Under the tape

I remember the first crime scene photo I saw. It was a 4″ x 6″, the kind of glossy photo you pick up from the drug store after dropping your film off the day before. It was shot with a regular camera and regular film, because that’s all the detective had in his car. The photo was taken in Brooklyn, in a basement apartment not too different from where a boyfriend I dated lived. The apartment was a mess: the fold-out couch was open, piles of dirty clothes created a mountain range along one side of the room, and the dishes had been in the sink for days. Again, just like the apartment of the guy I had dated.

She was in the center of the room. Her shirt had been ripped open, her arms were tied behind her back, her mouth had been gagged. Her blood had spilled from her neck and had soaked deep into the cheap mattress of the couch. Her eyes were half open like they always are in these photos, dull and empty.

I remember the smell of the detective’s office where I was sitting, a combination of day-old McDonald’s and the mint gum he chewed mixed with the cigarette he had just inhaled.

I was doing research for a story. I had the luxury of leaving this photo behind. The detective had to speak to this girl’s father every Sunday at noon when he called for an update on his daughter’s case.

I walked down the stairs of the precinct and out into the Brooklyn sun that had finally made its way through the clouds. I looked at the people swinging their grocery bags and crossing the street. Everyone’s eyes alert. Alive. I wondered, how would we all die?

The crime scenes I usually pull up to have a craft services table not too far away. I park, get out of my car, and cross under the same crime scene tape used by the LAPD, only ours came from a prop house. We hire incredibly patient actors who lie on the sidewalk for hours as we paint a jagged incision on their neck and pour blood onto the cement from a gallon-sized jug. I don’t know that this ever becomes completely normal – going to crime scenes, whether real or imagined — but some part of it has. Some part of death has become my life.

I spend a fair amount of time every day living a little death, recreating scenes like the one in that Brooklyn apartment. I imagine what or who crossed her mind as her hands came together behind her back. But that is where my stories usually begin; most stories about these kinds of deaths are about life. They are about how the living react to the dead. In writing these stories, I am for the moment, the father of this girl in her Brooklyn apartment, an iron fist into the stomach as he finds out she’s dead, the shock and horror of his worst fear realized.

I am the crime scene investigator, reading her body. I particularly enjoy this coroner role. Today, I have an autopsy report on my desk. It’s just one page that has the information I need; it’s not a complete evaluation of a body. I read it a few days ago but keep it on the shelf under my computer because every now and then I read it over, sometimes all the way through and sometimes just a paragraph, ingesting words like “incised wounds,” “supraclavicular,” and “C7 cervical vertebrae.” I then look at all the C7’s walking around the office, making coffee, drinking from the water cooler. We have all, for the moment, cheated death.

I spend the most time playing detective, on the hunt for the killer of this girl in the Brooklyn apartment. I am seeking the closure law and order can provide, a sense of justice that can be hard to find in the every day.

To do that, I climb inside the criminal mind of her killer’s head. Scott Peterson had hold of my brain for a while. There are many theories as to why he killed Laci, from the affair he was having to the family money she’d inherited. But the one that makes the most sense to me, or at least the one I find most compelling, is that he wasn’t ready to become a father. The responsibility was too much for him to bear. It was easier, in his mind, to kill Laci and their son, than it would be to ask for a divorce and move out of town. Had that child been born, the theory goes, that child would be a constant reminder to Scott that he failed as a father and as a husband. He didn’t want to pay 18 years of child support. He felt trapped by his obligations, even though from the outside, he had myriad other options than the one he eventually chose.

Like Scott, I’ve felt the same weight of responsibility sludge down my spine. I’ve felt entrapped, by an extremely difficult person, and thought how much easier it would all be if that person would simply “go away” or “have a fishing accident.”

As the momentary murderer in the stories I write, I get to make different choices than normal, decisions that stem from the dark places we all have. In writing a Scott Petersonesque character, I’m able to cross the line. I get up early in the morning, take my wife out sailing, and hurl her body overboard, and think as I row back to shore, problem solved…

But unlike Scott, I get away with it. I get to avoid prosecution. I turn my computer off and take my C7 back to my kitchen and microwave dinner, a free woman. I leave fiction behind as I eat my mac ‘n cheese at the kitchen table, pouring over the Post and the Metro section, looking at the photos of those who have died today, reading about the how and the why, already stepping into a cop’s shoes and wondering if I’ll catch their killers first.

5 responses to “Under the tape”

  1. WW, I loved your post beginning to end — from the category definitions of “death” and “television” on, in fact. what i want to know: does writing detective shows ever make you think about wanting to become a detective? (or does day-old mcdonald’s serve as an adequate deterrent, dead bodies aside?)


  2. MF says:

    I am riveted. What I like most about this post is the sense of freedom you project in pretending to be “a Scott Petersonesque character” one hundred percent. I thinkI’d be a little afraid of it. Afraid of how I might feel. Afraid I might like it.
    I’m looking forward to reading more…

  3. AA says:

    why, detective, would someone in a sailboat “row back to shore”?

  4. WW says:

    I have thought about detective-ing full-time but am not sure I could consistently endure some of the smells that are, thankfully, never on screen. I also am not sure that I could compartmentalize certain aspects of the job, like the pain of a victim’s family. Most detectives are the some of the funniest people I know; humor is essential to their emotional survival.

    And good catch. AA, and if you’d asked me that across a table in an interview room, you’d see my eyes drift slightly to the side, as eyes do when people are lying, as I explain that the weather had changed and I had to row back to shore because the outboard motor was on the fritz. We didn’t have that big a boat, my wife and I…

  5. Stephanie Wells says:

    Okay, so it’s been a week since this eloquent post and I still think about that girl with the slit throat (and her father) every day. What, possibly, could have happened to make her end up like that? I’m sure you never found out, not being an insider on the case, but she is haunting me–as is your insight into the Scott Petersonesque “dark places” in us all. Shiver me timbers.