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Murder at the Beach

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Five years ago, I found a murder victim at my favorite beach. I have a very foggy memory of events. But I just hung up the phone on a Brooklyn DA. It seems they caught the killer and want me to testify in Court. My "evidence" is actually pretty trivial, but below is a fairly accurate summary of events. I was writing a weird fantasy book at the time, and just re-read it to refresh my memory.


A few days later I decided to go out to the beach again. The call of photographing that Black Egret was irresistible. It was now the time of early sunrises, and promptly at six, I was there with Chato. It was a crisp, cool morning for early July, but comfortable, even wearing just a tee shirt. To my surprise the parking lot was completely empty. The guys who were usually there, the retired men who met for coffee and then disappeared after an hour, were not around as they usually were. Who cared? It was what I like to describe as a crystal morning, the light of the rising sun splashing the mix of trees and sand, dark shadows, the morning songs of the early rising birds. A day when you hold out your arms and embrace being alive.

As I left the lot, I noticed that someone had deposited a large colorful rug by the garbage cans. Oddly, it looked much like a human being wrapped in a rug. In the darkness of early dawn, under the shadows of the trees, that was a sinister thought, which I quickly abandoned as I headed for the beach.

And it was a glorious day for photography. And if the Black Egret didn’t make an appearance, who cared? Who cared about anything but this wonderful moment of being alive on a day like this, with a gentle breeze, fresh air wafting in the from the sea. The calls of Gulls and Terns, and the chattering of the Killdeers and Willets, who on their own, with little if any financial incentive, chose to announce my presence to anyone and everyone on the beach.

Now and then I thought about that rug, lying by the garbage. And each time I thought about it, I became more and more concerned that maybe there was a body wrapped inside. It was a thought that just didn’t fit with the day. I would dismiss it, only to have it return. Over the years I had always half expected to someday find a body on the beach. It’s that kind of place. Empty much of the time, and much of it rarely if ever visited. If one walked off the paths that crisscrossed the dunes, the brush could be used to hide anything. Chato himself has demonstrated how easy it was to dig huge holes in the beach sand. But this was no body, carefully hidden. It was a rug, tossed by the garbage cans, in full view of anyone who passed.

After a few hours of shooting, Chato and I returned to the lot. I was determined to see what was in that rug, if only to put myself at ease. As was usual for this time of year, the parking lot now had quite a few cars. And many of the people I saw walking around, while hardly acquaintances, were people with whom I always shared a friendly wave and hello, before we all went about our business. I stopped by the rug for a better look. It did look so much like a human body. And now in the brighter light of full morning, I could see that the rug was tightly wrapped, and what looked like feet were tightly bound.

I pulled away the top of the rug, and inside was something wrapped in one of those jumbo sized garbage bags. I lifted the bag up, and there outlined in the translucent material, was a human head along with a visible pool of blood. Someone had been tightly bound and murdered. Their body then deposited here on the bicycle path by the garbage, the legs resting on the sand of the beach. I looked around at the people in the lot, one man roller boarding, another sitting on a bench smoking a cigarette. Others talking to each other, and their reality was the same as mine had been, but I stood there now with a ghastly secret.

An old man passed on a bicycle, carrying his fishing equipment. Seeing me standing by the rug, he glanced down, I could tell by his eyes that he guessed what was inside. In this light, it was easy to see, if you looked. I stopped him. “Do you have a telephone,” I asked?

He was trembling. He knew! His accent was heavy Russian, and at first he was only able to stutter out, “tele, tele, what, oh telephone, err, oh yes, yes, maybe I do.”

I looked at him. He was new to America. Was he a citizen? Or did he just have a green card? He was trembling, and I realised that he was in fear of “getting involved.” And he was, in a way right about this. Authorities, no matter what their origin, are often unfeeling and cold, and to report a murder was to make yourself in some ways a suspect.

I took his telephone and called 911, telling the operator where I was and what I had found. After making the call, I handed back the phone, and told the old man to go. No need for you to stay here, I told him, and the look of gratitude I received in return was deep and heartfelt. He was afraid, very afraid. I then turned back to the parking lot, where the normal activities were taking place. I knew that none of these people could possibly have anything to do with this, if only because none of them were here when I first saw the body. I made a deeply humanitarian decision.

“Ok, listen up,” I said standing in the middle of the lot, and in a loud voice I continued, “there’s a man murdered over here. I just called the cops. They will be here shortly, if you want to leave, leave now.”

The lot became transformed. Whereas before there were about twenty people and their cars in the lot, suddenly there appeared to be hundreds, some running in circles, some going over to view the body. One man ran up to me and thanked me deeply, before leaping to his car and roaring away. Others too were hurdling athletically into their vehicles, and testing the strength of their transmissions, and other performance factors of their machinery. Within seconds, there remained only about six people besides myself. Why did some stay and others go? Some of those who stayed were unaware that they would automatically become suspects. Those who left probably left for a multitude of reasons, but questioning those I knew in the weeks ahead, revealed that most of them left because they had better things to do than to be questioned for hours by suspicious authorities. I could hardly blame them. After all, they actually knew nothing.

I stayed mostly because I was in some respects, a witness, and while I had only one important piece of evidence to provide, it would probably save quite a few people from being held for further questioning. I knew that the body was here when the lot opened and that none of the people now on the beach, or walking around, were here at that time. So, while I felt my duty to the dead man ceased when I called the police, I stayed to avoid other people being trapped in a nightmare. I wondered at my responsible attitude which left this poor soul lying on the beach, dead. If I was not completely uncaring, I was far more interested in preventing abuse to the living than any thoughts about him.

In those minutes before the police arrived I contemplated the body of this fellow human being, wrapped, as the newspapers later described it, as a Christmas present. What had happened to him? What were his final moments before his life was snuffed out in such a bizarre manner? Was there any dignity in this death?

The police showed up about five minutes after my call, and responding to my waves, and the waves of another bystander, the roller boarder, cruised up to us. They approached us in that off hand-way that the police have when checking phoney reports. “You the guy that called,” they asked of the roller boarder?

“No, not me, he called,” he said, pointing to me. And I could tell he was sorry that he had not been the one to call. This was all very exciting to this man. And, I for one, do not blame him. Murder, rug wrapping, Police, crime scenes, who knows? It was all very impressive to a man who came here on Thursday’s to roller board on the bike path. A break in a humdrum life. Nor did he suspect what was about to occur.

“Yeah, I called 911,” I said. “There’s a body wrapped in that rug over there.”

“Yeah, you think so” responded the cop, and turning to his partner, told him to check it out. His partner dutifully walked over and took a look, and seeing what I had seen, suddenly became animated.

“Shit, Joe, it is a fucken body, wholly shit, call the station. We got to follow procedure, you remember what we’re supposed to do now?”

And his partner Joe, did remember the procedure. “Alright, take the car and close the lot, seal the lot, call the station, don’t let no one leave. Seal the lot.” And suddenly I realised that this was almost as new to them as to me. These officers spent their day stopping by vehicles broken down on the road, or giving speeding tickets, and finding murder victims was not part of their normal agenda. Visions of being promoted to detective danced in their heads.

And some of the other people standing around watching suddenly realised that they were not going to be leaving for quite a while. I immediately intervened, and speaking to Joe, said to him, “None of the people here now were here when I found the body.”

And this set off the first of a dozen interviews that took place in the next three hours. Joe, who had also taken the time to call into his station, was now following procedure to the exact iota. “When did you find the body? How did you know the time? Who was here? What were you doing here? What the fuck is that giant wolf you have with you? Does that fucking thing bite?” All apparently standard questions.

Suddenly a young Black man emerged from the beach, where he had been having his morning walk, totally unaware of the scene that was going to greet him. Joe, sensing an obvious suspect, pulled his gun and yelled over to the guy, “Who the fuck are you? Get over here.” Obviously he had abandoned the idea that the butler did it, in favor of the Black man. I stopped him, and told him that this man wasn’t around in the morning either. Joe, gave me a hard look, and then remembered that I was the guy who actually called the police, and reluctantly dropped the thought that here, conveniently strolling to the scene of the crime, was the killer.

All of this first interview was to be repeated endlessly, almost verbatim over the next two hours. Within about 15 minutes, there were 100 cops on the scene, roping off the area, interviewing witnesses, of which there were none besides myself. The first actual detective confiscated everyone’s driver’s license, or other form of identification. Most of the arriving police actually didn’t have much to do. About a dozen were put in charge of controlling the huge crowd, all six or seven of us, while others had the difficult task of interviewing their fellow officers to make a coffee run. None of them thought to ask any of us if we also wanted coffee.

The crowd now started to loosen up and exchange conversation. I found out that one of my fellow suspects was a roller boarder who came to the parking lot every Thursday, another was a business man, taking a break from the trip to work, a third was a Salvadoran emigrant, fortunately with a green card, who had planned on going fishing. We started off with the most formal of introductions. However, being so to speak, in the same boat, soon we were having as good a time as the situation allowed. The dead man, lay quietly undisturbed, by this time he was simply an object; neither the police, who felt that this was their job, even if none of them had actually been part of such an investigation, nor we, the crowd, who now looked on him as a vague item, a cause of delay and, or interest. Now he just lay there.

Finally the forensic team showed up, hard bitten detectives who specialised in murder mysteries. One of my fellow crowd thankfully remarked that, “great, CSI is here and maybe soon I can get to work.” The roller boarder had already called his wife to tell her to expect a delay. I engaged the Salvadoran in fishing talk. Then of course, the next serious group of investigators arrived: the press, and their photographers. Some of the crowd happily stepped forth to be interviewed, others like myself, avoided becoming known as witnesses. It was not a reluctance to become famous, and neither was it fear that prompted my reaction. This kind of fame was something I could do without; nor had I done anything worthy of praise or blame. I had done what I felt I had to do. I had in fact done what any citizen should do, no more and no less.

I did however, start talking to the photographer, who regarded this as a waste of his time. He told me he doubted if this story would make more that a back page footnote, and none of his photographs would actually be used. He had seen more murders, disasters, mayhem and mystery than anyone else, and that included the police. He had thoughtfully brought his nine year old son around, also armed with an excellent camera. It appeared that being a press photographer was an hereditary job, and his son was well on the way to becoming accomplished at it. The little guy had apparently inherited not only the good eye, but was lugging around a camera almost his size and handling it quite effectively.

And those police assigned to handle the crowd, eating their donuts, drinking coffee, started to also joke with us. Chato, who loves large groups of people, was in his element, being admired, and after enquiries as to whether it was safe, was being petted by one and all. And the body lay there, still undisturbed. Even the forensic crew didn’t touch the corpse. He just lay there, and while he was supposedly the center of attention, he was basically ignored. His death, his life. Who knew?

Finally, after three hours, the police released us. But not before I was interviewed one last time. A young detective introduced himself to me. I had noticed him walking around the area, viewing the body from a short distance, although like everyone else, not touching or disturbing it. He introduced himself to me as a member of the United States Park Police, Criminal Investigation Unit. And as a way of explanation pointed out to me that the City Police were responsible for everything from the edge of the bicycle path out, while the Park Police were responsible for everything from the bicycle path to the beach. This man had been dropped with his feet on the beach side of this dividing line, and the rest of him on City turf. Thus there was a jurisdictional dispute. I felt like asking him if perhaps they could cut the body in half and resolve the problem, but I remained silent, as silent as the body laying out on the asphalt of the path, and the sand of the beach. It seemed like a final indignity, to end your days as a bureaucratic problem for the police to solve before they could get on with things...

The others and I quickly exited the scene, all except for some whose confiscated driver’s licenses had been mistakenly taken to the precinct, instead of being returned. They stayed, and for how long, I never found out. Perhaps for days or weeks as the police routed them from one station to another, while detectives and driver’s licenses migrated much like wild birds migrate. I didn’t know.

What struck me most on the drive home was how blase the whole thing became. The good natured humour of people trapped by circumstances in which they had neither control, or any real interest; except as a real oddity that one doesn’t come across every day. And I was also appalled at my own attitude. Sure, I’d been expecting to find dead people on this beach ever since I arrived. And this surprise actually didn’t surprise me. But from the beginning, I had no emotional involvement, no concern except in the most abstract of ways. I didn’t begrudge this man’s death keeping me on the beach long after I wanted to be home, but I just as well may have. Only the fact that I knew that calling this in would result in me being intensely questioned, had prepared me to hold no grudge against him. “Son of a bitch, had to croak when I’m doing my photography.”

His last appearance, before an autopsy, was to be wrapped neatly into a plastic bag, and then wrapped again in a colorful rug, and left out on a bicycle path: a topic of discussion, an inconvenience in people’s busy day, an interruption or a distraction. He lay there half in one jurisdiction and half in another.


from, "One teacher Quacked and The Other One Screamed, Copywrite 2005 by David Barkin

Edited by Chato
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You caught my interest, but what's the rest of the story? Now that someone's been arrested, inquiring minds want to know whodonit (or don't you know yet?).

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