Keelan Ellis © 2018
All Rights Reserved
“It’s huge,” Paul said. “Won’t it be too much for the space?”
“No, the simplicity of it will keep it from overwhelming. I think it might even make the room seem bigger.”
It was a chilly Sunday in March, and Owen had dragged Paul to the studio of a friend of his from his art school days, promising to find him something to put on the large expanse of blank wall in his apartment. Paul wasn’t sure he really cared, but he knew it was the kind of thing that bothered other people. He liked having art on the walls and furniture that looked nice, but he wasn’t gifted with an eye for any of that. His ex-boyfriend Andy had handled all that stuff for eight years, and now he had Owen to help him with it.
Paul had been dating Owen for almost four months. It worked out pretty well because Owen worked in a bar and usually had to be there until the end of the night. It was a relief for Paul not to feel guilty when work kept him late. Sometimes Owen would knock on his door at two or three in the morning, and Paul would stumble out of bed to let him in. He sometimes thought, in that sleep deprived state, that maybe he should just give him a key. That idea rarely made it to the light of day.
“Can I even afford it?” Paul asked.
“Well, what else do you spend your money on?” He eyed Paul up and down in a conspicuously critical way. “Not clothes, that’s for sure.”
“Ha,” Paul said, rolling his eyes.
“Your apartment is a one bedroom on the second floor, next to a house full of stoners in Charles Village. Come on, Paul. Be an adult and buy some art.”
“Yeah, well…” Paul stopped himself before he could say something he’d regret. It was kind of ironic to hear Owen telling him to grow up, but it wasn’t worth getting into. “Never mind. Fine. You’re right, I should spend money on something real.”
“Great!” Owen pulled Paul over to his friend Ara and helped him work out the details. When she went to wrap up the painting, Owen said, “Don’t think I don’t know what you were going to say before, by the way.”
“What are you talking about?” Paul asked innocently.
Owen smiled and shook his head. “I don’t want an argument. I just want you to know that I know.”
Paul studied his face for a moment. He didn’t look pissed. He looked a little bit smug, but that was fine. “I don’t want an argument either,” Paul said. He snaked an arm around Owen’s waist and pulled him tight to his side. “I still need you to hang this picture for me.”
“I understand,” Owen said. “I have a few requests myself that I hoped you could help me with.”
“Will I need a hammer?” Paul asked, grinning.
Once Owen had the picture up, Paul had to admit it improved the look of his modest apartment quite a bit.
“Thanks for doing that,” Paul said.
Owen shrugged. “No big deal. It looks great, don’t you think?”
“Yeah. Thanks for picking it out for me.” Paul put his arms around Owen’s shoulders. “We should go out for dinner. Anywhere you want.”
“I kind of want to just stay in tonight. Would you mind? We could just order food and find something on streaming.”
After a pause that went on slightly too long, Paul said, “Uh, yeah. Sure.”
“Nothing,” Paul said, shaking his head. “Sorry. I was just thinking of where we should order from. You want Indian food?”
With a slight frown, Owen said, “Sure, that sounds good. Do you have a menu?”
Paul wasn’t sure what had shown on his face that caused Owen to react, but there’d been a second when Paul felt a twinge of panic. It made no rational sense. Staying in and ordering dinner was exactly the kind of thing Paul usually wanted. His job was tiring, and he didn’t like crowds. But coming from Owen, for some reason, it bothered him, and Paul knew it was unfair.
“I’ll go get it,” Paul said. “You pick out something on Netflix.”
Paul put his unease aside. They watched an entire season of Luther, which Paul loved. He assumed it was as full of inaccuracies as most American police dramas, but because it was English, he wasn’t clear enough on the details of their system to be annoyed by it. Plus, Idris Elba. Owen ended up falling asleep with his head on Paul’s leg by the end. It was as domestic as any evening he’d ever spent with Andy, but instead of making him feel content and comfortable, he only felt restless. He prodded Owen awake and got him into bed.
It was still dark out when Paul was awoken by the phone in the middle of a confusing dream in which he was at a baseball game at Camden Yards with his dad, while somehow simultaneously on the field, playing shortstop for the Blue Jays. His dad was rooting against Toronto, of course, but every time he made a play or got a hit, his dad would say, “That’s okay, son, I love you no matter what.” Not the most subtle dream he’d ever had.
He groped for his phone on the nightstand and picked up. “Solomon.”
It was his boss, Lieutenant Cherise Masters. “I’m sorry to call you so early. I need you to meet Tim and the forensic team at a scene in Leakin Park. I’ll text you the coordinates.”
“Someone dumped a body?”
“You must be psychic, Solomon. Buried it, actually, and a long time ago by all accounts. Pretty much just bones at this point.”
Paul sat up and put his feet on the floor. “Wait. Bones? Seriously? You’re calling me in early on some cold case whodunit?”
Masters was silent, no doubt in an effort to intimidate him. Paul waited her out, and she finally sighed in resignation. “Human remains were found by a couple of guys with a podcast who are apparently doing a series of episodes on the so-called ‘bodies of Leakin Park’.”
“You have got to be shitting me.”
“The last thing we need is another goddamn Serial situation. It has to be done properly.”
“Yeah,” Paul said. “I’m on my way.” He hung up and looked over at Owen.
“You have to go right now?” Owen mumbled.
“Yeah, sorry. I hate to do this to you, but you have to get up. I’ll drop you off at home.” Paul pushed the hair out of Owen’s face and gave him a kiss.
Owen stretched and then burrowed further into the blankets. “I don’t have to work until four. I’ll just hang around and take the bus from here.”
“That would be fine, except you won’t be able to lock the deadbolt when you leave. Come on, get dressed.”
“Don’t you have an extra key?” Owen asked.
“No,” Paul lied. “I’m sorry.”
It was obvious Owen wasn’t buying it. He narrowed his eyes and said, “You said that already.”
Paul looked at him and realized that some kind of fight was brewing, and it wasn’t one he particularly wanted to have at the moment. Things between him and Owen had been great, for the most part, but that was going to change if they had to have the relationship conversation. It wasn’t a question Paul was in any way ready to answer. Regardless, he didn’t have time for it. He had to get to a crime scene. “I really need to get going. Can we do this later?”
“We could, but we probably won’t,” Owen grumbled. Still, he got out of bed and pulled his clothes on.
The silent ride from Charles Village to Mount Vernon was mercifully short, and when they pulled up in front of Owen’s building, Paul grabbed his wrist before he could get out. “Hey,” he said, “I don’t want to be in a fight with you.”
Owen sighed. “We’re not in a fight, Paul. You just hurt my feelings. I feel like you don’t trust me in your place.”
“It’s not that,” Paul said. “Look, it’s early. We’re both not in the best of moods. Can we do this later?”
“I had a nice time yesterday. Thanks for helping me with the painting. It looks great in my apartment, and there’s no way I could have picked it out myself.”
Owen smiled. “I had fun too.”
“Are we okay?” Paul asked.
Owen leaned over and kissed him. “More or less,” he said. “I’ll call you tomorrow.” He got out and walked into his building.
Traffic was beginning to pile up on Route 40 as Paul headed to the west side. Since catching the double murder in Irvington the previous September, he felt like he’d been spending even more time out that way in the last few months than when he’d been a patrolman in the Western District. He stopped at the nearby Royal Farms convenience store and picked up two coffees.
Paul pulled into a small parking area off Windsor Mill Road. There were several police cars and an ambulance in the lot. Tim stood at the edge of the woods. He scowled when he saw Paul’s car and flicked away his cigarette, blowing a cloud of smoke off to the side. Paul got out holding two large coffee cups and handed one to Tim without comment.
“I’m limiting myself,” Tim said, immediately on the defensive. “One with my first cup of coffee, one on my lunch break, and one after dinner.”
“Whatever. I’m not your mommy,” Paul said, although he’d love to lecture him, and not only because it stunk up the car. He wanted to remind him he had a daughter to raise, but it seemed unlikely that hadn’t occurred to him already.
“Thanks for the coffee.”
“You’re welcome. So what can you tell me?”
Tim’s grin made Paul a little uneasy. He knew his partner loved a bona fide mystery. Paul, not so much. “Come on, I’ll show you,” he said.
Tim gestured for him to follow, and they walked down a gravel path and over a wooden bridge. Shortly after that, they veered off the path and into the woods. They came to a large tree that had fallen over into a gulley, breaking off a sizable section of earth with it. Crime scene tape surrounded the entire area, and as they walked up an incline to where the base of the tree was, Paul saw a forensic team working on the excavation.
“The guys who called it in found a femur that looked like it had been gnawed on by some animal. They looked around a little until they found the burial site. The crime scene guys have netted what they think are some pieces of skull and part of an arm. They’re going to be here a while.”
“Any guesses on age or gender?”
“They’re saying it could be a teenager or a small woman, but nothing definite.”
“What’s the deal with these assholes who found the burial site?”
Tim waved his hand dismissively. “They have some kind of true crime podcast. I haven’t talked to them yet. Handed them off to a couple of unis to get their personal details, but I figured I’d wait for you to talk to them. Thought that might be entertaining.”
Paul walked closer to where the crime scene techs were digging. “So, the tree falling over uprooted a bunch of earth and then what? Erosion?”
“Seems like a good guess,” Tim said cheerfully.
“You’re enjoying this way too much. You must have read a lot of Sherlock Holmes as a kid.”
“Let me guess—you were more of a Poe guy. And speaking of people being way too excited about finding a dead body, let’s go talk to the, uh…journalists.”
They walked back out to the parking lot. Two guys, who Paul placed somewhere in their mid to late twenties, were huddled close to one of the squad cars. One of them, a tall, burly, red-haired guy with a full beard, noticed them and nudged his friend.
The big guy extended his hand as they approached. “Hey! Alex Martin,” he said.
Paul looked at his hand and then back at his face. “I’m Detective Solomon and this is Detective Cullen. You two found the bones?”
Martin lowered his hand, but his cheerful expression didn’t change. “Yeah! We almost walked over it, actually. We were on the way to the Hae Min Lee site. There’s renewed national interest in the case with Adnan being granted a new trial, so the timing seemed right.”
“Of course you were,” Paul said, sighing. “But why are you here? This is a podcast, right? It’s not like you’re filming something.”
“We wanted to get a feel for the area, since that’s a big part of the story. Plus we wanted to get supplemental photos to put on our website.”
“I see. So you just stumbled across it.”
“Yeah, man. Fucking crazy, right?”
“And you are?” Paul said, turning to the other podcaster, who was holding a device in his hand that looked like a large remote control. He was a bit older than his partner, and something about him was familiar. Paul couldn’t put his finger on it. He thought he might have seen a spark of recognition in the other man’s eyes as well.
“Oh. Uh. Mike Cohen.” The name was familiar too, but it wasn’t as if it was an unusual one.
“Anything you’d like to add regarding how you found the remains?”
“No. It’s just like he said. We were walking through and there it was. I almost tripped over it. Do the police have any theory yet on who this might be?”
Paul narrowed his eyes at Cohen. “Are you recording this?”
“I’m always recording,” Cohen said.
“Turn it off. I don’t give my permission for you to use my voice. Neither does anyone here. This is a homicide investigation.”
“So it’s definite that this is a murder?”
“We don’t know anything yet, and if we did, we wouldn’t be running it past you,” Paul said. “We will absolutely be in touch, but you’re free to go for now.” When the two men didn’t move, he gave them a hard look. “Let me rephrase. Go. Get the fuck out of here.”
“Hey man, this is public property, and we’re citizens. We have the right to be here.”
“You think so, do you?” Paul said. “Well, I personally find it suspicious that you two were out here looking for known body dump sites and just happened to find an actual body. Maybe we need to bring you in for further questioning. I can have some uniforms run you down there, and Detective Cullen and I will be with you when we finish up here.”
“Could be a few hours, though,” Tim put in quietly, grinning at the podcasters.
“Fine. Jesus. We’re going,” Martin said.
When they’d taken off, Tim said, “You seem a little short on patience this morning. Did the Lieutenant interrupt something good when she called?”
“No such luck,” Paul said. “Got into a fight to start the day.”
“Not bad, just…as yet unresolved.” He glanced over his shoulder at the podcasters, who were getting into their vehicle, one of those boxy things that resembled Fisher-Price cars. “I recognize that guy. Cohen. He’s so familiar.”
Tim shrugged. “He’s around your age. Maybe you went to school with him?”
“I guess it’s possible. He wasn’t in my year, if so. Anyway. Do we even have a starting point with this thing?”
“I don’t know what we can do until we get something from the forensics people. We’re basically useless here. This is a dump site, not the murder site.”
“I seriously cannot fucking believe Cherise is wasting our time on this. Whoever killed this person is probably dead by now. What’s the point? They should let some academy students take a crack at it for practice.”
Tim snorted and nodded in agreement, but the gleeful expression on his face hadn’t changed. “We speak for the dead, my friend,” he intoned with false solemnity.
“Bullshit. We speak for the people who might die in the future if we don’t catch the ones who are out there doing murder now.”
They both looked up the hill where one of the crime scene technicians was waving at them. Paul experienced a nearly insignificant glimmer of hope, and Tim smiled widely as he thumped him between the shoulders. “The game is afoot,” he said.
“For fuck’s sake,” Paul muttered.
They trudged back to the site. The tech beckoned them over to the burial site and handed them an evidence bag containing what appeared to be a small ceramic pendant, attached to a scrap of deteriorated brown leather. Paul pulled on gloves and held it up by the leather piece, squinting at it. It was in the shape of a skull with what looked like roses where its hair would be. There was a small hole where the teeth should have been.
“What is that?” Paul asked, speaking to himself as much as anyone. “I’ve seen something like it before.” He pulled out his phone and took a picture of it.
“It’s a Grateful Dead thing,” Tim said. “Give it here.”
Paul handed it over. “Jesus, how cold is this fucking case?”
“See the hole here?” Tim pointed at it. “That’s for sticking a joint in when it’s too little to hold anymore, similar to a roach clip. Hard to say how old it is; you still see Dead stickers on cars to this day. But yeah, I mean, it could be pretty fucking cold.”
“That’s great.” Paul scowled. “Can’t wait to do the search for missing hippies from the last forty years. Do you think that thing is mass produced, or could we possibly trace it to an artist?”
Tim was still holding the pendant, his forehead creased in a frown as he stared at it. When he didn’t answer, Paul nudged him, and he looked up as if startled out of a trance. “What? Oh. I can’t tell. It looks like the kind of thing you’d buy from the trunk of a car at a Dead show.” Tim stared at it for another second or two and then handed it back to the crime scene tech.
“Been to many Dead shows?”
Tim shrugged. “One or two. Back in the day. Why? What were you doing in the eighties?”
“Going to middle school,” Paul said.
“Great,” Tim muttered.
“Playing Little League, studying for my bar mitzvah—”
“I get it, I get it. Shut the fuck up.”
“Generally being younger than you, is what I’m saying.”
Tim sighed. “Anyway, I’m not sure what else we can do here until they’re finished with the site.”
“Yeah, okay. I was thinking I’d go online and see if I can get any information on that pendant. If it was something commercially available, maybe that can help us narrow down a time frame.”
“Don’t get started until I get there, because there’s something I need to check. I’ll meet you back at the station.”
“It could be nothing,” Tim said. He sat down at his desk and swiveled around to face Paul. “I called Prince George’s PD on my way over and asked them to find the file. Probably best to just drive down there and get it.”
“I know how much you love mysteries, but you should know I’m not such a big fan. Were you planning to fill me in on what this is, or do I need to wait for the big reveal?”
“In 1991, a nineteen-year-old girl named Penny Markowski disappeared from a Grateful Dead show in Landover. Or, more specifically, from the parking lot outside the show. As far as I know, she’s still considered a missing person. The thinking was that she was involved in that subculture, so she could have decided to drop out, run off with some dude with filthy blond dreads, and is now living off the grid somewhere in Idaho or God knows where. But her family and friends have always been adamant that it couldn’t have gone down that way.”
“They always are,” Paul said.
“How do you know so much about some PG County missing persons case, anyway? Were you even on the job in ninety-one?”
Tim shook his head. “I was in the Academy at the time. Penny went missing in Landover, but she was from Baltimore. She lived down in Pigtown, but she went to St. Catherine’s—class of ’90, same as my sister Kathleen. Kathleen was with her the night she disappeared.”
Paul’s eyebrows shot up. “You’re saying you might have known this vic?”
“I’m saying, I knew a girl who disappeared, who happened to be a Deadhead. And not even that well—I only met her a few times, in passing. But she disappeared a long way from Leakin Park. Why would they dump her here when they could have done it somewhere in PG County? There’s got to be way more remote spots down there.”
“Well…” Paul sat back. “You grew up in the city. Let’s say you killed someone, but it’s not like you’re some kind of hardened criminal. You’re scared, confused, maybe young. If you weren’t a cop, and you didn’t know your way around anywhere more than five miles beyond the beltway in any direction, what would you do? Drive around in unfamiliar territory for God knows how long, with a body in your trunk, looking for a place to dump it? Or would you go do it at the one place you’ve been hearing about since you were a kid?”
“Yeah. That makes sense.” He pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes. “The thing is, my sister was with her that night. They didn’t even have tickets; they were just hanging out in the parking lot with all the other dumb-ass broke hippies.”
“Is that a thing people did?”
“Yup.” Tim gave a short, humorless laugh. “Drop acid, dance around like idiots, pretend they’re part of some kind of movement.”
“Do you think your sister would be able to ID that necklace?”
Tim groaned. “Yeah, probably. The thing is, she’s always been a big proponent of the great escape theory. Said Penny was impulsive. Romantic. That it was just the kind of thing she’d do.”
Paul made a skeptical face. “Maybe, but to stay gone and undetected for twenty-seven years? She can’t really still believe it.”
“I doubt she does. Even if she’d run off, after this long with no word, my money’d be on a bad outcome at some point. From her perspective, I can see why she might think that, even though it’s kind of crazy. Kath met her husband that night, at that show.”
“Yep. She was hanging out with him that night, but they didn’t start going out until the next year when they ran into each other out of the blue at Towson State.”
“Huh. But still, that doesn’t mean she’s delusional.” Paul looked at his watch. “Would she be at work now?”
Tim shook his head. “She got downsized last year from a technical writing job. Now she works part-time from home doing freelance stuff.” He sighed. “Let’s do this.”