by Peter DiChellis
This mystery short story by Peter DiChellis has never before been published.
A hit and run at 45 mph delivers brutal violence to a pedestrian. First, the penetrating impact of the fast-moving front bumper forces the victim upward, over the hood, to skull-crack into the windshield, causing grim head and neck injuries. Then the unfortunate wretch crashes across the speeding vehicle’s metal roof, slams hard off the trunk and takes a final bone-breaking plunge onto the roadway asphalt. Exactly what happened to Debbie Fulsen that night?
Fulsen, recently 23 years old and currently dead, just wanted to cross the street. A few seconds faster, a few more feet, she’d have made it. Not this time. The broken, bloody pile that used to be Debbie hunched beneath a police tarpaulin.
Commander Erwin K. Mousse was eating a dinner of cucumber and avocado salad with field greens, and eggplant-ricotta lasagna with a blueberry cheesecake dessert, when his media relations assistant called about Fulsen. ‘Criminals are so inconsiderate,’ he thought. ‘No sense of propriety.’ But as Commander of the Major Crimes Unit, he must visit the crime scene immediately, so he did.
“By the book,” he told the detective at the scene. That’s all Commander Mousse ever instructed: do it by the book, no blowback that way.
Of course, a superb investigator like Detective Raymond Harkville had already started by the book. That’s how most crimes are solved, if they are solved at all. Harkville, also known as Detective Hairball for the curly jungle springing atop his head and sprouting from his collar and sleeves, started cases by the book and closed them by keen analysis and unfiltered determination. And he closed them alone. Ever since city budget cuts elbowed his partner into early retirement, Harkville had been investigating homicides by himself. He didn’t mind. He liked his work. He believed the riddles he solved gave the dead peace.
By the book. In this case, police patrol cars already flooded the area, searching for a car a shaken 911 caller had described. Meanwhile, Detective Harkville separated the 911 caller and two other witnesses at the scene, questioning them individually. He asked if anyone had taken cell phone pictures. He instructed patrol officers to canvass for additional witnesses and check nearby businesses for security cameras.
No luck. No pictures, no video. No other witnesses. The three witnesses Harkville separated and questioned all described the hit-and-run vehicle as a small or midsize passenger car of an unusual red color. “Off-red, an odd-red,” one called it. Another reported the license plate included a “P” or “B” or “8” or maybe a “9.”
Detective Harkville knew the car must have sustained serious front-end damage and probably a shattered windshield. He would notify legitimate auto repair shops tomorrow. He requested drive-by surveillance of illicit “chop shops” beginning tonight. But the best bet, the detective figured, was identifiable debris left behind by the damaged car, especially any paint residue. “Off-red, an odd-red” could hold the secret to finding a killer.
Harkville realized the horrific impact with the car almost surely transferred small particles of the unusual red paint onto Debbie Fulsen’s clothing. The next day, he requested a Microspectrophotometry analysis, a forensic science test which identifies pigments and chemical compounds in paint traces. Detective Harkville could compare those results to a database of automotive paints for various makes, models and years.
Bingo! The odd paint color was Red Wine Metallic. Identifiable pigments and compounds used only on three models of a second-tier Japanese import, beginning in 2003. This narrowed nearly two million local passenger car registrations to a few hundred possible vehicles. One was the weapon that killed Debbie Fulsen.
Harkville sorted the list further. Using a Motor Vehicles Department database, he flagged owners with speeding, drunk driving or other major violations, those living near the hit and run location, drivers below age 25 and above age 70, which he knew were the two riskiest groups for causing pedestrian fatalities and cars with any match to the partial license plate description the witness had provided. Harkville felt certain the killer lay hidden on this final list. The detective began hunting. He wouldn’t notify news media yet with details of the car’s color, make and the range of models and years. A news story might attract a tipster, but might alert his quarry as well.
Three days later, a Saturday morning, the relentless hunter approached a modest brick home. The garage was open. No red car inside it or on the street. A man in his 50’s answered the front door. Tall and a little stooped, his soft gray eyes revealed a quiet sadness.
Detective Harkville showed his identification. “I’m looking for James Bettlemon. Is he here, sir?”
“My son, Jamie. He got his own apartment…about a year ago. Something wrong?”
“I need to ask him about an accident he might have seen.”
“Nobody hurt, I hope.”
“He might have seen something, sir.”
Harkville estimated about a twenty-minute drive to the apartment address the father had given him. And though he’d asked the father not to contact his son, he knew the father would call anyway. ‘He’ll let his son know I’m coming,’ the detective thought. Four minutes later, a police officer dispatched to the apartment arrived to find a tall, thin young man pulling a car cover off a damaged red sedan, preparing to move it from the carport.
On seeing the police car, Jamie Bettlemon paused, still as a portrait. Then he cried. Sobbing, shaking and gasping to breathe. The police officer examined Jamie’s car, read him his Miranda rights and detained him in custody for Detective Harkville.
Despite a second Miranda warning and with Harkville using a portable voice recorder, Jamie told the detective everything. How he’d been celebrating his one-year anniversary of getting a job. How tough it had been to find a job, any job, after graduation. That he was driving, reading a text from a friend still at the bar, when he knew he hit something or someone. How he panicked, drove here and vomited. That he’d been riding to work with the friend, leaving the damaged car here, covered and out of view. How sorry he was. How he felt so tired and scared and sick and empty. Based on all he’d learned, Detective Raymond Harkville arrested James Bettlemon for felony hit and run, felony vehicular manslaughter and misdemeanor evidence tampering.
Rest in peace, Debbie Fulsen.
Jamie’s parents called attorneys for help. One hinted that with expert legal representation Jamie might spend only two or three years in a minimum-security prison. The parents believed her and took a second mortgage on their house, enough to pay the attorney for Jamie’s criminal trial and to retain another attorney for the lawsuit Debbie Fulsen’s family would file.
That same day, Commander Erwin K. Mousse enjoyed an uninterrupted lunch of prosciutto, mozzarella, and tomato Panini on ciabatta bread brushed with virgin olive oil. He thought about Debbie Fulsen and Jamie Bettlemon. Drinking and driving, texting while driving, fleeing the accident scene, failing to summon medical assistance, hiding evidence; an arrest and sure conviction, under his command.
The police publicity department could spin this into gold ? career gold.
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