Shades of Gray

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9:35

FIVE

Cal’s cell phone started to vibrate loudly just the superintendent was passing judgment on his son Embarrassed by the interruption, he excused himself and went to the hall to answer it.

“You understand, Mrs. Montgomery, that the school has a no tolerance policy in regards to physical altercations between students,” began the school’s superintendent. “While I understand what Mr. McCray was trying to do, I do not completely agree with his decision to impose a suspension befitting a first offense.” The superintendent turned his attention to Jack. “Mr. Montgomery, you have exhausted you allotted chances at correcting your behavior. If you are involve in any further misbehavior during the course of the regular school year, you will be expelled from school for the remainder of the school year and will be required to attend summer school in order to progress with your class. Do you understand, Mr. Montgomery?”

Jack lowered his eyes and mumbled, “Yes sir.”

“Please do not think that I am insensitive to your family’s situation, Mrs. Montgomery,” the superintendent continued. “But I have to consider the welfare of all the students in my school.”

“I understand, Mr. McConnell. I can assure you that Jack’s father and I will make sure that this doesn’t happen again,” Stephanie offered. “We can do this, right Jack?”

Jack nodded his assent as his father reentered the room.

“I’m very sorry Mr. McConnell,” Cal apologized, his voice strained. “I’ve got to go to the station. There is something very pressing I need to attend to.”

“That’s very understandable Officer Montgomery,” said McConnell rising from behind his desk. Shaking Cal’s hand he effective dismissed the meeting. “I think we’re all done here.”

Stephanie shot Cal an accusatory look and put her hand on Jack shoulder as he rose from his seat beside her. She wasn’t sure if the tension she felt building was coming from her son’s body or was if it her own anger at Cal. Together, they left the administrative building; Cal was walking so fast that mother and son had to jog slightly to keep pace. By the time they reached their cars, Stephanie directed their son to wait in the car. Jack obeyed, and acknowledging that his parents were going to argue, he put his headphones on and turned his I-Pod up as loud as it would go. Stephanie stormed around the Cal’s truck as he climbed into the driver’s seat.

“You couldn’t have waited five minutes, Cal? Five God dammed minutes!”

Cal was incredulous. He felt like he was being ambushed. “I am not going to have this argument again.” He got in his truck and slammed the door. “Contrary to what you believe, I don’t have control over when crimes get committed and I can’t schedule my job’s responsibilities to suit my personal life.” Cal backed quickly away from his ex-wife and sped from the parking lot.

*********

Michael had just finished his opening remarks when Trooper St. Louis emerged from a side entrance at the front of the conference room and quickly approached the podium. Michael cupped his hand over the microphone to conceal their conversation.

“Boss, we have a situation somewhere between Connery Pond and the Wilmington Notch,” St. Louis hissed. “Forrest Ranger radioed in a report of a dead body.”

“Drowning,” asked Bimonte. “Early fishing accident?”

“Apparent homicide; all dispatch got was a report of male victim with his throat slashed.
“Page Cal,” Michael ordered. “Give him the location and tell him I’ll meet him there. He’s about ten minutes closer to the Notch than I am.” The commander dismissed his assembly with a curt apology and wished them good luck on their first day. He handed his lecture materials to St. Louis as they headed out the side entrance. “Put these on my desk.”

“We’ve dispatched two patrol teams to the scene Boss,” reported St. Louis.

“Good. I want to keep a lid on this as long as possible, at least until we find out exactly what we’re dealing with. Contact the responding patrols. Make sure that they have the scene secured. If the press does get wind of this, I don’t want news crews standing over our shoulders at the scene.”

“Got it,” confirmed St. Louis.

Two suspicious deaths in the Adirondacks in less than two years, thought Michael. Something cold and dark started rolling around in his head and was making the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. That something was telling him that things were going to get very strange, very fast. As he drove to the scene, he started preparing his mind for his arrival at the crime scene, establishing the mindset he would need to lay the groundwork for the investigation ahead. It wasn’t that people didn’t get killed around here. Lately, it seemed as if the crimes one might only want to believe happened in the big cities had begun to occur more and more in what used to be the quiet refuge of the mountains. Drug traffic had increased exponentially since he joined the force and drug crimes usually brought other violent crimes along with them.

He had investigated homicides in this area before and he completely understood the importance of keeping an open mind when the investigation first began. If an investigator rushed to judgment or went into an investigation with preconceived opinions, the whole investigation could be skewed. The best way to proceed was to let the facts, the hard evidence, proper procedures, speak for them selves; then factor in the intangibles like statistical probabilities, hypothetical profiles and gut instincts and let them complete the case. He had lived his entire career following this premise. But the homicide in St. Regis had stuck in his mind, driving him to read and reread the case files, all most to the point of distraction. The man in the cabin hadn’t just been shot; one round in the chest, one round in the head. It wasn’t a drug related incident or a domestic dispute; it was an execution.

Now this case, a man with his throat slashed. Stabbings were very up close and personal, slashing someone’s throat was intimately personal, raw emotion combined with cold cruelty. Michael knew what it was like to kill; he had his fill during his time in the military service. He had shot people, some from the impersonal shield of a sniper’s nest, some closer range, but he had never had to look someone in the face when he ended their lives. He wondered what kind of person could stand within another’s personal space, look them squarely in the eye and kill them.

As Michael neared the turn off for the parking area near the trail head, he couldn’t help but notice the snapping heads of passing motorists driving in either direction by the area. He pulled his unmarked cruiser in behind Cal’s S10 pick-up, joining the forest ranger’s Blazer and the first responding officers’ marked patrol car, effectively filling the small parking area. The first thing that caught his attention was the fact that all the vehicles in the parking area belonged to law enforcement. Where was the victim’s car? As he exited his cruiser, he motioned to the two State Police Blazers approaching the parking area to position themselves on the shoulder. He told the officers to keep the press and any other curiosity seekers way from the area. Cal had been talking to the team that had been first on the scene and Don Herzog when Michael pulled up. He crossed the lot to begin his briefing the commander.

“Forest ranger came to bust his kid for skipping school,” Cal began motioning over his shoulder to the men opposite them. “The kids stumbled upon the murder as it was happening.”

“Did the ranger say anything about the parking area when he arrived,” Michael asked.

Cal nodded following Michael’s train of thought. “You mean, was there any other vehicle when he arrived? No, he said they only thing in the parking area when he got here was the boys’ bicycles over there. No cars. No people. Nothing.”

“Let’s have a look at the scene,” said Michael moving towards the trail.

“Forensics is on the way,” Cal reported as the made their way to the crime scene. “I’ve got a team securing the scene. This is one weird ass case Mike. Not only is there no apparent get away vehicle, the scene was cleaned up and perp seems to have vanished into thin air.”

“How is that even possible,” Bimonte was incredulous. “Are you thinking we may have more than one assailant?”

“According to boys and the park ranger, “Cal began. “The boys were heading for that fishing hole over there,” He indicated the clearing about fifty feet in front of them. The two officers could make out the movements of the troopers assigned there to secure the scene. Cal continued to break down the events based on the information they had so far. “They hear some sort of racket, and they sneak over to see who or what is there. They said that they saw two people, a man and a woman, on a blanket, about right here, “enjoying each other’s company.” Then the woman went and slit the guy’s throat. The boys take off for the parking area, run into Dad, the forest ranger who radioed in the incident.”

Cal and Michael were standing in the approximate location the boys had described. The site was a picture post card, wilderness scene straight out of an ‘I Love New York’ tourism ad. No discernable signs of what the boys reported were apparent.

“Ok,” Michael was processing the initial information. “So we’ve got 10 maybe 15 minutes between the murder and when the ranger gets back here.”

“Right. Now, this is where things start to get weird.” Cal motioned for Michael to follow as he walked the perimeter of the crime scene. “If we simply walk the scene, nothing seems out of the ordinary, just a nice little campsite.” Now, if we move to where the boys were,” said Cal indicating the little rise just above the clearing. “We see that things are not exactly nice and ordinary.”

Michael followed Cal to the little spot on the rise where the boys had hidden. Cal directed his attention to the center of the clearing, about five or ten feet from the tent.

“If you look closely, from here, you can make out drag marks from where the assailant dragged the body to the tent. What’s interesting is what you don’t see.”

Michael followed Cal’s direction as his eyes scanned the area. Even though they were only slightly elevated from the crime scene, from here it was obvious that the scene had been staged. Cal studied his commander’s face to determine if he was following his assessment of the scene.

“I don’t see any foot prints,” said Michael. “No prints, no blood spatters, or cast off, not even an indentation indicating where the body was originally.”

“Exactly, like I said weird.” said Cal, excitement evident in his voice. “This is no panicked amateur, no spurned lover.”

“Let’s take a look at our vic,” said Michael.

The two men retraced their steps and returned to the lower area of the crime scene. Cal moved toward the tent and pulled back the flap revealing the body just as the forensic team came through the clearing and began taking stock of the scene. Two technicians entered the tent just ahead of Cal and Michael arrival.

“Impressive,” one of the techs remarked nodding at the erect penis of the dead man. “Guess we can rule out suicide. Who’d off themselves with that kind of junk?”

“Ok,” Michael said, ignoring the techs. “Take me through the rest of the weird stuff.”

“So, Herzog hikes up here to see what the hell they boys were talking about; but when he gets here, weirdness number one: nothing seems out of the ordinary at first. Campsite is neat and orderly. Then he sees the blood over there.” He nodded toward the seepage near the entrance of the tent. “Next he enters the tent and finds the body.”

“Rigor hasn’t started setting in yet,” said the forensic officer to no one in particular. “Liver temp is 90. Based on the depth of the neck wound, he bled out rather quickly. Probably never knew what hit him. We’ll process the body for trace evidence and get the report to you after the autopsy.”

Michael and Cal moved around the tent.

“Weirdness number two: with the exception of the dead guy,” Cal did a bad Vanna White impersonation. “A totally staged scene.”

Again, in here it wasn’t what they saw it was what they didn’t see. The tent was exceptionally neat, too neat. There was very little in the way of useable evidence; a rolled up sleeping bag, still in its travel bag, a lantern hanging from the peak, a camping duffle bag, the price tag still visible on the zipper.

One of the forensic techs noticed the BCI investigators survey of the area and said, “We’ll make sure we process the lantern and sleeping bag for trace and prints.”

It was obvious that the killer or killers had cleaned up the scene and most likely eliminated anything that might be used to identify them. The two troopers left the tent and continued around the scene and began to formulate possible explanations of how the killer seemed to vanish. A great deal of planning would have been necessary to lure and kill someone, then arrange the scene to conceal the crime for an indeterminate time. This fishing spot was remote enough to provide privacy for something like this, but it was also close enough to civilization to provide a well-planned escape.

They began to bounce different possibilities off each other. Many things were possible; they would work through the possibles then move on to what was probable. It was possible that the killer had used an alternate trail to avoid detection. It was possible that the victim’s vehicle was parked at a different hiking entrance. Both theories would indicate a familiarity with the area. It was also possible that the assailant had help considering the speed at which the scene had been staged. Once the identity of the victim was discovered, any ties to the area would need to be investigated.

“Do we have a description of the assailant Cal,” Michael asked.

“Not yet. The boys were pretty freaked out. EMS transported them to the medical center for evaluation.”

Michael looked over at the dead man. “Understandable, but we need to know who we’re looking for. Go to the hospital. Take that ranger with you; his presence might help his kid give us a better idea of what they saw.”

“On it Boss,” Cal replied.

As the two men descended the trail, Michael stopped Cal, a concerned looked crossed his face. He didn’t want to pry, but he had devoted a fair portion of his adult life in the role of surrogate father for Cal. For more reasons than he cared to admit, Michael would always be connected to Cal’s life; for some reasons he was proud, others he regretted.

“Everything all right with Jack?”

Cal shifted uncomfortably. “You know he doesn’t really want to accept that Steph and I are not going to get back together. He knows that if he acts out, both of us will be called in to deal with what ever he’s done. Sooner or later he’s got to deal with this.”

“Change is hard, especially for teenagers. It’s never easy to let go of the people you love.”

“I know that this is tough, but it’s not like I’ve up and left town. I’m still here. I’ll always be there for them.” Cal realized his slip as soon as the words were uttered and noticed Michael stiffen a little. “Sorry, I didn’t mean for that come out that way.”

Michael shook his head and put his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “No offense taken really. I wish I could say that I know how he’s feeling and offer some advice on how you can help him through this. I can’t and you know why. I do know that, as worn out as this saying is; ‘time really does heal all wounds.’ The trick is learning to live with the scars. We all have them, some hide them; others wear them like badges of honor.”

“I know,” Cal sighed. “It sucks to see your kid in pain and know that you’re the reason for it.”

Michael shook his head. “It would be different if you meant to hurt him. In time he’ll realize that what happened wasn’t about him and he’ll start to see things differently. But until then, he’s going to take the credit for every thing that goes on between you and Stephanie, good or bad. Sometimes, children cope with loss by trying to inflict as much pain on others as they are feeling at the time. Keep doing what you’re doing Cal,” Michael said as the parted for each other’s vehicles. “Things will be all right eventually.” Feeling like he had already said too much, he turned their exchange back to the matters at hand. “I’ll meet you at the hospital.”

Cal watched his commander, his friend, walk back to his unmarked car and drive away. He hadn’t meant to bring up unpleasant memories for Michael. God knew that he owed everything that was normal and decent about his childhood to the man. It wasn’t until his own marriage fell apart that he realized what Michael being there for him as a kid had cost. Whenever Cal had tried to bring the subject up in the past, Michael would always insist that Cal and his mother had nothing to do with Victoria leaving. He always said it was the job that Victoria couldn’t stand being widowed to, but Cal’s own experiences convinced him that the stress of being a cop’s wife was only half of the reason. Sometimes the things from your past that you held onto far longer than they should had a way of pushing their way into places they had no right to. The real irony was what followed in the aftermath of the breakup of Michael’s marriage would eventually be the final blow that ended Cal’s.

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