(A Jason Colefield Mystery)
Copyright © 2014 by Denny Ray Macomber
For my good buddy, Jimmy.
I miss you man…
The line that divides is often invisible. An unseen separation. An imaginary barrier. That was the case in the waters surrounding Sauvie Island the morning the body was discovered.
Sentinel seagulls cawed in protest and fled their roosts as the motor sputtered and the hull scraped aground. Deputy Jason Colefield scrambled out of the River Patrol boat ahead of his younger partner and sloshed ashore, bowline in hand. The latest storm system had lifted, leaving behind a muddy beach strewn with piles of decaying vegetation and bird guano. After kneeling down to tie off the boat around the exposed roots of an undermined cottonwood, he stood and surveyed the scene.
The last time he’d been on the island it was sunny and forty degrees warmer, and all he’d been packing was a cooler of cold beer and a fishing rod.
Even then, it had been an uncomfortable return.
As the fog lifted, he could see willow trees lining the narrow channel, which provided fair wind coverage for the duck hunter blinds. Since waterfowl season was in full swing, he was relieved to see no shotgun barrels.
“Bart!” he yelled to his partner. “Grab our orange vests.”
Colefield paused to get his bearings. Inland, pastoral farmland stretched for miles crowned by old Victorian homes, red barns and picket fences. A paved road dead-ended at the northwest tip. From there one could either turn around and head across the island toward Collin’s Beach, the nude beach, or south toward more expensive real estate perched atop the banks of the Columbia River, affording spectacular views on clear mornings of four snow-capped peaks – Rainier, Hood, Adams and St. Helens.
An old fisherman once told him that Sauvie was the largest island in North America, bigger even than the isle of Manhattan. That may be true, but the two couldn’t be more different. Sauvie boasted bucolic fertile environs, not concrete and skyscrapers.
Colefield studied the steep riverbank and swift current. He wondered if a body could even wash ashore here. Yet nothing was impossible. The job had taught him that. Bodies often appeared in odd places. They might sink at first, bump along over the rocks or get snagged on reeds for several weeks before enough bloating occurred for them to resurface, sometimes miles from the point of entry. Then it was just a matter of time before the River Patrol received a call.
This morning both rivers, the Willamette and Columbia, were running high from recent rains. Because of the swollen waters, the deputies had made two sweeps of the area, maneuvering around tank-sized flotsam, before coming ashore. If the body was supposed to be here, they hadn’t spotted it.
But tides rise and fall. Shorelines morph and disappear.
He radioed dispatch and asked them to patch him through to the 911 caller who had agreed to stay at the scene. Turned out the body wasn’t in the water after all, but land bound. He was in for a hike.
Behind him, his young partner slogged ashore, wearing two orange vests and juggling a heavy forensic kit. Sweating, he heaved the evidence locker to the ground and shed the extra clothing, tossing it to his partner.
“Do we have any heavy rope in there?” Colefield asked as he slung the vest over his jacket.
Bart grunted and started rummaging through his gear. “This should do the trick.” He handed a thick coil of knotted rope to the deputy.
“Wait here until I figure out where we’re supposed to be.”
“Works for me.” Bart flopped down on the box, whipped out his phone and began texting.
Colefield turned back to the task at hand. He knew from experience that once he reached the top of the rise, he would be at the county line. Dispatch was waiting for his determination of whether the body was located in Columbia or Multnomah County. Truth was neither jurisdiction wanted the case. Even interviewing witnesses was problematic when neighbors resided in different counties. At this point the only thing clear was that the body was in a field and not in the water.
The muddy embankment didn’t look that difficult to climb but the rain had made the ground slimier than an oyster shooter. Colefield tied the rope around his waist and struggled up the steep bank, his boots nearly sucked off his feet, his gloves and knees soon covered in slick goo. As he crested the ridge, the mud gave way to grass and brush. Standing 100 yards away, he spotted a man with two large dogs, waving in his direction.
In his hunting jacket and baggy jeans the guy looked harmless enough until he spied the shotgun resting on his shoulder. Colefield wiped his gloves on the grass, secured the rope to a willow, and then tossed the line back over the embankment to his partner.
“You missed me, asshole!” Bart laughed.
“Keep your vest on. There’re hunters up here.”
As he approached the hunter, Colefield’s irises widened in recognition of his childhood nemesis. He’d been carrying a shotgun then too. Colefield flinched and involuntarily ducked as the memory seared through him. Hammered off his Hodaka Super Rat as he spun donuts in a fallow field, he’d hit the earth hard, the smell of seared flesh filling the air. It felt like a baseball bat had slammed into his head and chest as his riderless motorbike gained traction on his sprawled legs before careening into the dirt, its throttle stuck open. He’d tried to run, but his legs hadn’t responded to his emergency signals, and so he had cowered in the dirt not sure what had just happened. When he’d heard the voice and saw the shotgun he was convinced he was going to die. Truth be told the shooting did signal the death of his innocence.
Everything happens for a reason. His mother’s words echoed.
His stride became more assured as he mentally prepared to revisit his childhood boogeyman as an adult. Colefield glanced down, grateful the orange vest covered his give-away name tag. At 6 feet he bore no resemblance to the gap-toothed child that had flown across his land. He had braced for this often imagined confrontation, but the old hunter didn’t seem to remember him. The man shifted his shotgun to his opposite shoulder and extended his hand. Removing his gloves Colefield reciprocated.
“Under better circumstances, I’d say nice meeting you.” The hunter’s grip was still firm. “I’m Hank Scarbough.”
“I’m Deputy Coleman.” He surprised himself at the ease with which the spontaneous lie rolled off his lips. “What’s the shotgun for?”
“My dogs and I were hunting this morning.”
“That how you found the body?”
“I wouldn’t have spotted it in the tall grass otherwise.”
As he glanced across the field the Lab on the right zeroed in on his bum knee while the black Lab with the greying muzzle enthusiastically nosed his crotch. He was more worried about his knee than his balls. But soon enough both dogs were intently sniffing the smeared goose shit on his legs – frosting on the cake for a bird dog.
“Were you the one who said the body washed ashore?”
“I told them it was along the east side of the channel. Apparently, someone got their wires crossed.”
“Evidently. Why don’t you take point, Mr. Scarbough? When we get close, keep your dogs back. We’ll need to tape off the area.”
The hunter stared back toward the river. “Is someone else coming?”
Colefield glanced over his shoulder. Bart was straining to pull the evidence locker up the bank.
“My partner will catch up. Lead the way.”
While Scarbough set the pace, Colefield studied the fresh tracks in the tall grass. They could have been made by the hunter and his dogs or another person leaving the scene via the river. He’d check the bank for evidence later.
“You live nearby?” Colefield already knew the answer, but wanted to get a feel for the man after all these years.
“Toward the Point,” the old man motioned to a big red barn and some wooden outbuildings off in the distance. Over the years the trees had enveloped the property, but it was mostly how Colefield remembered it.
“It’s been in my family for generations. Back when the island was owned by the French.”
“You still have family on the island?” Colefield’s face twitched as he realized he’d tipped his hand.
Scarbough stopped and looked directly at him but Colefield doubted he’d recognize him as the redheaded kid who’d raced his dirt bike across his fields. He tugged his cap down tight over his close cropped hair. The moment passed.
Scarbough’s expression turned inward. “My wife passed winter before last. Kids are all grown. I live alone now.” He paused. “You from these parts Deputy?”
Now was not the time to reintroduce himself.
“I grew up in Portland. After high school I joined the Navy to see the world. After my discharge, I’d seen enough and couldn’t wait to get back home.”
“Some of the finest land this country has to offer,” Scarbough agreed.
Colefield couldn’t argue that. “How many residents currently live on the island?”
Scarbough thought for a moment. “Two thousand give or take. A fair number are retired. Pumpkins, corn, onions and herbs are still the staples for the south side. But things have changed over the years. Now there’s a group of young people carving out a life for themselves growing organic vegetables, raising chickens, and catering to city folks from Portland who want to experience “country life” firsthand. They’ve built quite a following.”
Colefield pulled out his notebook. “Any recent hunting accidents?”
“A few months back at Bedford’s farm, a guy shot himself in the foot. Nothing serious. Blew off a toe. Outside of that, let me think. Oh, there was a little mishap in the number eight blind last week. Two hunters knocked over their camp stove and burned it to the ground. That was a real disappointment. It was a dandy spot to bag Canadian geese.”
As they resumed their hike, the older dog kept sniffing at Colefield’s ankle. He couldn’t seem to shake him. And then when he wasn’t looking, the dog nipped at him. Colefield flinched. The hunter pulled back hard on the dog’s collar.
“Sorry about that. She meant no harm. When Sadie was a puppy, my wife taught her to grab shoelaces and untie people’s shoes. I’ve never been able to break her of the habit.” Scarbough stroked the dogs as he continued. “My wife spent endless hours with them when they were pups. Named them after her grandmothers, Sarah and Sadie. But she never was very keen on the girls once they were grown.”
While they waited for Bart to catch up, Colefield bent down to check his ankle and retie his boot.
It didn’t appear as though there had been a lot of activity in the area. Dense blackberry briars and tall grass competed for space with reeds and marsh.
“While you were hunting this morning, did you see anyone else?”
“No. But from that blind there to as far as you can see the land is mine.”
“You allow other hunters on your land?”
The man thought it over. “Couple last week, couple this week.”
“Do you post no trespassing signs?”
Scarbough shrugged. “Who pays attention to signs?”
Colefield considered the question based on his own history with the man as Bart struggled over, lugging the evidence locker with him.
“Mr. Scarbough, this is Deputy Bart Ryan.”
Winded, Bart nodded to the hunter and knelt down to pat the Labs before looking back at Colefield who was staring toward the shore.
“Did you see that fresh trail a few hundred yards back?” Colefield asked Bart.
The deputy nodded.
Then as if on command, the dogs began pulling on their leashes, tails wagging.
“They’ve caught the scent. Shouldn’t be much further, Deputies.”
The hunter was right. About thirty yards into some tall reeds they came upon a trampled down area. Colefield asked everyone to stay back. Just ahead, he found what they were looking for. He paused, listening.
“You hear something Bart?”
“I don’t hear it now.” Colefield took another step forward. An iridescent bird shot out of the brush, soaring skyward like a clay target sprung from its trap. The dogs went crazy – barking and straining against their leashes. The pheasant’s lamenting cry through the gray sky left Colefield unnerved. He had instinctively reached for his sidearm. He wasn’t the only one the bird spooked.
“Holy shit!” Bart yelled as he uncoiled from the crouched position his body had assumed.
“You two would make fine bird dogs!” Scarbough chuckled.
Ignoring the sarcasm, Colefield told his partner to get him some gloves from the forensic kit. Still rattled, Bart opened the lid and fished around inside.
As Colefield approached the body and the scene came into full view he removed his cell phone and began snapping photographs. Engrossed, he didn’t notice the deputy as he walked up from behind.
Bart waited gloves in hand. Finally, Colefield turned toward him, exposing the body to the young deputy.
“Christ! It’s a kid?” Bart uttered. His partner stood frozen, eyes locked on the bloody tableau.
Colefield nodded. From what he could see, the victim appeared to be a fair skinned Caucasian boy with sandy hair and a thin build. Twelve or thirteen at most. Facedown, his back showed a dozen entrance wounds just below the shoulder blades, most likely from a shotgun blast. It was hard to tell if this center of mass shot was the fatal one because the victim also had massive head trauma. Powder burns on the clothing and blood splattering on the ground suggested the boy had been shot at close range. Colefield reflected on his encounter moments earlier with the pheasant. Instinct takes over. This could be a hunting accident.
He pulled the gloves from Bart’s clenched hand. “Looks like the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office ‘tags and bags’ this one. Get them out here.”
Colefield pulled on the gloves. “Then start taping off the perimeter. And keep your eye peeled for any spent shotgun shells.”
Bart nodded; appearing relieved to have a job that kept him occupied and away from the blood soaked body. Though he was well-trained and had handled many drownings, this was his first shooting.
“Should I start a Sign-In Roster?”
His training was kicking in.
“Roger that. But mark off the area first.”
The boy probably had been dead a day or more. They’d had a cold snap. Nighttime temperatures had been in the low thirties, barely climbing above that during the day, which would explain why the body wasn’t covered with insects and flies. A warm day and the remains would have appeared otherwise.
Colefield took in what the kid was wearing – worn leather boots, denim jeans, a red flannel shirt, and a camouflage hunting vest too large for his small frame. The collar of a thermal undershirt showed at the neckline. An orange hunter’s cap lay on the ground beside the body. Given the cold winter weather, the boy had on appropriate hunting attire.
If his take on the entry wounds was accurate, the hunter could have been about twenty feet behind the boy when the trigger was pulled. He surveyed the surrounding area. The placement of the hands and the angle of the feet suggested the boy crawled along the ground either before or after he’d been shot, making him invisible in the tall brush.
He knelt down and examined what was left of the face. Next he studied the boy’s hands. The kid was a nail biter. Colefield curled his own hands into fists, an involuntary reflex he’d developed over the years to hide the same condition. If the hunter had moved the body, he couldn’t see traces of it in the grass.
Without disturbing the evidence he took a closer look at the body shot. The back of the vest displayed a symbol of some kind. Colefield’s childhood vest had borne the image of a motorcycle. Leaning down to examine the design more closely, his stomach clenched. Unless he was wrong, the boy’s symbol looked like it had been applied after the shooting. Colefield jotted notes and photographed everything.
Homicide would process the scene, but he wanted a record in case someone down the line got sloppy. Bart had finished cordoning off the area around the body with police tape. As he marched back over to his evidence kit to stow his gear he glanced over at his partner.
“Will our office assist on this?”
Colefield stopped writing. “What?”
“You’re going to a lot of trouble for nothing. Isn’t this Homicide’s case?”
Colefield didn’t respond. His attention was focused on the boy’s untied shoelaces.
He stopped writing. Behind him Scarbough paced.
“Did you disturb the body in any way, Mr. Scarbough?”
“I checked for a pulse.”
He signaled Bart to join him with the old man. On a hunch, Colefield squatted down and looked the Labs over. Sure enough, there was blood on Sadie’s muzzle and feet.
“Sadie went for the boy’s shoes before I could stop her,” Scarbough admitted.
“I need to see your shotgun, Mr. Scarbough.” Colefield’s tone hardened.
Since Bart was closer, he retrieved the gun. The hunter surrendered it willingly. Bart held it out to Colefield.
“Just see if it’s been fired.”
Bart checked the chamber, cleared one round, and then sniffed the barrel. He nodded to his partner.
“Could you empty your pockets for me, Mr. Scarbough?” Colefield studied the hunter.
Without objecting, Scarbough turned his pockets inside out. Both were empty.
“Your hunch is I shot the boy, Deputy?”
Scarbough clenched his jaw.
Colefield stooped and picked up the ejected shotgun shell. He pulled out an evidence bag, dropped the shell inside and slipped it into his pocket. He had an idea about the shell that he wanted to check out personally.
“When was the last time you fired your shotgun?” Colefield asked.
“Right before I called 911. The dogs flushed a pair of grouse. I thought I winged one. Dogs went in. But the bird flew off. That’s when I found the body.”
Colefield glanced down at the man’s tan boots and seemed to be making a visual comparison to the impressions in the grass by the body when a bloodstain on the right toe caught his eye. Colefield pointed at the bloody smear.
Scarbough glanced at his feet. “That could have come from most anywhere. These are my hunting boots.”
“It looks fresh,” Colefield said.
The man stooped down to see for himself. Bart put his hand on the Scarbough’s shoulder. “Not so quick sir.” Scarbough shrugged him off and stood. He stared at the older deputy.
“We’re gonna need your boots too,” Colefield said.
Scarbough scowled, but remained silent.
Colefield glanced back at the body for a moment. “Did you hear any shots yesterday from your farm house?”
“It’s hunting season. What do you think?”
“Have you ever seen the boy before?”
Scarbough shook his head and sighed.
Colefield thought it over hard for a few moments and then told Bart to turn the gun over to the lab techs when they arrived. He was unsure how to process the dogs.
“You’re making a mistake, Deputies.”
“Just following protocol,” Colefield explained. “If you’re cleared, you’ll get your gun back.”
“Don’t you mean when I’m cleared?”
“I said it right the first time.”