The stiff in the pink tutu stood frozen in fourth position. Hank knew this because his daughter took ballet. For three tortuous years, his wife barked out the positions while Hannah huffed and complied. They finally gave up and let her quit.
Fourth position. One foot pointing north, one pointing south. Right arm posed over the midsection. Left arm held gracefully above the head, slightly bent at the elbow.
“Betcha’ve never seen anything like this before.” The local sheriff who called Hank to the scene in the old Midland square dance barn stood with hands on hips and rocked from heel to toe, as if he owned the place. As if he was proud of the sight before him.
“Never in all my years.” Hank would venture to guess never in anyone’s years.
The corpse was posed, standing with perfect balance. No strings. No harness. Just there.
The male victim appeared to be in his late forties, dressed in a white leotard and pink ballet shoes laced up to his kneecaps. Over that, over all of him, was a thick, glistening layer of resin or maybe epoxy. Extra epoxy circled his feet on the polished concrete of the dance floor, no doubt keeping him upright. Frozen in position and time much like a figure in a wax museum.
Or an insect preserved in acrylic.
Hank circled the body. And then circled again.
“You’re getting every angle of this, right? I want the floor, the ceiling. Get down on your hands and knees and get shots from below. Bring in a ladder and get shots from above.” Hank barked direction at the two crime scene photographers. The forensics team continued to sweep the area. They hadn’t yet touched the body.
Hank put on a glove and tugged at the tutu, which had been placed on the victim long after the preservative dried, the waistband of the tulle skirt did not stick to the body. It moved freely and Hank could have slipped it over the corpse’s head if he wanted to. Easy on. Easy off.
“Any idea who this is?”
The sheriff dug a toothpick out of his pocket and held it like a cigarette for a moment before sticking between his back teeth. “No. Never seen him. But there was a dance in here just last night, so that gives a timeframe for the death.”
“That gives a timeframe for the positioning of the body, not necessarily the death.” Hank put his nose inches from the dead man’s mouth. He didn’t smell the all-too-familiar odor of decay. He smelled harsh chemicals, like the caulk he used to repair the bathtub and nearly fainted from the fumes. The time his wife told him if his job didn’t kill him, his handyman skills would.
He examined the man’s face up close. Relaxed jawline. Peaceful, closed lips. Nostrils filled with the preservative. A few crows’ feet and laugh lines. But the eyes.
The eyes were open. They were not the clouded-over orbs Hank saw a hundred times before. They were clear, brown with flecks of yellow, gazing straight ahead.
The perp preserved the eyes first. This man watched as his torturer poured the epoxy over his face.
Hank retreated to the edge of the barn, where low wooden benches circled the straw-covered concrete dance floor. A few tables in the corners covered with red and white checked tablecloths held forensic kits and gave respite to weary crime scene workers, called out before dawn. And now it was noon.
From one of the benches, Hank stared at Mr. Doe. The victim must weigh 160 to 170 pounds without the hardened preservative. The preservative had to have hardened on the body before the body was moved. The perp certainly didn’t have time to do all this work at the barn.
How did he do it by himself? How did he steady the hefty dead weight upright while the epoxy dried the feet to the floor? Without stepping in it himself?
Hank looked directly above the scene. Large wooden beams crisscrossed the ceiling, dotted with dozens of hanging bare bulbs.
He slapped the table where a pair of lab geeks were taking a water break. “Glove up. Get the ladder back out and examine the beams above the body. I want to know if anything was hung over them, rope, chain. Look for fibers. Look for splinters that may have jabbed our perp. Anything.” They jumped to it. “And call me when you’re done. I want some time with the body.”
Hank stepped outside and walked the perimeter of the barn. Brown and yellow leaves crunched under his feet. The overcast skies and dry air matched his mood. He was thankful for the mild breeze which rid his nostrils of the chemicals and hay from the barn.
The yellow and black crime scene tape had come undone from a giant oak at the corner of the property and was whipping in the breeze. Hank walked over to fix it and noticed a set of narrow, parallel tracks leading from beyond the oak to the barn. He followed them past the tree about a hundred yards to a gravel lane. The crime scene techs most likely missed it because half of the trail was outside of their taped off boundary.
Because all crime boundaries fall neatly within the most available tree, fence post or stoplight. Why is everyone so head-slappingly stupid?
His cell vibrated with the message that the team was done with the barn, and he could spend some up-close and personal time with the frozen man in the pink tutu.
After twelve hours at the scene and forensics lab, Hank fell exhausted onto the motel’s bed. He allowed himself a thirty-minute cat nap before showering, pouring straight up black coffee and firing up his laptop to process the clues and information gathered earlier. More would come tomorrow and the next day after tests were run on the rock-hard preservative, but he had enough to get a start.
He straightened out a paper map of the area on the bed and pulled a file from his briefcase.
A man had been reported missing in the middle of the scene cleanup. A man who fit the description of the ballerina. He’d been gone for five days.
According to the BMV’s copy of the dead man’s driver’s license, Mason Bradford, 46, resided in Belvue, a town three removed from rural Midland. His actual wallet was nowhere to be found, and Hank doubted they’d find it tucked inside the leotard when they got the guy thawed out.
Or chiseled out.
He ran the stats through the database and got a hit. Two years ago, Mason Bradford was brought in on charges of possible misconduct with a minor. The charges were dropped, and nothing ever came of it since the girl was a month from her eighteenth birthday.
According to a local gossip site, Mason Bradford had also gone through a terrible divorce.
Hank would have to check further with Belvue’s local police force, and he made a note to check the ex’s alibi.
The cell vibrated with another message. This time from the lab. They had no clue what covered Mr. Bradford’s body, but it was lightweight, and they’d broken two bits trying to get him unstuck from the barn floor. Approximate time of death was hard to pin down. Could be a couple of days. Could be a week. He ordered a sample be sent to headquarters. No sooner than he sent his instructions he got another message.
Another body. Epoxied.
Baseball diamond at the south side of town.
Hank rubbed the back of his neck and slipped on his dress shoes. He folded the paper map and stuffed it into his back pocket. He closed his laptop and grabbed the small Styrofoam cup the motel graciously provided and filled it for the third time with fuel for the evening.
The baseball field was lit up like the Cubs were playing. The field’s lights lit the whole diamond and outfield. The forensic lights pointed to the Away Team’s dugout. Hank lifted the tape, this time tied to the edge of the fence behind the dugout and to the lamp post near the parking lot. He shook his head in disbelief and lost his temper.
“Widen this area. Look for tracks, same as were at the barn!” He yanked the tape loose and shouted his orders a little too loud and his voice echoed across the field.
Hank gloved up and trod into the dugout, as astonished by the sight in front of him as he was in the old barn.
Another man, about the same age as Mr. Bradford, same approximate build, covered in the same epoxy. This corpse was plastered in a seated position to the wooden bench that stretched the length of the dugout.
The vic wore a white clown suit covered in multicolored polka dots. Great red clown shoes adorned the man’s feet. His legs were crossed, his arms outstretched, a bottle of bubbles in one, the bubble wand in the other. The glimmering preservative covered the suit and shoes and extra could be seen between his thighs and the wooden seat.
Over the top of the dried epoxy, just like the tutu, a bright blue curly-haired wig sat atop the victim’s head. Hank reached for the wig, which came off easily. The epoxy covering the body was dried and smooth, nearly the feel of porcelain. That on the bench was sticky and trapped a couple of moths that had ventured into the lights.
This man’s green eyes stared at them in horror, but his mouth was painted in a bright red smile to match the bulb nose glued to his face.
The sheriff came behind Hank. “We got ourselves a serial, don’t we?”
Hank didn’t respond.
“Maybe someone who’s been done wrong on Halloween, or somethin’. Dressing the folks up like this and all.”
Hank rolled his eyes at the body, away from the gaze of the sheriff.
“What should we tell the press?”
Hank whirled around. “Tell them nothing. No photos. No clues. No comments. Nothing.” The last thing he needed with two crime scenes was the press sensationalizing this.
Sensational, it was though.
Hank’s phone went off. He pulled it from his pocket, forgot himself for a second and sat on the bench with the clown. He reread the message until it sank in.
“Sheriff, I need your people to stay here and lock this place down until the body’s removed.”
Hank walked a few yards onto the field and called headquarters. “Yeah, I’m gonna need a couple of fresh teams. Yes, I said two. We have three scenes now and my people are exhausted.”
Hank walked off the field, under the crime scene tape, which had been moved out a whopping ten feet, and got into his car to head for the third scene in less than 24 hours.
As Hank approached the theater, he tried to remember the last time he had taken Hannah to see anything. He always promised, but never quite made good on it. Work always got in the way. She was old enough to understand now, but it didn’t make up for the lost time.
The manager/owner let Hank in. The tiny town supported a two-screen theater. The manager discovered the body when a silent alarm went off at his home. He told Hank three times before they reached the body that he’d spent his own money and worked hard to update the building with the latest tech and was hoping to get a 3-D screen soon.
The man was a nervous talker. Dead bodies can do that.
Some people cry. Some people puke. And some talk.
He preferred the pukers, so long as they were outside his crime tape perimeter.
The house lights were up. The theater sat about a hundred. The plush blue folding seats were empty except for the front row.
“Go back outside and wait for my team. Don’t let anyone in.” The manager was happy to scamper up the aisle, chatting about clean up and opening day and who knows what else.
Hank stood in front of the victim and gloved up. Fear embedded the man’s brown eyes. He took a shot with his cell phone and sent it to headquarters for identification. Hank wondered how long it took to die after the process began. Maybe the lab would have some more information. Whoever did this had taken lots of time. And now he was delivering the preserved bodies, one by one, all over town.
The gentleman in front of him wore khaki slacks, simple dress shoes and a blue and white striped polo. If it weren’t for the props, Hank would have had a hard time guessing what he was supposed to be. In one frozen, outstretched arm, the man held an apple. One bite removed. He could lift the apple from the body, like the clown wig and the tutu. Other than the bite, it was complete and fresh. Recently bitten. Hank set the fruit back in the victim’s hand.
Wrapped in the other arm, and under epoxy, were two hardback textbooks, English and elementary math. A box of chalk and a ruler laid in the man’s lap, also under the epoxy.
A ballerina, a clown, and a teacher.
Sounds like the beginning of a bad joke.
Hank went to the back of the theater to take in the view and try to map the movements of the man who’d placed the victim here. To make a mental movie of the steps, effort and struggle that was endured to get across some seemingly random point.
His phone jarred him from his thoughts, and his fresh team had arrived. He gave the room to them with strict instructions for photography and collection.
The message on his phone gave him two names. The clown and the teacher and their respective towns. He went to the lobby and pulled the map out and spread it on the concession stand.
“Would you like me to start a batch? I’d be happy to.” The owner came up behind him, chewing nails on one hand, pointing to the popcorn machine with the other.
“Uh, no. I’ll pass. And don’t make any at all. It could contaminate the scene in there.” Some people. Hank went back to the map.
Midland was smack in the middle of the towns the three men called home. But that didn’t tell Hank much. He texted back that he needed their records and BMV files.
He turned the scene over to the junior detective and left for the motel. He couldn’t think and he needed rest. And another shower. And more coffee. But mostly rest.
He was unaware how long he’d been out. He awoke in a pile of papers and had apparently used the map as a blanket. He shook the cobwebs and pulled the motel drapes. No matter how cruel the night, morning always comes.
He threw on a clean change of clothes and opened the laptop. He pulled up all three men’s information in separate windows. The second two had files like the first. Almost convicted, but not quite. All in separate towns. All accused of inappropriate conduct with a minor.
As he was connecting the dots, someone banged on his door.
“What is it?” he didn’t even bother opening it. Half of his team was doubled up in the fifteen-room motel at the edge of town.
“You gotta see this, sir,” came the muffled reply.
Hank threw the door open. The tech stood in socked feet with an open laptop scrolling photos of the ballerina, clown, and teacher in their final staged poses on the internet. Among those, however, were two others, a chef and Mickey Mouse, the police had not discovered.
He grabbed the computer. “Is tech on this?”
“As soon as I saw it, sir.”
“Can we take it down?”
“No, we tried. We keep getting blocked. Whoever it is is really good.”
“Get out. Let me think.” Hank slammed the door in the tech’s face.
He watched the website scroll across the screen. A bright red banner under the photos remained stationary. Across the banner was a recipe.
The recipe for the hardening epoxy.
And a call to action.
Hank put in an emergency call to each of the three police precincts in the victims’ towns.
Within an hour, they all called back, and Hank had nailed the motive down without a doubt.
One girl after ballet practice.
One girl during the state fair.
One at recess.
In all the cases, not enough evidence was gathered to convict—or the girls were nearing eighteen.
He read the call to action again: Mix up a batch of your own Recipe for Revenge. Post your photos here.
Hank recalled the fear in each man’s eyes and thought about the fear that each one had caused their own victims.
Hank thought of Hannah. And the therapy. And the night terrors she still suffers after that day at the zoo.
He took a long draw on his room-temperature coffee and popped his neck.
And then he flipped to the last page in his notebook and copied down the recipe.
Beth started writing epic space sagas using dull pencils on wide-ruled notebook paper in grade school. She’s since upgraded her writing implements (she is, after all, an adult now) and has a blog (again, with the adult thing). Find her books, short story collections, and a free fiction tale at bapaul.com.