|“Start at the beginning,” I said,
stepping gingerly away from the
corpse in the sand. It had a hole in its chest. But Elmer Knapp had
none, and he proceeded at full throttle and with a bottomless fuel
tank. Mr. Knapp had found the body.
“Me and the wife are
from Bloomville, Wisconsin,” the octogenarian said, sweeping off his
threadbare fisherman’s porkpie and mopping his head, its bald white
pate divided neatly from his stubbly cheeks by a deep farmer’s tan.
Like many vacationing heartland country dwellers of his generation, he
dressed not in the Lands’ End shirts and stonewashed jeans of
midwestern Baby Boomers but in faded military khakis and a
flap-pocketed blue chambray work shirt buttoned all the way up, collar
gaping around his tanned turkey neck. From his frayed pants cuffs
jutted stained, scuffed work boots with lug soles. Dead center on his
rawhide string tie lay a bright Navajo turquoise clasp, no doubt a
souvenir from a vacation in the Southwest. He looked utterly authentic,
and for the most part sounded the same way.
“That’s down near
Antigo in Langlade County, you know. Last Saturday, that’s two days
ago, we were going to go to Bayfield—that’s out by the Apostle Islands,
you know—because Aunt Pearl has been poorly with the arthur-itis, and
the wife wanted to get something pretty to cheer her up. But I can’t
stand that gift-shop junk—you know, Bayfield is becoming touristier and
touristier with every passing year, and all it’s doing is attracting
the wrong kind of people from all over, you know, the ones who throw
McDonald’s trash all over the highway, and . . .”
By this point most
other police officers would have rolled their eyes and said in so many
words, “Yes, yes, can we get to the point?” But I believe in letting
witnesses rattle on, even elderly ones no longer inclined or even able
to distinguish relevant from irrelevant. You never know what might
spill out when a witness charges along under a head of steam.
“And?” I said in an
“And I managed to
persuade Elfrieda, that’s the wife, that her Aunt Pearl, who loves
pretty stones, might like an agate or two from the shore of Lake
Superior. So we decided to drive to Porcupine City and rent a cabin for
a few days, as we’ve done a week or so every other year since 1957 or
thereabouts, and hunt up some stones on the beach. That was last
Friday. No, I said it was Saturday, didn’t I? What day is today?”
“Monday,” I said.
“Yes, that’s right, we
have eggs Monday mornings,” Mr. Knapp said firmly. “It’s definitely
Monday. Sunny side up.”
“Then what happened?” I
“After breakfast we
started walking west down on the beach looking for agates. In the
morning when the sun is low it’s best to keep it at your back so you
can see the pretty rocks sparkling ahead of you, you know. It was kind
of foggy, though.”
I nodded and jotted a
word in my notebook. Foggy.
“After about an hour we
heard a sport fisherman raise its anchor and start its engines maybe
half a mile off the beach. That was probably the Mary-El. You know,
that’s a party boat, takes people fishing.”
“Yup.” Another jot.
Mary-El. A thirty-six-footer out of Silverton, just about the only
sizable commercial sport fishing vessel along the 150-odd miles of
nearly deserted Lake Superior shoreline between Ashland, Wisconsin, and
Houghton, Michigan. I’d been aboard her myself a couple of times, on
forays for lake trout.
“Just barely,” Mr.
“ ’Bout what time was
“Eight-fourteen. I just
happened to check my watch. It’s a Timex, you know, the best
twenty-dollar watch in the world, never stops running. I got her at a
garage sale. You know what I paid?”
He leaned toward me
conspiratorially. “Two bucks.”
“Wow,” I said. “That’s
“Damn right,” he said.
Another thrifty child of the Depression, the kind who hunts for
mail-order and garage-sale bargains, clips coupons, never pays retail,
and always buys a used car. I admire those who are careful with their
money because they have to be, as I suspected Mr. Knapp was, and pity
the tightwads who don’t need to scrimp but still boast about their
steals at Costco and Sam’s Club. The rich man who walks a mile to save
a penny is a sad human being indeed.
“Was that Central time
or Eastern time?”
“Central. I don’t
change my watch up here. Makes me late to supper.”
Though it lies
seventy-two miles farther west than Chicago, Porcupine City, seat of
Porcupine County, runs on Eastern time, like the rest of Michigan
except the four counties along the Wisconsin state line. Michiganders
who live next to Wisconsin just find it easier to live by Central time.
In Porcupine County, however, being on Eastern time means late dawns
and late sunsets during the summer. Often last light doesn’t fade until
“What happened next?”
“By and by, maybe ten
minutes later,” he said, “Elfrieda tapped me on the shoulder and said,
‘Elmer, that’s odd.’ I looked up and saw a bunch of crows, half a dozen
or so, way up the beach pecking at a log half in and half out of the
water. Now crows don’t usually do that. They’re not shore birds, you
know. I said to Elfrieda, I did, ‘You’re right, that’s odd. Let’s go
have us a look.’ ”
Elmer sighed. “When we
got there, Elfrieda said, ‘Elmer, logs don’t have arms nor legs.’ And I
said, ‘This one don’t have eyes neither.’ The crows had been at it a
He shuddered and looked
back on the beach, where other Porcupine County sheriff’s deputies
stood over the body, trying not to gag as the sun rose higher in the
June sky and accelerated the processes of putrefaction. To my eye the
half-naked corpse, a large and burly male lying faceup and clad only in
jeans and a single sneaker, had not been in the water long, judging
from the bluish skin and lack of bloat. The chill of Lake Superior most
likely had slowed decomposition.
“And that’s when
we went to that cabin over there and, you know, asked them to call the
For a moment I thought
Mr. Knapp had said “arthritis.” I took a deep breath. One more “you
know” and I’d go nuts. Young people have corrupted the everyday
language of many of their elders with that useless locution, and “like”
isn’t far behind it. I was sorry. If it had not been for that I would
have been persuaded that Elmer Knapp was an utterly pure and unspoiled
old-timer from the midwestern countryside. They’re hard to find
nowadays, what with television and the Internet turning the speech of
too many people between the Hudson River and the Sacramento Valley into
that of cookie-cutter Middle Americans of the youthful persuasion.
“Thank you, Mr. Knapp,”
I said. “You’ve been very helpful. Now I don’t think we’ll be needing
you any more today. Could you give me your address and telephone number
in Bloomville, just in case?” He did so, and I shook his hand gravely.
“Maybe you’d better look to Mrs. Knapp. She seems unwell.”
Mrs. Knapp sat
disconsolately on a log nearby, as if she had suddenly been told that
her salmon-colored double-knit pantsuit, set off by a bright yellow
chiffon scarf, had been out of fashion for thirty years. It looked
almost new, as if she wore it only on special occasions, like vacation
days. Probably it was another product of the pinched thriftiness of the
lower middle class. But I suspected that what really ailed her was the
unexpected sight of an eyeless corpse.
“Who is it, do you
think?” Mr. Knapp said. “What happened to him?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Maybe a fisherman who fell out of his boat a few days ago.”
I didn’t tell Mr. Knapp
about the dimpled perforation directly under the stiff's left nipple.
I’d spotted it when I arrived on the scene an hour earlier. I would
have bet good money the hole had been made by a bullet, although it was
possible the corpse had been punctured postmortem by a snag as it
rolled in the shallows. I’d told the two deputies who followed me on
the scene to let the body lie as it was, then called my immediate boss,
Gil O’Brien, Porcupine County’s undersheriff, and told him the facts.
Right away Gil phoned the state police post at Wakefield, a little more
than fifty miles southwest of the sheriff’s department in Porcupine
City. Rural sheriffs rarely have the means or manpower to investigate
suspicious human deaths in these semi-wilderness parts and generally
let the better-equipped troopers do the job.
I looked out on the
beach. Here, not quite halfway along the fifteen miles between
Porcupine City and the vast Wolverine Mountains Wilderness State Park
in western Upper Michigan, some fifty feet of sand spanned the distance
between tree line and water’s edge—a fairly wide beach for this
stretch. The lake was still this morning, the gentle lap-lap of the
waves barely audible in the soft breeze. Heaps of skeletal white
driftwood thrown up by spring storms spotted the beach like a bleached
wooden boneyard, an ossuary of dead pine and cedar—except along the
three hundred or so feet that belonged to the owner of the cabin Mr.
Knapp had hailed. Evidently the owner was an anal-retentive sort.
Unlike most lake shore property holders, who tended to prefer nature’s
helter-skelter design and let their beachfronts alone, he had raked the
sand clean so that it shone spotlessly white, like Waikiki Beach on
Sunday morning. But there was no fringe of stately palms, only a thick
line of birch and aspen broken by a few towering white pines left over
from the logging days of a century ago.
Through the trees I saw
oncoming flashing red, blue and white lights, and checked my watch. It
wasn’t even an hour since I’d called Gil. The state cops must have
covered the fifty miles from Wakefield at ninety miles an hour, even
though there was no life to save, only a corpse to investigate. The big
Ford cruiser fishtailed to a stop on the access road in a cloud of sand
and gravel. Smokeys like to make dramatic entrances, as if to emphasize
their exalted status on the law-enforcement food chain, several links
higher than their not-too-bright country cousins in the sheriff's
“Okay, girls,” said a
gruff voice as a beanpole in blue blazer and khaki slacks emerged from
the passenger side of the cruiser. “It’s ours now. Skedaddle.”
I laughed. Sergeant
Alex Kolehmainen, the smartest state police detective and evidence
technician in all of Upper Michigan, loved to play the stage bully with
sheriff’s deputies. At first he spooked rookies. At a skinny six feet
six he was all elbows and knees and Adam’s apple, like Tony Perkins in
“Psycho.” His mock bombast, coupled to fast-growing gray stubble on his
cadaverous cheeks, made him look like the Grim Reaper in a coat and
tie. Sooner or later, Alex’s hamminess tipped off even the greenest
probationary deputy that his fierce manner was all a put-on.
Alex, who had grown up
in northern Wisconsin and served in the Army after college, like me,
had started his law enforcement career as a lowly sheriff’s deputy
himself, and he showed great respect for the kind of work we did. “You
couldn’t ever get me to handle a domestic dispute again,” he often said
of a common task country deputies hated. It’s a frustrating scenario:
The abusee calls the cops. The cops arrive and attempt to restrain the
abuser. The abusee suddenly feels loyal to the abuser, and the cops end
up getting hammered by both sides. Occasionally the abusers—and even
their mates—are armed as well as drunk or drugged. “That’s worse than
wrestling a crocodile,” Alex says.
And like me, he had not
yet married. Women quickly see past his lanky homeliness and set their
sights on him, but Alex is a choosy sort. He likes women but loves the
bachelor life more. Women invite him to dinner and sometimes he spends
the night, but he's always gone after breakfast. Still his paramours
forgive him, for he is dashing and generous and dumps his ladies so
gently and magnanimously that they are barely aware of the end of the
relationship. I doubt that Alex has ever been dumped himself. At least
that’s how it seems. Though he and I are good friends, he has never
talked about the women he has known. He likes and respects the ladies
too much to tell tales out of the bedroom.
Alex stepped over to
the body. “What have we here?” he said, broadly including me and my
brother deputies in the pronoun. Not “What do we got?”, the hackneyed
query of the movie cop. Alex is as careful with his grammar as he is
with his tools. “Fill me in.”
As the responding
officer I did. Alex nodded as I finished my much-edited tale of the
Knapps’ discovery of the body, then went to work, photographing the
corpse from several angles with an Olympus digital camera for quick
results and a Nikon thirty-five-millimeter film camera for legal
backup. He also gathered samples of sand and measured the water’s
temperature, leaving no pebble unturned.
turn up on the beach?” he asked after an hour of meticulous labor.
“Nothing we could
see. We searched it for half a mile in both directions.”
“Okay, shall we bag him
and drag him?” The Porcupine County Hospital ambulance waited behind
the cruiser to transport the body to Houghton forty-eight miles east,
where the medical examiner would perform the postmortem. Porcupine
County has a coroner, but he’s an internist, and all questionable cases
needing a pathologist go to Houghton. Suspicious ones often end up at
the state police forensics lab in Marquette, the only one in the Upper
Alex stood up. “Most
likely a homicide,” he said, officially voicing what we on the scene
all thought of that hole in the man’s chest. “The doc’ll decide.”
“How long ago, do you
think?” I asked.
“Hard to say. Could
have been just a few hours, but maybe a couple, three days. I’ll have
to get a range of water temperatures at this time of year.”
From June to
mid-September Lake Superior’s inshore waters are often warm, sometimes
topping seventy degrees Fahrenheit, but a sudden shift of wind can roil
the lake, bringing up colder waters from the bottom and dropping the
surface temperature into the low fifties in a couple of hours. It often
takes hours of studying weather and temperature charts to arrive at
just a rough time of death.
Alex stripped off his
crime-scene gloves and tossed them into a hazmat container in the trunk
of his cruiser. “I’ll call you when we know anything,” he said.
“Probably be at least a couple of days, maybe a week.”
I nodded and shook his
“Thanks for keeping a
clean scene,” Alex said as he shut the door of the cruiser. “That helps
a lot. Honest Injun.”
He winked at me.
I winced only a little.
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