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Authors: Chris Grabenstein

Hell Hole (6 page)

BOOK: Hell Hole
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“I dunno.”
“What doesn't fit?”
“On the floor?”
“Yes.”
I hate when we play this. “There's nothing on the floor except the dead guy's sneakers.”
“Exactly.”
No blood.
Not just under the front of the toilet, under his bent knees, because, maybe, the sanitary tissues sponged up all the blood gushing out of his nose and mouth.
There's also none on the floor back near the rear wall.
Yeah. Ceepak's right. That's what's been bugging me.
If there are thick streaks running down the back wall, how come nothing dripped all the way down to the floor?
Ceepak heads
to his locker because he needs his cargo pants.
Every day, my partner loads up his pockets—front, side, rear—with enough tools to open a CSI hardware store. And, of course, he tosses in a handful of Snausages in case we run into a snarling dog. Any Snausages left over at the end of the day go to his pooch: Barkley. Barkley's old. Snausages are soft. It works out.
We've decided to head down to the rest stop at exit 52 to “see what we can see,” as Ceepak likes to say. Nothing official, mind you—we're not strapping on our weapons or anything. We're just two civilians on the road looking for a restroom and willing to drive ten or twenty miles to find it.
“Traffic's not too bad,” I say.
Ceepak looks up from the passenger seat.
“No. It's all good.”
“How about last night?”
“Come again?”
“When Starky and I drove the guy down here last night, I saw you in Rita's Toyota.”
I glance over at Ceepak.
“Traffic conditions were extremely light last evening,” he says.
“Yeah. They usually are. So why were you out so late?”
“I'd rather not say.”
He's smiling but his eyes aren't. Time to change the subject.
“I think it's always best to examine the crime scene in person,” I say because Ceepak said it to me once.
“Correct. Photographs can only tell us so much. Especially low-resolution images captured on cell phones.”
“Slominsky had a guy taking pictures last night. We should look at his.”
“That would work. However, the Burlington County prosecutor's office may not grant us access to their evidence seeing how we have no official standing in this matter. Not yet, anyway.”
Excellent. I believe my man is trying to figure out an angle, some way to get us into the game. Ceepak, of course, always plays by the rules but that means he knows all of'em—even the obscure ones listed in tiny print way back at the end of the rule book where nobody else bothers reading because they're bored or they just scored this hot new game for their Xbox 360 and want to play it already. Or maybe that's just me.
Before we left the house, we uploaded my cell phone photos to my Verizon Pix Place account on the Internet and printed out the money shot—Smith sitting atop the toilet. Ceepak keeps studying it, trying to glean one more clue from the horrible scene.
“The commode is a built-in,” he says. “No tank as one would typically see behind a toilet at home. In his seated position, Smith is barely six inches from the rear wall. His head, canted at an acute angle after impact, is touching that wall. The expelled organic material from the exit wound created a dramatic splatter pattern in line with the established trajectory path.”
“And then all the gunk trickles down,” I add, realizing there's probably a more forensically correct term for
gunk
. Maybe
goop.
“Right. The droplets elongated and slid down, developing tails pointing away from the initial point of impact. But, they end in a blur on the wall about a foot above the ground.”
Just like tossing a can of paint against a wall. Eventually, some of it should dribble down to the floor. You splash it against a tilted canvas, you could end up in an art museum.
“Did Smith leave a suicide note?” Ceepak asks, folding up his printout.
“Not that I know of.”
“Perhaps it was on his person?”
I shake my head. “Slominsky only found the MapQuest map to the party house. Smith had it tucked into his shirt. Chest pocket.”
“Interesting,” says Ceepak. “‘Your Chelsea suicide with no apparent motive.'” He's quoting Springsteen lyrics, one of his favorite autofocusing techniques. “Why would a young man like Smith take his own life?”
“Because of his drug problem?”
“Perhaps.”
“Or, you know, he might've been bummed out. Depressed. About the war and all.”
Oops. Didn't mean to say that. Ceepak could've figured that one out all by himself. He was there, served his time in hell. Saw and did some pretty horrible stuff. He has his dark days, trust me. I've been there for some. So, he doesn't need me to remind him about post-traumatic stress disorder or whatever they call it when you feel like shit for doing what you were told to do to defend your country.
“I mean, maybe—”
“It's okay, Danny. You make a cogent point. PTSD is a definite possibility. I just wish we knew more about this man.”
“Do you have any friends in the Eighty-second Airborne?”
“A few.”
“You should, you know, give them a call.”
Well, duh. Man, I'm really saying all the wrong things today.
“Will do, Danny. Excellent suggestion.” Ceepak, on the other hand, always says all the right things. Never busts my hump, even when I deserve it. The man has a high tolerance for my latent Danny-ness.
We pull into the parking lot at the exit 52 rest area.
The place is packed. I'm guessing a thousand cars are angled into slots on both sides of the main building. Some folks are over near the trees, walking their dogs, establishing canine rest areas in the grass already burnt brown by all the dogs who peed before them.
Two canopied pushcarts near the south-side entrance are open for a brisk business selling sunglasses. It's bright today. The sky's as blue as the freshly painted lines in the handicapped parking zones, one of which is occupied by an obese guy wolfing down a Whopper, his belly pressed tight against the steering wheel, even though his seat is slid back as far as it can go without becoming the backseat. Guess being a blimp is his handicap.
We enter the main building. If there's a thousand cars, there must be two thousand people. Most of them sipping something. Snapple. Grande mocha whip-a-chinos or whatever words Starbucks invented this month. Jumbo tubs of Pepsi.
“Where's the men's room?” asks Ceepak.
I point. He nods.
Then he turns around. Studies the walls.
I do the same thing.
I see this huge ad for the Trump Marina casino in Atlantic City. A sexy lady in a tight red dress and stiletto heels with a come-up-to-my-suite twinkle in her eye is holding a pair of dice. The headline reads:
First. Best. Wildest.
I can't tell if Mr. Trump means his casino or this girl.
“Only one security camera,” says Ceepak.
Apparently, he wasn't looking at the poster with me.
“See it, Danny?”
He points.
“Wouldn't tell us much. Doesn't seem to cover the entrance to the men's room. It's aimed toward the gift shop.” Ceepak does a three-finger hand chop at the store with all the pegboards dangling brightly colored bags of candy, chips, crackers, and antacids. “Low potential for shoplifting in the opposite direction.”
Yeah. There ain't much worth stealing in the restrooms.
“Security camera footage won't help us very much,” says Ceepak. “Let's hit the head.”
You ever walk around a men's room staring at stuff?
Guys inside doing their business give you the evil eye, wonder what the hell you're gawking at. This doesn't stop Ceepak. He pulls a small digital camera out of his left thigh pocket.
Guys shuffle closer to the urinals.
The layout is just like I remember it. On each side, there are a half-a-dozen urinals on a tiled wall leading down to three sinks. Fresh-cut carnations stand guard in slender vases atop the porcelain washbasins. There's a paper towel dispenser, big-mouthed garbage barrel, and electric hand blower attached to the wall perpendicular to the sinks. Everything has electric eyes. The urinals. The sinks. Maybe even the towel dispenser. You never have to touch anything to make it work.
Except, of course, the doors to the toilet stalls.
“Stainless steel,” Ceepak comments as he studies the four doors on our side of the men's room. Three regular, one wider for the handicapped toilet. All currently closed and occupado.
Stainless steel is an excellent surface for grabbing fingerprints. All five billion of them. The men's room is currently crowded. If a toilet opens up before a urinal, you can bet the next guy in line is going for the stall and everybody behind him will just have to pray he raises the seat.
Ceepak faces the closed door on the walled-in box where they found Lance Corporal Shareef Smith.
“You say it was locked? From the inside?”
“Yeah. The janitor had to flick the latch open from out here.”
Ceepak snaps a flash photo.
“Hey!” says whoever's inside. Some guy in those new Nikes and Calvin Klein underwear.
“Don't worry, sir,” says Ceepak. “You're not in the picture.”
“Jesus H. Christ,” mutters the man behind door number three as he rises off his throne. The toilet does its thing and automatically flushes itself. The door swings open and Calvin K. comes out hitching his belt.
“What's your problem, pal?” he asks Ceepak, who's already busy lining up his next shot: a close-up of the toilet itself.
“Sorry. I didn't mean to intrude on your privacy.”
The flash strobes.
The guy who just finished up stomps away.
Doesn't hit the sink.
Men.
Why do they even give us sinks with fancy automatic faucets? They should just hang up a few more urinals on the wall and let us wipe our hands on our pants in peace.
“You usin' it?” asks a man who's doing a nervous Texas two-step to keep his mind off what he really needs to be doing.
“Sorry,” says Ceepak. “We'll only be another minute.”
We?
Ceepak steps into the stall. I don't follow. I could easily fit in there with him but two guys squeezing into the same toilet booth at the same time might earn us more stares than Ceepak's Kodak moment with the commode. People might think we'd just been playing footsie between stalls and have decided to run for Congress.
Fortunately a urinal opens up and dancing man doesn't explode.
“They've cleaned it up,” says Ceepak, examining the rear wall.
“Yeah.”
“Completely scrubbed it down. There's not a trace of evidence. Nothing. Not even any stained grout.”
“Well, they clean in here every hour.”
“Come again?”
“They clean in here every hour.”
“You're certain?”
“Yeah. There's a chart on the wall in the hall. It's a grid. Days across the top. Time down the side. The janitors have to initial the box when they come in and clean up. Note the time.”
“Show it to me.”
I lead the way to the mounted clipboard. It's attached to the frame of an HMM Host poster proclaiming
The HMM Five Star Advantage. Cleanliness, Quality & Service
. I look at the boxes. Somebody came in
at 4:03 Runt. And 3:05. And 2:06. Every hour, pretty much on the hour, since midnight.
“Fascinating,” says Ceepak. He taps the last line on the poster:
For immediate attention please see manager.
I don't get it. “What?”
“Let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that this was not a suicide.”
“Okay.”
“Let's say someone lured Corporal Smith into the men's room.”
“To murder him?”
Ceepak nods. “They knew they had almost an hour to get away—more if they could make certain that there was no need for ‘immediate attention' and, therefore, no reason for the janitor to disturb the occupant seated in stall number three.”
Now I get it.
No immediate attention required.
No blood on the floor.
BOOK: Hell Hole
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