The Body by the Pond
I was preparing to go home for lunch, when the call came into the squawk box.
“What’s up, Brad?” Brad Dillon was my deputy, the other half of Hadden Falls’ law squad. With a population of 5900 around town, the local crime rate was negligible. Judging from the sound of Brad’s voice, that might be changing.
“A couple of kids ditching school to go berrying found the body of a woman down by Menzi’s Pond. East side. They saw my unit parked in front of Reddy’s Diner. When I pieced together their story, I had them show me. Yeah, there’s a dead woman wrapped in a canvas tarpaulin.”
“Stay there and don’t let anyone near the crime scene. I’ll be there as soon as I call Doc Hazen. He’ll confirm time and cause of death.”
I got there at the same time as Hazen and his assistant, and Brad and I began to look around the area while the doc did his thing. The deceased was in her early twenties, attractive, nicely dressed. Her right arm extended from the confines of the tarp. Brad’s assessment of the cause of death was right on: there were ligature marks on her neck. The tarp was soaked from the rain that had fallen earlier this morning but could have been wet before she was wrapped in it, so Hazen would have to determine time of death. Otherwise, aside from some blades of wet grass, there was no evidence debris on the canvas.
“The killer had to transport the body to this spot somehow, Brad, but it’s at least eighty feet or so from the highway. There are tire tracks on the grass overgrowth leading from the road almost up to the body, but we won’t get any tread impressions from it. The vehicle would have been pretty much hidden from view of the road with all these weeds, brush and berry brambles. Brad, did you notice anything unusual about the area surrounding the body?”
“Unusual? Not really, sheriff. What are you thinking?”
“Look carefully, Brad. There are no footprint impressions in the mud and grass, and we’re near the water’s edge where the ground is soft, especially after the rain.”
“Jeez, you’re right. How can that be, sheriff? If she were carried even a few feet from a vehicle, there would be some dents in the grass here.”
“It’s because she was dumped directly from the back of whatever vehicle was used by the killer. Brad, we’re looking for a truck or van, likely commercial. An open body truck would be a dicey means of transport, if the wind got into the tarp while transporting.”
“Why not a pickup with a camper top or a minivan,” asked Brad.
“Because the killer would still have to exit the vehicle to access the body. And there are no impressions other than those left by the tires. Nope, we’re looking for a delivery or tradesman’s panel van. The killer could get to the back of the van, open the doors, pick up the body, and fling it onto the ground. Shut the doors, climb back into the front seat, and drive away without being noticed.” I was sure that I had it down pat.
Doc Hazen motioned us over by the body, evidently to report his findings.
“Manual strangulation. Time of death six or seven hours ago. She was otherwise a healthy and fit young woman. No purse or wallet, so no identification yet. No discernible perp prints on anything yet. She is wearing a tennis bracelet on her left wrist and a scarab bracelet on the right one. No other jewelry, but I do have something for you: one of the scarabs is missing. There is no sign of it anywhere near her, and the search area is very confined. Of course, it might have been lost long ago.”
“Thanks, Doc. I guess you can take her away whenever you’re ready. I’ll check in with you later,” I said.
In the meantime, I told Brad to start checking on possible vehicles, looking for the van. A few hours on the DMV online, provided Brad three possibilities for panel vans that were still registered: a carpenter’s blue Ford, a maroon Chevy delivery truck for Hansen’s Hardware, and a beige Dodge delivery van belonging to Stan’s Caterers. I told Brad that we would go look at the caterer’s van first, and the others later.
A quick glance at the caterer’s vehicle told me I was sure I had guessed right. We entered the shop, found Knowles, and asked his permission to inspect his truck. Without a warrant in hand, I was hoping Stan would not object, especially when we told him we were looking for a similar vehicle used in drug trafficking activity. He nervously agreed and left us to do our job.
“This is the truck, Brad, so we search very carefully.”
“How do you know this is the van, Sheriff? We’ve only seen the exterior, but you seem so sure?”
“See those stains around the lower perimeter of the wheel wells? Those purple stains are residue from the wild blackberry bushes found near the pond. Those kids were there to pick them when they found the deceased. This truck scraped those berry brambles when it was backed in from the highway.”
“But what put you on to this truck before the others?”
“The other trucks would have sawdust, shavings, oil spots and so on in the truck bed. But a caterer’s truck would have to be scrupulously clean or he’d lose business. And that tarp was spotless except for a little wet grass.”
A close inspection of the van’s interior turned up a dark blue scarab nestled in a seam of the dark carpeting.
Knowles cracked under questioning sooner than I expected.