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CACHE OF
CORPSES

CHAPTER ONE

“It’s in the Dying Room,” Jenny Besonen said, voice strained, ample chest heaving. “And it has no head.”

Billy Ciric, her boyfriend, sat disconsolately next to her on a bench in the Poor Farm courtyard, staring at the breakfast he had splashed on the rusty flank of Amos Hoskinen’s tractor.

“What’s up in the Dying Room?” I asked. I was a bit breathless myself, having been yanked a few minutes earlier out of the Porcupine City Health Center, where I had been pumping a stationary bike for nearly an hour, and dispatched in the sheriff’s department’s Explorer out to the scene on State Highway M-38 three miles southeast of town.

“The body.” Jenny glanced at me almost accusingly, as if I should magically have known the reason for her distress.

“The body?”

“It’s a lady. She’s wrapped in plastic. And she has no head.” Jenny took a deep breath, mending her tattered composure.

“Go on.”

“We’d been exploring, and—” Jenny glanced away and hesitated. She wasn’t telling the truth. Seventeen-year-old kids are still too immature and transparent to lie convincingly. But it wasn’t yet time to insist on the facts, young lady, nothing but the facts.

“Anything else?”

“No . . . Ah . . . I don’t know.”

“Wait here, okay? I’ll have a look. Amos, would you keep an eye on Jenny and Billy?”

“Sure,” Amos said. He had not moved from the seat of his tractor, but had kept his phlegmatic calm ever since Jenny and Billy had scrambled, screaming in terror, out the front door of the Poor Farm and told him what they had stumbled across up in the Dying Room. Immediately Amos had relayed their discovery to the sheriff’s department on his cell phone—luckily, the Poor Farm lay within the spotty cellular coverage of Porcupine County—and I, the nearest deputy within the dispatcher’s grasp, had been hauled to work early and sent to the scene.

A tall, rawboned farmer and stable keeper, Amos was the latest in a succession of owners of the sprawling property once officially known as the Porcupine County Poor Farm and still called that. Looking almost like a brooding red-brick Victorian mansion gingerbreaded with cupolas and turrets—“Hogwarts West,” the local children say—the Poor Farm still catches the eye of motorists speeding by on the highway a hundred yards away.

More than a century ago Porcupine County built the Poor Farm to shelter two dozen or so indigents who worked the rocky, deforested fields in exchange for their survival. For poorhouses of the age, this one wasn’t so bad. Daily life there, I knew from the lecture the director of the Porcupine County Historical Society had given a year or so ago, was rugged but not cruel. The unfortunates were expected to help work the land if they could and do chores inside if they couldn’t. The Poor Farm had been no Dickensian horror but a lighthouse of modest respite in an unforgiving land where harsh winters arrive early, dig in deeply, and stay long.

From the highway, the place looked sturdy enough to be rehabilitated someday. Closer in, however, a visitor could see that splintered plywood shrouded half the Poor Farm’s windows while the glass in the other half simply had gone missing. Doors dangled askew from sprung hinges. Frayed blue plastic tarps, lashed loosely over holes in the roof, snapped in the wind. The two-foot-thick masonry, however, remained solid and mostly unblemished except for the faded five-foot-tall “EaT more BeeF” sign whitewashed by a shaky hand on the highway side. The notice had doubtless been posted by some desperate long-ago cattle farmer, perhaps the one who had bought and worked the house and its lands when the state took over care of the poor after the Second World War.

Inside, a large warm kitchen and a commodious parlor once had made up most of the now empty and cavernous ground floor. Shreds of straw left by the hay bales stored there in later years now shared the oaken planks with decades of rodent droppings. Upstairs, men had slept in a large dormitory room at one end, women in another across the wide hall, its door guarded by a stern Cerberus of a nurse. Children had occupied bunks on half the third floor, the highway side. A series of small rooms, used mostly for storage, separated them from the Dying Room, whose face was turned to the fields on the other side of the house.

The Dying Room was where the deathly ill awaited their fate, the thick interior walls insulating their cries and screams from the rest of the house. The arms of two tall men could have spanned the width of the room and almost its length. It had space for just two narrow beds, whose utilitarian steel frames and springs, now broken and rusted, still stood on the floor. Just off the room lay another chamber, little more than a closet, according to legend the coldest enclosure in the house during the winter. There plain wooden coffins and their contents were stored until the April thaw, when they could be discreetly smuggled down a back stairway and carted to potter’s field, where they were often buried in the presence of just two mourners, the gravedigger and a minister hired by the county to speed the souls on their way.

Carefully I mounted the front stairs to the third floor, brushing away decades of cobwebs as splintered oaken treads creaked in annoyance. I stepped over the dusty threshold of the Dying Room.

That was the perfect name, for the place itself looked bound for the boneyard. A jagged fissure gaped between the ruined walls and stained ceiling, sagging like a double bed in a cheap motel. Shattered lath grinned from lightning-shaped cracks in the plaster walls. Most of the elaborately carved oaken frieze molding had been pried out and salvaged decades ago.

On one of the bedsprings lay the sight that had so upset Jenny and Billy. A rectangular shroud of thick plastic sheeting, sealed all around to form a transparent but airtight container, encased a yellowish-green corpse. The plastic bulged slightly from gas emitted by slow decomposition. A thick scrim of moisture clouded the inside of the soiled plastic, like a dirty shower curtain in a humid bathroom, blanketing a clear view of the contents. I could see enough of the shape within to tell that it was the nude body of a woman, probably young judging by the firmness of the breasts and tightness of the thighs. It had neither head nor hands. Instead of looking like a once living body, it resembled a mutilated life-size statue toppled off its pedestal in a ruined Greek temple.

I stood, picked my way back through the third floor and down the rickety stairs, and strode out into the courtyard. Deputy Chad Garrow, whose patrol area encompasses the Poor Farm, stood talking to Jenny, Billy and Amos. Chad had been writing a traffic ticket twenty minutes south on U.S. 45, hence I had been called in early to investigate. I quickly filled him in on what I had seen in the Dying Room.

“Shall I radio Alex?” Chad asked. Detective Sergeant Alex Kolehmainen was the local state police forensics investigator and the authority we almost always called in to investigate suspicious deaths. The state police are better equipped for that than are tight-budgeted sheriff’s departments in rural counties whose population—and tax base—shrinks by ten per cent every decade. And this at first looked like a homicide, although doubts were beginning to seep into my head.

“Do that,” I said in a whisper. “Then talk to the kids. Soften ’em up.”

After radioing Alex from his cruiser, Chad quietly chatted with Jenny and Billy, still sitting on the bench in the warm noonday sun outside the manor house. They were both high school seniors, and I knew them. Billy was tall, black-haired in a modified Marine crew cut, good-looking and muscular. A star football player at Porcupine City High School, Billy was a tight end promising enough for a football scholarship to half a dozen universities. His black sleeveless T-shirt set off his well-cut biceps. Only a bent nose, the product of a hard check into the goal on a hockey rink, marred his sculpted features.

Jenny, the oldest daughter of a dairy farmer, was a sturdy and slightly chubby but winsome and pretty blonde whose loose chambray work shirt, denim overalls and swampers—rubber-bottomed leather boots—couldn’t conceal her abundant womanliness. Her arms and shoulders had been built up by years of farm work, many of them with the heifers that always scored well in the 4-H division at the county fair. Doubtless she had been mucking out stalls that morning, for she smelled cowy, a homey aroma of sweet milk and stale dung whose familiarity comforts rather than repels the country dweller.

Both were nice, hard-working, intelligent kids who applied themselves in school, and both were headed to college, Billy to the University of Michigan and Jenny to Michigan Tech. He wanted to follow his dad into law and she was hoping to become a veterinarian. I thought both would achieve their dreams—and after graduation probably would leave Porcupine County for good. Jobs are hard to get in a land where the mines have long closed and where most of the tall pines and cedars were cut down more than a century ago, and what jobs there are don’t pay much. I just hoped Billy wouldn’t get Jenny pregnant, as happened so often up here. Young dreams are so easily ruined by careless rolls in the hay.

Jenny and Billy laughed with Chad, as if the kids had forgotten the unpleasant sight in the Dying Room. I was not surprised. Chad, as amiable as he was large, knew how to get witnesses to relax, even to let down their guards so they would tell the truth while being interrogated. He was the perfect good cop who made witnesses and suspects alike think he was on their side.

And now playing tough cop was my job. Jenny and Billy, after all, had found the body, and even in the most remote reaches of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, those who find bodies are always the first to be questioned, if only to be quickly eliminated as suspects. Despite the astronomical odds against kids like Jenny and Billy having anything to do with the presence of that corpse, I decided to approach them as if they might have. You never know.

I beckoned Billy over to the Explorer, ushering him out of Jenny’s earshot so that their stories would be independent of each other’s.

“Hop in,” I said. “We might as well make ourselves comfortable while we sort this out.” I looked back at Jenny, giggling as the beaming Chad, easily ten years her elder, flirted shamelessly with her.

“Okay,” Billy said, his expression earnest and helpful.

“Let’s start at the beginning,” I said. “How did you come to be on the Poor Farm?”

“We were exploring,” he said, looking at me with a steady gaze, “and— ”

“Exploring?” I interrupted. “Really?” That’s what Jenny had said, too, but I didn’t believe Billy, either.

“Um—”

“Billy, tell the truth. If you’re straight with me and you’re in the clear, I’m not going to tell anybody what you were really doing.” I was better at playing stern uncle than bad cop.

The kid blushed. “Okay, Mr. Martinez.” He looked off into the distance.

“Steve’s fine.”

“Steve.” He slowly tried out the word, as if being asked to call a figure of authority by his given name was another step into adulthood. The invitation was a favorite ploy of mine. Some cops insist on maintaining a dominating distance from those they are interrogating, encouraging a little fear to get them to talk. But casual friendliness often encourages subjects to join me on a mutual path toward the truth. I wasn’t chummy like Chad, but I kept the door open.

I waited.

“Well,” Billy said tentatively, “Jenny and I wanted to make out, and we thought the Poor Farm would be a good place to do it. Nobody ever comes here. Nobody would see us.”

“Billy,” I said, “I know as well as you do that there must be a million places in Porcupine County where a boy and a girl can go to make out without anybody catching them.” I stressed the term to tell him I knew exactly what he meant by it. “Why the Poor Farm, really?”
Billy glanced at me half nervously and half slyly. “Because Jenny and I done it in a million places already,” he said.

I had to stifle a smile. But Billy wasn’t boasting or playing the smartass, just being matter-of-fact. Kids these days approach sex casually, as if it has all the significance of a good breakfast before school.

“We thought the Poor Farm would be exciting. Especially the Dying Room.” That he knew the place’s history wasn’t surprising. Every kid as well as adult in the county did, thanks to the bloodcurdling stories their parents told them every Halloween about the ghosts of the lost and abandoned that wafted out of the Dying Room.

“Did you bring protection?” I asked.

Billy bristled. “You’re not my dad.”

“No,” I said as gently as I could. “But did you?”

“Yes.”

“Let’s see.”

After a moment’s hesitation he pulled a foil-wrapped Trojan from his shirt pocket. That the condom was in his pocket, not his wallet, told me he had planned to use it right away, that his intention in trespassing upon the Poor Farm was exactly what he said it was. Besides, I reflected idly, what was there to steal or trash in such a godforsaken place?

“Okay, Billy. I believe you. Put it away.” With only a little prompting he related the rest of the story. Shortly after noon he and Jenny had parked her pickup on the disused dirt road that marked the eastern boundary of the Poor Farm property a quarter of a mile away. They then crept across the meadow, tiptoeing carefully through a minefield of cow patties, to the back of the manor house. They entered it through a doorway whose door was long gone, and enough daylight filtered through the ruined windows to show them the way up the creaking back stairs, festooned with cobwebs, to the Dying Room.

“With some of the seniors at Porky High,” Billy finally said, “it’s a kind of a game to do it in cool places. We try to top each other. A couple of my friends did it in the district courtroom one night. We did it at high noon on the hardware store roof during the Fourth of July parade, and another time somebody used the cab of the pumper in the fire station. We all used the old shipyard building at the end of Main Street.”

I remembered that one. In one of the smaller rooms earlier in the year, a caretaker had discovered a mattress, an old microwave oven, a small television and a DVD player, and a couple of porn videos. How long it had been a love nest for teen-agers was anybody’s guess.

“Once me and Jen used the bridge tender’s shelter. The door was open.”

I whistled. That tiny cubbyhole atop the State Highway M-64 swing bridge over the Porcupine River must be tighter than the backseat of a Volkswagen Bug. Then I had a thought. “The lighthouse?” I asked. The previous week someone had broken into the old Coast Guard structure, now owned by the historical society, jimmying a window and leaving screwdriver marks, but had disturbed nothing else.

Billy blushed. “Yes. They did it right on top of the pedestal where the lens used to be.”

I shook my head, covering a chuckle by saying sternly, “That could be a dangerous game. That was breaking and entering, a misdemeanor meaning ninety-three days in jail and a five-hundred-dollar fine. If they had done anything else illegally at the same time, like swiping something or drinking underage, they could have been charged with a felony—and given a stretch in state prison.”

“Yeah, but—”

I didn’t tell Billy that Garner Armstrong, the county prosecutor and a man vastly experienced in the thoughtless stupidities of youth, most likely would offer the lighthouse miscreants a plea bargain for unlawful entry of an unoccupied building and a light sentence of a few months on probation and community service. If nothing was stolen or wrecked, Garner wouldn’t apply the heavy lumber. To him it wasn’t a matter of giving a youngster a sentimental break. He hated to ruin young lives with felony records. Good thing, too. Kids liked to break into deer camps deep in the woods for beer parties and “making out.” Usually they were smart enough to clean up after themselves, and only when they left a mess or did damage did the sheriff’s department apply its scarce manpower to an investigation.

“So you take each other’s word that you’ve really, uh, done it in the places you claim?” I asked.

“No, we prove it with pictures from a digital camera.” I closed my eyes. Oh, Billy, Billy, Billy. I tried to keep the disapproval out of my voice, but failed.

“That’s dangerous. What if the wrong people get hold of the pictures?”

“They won’t. We don’t make prints. We keep them on our computers and upload them to each other by email.”

“That’s not such a good idea.”

“Why?”

“Somebody else could get at them. Your parents. Your little brothers or sisters. Believe me, it happens.”

“Well  . . .”

“I think you and your friends had better think carefully about this game. It could have consequences you never imagined.”

I decided to go no further with the lecture. Too much censure might make Billy clam up. “All right, go on with your story.”

Only mildly chastened, Billy related how he and Jenny climbed the back stairs to the third floor, opened the door to the Dying Room and found the corpse. The gruesome sight, of course, deflated their excited lust. Screaming, they half-stumbled, half-ran across the third floor, down the front stairs and out into the front courtyard, where, I knew, Billy had vomited on Amos’ tractor, barely missing the astonished farmer in the John Deere’s seat. Jenny, being the daughter of a farmer and used to the less pleasant sights of animal husbandry, kept her cool—or most of it. In many ways the females of the human species in Upper Michigan are tougher than the males.

Immediately, Billy said—he delicately avoided mention of decorating Amos’ tractor—he and Jenny told the farmer what they had seen, and they dutifully remained on the scene while the farmer called the sheriff’s department. Teenagers can be both reckless and responsible.

“You never saw that body before?” I asked.

Billy glanced sharply at me. “Of course not.”

“Dumb question,” I said. “But it always has to be asked. All right. I’m done with you. I’m going to talk to Jenny now, and if what she says backs up what you said, that will be all I need from you, and you can go home. I think you were straight with me, and I’ll keep your secret.” Billy nodded, his confidence returning. I could see that he believed Jenny would back him up in the smallest detail.

And so she did, although she displayed absolutely no embarrassment when she told me what she and Billy had intended to do in the Dying Room. She had also brought protection.

“You can’t always expect a boy to do the smart thing,” Jenny said.

“You think breaking into the Poor Farm was a smart thing to do?” I said, trying to stifle an amused tone.

“You sound like an old fart, Mr. Martinez,” she said. “Weren’t you young once?”

I didn’t take offense. Her words were smart-ass but her tone wasn’t. It was just the way many of today’s kids spoke, respectful of their elders but not deferential toward them. They had grown up with a directness my generation hadn’t.

“All right, you have me there,” I said. “I do agree that being prepared is a smart idea.”

Conservative pastors in the Upper Peninsula, especially the evangelicals, preach abstinence, which is a perfectly sensible thing to practice but in my opinion hasn’t a prayer against the raging hormones of the teen-age years. Youngsters in the Michigan backwoods are just as sexually active as those in the cities and suburbs. In the Great White North there isn’t much for kids to do in their off hours besides play sports, smoke dope and make whoopee while waiting until they’re old enough to depart for the bright lights.

While I was talking to Jenny, Alex had arrived in his cruiser, returned my wave, was quickly filled in by Chad, and had mounted the stairs with his forensics kit to the Dying Room.

“Stay here a while,” I said to Jenny and Billy, and followed the trooper into the manor house.

“This stiff was meant to be found,” Alex announced heartily as I entered the Dying Room and found him squatting by the body. “But not to be identified.”

The lanky trooper rose to his feet like a folding wooden carpenter’s rule, rearranging the angles of his knees and elbows until he stood straight, and surveyed the scene. What he said made sense. The plastic-shrouded corpse had been laid carefully on the bedspring, only the closed door hiding it from the rest of the house. But why? Few people braved the place. I suspected months, maybe a year or even two, went by before anyone—usually Amos—opened the door to that room.

“Deputy Sheriff,” Alex said presently, addressing me with the exaggerated formality he always adopted when he wanted to insert the needle, which was every other day, “what do you think? If you are capable of thought.”

Long ago I had learned not to rise to the bait. Alex is my second closest friend in Porcupine County. Number one is Virginia Anttila Fitzgerald, a gorgeous native daughter and the historical society director who had given the Poor Farm lecture I had attended. Alex is a master of irony and indirection as well as the owner of an impish sense of humor. We worked together easily, partly because he never lorded it over me like some state troopers who like to treat county deputies like not-too-bright lackeys and gofers, and partly because our investigative skills had complemented each other’s through several knotty cases.

“Detective Sergeant,” I said with equal gravity, “I am not sure we are looking at a homicide.”

“And why is that?”

“This body looks pickled.”

“What makes you think so?”

“Same color as the embalmed casualties I saw in Kuwait.” I had been an Army lieutenant after college and criminal justice school, commanding a company of military police during Desert Storm. Now and then my tasks took me to the Graves Registration mortuary outside Riyadh where dead American soldiers were prepared for the sad journey home. “No blood at the points of amputation. Unless I miss my guess, those cuts on the abdomen were made by a mortician’s trocar.”

“Hmm.” Alex’s eyes rose in mock surprise. He knows even more than I do about corpses. On his way to detective sergeant he had been trained thoroughly in forensics and evidence gathering. He still often did double duty as the evidence technician he once was, for the tight-fisted Wakefield state police post commander hated to pay overtime to his two busy crime scene techs.

“How long do you think this has been here?” I asked.

“Hard to tell. In a place like this the dust isn’t often disturbed to swirl around and settle on things. But there’s only a fine layer, almost invisible, on this plastic. My guess is probably a month, six weeks tops.”

“Shall we open the—uh—shroud and take a look?” I was kidding.

“No, no, no!” said Alex. “Let the white coats at Marquette do that. Besides, we didn’t bring hazmat suits.” The laboratory investigators did most of their work at the state police crime lab in Marquette, 120 miles to the southeast. Carefully Alex photographed the scene and its grisly contents. “Let’s turn her over,” he said after a while. We did so, careful not to tear the plastic shroud on the broken bedsprings. “Looky this,” he said, pointing to a soiled white computer label, an inch high by three inches wide, neatly affixed to one corner of the plastic. On it was imprinted a bar code.

“Hmm, I don’t see a sell-by date.” Alex’s sense of humor is sometimes questionable. He photographed the label.

“Maybe it’ll tell us where the body came from,” I said. “Although I don’t think undertakers put bar codes on their handiwork.”

“Why not?” said Alex. “It’d speed the bodies through the celestial cash register.” I winced and shook my head. But I knew that Alex’s lighthearted remarks were just a veteran cop’s way of coping with unpleasant sights. Police officers may sound callous and hard-hearted, but the truth is that we are as moved as anyone else by the sight of human death.

“Just a sec,” he said. He reached under the bedsprings and fished out a quarter and a penny. “These don’t look all that old.”

“Dates?” I said.

“Nineteen ninety-two on the quarter, twenty-oh-one on the penny.”

“Not so old,” I agreed. “ ’Ninety-two quarters are still in common circulation.”

“What do they mean?” Alex said. “Perp drop them accidentally?”

“Probably. Took something out of his pocket, the coins followed.”
For a couple of beats, we fell silent. Then Alex said, “Let me show you the back stairs.”

We left the Dying Room and walked down the narrow hall to the stairs, carefully keeping to the sides where the joists better supported the rickety floorboards. Alex played his big Maglite on the dust shrouding the topmost treads of the narrow stairway.

“See the tracks in the dust? Three different people came up this way very recently.”

“And two of them were Jenny and Billy.”

“Who’re they?”

“The kids outside with Chad and Amos.” I told Alex what they had said, keeping the story brief but frank.

“Hmm,” he replied. “Every generation invents its own excitement, I guess.”

“What was yours?”

“Oh, the usual kind, beer and cigarettes. We weren’t terribly adventurous.”

“Speak for yourself.” He and I were the same age.

“Here, take this footprint kit and make impressions of the kids’ shoes, will ya? That’ll eliminate two sets of tracks. That means the third could have been left by the perp. Not that his tracks are likely to hang him, but you never know.”

 I did so, and in the courtyard half an hour later Alex said, “We’re done here. I’ll call the meat wagon.”

Afterward we sent Billy and Jenny on their way, and with Chad’s help, Alex and I carried the gruesome package down the front stairs, carefully keeping it clear of rusty nail heads and jutting lath, and zipped it into a body bag. That wasn’t necessary to protect the vehicle from the corpse, for the clear plastic shroud was far stronger than a body bag, but we didn’t want anyone to have to see what was inside. Then we rolled it into a hearse from the Beninghaus Funeral Home for the trip to Marquette. When it had gone, Alex turned to me and said, “Soon’s I hear from Marquette forensics, I’ll give you a call.”

He didn’t have to, but I knew he would. In the small world of Upper Michigan police work, Alex and I are a comfortable old crime-fighting couple. We bust perps together, drink together, hunt together, play golf together, take our women out together, and in general behave like buddies—all activities that many county sheriffs and state police brass disapprove of, because they think deputies and troopers should remain carefully separated in their assigned slots in the pecking order of law enforcement. Hierarchy has its uses.

And, in what passes for Upper Michigan politics, Alex is my campaign manager. Self-appointed and unofficial, of course.

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