by Gary Clifton
“Like opening a can of rotten spaghetti and meatballs.” Red Harper rolled his unlit cigar stub across his lips and surveyed the washtub of slimy gore. Clumps of indistinct, solid parts floated about in the gray-green, viscous semi-liquid.
The forensic exam was a matter of scooping up stinking goop. The pathologist, Dr. Ann O’Hara, and her assistant were using long-handled dippers to spoon out contents of a blue, plastic barrel into two smaller lab buckets.
Detective Davis McCoy was standing six feet back to avoid splash. “Those winos who found this mess in the Trinity. What did they say, Harper?”
Red Harper flipped open his notebook. “Uh...‘Willie Bob Clemons’ and ‘Sawbuck’... Crap. Didn’t get the guy’s last name. They stay in a lean-to on the west levee side. Saw a bright blue drum stuck in mud on a sandbar. Tried to pull it out... It’s worth two bucks or so. Top came off and a human head fell out.” He gestured at the gurney supporting the partial barrel of semi-liquefied humanity.
McCoy, cynical, seasoned as hard as the sole of a combat boot, spoke up. “I rolled up at the same time as the M.E.’s field agent. Took about twenty seconds to see a second head in the bottom of the barrel. Dunno which stunk worse, the contents or the winos.”
The pathologist, a demure brunette who looked oddly like a surgically-masked Alice in Wonderland amid a sea of dead bodies, peered over gold half-glasses. “Looks like time of death is about two months ago.” The front of her green lab coat was splattered with greenish flecks of waste.
Harper shook his bald head. He was stocky, nearing retirement, and built like a bull. He’d been in Homicide since the Vietnam War. “Couple months ago, the Trinity River was levee-full. Somebody stuffed a couple of corpses — at least I hope they were dead — in a 55-gallon drum and tossed them.
“Barrel woulda held air long enough; normally, this baby would be out in the Gulf of Mexico. Now, in August, there’s not enough water in the river to drown a rat. It sprung a leak and as the water level fell, hung up in front of the winos’ riverside estate.”
The pathologist stopped working. “Well, Harper, your arithmetic is off a tad.” With a vinyl-gloved hand, she held up a dripping glob, clearly recognizible as a human mandible. “Hard to say how many barrels were necessary, but this third head translates to three victims, for sure. Like you said, the second and/or third barrels may well have floated halfway to Cuba by now. Definitely, parts of bodies in this one have been dismembered with an axe and a saw.”
McCoy stared at the glob. “DNA, Doc?”
“We can raise a tentative mitochondrial file late today. More detailed analysis will take a few days.”
“So it’s not too degraded to sample?”
“It’s degraded, but there’s a lot of tissue here. No hair samples yet, but I bet there are plenty in this mess. Biggest problem is to sample and analyze enough slop, hoping we have the same number of DNA samples as heads.”
She reached under the sink and added a third catch bucket to the two receptacles already partially filled with parts and the diluted swill of dirty river water. “Looks better on the report.” Her eyes smiled over her mask.
The assistant, dipping dutifully, suddenly stopped. “Doc, lookie here.” He held up a wristwatch with expansion band. He stepped to a nearby sink and rinsed it off, then held it up to light. “A man’s. Whoever stuffed these guys in a drum failed to steal somebody’s watch.”
“Or maybe lost their own,” McCoy said thoughtfully.
McCoy and Harper quickly located the serial number on the watch and, in an hour on the telephone, learned the watch had been shipped to a small jewelry shop in north Dallas.
* * *
Harper and McCoy were leaning on the glass counter of Megisson Jewelry on Northwest Highway. The owner, a pudgy little man with less hair than Harper, looked like a jeweler. He punched up his computer. “Sold that baby to Sabastian Sarkoff, a year and a half ago.” He handed over a machine copy of the sales receipt with an address.
Outside, McCoy phoned the office, scribbled notes, and hung up.
“Sarkoff is a Russian immigrant. Runs a dry-cleaning shop on Northwest Highway, just a few doors from this jewelry shop. Home address just around the corner. No record, but the computer shows he is a victim. We’re gonna have to drive downtown and do some manual searching for those records.” Victim records were left out of the computer system to combat hackers.
McCoy said soberly, “Sarkoff may be in a barrel of goo.”
While McCoy was reading victim records, his cellular buzzed. It was the pathologist, Dr. O’Hara. He listened and hung up.
“The ID they could make this soon was a guy named Bernard Rizzo. Just got outta the joint two months ago. Did two years for rape. Jesus, two years for rape. We musta had a poor case. I’ll call Criminal Justice and see if I can get the whole file.”
“Any address?” Harper asked.
“Yeah,” He read off an address in Oak Cliff just south of downtown. “Maybe his mama’s place. Doc says she’ll keep tryin’ to find a match on the other two in that barrel.”
“Maybe they didn’t have a record. No sample in the databases.” McCoy speculated.
“Maybe,” Harper held up a folder. “Sarkoff’s victim status is the bad news. Daughter, Sara, 17, raped and murdered three years ago. Body dumped into the Trinity. And check this crap out: The rapist was convicted and went to jail. Ex-con named Bernard Rizzo. That’s the same mope in the barrel in the morgue.”
“Are we thinking Rizzo murdered the Sarkoff girl, then his buddies tossed him in the Trinity?” McCoy asked.
“Or maybe some variation of that theme.” Harper chuckled.
McCoy shuffled the file. “And there was another suspect charged in the rape: a mope named Ronnie Flacker. Witness showed up for court and gave both an alibi. Her name was Jennifer Scoggin, stripper, no known last address. Jury convicted Rizzo, but walked the second guy, Flacker. Last known address is in Garland.”
* * *
The mid-morning sun was busy churning up another blazing hot Dallas August day when Mama Rizzo answered the door of the second-floor walkup. She was dressed in a pink, dirty, see-through nightgown and was holding a wine cooler in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Substance abuse had pickled her face like a prune.
“Bernie didn’t rape that bitch. He was framed.” She slumped in a ragged stuffed chair. “That old foreign fool, Sarkoff or what the hell ever, got him framed. Hadn’ta been for Jennifer testifying, Bernie woulda got the needle instead of four years, and that Flacker buddy of his woulda gone to death row on the same bus.”
“Bernie around?” Harper asked.
“No, the employment agency called him to come see about a job, just after he paroled out a couple months ago. Agency said they was hooked up with the prison system. He never come back. Hadda meet the outfit in a motel down on Harry Hines. Job was outta town. He called and said they was leavin’ that same day.”
The address in file for Ronnie Flacker was his sister’s place in a rundown house near downtown Garland. She was thirty going on sixty and weighed as much as Oklahoma. A small window air-conditioning unit struggled against the soaring heat. The place smelled of mildew and sewage.
“Ronnie got falsely accused of murdering that gypsy or what the hell ever she was. Bernie Rizzo’s girlfriend testified and got Ronnie off, got Bernie’s sentence reduced to four years. He paroled out in two.”
“Ronnie around?” McCoy asked.
“Naw hell, he took a job in Alaska. He and Rizzo, both. They took Rizzo’s girl — uh, Jennifer — with him, I think.”
“Alaska?” McCoy asked.
“Rizzo had jes’ got outta the joint for that frame job. He called Ronnie. Hadda a job interview to work in the oilfields in Alaska. Big bucks. He went out there and they musta sent him directly to Alaska. But Ronnie never was worth a damn about callin’. Ain’t heard from him. Got the phone number of the place they went to for the job.”
They jotted down the number and drove to the morgue. File photos showed Rose Sarkoff had been degraded beyond belief, breasts mutilated, eyes gouged out.
* * *
In the afternoon heat, they learned Sebastian Sarkoff was not part of the goo in the morgue. Expecting to find a bereaved widow they located him instead alive and well in north Dallas, shuffling plastic-bagged clothing on a long, overhead rack.
Sarkoff’s Dry Cleaners was a five-minute walk from Meggison’s Jewelry. A bright blue, 55-gallon drum sat near the rear, but in full view of the front counter. McCoy and Harper exchanged glances and interviewed the old man in a small office.
“She was all I had,” the old man sobbed. He was bent, old, frail. “That woman, Jennifer, came to court and lied about where them two punks, Rizzo and Flacker was when they...” He sobbed again. “They got no punishment. Rizzo did two years of four, Flacker went free.”
McCoy dug out his cellular and dialed the number Flacker and Rizzo had been given for the job in Alaska. The telephone on the counter rang. McCoy and Harper exchanged long, veteran glances. Both had just seen the carnage left of the old man’s daughter. Both had seen the court system fail regularly.
McCoy tossed the wristwatch on the counter. “Easy enough to lose that along the way somewhere, Mr. Sarkoff.”
Harper nodded toward the blue barrel visible at the rear. “Maybe you oughta consider getting your next shipment of cleaning fluid in a different-colored barrel.”
Sarkoff stared at them, slack-jawed.
As they walked out, McCoy said, “Any doubts about the secret recipe for ingredients of the slop barrels at the morgue?”
Harper rolled his cigar. “It’s gotta be Rizzo and Flacker, plus the girlfriend tossed in for dessert. Sarkoff managed what we couldn’t. Wonder if he’d see about a half-dozen other mopes we can’t keep off the streets.”
“Shoulda told old Sarkoff he needed a tighter band on his watch. Or not to wear it when he’s stuffing body parts in a barrel.”
Harper lit a fresh stogie. “And maybe to get rid of any axes and saws he has layin’ around.”
McCoy wiped his forehead. “I could use a root beer.”
Copyright © 2016 by Gary Clifton