(NOTE: I posted Part 5 on Saturday. If you have not read that yet, then the following will make little sense to you. Of course, if you have read none of it, then start at Part 1. The following is a long post, but I could not resist releasing all of the fruits of my weekend’s labor. Enjoy.)
Wall watched Ms. Greengrass as she led him down the hall. His last trip down it, in the opposite direction, had nearly exhausted him. He was going to have to get in better shape. Wilson probably could run up and down that hall for a half hour before he got tired.
He tried to piece together what they had so far. Gaither heard what he thought was a gunshot, saw the body tumbling down a stairwell, and then ran to get Greengrass. Judging from the looks of her, men run to her all the time. After Gaither calmed down enough to talk, they called the cops from her office. By the time Gaither and Greengrass returned to the stairwell, (factory halls can be very long), the body was gone. Wall showed up and managed a few words before a woman screamed. He ran to find her and the body’s new location, and then the investigation started. According to their statements, nobody working in the plant at that time had seen anything. Stivins was a little weird, but his background checked out clean, and he didn’t appear to have a motive.
In fact, this Frank Shaeffer apparently was an angel, and nobody seemed to have a motive. This bothered Wall. Although there’s never an excuse for murder, there’s almost always a reason. Even if it is as senseless as “he looked at me wrong,” to the killer that is a reason. This guy didn’t have an angry bone in him, everybody said.
Wall felt like he was trying to put together a puzzle, but all he had so far were the solid blue pieces that formed the sky. He had no clue how to start making it look like the picture on the box.
He again focused on the smartly dressed beauty as she stopped at a stairwell. They were headed upstairs to see Jim Gaither’s area.
“Five other employees office up here,” Greengrass said. “Mostly CADD designers, but also our database guru and the engineering department’s administrative assistant.”
Wall hated it when people used “office” as a verb.
The place looked the same as it did the first time he saw it, except that the joker, Jodie, was not there. Wall was glad for that. He had little patience for smartasses all the time, but especially when working. An attractive woman, maybe 25, sat in an office chair twisting her shoulder-length brown hair and talking to a skinny, square-jawed guy about the same age, six feet tall with glasses. They stopped talking when they saw the boss lady.
“This is Detective Davies,” Greengrass said. “He is here to have a look around and maybe ask you a few questions.”
“We spoke to the police already,” said brown-hair.
“Of course, but he is here to learn more about… what was it again, Detective?”
“The lay of the land.”
“Yes, that was the way you put it.”
Wall spoke up again. “I am not here to interrogate anybody or make you feel uncomfortable. I’m just trying to figure out how the suspect might have moved from one place to another during all this mess. I’m very sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you, detective,” said brown-hair and her friend. Both relaxed visibly.
“May I get your names, just for our conversation?”
“I’m Stacey, and this is Ben. He’s a temp.”
“Thanks, Stace, I appreciate that,” Ben said.
“Sorry, but you are.”
“I know Detective Wilson already talked to you two, but could you tell me how well you knew Frank Shaeffer?” Wall asked.
“I never worked directly with Frank, but I knew him. He always smiled and asked how I was doing, every time I walked into the tool room.” Stacey sat there silently a few moments, making a bigger mess of her hair.
Ben spoke up. “Well, I didn’t know him, but I remember seeing him when he’d come up here to get tool drawings. He’d always say hello to Ruth, and kind of flirted with her. He used to joke and call her Ruthenium.”
“So, coming up here was a regular part of his job? Nothing unusual?” Wall asked.
“Definitely,” Stacey said. “Just yesterday, Frank was right here, drinking coffee he had snatched from our office, and Jodie the jerk was talking to him.”
“Again, sorry to bring all this up. I’m just going to take a look around here.”
There were a few standard cubicles, with thinly carpeted metal walls, and some 1950’s-era desks shoved against a wall. In one corner stood typical vertical filing cabinets, but next to them were cabinets with wide drawers about four inches deep. They contained computer drawings of watch parts and tools — pretty boring stuff for the uninitiated. The floor creaked in spots, which made him think of his growing gut.
He walked around a wood-paneled wall to Gaither’s area. This time, his comb-over was neatly in place, bands of pale skin peeking out between the carefully laid strands of hair. He was on the phone.
“I already talked to Cebu on this one,” he said.
“Who is Cebu?” Wall asked Greengrass.
“It’s a not a who. It’s the location of our facility in the Phillipines,” she said. “He seems distracted right now. We can come back to him later.”
As he completed his mini-tour, he noticed a spot on the wall next to the coffeemaker. It was a large rectangle of paint a slightly brighter shade than what surrounded it. In each corner was a dark spot, as if an adhesive had been there.
He pointed to it. “Was there something there before this week?”
“You mean before the killing?” Stacey asked.
This young lady liked to be upfront. “Yes,” he said.
“It was a poster for Unigraphics. That’s the software we use to make those drawings you were just looking at,” Stacey said.
“Just a paper poster?”
“No, it was a lot thicker, some kind of plastic.”
Wall made a note of that. It could be nothing, but it was obvious the poster had been there a long time. A struggle could have pulled it down, but nothing else around it had been damaged.
He tilted his head toward the stairs. “Is there any other way to get out of here besides down there?”
“Sure there is,” Stacey said. She got up from her chair. “Come over here. I’ll show you the rest of the Timex attic.”
She opened the administrative assistant’s desk and grabbed a key, then led Wall behind one of the cubicles to a small wooden door about five feet high. It had a handle instead of a knob, and a deadbolt. She inserted the key and turned it.
“Hey, this thing wasn’t locked,” she said. She pulled hard on the door handle. With a scraping protest, it popped open. “It sticks.”
She ducked to walk through the doorway, then stood up straight on the other side. Wall could see that the hidden room was not lit. She ducked and looked back to see if he was coming. He was about a head taller than Stacey, but he managed it. Greengrass and Ben the Temp followed.
Wall noticed that the deadbolt was turned by hand from the other side, not a key. An old drafting table and several boxes lined one wall of a small room. The area was floored with the same vinyl tile found in the rest of the plant, and a narrow corridor disappeared in the darkness.
When Stacey flipped the light switch, nothing happened. “The bulb must have burned out,” she said.
“No, it looks like it’s been shattered,” Ben said.
Bulb filaments protruded from a bare fixture on the wall. Only a few shards of glass still clung to the socket threads.
Ben took a closer look. “‘200 watts max.’ Wow.”
“You’re such a guy,” Stacey said.
“You break a bulb like that, you’re going to get a loud pop,” Wall said.
Finally, he might have his first good puzzle piece. Maybe just a tiny tree limb against the blue sky, but a starting point.
“So, how’s it going?” a voice called from behind them.
Gaither’s head was through the door.
“Jim, get a flashlight and bring it in here. I’m sure the detective here will want to continue along this course.” Greengrass looked at Wall, eyebrows raised.
“Yes, that would be great,” he responded.
After Gaither returned, he assumed the position of tour guide to Wall and Greengrass, who asked the two youngsters to stay behind and resume their work. Gaither had used this as a shortcut to get to other areas of the plant, he said, and it was obvious to Wall that he knew the way.
“This floor is squeaky clean,” Wall said. “No dust or dirt like you’d expect in an attic.”
Gaither chimed in. “That is weird. It’s not part of Maintenance’s routine cleaning area.”
The corridor led to two more small storage areas and a stairwell down to the automated room where Wall found the body. Robotic arms dipped racks of bezel molds into hot metal pools.
“Is there any way the killer could have hung the body from that rack up there without going downstairs first?” Wall asked.
“Yes, look here.” Gaither shone the flashlight to the left. “There is a walkway for maintenance to use in case something goes wrong with the tracks the racks run on.”
“So, now we know how the killer got back here with the body, and how he hung it without making a mess.” Wall said.
“It would appear so,” said Greengrass. She did not sound thrilled to be discussing details of a murder that happened under her roof.
“So, you see, the perp stabs the victim in the storage area behind the secret door. The victim kicks the crap out of his shin and somehow gets away long enough to get through that little door. The perp panics and either accidentally or purposely knocks out the bulb, and hides in the dark. Gaither, probably yammering to somebody in the Phillipines he can barely understand, thinks it’s a gunshot. He runs around there just in time to see the victim falling down the stairs. He runs off to tell Greengrass,” Wall said.
Rob Maxwell and his wife, Dana, were at the Davies’ house for dinner. Wall was giving them a rundown of the case as he saw it unfolding to that point.
“And he — the ‘perp,’ as you like to call him, hides there until he thinks the coast is clear, and then drags the body up the stairs and through the same little door, through the passage in the attic, and then hangs it from above,” said Max.
“I might not use the term ‘coast is clear,’ but yeah, that’s what I mean.”
“I don’t know. It sounds like a lot of work for one man,” Wendy said. “A lot of work for my man, anyway.” She shoved a bite of Chicken Cacciatore into her mouth.
“That’s great, honey. Thanks,” Wall said. Then, to Max, “You’d be surprised what a man can do when he’s got adrenaline flowing.”
“Wait a minute,” Max said. “Did you say that the victim fell down the stairs?”
“That’s what Gaither said, that he got there just in time to see him tumble.”
“There were no contusions to indicate a fall like that,” Max said.
“That’s right. There weren’t. Damn.” Wall said. “So, Gaither isn’t telling us the whole truth? He had some of the victim’s blood on him, but he claimed it got there when he leaned in to see if he was breathing. I wondered why there wasn’t a huge pool of blood at the bottom of those stairs. Sounds like it’s time to bring Gaither in for more questioning.”
“Why does the plot always thicken when I don’t want it to?” Wendy asked.
“Let’s talk about something else,” Dana said.
“Like you? It’s all about you, isn’t it?” Max said.
“Well, sometimes, sure. But, tell them what you said last night at dinner.”
“What I said? What did I say?”
“You know? Decoy.”
“You want me to tell that story?”
“I’ll start. Max and I are sitting there at Browning’s in the Heights, eating our strawberry sopapillas.”
“Is Browning’s that Mexican place?” Wendy asked.
Wall could barely pay attention after realizing Gaither might be in on it, but Wendy would not be happy if he zoned out like usual.
“Yeah, that’s the one. I’ll take it from here, babe. Dana and I notice a fruit fly buzzing around our food, so I try to swat it. Of course, not being as fast as Mr. Myagi, I miss. Then I get this idea of biting off a strawberry and leaving a little bit of it on the stem, to set at the opposite end of the table. I look at Dana and say, ‘Decoy.’
“She just laughs and says, ‘But it’s not a bee.’
“I say, ‘Of course it’s not a bee. It’s a fruit fly. Did I say it was a bee?’
“She says, ‘Well, you set that strawberry stem down and said it was a bee toy.’
“No, dear, I said, ‘Decoy,’ not ‘bee toy.'”
Max and Dana laughed. Wendy and Wall looked at each other and smirked, as if to say, Are you going to let them have it, or am I?
Wendy spoke up. “Wow. Maybe we should just let Wall tell the stories after all.”
“See how much fun that was?” Wendy asked Wall, after the Maxwells left.
Wendy washed the dishes while Max rinsed and dried.
“Yeah, babe, we should do that more often.”
He admitted that it was tough to concentrate on friendly chatter with what Max just told him bouncing around in his head. Plus, he let Wilson look over everything while he took a night off. He was so competitive that he hated the thought that a younger, less experienced cop might find a lead he had missed.
“Don’t look at it that way,” Wendy said. “You’re just delegating, that’s all. That’s a good quality for a leader to have.”
“I’ve always considered myself more of a loner than a leader.”
“Well, that doesn’t work at home, sir, so knock that shit off,” Wendy said.
She turned her head and leaned in to kiss him. He responded strongly to her advance and kissed her hard while gently placing a plate in the sink. Who says an old dog can’t multitask, Wall wondered.
While making love to her that night, Wall said, “How could we deprive ourselves of this? We need to start doing this a lot more often.” He tended to talk during sex, and he was not sure why. In fact, he said that every time, but nothing ever changed.
“Just shut up and do that thing,” Wendy said.
He shifted a little. “You mean this?”
She moaned wordlessly.
“That must be the one. I still got it.”
Wall reported to work the next morning feeling much better about domestic life, but his hunger to get back to the case made him worry. In the same night, his appetite for both the case and his wife’s attention had increased tenfold. He had to find a way to make it all work.
He was disappointed to find that, while reading over the interview transcripts and the coroner’s report the night before, Wilson had come up with Gaither as a suspect, too. By the time Wall got to work, he already had sent someone to pick up Gaither for questioning. Timex’s Middlebury bigwigs said they were glad to give time off to anybody at all if it would help the investigation’s progress. They did not seem to understand that the police did not need their permission to question a suspect.
Wall and Wilson questioned him together. It was not so much good cop, bad cop as it was calm cop, hyper cop. Wilson had kicked caffeine two years ago, but someone brought in coffee from Little Rock’s first Starbuck’s, and he could not resist the high-octane capuccino. Consequently, he was wired.
Gaither immediately said he didn’t do it, then clammed up. Then he lawyered up. After a few days of legal wrangling between his attorneys and the District Attorney’s people, he said he would tell what he knew in exchange for leniency. They could not be specific on what the charges would be, because they didn’t know the motive or the nature of the murder yet.
Regardless, Gaither obviously had a guilty conscience, because he sang.
First, he made it clear that he was not involved from the start, and only cooperated under duress and out of fear for his own life. He did hear a pop, he said, but he grew up around guns, so he never suspected it was a gunshot. That was just part of the cover story. When he walked around to find the source, he saw a bloodied Frank Shaeffer lying on the floor. He obviously had dragged himself, because a blood trail led back behind the cubicle, toward the hidden door. Gaither leaned down to talk to him and find out if he was okay. He was breathing.
“Next thing I know, someone puts a bag over my face and grabs me around the neck from behind. He says, ‘He got away from me, Mr. Gaither, but you are going to help me correct that. You will drag him over to that small door and through it, and leave him there. You will turn and leave, and clean up the mess on this floor. Then you will wait another 20 minutes before you notify anyone. I know exactly who you are, Mr. Gaither. I know where you and your lovely family live, and I can reach out to you whenever I please.’ Then he takes the bag off and walks away. When I turn to look, I see he’s got the bag over his own head. Of course, I don’t know if he’s bluffing, but I’m scared so bad I do whatever I can.”
“Did you recognize his voice?” Wall asked.
“No, sir. He disguised it, I think.”
“What was he wearing? How big was he?” Wilson asked.
“I can’t remember. I was glad I was alive.”
Gaither said he had trouble moving the body, and did not want to make a bigger mess, so he took down the Unigraphics poster and managed to slide it up under Shaeffer enough to use it like a sled. He dragged him over to the door and, after a long effort, into the storage area.
“The guy was in a dark corner, so I still couldn’t tell who he was. He thanked me and told me I was on my own, but that I better not tell anybody I had seen him. He had killed before and would do it again if he had to.”
“What did you do with the poster?” Wilson asked.
“Well, it was plastic. We have some liquid plastics we use for watch bezels, so I just tossed it in one of the dark green vats and watched it melt away.”
“So, pretty soon somebody will be wearing a Timex Expedition with Shaeffer’s blood in it?” Wilson asked.
“No, detective, I would say that thousands of people will be. It doesn’t take much plastic to fill a mold,” Gaither said.
Wall let that sink in a minute. Trace evidence for this case would be turning up in jewelry departments in every Wal-Mart and Target store in the country.
(continue to Part 7)