Selwyn Clarke arrived at the crime scene to find Detective Hubert Maimone vomiting into a bush. Maimone gave Selwyn a weak wave and returned to his task.
Through the dim patchwork light cast by the handful of working streetlamps Selwyn could see a once proud neighbourhood. Crumbling red-brick two-storey buildings with grand porticos inhabited by piss-ridden hobos. Large fenced gardens filled with garbage. Wide parks overgrown with weeds. Selwyn uncapped his camera and took a picture of a row of syringes carefully stood upright on a low brick wall and fixed in place with gum. A curious home-made burglar deterrent, even for Didymus.
The door of a derelict church stood open directly behind Maimone. From it, drifted waves of stench. The background smell of uncollected garbage had done a good job of covering this evil odour for a long time. It may have remained undiscovered for a long while yet. But a tip had been phoned in. The rumour running red hot around the police station was that Rey Guapo was dead.
Selwyn stepped over the steep gutter and took some establishment shots of the church and its overgrown grounds. He tried to exclude Maimone’s butt.
Never mind. He would have to tolerate that flaw in his crime scene gallery.
The church had once been very fine, but it had been subject to a desecration much greater than mere abandonment.
Approaching the open door, Selwyn felt a tickle up his spine. A moment of trepidation as to what he might find inside was overridden by the compulsion of duty. He was equal to this task. His pictures would artfully capture the current moment and reconstruct the criminal deeds of the recent past.
Selwyn put on a face mask to guard against the worst of the smell. He composed his mind and summoned his mantra.
I serve. I see so others can solve. I find so others can arrest. Facts without prejudice. Investigation without intuition. Conclusion through proof.
On the word proof he crossed the threshold. The neglected beauty of the church touched his guarded heart. Beautiful frescos lovingly rendered and fine stained-glass windows, intact despite the gutting of the interior. At the rear of the church, Saint Peter hung in inverse crucifixion. A nugget from classroom religion lessons reminded him of Saint Peter’s request of his executioner. To not be killed in the same manner as his Lord. So the executioner crucified him upside down.
A most peculiar gallery of framed pictures hung from wires that must once have held religious banners. Pews were tossed aside in a pile of wood worthy of a witch burning. A cold brazier made from an incense burner hung nearby.
A placed statue of Jesus faced the door. His arms wide in welcome or warning. A grey ointment had been smeared upon it.
And in the centre of the church, under the magnificent cupola, a vast cauldron worthy of the most hideous child-hating coven of witches still blupped with its last cooling bubbles. The stench oozed from its stilling surface and heat radiated from the gas burner underneath.
Maimone must have held his nerve long enough to turn the gas off. The purpose of the greenish fat-topped soup was held back by denial until the knob of a femur popped up.
Selwyn constricted, squeezing his camera shutter and taking a badly framed shot.
He turned on his heel and charged outside in a personal race between feet to the gutter, hand to mask, and stomach contents to the cold air.
Too slow with the mask. The pressure of the vomit forced it off his face. Burning liquid splashed through his nose and across his cheeks. He knelt in the most penitent of poses at the gutter and surrendered to the moment, tucking his camera between his knees.
Finally, the heaving ceased leaving him exhausted and hollow.
To compound his burning shame, someone was standing over him. He turned his dripping cheeks toward his unwelcome witness. Small feet in neat shoes. Not Hubert Maimone. Thank goodness.
His gaze travelled up neatly creased slacks to the offered bottle of water and a packaged restaurant towelette. Above these kind offerings was the face of Officer Esther Ramirez. Short black curly hair and warm, but guarded, eyes.
Selwyn made a weak arm flap in the direction of the offerings nearly knocking them out of her hands. With saint-like patience, Ramirez unwrapped the towelette and lowered it to Selwyn’s line of sight.
He managed to steady his shaking hand and take it from her. Wiping the horrid chunks and bile from his cheeks, he dropped the open cloth face down onto the puddle to obscure the stench. A pointless gesture in the circumstances.
Ramirez, a very practical angel of mercy, uncapped the bottle and poured some water beside the towelette-covered puddle. It lifted like a pancake concealed in a napkin by a frugal diner and floated a few feet past Selwyn. Into the storm water drain to his left that he had failed to notice.
He took the offered bottle gratefully, swirled and spat a few mouthfuls of water. Despite his pounding head, he did not swallow any for fear that it would not stay put.
“Bad one, huh,” said Ramirez. Selwyn nodded, remaining silent. He was always silent at a crime scene, from the moment of his mantra to the final ritual of packing away his camera and equipment.
“Is it really him?” She seemed to speak not just to Selwyn, but to the neighbourhood. “I mean, is it really possible that someone took out Rey Guapo?”
To avoid circumstantial information prejudicing his investigations Selwyn never read the police files of suspects, but even he knew of Rey Guapo. Feared Zetos drug lord and tyrant. Savvy and ruthless businessman. Ruin of many a heart and home. This was the heart of his territory.
“My grandmother lived three blocks that way,” said Ramirez pointing through a tangle of overgrown shrubs lit by a struggling street lamp. “I used to take her to Mass here. Every Sunday. Until the Zetos ran Father McDonald out of town.”
From the past tense and the disjointed nature of the share, Selwyn inferred that Ramirez’ grandmother was dead. And in this neighbourhood, ‘natural causes’ rarely appeared on death certificates.
Selwyn rose from his kneeling crouch and turned back toward the church. Maimone had also recovered and stood ready at the church door. Maimone shook a few drops of oil from a bottle in his pocket onto his own facemask and offered the bottle to Selwyn.
Peppermint oil. Of course.
Selwyn fished out another mask from his pocket and shook a few drops onto it. He put it on, handed the bottle back to Maimone, and joined the others on the church step. Ramirez declined Maimone’s offer of a spare mask. Her watchful eyes flicked about. Observant and calm with her hand on her service revolver. Remembering the crime scene trick of veterans, Selwyn grinned under his mask to supress his gag reflex. He stepped back into the church.
He started with a context sweep, taking pictures of the door frame, entry vestibule filled with discarded drug paraphernalia working his way toward the dripping statue of Jesus. His suffering countenance was turned away from the cauldron.
Maimone took a sample of the lardy grey substance dripping from the statue as Selwyn worked his way past, laying down numbered evidence markers.
Marker one – wood pile of smashed pews and torn branches. Probable use was to warm the perpetrator during his work. Selwyn took three shots including the brazier made from an incense burner.
Marker two – a blood pool in the left nave. More a blood pond actually. Far too much blood for a single body. This was a long running crime scene. Many victims.
Decedents … Selwyn mentally enforced the neutral terminology. Facts without prejudice. Investigation without intuition. Conclusion through proof. He repeated his mantra and fixed his grin in place fighting back his heaving stomach. Remain objective at all times. Capture everything. Look for the details that others miss. Those are the things that unravel a mystery and lead to a conviction.
The blood pool consisted of dried overlapping layers. Selwyn set his flash to max and dialled up his contrast. He took a small square of lunch wrap plastic from his pocket and smoothed it onto the bottom of his camera. He crouched as low as his trembling thighs would allow and placed the camera in the cleanest patch on the floor. He pressed the shutter twice. Then he lifted the camera three inches. Took two more shots and repeated the process twice more. Gary from image processing would do his best to unpick the layers from the graduated picture sequences and determine how many distinct layers of blood there were. To complete the documentation, he repeated the sequence at ten o’clock and two o’clock.
Marker three – a table with hacksaws, thumbscrews, an electric cattle prod, pincers and tweezers, knives of all shapes and sizes. All spotlessly clean.
Marker four – another table laid with a white cloth. Stained with small concise blood pools. Ramirez was particularly interested in this table. She reached out to touch the cloth and Selwyn stopped her with a gesture. She looked at him sharply, as though she had just snapped into the moment, withdrew her hand, and dropped her eyes.
Selwyn kept his back to the cauldron. The final funeral vessel of so many damned souls. Tortured, executed and boiled down into soup and bones. Even as Selwyn chided himself for allowing empathy to displace professional dispassion, he knew that he could never again eat his favourite dish, his mother’s pea and ham soup.
Fresco angels looked down upon Selwyn, mouths wide in horror or ecstatic song. One looked upward along a pointing trident as though trying to draw the Lord’s attention to the blasphemous horror of the cauldron below.
He focussed on the gallery of pictures hanging from wires anchored in the magnificent ceiling. The protective grin dropped off his face in despair and he let go of his camera. The camera, secured by a strap around his neck, bounced painfully off his tender midriff. Only the protective aura of peppermint kept Selwyn from fleeing to the gutter outside.
It was the perfect crime scene gallery. The sequence of polaroid pictures, set in frames wrapped in white cloth with an ivy motif, showed a montage that rendered Selwyn’s finest efforts mere duplication.
The first picture, taken over the left shoulder of the Jesus statue, was of Rey Guapo. Conclusively identified by the I.N.R.I. tattoo across his neck and the letter Z on his left temple. Rey Guapo was on his knees, hands bound behind his back, eyes like a wolf on the photographer. Behind him, stood another man with eyes wide and wild holding a gun to the back of Rey Guapo’s head.
Rey Guapo’s head was the focus of the next photo. Sitting neatly on the white cloth covered table identified by marker four in his own inferior version of this gallery. The Z tattoo mostly replaced by a gaping exit wound.
Ramirez gasped and bit the back of her hand and she beheld the moment and all it meant.
Bring me the head of John the Baptist. Another nugget from the classroom whispered through Selwyn’s mind.
The next picture was of the gunman from the first picture with eyes of surrendered suffering bulging under a pressure wave. Gun in his mouth at the very moment of discharge. Only a true master of the moment could capture that on Polaroid. He struggled to pull his face back into a grin under his peppermint scented mask.
All I do is capture the moment after the fact.
“You know him,” said Maimone to Ramirez. It wasn’t a question.
She nodded. Maimone didn’t press. Like Selwyn, he knew the power of silence to draw out narrative.
“Vincente Lobos.” Her voice caught and she rallied admirably, “He was a good kid. I used to see him here. In this church. At Mass. I came with my grandmother. Because she made me. He came alone. He was always here.”
She stopped, weighed down by the past.
“His face. During Communion. He really felt it. He loved God.”
Her voice caught again. She touched her service revolver as her grandmother might have touched a rosary.
“But was it the love of God, or the seed of madness? Well, the drugs watered that seed just fine. And now… here we are.” She held her hands wide and then slapped them down on her thighs. Maimone touched her shoulder in that chaste comforting way that Selwyn detested. Ramirez placed her own hand over Maimone’s.
“I think God returned to him at the end,” said Maimone.
Selwyn returned to his scrutiny of the gallery. The next image was the gunman’s severed head on the table next to Rey Guapo’s. Presumably, the mysterious and talented photographer had moved from audience to participant.
“Polaroids,” said Maimone, shattering the solemnity with his insistence on speech. “That’s good. Not many places still sell those.”
“And no gun,” observed Ramirez. She cast her eye on the cauldron as its most likely location.
In the next image, a left arm lay on the table beside the heads. Selwyn’s gaze returned to the table of sharp clean instruments of torture and butchery.
The next image was another left arm tucked in beside the first. And so it proceeded. Neatly disjointed limbs stacked side by side, brothers in death and dismemberment. All caught in exquisite detail. All captured in white frames with an ivy motif. The motif had caught Maimone’s attention. Behind his mask, he looked worried.
The final frame was blank with a handwritten legend: Esta casa robada es devuelta.
Ramirez translated, “This stolen house is returned.”
Ramirez closed her eyes and began to sing. Selwyn was startled at such a sacrilege at a crime scene, until he realised her intent was quite the opposite. To bring back a small sliver of the holy into this desecrated temple. Lifelong atheist though he was, Selwyn was moved by beauty of her song. It was Ave Maria.
His heart calmed as the church filled up with her voice. Like a vacuum drawing in a gas.
Despite the ruin of his ambition to produce the finest crime scene gallery ever seen, Selwyn’s professionalism took a life of its own and guided him through the motions of setting down numbered markers and taking pictures of the pictures.
Artist to critic. Such a demotion. Yet Selwyn could not retain any bitterness toward this mysterious photographer who had assisted in the removal of a feared crime lord and his chief executioner ending a reign of terror and encapsulating the triumph for all eternity. He had received a lesson from a master.
He turned his attention to working out where all the shots were taken to track the photographer’s movements through the crime scene.
To replicate the location of the documented murder Selwyn stood in the same approximate location as the photographer over the left shoulder of the dripping Jesus statue, where only the bravest of devils would dare sit. In the camera’s display, he drew up his image of the image of the murder of Rey Guapo and found the same angle through the viewfinder.
He took the shot. It popped up in the display next to the original. Selwyn dialled between the two. The final moment of Rey Guapo, kneeling at the statue of Jesus, unrepentant hate-filled eyes upon the mystery photographer, with the gun of Vincente Lobos, his very own Judas, at the back of his head.
A creeping ice overcame Selwyn. His skin prickled, the grin under his mask dropped and the bile rose in his throat. He reached for his mantra to stave off the wave of nausea. But the mantra would not come. Selwyn’s eyes flicked back and forth between the two images willing a suspended penny to drop before he would have to flee back to the gutter.
The realisation hit him in the guts like a slow-motion boxer doubling him forward. Selwyn inhaled deeply, sucking in the mask filling his mouth with a clinical taste of paper and peppermint and only just countered the urge to hurl.
The statue of Jesus in the murder shot was clean. Selwyn looked up from the camera to the statue anointed with grey slime and across to the cauldron.
Maimone’s eyes were upon him just as Ramirez concluded her final sung phrase. Her hands clasped, eyes closed, face up toward the angel with the trident, who now seemed to be drawing the attention of the Lord to her noble efforts to heal this horror.
Breaking his tradition, his rules, his very reason to be, Selwyn removed his mask.
“Rey Guapo has been rendered unto the Lord,” he said.