We got the call fairly early in the morning, according to the front desk’s note. Some farmer found the body, out walking his dog.
And that was lucky, too, I thought to myself as I rubbed my hands together. I always chose the thinnest pair of leather gloves I could find, for dexterity, but they didn’t hold in heat worth a damn. The engine on my unmarked car was running full blast, but the heater always took twenty minutes to warm up.
Sitting beside me, Lewis stamped his feet on the floor and huffed into his own cupped hands, making a sound a bit like a coughing dog. “Gah! Is it always this cold?” he complained, wriggling his fingers.
I glanced sidelong at the man. Close to a decade younger than me, he was new blood, only just transferred up here. I didn’t think he’d last long. I wasn’t privy to whatever mistakes got him transferred out to the country, but I didn’t need my detective skills to see that he was a city boy, through and through.
“We’ll get some heat once the engine’s warmed up,” I commented, keeping my eyes on the road ahead of us. The uneven gravel of the road often hid treacherous ice puddles.
“And how’s long that gonna take?”
“Maybe ’bout twenty minutes. ‘Bout the time we get there.”
Lewis huffed in frustration, and I let myself grin ever so slightly. Guy was definitely young; he hadn’t mastered the art of letting all the bullshit of life roll off his back.
Sure enough, just as the car’s air vents began to puff out warm air, we reached the edge of the field. “Corner of Harris and Ewan’s lots,” the report waiting for me at my desk had read. No street address.
To someone new, like Lewis, that might have been nonsense, but I knew the farms around here well enough to get there without much trouble. Comes from spending my years out here chasing down cows and lost cats, I guess.
Ewan was standing there, his breath coming out in hazy clouds as he gave me a wave. His dog, a coon hound of indeterminate age and ancestry, bayed as we approached. I could see Ewan’s shotgun hanging down from his other hand. At least he wasn’t pointing the damn thing at my car.
I pulled over, leaving the keys in the ignition and the engine running, and climbed out. My boots crunched on the icy crust atop the snow as I trudged over to the farmer. I could hear the clumsy plodding of Lewis behind me, trying to not get too weighed down in the thick snow.
“Ewan,” I greeted the farmer with a nod, one he returned. “What’ve we got?”
Ewan didn’t respond immediately. He glanced over at Lewis, sizing up my younger partner, and I saw his lips curl ever so slightly. “Who’s this? New guy?”
“Yeah. New guy.” At least Lewis didn’t try and start a fight. “Now, what the hell are we doing out here? I can feel my balls turning blue as we speak.”
That, at least, got a little snort out of the farmer. He turned and stepped out into his field, his dog keeping at his heels. He didn’t say anything, but Lewis and I followed a few steps behind.
There were no crops in the field, of course. Nothing grows in the dead of northern winter. The ground had frozen in rows of ploughed furrows, however, and we had to watch our step as we climbed over the ridges.
We didn’t have to go far. About ten rows into the field, we saw the disturbance in the snow, a rectangular corner of something sticking up through the crust of snow.
“You go any closer?” I asked Ewan as we stepped up to the object sticking out of the snow.
He shook his head. “Course not. Sparky ran ‘cross it, though.”
I nodded. I could see the dog’s tracks going over the surface. There were no other treads, however, no other sign of disturbance on the snow.
As I crouched down, peering across the three feet or so that separated me from the object, I carefully categorized my first impressions.
It was a briefcase. That much was clear. It looked like a nice affair, too, leather, with brass corners. There might be something engraved in the top, right by the handle, but I couldn’t read it with the crust of ice that had formed on top of the leather surface.
My eyes moved over to the hand that still clutched the handle of the briefcase.
It was definitely a hand. Human, white male, maybe in his forties. It was tough to say more. I could see the glint of a gold ring on the fourth finger. Married?
Like a good partner, Lewis had pulled out his camera and snapped a couple dozen pictures. I glanced over at him, and he nodded. I could approach.
Carefully, I stepped closer, reaching out and picking up a frozen chunk of corn stalk, left over from the harvest in the fall. Bit by bit, I swept away some of the snow, uncovering the man underneath.
He didn’t look like much. I thought briefly of good ol’ Willy Loman, from Death of a Salesman. Our corpse looked to be in his late forties, dressed in a gray overcoat over a cheap looking suit. He wore leather shoes, although the material looked cracked and worn. I swept away snow from his head, revealing thinning hair, a scraggly little excuse at a beard – and a small hole drilled right in the middle of his forehead.
As I uncovered that hole, I glanced up at Lewis. The younger man’s mouth tightened, but he lifted the camera and snapped a picture.
“So what’s he doing out here?” Ewan hadn’t moved any closer, but the man kept on peering with interest over our shoulders, trying to get a better look at the corpse. “It’s not like we’ve had any visitors. And I didn’t see a car or anything when I came out here.”
The snow covered the man with a solid, unbroken crust, I thought to myself. He’d been here a while, probably weeks. We didn’t have a real coroner, but Samuelson, the mortician in town, might be able to pin down time of death a little more. I couldn’t see much n the way of blood spatter, but it might just be frozen further down, underneath him.
As I’d mused, Lewis had picked up his own corn stalk, clearing away more of the snow. “Hey, Harry,” he called out in an undertone to me. “Look what he’s got over here.”
The stiff had fallen in a weird sprawl, his arms pointing off in opposite directions. Lewis swept away the last of the snow from the man’s other outstretched arm as I glanced over.
“That doesn’t make sense,” my partner said aloud, as we both looked down at the newly uncovered object.
In the man’s right hand, he held a blued steel pistol. I’d have to check back at the office, but it looked about the right size to put the hole in his forehead.
Suicide? It didn’t make any sense. Or had he been shooting at someone else when he went down?
I shrugged. Get him back to the station, run his records, try and figure out who he was. Who he had been. I stood up, stretching out my already stiff knees – but then paused, looking down at the poor sod.
One quest kept on poking at my brain. I knew I was breaking protocol, but hell, I was the ranking detective out here.
I glanced over at Lewis. “You get a good close picture of his hand?” I asked, pointing down at the hand clutching the briefcase.
My partner nodded, but he shot a few more, just to be certain. He didn’t say anything, but I could see his curiosity plain on his face as well. He stood back, letting me do the honors.
Carefully, lips pulled back slightly from my face, I tugged the man’s fingers away from the handle of the briefcase. I heard a couple uncomfortable creaks and pops, but nothing fully broke. After a minute, I tugged the case free, setting it down on the snow beside the corpse.
Turning the case so that Ewan couldn’t see the contents, I pushed at the latches. They popped open obediently, and I lifted the stiff lid.
For a moment, both Lewis and I froze, staring down at the softly glowing contents. “Well, shit,” the younger man exclaimed, the words spoken in half a whisper.
I nodded – and then, even though I had to fight to pull my eyes away, I pushed the case back closed.
“Well, this got a bit more interesting,” I said softly…