Looking into the face of death…

4/11/10

Looking into the face of death…

Minutes later, I composed myself and walked through heavy wood doors into Valdosta history. Much as I would like to have wandered around and soaked in the experience, I was immediately reminded of the room in the lower level that had gentleman already waiting. It was a beautiful old building, filled with a ripe patina of dust and charm. I made a mental note to spend an afternoon there on my next trip down. Having no idea how the afternoon would go; especially after how lunch had gone. I took the elevator down one level, breathing deep and trying to re-establish my equilibrium. By the time the door opened, my mind had successfully switched gears and I was ready to calmly take in more information—or at least I thought so! From the elevator alcove in the corner, I walked into another large room that held several displays pertaining to local history. Having brought my lap top for reference convenience, I situated myself at a table just above a floor outlet. My husband set his up there as well so that we might research in tandem if necessary any information that my files did not already contain. Furniture adjusted and additional chairs brought in, we were ready.

At this point I noticed a fellow who stood with starched shirt, necktie and pleated pants reading a display. He was straight out of the sixties and this G-man look made me think he had to be one of my guys. When he turned and I saw a shirt boasting a pocket protector and a face hosting black rimmed glasses, there was just no other way to it! I smiled, shook his hand and found out he had come along at the request of another man I had been talking to on a regular basis. Once seated, another man joined the fray. This second man has been my most staunch ally; a noble fella with a booming voice. Introductions made, I asked them to take a seat. Two men down, I turned and spied another tall man who had entered the room. He now stood alone in front of a display case. Tall, fair and athletic in build he kept his back to me for several minutes as he studied the wall before him. I hesitated, but Saturday afternoon perusing a storyboard about the history of cotton did not look like this guy’s natural bailiwick so I sallied forth to introduce myself. Once identified as one of my guys, I invited him to sit at the table with the others while I waited for more.

When we were certain that no one else would be making an entrance I began the discussion by thanking them for their time and efforts. Everyone comfortable and recorders on—I introduced Charley’s daughter. A brief silence filled the air and then suddenly a flurry of smiles and handshakes rounded the table. I covered the basics of the case first. What had been public fodder, what they knew, what I knew… and what they didn’t know I knew; I kept to myself. I next asked for clarification on some issues I had not been able to ferret out myself. While they conversed, I secretly texted the name of my first suspected “Red” herring to my psychic/detective. The initial name had been given to me by one of the men in the room. The tall, athletic one who had once been a carrot top himself. I thought this prudent before I placed a larger target on a back of another new soul. It came back with a negative- not only from her, but after introducing the name to the rest of the group at the table, they concurred- no relevance. No one even knew such an individual, but the man with the athletic build who had suggested him in the first place. Curious, I threw out my new second name- the one we had tracked from the diner photos and back pages of the funeral book. Eyes flashed with instant recognition- another ah-ha moment. Conversation broke loose with details and fuzzy recollections. Yes he too had red hair. Yes he was from the others side of the river. Yes he had huge business- very wealthy, lots of power. As they bantered about one another’s reveries, I sent this new name into the cosmos for my psychic to review. Minutes went by as we discussed other details of the case and then a buzz tweaked my jeans. I begged them to continue, then sat and holding my phone under the table lip, read the reply privately.

“I am shown a hammer and a nail. Not sure- could be hitting the nail on the head or another meaning.” I kept pace with the conversation and while J spoke to them collectively about her father and that night. At a lull in the conversation, I texted back. Could it mean- “The final nail in the coffin?”

I had no idea when or what the response would be and so moved the conversation forward. As I listened and took notes, more details started to pour from lips both innocent and soon to be recognized as tainted. Both sides of the table were hedging- it was time to break loose. I motioned to J and she took the floor. She thanked them for their time, and then spoke about her knowledge of her parent’s marital problems to ease the flow of information from men who were obviously uncomfortable sharing what they believed might be gossip and hearsay. In the interest of allowing them latitude to introduce the possible motives of passion or jealousy, I inserted that I knew more than we had been sharing thus far. My reference was to the instability of the marriage, but before I could add such a suffix the tall, athletic gentleman across from me leaned in smiling and said… “So do we.”

It was an eerie sort of smile that felt acrid and patronizing. My phone hummed distracting me for a second. I produced a thin smile in response and he sat back into his haunches, glaring. To stall, I asked them to discuss collectively what they had heard about the layout of the crime scene that night. While listening with half an ear, I checked my phone for R’s reply to the ‘nail in the coffin’ suggestion. It held one word- “possibly”.

I kept this to myself and redirected the conversation to the man whose crooked smile had unnerved me. In previous conversations, he had claimed to be the very first responder. Print media and hearsay contradicted one another, so I needed further documentation. Knowing that in less than 24 hours I would have my hands on crime scene photos to confirm or deny, I wanted more. I wanted eye witness testimony to round out my theory of cover-up. If his description matched the papers but not he photos, then we had reason to believe in the staging and cover-up theory. This guy said he was first on scene and had the goods, so I let him take the floor. Unknown to them I also had R’s interpretation of the scene Charley had described in our first session for reference to bounce against. To clear up any confusion, I handed Mr. Crooked Smile my notepad and asked him to recreate the scene he walked into that night. The location of the vehicle, the distance between the body and the bridge, the exact placement of the arms, hands and gun, etc.. My caution for him to be precise was well founded. He took it with a grain of salt and began to draw the margin lines of the road. I watched intently his placement of the car within the framing of the scene. Since the beginning this man’s testimony didn’t jive with what information was on record. As he spoke about what he had seen, a fellow participant asked him to confirm the identity of another first responder that night. The answer came swift. There was no other first responder other than himself and another gentleman no one recognized. When my ally insisted that he had been a neighbor of this additional man and believed him when he told him he had even inspected Charley’s revolver with the odd placement of the spent shells- the man with the forced smile rather forcefully insisted that such confidences had been nothing but an act of bravado and all lies. (A record of this is on tape… along with his drawing.) With increasing angst I texted another name to R and waited for her reply. When the sketch was complete and the verbal description recorded, my phone hummed once again and I let my attentions follow while they all discussed the differences of what they had heard and what had been drawn.  I picked up the notepad, took a closer look and then down at my side to see what she had written.

My phone read:

“Dark. Wow. I actually got grim reaper which I have never seen before.”

My knees began to buckle. Bile rose like a geyser in my throat, but I swallowed it down hard and tried to keep it from others in the room. I looked up and across the table at the man who was just putting down my pen. He looked me square in the eye and grinned. “ This is exactly the way I found him.”

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