There’s a checklist of things we’re supposed to look for to flag a package as “suspicious.” One of them is that the postmark doesn’t match the return address. This postmark was Brooklyn, which meant, following procedure, I was supposed to get the hazmat guys involved and fill out a bunch of paperwork. So I did exactly what any detective would do. I put on a pair of blue latex gloves and squeezed the darn thing from top to bottom like a kid at Christmas.
Since it was pretty clearly a VHS tape — it even sounded right when I shook it — and since VHS tapes are almost universally not explosive or toxic, I opened the package with my trusty pocket knife.
Right away, as I worked the strip of clear plastic tape off the fold, I noticed fingerprints underneath, on the sticky side. I pulled out the cassette — which trailed all of its magnetic tape like streamers of confetti. Whoever sent it had pulled every last inch from the rollers and stuffed it into the bottom of the envelope. The cassette’s clear plastic window showed the interior wheels were pulled clean, although thankfully the tape was still attached at both ends.
There was also a trace blood spatter, about the size of a printed apostrophe. Now that was a reason to get other people involved.
I stood with my lieutenant in her office.
“Serial killer wanting an audience for his work?” she asked.
Lt. Miller bent over the cassette on her desk and squinted at the tiny splatter.
I had the envelope in my hand. I held it up. “Worth checking out the return address maybe?”
“Let’s make sure that’s blood first,” she said, slipping the tape into an evidence bag. “Human blood. And not the sloppy remains of someone’s chili dog.”
Lt. Shawna Miller was in her mid-40s with curly brown hair peeking sandy gray at the roots. She was husky but not fat and always dressed sharply. Everything I knew about her had been pieced together from odd bits and ends she dropped in conversation. In the few years we’d been working together, she’d made offhand comments once or twice with the subject ‘we’ in a way that led me to think she was married, probably with kids. But she didn’t wear a ring. And she didn’t talk about her family. She didn’t have pictures in her office. She didn’t come with her husband to work gatherings. I’m certain all of that was so the men in her unit would have no reason to see her as anything but their manager. Not a wife. Not a mother. Just the boss. It kept her a bit at arm’s length from everyone. But in a public bureaucracy the size of the NYPD, that was the best strategy, if you could keep it up over the long haul.
“You think it’s a hoax?” I handed her the envelope, which went into a separate bag.
Lt. Miller and I were friendly but we weren’t friends.
“Probably not,” she said, “but stranger things have happened. I don’t want to put another one up until we’re sure.” She nodded toward the big white board in the common space outside her office. It was stuffed end-to-end in multi-colored columns summarizing all our active cases. The label at the top read “The Killing Field.”
She handed me the evidence bags in a way that made it clear they were my responsibility. “Since you’re here,” she said, nodding to a chair, “sit.”
My brain immediately wanted to start cataloging all the things she might want to talk about in that official way, not least what had happened at the apartment bloc the week before, but ultimately there were too many, so I complied without pause or comment.
She walked toward her office door. “I got an email this morning from Crowley, our erstwhile manager of the evidence locker.” She shut it.
I didn’t say anything. I knew where she was going.
She walked around and took her seat. “He tells me you’ve checked out the same evidence from the Sacchi case seven times in the last few months.” She looked to me for a response. “A pendant or something like that? Is that correct?”
“If he says so.” I was still wearing it.
Lieutenant Miller scowled. “Do I need to be worried?”
“About that? No.”
“I didn’t think so. But I told him I’d talk to you about it. So there.”
I nodded and went to get up.
“That’s not why I asked you to stay,” she said. Lieutenant Miller opened her desk drawer. “For the first three months, you wouldn’t say anything and I had to give an official reprimand.”
So that was it.
She produced a thick envelope, the kind that could be sealed with the red string and routed around the office. “Now, you apparently don’t know when to shut up.” She tossed it across to me.
I caught it awkwardly, one hand pressing it to my chest. I unwrapped the red string and took out the folder. I flipped through it. I caught the words “grand mal seizures” and “wolf with three eyes” and what appeared to be several verbatim excerpts from a transcript.
I closed the file.
“Nothing to say?” she asked.
I slipped the file back into the manila envelope. “Nope.” I wrapped the red string around the tab.
She looked at me with a mix of surprise and frustration.
I placed the envelope gently on her desk. “With respect, ma’am, I know what I said.”
“Since when do you call me ma’am?”
I shrugged. “It seemed like the right thing to say.”
“It seemed patronizing. You had an obligation to disclose this to the department.”
“I did. At the inquest.”
“You said you had a seizure. Not that you had a history.”
“It happened once,” I said.
She pointed to the folder. “According to that, you had to be hospitalized for the better part of a year. I’d hardly call that ‘once.’”
“That was thirty years ago.” I objected. “I was thirteen years old. No one could figure out why it happened and no one could figure out why it went away. It just stopped. And for three decades, it stayed stopped. I had no reason to think it would ever come back.”
She pointed to her desk. “You know what Cormack’s lawyer is going to say. That the department is liable. And you know what they’re going to say? That you’re liable. That you withheld vital medical history.”
“I was thirteen,” I repeated.
“Maybe. But by not talking for the better part of three months of mandatory therapy, you made it look like you had something to hide. Like you knew better.”
I shifted in my seat. “Is that why you want to wait on the blood analysis? You’d prefer I take an administrative vacay?”
“You’re like a dog with a new toy every time a new case comes across your desk. You clamp down and shake and shake and shake until I have to pry it away from you.”
“I’ll talk to Dr. More first. Fair enough?”
Lieutenant Miller sighed.
“I’m not going to intimidate him,” I explained calmly. “I just want to make sure he understands the damage his report is going to do.”
“You don’t think he did this on purpose?” She lifted the envelope by the corner and held it like it was a bag of dog poop.
I shrugged. “I’d like to give the man the benefit of the doubt. Life seems simpler sometimes from behind a desk.” Then I added quickly “no offense. It’s just, maybe he didn’t realize how that would be interpreted.”
It was clear she was skeptical, not just about what I said but also whether I even believed it myself. I didn’t.
She shoved the file in a drawer, and I stood with the evidence bags.
Lt. Shawna Miller watched me walk to the door. “You need to take this seriously, Detective. The Department will. A man’s life, his family, is at stake.”
I stopped with my hand on the shiny silver knob. I knew she felt trapped. On the one hand, I was one of her detectives and she wanted to help, and I appreciated that. On the other, she felt I should’ve known better and was frustrated with me for putting her in a bad spot.
I opened the door.
I didn’t make it back to my desk.