By J Thomas Fussell
Chapter 7: The Detectives
Detectives Nina Houle and Del Fuller of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation looked down at the spot where Gerald Lapin had discovered Beverly Hernandez the day before. Police tape lined the area and blocked access to all of the trail heads into the forest from the turn-around at the end of Silent Glade Drive. It was the first time either detective had been in this neighborhood, and even though Nina had actually lived in the Franklin area for most of her adult life, she had not even known the place existed before they were assigned the case.
Silent Glade was perfectly hidden. If a person didn’t live in the neighborhood, there would be no reason to turn down Silent Glade Drive. And when a person did on accident or curiosity, they would think the road lead to a simple farm house or two and would likely turn around for fear of being on private property. The big, red barn on the side of the road right after the turn onto Silent Glade Drive only added to the rustic feel of the place. Most would never suspect the twelve-family subdivision hidden in the rolling hills two miles down the road. No one would believe such a grizzly assault as the one they were investigating could have taken place in such an affluent and beautiful subdivision. But here they were, trying to understand the how and why of it in a place that seemed the last place for such an attack to have occurred at all.
Normally, a simple assault case without an indicated rape or loss of life would have been handled by the local police department. This case, however, was not simple. The grievous injuries to Mrs. Hernandez, the taking of her eyes, and her post-traumatic inability to communicate in any real sense lead the local law enforcement to call in the experts at the TBI. It was standard operating procedure in any case where a trophy of some sort had obviously been taken and no suspect was immediately indicated.
Nina Houle, an African American in her early fifties, would have looked almost matronly in her business suit, if she had been significantly shorter. Instead, her height of six foot six inches and her powerful frame only served to make her more imposing. She wore an expertly tailor suit that showcased her sized for maximum intimidation. For her, outfit choices were important, depending on the context in which she wished to be viewed, a woman of her size had to dress appropriately. Men were often sensitive when a women with legal power towered over them physically. In some strange way, it put her at a disadvantage during interviews and almost ended her career before it began.
In contrast, Del Fuller looked the part of country bumpkin even when in a suit. His deep southern drawl and round apple gut which pushed over the top of his pants gave the impression of a man out of his element. Nothing could be further from the truth. A startling intelligence hid behind his grey, rummy eyes and little got past his scrutiny. Together the two made an awkward pair, but they had been working together for more than six years and solved many cases that others had found too challenging.
Only one day had passed since the incident, but Nina could already tell the trail was going to be a real bear to pick back up. Too many people ran these trails, and with no description of the perp from the victim, they were shooting blind.
“What have you got?” Nina asked.
Del grunted and said, “Not much. The scene’s been spoiled. Even if we did find something, I doubt it would be admissible in court.” He moved over to small flag with the number 12 poking out of the ground and pointed at the impression. “What do you make of this?”
The imprint to which Del pointed sunk into the ground about two inches. The object that made hole was irregular in shape, not unlike a foot, if that foot had been drawn by a two-year-old. But also, unlike any foot that Del had ever seen on an animal of any sort. The main body of the foot was shorter than a person’s but significantly wider, roughly round, and with four long, irregular toes that spread out unevenly from the front, along with several, unevenly spaced, short, stubby toes on the back half. It looked almost like a starfish with half of its arms cut in half.
“A weird hole, some kind of staff maybe, or an uprooted tree. What about it?”
“I think these are the imprints of our perp. They are tracks at any rate.”
“Tracks? Explain,” Nina said, squatting down for a better look.
“I followed them for a way through the woods. The local boys missed this, although they tagged several of the marks with flags around the scene. I lost the track when I ran into a large rocky area.”
Nina followed Del off trail into the thicker parts of the forest. Sure enough, the marks did appear to lead off into the forest.
“That’s quite a step,” Nina pointed out. The average step of a human is about one yard, but whoever made these had strides almost twice as long. “Stilts?”
“That was my first guess,” Del said, “but it would take a person with significant skills to navigate through a thick forest such as this on stilts while carrying an unconscious woman. Bootleggers were known to do this kind of footprint nonsense back in the day. I’ve even seen shoes with hooves nailed to the toes to make it look like a horse’s step instead of a human. But this… I don’t know.”
“I’ll point it out to the forensic folks and see what they can make of it. You ready to go talk with the neighbors? Any ideas on what we are looking for?”
“My guess, a white male between twenty-five and forty. Perhaps some sort of background in a circus or a hobby in stilt walking. Maybe a grudge against pretty women, or a sick psycho with an eye collection.”
“So no, you got nothing,” Nina said.
“Pretty much,” Del scratched his head. “Pretty much nothing, except one thing. We know one thing for certain. Whoever did this, did it with forethought and deliberation. This was not happenstance. There’s too much concealment going on. And the woman Beverly Hernandez, why wasn’t she molested or raped, or even severely beaten?”
“We don’t know she wasn’t raped or molested, and what about those strange marks around her body? Something held her tight enough to crack a rib,” Nina said.
“All other indications point to no. Her clothes weren’t torn. She was found fully dressed. Other than her eyes, her face wasn’t even harmed. This woman was not even beaten. I can’t even get in my head how it happened, much less why.”
“Soooo,” Nina asked, unsure of where this was going, “where do those facts and suppositions take you?”
“No place good, I’m afraid. No place good.” The look on Del’s face did not put Nina at ease. He had not looked this worried in a long time, maybe ever. He smiled a tired, crooked smile and said, “Let me think on it a bit more. We are missing too many pieces. Pieces we need to find ASAP, or I fear, this will not be the last time we find something like this.”
Chapter 8: Amy Eastman meets the Detectives
“Oh God, Tom, what’ve you done?” Amy Eastman said under her breath as she opened the front door to her house.
The house looked as if everything made of glass had been smashed and every piece of furniture overturned. Amy would love to think they had been robbed, but she knew who had done this. Jesus, how was she going to rebuild after this? Had he left anything intact?
“Tom,” she called, praying she would get no answer. She got her wish. She called a little louder the second time, not moving from the open doorway, unable to actually step foot in to her own house for fear of her husband. There was still no answer.
She took a deep breath and pushed open the door all the way. The smell of rotting food, stale beer, and urine wafted out of the house. She gagged for a moment and stepped back. Tom had lost it, truly lost it this time. God, what was she going to tell Larissa? She pulled a handkerchief from her purse and put it up to her nose. She had to be brave. She stepped inside.
Tom had destroyed everything: Bookcases were pushed over with the contents scattered across the floor, furniture was upended, knick-knacks were scattered and smashed, shards of beer bottles intermingled with broken plates, saucers, and glasses, nothing had been spared.
She stepped into the dining room, saw her overturned china cabinet, and yelled, “No! For fucks sake, Tom, why? That was my mother’s china, you piece of shit!”
He had even ripped a toilet off the floor from the downstairs hall bathroom. For some reason he had seen fit to turn off the water before tossing the bowl and tank into the bonus room, or the whole house would have been under water.
Amy stepped into the kitchen and noticed the bloody footprint amidst the broken glass and thought, Serves you right, asshole. She opened the kitchen window and the backdoor. Air rushed in and the cloying odor of rot began to clear.
She retraced her steps. Just as she was about to enter the living room, she heard a man say, “Holy shit! What the hell happened here?”
Her heart leaped into her throat, and she almost ran before the man’s accent stopped her. That wasn’t Tom. His family came from Michigan. And even though they had lived in Tennessee since Tom was fifteen, Tom had never lost the voice of his youth. This man had a deep drawl and resonance that Tom couldn’t affect even if he had wanted.
“Hello?” Amy said, a little irritated now at the interruption, not to mention embarrassed at the inevitable questions. She stepped around the corner.
A short, white man with a round belly and kind face stood next to an enormous black woman in a business suit who was pulling a wallet out of her pocket. The woman towered over both the man and herself. She flipped open the wallet and said, “Ma’am, I’m Detective Houle and this is Detective Fuller. We’re in town today investigating the events that occurred yesterday. Can you tell me what happened here?”
Amy asked, “What events happened yesterday? I have, um, been away for a few days.”
Both the detectives noticed the bruises on Amy’s face and neck. They knew what those bruises meant. Could this be the lead for which they were looking?
“Ma’am, I believe you might want to let us in and hear us out. We might be able to help each other,” Del said in his deep reassuring voice.
“Okay,” Amy said, “but,” she looked back over her shoulder, “the house is literally a total wreck. Perhaps we should sit on the back porch.” Amy didn’t really want to air her dirty laundry. She knew it would be the end of the vacillation concerning her marriage. On the other hand, when she first heard Detective Fuller’s voice at the door, she just about pissed herself. She took a deep breath, and a tear rolled down her cheek. “Please come in, I…” and she burst into tears.
Nina looked at Del and then swept into the room and wrapped Amy in a bear hug. Amy felt like a kid wrapped in the arms of her mother. She sobbed and grasped onto Nina’s jacket like a drowning woman. Nina glanced at Del, and then with a sideways nod told him to go on in and look around. She would handle Mrs. Eastman. Del winked and stepped back into the house.
Del meandered around not touching anything, only observing and noting. After he had wandered through the downstairs, he moved to the upstairs hall and found something that arrested his attention. He put on plastic gloves and removed a large plastic evidence bag from his pocket. He took the family photo off the wall and placed it in the bag. After she calmed down, he would ask Mrs. Eastman how long the photo had been altered like this. He stared at it for another minute and a shiver ran up his spine. The eyes of Mrs. Eastman and a girl who must be their daughter had been burned out. There was no damage to the frame, so whoever had done this had removed the photo, altered it, and placed it back in the frame. In lieu of what had happened to Mrs. Hernandez, Tom Eastman had suddenly become a distinct person of interest. He made a quick search of the rest of the house, looking for more pictures, but the family had apparently not been shutter-bugs. The picture on the wall was the only photo of the family members he could find. Other items of note included: an uncanny number of empty bottles of booze and beer (Tom Eastman was an alcoholic), evidence of an extreme anger management problem (several fist sized holes in the bedroom wall and in the hallway, on top of the obvious wreckage everywhere), he could find no visible weapons of any sort (in his experience men like Mr. Eastman had a penchant for firearms and/or knives. The lack of these suggested a police record that limited the purchase of such or required the removal of such from the home; check for police records), the daughter’s bedroom was pristine (this suggested Mr. Eastman considered his daughter off limits due to affection, or age, or who knows when dealing with creeps like this), and finally, a locked door to a bedroom in the back of the house (locked with a keyed handle lock and a deadbolt; he would need a warrant to get in there). He made his way back downstairs.
Del found the two women sitting on the back porch. Amy Eastman looked ashen but in control. Her tears were still flowing, but as aftershocks to the crying event instead of the event itself. Nina informed him that she had delivered the news of Beverly Hernandez’s attack. She silently asked if he had found anything of interest with a look that only long-term partners would understand. He gave her a curt nod and then turned his attention to his surroundings while listening to the two women discuss the situation and possible next steps.
He saw the trail of bloody footprints and followed them out the door into the grass. Tom had put on shoes or boots before he came outside, probably sitting on the bench occupied by the two women. There had been a large spot of blood under the bench. The cut must have been bad since Del could still see bloody outlines of the shoe in the grass. These footprints lead towards the round-about or perhaps to the small cottage hidden in the trees between here and there. He hadn’t even noticed there was another house on the street until now. So much for good observation, he thought. He had passed that cottage at least five times today. Oh well, he would put it in his notes. Nina and he could check it out later. It was going to be a long day. They would have to get statements from everyone on the damn street. He turned his attention back to the women.
Nina was asking Amy if she thought Tom had it in him to hurt Beverly.
Amy said, “I don’t think so. He told me he thought she was hot more times than I can count, but he never spoke to her that I know of. He just liked watching her run. God, what an asshole. How could I be so stupid?”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” Nina said. “Sometimes even the simplest things become hard when trapped in an abusive relationship. Trust me, Mrs. Eastman, you do not have to go through this alone. I will help you find all the support you need.”
Del knew this was a moment for the women. He was old and wise enough to know that a man’s opinion, if not asked for, was the last thing an abused woman wanted to hear. He did have one burning question though. He stepped back inside the porch and stepped over to the swing. Nina held Amy’s hands in her own. Del smiled as the two ladies looked up.
“I hate to interrupt. I know this has to be hard for you,” Del said to Amy, and then asked Nina, “Did you tell her all the details?”
“Yes, all of it.”
“May I show you something, Detective, before we continue?” Del asked.
The two detectives stepped back into the kitchen and Del pulled out the family photo with the burned-out eyes. “Is she ready for this?” He asked with raised eyebrows.
Nina thought about it for a minute. Amy was fragile, but like most domestic victims, there was a strength hidden under the need and weakness which kept them in their bad situations. And if Nina read her right, she had already made her decision. Nina nodded, “I think so. We need to call it in. I want a team out here ASAP. You go handle that, and I’ll break the news to Mrs. Eastman.”
When Nina stepped back on to the porch, Amy was standing outside the back door, staring at the house through the trees. She didn’t turn around, only stared at that small cottage and said, “We have lived here for a long, long time, since the house was built, and you know what? I’ve never noticed that house through the trees before. Can you believe that? Could I have been so caught up in my own drama that I couldn’t even notice a new neighbor? I’ve been blind for too long. Do you ever feel like that, Detective? Like your whole life has been hidden behind shaded glass that you suddenly realized only needed to be lifted away and placed behind you. I know what you’re going to tell me, well not exactly, but you found something in this,” she indicated the mess around her, “that implicates Tom. Didn’t you? That asshole is somehow involved in the horrible tragedy down the street. Did he hurt Beverly? God, did he do what you said happened to her?” A cold certainty that he could have done what Detective Houle said washed over her, and she felt suddenly sick.
Nina opened the screen door and stepped down next to Amy and said, “No one ever thinks that kind of stuff will happen in their own neighborhood.”
Amy barked a short laugh and added, “Or in your own home, for that matter. What did Detective Fuller find?” She felt hysterical, like she wanted to laugh and cry all at the same time. Was this madness?
Nina looked at the small cottage and smiled. If the trees were any thicker, it would not surprise her if no one noticed that cottage for years – tucked so well into the trees like that. People do have a way of putting on blinders when their life is a mess to begin with. The brain can only process so much. She put her hand on Amy’s shoulder and said, “Detective Fuller found a photo of your family inside.”
Amy nodded, waiting for the other shoe to drop. She said, “I know the one. Hell, there’s only one. Tom hated family photos. Said we all looked like shit together. The one on the wall upstairs is the only photo he has ever let me put up. What about it?”
“It looks as if someone burned the eyes from you and your daughter in the picture.”
“What?” Amy looked stunned.
“It’s not conclusive of course, not in any way, but I’m afraid it does make Tom a person of interest. I think…” Before Nina could finish her thought, Del popped into the room.
“Detective Houle, I think we may need to get Mrs. Eastman downtown right away. There’s been an incident with her daughter and a, um…” He looked at his cell phone, “A Miss Hunter. Apparently, Mr. Eastman found them and…”
Amy burst into tears again and screamed, “What did he do? What’d he do to Larissa? Is she okay?”
“It’s okay, your daughter’s fine. Miss Hunter, however, has been seriously injured. Both are on route to Southern Hills. Shall we go? And Ma’am, I need your permission to search your house.”
“Yes, of course,” Amy spat, “Nail that son-of-a-bitch. Whatever you need.”
“I’ll take Mrs. Eastman, Del. You stay here and see what you can find. I’ll put out an APB on Tom Eastman.”
“Already done. I took the liberty when I called it in earlier.”
“Good man.” Nina turned back to Amy and said, “Are you ready?”
“Just a second. One more question, if I may?” Del said.
“Sure,” Amy replied.
“What’s behind the locked door upstairs? And, do you have a key?”
Amy suddenly looked embarrassed as if she had been caught in something naughty. Her cheeks turned a bright pink. “Shit, I guess you’ll see it soon enough. That was Tom’s discipline room. I don’t have a key. I was allowed in only when things needed correcting, or when Tom wanted something, um, you know, different than normal.” She shook her head. “I… I mean, can we…”
Del nodded. “Yes, of course. I’m sorry to keep you. We can talk more later.”
Amy nodded, and the two women left for the Hospital.
Del looked up at the cottage through the screen on the porch. An old woman stood by a short, white picket-fence. A dark gray shawl covered her head, giving her a ghostly appearance. Del waved, but the woman didn’t respond. She only stood at her fence and stared. Bad vision, Del thought, the poor old thing can’t see fifty yards, or maybe the screen was blocking her view. He turned to go back inside, then stopped. Maybe the old lady had seen something yesterday. No time like the present to find out, but when he turned to look again, the old lady was already gone.