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A Lincoln Keller Mystery
Deborah Norris had eyes that would draw a confession from the Pope. Almond shaped and tinted brown with finely arched eyebrows, she stared back at me with a look that I could only describe as penetrating. Her flush, copper tone was accented by evenly trimmed, low cut hair. She flashed a daring smile. She wore a black tunic that revealed enough neckline for me to take in a thin silver necklace with a small diamond gemstone resting comfortably around her neck.
She would not have to ask me to bear my soul. I believed she could see beneath the artificial layers of my own self-delusions and hold those secrets deep within the security of her own humanity.
It was a belief I could never test.
A bullet ended that possibility.
Deborah would have been thirty-seven years young had we met today. Eight years ago, a bullet changed that annual celebration. Her remains lay buried in a city grave yard on Detroit’s east side, tucked away in a corner of a small, grassy incline and marked by a bronze marble headstone.
She was twenty-nine at the time of her unexpected death. As a free lance journalist fighting to leave her signature on the stories that helped to shape the beginnings of Detroit’s turnaround, she was once described as all ‘Fire and Heart’. Insiders said a Pulitzer was a part of her future.
A random act of violence changed that conversation.
I gazed at the picture sitting on the oak mantle of the marble fireplace in the Indian Village home of Judge Warren ‘War Zone’ Henderson. On the opposite end of the mantle was a gold-framed color portrait of Judge Henderson and his family. The Judge’s neatly trimmed salt and pepper beard covered his soft ebony tone, giving him a professorial look that would be the envy of any tenured faculty member. The evenly trimmed look followed a symmetrical pattern from the bottom of his chin to the top of his low cut, slightly curled hair. Through intense brown eyes, he posed with regal bearing in a dark double- breasted Brooks Brother’s suit, red tie and towering like a smiling ornament. Next to him sat a honey brown toned, full smiled woman with finely trimmed, arched eyebrows, smooth skin and rectilinear gray strands that complimented her ebony styled hair that curled slightly at her shoulders. Dressed in a blue, full-length dress, her red nailed, manicured hands crossed and resting on her lap, she looked like someone who’d find comfort among kings or kooks. There was something in her manner that enveloped her like an invisible, form- fitting layer of strength. Dignity, I decided. She wore dignity that same way Lena Horne wears class. The kids were polished extensions of their parents, standing on opposite ends, the son looking like a younger version of his father and the daughter looking like a younger twin of her mother.
“I’m not sure I can be much help to you your honor.” I said aware of his reputation of never taking ‘no’ as a final answer.
‘War Zone’ Henderson didn’t suffer fools lightly, if at all. The six foot, nine inch former NFL defensive tackle, turned Wayne County Circuit judge, was a designated combat area. He ruled as a steely eyed, iron willed overseer with a tactical understanding of the law, a razor sharp mind and a tongue that could slice through court procedure faster Patton’s Third Army. He was a trench warrior who didn’t take prisoners, but was kind enough to mail the remaining body parts back to the next of kin. It proved he had a heart.
He never gave an inch and covered more territory than a drunken crop duster.
Garbed in a dark blue, white trimmed running outfit, unzipped at the neck, he looked like he could still ripped the helmets off fleet footed running backs. Age and law hadn’t affected his paunch line. He was one of the reasons why I decided that I’d rather be a defensive back. I’d rather give the hit than take one.
Employing the services of a private investigator would have gone against his swaggering, grousing, take-care-of-it-my-way nature.
Or so I thought.
There’s a price one pays for hanging around a War Zone. Pieces of you wind up in places you hadn’t expected. The innocent go down as quickly as the guilty and with very little fanfare.
“If I believed that I would have never asked to see you.” He said in a barrel-toned voice. “Your reputation for the unusual is not, shall we say, without merit. Your brother Jefferson says you’re a pretty good detective.”
My bounty hunting, eldest brother is the other half of Keller Investigations. “He said that?”
“I met your brother two years ago at a seminar I taught at the University of Detroit’s Law school. He didn’t strike me as someone supportive of the legal system.”
“He’s a born skeptic your honor. That’s why he’d a bounty hunter.”
“Well, he caught Dawson Briggs after he’d jumped bond. I was personally glad to sentence that pervert.”
I appreciated Jeff’s vote of confidence. Unsolved homicides weren’t the kind of cases that flared my nostrils, but Jeff’s recommendation meant there was more to the story.
“What makes you think I can help?”
“It happened eight years ago yesterday.” He said ignoring the question. “Deborah worked as a free lance journalist. Never wanted a full time gig. Her body was found three blocks from where she lived near Franklin Court. We thought she was out of town.” He paused. It didn’t seem like a good time to interrupt. “I worked in the Prosecutor’s office at the time. The homicide detective called to the scene was a friend of mine. Though she was found with nothing that would identify her, he recognized her immediately and contacted me to ID her body. Nothing I ever experienced in the NFL was as painful as that moment when I looked down and saw her lying on that metal slab.”
I was working in Oakland California as a patrol officer eight years ago and hadn’t paid much attention to the unsolved crimes in Detroit. At the time we had too many in Oakland. “The case is still unsolved?”
“It’s still an open homicide so technically they have to keep the case open. Realistically, there’s very little they can do. Especially given the last round of budget cuts. Homicide detectives are already stretched to the max with their current cases. Not much interest in an eight year old unsolved murder. I’d like to restore the level of interest.” He rubbed his massive trench worn hands, momentarily mulling. “I need someone who is removed from the case and has a fresh set of eyes. It would also help if that person can somehow get into the mind of the killer. I think you can do that Mr. Keller.”
“I’m not sure if that’s a compliment Judge and please call me Linc.”
“Linc, my sister-in-law’s spirit…” He turned toward the slight noise that announcing the person entering the room. “Oh, honey this is Mr. Keller. The man I told you about.”
“Mr. Keller.” She acknowledged with a tight smile and an even tone.
She also wore a similar running outfit, though her shoulder length hair was pulled back and tied with a thin blue ribbon. If she was over fifty then I was a goalie for the Detroit Red Wings. There was no way that harmoniously trimmed body could have been around for fifty plus years.
I hesitated slightly. Unsure if I should shake her hand, kiss her ring or excuse myself before I said something stupid.
“A pleasure to meet you Mrs. Henderson.” I said without too bad an assault on the King’s English.
“Why don’t we all sit down.” Judge Zone offered.
He found his way around to the auburn colored, leather high back chair behind the desk; she walked over to the casement windows, peering out as if there was something else on her mind.
I eased down slowly into the velvet cushion armchair.
“I have something here for you Linc.” Judge Zone said as he removed a slightly full manila envelope from a side drawer in his desk. “It’s every piece of material I could find that’s been written about Deborah’s death.”
He slid the envelope over toward me.
“I’ve tried to be meticulous, not wanting any information to get by me. I’m sure you’ll find it helpful.”
The folder contained copies of the original homicide report, statements from witnesses, faded articles from both the Detroit News and Free Press, hand written leads that were pursued, and a wallet size copy of the picture of Deborah that I had just seen. Most of the information would have been obtainable for the average citizen, but as I quickly learned, Judge Zone had his own unstoppable way of doing things that were not mine to question.
A quick review of the first three faded articles revealed an obvious pattern. “Everything indicates it was a robbery. Her purse was found a couple of blocks away. Anything of value was taken while the other stuff was scattered around. There was no indication as to how much money was taken and her credit cards were never recovered.” I sighed. “Your honor, this could be a real waste of your time.”
He continued. “You’ll find copies of the police reports that corroborate the newspaper accounts. Knackton was a Sergeant at that time. He’s also convinced it was a robbery.”
“And you’re not convinced.” I said.
“I can smell a draw play.”
“Is there anything that says something different?”
“Not back then and not eight years later. That’s why I want a fresh pair of eyes looking at this information. It may have been just a robbery. Maybe you can finally convince me.”
Sylvia Henderson hadn’t stopped peering out the window. Deborah was her sister so I didn’t know what to make of it. “What are your thoughts on this Mrs. Henderson?”
She turned and walked toward the back of the desk. “What is your level of experience with this kind of investigation Mr. Keller?”
“I saw a lot of things when I worked as a cop in Oakland California Mrs. Henderson. Most of which was a compelling argument for a second flood minus the Arc. Even when I know why people do what they do, I still don’t understand why they do it. I secured a lot of crime scenes, talked with a lot of witnesses and heard more than my share of excuses for conduct even the animal community would find offensive and barbaric. But to answer your question, I’m not an experienced homicide investigator. I was a patrol officer.”
“And now?” She asked.
“Robbery homicides don’t come across my desk and I don’t go looking for that kind of case. People do enough other kinds of things that keep me busy. For those reasons, as I told your husband earlier, I’m not the best person for this job.”
“He’s convinced otherwise.”
Not exactly a ringing show of support, but I could live with her apprehensions. There was something in her manner that suggested a reluctance to reopen an old wound, but I didn’t doubt that once opened she’d stay with it until it was over.
Sylvia Henderson’s strength, as I would soon learn, would be found in areas invisible to the naked eye.
Judge Zone reached over and held her hand. “My wife loved her sister very much Mr. Keller. They were fifteen years apart in age but you wouldn’t know it to have seen them together. Sylvia practically raised Deborah.”
In my mind, that made her loss even more painful. Big sister/mother/best friend. You never expect to outlive the ones you raise. But she had.
“Your honor.” I said. “ We’re both professionals here and I have too much regard for you to not emphasize this point. There are far more experienced investigators who’d provide a higher level of service. If this is that important to you, then you need to give it further consideration.”
“We’d like you to look into it.” He replied. His tone was decisive and unquestioning. I’d seen and heard that tone in his Circuit Court room in downtown Detroit when I had to testify in a case he was overseeing.
“Before I commit, there’s one other problem.” Judge Henderson waited. “This case has Lieutenant Knackton’s fingerprints all over it.”
Lieutenant Nick Knackton and I had one ongoing problem that seemed to always bring out the alley cat in both of us. Her name is Candy Malone and she’s an investigator with the Detroit Police Departments Homicide Division. She’s talented, ambitious, thorough and sexy. She’s also the on-again, off-again lust of my life and his unofficial mentee.
“I’ve heard there’s some dissension between you two.” The Judge stated.
“We don’t send each other Christmas cards.”
“I see it as a minor complication.”
“If he’s a friend of yours, he might take offense.” I said
“He’ll respect my wishes.” He replied with an even tone and a furrowed brow. “I’m well aware of the unwritten, non interference code among law enforcement officials.
I can ease some of the way for you. I do have influence within the police department. Besides the copies of the report I’ve given you, I can take care of the political matter. Knackton’s friendship doesn’t change the fact that I’d like your help.”
I’d be the one in need of help if Knackton and I crossed swords. “Your honor, even if Knackton wasn’t part of the picture, you know there are territorial complications that happen anytime a private investigator steps on the turf of homicide investigators.”
“I’ll handle those.” He replied in a dismissive tone. “I know a little something about playing on someone else’s turf. I just need you to fill the hole.”
“That’s not filling a hole your honor. That’s like trying to stop a Green Bay sweep.”
“I’ve stopped a few in my day.”
“But I haven’t.” I sighed. Hope may spring eternal but reality is often the winter of my discontent. “It may prove to be futile your honor.”
“Then we’d be no worse off than I am now. I think having someone like yourself cast a fresh eye on her murder might prove to be more helpful than what’s been done so far.”
“Still, eight years is a long time.” I said hoping he’d thought about the reality of his request.
“Not when it feels like yesterday. I need this thing resolved Mr. Keller and I’d like to count on your help. Name your price and bring me results.”
“The trail would be ice cold by now judge.” I continued. “Almost impossible to find any real leads. At this point I can’t honestly say my results would be any different.”
I took out the contract I’d brought with me. “This is a standard agreement employing me. I’ll need a retainer fee of five hundred dollars. I’ll put that against the daily rate and bill you for expenses. If at anytime you’re dissatisfied with the progress or quality of my work...”
“...I know a little about how the law works Mr. Keller.” He said as he pulled the contract toward him. “I’ll read through it tonight, have it signed and delivered to you tomorrow.”
“That’ll be fine.”
“When can we start?” He asked.
In a few days was an answer that would not have endeared me to him or his wife. “We already have your honor. I’d like to start by asking a few questions.”
“Go ahead.” He replied leaning back in his chair.
“Can you remember anything about what was going on with Deborah the last time you saw her.”
“How can we forget.” Sylvia cut in. “That was the night she was murdered.”
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