The fact that none of the body parts was covered told me no one from the Dr. Konstantina Smyth’s office had arrived at the hangar yet.
Doc Konnie was adamant about not contaminating a victim’s remains. The fastest way to get on her bad side was to throw a plastic sheet or a tarp or a couple of towels over a corpse. Or over body parts.
And it wasn’t only our outspoken Greek-born medical examiner who was dyspeptic on the subject.
It was the law.
I memorized the statute word for word. This way, I could spell it out in no uncertain terms when people at a crime scene got careless about keeping their hands off the deceased. Or, for that matter, off the dead person’s possessions. I’d point out that anyone who—quote, unquote—willfully touches, removes, or disturbs the body, clothing, or any article upon or near the body…shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of the first degree.
So in West Texas’s Abbot County, at a crime scene involving loss of life, even we law enforcement types waited for the M.E.’s white van to show up. Until then, we looked for clues elsewhere. Maybe close by. Maybe around the perimeter of the crime scene. Or else we stood around and waited.
When I entered the hangar, that’s what a half-dozen persons were doing. Standing a few steps inside the door. Gossiping. Kibitzing. Pointing.
All of them were dressed like I was—in protective gear. But they were acting like they’d just gotten out of church. Now, clustered there in a group, they were enjoying a social moment before heading to the parking lot.
Or maybe I was thinking that because I’d stepped out of a church building a few minutes ago myself. A church building where I’d been the preacher.
I was quite certain there were other sheriffs in America who preached. Because about anyone can run for sheriff. That includes country preachers, many of them self-taught in theology. Some of them preached every Sunday morning.
But I wasn’t one of those. This was the first sermon I’d preached since becoming sheriff nearly 17 years ago.
I had a copy of the church program jammed in my inside coat pocket. The cover offered the bare details of the morning’s activities.
Today’s sermon by Sheriff Luther Stephens McWhorter,
B.A., M.A., Doctor of Divinity
“SWORN IN, EYES UP”
How heaven and your local sheriff view wearing a badge and carrying a gun …
But no one in this group was going to ask about any of that. They were too busy taking extreme care where they rested their eyes. I didn’t blame them. I’d never seen a crime scene like it.
Pools of crimson and body parts of all sizes littered the hangar floor.
In all directions.
But it was the plane that dominated.
I knew what kind it was. The twin-engine Beechcraft King Air 350i was an iconic plane from a lineup of aircraft with a distinguished pedigree. I knew all this because I’d always found the King Air 350i more princess than king.
Even at a moment like this, it looked like a piece of resplendent piece of metal sculpture as much as an aircraft. Walk around it, and the very nature of what you were looking at seemed to change before your eyes. This was a consequence of the craft’s exquisite, complicated design. I found the sight of one mesmerizing.
The voice came from behind me. “You ever see anything like this?”
A woman’s voice. One I knew well. It belonged to one of my deputies. One of my detectives, actually.
Detective Rashada Moody.
Detective Moody was my department’s only woman deputy. Only African-American deputy. Only left-handed deputy. Only deputy who’d been a beauty-queen contestant. And the only one of us to have a four-year college degree in criminal justice. “Deputy Only,” we sometimes jokingly called herself.
At the moment, there was no humor to be found in Deputy Only’s voice. And I knew she wasn’t talking about the airplane.
I searched for the right words to answer her with.
Eventually, I found one.
She allowed herself one additional comment as an ordinary citizen. “Somebody didn’t want these poor fellows viewable at their funerals.” Then she returned to being the professional I’d always admired. “I was the first officer here—if you’d like to know what I’ve noticed.”
Her tentativeness was more than a courtesy. It hadn’t been that long since I’d been the first one to roll up on another horrendous crime scene. It had been sickeningly visible in and around a remote, abandoned house 30 miles west of town.
The smell of rotting corpses and the sight of buzzards devouring them had made me deathly ill. After several episodes of acute gastronomic distress, I’d managed to withdraw a short distance and summon help. Detective Moody was one of those who had responded. Now, here she was again, suggesting that we see if we could figure this out.
But before she could propose a place to start, I issued a directive to the others. “People, why don’t we vacate the hangar until the M.E. can get this sorted.”
Detective Moody turned to join the departures, but I caught her wrist. It felt warm. That’s how you can know a person-of-color is blushing. She’d embarrassed herself in not immediately recalling that I had seen this much ugly and more not long ago—and had been physically devastated by it. How could she ever forget the sight and smell of me and my vomit-drenched clothes and car.
I released her wrist and gave her a quick hug. “If we’re careful, you and I can walk through this.”
She pointed to the plane’s starboard engine. This was the one on the right wing from the point-of-view of the pilot looking forward. “I think the poor guy hit by those propellers was shoved into them from the side.”
I looked from the propellers to the body parts I could see and then back to her. “You’re going to have to show me why.”
“It isn’t pretty.”
“Ugly is all I’m expecting to see today.”