I pretend I don't notice him staring at me with death ray eyes. "Like there's a difference," he mutters, cracking his big knuckles. I let it go, as stepdads sometimes have to.
My attention makes its way back to the decedent. "Either of you know him very well?"
Tuffy shakes her head but doesn't look up from her work as she gets more close-up shots of the burns. "Met him a few times," Wardell says. "Thought he was a bit of a weirdo."
I can't stand the smell any longer. Bad smells trigger my stomach worse than anything you'd see in a Tarantino movie. "Have we processed the windows yet? We have to vent this place."
"Give me a sec, boss," Tuffy says, setting her camera down.
"Five will get you ten it's a robbery," says Wardell. "Addicts most likely."
I scan the interior of the house, wondering what on earth could possess him to think this is a robbery gone wrong. Yes, there are huge holes in the drywall and every room has been tossed. But the victim has been burned and skinned and... and then I see it. A box on the kitchen counter. About the size of a box of dishwasher detergent. Thallium salts. Very old. Not something you see every day. I flash on a memory from a previous life, gruesome pictures running through my brain.
For anyone else this would be a teaching moment. "That seems unlikely to me, Wardell. This was an exFBI agent tortured for what looks like hours. He was a man living on a pension, and while his killer appears to have been looking for something, it wasn't money. Look around, with all this damage, his guns are still in his cabinet in the corner there, his money and ID still in his wallet. It doesn't look like anything was actually stolen, does it?"
Wardell surveys the living room, scowling like one of the bad guys that gets killed at the end of every episode of Bonanza or Gunsmoke. "What do you think happened here, professor?" he asks.
I swear I'm looking forward to his retirement as eagerly as a nun getting ready to leave the convent. "Something... else."
I wander outside to check the exterior of the home. I recall seeing it under construction, wondering who would want a place this far out in the sticks, set in front of the vast Big Rocks Wilderness where the wind has two speeds, hard and harder, your immediate neighbors are rattlesnakes, and boulders the size of multistory office buildings line up like rows of soldiers guarding the high ground. To build out here, you're seeking one thing. Privacy. Hell, it's a four-mile dirt road just to get to where I'm standing. The house is completely off the grid. Solar panels on the roof provide the power, and internet and telephone are available only via satellite. There's no cell service this far off the highway.
The structure itself is nice, single story, Spanish tile roof, smooth stucco finish with a marbled color that blends nicely with the ancient formations behind it like a chameleon camouflaging itself on a branch. There is a little vegetation poking out of the snow, not much, mostly cactus and a few trees, all natural and not requiring any time or love come summer. The windows are intact, and none of the exterior doors have been jimmied or kicked in. A lot of people in this county don't lock their doors, but I envision a retired G-man to be naturally less trusting of strangers, which means he might have known the killer or decided to let him in for some reason. Who would you let in that might end up torturing you?
Back in the house, I watch as my deputies recover and impound as much evidence as possible, a process that will surely take the rest of the afternoon. My eyes find the many plaques attesting to Atterbury's days in law enforcement now strewn, broken and bloodstained on the floor. I take another look at his driver's license, my mind instantly recalling the times and places I've seen him. That's how my noggin works, cataloging faces, even when I don't want to. I can do it with words, too. Whatever I hear somehow gets logged into my memory banks like old pictures. It's a skill that served me well in the military but it makes it impossible to forget the details of life's painful moments, a blessing some days, a curse on others. While I had met Ralph just a couple of times, I had seen him around the county plenty, mostly driving in that forever dust-covered black Sierra of his. What were you up to down here, Agent Atterbury?
I ask New Guy Pete to go out and process Atterbury's truck. "You need help with that?" Pete was first on scene, the result of a welfare check requested by the dead man's daughter in Ohio who says she's been trying to get her dad on the phone since Wednesday. Today is Friday.
"I'm good, Sheriff," Pete says.
"It's Beck," I tell him. "You don't have to call me sheriff."