A Strangled Rose


April 6th, 2013

A decaying corpse of a young woman leaned against a rock maple tree. Infestations of maggots, beetles and blowflies congregated to consume their feast. A deep incision spanned her jugular nearly causing a decapitation. And a ruby-red rose– once full and bursting with color– protruded from her left eye socket. Faded. Wilted. Dead.

Posed by her attacker the body sat. Her straightened legs wore navy blue hip-huggers cinched at the calves. Her sheer beige blouse torn open yet buttoned at the cuffs and a navy-paisley camisole shredded in half, spaghetti-straps still hooked her shoulders. The word WHORE carved deep in her ivory-skinned chest.

The smell– similar to rotted fruit– sent wolves and then coyotes to flock to the raw meat. They ripped and tore at her flesh in frenzy. The night air whistled through the evergreens swaying a pale pink ribbon draped over her crown.

Paw prints covered the well-traveled trail to the bloody cadaver as a fisher cat made his way to the meal of the century. Unexpectedly slowed in his tracks from the scent of larger prey he retreated to wait for an opening.

A sliver of moonlight dimly lit the territory amongst the tall pines as round golden eyes glowed upon high from the lone feline salivating over the banquet below.

Darkness turned to light.

A gunshot rang out and echoed off the mountainside. Three men illegally hunted coyotes five days passed the allotted time.

Frank allowed Scott, his younger brother, to tag along. Something he rarely allowed. He didn’t have much choice. They needed Scott’s 4×4 pickup.

Scott raised the scope of his rifle to his eye and fired. And missed.

A nimble coyote sprinted through the woods, running for his life, and effortlessly leaped over the body. Scott was not agile. Quite the opposite. He was awkward, chunky, blond and baby-faced. So when he chased his prey he tripped over the body.

Which didn’t shock Frank any.

Flattened face-down in the dirt, inches from a dried blood pool, Scott jumped to his feet, screamed for Frank– who was a mere ten feet away– then folded at the waist and vomited his egg sandwich from breakfast.

Frank saw the whole thing. Shaking his head he approached Scott, Rory in toe. “What’s all the racket, bro?” He froze. His hazel eyes locked on the dead woman. Bloodied. Carved. Defaced.

The dimples in Scott’s pudgy cheeks smoothed. Rory turned away. Frank remained rock solid. He had no choice with Scott around. It was his way of protecting him from life’s bedevilments.

Frank’s chestnut-brown mullet jounced beneath his orange-knit cap as he dug deep in his camouflage pocket for his cell, and flipped it open. Licking his lips, trying to get rid of his dry-mouth, he tasted dried yolk on the tips of his bushy moustache.

Before dialing, he glanced over at Scott and said, “If anyone asks, we were hunting mink for the pelts. Mink and muskrat season lasts until the fifteenth. Got it?”

Scott nodded.

Frank gazed at Rory. He didn’t need cautioning; he knew better. Frank scanned the heavily wooded area for a landmark. But everything looked the same: tall birch, oak and ash trees, pine needles blanketed the earth, rocks dotted the landscape. No distinguishing landmarks to tell police. How could he explain where they were?

Scott tugged on Frank’s coat-sleeve. “You gonna call nine-one-one? You gotta.  Someone killed her.”

“No shit Sherlock. Let me think.” Frank circled back a few yards and searched for some way to describe their locale. There was nothing. His lips pursed under his shaggy moustache.

Rory tapped his deflated pack of cigarettes against a flat hand. His sandy-brown ponytail bounced with each tap. He pressed a butt between his lips, careful not to set his scraggly beard ablaze in the breeze, and sucked a long drag from the filter and snapped his jaw as he exhaled. Smoke rings.

Frank glanced over at Rory and thought, Seriously, dude? Now? He let it go. His thick fingers trembled as he punched the keypad.

The operator answered, “Nine-one-one, what is your emergency?”

“Yeah, uh, there’s a dead chick on Bear Cat Mountain.”

“Excuse me, sir, did you say there was a dead body? In Alexandria?”

“Yeah, shit! Where the hell d’yeah think I am? Send the cops– now!”

“Okay, sir, calm down.”

“Don’t tell me to calm down. This chick’s dead and I have no clue how to tell yeah where. Y’know what, just tell ‘em I’ll meet ‘em at the base of the mountain and lead ‘em back up.”

“Stay on the line please.”

The phone went dead.

Frank’s eyes jumped from Scott to Rory, and then settled back on Scott. The phone still pressed against his ear– trying not to alarm his brother– a dial tone sounded. “Okay, cool. Thanks.” He hooked an arm at Scott and Rory to follow and headed down the wooded path.

Leaves shuffled. Sticks crunched. Footsteps pounded behind them.

All three men spun. Stopped. Listened.

“What was that?” yelped Scott.

“Nothin’. It’s nothin’,” Frank said. “C’mon.”

Shuffle. Crunch. Step. Shuffle. Crunch. Step.

Frank spun, raised a finger to his full lips. “Shhh. . .”

He folded a cupped hand over his brow and stared beyond a multitude of pine trees.

Seconds later, a massive rack of velvety tan antlers moved into a stretch of sunlight. A moose’s four-hundred-pound-frame stopped and his almond-shaped amber eyes fixed on the men. Rays of sunlight danced on his coarse nut-brown coat as he stood statuesque, ready to charge at a moments notice.

Scott pressed in his heels. “Umm, Frank?”

“Quiet. Pass me your rifle. I’m outta bullets,” said Frank, his voice hushed.

“But it ain’t moose season. The raffle ain’t till fall. You can’t shoot that swamp donkey, bro.”

“Shut up and pass me your gun.”

Scott sloughed off the rifle from his shoulder and passed it to Frank.

Frank raised the weapon. Squeezed one eye shut and aimed the other through the scope, setting the moose squarely in his site. He exhaled and set his finger on the trigger.

Sweat glistened on Frank’s forehead as he stood in a hunter’s stance, keenly alert and aware. Only one thought in mind: don’t miss!

Frank stared at the moose and the moose stared back. Locked in a battle of wills. Just then sirens wailed up the dirt road to the base of the mountain. And in a flash, the moose was gone. Evergreen branches swayed in the path of his escape.

“Dammit!” Frank lowered his weapon.

“Look!” urged Rory.

Two navy-and-gold Alexandria squad cars, an ambulance, and the local sheriff’s vehicle raced through the parking lot.

Sheriff McCabe jumped from his tan sedan and shuffled steadily toward the men.

Frank took one look at the sheriff and chuckled. McCabe was the epitome of a cliché: bald, short, glasses, marching with his chest puffed like a turkey during mating season.

“Which one of you discovered the body?” McCabe barked.

“Me!” Scott raised his hand, as if he was in a classroom and knew the answer to a

question the teacher just posed.

Frank stepped in front of Scott. “He’s my little brother, sir. Why don’t you talk to me.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because, he’s not the sharpest tool in the shed, if you know what I mean.”

“All right. Tell me what you found.”

“A dead chick.”

“A dead woman. Yes, I know. What I mean is, are you sure it’s a dead human and not a dead animal?”

Frank caustically remarked, “I think I know a woman when I see one.”

“Watch yourself, mister!” McCabe waved a stubby finger in Frank’s face. “You are speaking to the law, boy! Just lead the way. I’ll see for myself.”

Frank, Rory and Scott started hiking up the dirt path when McCabe hollered, “Excuse me! I only said for him to show me.” He pointed at Frank. “You two stay here with Sergeant Myers.”

A tall, lanky sergeant with a shaved face and head strolled over to Scott and Rory. “Leave your weapons with me,” he looked at Frank as he collected the guns from Scott and Rory.

Myers hesitated when he turned to escort Rory and Scott and spun back to Frank. “What were you three hunting, anyway?”

Scott winked at Frank. “Birds,” he said proudly. “Oh, I mean. . .  Erm, mink?”

Frank shut his eyes, shaking his head. Why am I not surprised? “We’re hunting mink, officer.”

McCabe’s magnified blue eyes slid toward Myers. “We’ll worry about that later.”

Hiking up the path, McCabe drew a mini steno pad and pen from his jacket pocket and questioned Frank. “You told the nine-one-one operator that the victim had been murdered. How did you know that?”

“It didn’t take a genius to figure it out. Her neck’s sliced wide open.”

McCabe scrawled something in his notebook.

Frank assumed the worst: uncooperative witness. Bad attitude. Possible suspect? 

Fifteen minutes later they arrived at the crime scene.

“She’s over here on the left.” Frank pointed to a heavily wooded area off the path. He stopped and angled himself away from the corpse, unwilling to witness the slaughter again.

McCabe ordered, “Don’t move,” then hesitantly inched toward the victim, nostrils flared, blue eyes pinned on the rose. “Did anybody touch anything?”

Frank figured by “anyone” he meant him. “No. Jeez, why would I?”

After examining the wounds McCabe strode over to a local patrolmen, Officer Duncan, who had not emerged on the victim with him. He dragged him aside, but Frank still heard him.

“This is too big for us,” McCabe said. “We need to call Plymouth. They have a Homicide Unit.”

Officer Duncan’s freckled face blossomed, as if eager to involve himself in a real live murder case. His coarse, black curls jounced as he fumbled for his hand-held radio. “Sergeant Myers, sir!”

“Yes, Duncan. What is it?”

“Well, sir, there’s a dead woman here,” continued Duncan. “The killer did some sick things to her body. Cut her up bad.”

“What kind of sick things?”

“Stuck a rose in her eye. Carved something in her chest. I didn’t get a good look, but I hear she’s in rough shape. Umm, sir? Sheriff McCabe wants us to call Plymouth, sir.”

“Okay, Duncan. I’ll handle it. I’ve got a buddy in Homicide.”

Frank thought, Are you fuckin’ kiddin’ me? These guys don’t even know what to do?

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