IN OUR FATHER'S PRESENCE
by Edward Clinton
In the small, sleepy, Currier and Ives town of Old Latham, on the Connecticut shoreline, the first murder occurs just three months before the Chief of Police is set to retire. Danny McKendrick, a chain smoking, newly divorced, middle-aged police detective, is put on the case and ordered to clean up a very messy situation. Chief Curran wants everything back the way it was before the murder took place, so he can fly off to a thatched cottage in Ireland where he plans to live till the good lord calls him home.
Unfortunately, the recent events in Old Latham, added to an inability to cope with certain life changes is overwhelming for Detective McKendrick. His life becomes more and more complicated, as he investigates, and attempts to untangle the various knots of relationships involved in Old Latham's first murder case. In the process, Danny McKendrick discovers the whys and wherefores of love, marriage, infidelity, happiness and the complexities of father-son relationships. The town of Old Latham, Connecticut becomes a microcosm of the whole world, revealing how we are all connected to each other in a strange, mysterious and often inexplicable way.
Curious knots of people were beginning to gather along the elegant, curving street of small mansions down by the water.
The largest congregated directly across from the Van Sant house, now completely surrounded by gray police cars.
Each car was discreetly marked "Old Latham, Connecticut." The day was growing colder and a blanket of heavy clouds had almost completely blotted out what was left of the early morning sun.
Off to one side of the crowd Captain Daniel T. McKendrick, Head of Detectives for the Town of Old Latham, was briefing the Chief of Police Services, Michael Curran, on the situation in the Marcellus Van Sant home.
"Officer Crofts responded to a neighbor's call. The lady, who is a friend of the family, heard screams and saw the son, Simeon Van Sant, outside of the house, covered with blood..."
"She means he had a little blood on him, right?"
"She says he was covered with blood, yelling in a very agitated state. He must have been standing right over there." McKendrick gestured to a set of bloody footprints in the snow, which led around in a faint circle, then back up toward the house where they disappeared into a path of gray slush by the ornate front door.
The chief shook his head slowly and took a long drag from his cigarette.
"Anything missing from the house?"
"The daughter-in-law told Crofts there doesn't seem to be."
"Has the coroner been here?"
"He just left. His first finding from the scene would be death due to loss of blood apparently from a knife wound to the throat area, with the assailant coming up from behind the victim. But it's still hard to tell anything from the scene. It's a total mess. The hair and fiber guys are going over everything right now. They've fingerprinted the body. The body's...Well, overkill is the only way you could describe it."
"And the scene is secured?"
"It hasn't been contaminated, is that what you're telling me?"
"That's correct, sir."
"We're not gonna lose a bunch of evidence because a' some stupid patrolman decided to pick up a phone and call home, or thought maybe they would like to steal a hat, or some money off a counter. Something like that? I mean, I don't want the state guys coming to me later and saying we lost evidence, or that our officers put their fingerprints all over the scene. So what you're assuring me, is that the scene has been secured, and secured right, is that it? And whatever evidence there is, the state forensics guys will find it?"
"I, personally, sealed off the scene. Nothing was touched or moved in any way. None of our officers was even allowed inside of the house, only the forensics guys. And they're pickin' over the corpse like vultures. If there's something there, they'll find it. The only thing we might have lost in all of this would be some tracks in the snow, going to or from the front door, because the state guys arrived so quickly, and went right on up..."
"Geez. Christ on a crutch!" The chief exhaled harshly, rolling his milky blue eyes up toward the cloudy sky in disgust. Then he gave a quick look over at the path of slush leading to the front door. "This job is gonna be my death."
"Well, Mike, I mean we had to get in. Anyway, it was snowing all night. So unless all this happened this morning, right before the son found him, or unless the son did it..."
"Emmm." The chief muttered, his mind obviously elsewhere.
"And the son is all covered with blood when the first officer arrives on the scene?"
McKendrick nodded. "Says he was trying to give his father CPR. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense when you consider that the old guy's up there in a puddle of blood on the bathroom floor with his voice box actually hanging out..."
Curran held up his hand to say, spare me the details. "Did you get anything valuable outa the son?"
"Not really. He's incoherent."
"You sure this isn't some kinda hit?"
"A professional killer doesn't make a mess like you're gonna see up there."
"Yeah, well, check all the license plates in the area, anyway, with special attention to the out-of-states. And you make sure that the scene is secured and stays secured." The chief looked around, up and down the street, as if there might be a clue, something obvious - something nice, neat and easy, to end it all quickly. There was nothing. It was a crime scene – the scene of a murder. Plain and simple. Small clumps of people had gathered all along the street, which now was a chaotic jumble of police vehicles, medical vans and transmission trucks from the various television stations. King's Road - the elegant, sleepy street, high on a bluff, just yards up from the Connecticut River, was the most exclusive neighborhood in all of Old Latham. The houses on King's Road were so exclusive that they were never sold - they were passed down in the family. Or traded - family to family. Things were contained on King's Road, as they had been ever since the winding little lane down by the water consisted only of a crude fort, a church, and a few houses, when it was founded back in 1635 as a trading post by English lords who had never actually visited the place, at the time considered the wilderness.
Now it was a quiet street, arguably one of the most beautiful in America - not
familiar with controversy or disturbances of any kind. Neighbors already being interviewed were offering the customary and now all too familiar; "You see these things on TV, but you never think it will happen where you live."
Perfect was the word most used to describe King's Road – and with the view of the river, and the white church steeples across the water in the distance. King's Road was perfection. A Currier & Ives print come to life. Quietly intimidating, in that Connecticut way.
And it was literally quiet as crime scenes go. Even with all of the people milling about, and the various emergency vehicles crackling with intermittent bursts of scratchy radio traffic, it was quiet, sternly quiet, as if the neighbors were silently saying; clean this up quickly and leave our neighborhood. Chief Curran didn't like it. He didn't like it at all. There hadn't been a murder in the Town of Old Latham, Connecticut, in all the thirty-five years he had been the chief. Now three months before his retirement, the State Police Major Crimes Squad was right there, in his town. And the TV people... And… on King's Road of all places...Geez.
"Damn," he said. And with that he tossed his freshly lit cigarette into a pristine snow bank, hiked up his trousers and headed toward the murder house for his walk-through of the crime scene.
"Brace yourself," McKendrick called out. The chief's arm went up in a wave of acknowledgment, but he didn't look back.
Jessica Van Sant, who was standing off to one side by her maroon Volvo, took this opportunity to approach Detective McKendrick, having gotten his name from Officer Crofts, the first one on the scene, the one who had taken her statement. She walked up and spoke McKendrick's name gently, as though she might scare him if she spoke too loudly.
"Detective McKendrick, my husband is very upset."
"Is he?" McKendrick said, turning his attention to her, knowing full well exactly how upset her husband was or at least appeared to be.
"Our doctor...he's the man standing by the front door." McKendrick quickly glanced in the direction of a balding man, in his late 50's dressed in a smart corduroy jacket, standing just inside the shiny black front door opened only a crack. The man was peering out. It occurred to McKendrick that the doctor looked like he was standing guard. "The doctor has suggested that we take my husband over to the Waterside Clinic for a sedative."
" Why doesn't your doctor just give your husband a sedative right here?"
"Well, he's not a medical doctor. I mean, actually, he is. Well, what I'm saying, and not very well I'm afraid, is that Dr. Sorenson is a psychiatrist." She turned her head away and her sentence trailed off, so that the word psychiatrist was almost inaudible.
"I see." McKendrick said, having heard every word.
"Well, why don't you make use of one of our ambulances here. That way, if something were to go wrong...I mean, after the stress of something like this, a guy might have a heart attack...Why don't we get you one of these volunteer ambulance crews to..."
"We'd rather take him ourselves."
" Well doctor knows best. But I'll tell ya, what with all of this snow we got dumped on us last night, you might need an escort. The plows haven't reached the side roads, or even parts of 1-95 yet. Usually, if two snow flakes fall together here in Connecticut they close all the schools and call it a Snow Emergency, and give it a name like Nina, Pinta or Santa Maria. But this really is a major storm, so I'll get you an escort."
Jessica opened her mouth to reject his offer, but then decided against it.
McKendrick didn't notice her change of mind, he was too busy digging in the various pockets of his puffy down overcoat, which appeared to be all pockets, looking for a card. After much digging, he produced a bundle of dog-eared cards, wrapped tightly in a red rubber band from one of his many Velcro lipped- pockets. He extracted a card with a snap, and held it out to Jessica. It was a gesture that was at once casual, and yet somehow accusing.
"These days it's hard to say who might be an enemy. And with money like this," he gestured vaguely at the big house, "who knows what might be going on? I won't keep you. My home number is on the back. You can call me at any time, day or night, if you think of anything that might help us. Or if you'd like to add to the statement you gave to Officer Crofts. Or if you'd just like to talk. But for right now, I'll get you that escort." He was not asking. With that he walked off, high-stepping his way through the deep fresh snow.
Mrs. Van Sant studied McKendrick's card politely with the feigned interest of someone handed an unwanted business card.
Captain Daniel T. McKendrick
Department of Police Services, Detective Division,
Town of Old Latham, Connecticut.203-777-2323, Ext. 4
Underneath the printing on the card was a pale blue depiction of a lighthouse, presumably the Leete Lighthouse out on the sound. This rendering radiated pale blue "light" out in long triangles toward either end of the card. On the back, just as he had said, was McKendrick's home phone number, written by his hand in big block numbers with what appeared to be a faulty Bic pen. There were little blotches and globules of blue ink at the ends and corners of the numbers.
Jessica prepared to throw the card in the snow, but that seemed wrong, so she jammed it inside her purse. Gathering herself together, she signaled to Dr. Sorenson, who quickly disappeared from the doorway, reappearing almost as quickly with Simeon and another man. The two hurried Simeon, all wrapped up in Sorenson's too big overcoat, across the broad expanse of snow-covered lawn toward a blue car parked at the end of the half-moon cobblestone driveway. Simeon's own overcoat had become so soaked in blood that it reminded Jessica of a cape from a bullfight they had seen on their honeymoon, eight years earlier in Spain. But that was all like something from a different lifetime. Now that coat was sealed in a big plastic bag, marked in obscenely large letters, "EVIDENCE."
A small group of neighbors being held back by a patrolwoman near the curb, gasped when they saw Simeon up close. He had dried blood all across his forehead. And in his hair. And on his nose and mouth.... Before they could gawk, however, he was briskly tucked inside of the doctor's car and whisked out of sight.
Jessica had tried to wash the blood off of Simeon inside of the house, but every time she reached out her husband pulled away from her with a glare. He was incoherent, which considering everything, was certainly understandable.
The bathroom where it had happened was awash with blood. Jessica had never seen so much blood. The emergency people gossiped that all of Marcellus' blood had pumped out of his body. Five quarts. It would take only about a minute and a half, they announced among themselves, before one had noticed her standing there.
The smell, she would never forget the smell of the huge slick puddle of blood with the little old man lying in the middle of it. The man, who only last night had been her father-in-law had his vocal cords hanging askew on his throat like an undone bow tie.
As a child Jessica's own father had read to her from Shakespeare. Even now, she could quote whole passages from memory. And she had always wondered about Lady Macbeth's reference, in the famous "bloody hands" speech, to "all the perfumes of Arabia."
Why would Lady Macbeth need perfume to cleanse her hands?
Now she knew: The smell. The smell of great amounts of blood is horrible - A distinct, slightly sweet, sickening iron smell that hangs in the air and is not easily forgotten.
The red and blue lights of the police cruiser brought her back to the horrible reality of the unreal day. The police car pulled away. The Sorenson car followed behind obediently. Jessica glanced over at Detective McKendrick, as she got into her own car and knocked the snow off of her boots. He was studying her. Before she could warm the car up and leave, he came over and tapped on her window, using his wedding band to make the sound sharper and more distinct on the glass. When she had the window buzzed fully down, he leaned in close to her and said, "We're going to have to ask that you leave your husband's car until we've had a chance to study it."
He gestured quickly with his eyes at the bright red sports car sitting in the cobblestone driveway, but his eyes never left Jessica's for more than a second. "That is your husband's car?"
"Yes," she said.
"Nice car. Beautiful. A vintage Jaguar, isn't it?" He didn't wait for an answer. "That's a classic. What is that, a 1953?" The red sports car, parked as it was, almost rakishly, in front of the perfectly maintained colonial mansion, looked like an ad for a men’s' cologne from the Sunday, New York Times, Magazine Section.
"I'm not really sure of the year," she said, a little nervous, trying not to sound as impatient as she felt. "I'm sure my husband can tell you all about it when he's feeling better."
Why is he staring at me like that? She thought to herself.
"Yes, well, I'll let you get on your way," McKendrick said. He stood up straight - a signal that she was free to go, but then he quickly bent over and leaned in the window again. "By the way, who was that other man with your husband and his doctor? A friend of the family?"
"That's Ben Schactman. And yes, he is a friend of the family." The way she had said it, put forth the question - can I please go now?
"Ben Schactman. The lawyer, Ben Schactman?"
"Yes, he's the family lawyer....but he's also a friend of Simeon's. They were room-mates at Yale."
"Oh really?… Well...You have my number." He stood up straight again. She buzzed the window up with relief and drove away slowly, her rear tires spinning out slightly as she turned the corner and disappeared from the scene.
McKendrick watched her car until it was gone, then he got inside of his own - a cold, beige, unmarked, bottom-of-the-line, police-issue Plymouth with no chrome, black wall tires and a heater that worked only when it wanted to. The Naugahyde seats were so cold in the winter that they made a splat sound when sat down. To McKendrick the only highpoint of the car, after the cigarette lighter, was the onboard computer.
After lighting his 15th Camel cigarette of the day (and it was only 11:00 o'clock in the morning), McKendrick entered Simeon Van Sant's name and address into the computer. It's that simple, and suddenly you're part of a murder investigation: A name and an address. In homicides, the next of kin are always the first to be eliminated from suspicion. Family suspects are usually eliminated in roughly the same order that they would be rewarded in a will; the order of inheritance.
While he waited for a response from the computer, McKendrick watched two heavy-set guys from the State Medical Examiners' Office, lug the elder Mr. Van Sant down the two slate steps in front of his home. The body was completely hidden from view, neatly zipped into a black bag, not unlike a large garment flight bag with handles at either end. (With handles in the middle as well, in the event that the deceased is terribly fat, requiring four or six people to carry the load instead of two.) The men moved awkwardly but carefully down the gently curving cobblestone path with their cargo hanging between them like a black hammock. And that, McKendrick thought, is how the wealthy Mr. Van Sant leaves his elegant home for the last time.
Now it was up to him, Danny McKendrick, to find the person or persons who tortured, inflicted pain and killed this man, and make certain that justice was done. He would do it, too. He would set the record straight or die trying.