“…There is trouble with the trees…” Geddy Lee
There it was. Or maybe I should say, “there HE was.” He had been a man in life. That much you could tell, but lying there in the early morning wet snow, crushed like a bug under that huge tree, he looked like a used tube of tooth paste.
The tree had fallen from the edge of a small stand of trees that screened the baseball diamonds from Irving Park Road, ending a few dozen yards before the bend where Irving Park intersects Linder Avenue. He was just off an asphalt path that ran around the edge of the park inside the trees. The trees themselves were inside a four-foot fence that was between the park and the sidewalk on the Irving Park side. It was a quiet corner of the park that was now cordoned off with yellow police tape and uniforms telling joggers to go around.
The sun was making a pitiful attempt to rise but was still overpowered by the headlights and mars lights of half a dozen police cars. It was so early that the crowd of gawkers was still quite small.
“Watch your shoes in this snow, Alison.” My partner Joe warned. The snow was slurpee-wet and patchy.
“I’m alright. Cause of death?”
“Suicide?” Sawyer Woodruff, the Medical Examiner offered from beside the dead man.
“No, I doubt that.” Joe said. Always the straight man, Joe Mozambique. Which itself is funny because he used to be Joe Martin.
“Any chance the tree didn’t do it?” I asked.
“Well, if the ground hadn’t been right there underneath him.”
“Why was he here?” Joe asked.
“I think it is a regular cross country course.” I turned to the nearest uniform.
“Is this a running trail?” He looked at me like I was a Martian. I knew that word had gotten around about my operation, but I hadn’t known that people would know me on sight. In fact, since my SRS no one talked civil to me except Joe and Sawyer. It didn’t bother me.
“Answer her.” Joe said.
“Yeah. It’s a cross country trail that leads from Gompers Park through La Baugh.” He indicated the route with his hand. I pulled out my electronic notebook and started a scene sketch. The uniformed officer didn’t take his eyes off me. Like I would jump him if he did. It didn’t bother me, much. I kept sketching and writing notes. I drew a big box for the park and added the trail, stand of trees, the killer tree and the body. I added labels.
“Who is this guy?” I asked as I was finishing the labels. “Did he always run here, in the dark, in the dead of winter, in shorts?”
“There is something pinned to his sweatshirt.” Sawyer unpinned it and read. “Steven J. Hawkes, Editor in Chief of the Northwest Herald.”
“Is that his business card?”
“Looks more like a note from his mom.” Joe took it, looked and then handed it to me.
“Conveniently pinned to his back where it wouldn’t get any blood on it.”
“It was probably pinned there after the tree -, oh. That is what you were getting at.” Joe frowned and I winked at Sawyer. The Crime Scene Crew was working on the stump end of the tree. I dropped the card in a bag and followed Joe to the end of the tree.
“Was it accidental?” Joe asked.
“I’m no expert on cuttin' down trees, but it looks to me like it was cut deliberately so it wouldn’t look cut and would stand for a while. Oh, hello Alison.” Bertram Acker didn’t like me. He was near retirement and everyone called him The Colonel. Except Joe and me.
“Well, it looks all cracked, like it broke.” He scratched his belly and groaned as he leaned down to show the end of the tree.
“And I think these here are spots where somebody took a real long bit and drilled a lot of holes through the trunk.”
“So it was weak?”
“Prints?” I asked.
“On bark?” I knew the only reason he deigned to answer me was because he liked to hear his own voice.
“Now down here,” he groaned as he got up. “At the stump.” He led us over to the stump.
“Look familiar Alison?” He pointed to the stump. I ignored him.
“Anyway, the interesting thing here is that.” He pointed to a clear boot print.
“Great, now all we have to do is find somebody with a muddy Timberland size ten.”
“What size do you wear Alison.” He used my name like a dagger.
“Size seven, thank you very much.” I held one high-heeled boot out of the snow.
“Men’s or Women’s?”
“I can still kick you ass old man.” I whispered. Joe got his arm between us and steered me away by the shoulders. Sawyer walked up wiping his hands.
“That’s all I can do while he’s under the tree.”
“Can we cut it up so we can get it off?” Joe asked. Acker’s people were already pulling out the chainsaws.
“No, lift it off him. I want to check something. Call for a crane.”
“That’ll be expensive.”
“I think this was a homicide. I want to check to see if the branches were altered, or cut so that the trunk would hit the ground flat.” I pointed along the length of the tree. “While you’re waiting, look for a trigger mechanism. The killer prepped the tree and left it to stand until the victim was underneath, and then released it. How? I’ll be waiting in the car. I’m freezing.” I huddled in my black leather trench coat.
“A homicide?! What the hell are you talking about?” The colonel yelled.
“My call.” I said without turning.
Joe caught up to me. “You aren’t cold.”
“I am so.” I walked over to Lieutenant Jose Perez, the uniformed officer in charge.
“Do you have the person who found the body?”
He pointed to two teenage boys in track clothes.
“Would you please send them to us over in the car?” He grunted in the affirmative.
As we turned to walk away a young woman waved to us and called.
“Detectives. Could I ask you a few questions?”
“Ignore her.” I told Joe under my breath.
“May I help you ma’am?” Joe had walked over to her despite my warning.
“I’m Liz Sherman of the Northwest Herald. Could you tell me what is going on?”
“A tree fell on a man.”
“Is he okay? Did he die? Who was he?” She had had her notepad up her sleeve and she pulled it out.
“We can’t talk about it right now.” I said. “We’re conducting an investigation. You understand.” I smiled.
“There may be a press conference later if there is anything to tell you. Sorry.” I turned away with Joe’s arm.
“Could I just have your names?”
“That would have to be off the record for the time being.” Joe said.
“And since we know that that request couldn’t be guaranteed we can’t say. Good morning.”
She smiled ironically and wrote it down, but let us go.
“So you think it was murder?” Joe asked me in the car.
“Me too.” I smiled a thank you to him, but he wasn’t looking. I pulled out my PDA and prepared to interview the boys. Joe got out and opened the back door for them. He sat in the front passenger seat.
“Good morning boys.”
“Morning.” The heavier boy replied. Both boys had dark red hair. The taller, thinner one kept looking at his running shoes.
“What are your names?” Joe asked. The stocky boy stared at him.
“My name is Detective Alison Brickhouse and this is Detective Joe Mozambique. What are your names?”
He glanced at me and then stared at Joe again. “Harris.”
“Harris what?” Joe asked.
“What’s your friend’s name Connor?” I asked.
“Finbar. He’s not my friend he’s my brother.”
“Where do you live boys?” Joe asked.
Connor frowned at him. Finbar told us softly under his breath. We wrote it down.
“You boys run here often?” Joe asked. Finbar nodded and Connor shook his head violently.
“You don’t?” I asked.
“I don’t run at all. I’m a wrestler.”
“I made him come.” Finbar mumbled.
“Sure. ‘It’s good for you. You’ll build up your stamina. It can’t hurt!’ You said. Now we missed school and the coach is going to bump me off the team!”
“Did you boys see anything unusual this morning?”
“Dead guy under a tree.”
“Did you see anything before that?”
They shook their heads.
“We heard a loud boom and then when we turned around we heard the tree fall.”
“You heard the tree fall?”
“We saw it too.”
“You saw it? You saw the tree fall?”
“Well, we saw the branches moving and the top of the tree go down.”
“When was that?”
“Right before we went back to look.”
“So you didn’t see the tree hit him?”
“Ok. Do you boys want a note from us or anything?”
“No.” They were almost out the door.
“I don’t think we will be needing you…” I said to their backs.
“Are you, um, Guys interviewing witnesses?” Lieutenant Perez stuck his head into the car.
“What do you have?”
“Two old ladies from the corner.”
We got out of the car to greet the ladies. A uniform brought them over. They were your garden-variety old widow women wearing long coats over their housecoats and golashes. They had the faint smell of Ben Gay and house cat under the pleasant aroma of jasmine. They walked arm in arm with the cop.
“This is Mrs. Pepper and Mrs. Nesbitt.”
“Good morning ladies. We have a few questions to ask you.”
“If that’s not too much trouble.” I added. “I think you’d be more comfortable in the car.
“Are we under arrest?”
“My husband was a doctor.”
“You aren’t under arrest. We just have a few questions ma’am.”
“Oh well, in that case.”
“Is this a murder investigation?”
“We think there may have been intent, yes.”
“Oh how exciting.”
I held the door and helped them in.
“Aren’t you a dear, and so pretty too. I was very pretty when I was a young woman.”
“Did you see anything unusual this morning? Anything out of the ordinary?”
“There was that man.”
“Yes. The one that the tree fell on. That poor man.”
“Did you see the tree fall, Mrs. Nesbitt?”
“No, but Gertrude did, didn’t you Gerttie?” She raised her voice to her companion.
“Oh yes. I was watering the houseplants by the window when Percy, that’s our tomcat, knocked over the ironwood. He’s such a naughty boy.”
“What did you see, Mrs. Pepper?”
“I looked up from the plant to see where Percy had gone to and I saw something large moving in the park.”
“What’s that dear?”
“I said did you see the tree fall?”
“Oh yes, you can see the trees very clearly from our house, especially since the leaves have fallen.”
“When was that?’
“Oh, I would say right after breakfast. I always water the plants after breakfast on Thursday.”
“Only the plants in the front room,” Mrs. Nesbitt corrected.
“I can hear you,” Mrs. Pepper said.
“I said, you only water the plants in the front room on Thursday. You water the bedroom plants on Monday, the kitchen plants on Tuesday, the outside plants on Wednesday when they need it…”
“Not in the winter.”
“No dear, I said, only when they need it.”
“Only when they need it.”
“Do you know what time?”
“Oh I don’t know, Lilly, do you know what time it was that I told you that a tree fell in the park?”
“No. I was washing the breakfast dishes.”
“So, right after breakfast you saw a tree fall in the park. Did you see the man that it fell on?”
“I didn’t see anything I was washing the dishes.”
“We see lots of young men, and women,” she patted my knee, “running in the park now a days.”
“Did you specifically see the man that the tree fell on?”
“I can hear you.” She looked at Joe in a way that showed that she clearly did not hear him.
“Did you see the tree fall on the man who was running?”
“I a saw a man and a woman. I think that they must be married because they were running together and talking and laughing as they ran. But then I never exercised with my husband. Oh that wasn’t done. I saw a tall woman, like you.” She smiled at me. “But dark, like him. I saw a man and two boys, but they weren’t together. I saw a young dark woman with black hair who stopped. Oh, but that was after the tree fell. She ran to our house to use the phone. She called the police.”
“Where is she?”
“She said that she had to go to work. She asked us if we had seen it happen and I told her that I had seen the tree fall and she said that that was good and that I should tell the police. She left right away. Then police car came right after she left.”
“Did you hear an explosion?”
“I can hear you.”
“Did you hear any loud noises before you saw the tree go down?”
“Did I hear any loud noises?”
“Well Percy made a heck of a racket knocking the ironwood down.”
When the ladies had left we asked if Lieutenant Perez had any other witnesses. He said that he didn’t, but that the park groundskeeper wanted to talk to somebody.
“You wanted to make a statement to the police Mr. Bulltick?” Joe asked when we had gotten the large black man in the passenger seat. He was too thick and tall to fit in the backseat. I stayed in the backseat and Joe moved to the driver’s side. Bulltick was late middle aged with huge, hard hands.
“I wanted to talk to somebody, yeah.” He looked over the seat and eyed me thoroughly. He spoke to Joe.
“I heard you was doing an investigation and I don’t want nobody thinking anything bad about me.”
“Why would anybody think anything bad about you?” I asked.
He looked at me with respect, but surprised.
“These are my trees.”
“I’m responsible for this park and the care of it. I keep a safe park sir.”
“Do you prune the trees?”
“No, I call for the team when they need it, but I am responsible for calling in hanging branches and such.”
“You know these trees well.”
“Yes sir. I know every one of these trees. I walk the rounds every afternoon before I go home.”
“Walk the rounds?”
“I walk through the park and look at every tree, every field, every piece of equipment to make sure everything is safe, but I can’t be here all night sir.”
“So you didn’t see anything wrong with this tree yesterday?”
“It looked fine to you.”
“Did you get a good look at the tree this morning?”
“Pretty good. There are a lot of police around and they’re keeping everybody away. I tried to look, but the police told me to move back. That’s when I asked to speak to somebody, sir.”
“Do you know the man who was killed?”
“Do you know who was killed? Do you recognize him?”
“Oh, I thought you were asking if I was acquainted with the man. Do I know who he is, well sir, I couldn’t tell who he was from looking at him. Like I said the police were shooing everybody away, but I heard the policemen saying that it was Mr. Hawkes from the paper.”
“Do you know him?”
“Well, I’d recognize him. I mean I would’ve recognized him under normal circumstances sir. I couldn’t say that I know the man. We never had words sir. I just seen him running most every morning when I come in. He is mostly done when I come in. He don’t have no reason to talk with me sir.”
“Do you think that that tree could have fallen down by itself?”
“No sir. All the trees was safe when I left yesterday. There weren’t no snow on the branches and I didn’t see no damage on any of them.”
“Could the damage have been done last night, during the night?”
“It’s possible sir. Somebody could’ve drove a car into the tree. It would probably have taken a pretty big truck to fell a tree that size though.”
“But we would be able to see the damage on the tree.”
“And shouldn’t we see the truck or tire tracks or something?”
“Yes ma’am. We should see signs. You don’t take down a big healthy tree like that easy.”
“What if somebody cut it most of the way through and then stuck an explosive in the cut?”
“Hm. Like an M80? I guess. Yeah.”
“Would you have seen such a cut in the trunk during your walk through?”
“If the cut was away from the path and low so that the underbrush hid it.” I added.
“Yeah. The way that tree fell it would’ve had to have been away from the path. And if it were cut low to the ground I couldn’t have seen it no way.”
“It would be a good thing to have him look at that tree.”
“What kind of tree is it? Do you know?”
“Yes ma’am that was an American Larch, a Tamarack. Is that important?”
“I don’t know?”
By the time they had brought the crane, the sun had risen and a crowd had gathered. The tree had been altered. All of the biggest and lowest branches had been nearly cut through. We told Acker to let Bulltick work with the C.S. lab folks who were working on the tree.
The uniforms were holding the sizable crowd back beyond the sidewalk with some effort. Nobody paid us any attention while the M. E. people tried to un-skewer Mr. Hawkes. The trail had been muddy and several of the stumps from the branches had gone right through him. He came off with a sickening pop. The crowd groaned.
In my heels I was a shade taller than Joe and I scanned the back of the throng of people who had all thrown coats over sleeping clothes and come out to see the early morning spectacle. As I scanned, my vision was blocked by something dark. I looked and saw a pair of brown eyes looking down at me. Then they were gone.
“Did you see that?”
“What?” Joe had been watching the tree.
“Someone was watching me.” Normally this was not an uncommon or unwelcome experience. I am striking. I am a beautiful woman, if I do say so myself, tall, athletic, stacked. I paid a lot of money for it. I had never met anyone that guessed that I had not been born this way. I am quite proud of that, but nobody was good looking enough to distract a bystander from the spectacle of Mr. Hawkes.
“Where?” Joe and I were moving toward the crowd.
“Right there. I think it was somebody on a bike.” We tried to muscle our way through to the back of the crowd but we couldn’t make any headway. I pulled back.
“Forget it. They’re probably gone.”
“Why do you think it was somebody on a bike?”
“I think it was a black female about this tall.” I held my hand over my head. “And then she went down and away.”
“Looking down on you?”
“Probably somebody standing on a bike.”
“Hey, Brickhouse.” Sawyer was walking towards us and wiping his hands. “You sure you think this was a homicide?”
“Why, What did you find?”
“Well, there’s a lot to sort out. He is real messy, but the nearest I can tell he was standing up when the tree hit him, maybe even running.”
“How do you know? Show us.”
He led us back to the tree and pointed to the mud.
“It looks like he was hit by some branches while he tried to get away.” He pulled out a cigarette and continued to explain while he lit it. “He was running directly away from the tree. See the slip marks in the mud? He wasn’t even on the trail anymore. And there are a bunch of Pre-mortem bruises, abrasures and lacerations.”
“Cuts, bumps and scrapes for the rest of us.” Acker put in, as he over looked the work.
“Caused,” Sawyer continued with an angry glance toward the colonel, “most likely from branches that batted him around before that big one impaled him.” He shook his head.
“So he was running along, the tree started falling, he turned and ran. Then the tree smacked him around before splatting him?”
“A man wouldn’t run perpendicular to a falling tree.” Acker argued. He held his hands up like a man and a tree. That way it was perfectly clear which way to run.
“This wasn’t a pole falling, but a tree with wide, heavy branches. Also, suppose you are running along and you hear a loud sound, like an explosion on your left.” I turned and faced the way he had been running. I simulated being startled by an explosion and turned to my right.
“Nice imitation of a running MAN.”
“Hm. I don’t know.” Sawyer said. “I would have figured that if it were a homicide the killer might have knocked him out before putting him under a falling tree. It seems pretty risky trying to kill a man with a tree. What if it missed him? That’s a lot of preparation…”
“Exactly. A lot of preparation. Somebody planned it. And they weren’t trying to pull a harmless prank. Maybe that’s what they wanted it to look like. Who would plan on rigging a tree to fall just for fun?”
“The Tree Hater’s Club?” Acker said and pulled out a cheroot.
“We’ll see if any activist group claims this.”
“They may not.” Joe spoke up. “If they hadn’t planned on killing anyone they may not claim it for fear of hurting their cause.”
“Like tree hugging?”
“Anyway, somebody wanted that tree down. Either it was a pointless prank; a political statement of some kind or some one was aiming to deliberately drop a tree on Mr. Hawkes. I don’t care. It was definitely deliberate and whoever they are we got them at least on Reckless Endangerment.”
I looked at my watch. “Lets go to Northwest Herald.” I took out my cell phone to call Lieutenant Daniels, our boss and told him what we were doing. He wasn’t there so I left a message. Joe went to tell Bulltick to help out Acker however he could and to tell him whatever information he could. I looked around for the ranking uniform. I found Sergeant Chauvana Insular eating a donut. She was as wide as she was tall. I walked over to her.
“Are you the officer in charge?”
“Hey, you’re that man who got his thingie whacked off.”
“I’m Detective Brickhouse. Did Lieutenant Perez leave?” She was looking me up and down.
“Off shift at eight. Damn! Those look real.” She reached to poke my breasts. This was not new to me and I had anticipated it in time to put my hand up.
“They are. Are you the OIC?” She shook her head.
“Lord I would never believed it. You look just like a woman.”
“Sergeant. I need the OIC, now. Are you the OIC?”
“Now, no need to get all uppity and shit. Just because you had to get your little man snipped don’t make you any better than the rest of us. In fact, I don’t give a damn what you did to yourself, I deserve respect as a woman and.. .”
“Ready to go?” Joe walked up and interrupted.
“And don’t you start getting all up in my face Mr. Man.” She started swiveling her head on her neck.
“All apologizes to my most respected sister,” Joe said and bowed slightly.
“We have to go and we’re through with the interviews here,” I said.
“Would you inform the Officer in Charge and have a fine day my sister.”
As we walked away I heard her say, “His ass ain’t so fine anyhow.”
“What was all that ‘my sister’ talk?”
“Mandisa talks that way to the women in her quilting circle.”