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THE RIDDLE
OF
BILLY GIBBS


CHAPTER ONE

A tall and lanky figure in my office doorway blocked the light from the squad room in the Porcupine County Sheriff’s Department, as always happens when Detective Sergeant Alex Kolehmainen of the Michigan State Police comes to call. I leaned back in my chair, folded my hands and prepared myself for another of the detective’s gnomic observations, as he likes to call the smartass remarks that always precede his hellos. Alex loves to lay these comments upon me, but long ago I learned to ignore them.

This time there was no twinkle in Alex’s eye.
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“Just got a call from Selena Novikovich,” he said with unusual gravity. Selena is my counterpart in Mackinac County, whose seat is St. Ignace, five hours and 275 miles from Porcupine City due east across Upper Michigan. “And it’s bad news.”

“Let’s hear it.”

“This morning Selena and her deputies found a male African American corpse hanging by the neck from a tree in the woods north of St. Ignace,” Alex said. “He has no chest. Looks like someone fired a howitzer at near point-blank range right through his back. Blood and tissue on the clothes but none on the ground. Lividity had set in. Body temperature the same as outside. The shooting was done elsewhere, at least nineteen hours earlier, probably more.”

“Who’s the victim?” I said, dreading the answer.

Alex took a deep breath before replying.

“Forensics hasn’t yet finished the identification,” Alex said, “but the driver’s license in the victim’s wallet belongs to Billy Gibbs.”

“Holy shit.” I shut my eyes. This was not news I wanted to hear.

“Holy shit indeed,” Alex said, folding himself into the chair in front of my desk.

In my jurisdiction less than a month before, Billy Gibbs, who was just about the only African-American in all of Porcupine County, had been found not guilty of criminal sexual conduct in the third degree—forcible rape—in a two-day trial. Our little community had been divided even before the trial and its outcome, and feelings were still running high. This news was going to be a bombshell.

“Hanging from a tree?” I said. “Selena calling it a hate crime?”

“Not yet. But it looks that way. Of course forensics is processing the clothes and the shoes and the fingernails and stuff, looking for clues about where the victim had been and maybe where he was killed, but Selena doesn’t hold out much hope that we’ll learn anything useful. But she’ll be calling to ask you to canvass folks in Porcupine County and let her know if you find any leads.”

“Sure,” I said. “I’ll get right on it.”

Before I could do that, Sheriff Novikovich called. It was midafternoon, a few hours after Alex had left.

I like Selena, having encountered her on the job a dozen times during inter-county co-operation, as we officially call coming to the aid of a fellow sheriff in a troublesome case. Every year I hoist a Molson’s or two with her at the annual gathering of Upper Michigan sheriffs, which we used to hold at the very grand Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island when county coffers were flush. Now, in these difficult economic times, we must settle for a nondescript chain motel in Marquette or Munising.

She is one of the most visually striking women I have ever seen, but not for the usual reasons. She is a shade under six feet tall, with broad shoulders, narrow hips, slim legs and a small round butt. The modest bulk she has packed on over her fifty or so years has gone all above the waist, giving her the look of a weightlifter who neglected her thighs and calves. Both of her young adult daughters are built the same way, except for the added weight. She wears her graying blonde hair in a long ponytail thrust through the vent of her sheriff’s ball cap. Her still pretty features have softened into a comfortable face that can instantly transform into a slab of steel when she is angered.

She speaks in a smoky contralto that reminds me of Lauren Bacall at her most come-hither, but Selena is hardly a cougar. Rather, her usual manner is gentle and even grandmotherly, especially with first offenders and teen-agers. Repeat customers, however, bring out brusque disapproval. One does not make sexist remarks or moves around her. Once, when a belligerent logger grabbed her breast outside a bar, she threw him across her hip into a brick wall and on the rebound cold-cocked him with her baton. A few of her sparring partners have sued, but she has won in court every time. She has been the sheriff of Mackinac County for ten years, winning re-election by wide margins, and for fifteen years before that was a deputy and an undersheriff.

In all that time I have known her to be a crackerjack investigator, thorough and careful, almost never taking a case to her prosecutor that she thought he couldn’t win. She also has the rare talent of accurately sizing up a crime at first glance. But this time she was stumped.

“Steve, I don’t know what the hell this is,” she said as soon as I picked up the phone. “What’s Alex told you?”

“Just the tree, the wound, the lack of blood, and the apparent name of the victim.”

“Not apparent anymore,” Selena said. “Forensics made the official ID just an hour ago.”

I let out a long sigh.

“I heard about the case and the trial,” Selena said, somewhat unnecessarily. Law enforcement in Upper Michigan keeps tabs on major felonies everywhere in the region. Every sheriff and deputy knew the fine details of the sexual assault charge, trial and release of the black man in Porcupine County.

“Hanging suggests a racial motive, a felony hate crime,” I said. “But if it were a genuine lynching, the killing and the hanging would have been done at the same time, probably by a mob, wouldn’t it?”

“No mob at the scene. We’re still looking for evidence, but so far we’ve found only one set of shoe prints under the tree. Field & Stream field boots, size eleven medium. Gibbs was wearing Nike walkers and there are no prints from them, just drag marks. A single partial print made by a smooth-soled moccasin was found next to a bush several yards away, but it’s anybody’s guess when it was made. It could have been earlier or later. Impossible to tell what size it was.”

“Field & Streams, eh?” I said. “That narrows the list of suspects to about, what, twenty-five thousand?” Field & Stream is one of the most common brands of work and hunting boots in the north country. “If we find the owner of those boots, maybe we’ve got the killer.”

“Maybe not,” Selena said. “Maybe just the hangman.”

“You think more than one person is involved?” I said.

“Who knows?” Selena has never been known to jump to a conclusion.

“Size eleven?”

“Fairly big guy, huh?”

“Anything else?” I said.

“We found a buckshot pellet embedded in the back of Gibbs’ leather belt,” Selena said. “From the size of the entry wound between the shoulder blades and the slight specking of burnt powder it appears that someone fired at least two loads of Double-Oh from not more than ten feet away. Probably twelve gauge.”

“Murder in the first degree,” I said. “That was no accident.”

“Obviously,” Selena said, but she was not being ironic.

“Is that it?”

“No,” said Selena. “There was black stamp sand in Gibbs' pants cuffs. Forensics hasn’t yet done an analysis, but one of my deputies says it looks like it comes from the beach just west of Houghton.”

That stretch of the shoreline of Lake Superior is famous for the coarse sand, a byproduct of the ore stamping mill at the once booming village of Freda. The mill crushed trap rock separated from native copper dug up at mines near Painesdale in Houghton County in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The mill closed in 1967 and Freda has all but dried up, as have so many former copper towns in the Upper Peninsula.

“What about the other black sand beaches?” I said. During the heyday of Upper Michigan’s Copper Range, similar mills had operated on Keweenaw Bay just south of Houghton, a bit north of Baraga and on Torch Lake near Hubbell, all within nine miles of each other. They had also dumped ore stampings, often containing toxic chemicals, into the water.

“My deputy grew up near Freda and swears the sand is from there,” Selena said. “Houghton LEOs have already started searching the lakefront and countryside near Freda, asking if anyone saw Gibbs there and when, and are looking for evidence of a shooting. They’ll work their way south and east. It’ll be a few days before forensics can confirm where the sand came from. No time to lose. Needle in a haystack, but we’ve got to do it.”

“Yup.” Sheriff Novikovich was doing exactly what Sheriff Martinez would have done.

“You got any usual suspects at your end of the Yoop?” Selena asked. “People who might have done it?”

“I can think of a few,” I said. “Maybe more.”

“You have much trouble with racists?” she said.

“Not really,” I said. “We’re pretty well behaved here. At least in that regard.”

It was the answer she expected.

“It’s all below the surface, eh?” she said. “Like in a mine.”

“Yup.”

“Hold on. The medical examiner’s calling. He seems to have done the autopsy quickly.”

I waited for a long moment. Finally Selena came back on the line.

“Holy shit,” she said.

That was the third time that day I’d heard the phrase. That was not good.

“Hmm?” I said.

“Cause of death was strangulation, the med examiner says. Petechiae in the eyes and fluid in what remains of the lungs. The noose didn’t break his hyoid. A length of twine did. Fragments of binder’s twine are embedded in the skin of his neck.”

“Holy shit,” I said.

“Yes. Gibbs was killed before he was shot and hanged. Examiner says the gunshots came within seconds after the strangling. The arteries were still pumping.”

“But why?”

“God knows. Somebody really had it in for this guy.”

“It could be a lynching,” I said. “All that violent stuff fits the historical pattern.” Over the centuries, unreasoning rage has driven people to extremes in killing their enemies, real or perceived. They have shot, stabbed, hanged, beheaded, burned and dismembered their victims, scattering the limbs to the four corners.

“Or not,” Selena said.

“Any defensive wounds?” Victims often fight back, bruising their knuckles and tearing their fingernails.

“None at all. Just rope burns on his wrists. Clothesline, it looks like.”

“He could have known his killer,” I said.

“Or killers.”

“There’s those bootprints. Could one person have done all this? Gibbs was no wimp. He was strong and athletic. If it really were just one person, then maybe Gibbs knew him and let down his guard and was taken by surprise.”

“You got something there.”

For a few moments we poked and prodded our thoughts, trying to make sense of what we knew and needed to know. Then Selena spoke.

“I’m thinking the strangling and the shooting were done in a blind rage, but the hanging was a deliberate and considered act that took place some time afterward. Maybe it meant the killer wanted us to think his motive was racial. Maybe it really wasn’t, that he was covering up something else.”

“Yes,” I said. “But.”

“But what?”

“Billy Gibbs was a black man in white country. He was accused of raping a white woman and was found not guilty. That’s reason enough for plenty of people in Porcupine County and elsewhere to want him dead.”

Selena fell silent. “There’s that,” she finally said. “Oh, Jesus. This is giving me a headache.”

“We’ll do our best,” I said, meaning her fellow policemen and women from all over the Upper Peninsula. Sheriffs, deputies, state troopers, tribal officers, conservation officers, even Forest Service and state park rangers. We all lent our aid, especially when everybody was short-staffed and needed help in major cases.

“I’m hoping the killing went down outside Mackinac County,” she said. “That would make it somebody else’s problem and I can stay the hell out of it and go back to doing my usual job. That's hard enough.”

Yet Selena, I knew, would be there for me, loaded for bear, if Billy Gibbs had been murdered in Porcupine County. And if he had, I would need help. Lots of it. Because it seemed to me that there was a better than even chance that the motive for murder had been racial.

“Got your back,” I said. “I’ll get cracking right now.”

“Thanks,” she said, and we hung up.

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