Angels or Devils: Installment TWO

Installment TWO, Angels or Devils (Chapter 3). Download to your preferred eReader/device or read online. Earlier installments are posted below.

© A.M. Potter. All Rights Reserved.

Chapter 3

Naslund turned away from the crime scene, but the hanging bodies were burned into her mind. Whenever she encountered murder, she plunged into work mode — secure the scene; search for perps; round up POIs — and then later, when her duties stabilized, the corpses flooded her consciousness and became people: husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters. It was always like that.

If there was one thing she’d learned as a detective, it was that every detective handled murder differently. It wasn’t a taboo subject. Even Moore had shared his coping strategy with her, his Murder Mantra, he called it. “I used to meditate,” he’d related. She hadn’t expected that. She didn’t see him as a meditator: too driven. My mantra, he’d went on, is simple. Accept. Solve. He saw death the same way, as something to accept.

She understood the sentiment. Her cover had been blown twice during her years as a Metro Toronto narc. Blown cover often meant death, but she’d escaped. Now, at thirty-nine, she felt she had two strikes against her. When the third one came, she didn’t want any theatrics, just her ashes sprinkled off a cliff into Georgian Bay. From blue sky to blue water.

After summoning the whitecoats, she examined the deck area. Nothing except for two plush red robes, which she left to the experts. She stepped close to the infinity pool ledge, leaned out, and looked down. A sheer, smooth wall; a five-metre drop to the ground. The perps could have climbed it using grappling hooks or a ladder, but she didn’t detect any scrapes or indentations. Looking up, she noted it was clear all the way to the horizon. She saw no buildings or trees, no apparent sightlines for surveillance. However, a drone operator could have sent up a camera. Returning to the shallow end, she strode to a backwall gate and turned the handle. It clicked open. Was it usually open?

She walked outside. A Canada jay kamikazed her from the roof, squawking proprietorially. She ducked. Another jay joined the fray. It was slightly smaller. A nesting pair, she figured, a male and female.

Knowing her presence signified an intrusion, she stood completely still, taking in the surroundings. If not for the murders, it’d be a hell of a morning. The dew-laden grass glittered with tiny diamonds. The cliffs ringing Colpoys Bay magnified the sun, shining like mini suns themselves.

In due course, the jays resettled and she began surveying the gate area. No signs of forced entry. Manicured shrubbery, a path leading east, toward the bay. She walked beside it, leaving it untrammeled.

As she paced, her senses logged the grounds. A wide swathe of lawn. Freshly-mown grass. Deciduous trees to the south, just coming into leaf. Not much cover for intruders. Thirty paces later, she turned back. No fresh prints or obvious DNA carriers, like bottles or cans. However, considering the dearth of evidence in the pool, the back gate and grounds were a prime zone for the whitecoats.

Preliminary inspection complete, she returned to the house and shed her CS gear, glad to be back in civvies — dark green slacks and a jean jacket — one bonus of being a non-uniformed cop.

Walking toward Derlago, her duty phone crooned Elvis Costello. To Bickell’s chagrin, she’d recently changed the default OPP ringtone, which sounded like a submarine claxon, to Watching the Detectives.

“Watching the detectives,” Costello sang. “Watching the detectives—”

She fished out the phone. “Sergeant Naslund, OPP.”

“Hello, Sergeant. DI Moore here.”

“Good day, Inspector.”

“They’re parachuting me into your territory again. Hope you don’t mind.”

“Not at all,” she said, and meant it. She liked working with DI Moore. Although she didn’t consider him a friend, the man was a good detective. He had an eighty-six percent solve rate, which made him the envy of every homicide detective in the country, especially Toronto, where they rarely cracked sixty percent these days. Over the past year, he’d been mentoring her, mostly from afar. They’d met for lunch a few times when their paths crossed at Central. He wanted her to start on the road to Detective Inspector, a career journey that could take years. While she admired his tenacity and work ethic, he had a dominant trait she didn’t like. He was too old-school.

“What’s your two-minute synopsis?” he asked.

She had a one-minute version. He’d approve of that. “Two dead, either a double murder or a murder-suicide. Strangulations.”

“What’s your feeling, Double-M or M-S? Your intuition, that is.”

Intuition? This was a new Moore. On the Tyler Triple case, it’d been months before he spoke of intuition. “Can’t say yet. Too close to call.”

“Understood. I’m in my car now. See you in two hours. Likely less.”

That was fast. Bickell wouldn’t like Moore’s speeding, not to mention his return to Wiarton. The inspector would be in town for a while. Murder investigations often took weeks, if not months.

Pocketing her phone, she motioned for Derlago. The PC was having a smoke with Zupan. Not wise. If Derlago remembered his training, he’d know it was a good way to get a butt in the eye. The two smokers looked like conspirators, with Zupan clearly the leader and Derlago the tyro. She sometimes wondered if Derlago would make it. At twenty-three, he’d just passed his one-year anniversary, but he often seemed like a teenager. Too naive, too trusting.

“Constable,” she said when he reached her, “I want you to sit in on my interview with Zupan.”

He nodded and grinned.

“Remember,” she cautioned him, “don’t smoke with POIs.”

His grin disappeared.

***

After leading Zupan and Derlago to a set of wing-back chairs she’d seen in the foyer, Naslund began the interview. “Mr. Zupan, please tell me again. When did you find the bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Novak?”

Zupan appeared to be affronted. He raised his chin, a large Mulroney-like jut. “I tell you, okay. Yes, no problem.” He stopped.

“Go ahead,” she prodded.

“I am thinking. I want to tell exactly.”

She waited, reflecting on Zupan’s odd voice. It wasn’t only his accent. It sounded like he was swallowing his words, holding them back, as if speaking English offended him. She took in his gelled hair. The comb lines were perfectly straight. He might be tough, but he was also vain. You didn’t get hair like that without spending time in front of a mirror.

He studied the ceiling for perhaps a minute before speaking. “All right, Sergeant. I know nine-one-one call was four after eight. I found bodies three minutes before that, maybe four. Not more, this I can say. I am officer in Serbian army. Artillery captain. I know how to be exact. You police need precise and my time is precise to within a minute.”

Too precise, she thought. “When did you last see Mr. Novak or his wife?”

“Last night, maybe eleven p.m.”

“Who was in the house last night?”

“Mr. Rollo and wife, and also Mr. Rollo’s friend. I serve dinner to those three at eight p.m.”

“What’s the friend’s name?”

Zupan’s lips curled into a partial sneer. “Karlos Vega.”

Naslund knew that name. Vega, another bigshot on Angels or Devils — for many viewers, the face of the devil. “The billionaire?”

Zupan nodded.

“Was Mr. Vega here this morning?”

“No. He goes last night. I see his car leave from my suite over garage.”

“What time?”

“About quarter after eleven.”

“You were still awake?”

“I was watching football match, Barcelona v Real.” He snorted. “‘Soccer’ you call it.”

She ignored his disdain. Having a Swedish father, she also called it football. “How do you know Mr. Vega actually left?”

“I hear. His car reached main road and turned left, to direction of Wiarton. I have window open. I can hear this.”

“Why was your window open?”

“I sleep like that.” Zupan unleashed the first smile Naslund had seen from him. “The air here, it is perfect, like in Slovenian mountains. I love to sleep here.”

She smiled back, switching to good cop mode. “Are you from Slovenia?”

“Yes. I am born there. Northwest of Ljubljana. Jesenice, very fine place, I tell you. Especially now, in spring. Trees come to life. Apple, pear, plum. Many blossoms.”

“Sounds very nice,” she said. Despite his new volubility, she wondered about the open window. Although late May, it had been very cold at night. The heat in her house was still on. However, she let it pass. She didn’t want Zupan to realize how much she doubted him. “When did you come to Canada?”

“Four years ago. I leave Serbian Army.”

She’d check his past. “When did you start working for Mr. Novak?”

Zupan smiled fondly. “It is two years next month.”

“You mentioned Mr. Novak was always content. Did he have any enemies?”

Zupan’s face hardened. “Mr. Rollo is very fair man, but not simple man. Some people think so. They misjudge him, I hear him say. But he is not easy to fool or cheat.”

“Please continue.”

“Sometimes he gives money, sometimes he takes. That is business. The people are not always, how you can say, in agreement. I am not business man,” Zupan confided, “but I hear. Many dollars. Millions.”

“How about personal enemies?”

“He does not have.”

She took that with a grain. Everyone except saints had personal enemies. Probably even saints. “How about his family?”

“Older son, Rollo Junior, he does not like his father.” Zupan’s face hardened again. “Of this I am sure. This son wants to run all of Šef’s business. He wants to takeover, you call it.”

“What about the rest of Mr. Novak’s family?”

“There is ex-wife and another son, Atlas.”

“Tell me about him.”

“He is soft.” Zupan shook his head in disgust. “A young man who does not care to fight. In point of fact, he does not know how.” Zupan snorted as if to say such a thing was ludicrous. “But he does not like Rollo Junior. I know this too. They are certainly not best friends.”

“What about Mr. Novak’s ex-wife?”

“I never meet her.”

“Do you know anything about her?”

He shrugged. “A little. Mr. Rollo, he still gives her money. She has none of her own.”

“How do you know?”

“I hear it from Mr. Rollo.”

Naslund wondered about that. Either Zupan overheard a lot, or Novak told him a lot. When she’d learned more, she’d question him about the unlocked back gate and the house alarm system. “Did you hear any birds this morning?”

He eyed her quickly: You know? “Yes, yes. Those gray ones. Complainers. Screechers, you say.”

“Where?”

“Near back of house.”

The pool area, she thought. “When?”

“About six-thirty.”

“For how long?”

“Many minutes. Fifteen or twenty, on and off.”

Given the ruckus, she suspected more than one person had been outside the pool gate. Canada jays were very territorial. “Did you go to take a look?” she asked.

“No. They are always screeching.”

Naslund decided to detain the butler, without arresting him. Always a tricky dance, but she didn’t have anything concrete against him. “Thank you, Mr. Zupan. You’ve been very helpful. You’ll remain at the house for the time being, for your security. You can stay in your suite. I’m posting Officer Derlago to secure your safety.”

“I do not need,” he boomed. “I can look after myself!”

“Of course,” she replied, “but we’re going to err on the side of safety.” He brought to mind a human stormfront: thunderous voice, lightning eyes, body barely controlled. She sensed he could unleash it in a flash.

For now, Kid Constable Derlago would handle sentry duty. Chandler had patted Zupan down. He wasn’t in possession of weapons or evidence, such as wire. However, the less time Kid Constable spent with Zupan, the better. As soon as Chandler was free, he’d take over. A grin was never far from his face, but people didn’t mess with him. It wasn’t only his size. When he was serious, one word from him convinced you to do what he decreed. His wife joked that even in the nude he looked like a cop: big-bellied and bossy.

As Derlago escorted Zupan to his suite, Naslund heard a car in the drive. Looking out a window, she saw Dr. Rudi Kapanen, the local coroner, slowly exit his car. He was getting chubbier by the month. According to Chandler, Kapanen’s weight stemmed from his booze intake. He had a love affair with Finnish vodka.

***

Naslund strode to the front door and opened it. Kapanen huffed up the entrance stairs. His face was red; his nose, redder. As usual, he wore a tight three-piece suit. His head looked like Humpty Dumpty’s, shiny and comically wide. The lobes of his large ears extended below his mouth. “Detective Naslund,” he said. “Who else?”

She bowed facetiously. “The only Bruce detective meets the one and only Bruce coroner.”

“Take me to the bodies, Detective.”

“Bodies?”

“I know there are two.”

“I thought you coroners never presupposed.”

“And you detectives never act quickly. Always hedging, always collecting more evidence.”

Fair point, she admitted and strode ahead. There was something irritating about Kapanen’s cadence. It was too rushed, too unrelenting.

Before entering the pool area, she donned full CS gear and insisted Kapanen do the same. Although he always wore gloves and shoe covers, he was averse to wearing clean suits. Approaching the corpses, she took a series of CS photos before signaling him forward. Being a long-serving coroner, he knew the drill. Don’t move a body unless absolutely necessary.

Kapanen began with Hayden’s body, studying it intently. Finally he spoke. “We have proximity to sufficient water for drowning, but there are no signs of drowning. Or blunt force assault or firearm injuries. However, there are two ligatures. I haven’t seen that before. A wire and a necktie. The wire caused deep compression.” Kapanen moved closer. “Extensive ecchymosis or bruising of the neck, extensive hemorrhaging of the infrahyoid muscles.” He stopped and challenged Naslund. “Do you know them?”

“Yes. AKA the straps. Eight muscles that help hold the head in place.”

“Correct,” he snidely said. “A in Anatomy One-oh-One.”

And an F to you in manners, Naslund thought, but let it go. No use sparring with Kapanen. Although the crime scene was hers, the bodies belonged to the coroner and pathologist.

Kapanen pointed to the victim. “Do you see the presence of hemorrhaging in the eyes and eyelids?”

“Yes.”

“What are they called?”

“Petechiae.”

“Impressive. You’re outdoing yourself. As you no doubt know,” he sarcastically added, “they’re associated with traumatic asphyxia, which accompanies strangulation. Now, look at the neck hemorrhaging. The extensive blood flow indicates homicidal strangulation.”

Indicates, Naslund thought, but doesn’t prove. The usual ambiguity.

Kapanen rolled on. “Infrahyoids only bleed that much when a ligature is applied with sufficient force. If someone applies force to their own neck, they can certainly strangle themself. However, they rarely cause that kind of blood flow. I’d conjecture the victim was strangled with the wire, not the tie.” After examining the neck again, he continued. “From what I see, the wire wasn’t tightened by the victim. I see homicide, not suicide.”

That’s what she saw.

Kapanen pointed at the prominent bruises on Hayden’s neck. “In a post-mortem strangulation, you usually find abrasions, not the purple-red bruises we see here. Unless toxicology tests establish otherwise, the victim was killed by strangulation.” Kapanen’s eyes moved down the body. Eventually he looked up at Naslund. “The victim’s vagina shows evidence of recent intercourse, including the presence of spermatozoa. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you this, but I will. Strangulation is frequently associated with sexual interference. Make sure your technicians capture the sperm. It could be from the male hanging beside her, or it could be from another male, such as an assailant.”

Naslund nodded.

The coroner switched to Novak. As with Hayden, he studied Novak before speaking. “Again, no signs of drowning, blunt force assault, or firearm injuries. I only detect one ligature, a necktie. The victim’s neck was compressed by it. In this case, it appears the necktie is not an afterthought. Again, I see ecchymosis and hemorrhaging of the infrahyoid muscles. But there is not as much bleeding as with the female. Which could indicate either homicidal strangulation or self-strangulation. Unlike with the previous victim, this victim could have hanged themselves.”

Again, as she thought.

The coroner bent closer to the corpse. “There are signs of recent sexual activity: traces of spermatozoa on the penis. Advise your technicians to capture that sperm as well. I won’t theorize as to why a wire ligature was used in one case, and a necktie in the other. I’ll leave that to you. I hope you have better training than those TV detectives. Or luck.”

Naslund didn’t reply. She didn’t count on Lady Luck. “Would you be able to estimate time of death?”

Kapanen scowled at her. “Of course I’d be able to. What do you think I am, a wet nurse?”

She raised an eyebrow. Kapanen always got offended when she asked for PMI, post-mortem interval. However, she always asked. If she could place a suspect at a crime scene during the PMI window, she had opportunity; she could probe for motive.

Kapanen seemed to realize he’d been too snarky. “Well,” he generously said, “we’re lucky. The hat trick should work today.”

She nodded. Kapanen’s hat trick was lividity, algor mortis, and rigor mortis. Lividity, or blood pooling, left bruise-like patterns on a corpse, usually reddish or purple. Algor referred to a body turning cold. When the heart stopped and blood flow ceased, body temperature dropped by about one Celsius each hour, until it reached air temperature. Rigor mortis, or body stiffening, generally became fully established in twelve hours.

Kapanen knelt next to Hayden. “Rigor hasn’t hardened the largest muscles,” he pronounced and pointed to the glutes. “Which indicates this victim died less than twelve hours ago.”

Indicates again, Naslund thought. The twelve-hour window wasn’t much help. Too wide.

“No sign of lividity,” the coroner continued, “not to the naked eye. We’ll use algor.” He drew a liver thermometer from his medical bag and pierced the victim’s right side. “Thirty-four-point-two Celsius,” he read. “Given thirty-seven is the norm, algor suggests the victim died roughly three hours ago.”

She nodded. Better than twelve.

Kapanen moved on to Novak. “I see the same indications,” he soon said. “No large-muscle rigor. No lividity.” He used his liver thermometer to read Novak’s internal temperature. “Thirty-three-point-nine.” He stood. “I’d conjecture both victims died three to four hours ago. Approximately,” he warned. “Both suffered severe neck trauma. Cause of death is strangulation. I can’t definitively rule on means for both. It’s not clear.” He appeared to be embarrassed, as if he’d failed his calling. He soon composed himself. “I’d rule homicide for the female. The male could be either homicide or suicide. That’s it.”

Naslund nodded. She almost felt bad for Kapanen. Almost. As he hobbled back to the house, she lagged behind. The sun’s rays ricocheted off the deck tiles, creating confusing reflections. Her thoughts were ricocheting around as well, flying in different directions.

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