DEATH IN THE DUST

 

By Frank Kozusko


It was Friday near the end of his shift and Detective Vic Herman was looking forward to the Knicks game on TV, some slices and cold beers when his partner Dave White took the call. Herman had been in the Homicide Division for more than twenty years and had seen just about every kind of murder, probably more than once. White was a rookie detective having earned his detective’s Gold Shield less than a year ago. They had a good partnership: Herman did the talking; White did the listening.

“We’ll be right there,” said White as he hung up the phone. 

“Right where?” queried Herman. “What’s up, Dave?”

“Lower East Side, some old lady was found dead in her apartment, may have tripped and hit her head.”

“Doesn’t sound like a homicide to me,” replied Herman.

“Yeah, but the Medical Examiner is there and he told the uniforms to call us.”

“Okay, I guess we gotta go.”

 

* * *

Herman and White arrived at the third floor apartment on Clinton Avenue after 6:00 PM. Herman talked to the officer on the scene.

“Whatta yah got?” 

“Meg Laren, 68, widow, lived alone. Her daughter, over there, called it in; name’s Jen Sables,” reported Officer Sears.

“Okay, you stay with her while we talk with the M.E.”

The M.E. was kneeling next to a face-down body.

“Hey Doc, you gonna call us every time a little old lady trips on a throw rug?”

“I’m not sure what we have here,” replied the M.E.

“Well, what do you think you know?”

“Blunt force trauma to the head. The edge of that table has blood and flesh. Looks like she tripped and hit her head. Full rigor, I would say that she’s been dead at least six hours. She could have been alive for two to three hours after the injury, but most likely unconscious.”

“Sounds like an accidental death to me,” responded Herman.

“Yeah, that was my initial impression until I examined the body a little further. Take a look here,” said the M.E. pointing to the deceased’s left arm. “See anything?”

“I don’t see anything but lividity staining,” said Herman.

“That’s all I saw at first, but look at this bruise being hidden in the lividity. There are bruises all over her arms and legs. Definitely occurred before death, but I couldn’t say if before or after she hit the floor.

“Maybe someone tossed her on the floor and kicked her while she was down,” said Herman. “Some kind of revenge killing?”

“It wouldn’t have taken much force to get these bruises. The elderly bruise easily,” replied the M.E.

“Okay, we got this one,” said Herman. He turned towards White and pointed with his head.  “Let’s go talk to the daughter.”

Herman approached the visibly shaken woman, who was still in tears.

“Ms. Sables, I’m Detective Herman, my partner, Detective White. Can you tell us what happened?”

“I called her at five o’clock like I do every day to check on her. I didn’t get an answer, so I came over. I live just a couple of blocks away. I moved to be closer to her. She’s been in this building for ten years since my father died.”

“Was the door locked when you got here?”

“Yes. I used my key. I found her like that. I couldn’t tell if she was breathing, so I called 911. The paramedics arrived but she was dead. They called the police.”

“We’re sorry about your mother. It looks like an accident but we’ll do a preliminary investigation. We’d like your permission for an autopsy.”

“Is that really necessary?” questioned Sables in a weak voice.

“We just want to make sure,” replied Herman.

“Yes, okay, if you say so.”

Before the body was moved, Herman supervised the crime scene photos. He made a chalk outline of the body on the floor, to preserve Mrs. Laren’s position and location, and called for more photos after she was lifted onto the gurney. Then he went home to catch the Knicks’ fourth period.


* * *

Over the next few days, the investigation didn’t produce any evidence of foul play. The neighbors had heard no disturbances. There was no sign of a struggle in the apartment. The daughter couldn’t find anything missing, no robbery and no motives. The daughter was the beneficiary of a small life insurance policy but barely enough to cover funeral expenses.

After the apartment had been sealed as a crime scene for a week, the daughter called Herman. She was anxious to get in and start settling her mother’s affairs. Herman and White, who had been handling several bona fide homicides decided to have one last look. If nothing new came up, they would release the crime scene and recommend “Accidental Death” to the coroner. They started by reviewing the crime scene photos.

“Hey Vic, look at these two photos,” said White to Herman. “Do you see anything funny?”

Herman took the two photos: one photo of the corpse with the chalk outline on the floor and the other the photo of the chalk outline after the body had been removed. Herman took some time to analyze and compare the two.

“No, I don’t, other than seeing more of the bloodstain on the second one,” said Herman with a shrug. “Do you see something else?”

“Yeah, I do. Inside the chalk line, there appears to be more dust on the floor. It is not uniform, but splotchy. Outside the chalk, the floor is mostly clean but still some dust near the perimeter.”

“Yep, I see it now. Let’s go and take another look.”

 

* * *

 

Herman and White arrived at the apartment almost exactly one week after the M.E.’s estimated time of Mrs. Laren hitting the floor. They opened the door and ducked under the yellow crime scene ribbon. Entering the apartment, they were careful not to go through the chalked area as they walked around to get a good view with the morning sun coming through the windows. Even with the apartment closed up for a week, there had been a new buildup of dust on the floor. Still, there seemed to be a difference in the dust pattern inside versus outside of the chalk.

Herman was scratching his chin when he heard a whirling noise coming from the other side of the deadly table. Then he saw something on the floor emerging from under the tablecloth. It was a mechanical device about fifteen inches in diameter and four inches high. The two detectives watched in amazement as the little machine made a beeline to the chalked area. As it went, it was cleaning the floor and leaving a trail in the dust. The machine crossed the chalked area at the precise location where Mrs. Laren’s feet had been, then continued on.

“Quick,” Herman yelled to White. “Assume the position of the body.”

White laid down on the floor inside the chalk lines, his arms and legs positioned to mimic the corpse. Over the next few minutes, the mechanical creature crisscrossed the floor many times. Any time it tried to cross over the chalk line, it would bang into the pretend victim.

“Okay Dave, that’s enough,” said Herman.

White got up from the floor in time to evade another attack. He took a guess that the creature’s on/off button was the same as the one with the flashing light. White stopped the imp in the middle of the floor.

Herman decided to call the daughter. “Ms. Sables, this is Detective Herman. I’m in your mother’s place. I have some questions about the apartment. Can you come over here now?”

“Yes, I’ll be right over.”

Ms. Sables arrived within a few minutes. “Detectives?”

“Ms. Sables, what is that?” questioned Herman pointing at the dormant disk.

“Oh, that’s a Roombot. It’s a robot vacuum cleaner. It is programmed to clean the floors every Friday starting at 9:00 AM. When it is done, it returns to the charging stand. It does a really good job on these wood floors.”

“Well that’s it,” said Herman. “The Roombot is your mother’s killer.”

“What?” screamed Sables.

“My partner and I just went through a reenactment of your mother’s death. Here’s the way I see it. Sometime last Friday after the Roombot started cleaning, your mother tripped over it and hit her head on the table. While she lay dying the Roombot was still trying to clean the floor and kept bumping into her, causing all the small bruises that the M.E. identified. When it was done, it went back to the charger and no one noticed it.”

“No, no, no,” cried Sables. “I bought the Roombot to make it easier for Mom to keep the apartment clean. I killed my own mother!”

Herman advised the coroner about his theory of the Roombot’s involvement in Mrs. Laren’s death. On the death certificate, the coroner stated:

Type of Death: Accidental

Cause of Death: Roombot



Frank Kozusko is a retired U.S. Navy submarine officer and nuclear engineer. After the Navy, he spent 20 years as a university math professor. Third beat: Writer.

He writes short stories in many genres. His work has been published in Pilcrow & Dagger, Ariel Chart, Bewildering Stories, Avalon Literary Review and anthologized in Bubble Off-Plumb, The Twofer Compendium and Paradox: The Inner Circle Writers' Group Crime/Mystery/Thriller Anthology 2019.

Frank has also self-published a collection of poems talking to the baby boomer experience: Boomer Bounce, Poems on a Generation.
Copyright 2020 Frank Kozusko. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!

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