“Last night Hieronymus Bosch met the rich and famous.”
That was the lead sentence of the story I filed later that night with The Sheffield Post. My editor spiked it, saying, “Nobody who reads this newspaper knows who Hieronymus Bosch is.”
Instead, the story began, “Six people were found brutally murdered, their nude bodies mutilated, in the exclusive gated Sheffield community of Connor’s Landing.”
My name’s been on the byline of hundreds of stories over the last twenty years, in four newspapers, three magazines, a half dozen websites, and, for a very short, shame-filled stint, Fox News. I’ve honestly lost count how many crime scenes and murders I’ve covered—drug deals gone bad, jealous lovers, random shootings, bar fights, gang hits.
This one was different. It felt surreal.
These murders happened in the wrong place. These weren’t supposed to happen here.
The three-story turret of the 1898 Queen Anne home stood like a guard tower looming over a two-acre carpet of manicured landscaping perched on the shoreline of Long Island Sound. Wicker chairs and glass tables rested on a massive wraparound porch, waiting for crystal glasses of Pinot Grigio and plates of warm Brie. Antique panes of leaded glass overlooked the harbor where schooners once docked. A gentle sea breeze rustled the leaves of hundred-year-old oak trees.
Connor’s Landing was a small island community named for a nineteenth-century whaling captain, and is separated from the mainland by salt water tidal pools and connected by an old wooden bridge.
Even in the dark of night, I could see how beautiful it was. A haven of sprawling grounds overlooking the water, houses the size of small hotels, yachts worth more than some small corporations, lifestyles of the rich and the super-rich. All owned by people who, even in this economy, continued to manufacture money.
This particular estate was fabulous. The crime, however, was horrifying.
The cops wouldn’t let me beyond the yellow tape and into the crime scene itself, so I waited in the suffocating hot July darkness until I could get enough information and at least one official quote. Then I’d rush back to my desk and put together a story before press-time.
Leaning against my ten-year-old Sebring, I felt the heat and humidity frizzing up my hair. Whining mosquitoes kept trying to zip into my ears. Sweat trailed slowly out from under my bra and down my ribcage. Every so often I’d glance up at the sky where stars poked glimmering holes in the darkness and the moon hung like a pale sliver in the night.
While I absently fingered my smartphone and squinted through the darkness at scribbles I kept in a tiny notebook, police were coming and going throughout the house with uncertain regularity. Lights were on inside. Windows showed me cops moving slowly around, the flashes of cameras recording the scene.
So far, I was the only member of the Fourth Estate who had shown up. My competition was the local TV cable station, WTOC, and another local newspaper, The Bridgeport Times. I chalked up my good fortune to someone else’s tough luck. The police scanner app on my phone had said that there was a jackknifed tractor trailer on I-95 and traffic in both directions was stopped dead.
Any other reporters in the vicinity were frustrated behind their steering wheels, covering a traffic accident instead of a multiple homicide.
I’d been waiting in the driveway behind the yellow tape for nearly an hour when Mike Dillon, the deputy chief, finally came out of the house. He’s about forty, tall and lean, with brown eyes and an angular face that looked cunning to me, wolf-like. He was wearing a summer uniform with short sleeves but no hat. The sheen of sweat below his receding hairline glistened in the staccato red and blue lights of the police cruisers. Mike walked deliberately toward me, acknowledging my presence with a grim expression and a nod.
“Hey, Genie.” His voice sounded a little more somber than usual, for good reason.
“I’ve been listening to the chatter. Sounds pretty bad in there.” I nodded toward a small cluster of paramedics who’d been called earlier that evening, but weren’t needed. Like me, they’d been standing outside in the oppressive heat and wishing they were in an air-conditioned bar back in town. They were waiting, not to take the injured to the hospital, but to take the dead to the morgue.
“I hear you’ve got six bodies.” It was more a statement than a question.
Mike came up beside me and crossed his arms. He took a deep breath, using the moment to compose his thoughts. Mike Dillon was accustomed to talking to the media. He hated to be misquoted; he hated it when anyone took cheap shots at him or the police department; and he hated pushy reporters.
But it was pretty evident that he liked me. And it isn’t because I’m not pushy, because I am, or that I don’t take the occasional cheap shot, because I do.
Mike liked me because, even though I’m a few months shy of forty, time has been kind to me. Men in bars still tell me I’m pretty and I haven’t had to resort to Botox yet, although I’ve thought about it. The treadmill has kept my weight in check and I’ve still got great legs.
I know that it isn’t PC to admit this, but Mike thinks I’m hot, simple as that. With men, it always amazes and amuses me how much concession that’ll buy.
Taking a long breath, he answered, “Yeah, six bodies, all homicides.”
“How’d they die?” I had my notebook ready.
“Hacked to death. Blood and body parts everywhere.”
I glanced up. He was looking away from me, staring into the darkness toward Long Island Sound. He wasn’t seeing the water, though; his mind was still visualizing what he saw in that house, something unspeakable.
“Hacked to death?” I repeated, stunned.
He answered in little more than a whisper. “They were cut to pieces.”
It took me a second to process what he’d just told me. I’ve covered a lot of murders and this was surprisingly gruesome.
“I’ve never seen so much blood.”
“What was the murder weapon? Machete?”
“Don’t know yet.”
“Got a motive?”
“Don’t know yet.”
“Robbery gone bad?”
“Not ruling it out.”
“Does it look like it could be some kind of ritual?” I was fishing.
Mike glanced back at me to see if I was pulling his leg. He frowned. “No pentagram on the wall, if that’s what you’re asking.”
I thought a moment. “Who found the bodies?”
“We did. We got an anonymous call.”
I nodded. “Time of death?”
Mike took a moment to frame his reply. “Coroner thinks sometime around one o’clock this morning.”
They’d been lying dead in that house for over eighteen hours.
“Ready to release the victims’ names?”
He shook his head. “Can’t.”
“Can’t or won’t?” The police liked to contact the next of kin before releasing names to the press. “I already know that this house belongs to George and Lynette Chadwick.” I held up my smartphone to show him how I’d uncovered that fact. “Are they two of the victims?”
He didn’t answer.
“Who are the rest?”
“We don’t have positive ID’s yet.”
Mike cocked his head. “The victims are all naked. Bodies are all stacked up in a pile. The killer or killers took all the wallets and purses with them. None of the victims have any identification.”
“Did you say the victims are naked? Were they naked when they were killed?”
He nodded slowly in the affirmative.
I glanced back up toward the house. In the circular driveway, past the police cruisers and the ambulances, there were three SUVs and a Mercedes E350. “I’ll bet the victims belong to some of those, and I’ll bet you’ve already run the plates, Mike.”
While the cop shrugged, his eyes stared into my own. “Look, Genie, I’ve got to notify families before I can give you names, you know that. And I also know that you’ll be running those plates yourself once you get back to your office. Unless you’ve already done it.” He pointed to my phone.
I had, of course, but before I could print the names, I’d need confirmation from the cops. Two of the SUVs belonged to the Chadwicks. The third, an Escalade, belonged to John and Martha Singewald. The Mercedes was the property of Kit and Kathy Webster.
None of the names meant anything to me. Not yet.
“Any idea on who might have done it?”
Mike gave the stock answer. “Yeah, we’ve got some solid leads and we expect to make progress on this case over the next few days.”
That was the deputy chief ’s way of saying they didn’t having any suspects. If he did, he would have said that he expected to make an arrest.
Instead, he’d said that he expected to make progress.
That meant that the cops didn’t have a whole lot to work with yet. But I couldn’t write that because that wasn’t what Mike said.
“Well, there’s not a lot of story here, Mike.”
“What? Are you kidding me? You got naked, and you got hacked up bodies stacked up like cordwood. Makes a hell of a front page.” Even though Mike likes me, he sounded disgusted.
I held up my hands. “Sarcasm, Mike. It was sarcasm.”
He was right, of course. This was a big story. Six naked people cut up into pieces in one of the most exclusive neighborhoods on the Gold Coast of Connecticut. And right at that moment, the story was entirely mine. On the one hand, I was repulsed to my very soul that six people died like this. The final moments they endured must have been absolute hell. Nobody deserves that kind of ending.
But on the other hand, I was at a low point in my life, bottomed out. If I didn’t screw it up, this could be the catalyst to put my career back on track. I desperately needed to get it right. I tucked my phone and notebook into my oversized handbag. “So, how’s Phil doing?”
I was referring to Officer Phil Gilmartin, twelve-year veteran of the Sheffield Police Department.
“He’s okay. Still a little sore.”
“I didn’t hit him that hard.”
“You gave him a black eye.”
“Tell him again that I’m sorry, okay?”
“Genie, I like you. But don’t hit any more cops. It really pisses them off.”
I shrugged and raised my hands. “I’m payin’ for it, Mike. You know that. I’m on probation and attending AA meetings for the next six months.”
“You humiliated him.”
“So next time he’ll remember to keep his guard up.”
I pointed to the house with the six naked bodies still inside. “Call me if there’s a break in the case?”
“You know I will.” Mike spoke the words but I was almost sure he didn’t mean it. Knowing Mike, he’d call me when it was good for Mike.
● ● ● ● ●
Twenty minutes later, I was at my desk watching my editor chew on the stale corner of an old tuna fish sandwich. He stared intently at his computer screen, silently editing my story on the Connor’s Landing murders.
Earlier in the day, the ancient air-conditioning system in the building had gone belly-up and, even that late in the evening, the internal office temperature hung in the low nineties. As he looked over my story, Casper Wells took out his handkerchief and absently wiped away the beads of sweat trickling down from his graying scalp and pooling in his bushy, overgrown eyebrows.
Finally, blessedly, Casper hit the Send button, looked up, nodded, and gave me a sour grin.
Time for this girl to go.
I took a look around the building. This was when I enjoyed the office best. It was quiet. Most everyone in the editorial office had gone home for the night. The ubiquitous chatter of the police scanner was silent as were the computer keyboards. The screensavers’ ghostly, silver glow threw odd shadows over the chaos of the newsroom. Random piles of newspapers and manila folders were strewn around the floor next to ancient metal desks, littered with more folders and dirty coffee cups.
The office, like the business itself, was showing her age.
With a sigh, I picked up a couple of file folders from my desk, shoved them into my bag, waved at Casper, said good night to the pre-press guys, and walked out.
Glancing at my watch, I had to make choice. I could head over to the Paradise Lounge for a vodka tonic or go to AA.