“I thought he was asleep,” Evie Truman whispered. She stood with her arms crossed over her ample chest, shoulders hunched so far forward that the outboard ends of her clavicles were in danger of touching. Her feet, shod in simple house slippers, shuffled in the red dust of Highland Avenue. Her lower lip quivered. No one is ever prepared to be a witness, to be the first to arrive on a nasty scene.
Evie didn’t need to whisper. There we stood in the hot sun of that late August Tuesday afternoon with no one within a hundred feet to overhear our conversation. The insects and songbirds continued their enterprises as if nothing humans did surprised them. Evie’s broad face crumpled a little more as she watched the bulky red EMT rig approach, its gruff diesel muttering.
Farther down Highland Avenue, Deputies Robert Torrez and Tom Mears discussed with Posadas Coroner Dr. Emerson Clark how the elderly medical examiner might clamber onboard the towering road grader without risking damage to his arthritic, creaky body. Dr. Clark had wasted no time responding to our call. He hadn’t been deep in some patient’s bowels, or off at Elephant Butte fishing. But the old man didn’t look eager.
For her part, Evie showed no inclination to trudge back and join in that discussion with the coroner. She didn’t want another look at the limp, bloody corpse. I didn’t think she had much more to tell us. Other than promoting community relations, I wasn’t accomplishing a whole lot by standing in the hot sun digging at sand chiggers who migrated up my socks and commiserating about how miserable it was to discover a corpse cooking and bloating in the hot sun.
As if sensing that I was about to walk off and leave her stranded, Evie sniffed and said, “I saw him earlier this afternoon, Bill. I did. I told you I did. He was working the bar ditch all along here, and everything was just fine. I can’t believe it. What a horrible, horrible thing.”
Sure enough, the fragrant soil had been graded up out of the ditches, deposited in a precise, laser-straight windrow on the unpaved street. To finish the job, the operator of the Posadas County Highway Department’s road grader would stroke lanes down the side of the dirt street, creating a smooth, perfectly crowned finish bordered by straight, open ditches. Larry Zipoli was deft with the grader. Hell, he was better than that. He was an artist with the blade. He’d had thirty years practice with the highway department, and I doubted that there was a foot of roadway anywhere in Posadas County that Larry didn’t know down to the last pebble.
But Larry hadn’t finished his artistic grading job on the primi- tive lane on the north border of the village of Posadas. Half of Highland Avenue was finished, half was untouched, hard, pothole pocked and washboarded. Before he could finish, someone had put a high-velocity rifle bullet through the cab of the county road grader and through Larry’s skull. There the big machine sat, diesel engine idling, for most of the afternoon until sixty-one year-old Evie Truman made her run into town and discovered that Larry Zipoli was well beyond snatching a quick nap.
“You went to the school shortly after noon?” I asked. One of the issues most fascinating to a cop is finding out precisely when a corpse became a corpse. Freshly graded though it was, Highland already showed a plethora of car tracks. Evie wasn’t the only person to have driven Highland while Larry’s blood leaked unreported.
She nodded vigorously, and the nodding morphed into a sad side-to-side shake. “I left my grade book at school, and thought I’d want it for later. We have that all-day faculty meeting tomorrow, you know. Now, he was just turning his grader around down there by the intersection with Hutton, and we both waved. He had to wait for me to go by.”
“And then you discovered what happened on the way home from that errand?”
“No, no.” Her response was immediate and snappy, a tone that would work with a recalcitrant eighth grader. “It was most likely around three o’clock. I needed to do a little shopping, and I thought, well, certainly, he would have finished grading that little street by now. And of course, there are any number of other ways to go into town. See, I had this nagging thought that there was just something that I had forgotten at school. Anyway, there he was, parked right along the side of the bar ditch.”
Her hands fussed. “I don’t know why I even noticed him, Sheriff. I mean, what business is it of mine? But what did they do to him? I mean, so much blood.” She gulped a breath. “I think I looked more closely because the machine was idling, you know. It’s so loud. But his head was back against the window, and I was sure he was asleep. Until I looked closer.” Her hand fluttered up to cover her mouth.
It was painfully obvious what had been done to Larry Zipoli. At a glance, he looked asleep, until you saw that blood had flowed down from his left eyebrow to the hollow of his eye, and then down the fatty cleft beside his nose, across his parted lips, and then down chin and neck to matt on the front of his grubby t-shirt. His heart had stopped and blood pressure had dropped before enough blood had been pumped to form a puddle on the floor. But there was plenty spread across his enormous belly. His head rested back against the cab’s rear window, jaw slack, eyes half-lidded.
Having no doubt heard her share of all the old, lame jokes about highway department employees slumbering on the job, I could imagine that Evie Truman might have thought Larry was catching himself an afternoon nap, all warm and toasty with the August sun streaming through the glass of the grader’s cabin. A little too toasty, maybe. The center portion of the windshield was canted open from the bottom a couple of inches, with the left-hand door wide open, latched back against the cab frame. “We’ll need a deposition from you, Evie. As much detail as you can remember, starting with the first time you drove by. What you did, what Larry did. Who you saw.”
“I’m going to have nightmares about this, Sheriff. I mean, I didn’t see anyone in the area, no one at all. But if I had come along a little earlier…” Her face started to crumple again, and I patted her substantial shoulder.
“One of us will walk you through it. I can either swing by your house later this evening, or you can come down to the office at your convenience. If I’m not in the office when you stop by, the sheriff will be, or one of the deputies.”
Evie took a deep, shuddering breath. “May I bring Carl for moral support?” Before I could answer with more than a nod, she reached out a hand and touched me on the forearm. “Larry’s family…”
“We’ll be contacting them first.” Marilyn Zipoli worked at Posadas State Bank as a cashier, and her day was about to fall to pieces. “At this point, Evie, I’d rather that you didn’t talk to anyone else about the incident. Sometimes it’s hard to tell in the beginning what’s important and what isn’t. Carl understands that.” Her husband of decades had been a Game and Fish officer before ruining a spinal disk while unloading one of the department boats at Elephant Butte.
I watched Evie retrace her steps to her Mercury, and then rejoined the party. Bob Torrez had worked a pair of cotton gloves over his huge hands. On down the road, just beyond Evie’s car, the EMT unit had rumbled to a stop beside Deputy Mears’ Bronco, effectively blocking the street. They’d sit there until we waved them in. To the east, Highland was blocked by Torrez’s own patrol unit, pulled crosswise in the road beside mine.
An orange county truck had stopped behind the deputy’s car, and I recognized Tony Pino, the county’s Highway Superintendent, and his foreman, Buddy Clayton. They made their way along the bar ditch, in no hurry to see what they had to see. “So.” I made no move to climb up on the grader. I’d already done that and seen all I needed to see. Besides, one person in that tiny cab was a crowd. But I wanted a second opinion of the scenario before I had to explain to Tony Pino how one of his best men had come to die on this quiet afternoon.
“One shot, sir.” Deputy Torrez stood below the grader’s doorway, one boot on the blade and one on the first rung of the two-step ladder, perhaps ready to catch the elderly coroner should Dr. Clark inadvertently step backward through the doorway. The deputy pointed up at the windshield. Sure enough, the hole through the dusty safety glass was big enough to poke a pencil through, immediately beside the center stud that attached the windshield wiper rubber to the wiper arm. The deputy tapped his own forehead above the left eye.
“Through and through?” I stepped around the end of the blade, moving back to the first of the two mammoth rear tires. The cab window behind the driver showed no holes, no explosion of brain and skull against glass.
“No, sir.” Torrez sounded a little surprised. I stood with my hands in my pockets, looking up at the hole in the windshield, then pivoted and gazed off down Highland Avenue, trying to imagine where the bullet had come from. To the southwest, the nearest house was three hundred yards away on Hutton Circle, with nothing north of that. Highland Avenue, a grand name for the lane-and-a-half cow path through the cacti and chamisa that Larry Zipoli had been grading, marked where the village of Posadas met prairie. Within a quarter mile of this lonesome spot, dozens of folks might have heard the gun shot. And enough tracks marked the freshly graded surface that a dozen folks might have driven by, perhaps laughing at the notion of another public employee snoozing on the job. It had been Evie Truman’s misfortune to be so observant.
Dr. Clark stood in the grader’s doorway, both hands on the frame. The climb up had been hazardous for the old man, and I had told him not to bother. It was clear to me that Larry Zipoli was as dead as dead can ever be, and any other mysteries would be solved on the autopsy table. But the good doctor had persisted, perhaps more out of professional curiosity than anything else. He had stepped up first onto the blade’s support structure, and from there across to the first chain step. Torrez, who was tall and powerful enough to have lifted Dr. Clark up into the cab, had supported him from behind, not in the most dignified fashion for the old physician.
Now, Dr. Clark lowered himself with exaggerated care, taking time to place each polished shoe, both hands gripping the hand rails with white knuckles. Safe on the ground, he snapped off his rubber gloves, scowling as he did so.
“I don’t think he moved one iota after being hit,” he announced. “You see the way his hands are?” Larry Zipoli’s arms hung limp, his hands open, the back of his right hand settled against one of the control levers beside the seat. “Dead before he knew what hit him. His hands aren’t even bloody. He never grabbed his head, or anything else. No particular cadaveritic spasm.” He pointed at the floor where the remains of a stogie rested between the victim’s feet. “Smokin’ a cigar, didn’t even spasm to hold on to that.”
“It’s dead out,” Torrez offered. “The cigar, I mean.”
The elderly physician looked sideways at me. “You knew Larry about as well as I did. Who’d want to do a thing like this?”
I didn’t reply to the rhetorical question.
“Yesterday morning he was gradin’ the shoulders of McArthur right in front of my place,” Torrez offered.
“You talked to him?” “Nope.”
Out of habit, my right hand explored my shirt pocket, scouting out a cigarette. The pocket was empty, though, my latest effort at quitting now three days old. I took a step or two toward the front of the machine, partly out of curiosity, partly to put a few feet between my nose and that fragrant cab.
The grader’s long prow, with the large blade resting on the ground and the two front wheels cocked at an absurd angle, held all of the hydraulic guts of the machine, and I stopped by the end of the blade, touching it with the toe of my boot.
A dozen feet ahead of the blade, a stain on the reddish earth spread wide just inboard of the left front tire. Keeping one hand on the frame beside my head so I wouldn’t crack my skull, I knelt beside the tire and touched a finger to the sand, then smelled it. A spray of hydraulic fluid had soaked the ground. The nearest line ran down from a junction box on the frame, out along the axle beam to the hydraulic ram that steered the front wheel. The spurting fluid had soaked the old yellow paint, and I could see where it had run down around the hydraulic piston, aiming for the ground. Most of the maze of hydraulic lines on the machine were Cat yellow. This one immediately above the leak was obviously new, a nice clean black, with wrench marks on the fitting at each end.
“I’ve done all I can do here,” Dr. Clark called to jar me out of my reverie. “Looks like Tony wants to talk to you. It’s odd…” He stood back and regarded the mammoth machine.
“What would that be?” I asked.
“Whoever fired that shot must have been a ways off,” Clark said. “Could have been damn near all the way down Highland, here. The bullet hits the windshield and then him, all pretty much in a straight line. The gunman didn’t stand right down here on the roadway, or even in a truck that stopped by. He took his shot dead on, from the front.” He took a deep breath. “That’s my take on it, and now I’ll shut up and get out of your way.”
“You’ll let us know ASAP what you find in the prelim.” “Don’t I always,” the old man growled. “What more there’ll be, I couldn’t guess, except the bullet that sure as hell killed him is still lodged in his brain. Kind of odd entrance wound, no exit.” He shrugged and removed the stethoscope from around his neck, absently straightening out the rubber tubes.
“I’ll have the details for you, but I can tell you right now, there’s not much mystery about that part of this deal. You can take the rest of your pictures now, and then tell the kids to get him out of there.” He turned and waved a hand at Deputy Torrez, grimaced again at the road grader and raised his voice for emphasis. “And thanks for shutting that damn thing down, Bobby. My God, some peace and quiet is nice. I couldn’t hear myself think.”
Deputy Torrez, just coming on duty that afternoon, had been the first on the scene, with me following. The grader had been running when we had arrived, and neither of us had been in any hurry to shut it down. Once a crime scene is tampered with even in the most insignificant way, there’s no going back. But when we’d seen most of what we were going to see, even heard the last thing Larry Zipoli might have heard after the snap of breaking glass and the bolt of destruction through his brain, we needed some peace and quiet. We might be content to shout at each other, but Dr. Emerson Clark wouldn’t have been.
Torrez had slipped a leg past the victim’s slumped corpse, and planted his heel on the kill pedal. The diesel sighed to blissful silence.
That simple motion added another piece to the puzzle. Larry Zipoli, facing a threat or even an innocent conversation with someone, had but to shift his right foot an inch or two to do the same thing. He hadn’t done it. He either hadn’t felt the need, or hadn’t had the time.
With the coroner satisfied, and with a hundred photos shot by Deputy Tom Mears and myself, it was time for Larry Zipoli to make his last trip. Rigor hadn’t yet set in. A damn good thing, too. We’d have needed a sky crane or a chain saw, or both. The ‘kids’, a couple of county paramedics neither of whom had yet enjoyed a thirtieth birthday, still would have had a struggle with Larry Zipoli without Bob Torrez’s help. Zipoli was a big fellow, huge of belly and thick everywhere else, probably topping two-fifty. There was no graceful, dignified way to hoist him out of that cramped little cab. He came out feet first, with Torrez holding him under each arm and the rest of us down on the ground to add support. By the time the EMTs had their grim cargo stowed in the ambulance, the rest of the troops had started to arrive.
Tony Pino and Buddy Clayton, understanding how we worked a scene, hadn’t just barged in after they had arrived. They patiently stayed a couple dozen yards away, smoking and talking in hushed tones as they watched us work, not eager to move a step closer to the blood and smell. I beckoned, and they approached with trepidation, as if they were trying to walk on eggs.