Although blinded by a car accident when he was fifteen years old, Daniel Davis never lost sight of his dreams. He went on to medical school, where he graduated near the bottom of his class. But he graduated, which was all he needed to keep his dream alive.
He had difficulty finding a place for his residency requirement. Most institutions were uncomfortable with a blind doctor. After a lengthy search he was finally accepted at St. Elsinore’s Hospice and Bed and Breakfast. The administrators figured that he couldn’t do much harm, and he worked for less pay than most nurses.
The government of John Smith County in rural Virginia didn’t have much room in their budget for a medical examiner, but Dr. Davis came at a discount, so it was win-win. He had served in that position for several years, when the opportunity to solve his first murder presented itself.
Dr. Davis was sitting at his desk, working once again on his Rubik’s cube. His wife had etched simple patterns into the little squares so that her husband could identify each color. He felt he was getting closer to the solution.
Then there was a knock at the door.
Dr. Davis had taken off the dark glasses that hid his eyes from the scrutiny of others. He picked the glasses up off of his desk and he put them back on.
Sheriff Connor entered the office. He was holding a box about a cubic foot in size.
“Sheriff Connor! Welcome! I’m working on the Rubik’s cube again. I think I’m getting close.”
Dr. Davis held up the cube. All of the sides that Sheriff Connor could see contained multiple colors.
“Yes, Dr. Davis. You’re getting very close.”
“You probably think I’m a genius, but I’m not. There’s a pattern to it. All you have to do is follow the pattern, and you’re guaranteed to solve it.”
“A pattern? Perhaps you could show me sometime? It would impress my kids.”
“Anytime, Sheriff. Anytime.”
Sheriff Connor was holding the box away from his body. He set the box on the desk.
“What is that? Have you brought me a present?”
“Sort of. Mrs. Harken got this package in the mail. I'd like to get your opinion.”
“Of course. Pass it over here.”
Sheriff Connor slid the box across the desk. Dr. Davis felt the box.
“I smell hamburger,” the Doctor said.
“That was my lunch,” the sheriff replied.
“Oh. Well, where was the box sent from?”
Dr. Davis leaned over and sniffed directly above the box. “Now I smell plastic.” He sniffed again. “And human flesh.” Dr. Davis put on a fresh pair of latex gloves. He opened the box.
There was a plastic bag inside of it. He pulled the bag out of the box and set the bag upon his desk. He opened the bag and reached one hand into it. He felt hair. He grabbed the hair, and he pulled a human head out of the bag.
Dr. Davis carefully felt all sides of the severed head. “It’s a human head,” he said. “Probably a man.”
“We figured that much out on our own,” the sheriff replied, without sarcasm. “We were hoping you could give us some more information.”
There was a bet going on at the Sheriff’s department as to whether the doctor could give them any new information. Only the sheriff had bet in favor of the doctor. If Dr. Davis couldn’t give them anything new, the sheriff stood to lose $150.
“Patience, Sheriff Connor, patience. I'm just beginning my examination.”
“Of course. I didn't mean to rush you.”
“It’s quite all right,” said the doctor.
Dr. Davis felt around the head. He smelled it in multiple spots, nodding occasionally. “Uh-huh. Yes. Mmmm. Ahhh.” Dr. Davis put the head back into the plastic bag. He took off his gloves and tossed them into the trash can beside his desk.
“Sheriff Connor, it is my professional opinion that this man was decapitated – to death!”
The sheriff sighed. He wasn’t looking forward to paying out $150. He also didn’t want to look like a fool.
“Is there anything else you can tell me, Dr. Davis.”
“There is. This man used dandruff shampoo. A generic version of Head and Shoulders, I suspect. I also detected the faint odor of tuna fish coming from his mouth. He probably had a tuna fish sandwich before he died. His skin has a trace odor of a bar soap, the kind you find in hotels. His nose had the distinct odor of mucous. He was probably suffering from hay fever, or from some other airborne allergen. Is this the bag and box that his head was mailed in?”
“The bag was purchased at Walmart, I would bet. It smells like their generic four gallon bag. The box was contaminated with so many other smells as it was handled by the postal system that I can’t give you any useful information about it.”
“What about time of death?”
“Less than a week, I’d say. I can’t be more accurate than that right now because the box may have undergone higher than normal temperatures while it was being transported by mail trucks. That would have accelerated decomposition, making the time of death seem farther out than it really was.”
That was all the sheriff needed to win his bet. He decided he’d buy the doctor lunch one day next week, assuming his deputies paid up.
A voice came from Sheriff Connor’s police radio. “Sheriff?”
“Sheriff, a headless body was found in the woods behind the middle school. Deputy Hood is over there now.”
“All right. I’ll be there in fifteen minutes. Secure the area and wait for me.”
“Why would someone mail the head and leave the body to rot in the woods?” the doctor wondered.
“I don’t know,” the sheriff replied. “We don’t even know if it’s the body for this head.”
“There hasn’t been a murder in this county in ten years. The odds of them being from two different people are pretty low. Uh, perhaps you’ll let me catch a ride with you? The county hasn’t given me my own vehicle yet.”
“Of course, Dr. Davis. I was going to ask you to ride with me anyway.”
“That’s good to hear,” said the doctor. “We’ve only got three drawers in our morgue. I’ll put the head in the bottom one and I’ll be right back.”
“I’ll get it for you, Doctor.” The sheriff was wearing latex gloves, and he picked up the plastic bag.
“Are you sure? I’m fully capable of doing it.”
“I know, Doctor. But I don’t mind.” The sheriff put the plastic bag back into the box, then closed the box.
“All right, then,” said the doctor. “Make sure you put in in the bottom drawer, okay? Not one of the top two. Thank you.”
Dr. Davis grabbed his black bag and his white cane, and he followed Sheriff Connor out of the office.
Sheriff Connor parked the squad car in the middle-school parking lot. He walked slowly so that Dr. Davis could keep up with him. They soon reached the spot where Deputy Hood waited near the headless body.
“Jepson Curtis was taking a walk through the woods when he found the body,” explained Deputy Hood. “I told him he could go home, and if we had any questions we could find him there.”
“That’s fine,” said the sheriff. “Dr. Davis, would you like to examine the body before we move it?”
“Yes, of course.”
“The body is over --” began Deputy Hood.
“Don’t tell me!” interrupted Dr. Davis. “I want to use my sharpened senses. We don’t get many mysteries like this in such a small county, so I want to take full advantage of the situation in order to hone my skills.”
Deputy Hood looked over at Sheriff Connor for confirmation. Sheriff Connor raised his eyebrows and shrugged.
Dr. Davis sniffed the air, then tapped around with his white cane. He encountered a log. He tapped it again to try and determine what it was by the sound of the tap. He reached down to touch it.
“That’s not it,” said Dr. Davis.
Sheriff Connor said, “You’re getting --”
“Ahht! Don't tell me.”
Sheriff Connor and Deputy Hood looked at each other again. This time Deputy Hood shrugged, and Sheriff Connor shook his head in mild disapproval.
Dr. Davis sniffed the air again and resumed tapping. He tapped on ferns, vines, and a small sapling before he found the body. He tapped it on its ribs. “Aha!”
He set down his medical bag and his white cane. Kneeling beside the body, he put his hand on an area torn apart by scavengers. He pulled his hand back rapidly in surprise.
“Ewww! Why didn't you tell me it was ripped open!”
“You told us to be quiet,” Sheriff Connor explained.
“I told you not to tell me where the body was! But you could clearly see I was about to touch the torn flesh without any gloves on! I could have compromised the evidence!”
“You’re the medical examiner,” said the sheriff. “You can’t blame us for your mistakes.”
The doctor sighed, getting his emotions under control. “You’re right. I should have put my gloves on first. I just got excited and forgot myself.”
“So you're sure it's a murder?” asked Deputy Hood.
“Quite sure,” responded the doctor. “People do accidentally die in the woods, but they don't accidentally mail their heads to someone's house.”
“Is this definitely the body that belonged to the head Mrs. Harken got in the mail?” asked the sheriff.
“I'm 99% sure,” said Dr. Davis, “but let me double check.”
Dr. Davis put on his latex gloves. He felt the chest area, checking for breasts. He poked the crotch with his finger.
“The head was from a male. The body is male.”
Dr. Davis reached out and touched the feet with one hand, then touched the neck area with his other hand, which gave him an approximate height. He then checked the dimensions of the corpse from shoulder to shoulder.
“The body size is proportional with the head.”
Dr. Davis smelled all around the corpse, then felt it. He paid special attention to the ground around the neck. He pulled a plastic dropcloth from his medical bag. He spread the plastic out on the other side of the body, tucking the drop cloth under the body.
“Will someone please help me turn him over?”
Sheriff Connor gestured for Deputy Hood to help the doctor. Deputy Hood walked over to the corpse.
“Shouldn’t we take pictures first?” asked the deputy.
“Oh, good idea,” agreed Dr. Davis. “Go ahead and take them yourself with your cell phone. My wife tells me that I take terrible pictures.”
Deputy Hood took several snapshots with his cell phone, then he helped the doctor flip the body onto the drop cloth. Deputy Hood took a couple more pictures before returning to where he had been previously standing.
Dr. Davis smelled the ground next to where the corpse’s neck had been. He then examined the back of the body and the legs. He smelled it from the neck down, recoiling from the smell near the anus.
“The sphincter released,” the doctor informed them.
“Is that important?” asked Deputy Hood.
“It is if you get too close.”
Dr. Davis finished smelling the body all the way down to the toes.
“The same soap was used on the body and the face. Also, it smells like the same person. This is definitely the body from which the head was severed.”
Deputy Hood cleared his throat. “Do you still think decapitation was the cause of death?” he asked.
Dr. Davis thought for a second before he responded. He said, “The amount of blood on the ground near the neck indicates that the heart was still beating when the head was removed. My preliminary examination also didn't reveal any other wounds, but it's possible there was an injury in the flesh that the scavengers removed, either on the neck or on the belly.”
“What about time of death?” Sheriff Connor asked.
Dr. Davis rolled the body over in the same direction they’d rolled it the first time. It was now on its back, but still on the plastic.
Scavengers had ripped the clothing over the corpse’s belly and had fed on the body. Dr. Davis touched a gloved finger there, removing a drop of blood. He touched the blood to his tongue.
Deputy Hood turned around and vomited. Sheriff Connor looked on in surprise.
Dr. Davis concentrated for a moment, then wiped the blood from his tongue. He put a drop of hand sanitizer on the end of his tongue, then wiped his tongue again. For good measure, he turned away from the corpse, and he spit. He turned back toward the sheriff.
“Between two and three days, I'd say.”
Hood turned back around, then faced away again to vomit one more time.
Sheriff Connor cleared his throat uncomfortably. “Uh, that looks unsafe, Dr. Davis.”
“Nonsense, Sheriff Connor. I know exactly what I'm doing.”
Deputy Hood, wiping his mouth with his shirt sleeve, turned back to face Dr. Davis. “Uh, earlier I called the volunteer rescue squad to bring the ambulance. They should be here any time now.”
“We’ll turn this case over to the state police,” the sheriff said. “We really don't have the resources to track a murderer.”
“Are you serious?” asked Dr. Davis. “That would be like admitting that we can't do our jobs. I think we should do our best first, and then if we can't catch who did this, we'll turn it over to the state police. However, if we can figure this out, it will be a major triumph for us. It would be disgraceful to admit defeat before we've even tried.”
“If we screw this up, we could all lose our jobs.”
“Not me,” said Deputy Hood. “I'm just going to do what I'm told.”
Sheriff Connor looked disapprovingly at Deputy Hood.
Dr. Davis stood up. “If the killer isn't from here, he's probably already gone. If the killer is from here, he'll probably think we can't figure it out, and he'll be overconfident. This is our chance to shine, Sheriff Connor. This is a test of our abilities. It's a challenge that we have to accept. To do anything else would be downright cowardly, and I know you're not a coward, Sheriff Connor.”
Sheriff Connor looked uncomfortable.
“Just give us two days,” urged Dr. Davis. “If we haven't figured it out by then, you can turn it over to the state police. All right?”
“You keep saying we. You're the medical examiner. What else do you expect to do that you haven't already done?”
“Sheriff, this body hasn't told us all that it has to say yet. We need to take it to the lab and examine it further.”
“But we don't have a lab,” said the sheriff.
“Sure we do. At the high school. Miss Lancombe can run the tests.”
“The science teacher?”
“That's right. She won every science fair from elementary school through high school, and she graduated at the top of her class at the community college. She'll help us get more information from the body.”
“We'll have to call first,” stated Sheriff Connor.
“Sheriff, as the medical examiner I accept full responsibility for the handling of the body. Leave that up to me.”
“We should still call first.”
“If we call we might interrupt her class, and the principal would certainly say no. If you're there with me and with the body, the principal won't say anything to our faces. Miss Lancombe is my wife's best friend. I'm sure she won't mind if we just show up with the body.”
Sheriff Connor sighed. “All right, Dr. Davis. But if this goes wrong we're all going to be sorry.”
“Not me,” said Deputy Hood. “I'm just doing what I'm told.”
Sheriff Connor shook his head and walked off.
The high school had let out twenty minutes earlier. Susie Lancombe was grading papers at her desk. She was wearing a white lab coat over her normal clothes. Sheriff Connor entered, followed by Dr. Davis.
“Miss Lancombe?” said the sheriff.
Miss Lancombe looked up from the papers she was grading. She stood up.
“Sheriff Connor. Daniel. Is everything all right?”
“Not exactly, Susie,” said Dr. Davis. “We have a favor we'd like to ask of you.”
“Sure. Whatever I can do to help.”
The ambulance drivers were waiting in the hallway with the gurney on which the body lay. Sheriff Connor gestured for them to enter, and they wheeled in the headless body. The body was covered with a sheet. Miss Lancombe's jaw dropped open, and she looked from Dr. Davis to Sheriff Connor.
“What is that?” she said, pointing to the object on the gurney. “Is that a dead body?”
“Relax, Susie,” said Dr. Davis. “It won't bite.”
“I'm surprised that Principal Allbright allowed you to bring it in here,” she said.
“We came in the back way. He doesn't know.”
“This man was murdered,” said Sheriff Connor. “Dr. Davis thought you might be able to help us.”
“Me? I'm just a small-town high-school science teacher. Shouldn't you take this to the state police?”
“That's what I said,” the sheriff informed her.
“What is the matter with you people?” said Dr. Davis. “The universe has thrown us a challenge! Are we too timid to accept it? This is the first murder in this county in the last ten years. Where is the outrage that someone would do such a thing in our county?! Our home?! Isn't it our job to bring the perpetrator of this crime to justice? What kind of people expect others to do their job for them? This is our job, and we should embrace it!”
“I'm a science teacher. I'm pretty sure that examining dead people isn't a part of my job.”
“You dissect frogs don't you?”
“Their bodies are dead when you examine them, aren't they?”
“Yes, but --”
“All right, then. This is just a big frog.”
“There’s a big difference between a dead little frog and a dead man who's been murdered,” said Miss Lancombe.
“Potayto, potahto,” said Dr. Davis. “Look, you've got the brightest scientific mind in the entire county. We just need you to help us figure out anything you can about this man so we can find out who he is, and who killed him. That's all. You won't be graded, and if you can't find anything new, I promise you it won't go on your permanent record. Susie, will you help us?”
Miss Lancombe looked at Sheriff Connor. He shrugged. She looked back at Dr. Davis.
“All right,” she said. “I'll take a look at it, but I'm not making any promises.”
“That's all I'm asking.”
The gurney was wheeled closer to Miss Lancombe. Her face had an anticipatory look of disgust even before she touched the sheet. She gingerly lifted the corner of the sheet where the head should have been.
“Uh, where's his head?”
“That's in the refrigerator back at my office. I'll have it sent over so you can look at it.”
Miss Lancombe pulled the sheet all the way down to the body's feet.
Dr. Davis said, “We need you to look for any particulates or insects or other clues that might help us identify this poor soul, or figure out who killed him.”
Miss Lancombe put on a pair of latex gloves. She reached into the cadaver's suit jacket and pulled out a wallet.
“How about this?”
“What is it?” asked Dr. Davis.
“It's his wallet,” said Sheriff Connor..
Miss Lancombe offered the wallet to Sheriff Connor.
“What? How could I have missed that?” said Dr. Davis.
The sheriff took a pair of latex gloves from the box from which Miss Lancombe had gotten hers. He put the gloves on, then he took the wallet.
“It was in his jacket pocket,” explained Miss Lancombe.
Sheriff Connor opened the wallet. “His jacket was open when you examined his chest, so you didn’t feel the wallet. When you flipped him over that part of his jacket was under him.”
“I'll have to remember that for the next time – if there is a next time.”
“I should have found it myself,” said the sheriff. “But when you insisted on finding the body without any help, I allowed that to distract me.”
Sheriff Connor finished looking through the wallet. “His name is Albert Fricklebacher. He's from Arlington, Virginia, and according to his business card he sells health insurance for pets. Have you got a plastic bag?” he asked Miss Lancombe.
“Yes, I do,” she said. She went to a cabinet and removed a box of plastic zipper storage bags. She took a bag from the box and handed the bag to Sheriff Connor.
“Thank you.” Sheriff Connor put the wallet into the bag and zipped it closed.
“So why would someone want to mail this guy's head to Mrs. Harken?” asked Dr. Davis.
“I don’t know,” said the sheriff. He checked the rest of the pockets on the corpse’s clothing. All he found was some loose change.
Miss Lancombe held a plastic bag open, and the sheriff dropped the change into it.
“That sounded like pocket change,” said Dr. Davis.
“That’s what it was,” said the sheriff. “Four quarters, a dime and two pennies.”
“So are we done here?” asked Miss Lancombe.
“Do you see anything else that might be important? Anything that you might be able to analyze in your lab to give us a greater insight into what sort of man this was, and how he was murdered?”
Miss Lancombe looked the body over without touching it. “I suppose there could be some traces of the killer's DNA under Mr. Fricklebacher's fingernails.”
“Excellent!” said Dr. Davis. “Why don't you collect the DNA and see if you can match it with someone in your database.”
“This is just a small-town high-school lab. We don't have any of the machines that we could use for those kind of tests, and I don't have a database of people's DNA. I don't even have access to that kind of database. He should really be sent to the state police.”
“All in due time,” said Dr. Davis. “All in due time. For now we need to pursue the leads that we have, and that means we'll have to talk with Mrs. Harken.”
Miss Lancombe covered the corpse again with the sheet.
“Well, thanks for stopping by,” she said. “I wish you the best of luck with this.”
“Thank you for your help,” said Sheriff Connor.
“She's not done yet,” said Dr. Davis. “She's coming with us.”
“Of course. Without her scientific mind we never would have gotten as far as we have in such a short period of time.”
“I didn't need science to --”
“Enough of the self-deprecation. You're coming with us and that's that.”
“But I've got papers to grade.”
“They'll be here when you get back.”
Miss Lancombe looked at Sheriff Connor. He shrugged.
“All right,” said Miss Lancombe, with no enthusiasm at all in her voice.
“Excellent! Our crime fighting team is growing!”
“Where do you want us to send the body?” asked the sheriff.
“The closest place to store it would be the school's cafeteria freezer,” suggested Dr. Davis.
“No. Definitely not,” said Miss Lancombe. “That would not be appropriate, and could get me fired.”
“All right, then. It'll have to go to my office.” To the ambulance drivers, Dr. Davis said, “There are three morgue drawers. Put it in the bottom one. The head is in there already. Since we don’t get many corpses, I’ve been storing tv dinners in the top one and and ice cream in the middle drawer.”
“Will they need a key to get in the building?” asked the sheriff.
“No. I never lock it. It’s too much trouble to fool with the key, and no one’s ever bothered anything in there before.”
“Dr. Davis, wouldn't you rather ride with the ambulance?”
“Nonsense! Susie and I are riding with you. We're not going to break up our crime fighting team until we've solved this murder – or until ten o'clock tonight, whichever comes first. I've got to get my sleep. Vamanos!”
Dr. Davis led the way out, tapping with his cane. He slipped on a pencil, but he recovered without falling down. He walked out the door. Sheriff Connor gestured for the ambulance drivers to go first, and they headed toward the door. Sheriff Connor and Miss Lancombe shared a glance. Sheriff Connor forced a smile, and Miss Lancombe shook her head in dismay at having allowed herself to be talked into this.
They heard Dr. Davis call out: “Let's go! Time's a-wasting!”
Miss Lancombe headed toward the door, followed by Sheriff Connor.
Sheriff Connor knocked on Mrs. Harken’s front door. Dr. Davis and Miss Lancombe stood on either side of the sheriff.
Mrs. Harken looked through the window by the door, then opened the door.
“Sheriff Connor, do you have some news for me?
“Yes, ma’am. Mrs. Harken, this is Dr. Davis, the medical examiner.”
“Hello, Dr. Davis.”
Mrs. Harken put her hand out to shake the doctor’s hand, but the doctor didn’t realize it.
“Hello, Mrs. Harken.”
“She’s offering to shake hands,” said the sheriff.
Dr. Davis reached out his hand, and Mrs. Harken shook it.
“I’m sorry,” said Dr. Davis. “My vision is a little impaired.”
Mrs. Harken let go of Dr. Davis’s hand.
“I don't see how you see anything at all with those dark glasses on,” said Mrs. Harken. “You should probably get a clearer pair.”
“Dr. Davis is blind,” explained the sheriff.
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“No offense is taken, Mrs. Harken. I see my blindness as a gift from the Lord; a gift which has allowed me to sharpen my other senses.”
“That's very -- optimistic of you,” she said.
“Life is what we make it, Mrs. Harken.”
“I suppose so.”
“And this is Miss Lancombe,” said the sheriff.
“Oh, I know Susie. We go to the same church. How are you, Susie?”
“I'm fine, Mrs. Harken. I'm so sorry for your troubles.”
“Thank you, Susie. It's been quite a shock. Please, won't you all come in?”
Mrs. Harken stepped aside to let them enter.
In the living room, before anyone had seated himself, Mrs. Harken said, “Would you like something to drink? Or eat? I've got some cookies that I baked yesterday.”
“No thank you,” said Dr. Davis. “We found the name of the person whose head was sent to you. His name was Albert Fricklebacher. Does that name sound familiar to you?”
“Oh, gracious me --” said Mrs. Harken. She closed her eyes and fell backwards onto the sofa. She lay there without moving.
“What just happened?” asked Dr. Davis.
“I think she fainted,” said Miss Lancombe.
Dr. Davis listened carefully. He held up a hand to stop the others from speaking.
“She’s faking,” said Dr. Davis. “She’s still awake.”
“How can you tell?” asked the sheriff.
“By her breathing, and her heartbeat.”
“You can hear her heartbeat?” asked Miss Lancombe.
“Yes. I’m pretty sure. It could be mine, I suppose, but I can definitely hear her breathing, and she’s definitely awake.”
“All right,” said Sheriff Connor. “I'll grab her ankles. Miss Lancombe, you tickle her feet.”
“Okay,” said Miss Lancombe.
Mrs. Harken “woke up”. She slowly sat up.
“Oh! I – I think I passed out for a moment,” she said. “Oh. The stress has been horrific. If you ever get a stranger’s head sent to you in a box, then you’ll know what I mean. Have any of you ever gotten a head in the mail?”
“No, ma’am,” said Sheriff Connor.
Miss Lancombe and Dr. Davis shook their heads.
“I didn't think so. If you ever do – and I hope you never do – then you'll know what I’m going through.”
“Mrs. Harken, do you know Albert Fricklebacher?” asked Dr. Davis. He turned to Sheriff Connor. “Sheriff, do you have his license?”
“I've got it,” said the sheriff.
“Excellent. Would you please show it to Mrs. Harken? Perhaps she didn't recognize his face when she saw his head.”
Mrs. Harken gave Dr. Davis a quick glance of disapproval, but then got her face under control. From his front pocket, Sheriff Connor pulled the plastic bag containing Mr. Fricklebacher’s wallet. The sheriff wasn’t wearing latex gloves at the moment, so he didn’t want to reach into the bag. He pushed on the outside of the bag, inching the wallet to the end of the plastic bag. He tried to open it while keeping his hands on the outside of the bag, but it wasn’t easy for his big hands. Miss Lancombe had thought to bring some extra gloves. She put on a pair and took the wallet from the sheriff. She held the wallet open for Mrs. Harken to see Mr. Fricklebacher’s drivers license.
“No, I don't recall this face, or that name.”
Miss Lancombe closed the wallet. Sheriff Connor held the plastic bag open while Miss Lancombe dropped the wallet into the bag. The sheriff zipped the bag closed, then he put the bag back into his left front pocket.
“I'm sorry,” said Mrs. Harken. “Would you like to sit down? Please, sit down.”
“No thank you,” said Dr. Davis. “Perhaps your husband knew him. Is he be home?”
“He should be home in a week or so. As I told the sheriff earlier, my husband drives a truck, and he's gone for days at a time. His latest haul is to San Diego, and he left a few days ago. After San Diego he’s going to Seattle, and then San Antonio before finally coming home.”
“Thank you for your time, Mrs. Harken,” said Dr. Davis. “I'm sure this day has been difficult for you.”
“It certainly has.”
“If you think of anything else later, perhaps you can do us the favor of calling the sheriff to let him know?”
“I'll certainly do that.”
“Sheriff Connor, I think we should talk to the neighbors now,” suggested Dr. Davis, “and see if they have any information that might be helpful.”
“Well, whatever you do,” said Mrs. Harken, “don’t believe a word Mrs. Miller says. That old ba – I mean, that sweet widow is pretty old now, and her mind has been slipping.”
“I just talked to her yesterday at the supermarket,” said Miss Lancombe. “She seemed fine then.”
“She seems lucid sometimes,” Mrs. Harken said, “but she mixes her dreams with reality and it's hard to know what's real.”
“We'll be sure to take that under consideration, Mrs. Harken,” said the sheriff. “Thank you for your time.”
Dr. Davis turned to go, and Sheriff Connor followed. Miss Lancombe waved to Mrs. Harken, and Mrs. Harken waved back. Miss Lancombe turned to go as well. Dr. Davis took a step past the front door, and Sheriff Connor tapped him on the shoulder. The sheriff opened the door, and he let Dr. Davis and Miss Lancombe go out first. The sheriff stepped onto the porch and closed the door behind himself.
“Now we go to Mrs. Miller's house,” said Dr. Davis. “Mrs. Harken is lying about knowing Albert Fricklebacher. I could hear it in her voice.”
“What about what Mrs. Harken said about Mrs. Miller?” asked Miss Lancombe.
“That was another lie. You said yourself that Mrs. Miller seemed normal to you.”
“She did. And I've never heard anything bad about her before.”
“To Mrs. Miller's, then,” said Sheriff Connor.
As they crossed the property line between Mrs. Harken’s and Mrs. Miller’s, Miss Lancombe said, “Mrs. Miller is watching us from the window.”
Mrs. Miller was sitting in a chair in a room upstairs in her house. Sheriff Connor could clearly see her. He could also see that she was looking at them through binoculars.
Mrs. Miller watched the three people approaching her house. When she saw that they had seen her, she closed the curtain. After a moment she opened the curtain just enough for one lens of the binoculars to peek through, then slowly opened the curtain wide enough for the second lens. The lenses were just above the window sill. Miss Lancombe and Sheriff Connor could clearly see the binoculars.
“Does she think we can't see her?” asked Sheriff Connor.
“I think so,” replied Miss Lancombe.
“What's happening?” asked Dr. Davis.
“She was looking at us through the window,” explained Miss Lancombe, “but when she saw that we saw her, she ducked out of sight. Then she slowly reappeared with her binoculars just above the window sill, and she's watching us.”
“Excellent!” exclaimed Dr. Davis. “We're going to get some good information here. Let's go!”
At Mrs. Miller’s front door, they heard the sound of her coming down the stairs before anyone had knocked. The footsteps got to the bottom of the stairs, and then approached the front door. Then there was silence.
The three visitors waited, but there were no further sounds. Miss Lancombe knocked on the door.
“Who is it?”
“Mrs. Miller, it’s Susie Lancombe. I’m here with Sheriff Connor and Dr. Davis. Could we talk to you for a minute?”
They heard the sound of a chain being unhooked, then the deadbolt being opened. Mrs. Miller opened the door.
“Mrs. Miller, you know Sheriff Connor, don't you?”
“Yes. Hello Sheriff.”
“Mrs. Miller,” said the sheriff, tipping his hat toward her.
“And this is Dr. Davis,” said Miss Lancombe. “He's the county's medical examiner.”
“I'm not dead yet! Who told you I was dead?” wondered Mrs. Miller, a little bit upset that someone would say such a thing. At seventy years of age, she thought about death often enough without having other people wish it on her.
“No one, ma'am,” said Dr. Davis, his voice kind and friendly. “You're clearly very much alive, I'm glad to note. We'd like to talk to you about your neighbor, Mrs. Harken. May we come in?”
Mrs. Miller hesitated. She looked at Miss Lancombe, who smiled at her. After a moment of thought, Mrs. Miller decided it was safe to let them in.
“Of course, of course. Where are my manners? Please, step in.”
The three visitors entered the house. They followed Mrs. Miller to her living room.
“Please sit down,” said Mrs. Miller. “Let me fix you something to eat.”
“That’s very kind of you,” said Sheriff Connor, “but we really don’t have time to eat.”
“Nonsense. Sit down and make yourselves at home. It’ll just take a minute.”
“Would you like some help, Mrs. Miller?” asked Miss Lancombe.
“No thank you, sweetie. I’ve still got a little energy left in these old bones.”
Mrs. Miller left the room.
“Susie, are you sure Mrs. Harken isn’t right about Mrs. Miller?” asked Dr. Davis.
“Mrs. Miller may be a little eccentric, but she's always seemed to me like a sweet old lady.”
They heard the sound of a can opener.
“Are you sure you don't want any help, Mrs. Miller?” called out Miss Lancombe.
“I'll be right there!” was the elderly lady’s reply.
They heard the clattering of silverware, and Mrs. Miller returned carrying a tray. On it there was a pitcher of lemonade, some paper cups, a sleeve of crackers, and an opened can of paté cat food. The pitcher had a few bits of unidentifiable dried food stuck to the side, and there was a butter knife next to the cat food. This side of the butter knife looked clean, but neither the sheriff nor Miss Lancombe would have taken a bet on the other side being clean too. Mrs. Miller set the tray down on the coffee table.
“There you go. Help yourselves to some lemonade. And the treat spread is delicious on crackers. It's salmon flavored.”
“That’s very kind of you, Mrs. Miller,” said Dr. Davis. “I’d love some lemonade.”
“No you wouldn’t,” said the sheriff. “You said you had a bladder problem, remember?”
“A bladder problem?” Dr. Davis knew that Sheriff Connor wouldn’t have said that if he hadn’t had a good reason to. “Oh – yes -- “
Dr. Davis sniffed the air. “The treat smells like – like --”
“Yes, it smells like delicious salmon,” the sheriff said, “but I’m afraid we’re all vegetarians.”
“Yes,” said Miss Lancombe. “I’m so sorry we forgot to tell you that, Mrs. Miller. I hope you won’t think we’re rude.”
“All three of you are vegetarians?” asked Mrs. Miller. She wasn’t sure she’d ever met a vegetarian before, and here were three of them. What a strange coincidence, she thought to herself.
“Yes,” said Sheriff Connor, “so I’m afraid we’ll have to pass on your delicious treat spread. The reason we came over here was to ask about your neighbor, Mrs. Harken.”
“Is this about the head she got in the mail?”
“Yes,” said Dr. Davis. “How did you hear about that, Mrs. Miller?”
“Oh, news travels fast in this county. I'm sure just about everyone knows about it by now.”
“I suppose they do,” agreed the doctor. “What can you tell us about Mrs. Harken?”
Mrs. Miller sat down. “Well,” she said, “I don't like to say bad things about anyone, BUT – that woman is a whore.”
“A whore?” asked Dr. Davis.
“Yes. When her husband is away, she gets several men who visit. There's the mailman, who stays for twenty or so minutes when Mrs. Harken's husband is out of town. And there are late night visitors, and sometimes the man who delivers the newspaper. I have a notebook upstairs. Would you like to see my notebook?”
“That would be very helpful, Mrs. Miller,” said Dr. Davis.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot you can’t see. I didn’t mean – ”
“It’s okay, Mrs. Miller,” said Dr. Davis. “I can’t see it, but if you would let the Sheriff or Miss Lancombe look at it, we would appreciate it very much.”
Mrs. Miller slowly stood up.
Miss Lancombe said, “Would you like me to get it for you?”
“Oh, yes dear. You're so sweet. It’s in the first bedroom on the left, near the window.”
Mrs. Miller slowly sat back down. Miss Lancombe went upstairs to get the notebook.
She entered the bedroom and saw a chair by the window. Next to the chair there was a trashcan which contained empty cans of deviled ham, spam, and cat food, along with some saltine wrappers. The notebook was on the chair, and there were food stains on the top page. Miss Lancombe picked it up by the spiral wire that held the pages together, then she went back downstairs.
Miss Lancombe entered the living room again.
“That's it! You found it.”
Miss Lancombe handed the notebook to Sheriff Connor, who handled it delicately, trying to avoid touching the food stains.
“How long have you been keeping notes, Mrs. Miller?” asked the sheriff.
“Maybe nine months. When Mrs. Harken's visitors got to be too much for me to remember, I started writing them down. They're listed by date and time.”
“I see that,” said the sheriff. “It's very impressive.”
“Why, thank you.”
“What do you see for last Monday?” asked Dr. Davis.
“Oh, I remember that day,” said Mrs. Miller. “That's the day a new man showed up. Also, the mailman didn't pay his usual visit. He sat and stared at the stranger's car for several minutes, then drove on.”
“Sheriff,” said Dr. Davis, “would you show her the drivers license, please?”
The sheriff pulled out the bag with the wallet and handed it to Miss Lancombe. Miss Lancombe put on the latex gloves she had used at Mrs. Harken’s, and she took out the license. She held it up for Mrs. Miller to see.”
“Do you recognize this man?” asked Miss Lancombe.
“Why, yes. That’s him. He wasn’t the one who got his head cut off, was he?”
“I’m afraid so,” said Sheriff Connor.
Miss Lancombe put the license back in the wallet, then put the wallet back in the plastic bag. She handed the bag to the sheriff.
“Mrs. Miller, do you mind if I take this notebook with me?” asked Sheriff Connor.
“Will I get it back?”
“Of course. It may be a while if we need it for evidence, but you'll eventually get it back. If you like, I can have a copy made and bring the copy by tomorrow.”
“All right, then. But I’ll still get the original back when you’re through with it?”
Dr. Davis stood up. Sheriff Connor and Miss Lancombe stood up also.
“Mrs. Miller, you've been very helpful,” said Dr. Davis. “Thank you.”
“Always glad to help. And if you're ever in the neighborhood and just want to visit, I'm always up for company. Not the same way Mrs. Harken is, but I love to chat.”
“You're very kind, Mrs. Miller,” said Miss Lancombe.
“Thank you, sweetie.”
The visitors headed for the door.
In the front yard of Mrs. Miller’s house, Dr. Davis, Sheriff Connor and Miss Lancombe faced each other.
“I doubt Mrs. Harken would have killed the man and mailed herself the head. However, the mailman may have been a jealous rival. I think our next step is to visit the mailman,” said Dr. Davis. “Do you know who delivers here?”
“Carl Randolph,” said the sheriff. “He should be through with his route by now.”
“Excellent. While you're talking with him, Miss Lancombe and I can examine his car.”
“Won't we need a warrant?” asked Miss Lancombe.
“Not to examine the outside, or to look through the windows,” Sheriff Connor said. “If you find something, then I can get a warrant from Judge Reynolds. He owes me some favors. Not sexual ones of course, just the regular kind.”
“Of course,” said Dr. Davis.
“I never would have thought otherwise,” said Miss Lancombe.
“Good,” said the sheriff. He coughed uncomfortably, clearing his throat.
The sheriff’s patrol car pulled into the driveway at the home of Chris Randolph. There was enough room for the police car to pull in behind Mr. Randolph’s car without the patrol car sticking out into the road.
Dr. Davis, Sheriff Connor, and Miss Lancombe got out of the sheriff’s car. The sheriff and the high school teacher walked toward Mr. Randolph’s car.
“Where is it?” asked Dr. Davis.
“Just a few feet in front of the squad car,” replied the sheriff.
Dr. Davis tapped with his cane until he arrived at the car. He reached out and felt it. “This is the trunk?”
“Yes,” Miss Lancombe replied.
Miss Lancombe and Sheriff Connor looked through the windows on opposite sides of the car, while Dr. Davis sniffed around the edges of the trunk.
“I don't see anything,” said the sheriff.
“Me neither,” Miss Lancombe added.
“I think I smell blood, but it's very faint,” said Dr. Davis. “Can we open the trunk?”
“Let's see if we can get Carl's permission,” Sheriff Connor said. “If not, we'll get a warrant.”
The three visitors walked up to the front door of Mr. Randolph’s home. The sheriff pushed the doorbell, and they could hear it ring. A moment later, Mrs. Randolph opened the door. She smiled.
“Hello, Sheriff. How can I help you?”
“Hello, Sylvia. Is Carl home?”
“He's in the shower. What's up?”
“We'd like to look in his car, if you don’t mind.”
“Sure. Did the judge not get his Playboy magazine again?”
“No, it’s not that. Sylvia, do you know Dr. Davis, the medical examiner?”
“We’ve met, I believe. How do you do, doctor?”
“I do very well, thank you, Mrs. Randolph. I hope we’re not disturbing you?”
“Not at all.”
“And this is Miss Lancombe,” said the sheriff, introducing the third member of the party.
“Susie and I went to school together,” said Mrs. Randolph. “But I’m surprised to see her hanging out with you two. What’s the matter, Susie? Did you get bored at the school? Are you working for the sheriff now?”
“Hi Sylvia,” said Miss Lancombe. “They asked me to go on a little field trip.”
“Did they offer you candy? If they did, you should run.”
Miss Lancombe smiled.
“Is the car locked?” asked Sheriff Connor.
Mrs. Randolph grabbed the car keys from a bowl by the door. She handed the keys to Sheriff Connor. “Here you go, sheriff. Knock yourself out. We’ve got nothing to hide.”
From deep in the house they heard a voice call out, “Who’s at the door?!”
“It’s the sheriff! He wants to look in your car!”
“No! Wait!” shouted Mr. Randolph. “I’ll be right there!”
“Don’t worry about it!” his wife yelled back. “I gave them the keys!”
“NO! Wait! I said WAIT!
Mrs. Randolph shook her head. Mr. Randolph appeared behind Mrs. Randolph, and walked past her to go out the front door. His hair was wet. The three visitors backed up to give him room.
“What's all this about?” he asked.
“We'd like to take a look in your car,” replied the sheriff. “It will just take a few minutes.”
“Why do you want to take a look in my car?”
“Because a man has been murdered, and you're one of the last two people that we know of who saw him alive.”
Mrs. Randolph came outside too. “Who was the other person?”
“Mrs. Harken.” The sheriff was answering Mrs. Randolph’s question, but he was looking at Mr. Randolph. “We have a witness who states that your husband was in the habit of paying twenty-minute visits to Mrs. Harken when her husband was out of town.”
“What?!” shouted Mrs. Randolph. “Are you cheating on me?!”
“No, baby, it's not like that at all!”
“And you spent twenty minutes with that bitch! You touch me and three minutes later you're asleep, and you're with her for twenty minutes! Sheriff, open that car! Let's see what's in that car!”
Mr. Randolph looked around like he was trying to pick a direction in which to run, but he saw Sheriff Connor put his hand on his gun. Mr. Randolph decided not to run.
Sheriff Connor said, “Would you mind opening the car for us, Mrs. Randolph?”
“No I would not mind. Give me those keys!”
The sheriff handed the keys back to Mrs. Randolph.
“Could you open the trunk first?” asked Dr. Davis.
“Yes I can,” Mrs. Randolph replied. “Twenty minutes. I don't believe this.”
“Baby, they’re lying. It’s not what you think,” pleaded Mr. Randolph.
“It better not be what I think, because if it's what I think then I think you're going to be dead.”
“Sheriff, did you hear that? She just threatened me!”
“I wasn't listening,” said the sheriff.
Mrs. Randolph opened the trunk. It was empty.
“See!” said Mr. Randolph. “There's nothing in there!”
Dr. Davis leaned over the trunk and sniffed. “There is definitely dried blood in this trunk,” he said.
“That’s my blood!” cried Mr. Randolph. “I cut myself while changing a tire!”
“Let me test it,” said Dr. Davis. He leaned toward the floor of the trunk, with his tongue sticking out.
“Whoa! Stop that!” said Mr. Randolph.
Dr. Davis straightened back up. “Are you ready to confess?” he asked.
“No I'm not ready to confess. But I'm not ready to vomit, either.”
“That’s sick,” said Mrs. Randolph to Dr. Davis. “What’s the matter with you?”
“Nothing's the matter with me,” Dr. Davis replied. “When I lost my sight I was able to develop my other senses to higher levels.”
Dr. Davis sniffed the trunk again. “There's not as much blood here as there was where you dumped the body. You cut his head off after you took him out of the trunk, didn't you?”
“This just keeps getting better and better,” said Mrs. Randolph. “You cut off a man's head but you won't help me in the kitchen? What's up with that?”
Sheriff Connor added, “And then he put the head in a box and mailed it to Mrs. Harken.”
“What?! You're too busy to help me with the Christmas presents, but you can find the time to mail a package with someone’s head in it to your skanky slut?!”
“No, baby! It's not like that!”
“Guess what package you're going to be missing when you wake up tomorrow morning?” said Mrs. Randolph, gesturing with her head toward her husband's crotch.
“Wait!” shouted Mr. Randolph. “I confess! I did it!”
Mr. Randolph extended his arms to the Sheriff so that the sheriff could handcuff him.
“I'll sign anything you want! Just get me out of here!”
“Why did you do it?” asked Dr. Davis.
Sheriff Connor handcuffed Mr. Randolph.
“I was jealous, I guess. I was so mad I couldn't think straight. I wanted my afternoon delight. On the curve past the middle school I forced his vehicle off of the road. I knocked him out with a tire iron and I put him in my trunk. I drove down the fire break in the woods behind the middle school and I parked my car. I went back and got that guy’s car. I drove it into the gully on the far side of the fire break, and I covered the car with branches. I opened my trunk and the guy was still knocked out. I dragged him into the woods and I cut off his head with my pocketknife. I put the head in my trunk, and I drove to Richmond and mailed the package from there.”
“You went to Richmond without me?”
“You were at your mother’s.”
“You know Mrs. Harken had other lovers, don't you? At least half a dozen,” the sheriff informed him.
“What? She cheated on me with other people too?”
“Cheated on you? I don't believe this. On top of it all now I've got to go out and get a job. I should've listened to my mother and never married you.”
“I thought she liked me?”
“She hates you. She puts mouse droppings in the cookies she makes for you. That's why I never eat them.”
“Oh, god,” moaned Mr. Randolph.
To the sheriff, Dr. Davis said, “Now aren't you glad we didn't turn this over to the state police?”
“No,” the sheriff replied.
“Me neither,” said Miss Lancombe.
“Aw, c'mon, guys,” said a disappointed Dr. Davis.
“How are we going to fit in the car?” asked Miss Lancombe.
Dr. Davis said, “You ride up front with the sheriff. I'll ride in back with the prisoner. I don't think he'll bother me.”
“I don't want be near you,” said Mr. Randolph. “There's something wrong with you, man. Promise me you're not going to taste me, okay? Sheriff, don’t let this man taste me. That would be cruel and unusual punishment.”
Dr. Davis sighed as he felt with his hands along the police car, searching for the back door. It would have been bad form to show it, but in his heart he was very pleased. He’d always dreamed about solving a mystery, and now that particular dream had come true. If he could just solve the Rubik’s cube, he could check off both of the top two items on his bucket list.
Copyright 2015, 2018 Mark James Wooding
Cover art copyright 2018 Samantha Rose Wooding