are in that area?” I asked.
“Varies. I thought they’d moved upstream." His lids fell closed. "I was wrong.”
“Who has access, besides you?” I asked.
His eyes opened again, quizzical.
“Have you seen anyone near the swamp recently who didn’t belong? Or strange vehicles?”
“Why? What’s happened?”
“Just a routine question.” Like that made any sense.
He shook his head. “No one goes near that swamp but me.”
On the way out, we checked back at the morgue.
“Perfect timing,” Dr. Karey said as he answered my knock, white coat replaced with a plastic green smock. We followed him to where a second enormous alligator lay beside the first. This one’s tail nearly reached the floor.
Scalpel in hand, Professor Blair nodded to us, then made a long incision down the gator's front. I watched, mesmerized, there wasn’t much blood. “Anyone taking bets on the stomach contents?” Dr. Karey said.
Under the harsh fluorescent lights, Matt’s face glowed a pale yellow-green, sweat glistened on his cheeks, and his lips were no longer red. I was torn between watching the autopsy, and helping my partner.
When Dr. Karey reached his hand into the opening, the decision was made. I escorted Matt to the sink as he began to retch, which nearly did me in, until Dr. Karey said, “Here it is, wedding ring and all.” A thud on metal, another retch from Matt, a splash in the sink, but my insides were distracted now.
“There’s something else,” Professor Blair said.
“Holy shit,” Dr. Karey said.
“It eventually would have been,” the professor said, and both men chuckled. Morgue humor.
I handed Matt several paper towels, then walked to the specimen table on surprisingly steady legs. Next to Jillian’s arm, was Mr. Simpson’s much larger and hairier one, and next to that was a lower leg. A woman’s. Amputated below the knee. With a thin chain around the ankle, from which hung a charm, if that’s the right term for something so hideous--a skull with a spider crawling from its mouth.
I recognized it immediately. It matched the one in Jeremy Hoyt’s ear. His right ear lobe was expanded to more than an inch in diameter with a black plastic circle containing the same design. I’d stared at it during the trial, wondered how anyone could do that to his body, then wondered when I became so old.
“How could body parts be in two different gators?” Matt asked.
“A fight between hungry gators maybe,” Dr. Blair said. “But these were cut, not torn.”
“On that note,” a still-pale Matt said, “I need some fresh air.”
“Good call,” I said, forcing the image from my mind.
We returned to the precinct, and updated Captain Marsh. “Holy shit,” he said, apparently the response of the day.
“We have to tell her father,” I said.
Captain Marsh rocked back in his chair. “When the M.E.s done.”
“Can’t take long enough,” Matt said under his breath. Part of me agreed.
We were off on Sunday, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the case. Had Jillian been alive all this time? Where was the rest of her? And the timing couldn’t be a coincidence.
After Mass I headed to the cemetery, stopping for fresh flowers on the way. As I stood at the grave of my wife and daughter, my mind wandered to Gerald Baker. I understood his single-minded focus. There’s nothing I wouldn’t give to have my little girl back, and my wife, but at least their murderer was serving time. Two counts of DUI manslaughter got him fifteen years. Not nearly long enough. Never enough.
At last Mr. Baker finally had something of his daughter to bury.
On a whim, I drove by Jeremy Hoyt’s house, where a large hand-written sign in the yard read, “Moving Sale - Everything must go.” Which was a lot, much more than could have possibly fit in the tiny home we’d searched months ago. From clothing to electronics to appliances to furniture, he was truly starting over.
I pulled out my phone and snapped a picture through the car window as I drove slowly past. Jeremy was haggling and didn’t look up, or he’d probably accuse me of harassment.
On my way home, Mr. Baker called again. I didn’t answer. Would the news help or hurt? Before, there was still hope. He called again. I switched off my phone.
At home, I turned on the TV, for distraction more than entertainment. A knock at the door took me by surprise. I had few unexpected visitors, or even expected ones. Through the peep hole, I saw Gerald Baker. Crap.
“I know you’re in there.” His words were slurred. He needed to go home, but I couldn’t let him drive.
“Mr. Baker, I’m calling you a taxi,” I yelled through the closed door.
“I need to talk to you. He’s leaving. He had a yard sale.”
Against my better judgment, I opened the door. He swayed on his feet, and looked at me through glassy bloodshot eyes.
“He sold it all. Some of that stuff was Jillian’s. He sold it.” He held out a notebook. “I recorded everything he sold, and took video of the buyers.” He held up his cellphone. “I’m gonna get her stuff back.”
“You can’t do that.”
“I can’t…” Mr. Baker began to sob, his voice coming out in fits and starts. “I can’t let him…go live a life while my…baby lies somewhere…not even properly buried.” He tumbled forward. I caught him in an awkward embrace. One grieving father to another.
“We found her,” I said. I didn’t mean to, it slipped out.
He pulled back, eyebrows drawn together, mouth open. His eyes shifted between mine, desperate for more.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “We don’t have all the information yet.”
He collapsed to the stoop, head in his hands. “She’s dead.”
I sat beside him, hand on his quaking back. “Yes, I’m sorry.”
“I knew,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said.
We sat there on the stoop for close to an hour. Both crying. Him more than me. I invited him in for sober-up coffee, resisting his efforts to extract details. He left around three a.m., after a cursory DUI exam, and a promise to go straight home.
Next morning, after report, I showed Matt my yard sale drive-by video on my laptop. He only half-watched as he listened to our phone messages. “Hey, there’s one from the M.E.’s office,” he said.
I put the call on speaker when he answered. “She was frozen.”
“Jillian?” I said.
“Yes,” Dr. Karey said. “Her skin had a different consistency than the other victim’s, so I ran a test. Her body had been frozen.”
“There’s a test for that?” Matt asked.
“A SCHAD, the activity of short-chain—”
“We’ll take your word for it,” I said. “Can you tell how long?”
“No. But judging by the saw marks, I’d say she was frozen first, and then cut up.”
I ended the call, sank into my chair and stared straight ahead, the video loop of the yard sale still playing. And then I saw it. I paused the video and pointed.
“A freezer,” Matt said.
Toward the back of the array of appliances was a white deep freezer. “I don’t remember it from our search,” I said.
Matt typed on his computer. “Because it wasn’t there. It’s not on the inventory list. Any chance it’s still on site?”
“No, but Mr. Baker might have video of the purchaser.”
We ran to the cruiser and I called Mr. Baker. He was standing in the doorway when we arrived. Matt scanned the hand-written list of items while Mr. Baker opened a directory of the videos on his laptop.
“Four-fifteen,” Matt said. “The freezer sold at four-fifteen.”
Mr. Baker clicked on the video file from that time. A young man, his dark curls tucked under a backward ball cap, handed Jeremy a stack of bills, then he and several other young men used a dolly and a U-Haul with a drop gate to load the freezer. As the truck drove away, I reached over and froze the video on the license plate.
With a copy of the video file, we thanked him and promised to keep him informed. Except that was a lie. We hadn’t told him about the frozen sawed up body parts. Was it to protect him from the horrific truth? Or to protect ourselves from having to reveal it? Or to protect Jeremy from Mr. Baker’s wrath? No, not that. Definitely not that.
Search warrant in hand, the rental company provided the name and address of the young man. It was outside of town, where land was plentiful, and grocery stores less so. A freezer would come in handy out here. We drove down a packed-dirt drive to a small wood home with a carport, empty of cars, but with a white freezer against the back wall.
When a woman answered the door, I held out the search warrant as I introduced myself and my partner. She was young, with a baby on her hip, and another child yelling from behind. “We need to take the freezer you purchased yesterday,” I said.
In response to her confused expression, Matt said, “It may have been involved in a crime.”
Her look of confusion rapidly morphed to revulsion. There weren’t a lot of ways a freezer could be involved in a crime, and it appeared she’d guessed right.
“Take it,” she said.
Matt excused himself to call for the evidence van waiting on the main street.
“I’ll give you a receipt,” I said.
“I don’t want it back.” Her body trembled as she turned to deal with a now screaming child, squeezing the one on her hip with motherly affection. I glanced into the home. It was clean, but messy. The home of small children. She and her husband had likely saved for months for that freezer, and we’d taken it from them.
I made an impulsive decision as we drove away. The best of the day. “Let’s run by Herman’s.”
The appliance manager’s a friend. We got it at cost, which we split, and had it delivered the next day. No name on the receipt, just ‘thank you for your cooperation.’
Forensics found blood, and matched it to Jillian’s. We couldn’t arrest Jeremy, double-jeopardy and all, but I had a desperate need to confront the man, to tell him we knew, to warn him we’d be watching.
But he was gone. No forwarding address. His cell phone disconnected. His car showed up at a used car lot. Nothing on bus or airplane ticket purchases. He’d vanished, Mr. Baker’s fears realized.
At Jillian’s funeral, he thanked me. I knew I should say something comforting, something about finding peace, but that’s crap.
Months later, the vet, Professor Blair, asked to see me. We met at a coffee shop, just the two of us. He’d been on an alligator hunt the weekend before, he said. They’d caught a twelve-footer. He took it to the school for his students to examine, before handing it over to the processors for meat. He swiped proudly through phone images, much less disturbing than a live dissection.
The last photo caused my breath to catch. On a specimen table was a ruler next to a black plastic circle that measured about an inch. Inside the circle, a spider crawled from the mouth of a skull. The professor’s expression never wavered, though he may have winked.
Maybe Mr. Baker had found his peace after all.