Corpse in the Concrete [A Lt. Mark Stoddard Mystery]
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by J. D. Crayne
Description: Detective Mark Stoddard's deadliest case! When the decayed corpse of an unknown man is found slouched in an outhouse in a rural California town, Pomo City Police Detective Mark Stoddard finds himself investigating a bizarre mixture of suspects, including Civil War buffs, several eccentric artists, and a pedantic antique dealer. Digging out clues to murder from gravel-voiced Ma Shanahan's Irish pub to the beer and sin-stained bar of The Sweat Lodge, Stoddard finds that small towns can have big secrets, and even bigger motives for murder. The crucial answer to the mystery seems to hinge on the meaning of a strange tattoo, but when a second man is reported missing, it suddenly looks like an open and shut case; a case of sick jealousy that brought one man to his grave and turned his killer into a fugitive. But Stoddard soon realizes that obvious solutions can be misleading and that hidden motives may be the most powerful ones of all. What about the beautiful Japanese girl that both men loved, and that one of them may have loved a little too much? Who owned the murder weapon--and who used it? Did the antique dealer have more than a casual interest in his beautiful young assistant? As he delves deeper into the secret motives behind this bizarre killing, Stoddard discovers that this sleepy little Western town hides more than one mystery, and finds himself unraveling a tangled knot of love, ambition, and envy as he stalks a calculating killer in a determined search for the answers.
eBook Publisher: Renaissance E Books/PageTurner, 2004
eBookwise Release Date: June 2004
19 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [240 KB]
Reading time: 142-200 min.
Detective Mark Stoddard parked and got out of his white pickup truck. The ground, cracked and dry in the mid-summer heat, showed ruts and furrows where some heavy equipment had been driven over it in the spring, when the ground was soft. The whole area was strewn with tree trimmings, waste pieces of plywood, empty nail cartons, and the other odds and ends that accumulate around a construction site.
The man who had been sitting on a bucket under a big oak tree got up and dusted off the seat of his pants. He was young, in his early-twenties at the most, and looked pale under his tan.
"You the police?"
"Yep," Stoddard said, flipping open his wallet and showing his ID. "You reported finding a body?"
The kid nodded and screwed up his face with distaste. "Yeah, he's right over there, behind the house."
"Suppose you show me."
The kid led him around to the east side of the new house, where a concrete form was set up against the foundation. A few empty concrete sacks were tossed around on the ground, stained damp by the puddle of water seeping from the end of a long garden hose.
"It's the contractor who's building this place," the kid said. "I'm one of his carpenters. I got here about nine o'clock, and didn't hear anyone working, so I looked around a bit, and there he was."
A small concrete mixer was standing by the side of the form, and the corpse, dressed in tan work pants and a blue and gray checked shirt, appeared to be kneeling on the ground next to it. The work pants were unbelted, unzipped, and down around the corpse's knees, along with his shorts.
At first glance it looked as if the man was peering into the form, but when Stoddard looked closer he saw that the form was unevenly filled with cement, and that there was a mound in the center where the head and neck of the corpse were covered to the shoulders in a heaped-up gray mass of the stuff. Its arms were spread out on either side of the head, forearms half-covered, and hands buried to the wrists in the concrete. A wide white scar showed on the side of the right forearm.
"Well, this is one for the books," Stoddard said, scratching his sandy hair with one hand.
"I thought at first he'd fallen off the roof," the carpenter explained. "He'd been doing some shingling the last time I was here, and that roof's pretty steep."
They stood silent for a moment, just staring at the body. Stoddard bent down and rapped on the concrete with his knuckles. "The coroner is not going to be happy with this one."
"It looks like something out of one of those cat and mouse cartoon," the carpenter said unhappily. "You know, where the cat jumps at the mouse, misses, and lands in a mud puddle. It's not so funny in real life though."
Stoddard checked for footprints, or anything else that might be meaningful, but he found none. He knelt down beside the corpse. "Did you move him?" he asked the kid.
"I sort of pulled at his shoulder," the carpenter said, wiping the palms of his hands on his trousers. "That was before I saw where his head was. When he didn't budge, I realized there was something really wrong. Do you think maybe he fell off the roof and landed here?"
Stoddard grunted. "Maybe. But unless the fall drove him nuts he probably didn't pull his pants down." He stood up and dusted off his trousers. "What's your name?"
"You live around here?"
"In town. Pomo, I mean."
Britton's reeled off his address, eyes still fixed on the dead man with a sort of horrified fascination.
"And what's his name?" Stoddard asked, jerking a thumb at the corpse.
"How do you know it's him?" Stoddard asked. "I mean, with just his backside on view."
Britton looked a little shocked. "It's that scar on his right arm," he said, pointing at the white mark on the dead man's arm. "He showed it to me once. Said he laid his arm across a joiner when he was a kid. Mean-looking scar. There can't be many guys with one like that."
"Any family?" Stoddard asked.
Britton nodded. "Wife and a couple of kids."
"Where do they live?"
"Over on the west side of town, up in the hills. They just moved out there about two months ago."
"Okay, I'll take a formal statement from you in just a moment. Right now I've got to call this in and have the dispatcher send the site crew and the coroner out here?with a couple of cold chisels."
He straightened up, dusted off his hands, and walked back to his truck and the police radio. When he finished his call, he came back toward Britton holding his notebook and pencil.
"When was he planning to pour this concrete?" he asked Britton.
"I don't know. When I came out here last Monday the form hadn't even been built."
"That was five days ago. Why weren't you weren't out here working last week?"
Britton shrugged, and scuffed at the ground with the toe of his boot. "He's been late paying me, so I had to take another job. I got bills too."
Stoddard nodded. "So you came out to collect?"
Britton shrugged again. "He said he'd have the money today. Of course, he's said that a couple of other times before, too." He hitched up his trousers and spat into the dust heap he'd scuffed up.
"How much does he owe you?"
"Two month's back pay, plus a little for some supplies he asked me to pick up at the lumber yard. I guess I might as well just forget it now." Britton shook his head and sighed. "Damn! I sure could use the money! I've got three places to put it, as things are."
A movement caught Stoddard's eyes, and he glanced up at the sky, where three turkey vultures were riding a thermal in the clear summer air, and probably eying the dead contractor. "Was it usual for him to work on weekends?"
"Sometimes he did, and sometimes he didn't," Britton answered. "It sort of depended on how things were. I think he had a few other things going on the side."
"The money he was going to pay you, did he say where was it coming from?"
Britton leaned against part of the house frame and stared morosely down at his ex-boss. "Yeah. I called him last week, and he said he was getting another progress payment from the owner. He said he'd probably have it by today."
Stoddard nodded. "That makes sense. Does he have anyone else working for him?"
"There was Donald Briggs, but he took another job, same as me. He's been working on a remodeling job over in Gualala and staying with his aunt. That's all; just the two of us."
"How did you report his death, by the way?" Stoddard asked, looking around. "There don't seem to be any phone lines coming in here."
"I used the phone in his truck." Britton gestured toward the pickups parked in the yard. "It wasn't locked and I figured the cell company would just have to eat the cost."
"Well, they certainly won't be able to dun him," Stoddard said dryly. He walked around a bit and then nodded toward the garden hose that was lying with its end in a puddle of mud. "By the way, where does that water come from? There's no city service out here yet, is there?"
Britton shook his head and laughed. "That'll be the day! Naw, there's a spring, up on the side of the hill."
"I see. Which one of those trucks is Vieland's?"
"That black Ford with the camper shell. The white Chevy is mine."
Stoddard tucked his notebook into a pocket and walked over to look at the dead man's pickup, Britton following along close behind him.
The windows were down, and the doors were unlocked. There was evidence that some animal had been inside, since a paper lunch sack was torn to shreds and scattered all over the seat.
"Looks like there's been a raccoon in here," Britton observed. "They can smell a meal a mile away."
After looking through the cab and finding the cell phone, plus such oddments as a thermos of lukewarm coffee and a couple of bungy cords, he checked the glove compartment. It held the usual debris of broken sunglasses and outdated maps, plus a half-dozen unused condoms and a cameo brooch pinned to a piece of velvet ribbon.
He closed the cab door thoughtfully and walked around to the back of the truck, where he opened the door of the camper shell. The truck bed was empty, except for a tool box and a large lantern-style flashlight. He wrapped a handkerchief around his hand and opened the tool box, which was empty too, except for a set of stainless steel measuring spoons, a small balance scale, and a carton of plastic sandwich bags.
Stoddard re-closed the camper door and stood there for a minute, looking around the weedy front yard. "What's that building over there?" he asked Britton, pointing toward the dilapidated outbuilding by the front gates.
"Just some old storage building," the carpenter said. "It's full of a bunch of junk. Josh said that we ought to pull it down, but the people who bought the place want to keep it. Something about it being historic. Looks like a tumbledown wreck to me."
The building was larger than Stoddard had first thought, when he drove past it on the way in. It appeared to be an old cottage, rather than a simple storage building. It had a tar paper roof with a swayback sag to the ridgepole, and was covered with redwood shingles that had turned nearly black over the years. An enthusiastic grape vine covered nearly half of it.
Stoddard walked over to the building and stepped carefully up the two rickety steps that led up to the stoop. The door was open, and a padlock hung uselessly from the open hasp. The interior was divided into two rooms, with a pot-bellied wood stove in one of them. Both rooms were crowded with the sort of old cast-off junk people hide away in attics and basements, and there was a faint smell of dry rot.
Someone had made an effort to clear out part of the second room. Most of the clutter had been pushed back against the walls, leaving an area about eight foot square where an unrolled sleeping bag rubbed shoulders with a small plastic ice chest and a large shiny butane lamp. The room reeked of butane gas.
"You bring this stuff in here?" Stoddard asked.
"Not me!" Britton said, and then snickered. "It looks like some of the local kids have been having themselves a party, don't it!"
Stoddard nodded absently as he opened the top of the ice chest, noting an unopened bottle of white wine with a fancy label, a corkscrew, and two wine glasses, sitting in a couple of inches of ice water. He took out his notebook and jotted down the name on the wine bottle label, then closed the lid gently, straightened up, and looked around. The rest of the interior was sprinkled with rat droppings and shrouded with dust-covered spider webs.
When he heard the sound of cars Stoddard went back out into the sunshine, dusting off his hands against his trouser legs.
Four official cars had pulled into the driveway and parked in the yard. Two uniformed officers and the crime scene crew climbed out, and Stoddard waved them off in the direction of the corpse.
When the coroner's van arrived, a few minutes later, Doctor Victor Viber, County Coroner, got out of it and came ambling across the dusty yard. Viber, who was somewhat stout, looked both hot and out of place in his dark suit, conservative tie, and neatly shined shoes. He did not look happy.
"I came away from my niece's wedding reception to look at this corpse, so show it to me."
"Right this way," Stoddard said. "I know you're going to enjoy this one."