James Early jammed his pointer finger in his coroner’s face. “Don’t say it.”
Doc Grafton stared, both he and Early in waders and up to their butts in sewage. “Say what? Say ‘shit’? We’re at the sewer plant, for God’s sake, slopping through the damn sedimentation pond. Why the hell did I let you rope me into mucking around in this—”
“I said don’t say it.” Early got hold of the shoulders of the floater, the floater face down, the shirt on it maybe a red-and-black plaid, the pants denim. Early couldn’t be certain of the shirt’s colors because the body could have been in the pond since the sewer plant operators went off duty Friday, three days ago. This someone, this floater, Early wondered, could he have fallen in? And if he did, what was he doing out here in the first place? Or could he have been dumped? But if dumped—
Grafton took hold of the ankles, and together he and Early pushed the body toward the grass-covered shore, the grass lush from the constant supply of water and fertilizer.
Behind them a short distance and on a rise stood the one-room office and work shed of the Manhattan Sewer District, the shed a lean-to affair. In front of that, a flag pole. The mechanics who ran the operation, Rupert Gillingham and Eldon Smith, stood by the pole, one saluting the flag while the other lowered it to half staff and a wind-up phonograph played a record—Taps.
Grafton stopped. He watched. “Cactus, this is one-hundred percent strange.”
“Well, Rupe and Eldon were, like me, GIs. Fought in the Italian campaign, so they take this symbolism of showing honor to the dead seriously.”
“Well, hell’s bells, they’re the ones who oughtta be out here fetchin’ this body, not us.”
“Maybe. Are you ready to lift?”
“The floater. Get ‘im up on shore.”
Grafton let off with a hefty sigh.
“On three,” Early said.
And on his count, he and Grafton horsed the body up onto the grass. They clambered out of the wastewater and rolled the body onto its back.
“Cactus, know who he is?”
“Yeah, Gig. Gigoket Beaubien.”
“An Indian kid who just kinda wanders around. He camps on my ranch from time to time.”
“Does your deputy know him?”
“John’s his uncle. He’s at State Police school. I’m gonna have to call him.”
“I don’t envy you that.” Grafton studied the body, the surgeon and coroner beginning his mental measurements … six-two, probably. An easy two hundred pounds, maybe two-ten. And bald. “This one’s no kid, Cactus.”
“Not the way you see him. Gig’s in his early to mid twenties, pardon, was in his early to mid twenties, but, you see, childlike.”
“I don’t get it.”
“His body grew up, but what makes him a person didn’t.”
Gillingham and Smith came rambling over, carrying buckets of water and sponges, Gillingham in coveralls and a misshapen cowboy hat, Smith in dungarees, a chambray shirt, and a faded fatigue cap.
“We’ll clean him off for ya,” Gillingham said.
Neither waited for an answer. They knelt, one on either side of the body and commenced to washing the face and head.
Grafton watched. “How you boys can work around this shit farm is beyond me. The stench—”
Gillingham dabbed around an eye. “It’s a good paycheck, Doc. Eight to five with an hour off for lunch, you can’t beat that. Plus weekends off as well, if nuthin’ breaks down.”
“But the stench.”
“You get used to it. It’s only bad in the summer, like now … Sheriff, you want us to strip off his shirt, see if there are any wounds?”
“We do need to know what killed him.”
Gillingham took out his Swiss Army knife. He sorted through the blades before he settled on one. With that blade, he snipped off the buttons, split the sleeves, and sliced through the shoulders of the shirt, Smith peeling the fabric away. Again both men set to washing the body, this time the torso.
Gillingham stopped. “Sheriff?”
Early and Grafton leaned in.
“See here? Dead center, a single shot.”
“Rupe, roll him up on his side. Let’s see if there’s an exit wound.”
This could be an award winner. Great characterization and storyline.