2020 was the worst of times. COVID-19 became a raging pandemic. There were mass hospitalizations with lonely deaths. There were business shutdowns with a spike in unemployment. And there was a universal fear that recovery would be a long time in coming.
To make matters worse, the city police department was seriously affected by COVID. A good one-third of the force was either infected or in quarantine. And it was at this time there occurred a mysterious and bizarre murder near the homeless tent city set up in a forested area on the far west side of town.
Sgt. Detective Eddie Bunco and his partner, Theo Chadwick, were not in line for a new assignment at the time but caught this case because the detective bureau was so short-handed. They knew from the get-go that this case would be trouble. The other detectives in the bureau felt lucky that Bunco and Chadwick had the case, not them.
“Damn COVID virus,” muttered Chadwick as he and Bunco were briefed on the preliminary details of this case. He thought it bad luck that they caught this type of case right after they finished a case where an elderly man infected with COVID killed himself rather than go to the hospital.
Both detectives were familiar with the homeless camp which everyone knew was a blight on the city. A more pathetic scene could hardly be imagined. Here were destitute souls sitting or lying on the cold, filthy ground or just wandering around the makeshift village. From the sidewalk to the woods, the area was littered with garbage, human waste and discarded syringes. City officials were beside themselves as to what to do about it. On the one hand they were being pressured by the businesses in the area to clean up the mess, and on the other hand, they were being pressured by civil liberty advocates to allow these citizens to live wherever they pleased.
Police officers routinely avoided going into this hell hole unless there was some sort of emergency, and even then they balked at the assignment for fear that something unforeseen might happen to them. Yet the chief of police knew that something had to be done about this recent incident. It was too grotesque and too glaring to be ignored or downplayed.
So Detectives Bunco and Chadwick were assigned to attend to the matter. As far as they were concerned, this case was another pain in the ass to add to the mask wearing and sanitizing and social distancing that the pandemic required. They left police headquarters with their masks and latex gloves at the ready.
When their unmarked police car pulled up to the sidewalk by the homeless camp, they noticed a crowd of bedraggled men and women standing around as if transfixed by the sight of the corpse lying there on the pavement. As the two detectives stepped out of their car, they were immediately confronted by a swell of stench from the camp’s living conditions, from the unwashed bodies gathered around the corpse, and from the corpse itself that was decomposing on the sidewalk. Both men applied a few drops of aromatic oil to their COVID facemasks to protect themselves from the smell of death that confronted them. They approached the body, and the uniformed police who were already there parted the crowd so the two detectives could get a good look at what they were dealing with.
Even though both police officers had been working as homicide detectives for ten years, they were repulsed more than usual by what they saw. The dead body was sliced open in several places and distorted into a grotesque shape. The arms were pulled out of their sockets and positioned parallel to the head with the forearms perpendicular to the upper arms and pointing away from the body in opposite directions. The legs were also distorted so that each foreleg was bent up and positioned parallel to the thigh. The eyes were missing. Only bloody sockets remained. Blood had gushed over the face and flowed down over the rest of the body’s grizzled and neglected contours. Besides, some of the torso had already been partially eaten by rats and stray dogs, leaving rotting flesh hanging where they had bit off their supper.
Detective Bunco instinctively looked away when he first saw the ravaged body. He knew that doing so was unprofessional, but he could only imagine what this man must have gone through, how much he must have suffered. Bunco liked being a cop, but after ten years he felt compassion fatigue like never before. It was because he could envision his own children undergoing what this brutalized victim had endured. A deep feeling of anger mixed with sadness washed over him, but he controlled himself enough to distance his feelings from the scene and assume the objectivity he needed to do his job.
Detective Chadwick spoke first. “Never seen anything like this. And we’ve seen some pretty horrible shit.”
“Never before,” returned Bunco. “I’ve seen them curled up like fetuses or draped over garbage cans, but this is a first. Whoever did this deliberately mutilated and distorted the body. But why?”
“Can’t say why yet, but I sure hope this poor son of a bitch was already dead before he was mutilated,” remarked Chad.
“I’m not sure. See how there are bruises on his hands and arms as if he were trying to stop whoever was attacking him. And his mouth is open as if at some point he was screaming and pleading.”
“Whoever did this must have overpowered him, or maybe there were multiple assailants who ganged up on him,” suggested Chadwick as he looked closely at the body’s arms. “Hey, this guy’s a junkie. His arms are full of track marks.”