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A Little Known Fact by Dan Schuler

© Dan Schuler

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A Little Known Fact

Dan Schuler

Gravel crunched under my shoes as I made my way down the steep embankment to the water’s edge where the man’s body had been discovered earlier that morning by a health-conscious octogenarian and his walking companion, an aging cocker spaniel. The poor man thought the dog was just reacting to the belligerent geese that made their home in Mobile’s Midtown Park. However, when the mutt had led him to the corpse half-submerged in the shallow lake, it was all he could do to dial 911.

As I navigated the shoreline, trying to avoid painting my Florsheim wingtips with fresh goose droppings, I noticed a forty-something red head bending down to retrieve something. We used to be an item, so I recognized that supple derriere from a distance. She turned as I approached, giving me a sad smile.

“What do we got, Diane?” I asked

“Morning, John. The victim’s name is Matt Spears according to his ID. Five foot ten, one-eighty, brown hair, brown eyes. He was an organ donor as well, but I don’t think anything’s fresh enough to be any use to anyone. Took two slugs to the chest. I found a few shell casings that look to be .38’s.”

That’s Diane. No cutting up, no bullshit. All business. I’ve been with the Mobile Police Department for fourteen years and in all that time Diane’s style hasn’t changed one bit. Maybe that’s a good thing.

“Was he killed here or dumped?” I asked. I had my own suspicions but it didn’t hurt to get a second opinion. Especially when any blood escaping from the body had been washed away within hours of the man’s death.

“Judging by the spent shells and the lack of drag marks, I’d say the killer did the deed here. Guy’s probably forty pounds heavier than what’s declared on his driver’s license. Not an easy job to move him. But you’re the detective.”

“Thanks, Diane. I can always count on you to state the obvious. Do you have an estimated time of death?”

“I’d say about five to six hours ago. Probably just after midnight.”

The question was, what was Mr. Spears doing in the park after midnight on a Wednesday evening?

I retrieved my Jeep Cherokee and headed for the address on the victim’s driver’s license. As I rolled what I knew around in my head, my companion, Skeeter, a purebred OCD-suffering border collie rode shotgun, his ears flapping in the breeze from the open passenger side window. Ever since my former partner retired, Skeeter had begun to ride with me on most of my calls. It was either that or come home to overturned trashcans and gnawed table legs. Though his breath wasn’t quite as fresh as Ed’s used to be, he made a pretty good sounding board for my theories. Mostly because he didn’t argue or tell me how ridiculous they were. I can’t knock Ed though, he taught me everything I know and we remained close. In fact, his early retirement came as quite a shock.

I pulled the car to the curb at 2274 S. Lafayette St. The house could have used some care but stood on a large lot in Midtown among several massive oak trees dripping Spanish moss. The type of place realtors describe as having curb appeal. A uniformed officer waited at the door with a tall man in khakis and a blue button down shirt. I rolled up the windows, tossed Skeeter a chew hoof, and kept my fingers crossed that my upholstery would still be intact when I got back.

The officer’s name was Dooley and he introduced me to Martin Lessman, the victim’s neighbor who was trusted with a key to the house since he watered Spears’ plants when he went out of town.

“I just can’t believe he’s dead. Just the other day we were chatting and he seemed so happy. Had a new girlfriend, work was going well. This is just so out of the blue!”

“Mr. Lessman, what sort of work did Mr. Spears do?”

“He was an accountant. Worked for Deloitte and Touche. The way he talked he was close to making partner.”

“Have you two been neighbors long?” I asked.

“About four years. He moved in just after his divorce. That was in the spring of ’04.”

“You notice anything different about him lately? Any change in attitude or routine?”

The man gave this some thought. “Not really. The only change was the new girlfriend I mentioned. She was a real good-looking little thing, too. She was quite a bit older than him. In fact, I teased Matt about being her boy toy.” Lessman looked away and he seemed upset with himself.

“You recall the lady’s name, by chance?”

“I think it was Keri. No . . . Carrie, that’s it.”

“Got a last name?”

“Matt never told me. Sorry.”

“Thanks, Mr. Lessman. I’ll be in touch if I need anything further. Dooley, you can take off. I’m just going to make a quick sweep of the premises.”

The house had three bedrooms, a small bathroom, an eat-in kitchen, and a cozy family room. The furnishings were all Ashley and Pier One but the man could have used a maid service. There were newspapers and magazines on just about every surface and the kitchen trash was overflowing with pizza boxes and six-pack holders. It didn’t take a detective to determine the man was a bachelor.

One thing struck me as peculiar, though. In an unused bedroom at the back of the house, amongst several cardboard cartons of accounting texts and paperback books, I discovered a shopping bag from Babies R’ Us containing several pairs of infant pajamas, a mega pack of Huggies, a Winnie the Pooh rattle, and a tiny Auburn Tigers T-shirt. The receipt was dated ten days ago. At first I assumed it must be a shower gift for a friend. But then I made another discovery.

Inside the closet were four cans of Sherwin Williams Peach Blossom paint. Beside the cans were several rollers, a paint pan, a dozen wooden stirrers and a variety of brush sizes. Was he going to paint the friend’s nursery as well? Seemed kind of a stretch. I made a mental note to learn more about the girlfriend.

I saved the bedroom for last as that generally contains the most personal items and is often the source of evidence that can lead to breaks in an otherwise stagnant investigation. I combed through the victim’s bureau, bedside table, and even tossed the mattress. Other than learning that the man used Trojan condoms, was hypertensive and subscribed to Playboy magazine I came up empty.

I opened the closet and rifled through the assortment of clothing and picked through the contents of several boxes but nothing jumped out at me. Then I tried a technique that had produced results for me in the past. I ran my hands along the underside of the shelves at the back of the closet and found that human nature wasn’t so different from one person to the next. Hidden from view, attached to the shelf with a length of duct tape, was a small brass key engraved with the number RBC4679.

I had an idea about the key but I needed confirmation. I called my financial advisor, Rick Weston, and asked him to check with a friend of his at one of the local banks. While I waited for Rick to get back to me, I placed a call to the morgue hoping that Diane might have learned something about our victim.

“What do you need, John? I’m up to my armpits in fresh cadavers.”

Like I said, all business. “You always could talk dirty with the best of them. I was wondering if you’d gotten around to doing the post on Mr. Spears yet.”

From her tone I could picture Diane rolling her eyes as she said, “John, we only found him this morning! I’m fast, but not that fast. Call me back tomorrow afternoon and I should be able to give you the big picture.”

I heard the wheedling tone in my own voice and it made me cringe, but I needed something to go on. “Can’t you give me anything? It’s worth lunch at Butch Cassidy’s and I know how you love their burgers.”

“Not just me,” she said, clearly taking offense. “Their burgers have been voted the best in Mobile for four years running.”

“Diane, please?”

“Okay. There’s not much but here’s what we have so far. No defensive wounds to speak of. I took fingernail scrapings but there was nothing but a bit of dirt, and very little of that.”

“Anything else?”

“I pulled the slugs. They were .38’s like I thought. I sent them off to ballistics. Maybe they can match them to a profile already in the system, but I wouldn’t get your hopes up.”

“Why’s that?”

“The guy had eighty dollars in his wallet and the keys to his BMW 535 in his pocket. The Beemer was parked in a lot forty yards from where the body was found. This was no robbery. Anyhow, this one has a different feel to me somehow. It seems personal.”

The same thing had occurred to me and I told her so. I had also learned to trust Diane’s gut feelings.

I was about to ring off when Diane said. “Oh, one other thing. I found several stray hairs on the victim’s pants. I’m no expert but they appeared canine to me. I sent them to the lab and asked them to rush it through.”

I thanked Diane, and since Skeeter was tearing around the house like his tail was on fire, I took him out for a walk. I figured the late afternoon sun would do us both some good.

When we got back, the message light on my phone was blinking. There was a message from Rick asking me to call him back.

Rick picked up on the second ring. “ Your hunch was spot on. I spoke to the VP of account services at Regions Bank Corp. and he verified that the key fits one of their safety deposit boxes. He said that particular box is located at their Sage Avenue branch over by Bellair Mall.”

“I appreciate your help, Rick. Did you tell him about my interest in the box?”

“I gave him a thumbnail sketch. He said the only way you can access the box is with a court order, no exceptions.”

“The owner’s dead for Pete’s sakes.”

“ So you think. He wouldn’t verify the owner’s identity. However, he did launch into a sermon about the dead still having some sort of right to privacy.”

I hung up, knowing my long day had just gotten even longer. I called to Skeeter and we headed out to the Jeep. He was much more enthusiastic than I was to take this ride.

I pulled into the parking garage abutting the Admiral Semmes Hotel, found a space several floors up, and unwrapped a package of Busy Bones for Skeeter. He pouted at being left behind, but I knew he’d be fine on his own with the windows cracked. I learned the hard way about the windows. Once, when Skeeter was still a puppy I’d left the window down a few inches. Skeeter managed to widen the gap with his snout and went on a little adventure while I interviewed a witness. I’ve learned to check the windows.

I took the elevator to street level and crossed the narrow road separating the hotel from the Mobile County Government Plaza. After another elevator ride I appeared unannounced at the chambers of the Honorable Hank Aaron Wilson. Mrs. Wilson had named her son after the famous ball player who was born and raised in our port city.

It was ten minutes to five and the judge’s secretary did not look pleased to see me. I hoped Hank would be in better spirits. When he heard me chatting with Delores, Hank called me back to his chambers.

“What the hell you doing showing up here after hours?”

I checked my watch again, thinking perhaps I had read it wrong a moment before. Nope, seven minutes to five. Although Hank and I go way back to our baseball days at Birmingham Southern, I decided not to call him on it.

“I need a favor, your honor.”

“Of course you do. That’s the only time I see you these days. Have you found a nice young woman to settle down with yet?”

“The reason I don’t stop more often is that I get enough preaching from the pulpit on Sunday morning so I don’t need any from you.”

“You know what your problem is, don’t you?” the judge asked.

“I’m sure you’re going to enlighten me,” I said, reminding myself that I needed a favor from this man.

“It’s that damn mutt. You spend all your time hauling Skeeter around instead of making room in your life for a nice girl.” He paused his sermon for a moment, looked hard in my direction, and then sighed. “ I can see I’m not getting through to you, so what is it you need this evening.”

“I’m investigating the murder of a man found in Municipal Park this morning. No signs of robbery and nothing in the victim’s background pointing to drugs or any type of shady business deals. I went through the victim’s things this morning and found a key to a safety deposit box. Trouble is, Regions won’t allow me access to the box without a court order.”

“You found the key in the victim’s home, I take it?”

I squirmed a bit, but answered honestly. “Yes, sir.”

“This key we’re talking about. It wouldn’t have been obtained without the family’s consent by any chance?”

“ I’m not aware of any relatives, but the neighbor had a key. He let me in.”

The judge considered for a moment. “Since your intentions here are only to obtain evidence to be used in the apprehension of the person or persons responsible for this man’s death, I’ll sign the order. But I warn you, tread lightly. If you embroil this court in a lawsuit, I’ll put a whipping on you worse than what we did to West Alabama back in ’91.”

I believed it. I remembered that game. We won 17-2.

All I wanted to do at that point was return home, toss back a few cold beers and hit the sheets, but it wasn’t to be. I had promised Ed that I would come out to his place and watch the Auburn-Georgia basketball game and I didn’t feel justified in canceling this close to tip off. So instead of kicking back in my easy chair, Skeeter and I headed out Airport Boulevard toward West Mobile.

Twenty minutes later we left the traffic and noise of the city behind. Ed and his wife, Cal, lived out on Grand Bay-Wilmer Road just this side of the state line. It was a long drive, but Ed didn’t have to commute anymore, and they were able to afford a sizeable home on a large tract of land for considerably less than they would have paid in town.

I pulled into the driveway and parked off to the side to allow access to the garage. Smoke was drifting out above the privacy fence behind the house and I caught an aroma of grilling steaks that caused my mouth to water. Skeeter sat at attention, no doubt hoping that he would be joining in the festivities.

As much as I wanted to take him along, Skeeter was persona non grata around the Burgess household. The last time he was here Skeeter mixed it up with Chip and Dale, two sweet-tempered greyhounds Cal had rescued from the Mobile Greyhound Park, and when the night was over Dale’s foreleg required stitches and I was offering to cover the vet’s fee. Not again. I left a bag of Bonz in the glove compartment and loosened the catch just enough that Skeeter would still be able to open it, but it would keep him busy for awhile.

I unlatched the gate to the rear yard, entered, and was quickly surrounded by the whirling dervish that was Chip and Dale. I caught a glimpse of Ed standing at his gas grill wearing a pair of denim shorts, a tank top, a long, once-white apron and a tall chef’s hat. Ed is five foot nine and roughly two hundred fifty pounds. This was not a good look for him.

“Grab a cold one, partner. I brought a cooler out here, figured we’d jaw a bit while the rib-eyes cook. He raised an Amstel Light to his lips and chugged heartily.

I fished a Heineken out of the icy depths of the Igloo cooler and popped the top. I dropped into one of Ed’s deck chairs and gazed out at the large fenced yard spreading in all directions. Tiki lamps burned at intervals in hopes of keeping the mosquitoes at bay. The lamps were a necessity as the home backed up to a large wooded area threaded with shallow streambeds. “Where’s the family this evening?” I asked.

Ed flipped two monstrous hunks of meat that sizzled and spit as they returned to the grill. “Cal took Abbie over to visit her mom in Hattiesburg. She told me to have fun but not to bother the neighbors.”

I sat forward and made a show of glancing around in both directions. “What neighbors? There can’t be another house within half a mile.”

Ed grinned. “I think she was messing with me. Isn’t it great out here? You know, if I wake up early enough, I can bring a cup of coffee out here on the deck and listen to the cattle lowing out on Tom Gaston Road. Abbie loves all the wildlife too.”

Abbie was Ed and Cal’s six-month old daughter whom he affectionately had dubbed “his little miracle.” After trying for several years without success, the couple was overjoyed when Cal learned she was pregnant. Ed was dedicated to the child and I knew he would do anything for her.

I took another swallow of beer. “I envy you, Ed. It must be real peaceful out here.”

“Except for hunting season. Would you believe they allow folks to hunt in those woods over yonder?”

The question seemed rhetorical so I didn’t feel the need to respond. Ed transferred the steaks and a couple of baked potatoes to a platter and we relocated to the living room and a glass-topped coffee table in front of Ed’s big screen TV.

The game was a close one with Auburn pulling out a victory in the closing seconds. I had switched to Coke at this point due to the long drive home, but Ed was still going strong.

“Heard they discovered a d.b. out at municipal this morning.” Ed loved to talk shop, and the longer he was away from the job, the more he seemed to crave the details of each case I was assigned. “Yours?”

“Yeah, lucky me. I’ve got my hands full on this one, Ed. The guy had cash on him and the keys to a BMW parked nearby. I’ve dug some into his background and I can’t find any red flags. Nothing that would pass for motive.”

“What did I teach you, John? It always comes down to one of three things. Love, sex, or money. Always.”

I decided to head for home as I anticipated another long day tomorrow.

When I got back to the Jeep I found Skeeter sitting on the driveway awaiting my return. He tried to look innocent, but the burrs twisted in his coat told me that he had traveled much further than the space he now occupied a mere three feet from the passenger door. I was too tired to scold him, so I just rolled up the passenger-side window as his nibs hopped inside and perched happily on the co-pilot’s chair.

A faded blue Ford Explorer turned into the driveway as I was leaving. I honked and waved at Callie and she smiled in return.

I was up early the next morning. Skeeter and I had breakfast together, as we did most mornings. Coffee and wheat toast for me, kibble for him.

We headed out at 8:40. I was determined to get to Regions Bank by the time the doors opened that morning.

I entered the bank and walked over to the glassed-in cubicles used by the bank’s officers. A thin woman with auburn curls dressed in a navy pantsuit and talking animatedly on a cell phone held up one finger in the universal sign for “just a moment”. I took a seat and waited. The nameplate on the desk read Colleen Wells. A plate near the door of the cubicle identified her as the Assistant Branch Manager.

A moment later she hung up. “How may I help you this morning?” she asked.

“Ms. Wells, my name is John Shelton. I’m a detective with the Mobile Police Department. I need to take a look at one of your safety deposit boxes.”

“Good morning, Detective Shelton. We’ve been expecting you. I’m not sure what sort of pull you have with Judge Wilson, but when I arrived this morning the court order was sitting on the fax machine. Sent directly from the Judge’s office.”

Score one for Hank. I owed him a trip to watch the Bay Bears play under the lights.

Ms. Wells led me to a private room where I could view the contents of Mr. Spears’ box. The room contained only a counter and a single chair. She took a key from around her neck. We each inserted our keys into the locks and turned. The lid popped open.

“I’ll leave you to it,” she said. “When you’re finished, just alert the guard outside.”

“Thank you, Ms. Wells.”

I opened the box and stared at its contents. I found a bundle of shares of the Great Allentown Fair dating back to the 1950’s. There was a manila folder containing the Last Will and Testament of Matthew Spears dated two years earlier. I read through the bequests. Other than a college fund created in trust for his daughter, Spears had left everything he owned to St. Jude’s Hospital. No motive there.

At the bottom of the box was an envelope. The return address was that of a local attorney. I removed the sheaf of papers and began reading through them. By the time I’d finished, their meaning was all too clear, and I knew that my life would never be the same.

I now had a working theory of how Mr. Spears had met his demise, but I had to be sure. I called Diane to check the lab results. They were in and, unfortunately, confirmed my suspicions. I headed for the station to brief my superiors.

I left Skeeter to nap in the cool comfort of the parking garage as I went to meet with the chief of detectives. As I expected, he took the news hard. Due to the sensitive nature of the case, he requested a meeting with the Commissioner and Mobile County District Attorney. After a lengthy debate, I won them over to my plan and we spent the remainder of the afternoon hammering out the details.

I arrived at Ed’s place, unannounced, at six-thirty. The sun had just dipped below the horizon and the sky was the color of a bruised peach. I knocked, and waited a few moments until Cal opened the door.

“John, what a pleasant surprise,” she said.

I smiled. “Is Ed home?”

“Sure. He’s in the living room. Can I get you anything?”

“No thanks.”

I walked down the hall to the living room where Ed greeted me warmly. I felt like Judas Iscariot and wondered if I’d made the right decision.

“Come on in, partner. Have a beer,” Ed said.

“Can’t,” I said. “I’m still on duty.”

“Hell, man. It’s Friday night. Why are they working you so hard?”

I noticed Callie out of the corner of my eye. She stood stock still, watching the scene play out.

Then Ed’s easy smile disappeared. His face took on a questioning look.

“You remember the case we were discussing last night?”

“Yeah, sure. What’s up?”

“I got a break today. And you were right. It always does come down to money, sex, or love.”

I slid a single sheet of paper out of the envelope and handed it to Ed. I could see the confusion in his eyes, and then I saw comprehension begin to dawn.

“What is this?” Ed said in a hollow voice, first to me and then to Callie. “What the hell is this?”

“It’s the motive I’ve been searching for, Ed.”

Callie reached out and tore the paper from Ed’s hand. Her face had gone ashen and tears leaked from her eyes.

“It’s called a Notice of Intent to Claim Paternity pursuant to Alabama Code § 26-10C-1. It’s a little known fact that in Alabama the father of a child born out of wedlock has a short period of time to add his name to the Putative Father Registry or risk losing all rights to claim paternity. That document is signed by Matthew Spears.”

Ed looked at Callie. “It says that you’re the mother and that Abbie is his daughter.”

I watched Ed. I knew his temper would flare any minute and I wasn’t sure how he would react.

Ed turned to me then, and went on the offensive. “This doesn’t mean anything, John. Even if it’s true, it doesn’t make Callie a murderer.”

“You’re right. But there’s more. The coroner found stray hairs on Spears’ clothing. The lab identified them as greyhound. From two separate animals. And I’d be willing to bet that the shell casings will match one of the guns in your safe.”

Ed hung his head and a strangled sob broke from his throat. Callie fell to her knees in front of him.

“I’m so sorry. I never meant for this to happen. When I found out I was pregnant, I knew. I’d already been tested and I knew I was fertile. I knew your pride would never allow you to be tested.”

“But why did you . . .”

She shushed him with a look. “I got a copy of that notice a couple months ago. I never thought he’d seek paternity. When Abbie arrived it was just easier to treat it like a miracle. Who could it hurt?”

“Ed,” I said. “We’ve got to go.”

But Callie wouldn’t be distracted.

“I met with Matt, tried to make him see what this would do to our family. But he wouldn’t listen. He had to punish me for ending our relationship. He didn’t care about Abbie.”

I remembered a receipt from Babies R’ Us and some cans of paint. I doubted the veracity of Callie’s last statement.

“No more, Callie. No more, “ Ed said. He turned to me. “Who else knows about this?”

“No one.” This was part of the plan we’d put together this afternoon. “I’ll vouch for her, Ed. I’ll go to the judge and say she turned herself in. Under the circumstances I think it will reduce her sentence.”

“Please don’t cuff her, John. The neighbors.”

I agreed to Ed’s request.

“Give me a minute to go get Abbie. I’ll be right with you,” Ed said.

When Ed left the room, Callie said, “I thought you were our friend, John. Why couldn’t you just let this be?”

I never got a chance to answer. The sound of a shotgun shell being chambered ended all further conversation.

Ed pushed me ahead of him as we walked toward the woods behind his property. He’d sent Callie to her mother’s with Abbie. Presumably he’d meet her there after he’d dealt with me. Night had fallen, and the approaching trees were swallowed by darkness. The light from the full moon was at our backs.

I stopped and turned to face Ed. “You’ll never get away with this, Ed. You know that.”

He pointed the barrel of the gun at my chest. “Lots of hunters out this way, remember? One stray shot won’t alarm anyone.”

“Ed, we’ve known each other for years. We rode together for Pete’s sakes. You’re not going to squeeze that trigger.”

“I’m a different man now, John. I’m a father. The only one Abbie will ever know. I’m not prepared to lose that.” He shrugged, and then raised the shotgun to his shoulder. “Sorry.”

I had expected the cavalry to arrive by now. That was the plan, anyway. I noted the determination in Ed’s eyes and knew he believed what he’d just said. Sweat beaded my forehead as I watched his finger tighten on the trigger.

In that instant, I heard a scuttling noise and a shadow eclipsed the moon. Skeeter launched himself like a guided missile, his jaws clamping down on Ed’s wrist as the shotgun discharged into the ground at my feet.

Ed crumpled, as Skeeter continued to maul his right forearm. I bent and retrieved the shotgun, chambered a round, and fired into the air. “Skeeter, come,” I shouted.

My partner spit out Ed’s appendage as if it had suddenly grown rank and ran to my side.

Ed rolled on the turf, clutching his battered arm.

The cavalry finally put in an appearance. As two uniformed officers drug him to his feet, he looked at me, astonishment breaking across his face. “You said you didn’t tell anyone.”

I shrugged. “Guess I lied, partner.”

The department issued Skeeter a medal for bravery in the line of duty. He wears it proudly on his collar. I no longer reprimand him for opening the car windows.

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