I arrived at Neil’s neighborhood a little after nine o’clock in the evening. He lived in a small subdivision of the Walnut Hills area of the city proper. The community was a little north of Eden Park where Zoe Burke’s body was found a few days ago where I had taken pictures of the crime scene. It felt like a lifetime ago.
The neighborhood was filled with older homes built early in the previous decade but were all painstakingly kept in pristine condition. There was an apparent pride in everyone’s home. The community showed its age, but not in a bad way. The homes, landscaping, fences, trees, sheds, and mailboxes all had character.
It was another crisp and cool fall evening. The sky was clear and the winds were calm. The heat of the day had already escaped into space replaced by cool dry air. The temperature would be considerably colder by morning. Jackets and gloves would be needed by everyone venturing out tomorrow morning.
I parked down the street from his house, not wanting to give advanced notice of my arrival. Catching him off guard was a part of my plan. If he wouldn’t give me the decency of answering my phone calls, I was going to rattle his cage a bit. Nothing physically, obviously. Unsanctioned violence was not in my nature. I simply wanted to get him a bit out of his comfort zone so he would truthfully answer a few questions.
A few months ago I had been to his house before delivering a large print of an image he said was his favorite. It was a simple print of the downtown skyline at night where I was able to capture a number of separate lightning strikes in the background. It was a rather dynamic image I had used for a number of items. Fine art prints, greeting cards, and advertising for my photographic business. Neil had said on numerous occasions he couldn’t get over how much he liked it. As a gesture of thanks, I ordered a metal print of the image which made the scene seem to float when hung on a wall. I didn’t want to deliver it to his place of business, instead, I asked to stop by his home.
He lived in a white two-story house typical for the area. Every house was unique as it was built before the cookie cutter era of construction, but it followed the same overall style of the period in which it was built. The house had a broad front porch stretching the full width of the first floor. The area had seats flanked with tables, making it quite an inviting entrance. Kelsey would say it had good curb appeal from watching all of those home improvement shows. A driveway led around to the rear of the house where a small detached garage was situated.
I sat in the car for a good ten minutes before getting out. With everything that had happened over the past few days, I was being overly cautious. My main concern was being followed again. The route over to his neighborhood was rather circuitous so the odds of being followed were minuscule. Still, I watched for any headlights or familiar vehicles until convinced no one was tracking me.
What exactly I was doing here and what I hoped to accomplish was kicking through my brain. The thought of the newspaper firing me simply for the fact of not giving them confidential information about any crime scene I was at did not sit well. The initial referral to the paper had come through one of my customers who liked my work after seeing it at an arts and crafts festival where I had set up to drum up some business.
Along with all of the artwork displayed for sale, I had printed a few hundred of quarter sheet flyers with links to The Thousand Words blog. It was a great way to remind people of the prints and to get them to repeatedly view my images as they came back each week to read the latest installment. Multiple people have told me the frequent views of the blog is what finally broke them down to spend the money on a fine art print of one of the images. The person who liked my blog sent me a quick email through the website saying that their brother-in-law worked for the paper and he had sent the link to them.
Nothing happened for a couple of months until I received a cold call from Neil asking for a meeting. He said he liked the blog postings and thought the idea would work well for a Sunday column. We never discussed anything about other jobs I may be doing at the same time, as I didn’t think it was relevant. I seriously doubt my side employment for the police department was the real reason for hiring me in the first place. There is no way they could have known at the time.
The fact I worked for the police department taking crime scene pictures and working on stakeouts was not a secret at all. It was just something that I didn’t bring up to many people. The work was often confidential in nature so I couldn’t talk about the details. Also, it was not exactly glamorous work you wanted to bring up over drinks or with potential clients.
Neil was very quiet in the meeting today when I was fired, giving me the impression my firing was not his decision and he disagreed. Maybe it was wishful thinking, but until I knew otherwise he deserved a chance to explain what really happened. He might open up away from his overbearing boss.
I got out of the car and walked slowly up the street. A long shadow led the way from a streetlight directly behind me. Stopping at the corner of his property, I pretended to check my phone in case a nosy neighbor was watching. Getting a text or a checking something on your phone is the near universally accepted reason for stopping whatever you were doing and made up a good portion of my investigative moves. Glancing up his driveway, I could see the car parked in front of his garage. It looked similar to the one I had seen when I was here before, but I could have easily been wrong.
There were no lights on inside or outside the house. The only light on his property was the from the streetlights lining the street. The largest front window had thin curtains that were bathed in a light blueish flickering glow. Someone was watching a television on the first floor. Most likely a movie. Regular programs are watched with the lights on while movies are best watched in the dark. Another unwritten societal convention. Like eating popcorn while watching a movie. We all did it for no real reason other than the weight of collective momentum.
Regardless, it meant someone was home and that’s all that mattered. I put my phone back in my pocket and looked around one last time before heading up the walkway to his front porch. The floorboards creaked as I walked up the stairs and to the front door. My arrival would have been announced if not for the loud noise coming from the program being watched. The house contained most of the sound but the deep base of the action sequence could be felt outside.
I rang the doorbell a number of times and then knocked as loudly as possible. I waited a minute and tried again. No one answered the door. The sound of the movie was simply too loud. I put my hand on the doorknob to see if it was unlocked and then stopped myself abruptly. Bruno’s words of not doing anything stupid echoed in my brain.
Walking over to the main window over the patio, I looked through the sheer curtains for any signs of movement, cupping my hands over my eyes blocking out as much excess light as possible. There was no motion beside the glimmer of the television from a room off in the back of the house. I stepped to the side of the patio and looked around back where lighting from the movie was illuminating the backyard. I tried calling once more, both looking and listening through the window for any indication of it being in the house. There was no sign of either.
Walking down from the front porch, I headed around back following the driveway to the rear of the property. The sound of the program was louder in back, meaning I was closer to where he was watching. I walked up the cement steps to the back door knocking as I got up to the top landing. The door creaked open meaning it must not have been fully closed before. The sounds from the movie grew even louder attacking my ears and dulling my other senses.
I yelled out for Neil a few times through the slightly ajar door, trying to time my calls to the infrequent moments of quiet. Opening the door and stepping inside I continued to call out for him. A strong, wet metallic, yet slightly sweet acidic odor hit me as soon as I stepped inside the back entryway.
The smell was somewhat familiar from the various crime scenes I had taken pictures at. The blood and other bodily fluids had time to mix with each other and congeal, pummeling you with a sickeningly pungent organic smell.
This was different somehow. Newer. Fresher. Recent. It was the unmistakable smell of a great deal of blood. The crime scenes I had been to were all at least a few hours old. This must have been very different.
I rounded the corner to where the television was blasting and saw Neil’s body lying prone on the floor in the middle of an expanding pool of deep crimson blood.