Category Archives: Sam Browne

Harps On The Willows

The purple sweep of dusk melted slowly down the windshield until the universe beyond his headlights was three hundred sixty degrees of inky nothingness. Tired factory towns bubbled up and disappeared between mile markers, some of which he’d been to before. Others he’d never heard of, but in the dark they didn’t look much different. He didn’t figure they were.
+++++The names changed, but they were all the same. A post office, a speed trap, and a drug problem. Maybe a Dairy Queen. The one he finally stopped in this time had a population of just over eight thousand, which made it a little bigger than most of the places he’d done this. But you could tell Olsen he’d made a wrong turn and rolled into Pekin or Milan or New Salisbury, and he’d probably believe you.
+++++Even the house looked identical to a dozen he’d worked in before. A hulking old Victorian turned into a sagging flophouse, rotting from the inside out. There was something about nineteenth century regal architecture that made poor people want to murder each other. Maybe it felt classier than doing a guy in a trailer park.
+++++The kid was a lot different than what he was expecting, though. He was younger than most of these guys, with long blond hair and a pared beard. He also smiled when they shook hands, which was strange. Olsen couldn’t remember the last time somebody’d been happy to see him.
+++++“Stillabower,” the kid said. “And you’re Olsen?”
+++++“Unfortunately.”
+++++“Thanks for coming down. Are you ready?”
+++++“If you are,” Olsen said. He kicked a leg out to pop his knee. His sixty year old joints didn’t suffer these bullshit car rides as willingly as they used to.
+++++The kid walked him back behind the house, then about ten feet in from the mouth of the alley. They ducked under the tape and paced over to where the body’d been, the whole thing lit up by a streetlamp overhead like somebody was shining a spotlight on the crime scene.
+++++The alley was unpaved, a grassy little path tracked by the occasional traffic of whatever pygmy kind of car you could squeeze through such a tiny channel. It was heavily decorated with rotting cigarette butts and broken glass, with the occasional gas station wine bottle and ripped up garbage bag tossed in for variety’s sake. Olsen figured maybe two or three hundred people had their DNA swimming around within a dozen feet of his scene. Nothing they found back here would do them much good.
+++++Stillabower clicked on a flashlight and fixed the beam on a small, chocolatey colored spot on the ground. “That’s where she was,” he said.
+++++“That all the blood?”
+++++“Yeah,” the kid said. “Some of it soaked into the ground. Wasn’t much to begin with, though. That’s probably cause she was moved, right? I mean, her clothes were soaked, and the M.E. said she got stabbed a bunch of times. I figure she got killed somewhere else, and then they just dumped her here afterward.”
+++++Olsen nodded. “You’re probably right,” he said. “Let me see that flashlight for a second.” Stillabower handed him the light, and he ran the beam over the entirety of the taped off area. His eyes followed the light shaft, looking for anything that might be something other than garbage. “You all find anything else out here? A weapon or a wallet? Something else with blood on it?”
+++++“No, sir.”
+++++“I didn’t figure,” Olsen said. He sighed. “Well, let’s have a look at her, then.”

***

Olsen had seen a lot of dead people. He did his twenty in Indianapolis, the last eight years in homicide during the back end of the crack epidemic. Were he a smart man, he would’ve taken his pension at that point, fucked off down to Florida, and never smelled formaldehyde again for the rest of his life.
+++++But he tried to game the system. He ran the numbers and realized if he wore a badge for another couple decades, he’d have a lot more cash to spend and still enough ticks left on the clock to spend it. And he didn’t have to be a murder cop to do it. Financially speaking, he could do almost as well over the next twenty years papering double-parked pickup trucks at 1A high school football games down in Greene County or some such quaint little no-name sliver of Americana. So that’s what he did.
+++++And then some dickhead came up with methamphetamine.
+++++When crystal hit southern Indiana, it wasn’t fucking around. Some of these places were populated entirely by people who hadn’t been able to summon the energy to commit so much as a simple assault since the mid-eighties. But now they were seeing multiple homicides a year, and nobody south of I70 and north of Louisville had much of any experience investigating murders. Nobody, of course, except for Olsen.
+++++So his boss applied for some grant, and before he knew enough to lodge a complaint, the state was paying the department to lend Olsen out to any underserved speedbump of a municipality between French Lick and Vanderburgh County that could come up with a dead body. The state, then, didn’t have to waste its time running the investigations for these towns full of huddled masses who didn’t vote or pay taxes. And the towns themselves didn’t have to spend what little government funding they got paying a full time detective. It was a nice situation that worked out well for everybody who mattered. And as for Olsen, well, he couldn’t tell as anybody really gave much of a shit what he thought about it.
+++++So here we was. Ten o’clock at night, and he was in the basement of some hundred bed hospital, looking at a girl who, at first glance, appeared to have gotten her card pulled before she’d been on the planet a full quarter century. And Olsen figured it was almost certainly for some bullshit reason, too. She probably walked up on a ten dollar drug deal by accident or told some suckmouthtweaker where he could stick his brown-toothed offer to make her the queen of his smurf dope empire.
+++++The medical examiner lowered the paper shroud slowly, like he was trying to pull the covers off a sleeping child without waking her. Olsen could see now that she’d been stabbed at least a dozen times. He flicked his eyes up at Stillabower, whose own eyes were wide with something like shock or horror.
+++++“If you’re gonna puke,” Olsen said, “do it outside. And don’t ask me to hold your pretty hair back for you while you do it, you Allman Brother-looking mother fucker.” It came out harsher than he meant it to, so he smiled to show the kid he was just trying to keep it as light as possible. But Stillabower’s gaze was locked on the girl.
+++++“Alright, Gentlemen,” the M.E. said. “It’s getting late. What say we get to it?” He looked at Olsen, who nodded, then back down at his work. “Okay. Best I can tell, she’s right about twenty, twenty-one. Cause of death, as you might’ve guessed, was exsanguination, probably about eight hours or so before anyone noticed.
+++++“She was moved not too long after death, though, right?” Olsen said, remembering the bloodstain in the alley.
+++++“The lividity would suggest that, yes. Now, if you look right at each major wound, here, you can see most of them are pretty abraded. And there are irregularities at the margins.”
+++++“So it was a dull instrument,” Olsen said.
+++++“Correct.” The M.E. flexed an eyebrow and cocked his chin without looking up. He was surprised at Olsen’s knowledge. “It was long, though. She has a couple scored vertebrae. Poor kid just about got run completely through with something.”
+++++Olsen looked up to measure Stillabower’s reaction to the details. The kid winced then recomposed himself when he noticed Olsen studying him. He tucked some hair behind his ear and stared blankly at the body.
+++++“And what’s going on down here?” Olsen said, gesturing toward the girl’s hands. The tops of her wrists were patterned with couplets of small dents every half inch or so, the bruising like green and purple bracelets. “She tied up with something?”
+++++“Interestingly enough, she was bound, hands and feet, with roller chain.”
+++++“Like from a chainsaw?” Stillabower said.
+++++“Kind of. It looked like it was maybe meant for a bicycle. Something like that.”
+++++“Interesting choice,” Olsen said. He frowned, sweeping his gaze over the grievous amount of harm done to this girl. He stopped when a small marking caught his eye. The number 137 was printed neatly on the inside of her left forearm. “That a tattoo?” he said, nodding toward the inscription.
+++++“Magic marker,” the M.E. said.
+++++“One thirty-seven,” Olsen said out loud, then he turned to Stillabower. “One three seven. That mean anything to you, kid?”
+++++Stillabower shrugged. “Can’t say as it does,” he said. “Not right off the top of my head, anyway. Maybe Psalm 137. It’s a popular one.”
+++++Olsen jacked an eyebrow toward the ceiling. “Which one’s that?”
+++++“It’s where the Jews put their harps on the willow trees and cried cause of what happened to Jerusalem.”
+++++Olsen snorted at the relevance. Crying seemed like an appropriate response to this scene. “And what happened to Jerusalem?” he said.
+++++“I guess it got all kinds of fucked up by the Babalonians.”
+++++Olsen had to hand it to these southern Indiana cops he’d been hanging out with for the past few years. They sure knew the shit out of the Good Book. Especially the first half of it, which was appropriate, because a lot of the crime they were dealing with down here was some real Old Testament kind of shit. But the kid had missed the obvious answer, here.
“How about the old house you had me meet you at,” he said, “the one twenty feet in front of where we found this girl?”
+++++“Yeah?” Stillabower said, not yet following.
+++++“The address. It’s 13 East Thompson Street, right?”
+++++The kid nodded.
+++++“And I’m assuming it’s a multi-unit rental at this point, right? Split up into apartments or something?”
+++++“Believe so. Not sure, though.”
+++++“I’m willing to venture a guess that if we walk into that house, we’ll see that it’s been divided into a bunch of little efficiencies or sleeping rooms. And I’d sure as shit bet one of those is number seven.”
+++++The revelation hit, and Stillabower chucked his chin toward the ceiling. “13 East Thompson, Unit 7,” he said. “One three seven.”

***

Up on the porch, there were two aluminium surface-mount mailboxes, with four vertical doors apiece. Olsen tapped two fingers on one of them and looked at Stillabower. “Eight units,” he said.
+++++A few feet away, he could see through the storm door past a large foyer and wide staircase into a kitchen area against the back wall, where a woman was standing at the sink, putting water in a teakettle. Olsen looked at his watch. It was almost midnight, but there was somebody awake, so what the hell. He rapped a knuckle on the glass, and held up his shield. The woman frowned, waving him in.
+++++The litter box smell took Olsen’s breath as soon as he opened the door. “Christ,” he said, trying to waft it away with an open palm. “The fuck is that?”
+++++“Guy upstairs has cats, I think.”
+++++“You think,” Olsen said. “What, you never seen them?”
+++++“Not as I can remember,” she said. “You can sure smell the pee in the floorboards, though, huh.”
+++++“How do you stand it?” Stillabower said, wiping at his face like he could rub the smell out.
+++++“Don’t got much of a choice,” she said. “I can’t afford to move. It’s not always this bad, though. And it doesn’t smell in my room, long as I keep the door shut.”
+++++“But you’ve never actually seen any cats before?” Olsen said. He cut his eyes to Stillabower to see if the bulb had lit up for him yet. But the kid was looking aimlessly around the room. He didn’t seem to be thinking about how, depending on what you’re using, meth can smell just like cat piss while it cooks.
+++++“No sir, officer,” she said.
+++++Olsen nodded. “So which one of these rooms is yours?”
+++++“Number one,” she said. She dipped her chin to point her head across the room from the staircase to a door with a brass 1 tacked to it. There were three other doors, two of which were numbered. Olsen figured the other one must be the bathroom.
+++++“So there’s three of you down here,” Olsen said, “and you share the bathroom and kitchen. That right?”
+++++She nodded.
+++++“I count eight mailboxes out there,” he said. “Where’s the other five rooms?”
+++++“There’s three over there,” she said, chucking her head back toward the kitchen area. “There’s another kitchenette on the other side of that wall. The whole place looks pretty much just like it does over here, without the stairs.”
+++++“That’s six,” Olsen said. “So there’s two rooms up top? Seven and eight?”
+++++“I think so,” she said, “and I think they got their own little kitchen area and bathroom, too. Never been up there, though. Smells bad enough down here.”
+++++“The guy you think has the cats. Which room is he in?”
+++++“I don’t know,” she said. “I’d assume seven.”
+++++Olsen looked at Stillabower, a smile cutting across the kid’s face. He knew they were getting close. “Why you say that?”
+++++“I don’t know,” she said. “I mean, I’ve never seen anybody else up there. I don’t know if eight is even rented out. Seven is right above me, though, so I can hear him banging around at weird times and people knocking on his door at like four in the morning.”
+++++“What’s he like? Friendly?”
+++++“No, he doesn’t say much or smile or anything. He actually seems a little off. He’ll be wearing the same clothes for like four or five days, and you can never tell when he’s gonna be up or when he’ll have people coming over.”
+++++Olsen screwed his mouth into a pucker, thinking, This is the guy. “He home right now?”
+++++“I don’t think so,” she said. “I haven’t heard him for awhile. You see a shitty yellow Neon out there on the street? Like one of the ones everybody was driving in like the late nineties?”
+++++Olsen couldn’t remember one. He looked at Stillabower, who was shaking his head. “I don’t think so.”
+++++“Pretty sure that’s what he drives,” she said. “Wish I could tell you when he’d be back, but it’s hard to tell.”
+++++“No problem,” Olsen said, forcing his face to smile for the first time since he’d gotten into town. “You’ve been a big help. Although, can I ask you one more favor?”
+++++“Shoot,” she said.
+++++“Could I get your landlord’s phone number?”
+++++“I got it in here.” She pulled out an old flip phone, opened it, and started scrolling through her contact list. “You just wanna call him from my phone?”
+++++“That’d be great,” Olsen said, his smile a little more genuine now.
+++++She handed him the phone. The screen had seven digits and the name Larry on it. “Just press Send,” she said.
+++++“Alright,” he said, then turned to Stillabower. “You wanna go upstairs and knock? You know, just in case he’s actually here.” Stillabower nodded and headed upstairs, as Olsen started the phone to ringing and put it to his ear. He held up a finger to let the woman know he wouldn’t be long with her phone.
+++++“Yeah,” a gruff voice said on the other end before clearing his throat. The call had pulled the man from sleep.
+++++“Hello, Larry. This is Detective Olsen. I’m helping the local police with the case, you know, about the girl behind your building on Thompson.”
+++++“Yeah?”
+++++“We need to swear out a warrant on your tenant in unit seven. I’ll need his name, and I’ll also need you to come down here with a key.”
+++++“Seven?”
+++++“Yes sir, number seven.”
+++++“Hold on.”
+++++Olsen heard Larry mumbling with someone on the other end of the line, and then there was silence. He took the phone from his ear and looked at the screen to make sure he was still connected. The screen was dark, but he thought he heard some rustling and static.
+++++“Seven is Kevin Gunther,” Larry said, back on the line.
+++++“Gunther,” Olsen said, “Can you spell that? I have to get it right for the warrant, or his lawyer’ll shit all over it.”
+++++“You’re not gonna need a warrant,” Larry said. “Kid’s on parole.”
+++++“Parole? What was he inside for?”
+++++“Possession of methamphetamine.”

***

“That gonna stain my hardwood?” Larry said. He was leaning against the doorframe, arms crossed. With his long neck and his big ears and sharp nose jutting out sharply from his pink, bald head, he looked like some kind of field rodent Olsen couldn’t place. A ferret, maybe, or a stoat.
+++++Olsen quit spraying his luminol and snarled at Larry just long enough to make sure the slumlord knew he could blow his questions right out his ass. Larry smiled and held his hands up in surrender. “Kidding,” he said.
+++++Olsenshook his head, frustrated. He wasn’t in the mood. He waved the blacklight slowly over the floor and walls in the last corner of the room. Nothing.
+++++There wasn’t a speck of blood in the entire room. The girl couldn’t have been killed here. Hell, it didn’t look like anybody’d had so much as a paper cut in the place. The only signs of any criminal activity whatsoever were a couple of warped and grimey old soda bottles that looked like they’d been used to shake and bake some crank in. At least they knew what the smell was.
+++++Olsen stood up and kicked out his legs to pop his knees. “Did our boy have access to any common spaces besides the kitchens and bathrooms?”
+++++“Just the yard and the laundry room,” Larry said. He pursed his lips, thinking. “That should be it.”
+++++“Let’s have a look at that laundry room,” Olsen said.
+++++Larry nodded. He was actually pretty pleasant for a guy who’d just been pulled out of bed to help the police figure out if a speed freak had killed a girl on his property.
+++++“You know,” Larry said, looking back at Olsen and Stillabower as he made his way down the stairs, “I really hope the kid didn’t do it. I know we just found out he cooks meth, but I kinda liked him up to this point. I mean, he at least paid his rent on time.”
+++++“Well,” Stillabower said, “he was paying you with dirty money.”
+++++“Sure spent like the regular kind,” Larry said, grinning at himself for being so playfully flippant with the police. He opened the door for the two cops then flicked his wrist and crooked a finger to direct them around to the side of the building.
+++++The laundry room was concrete, an obvious twentieth-century addition to the house to provide some utility at the expense of aesthetics. It was tiny, almost completely filled by a coin-op washer and dryer. Stepping inside, Olsen realized it’d be hard to even stand with another person in the room, much less murder them.
+++++There was a door outfitted with a padlocked hasp in the corner that only could’ve led downstairs, as there wasn’t enough of the building’s structure behind it on the ground level to house even a small storage room. Olsen pressed on the door, testing the integrity of the lock. “This go down to a cellar?” he said.
+++++“Fallout shelter,” Larry said. “First thing grandpa had done when he got the place.”
+++++“So the house has been in the family for a few generations,” Olsen said, making small talk while he started with the luminol. He didn’t expect to find anything in here, but he figured it couldn’t hurt to be thorough.
+++++“Yep. My grandfather paid the down payment with his GI Bill.”
+++++Olsen did the math in his head, trying to figure out how old Larry looked and what war that would’ve put his grandfather in. “Korea?”
+++++Larry shook his head. “First wave at Omaha Beach.”
+++++“Wow,” Olsen said. He figured Larry had a decent story or two about that, but he wanted to stay on task. “Has the place always been rentals?”
+++++“Just since I was a kid. Grandpa raised my daddy and his brothers here. Then me and my mom and dad lived here after grandpa died. Daddy was working over at Crider when it closed down, so he got laid off and couldn’t find anything else. He moved us to a smaller place and started renting this one out.”
+++++“Crider,” Olsen said. “That a factory?”
+++++“Yeah, just outside of town.”
+++++Olsen nodded before realizing he was drifting into meaningless banter again. “So you got anything in your fallout shelter?” he said. He was blacklighting behind the machines, just in case.
+++++“Not much since the Cold War ended. It’s more of a storage unit at this point.”
+++++“You keep it locked?”
+++++“Yeah, none of the tenants can get down there.”
+++++Olsen switched off the blacklight. He looked up at Stillabower, shaking his head.
+++++“Shit,” Stillabower said. “Where do we go from here?”
+++++“Back to square one.”

***

Stillabower had one hand on the roof of Olsen’s car and one on the top of his hip, arm akimbo. He was bent at the waist, talking through the driver’s side window. Every few seconds he would detach his tired gaze from Olsen and look down the street, as if the answers were out there somewhere, driving toward them.
+++++Olsen could see the frustration swimming behind the kid’s eyes. “Hey,” he said, “we got a lot done tonight. More than you ever get done on day one.”
+++++“I just thought we had it.”
+++++“I know,” Olsen said. “We’re close, though. You just gotta let it go for the night. You got somebody at home?”
+++++“Girlfriend.”
+++++“You’d be surprised how much a few hours with one of them’ll improve your eye for detail.”
+++++Stillabower forced a smile and stood up straight, slapping the car roof. He wasn’t buying what Olsen was saying. Patience was clearly a virtue he, like most people Olsen knew, didn’t come by honestly. He’d have to pick it up somewhere along the line, though, if he wanted to last in the cop game.
+++++“Shame about the house,” the kid said, looking across the street at the old Victorian, “having to rent it out and everything. I bet it was pretty nice way back when.”
+++++“You ain’t kidding,” Olsen said, happy the kid was finally on another train of thought. “Place is a fucking mansion.”
+++++“That’s just kinda how things went went Crider closed down. They shipped like six hundred jobs overseas or down to Mexico or whatever. Whole town went to shit.”
+++++“Yeah,” Olsen said, remembering Larry’s mention of this Crider thing. “What’d the place do?”
+++++“It was an automotive plant just outside of town. Half the county worked there. Both my dad’s brothers, and just about everybody they grew up with.”
+++++“Automotive. What kinda stuff they make?”
+++++“I think mostly motorcycle parts, actually. Least that’s what Uncle Jack did.”
+++++“Motorcycle parts,” Olsen said. He closed his eyes and snorted out a laugh. He must be slipping if it was taking him this long to catch on to the obvious. “Like roller chains?”

***

The fallout shelter seemed to function, just as Larry had said, as a sort of underground storage unit. The shelves were stocked with paint cans, some hose and shovels, and various newish-looking tools Larry probably used to do maintenance work on the place.
+++++There were still some signs of Cold War fear scattered around, though. The odd can of beans, a few sleeping bags, and some old first aid supplies. And, of course, there was the bayonet from Larry’s grandfather’s M1. Once he knew he was caught, Larry didn’t even try to deny using the sixteen inch blade to kill the girl.
+++++“Why the chain?” Stillabower said. “Seems like an awkward thing to try to tie somebody up with.”
+++++Larry shrugged. “Didn’t have much of a choice. She figured out pretty quick what was going on and tried to get out. I just saw it on the shelf, there, and got her tied up so she’d quit kicking around so much. I don’t even know what it was doing down there. Just something Daddy brought home from work for some reason, I guess.”
+++++Stillabower had a palm flat against the wall. He was hovering intimidatingly over Larry, who was cuffed and seated on the bottom step of the stairs that fed into the shelter. Olsen could tell the kid was mad, like he’d taken Larry’s crimes personally.
+++++“Let’s take it from the top,” Olsen said. He was trying to keep things ordered and methodical, showing Stillabower the job required a shutting off of the emotions the kid was letting seep out. “One more time, so we know we got everything straight.”
+++++Larry went back through how he picked the girl up at a truck stop out on the highway, how he’d been heading inside to pay for his gas and saw her sitting on the curb, crying. She couldn’t do the lot lizard thing anymore, but she couldn’t go back home, either. That’s what she told Larry, anyway.
+++++So he offered her a bed, temporarily of course, in his old Victorian. She seemed grateful enough, but when they were in the car on the way to 13 East Thompson Street, she didn’t want to thank him. She flat out refused, and Larry couldn’t believe it. There she was, riding in his car, back to his place, where she was gonna stay for free, and she couldn’t show her appreciation by doing something she’d evidently been doing professionally for months. He figured if she wouldn’t even do that, she sure as shit wouldn’t be into the plans he had for when they got up to Unit 8. Probably not even if he promised to be gentle.
+++++“So instead of heading upstairs, you came down here,” Stillabower said, looking at the freshly mopped and bleached concrete around him. “Then one thing led to another, and next thing you know, you’re carrying the girl out to the alley at three in the morning”
+++++Larry nodded, matter of factly. He didn’t seem to be proud of what he’d done, but he didn’t act ashamed, either. He just did what he did, and that was that.
+++++“You know,” Stillabower said, “nobody found her until almost noon. Couple kids cutting school were riding their bikes past the alley and saw her.”
+++++“Okay,” Larry said. He looked up at Stillabower, unsure of why the kid was telling him this.
+++++“She was just laying out there. You just left her there.” Stillabower was looking for something in Larry’s eyes that just wasn’t there. The man was blank, empty, and the kid couldn’t understand it.
+++++Olsen remembered that confusion from his early years in this line of work. He remembered hating the people that did these things and wanting them to understand what they’d done, wanting them to be capable of doing the spiritual math and understand what they’d cost their victims and the world at large. It was a hopeless yearning that did you no good, but you couldn’t explain that to a kid like Stillabower. It’d be something he’d have to learn own his own, and it’d take him a long time to learn it. Until then, he’d spend a lot of time angry and confused and hating these people he dealt with every day. Then he’d go home, and he’d hang up his gun like a harp on a willow tree. And he’d cry.