THE BODY ON THE BOAT

July 26, 2017

Part I

It was a hot Friday afternoon. The “dog days” of summer were here, and it wasn’t even August yet. That’s how it often is in eastern North Carolina and Pamlico County. Robert McLean, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, and wearing flip-flops, walked slowly along River Road that paralleled the lower Neuse River, his camera ready to record a good shot.

Robert was in no hurry. He had waited until early evening to walk, as the heat index earlier in the afternoon was 105 degrees, and the relative humidity about 98%; just too oppressive to do much outside. Not that there was much to do, anyway. He had cut the grass the day before, and taken care of the garbage pickup. He had picked up a few items at the grocery store, and topped off the gas tank on his Jeep. All was good.

Now Robert concentrated on the scenery around him, looking for a good shot to post on the “Natural Pamlico” Facebook page. He wasn’t a professional photographer, and did not even have a traditional camera, just his LG cell phone. It took pretty good pictures and was easy to handle, so he was satisfied. It didn’t cost much, and since he was retired and living on a fixed income, he was content to use inexpensive equipment, rather than to buy the most popular–and expensive–gadgets.

He stopped where the road curved and looked at the river on his right. Then he turned and walked down the concrete ramp to a wide beach, thinking that he might find a good photo subject there. After treading through the sand to a pier farther down the river and not seeing anything particularly interesting, he walked back toward the ramp, gazing at some cork crab pot markers bobbing in the river.

Suddenly, he noticed a small skiff floating just beyond the crab pots, about a quarter-mile out. Curiously, there seemed to be no one in it. He thought that unusual, so he stopped to judge whether the waves were washing the boat toward the beach. They were, so he waded in the water up to his knees and tried to get a better look at the boat.

As the boat washed closer, Robert could see something below the gunwhale, a large white lump. Now he was curious, so he waded out toward the boat to get hold of it and pull it to the beach.

“What you doin’, Robert?” questioned the voice behind him. Robert, a bit startled, turned and saw his friend Joseph Johnson, who lived around the curve of River Road in the small community of Pierson Point.

“Hey, Joseph,” Robert replied, “give me a hand. I’m trying to pull this skiff to the beach.” Joseph pulled off his shoes and jogged to the river’s edge and walked in the water, catching up to Robert.

“What happened,” Joseph asked, “did someone lose his boat?”

By now, they were within 20 feet of the boat, and they could see that the lump in the bottom of the skiff was a woman. “What the hell!” Robert exclaimed. Joseph had grabbed a cleet on the port side, so Robert moved around and grabbed the one on the starboard side, and they quickly pulled the skiff up on the beach.

Then they called to the woman, who was lying face down, but received no answer. When they turned her over, they saw that the front of her white blouse was covered with a large red stain from the center of which was protruding the handle of a hunting knife. They couldn’t see the blade because it was buried in her chest. She obviously was dead!

Robert pulled his cell phone from his pocket and realized that it had been immersed in river water when they pulled the skiff in. He angrily shouted an expletive, then asked Joseph if he had his phone. Joseph, seeing that Robert’s phone would not operate, had retrieved his phone from his shirt pocket, and had already punched in 911. He described the situation to the 911 operator, and was told to wait for the arrival of police and rescue.

While Joseph was on the phone, Robert was carefully examining the body. As a retired Air Force criminal investigator, he was used to crime-scene investigation, and was noting to memory what he saw. His first observations were that it was the body of a blond woman, about 5 feet, 6 inches tall, with an attractive slim figure and a nice face; there was no ID on the body; and that the deceased was dressed in a skirt, high heels, and a rather dressy blouse, definitely not something one normally would wear out on a boat. When Joseph rang off, Robert asked him to help in the examination.

A deputy sheriff was the first to arrive on the scene. He began by taping off the area, and as he finished, the rescue truck arrived. By now, people along River Road, their curiosity piqued, were moving toward the scene. The deputy stepped in the middle of the road and asked people to move back. As they hesitated, another deputy arrived, followed by a state trooper and a crime scene investigation van.

The deputies began to question Robert and Joseph, asking each to give his individual account of what had transpired. Robert included in his detailed account his observations from his examination of the body. A light rain had begun and it was dark by the time their statements were complete, and Robert saw that the state Medical Examiner had arrived. The deputies greeted the ME and introduced her to Robert and Joseph as Dr. Katherine Smith. She asked them to repeat their accounts and observations, and while listening, interrupted briefly to direct her assistant and to ask questions of the crime scene investigators.

When the crime scene investigation was complete, and the ME had finished examining the body, the deputies politely asked Robert and Joseph to accompany them to the sheriff’s office in Bayboro. Deputy Allen explained that they were not suspects, but that detectives would want to question them. Both agreed to go with the deputies, but Robert asked if he might stop by his house to feed his dog and fetch his jacket.

At the sheriff’s office, the deputies introduced Robert and Joseph to Detective Nancy Jarvis, a strikingly attractive dark-haired woman who showed them into an interview room, invited them to sit at a table and asked if she could get them coffee, water or a soft drink. Joseph declined, but Robert said he would be grateful for a cup of coffee. Detective Jarvis left to get coffee, and Joseph asked Robert why he thought they were there. Robert replied that the detective, who had copies of their statements, wanted to question them to see if their current accounts were consistent with their earlier statements, and to see if she could elicit details they may not have thought of earlier. Joseph seemed somewhat relieved, but nervous. That’s what interview rooms and sheriff’s offices did to people, Robert remembered from his days on the other side of the table. He resolved to mentally critique Detective Jarvis’ technique, while admiring her physique.

Detective Jarvis returned with two cups of coffee, one black for Robert, and one with cream for herself. She smiled, apologized for asking them to travel to Bayboro, then switched on the sound recorder, and with a more serious look on her face, asked Robert why he was on the beach when he saw the skiff. Robert explained that he was taking a walk with the intention of shooting some pictures. She asked Joseph what he was doing when he saw Robert on the beach. Joseph haltingly and nervously responded that he, too, was taking a walk after pulling weeds in his garden.

After seeming to process something in her mind, Detective Jarvis asked, “Did either of you know the deceased?”

Robert answered “No, I had never seen her before.” Joseph looked down and answered, “No, uh uh. Didn’t know her.”

Nancy Jarvis then looked at Robert and said, “The wind velocity this afternoon was about 15 miles per hour. Which way was the wind blowing, and from what direction were the waves hitting the beach?”

Robert thought a second, then replied that the wind was from the southeast, and the waves were hitting the beach on the north bank of the Neuse at a 45-degree angle from the southeast.

“So the wind would have been blowing the boat up the river,” said the detective. “Mr. Johnson, do you agree with Mr. McLean?”

“I don’t think I noticed, ma’am,” Joseph replied. “I’m pretty bad about noticing things like that.”

Detective Jarvis looked thoughtfully, first at Robert, then at Joseph. “I think we’re done for tonight, gentlemen. But I may have more questions later, if y’all don’t mind. I’ll be in touch. A deputy will drive you home in a minute. Good night.”

As they walked out of the building, Joseph, feeling relieved, said to Robert, “Well, that wasn’t so bad. She didn’t have many questions, huh?” Robert smiled, but he was thinking that Detective Jarvis seemed to suspect something.

The deputy dropped Robert off at his house, then proceeded down River Road to Pierson Point where Joseph lived. Robert was tired from the events of the evening. He had an old mobile phone in the drawer of the nightstand beside his bed, so he pulled it out and activated it. He thought about watching the news on TV to see if the local station had coverage of his discovery of the dead woman, but instead, drank a bottle of water and went to bed.

When Robert awoke in the morning he popped a piece of bread with sliced cheese on it into the toaster oven, made a pot of coffee and turned on the TV to watch the news at seven o’clock. He sat down in front of the TV and watched as a local newswoman reported the story fairly accurately. Robert listened to her report, knowing what she was going to say up to the point when the body was transported away from the beach. Robert sipped his coffee slowly as the reporter said, “The Pamlico County Sheriff’s Office this morning said the body was identified as Myra Gates, a resident of New Bern. Mrs. Gates’ husband, Benjamin Gates, is missing, and allegedly is a person of interest in the homicide investigation. The Craven County Sheriff’s Office is assisting the Pamlico County Sheriff in locating Mr. Gates. Dr. Katherine Smith, the state Medical Examiner, said a postmortem confirmed the cause of death as a knife wound to the chest.”

Robert ate a bowl of oatmeal, drank a second cup of coffee, then showered and dressed. His intellectual curiosity was driving him now. He decided to drive over to Bayboro and talk to Detective Jarvis.

Part II

Robert walked up to the reception desk in the sheriff’s office and asked to speak to Detective Jarvis. The reception deputy told him to have a seat and she would be with him momentarily.

Ten minutes later, Detective Jarvis appeared and motioned for Robert to follow her. She led him to the same interview room in which she had interviewed Joseph and him the previous night. She asked Robert if he would like some coffee. He replied in the affirmative.

When Detective Jarvis returned with coffee, Robert thanked her, then said, “Last night I thought you were developing a theory. And I think you suspect Joseph. Why?”

Nancy Jarvis looked at Robert with a slight smile. “Since you were a military criminal investigator, I thought you might get that perception. Mr. Johnson clearly was uneasy, and the boat came from the direction of his house. We checked the boat’s registration; it belongs to his next-door neighbor, who resides in Raleigh, and hasn’t been to Pamlico County in the last month. I think Mr. Johnson was lying when he said he didn’t know the victim. We are checking his background, and if he did know the victim, we’ll find out. Assuming she was at Johnson’s house, or somewhere in the Pierson Point neighborhood, it would have been easy for him to kill the victim, put her into the skiff, pull it out into the river, wade back in, shower, put on dry clothes, then walk down to River Road as if nothing had happened, and help you pull the skiff in, aiding his effort to feign innocence.

“We checked you out, too, Mr. McLean. We can find no evidence that you knew the victim, and there is nothing to suggest that you have a motive for the crime. Your background suggests that you would not commit such a crime. So you are not a person of interest in the case.”

“I appreciate that I am not a suspect,” said Robert, “but are you not getting ahead of yourself somewhat? What about the husband of the victim as a suspect, considering he is missing? And I know that in crimes like this, the spouse usually is the prime suspect.”

“You are right about all that,” Detective Jarvis responded, “and Ben Gates is a person of interest. We are doing everything we can to locate him. But for now, Joseph Johnson is our prime suspect. I’m sure you will appreciate our reasoning.

“Considering your background, and that you are not a person of interest, Mr. McLean, would you be willing to help the department in the investigation?”

Robert answered, “What do you think I can do to help, Detective?”

“You know Mr. Johnson,” she replied, “and you could perhaps talk to him as a neighbor and nose around his property and his neighbor’s property without raising his guard.”

“Yeah, I could do that,” Robert said, “but I’m not sure I want to. He is a friend, and I think Gates is a more likely target.”

“I understand,” Detective Jarvis stated, “but I would like us to stay in touch, if you wouldn’t mind.”

“If you will let me know what your investigation uncovers, I will help any way I can,” he said. “For now, I may look around in the neighborhood, and apprise you of my observations.”

Detective Jarvis thanked him, and said, “I will be in touch, and you do the same. Have a good day, Mr. McLean.”

“The same to you, Detective Jarvis,” Robert replied, as he left the interview room and headed out of the building to his car.

On his way back to Arapahoe, Robert stopped by BoJangles in Grantsboro to get another cup of coffee. It helped him to think. After getting his coffee, he drove out to NC 306 and got to the NC 55 intersection just as the light turned red. As he waited to cross 55 and head south on 306 to Arapahoe, he saw a familiar vehicle in the left-turn lane on 306 across the intersection from him. He recognized it as Joseph Johnson’s old Chevy S-10.

When the light changed, he hesitated and let Joseph turn left, not knowing whether Joseph had recognized his Jeep. Looking in the rear-view mirror, Robert saw that he was clear, and swung onto NC 55 west toward New Bern. He drove slowly, letting Joseph get several hundred yards ahead, and followed him.

Robert wasn’t sure why he was following Joseph; maybe it was curiosity. At any rate, he kept Joseph’s truck in sight, and 20 minutes later, as Joseph crossed the Neuse River Bridge and merged onto US 70 west, he took the first exit to Country Club Road and turned left, heading to Trent Woods. When he got to the New Bern Country Club, he turned right on Country Club Drive into a residential area. Robert followed him as he wound through the neighborhood, and when Joseph parked in front of a house, Robert parked on the street about a block back.

He did not want to risk being seen by Joseph, so he sat in the Jeep and waited. Joseph walked up to the front door of the house at which he had stopped. He stood there for a few minutes, turned, walked back to his truck, got in, and drove off.

Robert followed, noting the address of the house as he passed it. Joseph traveled back out to Country Club Drive and backtracked to Country Club Road and out to US 70, where he headed back east to the Neuse River Bridge. When Robert was satisfied that Joseph was returning to Pamlico County, he turned and went back to New Bern and stopped at the Craven County Courthouse, where he found the tax administrator’s office and looked up the owner of the house in Trent Woods. The owners of record were Benjamin Gates and Myra Gates!

That surprised Robert. Why would Joseph go to the Gates house, he wondered? Was Detective Jarvis right? Was Joseph involved in this homicide?

As he drove back to Arapahoe, Robert’s brain was working overtime as he reviewed everything he knew about the Myra Gates murder. The boat definitely came from the east, headed upriver. Was Myra Gates at Pierson Point, and did Joseph kill her, put her body in the boat and pull it into the river, knowing which way the skiff would wash? If so, why? And how did Benjamin Gates fit into this mess, and where is he?

Robert got back to his house at noon, went to the kitchen, opened the refrigerator, pulled out some lettuce, tomato, mustard and Black Forest ham, got a couple of slices of bread and began making a sandwich.

Shortly, his lunch preparation was interrupted by his phone. He quickly rinsed his hands and dried them with a paper towel, then answered the phone, hoping he hadn’t taken too long and lost the call.

“Robert McLean,” he answered.

“Hello Mr. McLean, this is Nancy Jarvis.”

“Hello, Detective.”

“We located Benjamin Gates. Two fishermen near Camp Seafarer found his body on the beach a couple of hours ago. It appears that he was killed by a blow to the head, or that after the blow rendered him unconscious, he drowned. I’ll let you know the results of the postmortem.”

“Wow!” Robert said, surprised at the news. “Do you have a theory about what’s going on, Detective?”

“Not yet,” she replied, “but I’ll let you know after we’ve processed the evidence at the scene and gotten the postmortem report.”

Robert was a bit shocked, and more than a bit puzzled, but he managed to thank Detective Jarvis for the information.

Camp Seafarer is the Raleigh YMCA summer camp for girls, and is upriver from where Myra Gates’ body was found, past the Minnesott Beach/Cherry Branch state ferry dock at Minnesott.

This just got more than a little complicated, he thought.

Part III

Robert was confused and dismayed. He was becoming afraid that his friend Joseph had something to do with these homicides. He wouldn’t know specifics about them until he received more information from Detective Jarvis, but he could speculate that Benjamin Gates may have been killed at the same time as his wife. If so, he thought, it could mean that the perpetrator intended to kill them both. But what was the motive? And again he wondered if Joseph was involved. If he was the perpetrator, what could his motive be? Why stab Myra Gates then bludgeon Ben Gates? Or could it be the other way round; did he kill Ben first, then Myra?

McLean concluded that he had to begin acting like an investigator, and to do that meant that he had to ignore his friendship with Joseph, and get a great deal more information.

First thing I have to do, Robert thought, is check out Joseph’s neighbor’s house. He knew the owner, Fred Richards, the owner of a real estate agency in the triangle who lived off Holly Springs Road in Cary. Richards, a widower, had only four years ago built the two-story house at Pierson Point to replace the small cottage that had been his parents’ weekend home since the 1960’s. Shortly after the house was built, his wife, Gloria, died of an embolism. Richards hadn’t visited Pierson Point for three years after Gloria died, but in the past year had begun to come down to the house at Pierson Point again.

Maybe the skiff is the key, Robert thought. After he finished his lunch, washed the dishes and put them away, he donned a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, slipped on his flip-flops, and headed for the front door, when he noticed that the sky had darkened, and a light rain had started. He grabbed his favorite hat off the rack in the kitchen and went out into the rain.

When he got to Pierson Point, the clouds still were dark, but the rain had slowed to a light sprinkle. He noticed that only a few Pierson Point weekenders were there: George Freeman, Henry Mills, and Tom Owens. Joseph’s truck was not parked in its usual space in the carport, and Fred Richards’ house was locked and vacant. Good, he thought—I really don’t want Joseph to see me looking around Fred’s house.

Robert walked between Fred’s and Joseph’s houses to the back, looking at the area above the beach where Fred’s boat usually was secured. It was not there, of course. It was in Bayboro at the Sheriff’s Office, now evidence in the homicide investigation.

Walking at a discreet distance from where the boat normally would be, Robert could see no footprints. Because the wind had been blowing fairly strong for the past 24 hours, footprints in the sand would have been obscured quickly. So Robert walked back up to the rear of Richards’ house looking for anything that might help him understand how the skiff came to contain a body. But there was nothing.

As he walked back home, he considered what to do next. He rounded the curve on River Road, and looked out to where he had seen the skiff the day before, then turned and looked on the other side of the road where he saw his neighbor, Buddy Brinson, picking up pine cones from his yard and putting them into his cart. He called to Buddy and walked over.

“Hey, Robert,” Buddy greeted him. “What about all the excitement yesterday? Didn’t you find the body?”

“Yeah, I spotted the skiff out there in the river in front of your house, and Joseph helped me pull it in to the beach. It was quite a shock finding a dead woman in it. Had to go to Bayboro to be questioned. Long day.”

“What does the sheriff think happened?” Buddy asked.

Robert explained to him the events of yesterday afternoon, and told Buddy that he was doing a little investigating on his own. “Been down to Fred Richards’ house. The skiff was his, you know. Didn’t really see anything, though.”

“Is Fred here this weekend,” Buddy questioned?

“No, his house is locked up. I haven’t seen him for several weeks, now.”

“Well, Karen and I saw him in New Bern last weekend,” Buddy said. “Karen wanted to go out to eat, so we went over to Possum’s. She hadn’t been there before, and several folks she works with told her that it’s a good place to eat.”

“Is it?” Robert had heard, too, that it’s good.

“The food was good, but it’s expensive. While we were eating, we saw Fred come in with a woman. Guess it’s about time he started seeing women. Think his wife died almost four years ago.”

“Who was the woman,” Robert asked.

“We didn’t know her, but she was pretty hot! We saw some other folks we know, too. Carl Smith and his wife were there, so on our way out, we stopped by their table to say hello. Karen used to work with Georgia, you know. It’s funny, though, about Fred. He was there in New Bern, but I didn’t see him at Pierson Point last weekend. You’d think that if he was going to drive all the way from Cary to New Bern, that he’d stay down here for the weekend.”

“Yeah, you’d think,” Robert agreed.

“Well, before it starts raining again, I’d better get the rest of these pine cones,” Buddy said.

“Kay. See you later, Buddy,” Robert said, and continued down River Road.

When he got back to the house, the rain seemed to have stopped, and there was a glimmer of sunshine in the west, and turning hotter. Robert needed to think, so he fetched a cold beer from the refrigerator, took it out to the front porch, sat down facing the river, opened the beer and took a swallow.

Suddenly, something dawned on him! He slipped on his flip flops and took off down the road. When he arrived at Buddy’s house, Buddy still was picking up pine cones.

“Buddy!” Robert yelled.

“Long time, no see, Robert,” Buddy replied, sarcastically. “What’s up?”

“Who did you say was the other couple you saw at Possum’s?”

“Carl and Georgia Smith. Why?”

“Where do they live?”

“They live in Reelsboro, by the Reelsboro Christian Church on 306.”

“Thanks, Buddy” said Robert, turning and settting off back to his house.

Robert went inside, got a yellow pad and a pen, and went back out to the porch and sat down. He wrote, “1. See Carl and Georgia Smith in Reelsboro, 2. Talk to Joseph, and 3. Talk to Nancy Jarvis.”

He picked up the can of beer he had left on the front porch table, took it and the yellow pad inside, tore the sheet of paper he had written on off the pad, went in the kitchen and poured the beer into the kitchen sink—it had gotten pretty hot sitting on the porch while he went back to see Buddy.

He folded the paper and put it on the table by the front door. Then he turned on Public Radio East to listen to the news. The local news account of the homicide was just a rehash of what he had heard on Channel 8 this morning. Guess the other murder will be on the late news, Robert thought.

It was now about 8 PM, but still light, as the sun would set tonight in about a half hour. Realizing that he had not eaten since noon, Robert went to the kitchen, put some salad in a bowl, cut a slice of onion, fried a hamburger, put it, along with the onion and a slice of tomato, on a bun smeared with mustard and ketchup, shook some cheese crackers out of a box and onto his plate, opened another beer, went to the den, turned on some music, sat down and enjoyed his supper.

Robert began thinking about Joseph. When Robert had moved to River Road eighteen years ago, Joseph, a Pamlico County native, had been one of the first to stop by and greet him. Joseph worked at a marine sales and repair company near Oriental, about twelve miles east. Like Robert, Joseph liked to fish, so he and Robert had spent many days over the past years fishing together.

Joseph had been single when Robert moved to River Road with his wife and two children. Ten years ago, Joseph married a woman from Little Washington, but the marriage had only lasted three years. “We just didn’t have anything in common,” Joseph had told him. Robert didn’t ask why Joseph had married her. He wasn’t one to cast stones; his wife had left him five years ago. Now his children were living away from Pamlico County, too.

Joseph just didn’t seem like the type to commit murder. He hardly ever got angry, Robert thought. But why did he go to Myra Gates’ house this morning? He must have known her, so maybe he did have a motive to kill her. Joseph resolved to talk to Joseph tomorrow after church. After he watched an episode of “Rumpole of the Bailey,” one of his favorite TV programs, on his DVD player, Robert was too sleepy to watch the news, so he went to bed, still thinking about Joseph.

As he expected, Robert was questioned about the homicide by the folks in his Sunday School class. He had eaten a bowl of oatmeal and drunk a cup of coffee before he went down to the crossroads in Arapahoe, where he was part of the congregation at Bethany Christian Church. Not wanting to interrupt the Sunday School lesson, he had given the class a brief account.

Following the lesson, he answered more questions posed by other members of the congregation out in the narthex, before going into the sanctuary for the worship service. In the “prayer concerns” part of the service, the minister mentioned the double homicide, and asked everyone to pray for the family.

After the service, Robert headed back to River Road, changed clothes and walked down to Joseph’s house. Joseph’s truck was there, so Robert knocked on the door. Joseph answered the door and asked Robert to come in. Joseph poured tea into two glasses that he filled with ice and offered Robert one.

They sat at the kitchen table by the sliding glass door that opened to a porch overlooking the beach and the river.

“I don’t know if you’re as upset about this mess as I am,” Joseph said, “but it’s got me to the point that I don’t even want to eat.”

“Joseph, I know it has upset you, but I know that yesterday you went to Myra Gates’s house. Did you know her? Why did you go?”

“How did you know I went there?”

“I saw you at the intersection of 306 and 55 yesterday when I was coming back from Bojangles, and I followed you. Joseph, I know I shouldn’t have done it, and I apologize, but I know that the sheriff’s office suspects you of killing Mrs. Gates, and I was concerned. Did you know her?”

“No, I don’t know her, and that’s the truth!” Joseph stated, slapping his hand on the table.

“But why did you go to her house?

“I went to see if I could find her husband, Ben. I know he was missing, and I thought maybe if someone was at the house, I could talk to them and get a lead on where Ben is. I know him—he was my lawyer and handled my divorce for me. And when his boat needs work, he brings it to the marina and asks that I work on it.”

“That explains that,” Robert said, relieved. “But you know that if Detective Jarvis finds out you went there, she’ll suspect you of both murders.”

“Robert, I didn’t have anything to do with the murders. I know nothing about them.”

“Another curious thing that I hope the detective hasn’t picked up on, Joseph, is that Mrs. Gates’ body was in Fred Richards’ skiff. I know you recognized it, and Mrs. Jarvis may wonder why you didn’t say you knew whose boat it is.”

“I just didn’t want to get Fred in trouble, Robert. You know he’s been through a lot, with his wife dying. He’s just now getting to the point where he’ll come down here again.”

“Well, I believe you’re telling me the truth, Joseph. But if Ben Gates was your lawyer, you may want to find another one. I don’t know where Mrs. Jarvis’ investigation is going, but if she continues to suspect you, you may need representation. In the meantime, I’ll help any way I can.”

Robert thanked Joseph for the tea, and walked back toward his house. He hadn’t gotten a hundred yards down the road, when his phone rang.

“Robert McLean.”

“Mr. McLean, this is Nancy Jarvis. I just wanted you to know that we’re close to making an arrest in at least one homicide. Deputies are on the way to pick up Joseph Johnson. He must have recognized his neighbor’s skiff, and he didn’t say anything because he used it to dump the body. And we’re pretty sure that he knew Myra Gates and her husband. We don’t know the motive yet, but we should find out when we interview him as a formal suspect.”

“Detective Jarvis, I think you’re jumping the gun. I just talked to Joseph, and his explanations seem reasonable and truthful to me. He didn’t say anything about the skiff because he didn’t want to get his neighbor in trouble.”

“And how did he explain his visit to the Gates house? We know Ben Gates was his attorney in a divorce case. We also know that you followed Mr. Johnson to Trent Woods.”

“He explained that he thought if he went to the house and someone was there, he might be able to gain useful information to help find Mr. Gates. He reiterated that he had never met Mrs. Gates.”

“Did he tell you that, at the time leading up to his divorce, Mrs. Gates was her husband’s receptionist at his office? Johnson had to have known her!”

 

 

 

 

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MISCHIEF’S NEW BEHAVIOR

June 27, 2016

My black lab Mischief and I were sitting in the house on a hot Sunday afternoon enjoying the air conditioning. She was sipping a glass of white wine, while I was drinking a bottle of Gaelic Ale.

After taking a long, slow, sip of her wine, Mischief looked at me with sad eyes and said, “I really miss Smut.” Smut was my son’s old black lab who died two years ago at the age of 15. Until now, we had not talked about Smut. Mischief grieved for several weeks after Smut died, but the two of us never got around to discussing his death.

“I miss him, too,” I replied. “You and Smut were together all your life, so I can imagine that you miss him quite a lot.”

“He was like a big brother to me,” she said quietly.

We were silent for a while, then she said, “Smut taught me quite a bit, you know. How to enjoy your good Scotch whiskey, all about particle physics, and how to manipulate humans. Not that I would try to do that with you, of course.”

“I certainly hope not. I had enough of that from Smut.”

“But I am interested in particle physics. I was quite surprised when researchers at CERN LHC facility announced that they may have discovered a new particle. As it…”

“What’s that?” I asked. “I missed that news.”

“As I was saying,” she continued, looking slightly annoyed at my interruption. “as it turned out, the researchers at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland believe it was just a data anomaly. But it would have caused major rethinking in the particle physics world, since no such particle had been predicted by current models.”

I began to be a little suspicious where this conversation was leading. “Seems as if you did learn a bit from Smut.”

“Yes,” she smiled, sipping more wine and adopting a casual and relaxed position, with her front paws crossed, “and I think that since we both miss him, now would be a good time to honor his memory in some way.”

“Well, what is your suggestion?” I asked apprehensively, as an old feeling sweeping over me.

“We should go to CERN and visit the LHC,” she said resolutely.

“Now, look here, Smut–I mean, Mischief. We are not going to Switzerland. Get that out of your mind.”

“We don’t have to decide right now,” she stated calmly, but with a hint of foregone conclusion. “We can think about it a while. More ale?”

 


REST IN PEACE, SMUT

March 14, 2014

My old dog Smut, a full-blooded English Lab, died yesterday. He had a long life for a Labrador retriever, but he will be missed very much.

As one of God’s creations, dogs are a gift from God to us. Even though they have short lives relative to humans, in that short time they can give us a great deal of love and pleasure, and touch our hearts greatly. Their lives are extended by our memories of them. That is what I was thinking as I buried him in his favorite place, under the pine tree in my back yard.

It may come as a surprise that some of what I’ve written about Smut was made up. Even so, he was the smartest dog with whom I ever came in contact, even smarter than Mischief, my Lab-mix. She is missing Smut as much as the rest of the family.

I will continue to write about Smut and his remarkable life, because it pleases me to remember him.

REST IN PEACE, SMUT

Smut Wibbly Harris

Born June 10, 1999 in Oak City, NC; died March 13, 2014, in Pamlico County, NC


SMUT MEETS BONNIE (PART 1)

March 5, 2014

Arapahoe, February 23

I came home from church to find Smut, my old black Labrador retriever, the picture of contentment. He was sitting in his favorite easy chair dressed in his finest smoking jacket with his red fez sitting at a jaunty angle, a cigar in his mouth and a glass of my good Scotch whisky on the table beside him. He was reading the Sunday paper, and two of his particle physics textbooks were lying on the table beside his glass of whisky.

Smut Rev IMG_2296“Well, hello old dog,” I said. “Glad to see you’re calm and content this afternoon.”

Smut gave me a dismissive look and resumed reading the paper. After pouring myself a cup of coffee, I sat down at my computer to check emails. As I put my hands on the keyboard, I felt something gritty and looked down to see distinctive paw prints and sand on the keyboard. I shook the sand out and went to Smut.

“You have been on my computer, silly mutt. What are you up to?”

Confronted with my anger and evidence, Smut’s air of self assurance dissipated and a look of guilt, then resignation, spread across his face. “All right, I confess,” he said contritely. “A few weeks ago I borrowed your credit card and joined christianmongrel.com.”

“You used my credit card to join an online dating service! What were you thinking, you silly canine?”

“It was worth it, though,” he replied. “I met a wonderful Labrador named Bonnie, and I have been corresponding with her online. At night when you go to sleep, I talk to her on your cell phone.”

“That was dog slobber on my phone! I thought it felt nasty.”

“Bonnie and I have gotten to know each other and like each other,” he said.

“But you already have a companion,” I told him. “That’s why we got Mischief several years ago.”

“That’s what everyone thinks. Because they see us together, they think that Mischief and I are a couple. The truth, though, is that although I like Mischief very much, she doesn’t feel the same way about me. She thinks of me as a casual friend. And she’s younger than I, so we don’t share the same life experiences. When you feed us, she will not let me eat until she’s finished.”

“Well, I know Mischief can be a bit testy, but I thought you two were compatible.”

“No, I want someone I can talk to and feel comfortable with. Someone who shares my interests. Someone I can enjoy being with. Someone with whom I potentially can develop a deep and caring relationship. Bonnie is so nice, and she is interested in particle physics. She’s more interested in the practical side of physics, while I enjoy the theoretical aspects, but the interest is complementary. We’re like the Higgs boson and Inflation.”

I did not know the old dog could be so eloquent in expressing his feelings. I didn’t understand the bit about the Higgs boson and Inflation, though. “What is that,” I asked him.

“The Higgs boson is a scalar particle that contributes sense to the standard particle physics model, and the Inflation is a scalar particle that contributes sense to the cosmology standard model, the Big Bang theory. As you would say it, ‘Bonnie and I are two peas in a pod.’”

“Oh. Where does Bonnie live,” I asked.

“She lives in Raleigh,” he said.

Understanding where the conversation was going, I told Smut, “That’s too bad, old dog. I’m not going to take you back and forth to Raleigh to develop a relationship no matter how wonderful Bonnie is. It’s too far.”

Smut looked at me imploringly. “Please,” he said, “We like each other and we want to meet nose to nose.”

“Not gonna happen, dog,” I told him. “Have you even seen a picture of Bonnie? What does she look like?”

“No, I haven’t seen a picture of her.”

“Well, what if she looks like a…” I realized that what I was going to say was both ugly and of course pointless.

“I don’t need a picture to know that she is beautiful,” Smut said. “I know that from talking to her and getting to know her.”

“Well, it’s just too far to travel,” I repeated.

Smut crossed his paws, looked at me calmly and said, “Bonnie’s human told her it was all right to invite me to visit this Friday. One way or another, I’m going to Raleigh.”

“What do you know about Bonnie’s human,” I asked.

“Bonnie says she is sweet and loving to her and a good companion. They live alone.”

Well, that piqued my interest. I gave in and said, “OK, Smut, we’ll go up to Raleigh.”

Raleigh, February 28

After we knocked on the front door, we were met by a black Lab that looked like Smut, and a very attractive human, uh, woman. Bonnie and Smut performed the obligatory sniffing and then went into the back yard. Bonnie’s human and I talked on the back porch.

Both dogs are near the end of their lifespans, but that was not apparent as they romped around the backyard, quite obviously smiling and having fun being with each other. They looked so happy! It reminded me of how Smut had been as a puppy and a young dog, before the arthritis set in, and before he acquired his distasteful habits involving cigars and Scotch. Smut was right, of course, about Bonnie’s appearance; to him Bonnie is beautiful.

Before I realized it, a couple of hours had passed and it was time for Smut and me to head back to Arapahoe. On the trip back, Smut seemed very happy, but uncharacteristically, he had little to say, except “Thank you.”

Arapahoe, March 1

“What’s wrong with Smut,” Mischief asked. “He’s hardly spoken to me all day, and he has this dreamy, satisfied look on his face. Did you give him drugs when you were gone yesterday? ”

“Not exactly,” I said. “Smut’s just thinking about someone he met.” I was, too.

Arapahoe, March 2

When I returned home after church, Smut approached me, doubtful about how to ask what I knew he wanted. But I preempted him.

“Smut,” I asked, “if I can arrange it, would you like to go with me to Raleigh Friday?”


TUESDAY FEBRUARY 11

February 7, 2014

Take part in the effort to end government spying this Tuesday, February 11!


SMUT’S LAST REQUEST

January 31, 2014

I could tell that something was on Smut’s mind. He was slouched in his easy chair and uncharacteristically, he had let his Cuban cigar burn out and go unsmoked. Characteristically, though, he was deep into my bottle of good Scotch whisky, I observed with regret. When he saw me come into his presence, he gave me a doleful look.

Smut is my old black Labrador retriever. In certain ways he is a remarkably intelligent dog, even by human standards. He has contributed a great many ideas and discoveries to the world of particle physics, and he’s one of the best scientific thinkers alive. In other ways, though, he is just an annoying old dog. While he has excellent taste in Scotch whisky, he drinks it to excess as my bank balance proves. He favors the most expensive cigars, and constantly begs me to take him to the tobacco store and buy him more of them.

He is a bit of a fop. He likes silk, and he coaxed me into getting several smoking jackets tailored for him from good silk cloth. Most dogs don’t like hats. My other black Lab, Mischief, will shake off a hat in seconds if you can get one on her in the first place. But inside the house and in warm weather, Smut likes to wear a fez decorated with fine needlework. In cold weather he wears a tarboosh.

Smut likes to take me on long walks through the fields and woods while talking to me about dog things: How a raccoon’s bones crunch when he catches one by the neck and shakes it to death, how to differentiate among the scat of various animals, and how exhilarating it is to smell a bitch in heat.

But I’m digressing. Something was wrong with the old Lab. “Smut, you old mongrel,” I said fondly, “you look a little down in the dumps, and a bit drunk. What’s wrong?” I could tell, though, that whatever was wrong, it wasn’t wrong enough that he put down the glass of whisky.

After a long swallow of my whisky, he looked at me with a pained expression and hesitated before answering. “We need to have a talk about the future,” he said. “I’m getting old, and have lived much longer than all my friends of the same age. Why, my best friend, Dale, Jr., was only a couple of years older, and he’s been gone for over five years now. So I know I don’t have much time left.”

“Aw, Smut,” I replied, “you’re going to live forever, you old dog. Don’t think about that; it’s depressing you.”

“I’m not depressed,” he said. “I’m thinking about you. I’m afraid you won’t be able to deal with my demise, and I want to plan for the time that I’m not with you anymore.”

“Now you’re making me feel sad, Smut,” I told him.

“Good. I’ve been thinking about what to do when the time comes to put me down” He settled back in his chair and took a small sip of the whisky. “I’m going to tell you my plans now, but I’ve written them so you won’t forget anything. Your lawyer has a copy of my request and will give it to you when appropriate.”

“What? You’ve written a last request? You gave it to my lawyer?”

“Yes, so you won’t forget, that’s all.”

I thought he probably wants me to bury him with his favorite toys, and maybe put his name on a grave marker. “Okay, tell me what you want, Smut.”

“I want a proper memorial service. Going out is a big thing. First, save one of my legs to be cremated in the normal way. Then build a raft, pile it with kindling and other combustibles and tie it to the end of the pier. Invite all my friends, and even Mischief, I suppose, to gather on the end of the pier. You be careful not to slip! Lay my body on the raft, say some mumbo-jumbo words you humans say at this kind of event, set it afire, and push it out into the Neuse River. As I’m floating to Valhalla, I’m sure you’ll all be pretty choked up because of how great a loss to the world my death will be. But you can survive!”

“You’re not a Viking, Smut! This is just silly, you over-dramatic old cur! And why do you want one of your legs to be cremated?”

Another swallow of whisky! “Well, I like Viking culture and pageantry. Please honor my wishes! Oh, by the way, I’ve written a news release about my death that I want you to send to all the particle-physics journals. I know you would think of that, but I wanted to be sure it’s accurate. Sometimes you don’t get the facts right, you know. Not criticizing; just sayin’!”

After that insulting statement from the old canine, I was determined to rattle him a bit. “I was just going to bury you in the backyard, like most people do when their dogs die. Maybe put a plastic hot dog or a dead raccoon on a stick as a grave marker.”

Smut’s feelings clearly were hurt. “That is so thoughtless,” he said tearfully. “I thought we were close friends. A friend would honor his friend’s last wishes.”

I felt a little bad about saying that. “I guess it was thoughtless; I wasn’t thinking. Okay, I’ll feel pretty foolish, but I will do what you want.” Once he’s gone he won’t know that I didn’t do all the crazy stuff he’s telling me.

“I’m glad to hear you say that, because I want you to carry out the rest of my request.”

“And what’s that, old dog?”

“Well, when you have my leg cremated, please have the ashes put into an urn shaped and decorated like my favorite fez. Seal it well, because it’s going to get shaken about in its travels, and I don’t want my ashes to fall out.”

“Do you have any idea what that will cost, you silly mutt?”

“But you said that you will do what I want!” He looked so pitiful, I had to make him feel good.

“Okay, okay. I will. Sorry. But what do you mean about the urn getting shaken while traveling? Where is it going?”

“Well, with you, of course!”

“What? I don’t understand.”

“We’re such good friends and so close, that I know you can’t bear to be apart from me, even when I’m gone. So to make you feel better about your loss, I want you to carry my urn with you wherever you go.

“You know how I like to ride in the car, so you can sit me in the front passenger seat whenever you travel somewhere — don’t forget to use the seatbelt — and hold my urn out the window occasionally so I can feel the wind. You can imagine my ears flopping around; that will cheer you!

“You can keep me in your briefcase when you’re at meetings, or show my urn to your friends and colleagues. That will be a good conversation starter! At home, every night you can put my best smoking jacket around my urn and set it in my favorite chair, pour a glass of Scotch for me and light a cigar. I know that will comfort you immensely!”

Yeah, I thought, I’m going to show the urn to my friends and colleagues. If that kind of conversation starts, it will end with me being committed. That dog had better live until I’m senile, because senility is the only thing that will make me carry a dog’s ashes around with me. “Have you gone to la la land, dog? I’m not going to do that!”

“But you promised, and I know you will keep your promise! And one last thing: Each night when we go to bed, place my urn on the soft pillow next to yours, and pull the covers up around it. Don’t let me get cold!”

We go to bed? We? Only in your dreams, Smut. Now if I can just get that image out of my mind. Maybe a big glass of Scotch whisky will do it. If there’s any left.


SMUT IS PUT OFF BY ECONOMIC REALITIES

January 16, 2014

I was working in the yard, trying to put a new blade-drive belt on my lawnmower, when Mischief ran up to me and said, “There’s something wrong with Smut!” Mischief is my frenetic black Lab, and Smut is my calm old black Lab.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, alarmed. Smut is 14 years old and has been through two cancer surgeries. His hold on life is becoming tenuous.

Mischief was jumping up and down all around me, trying to convey urgency. “He’s acting very upset and disturbed,” she said. “He might be having a stroke!”

She turned and took off quickly the way she had come, and I followed, praying that Smut was not having a stroke. We found him at the edge of a field where he often went to read and think about particle physics. His smoking jacket was unbelted and hanging open, and his fez sat at an unstable angle. He was pacing back and forth quickly, clearly deeply concerned about something.

“What’s wrong, Smut?” I asked, hoping he could answer me rationally. But he seemed not to hear me, and he didn’t acknowledge my presence.

Mischief quickly barked at him, telling him to snap out of it and talk to us. Smut stopped his pacing, looked at us, and grumbled, “Nothing. Nothing. Just reading, that’s all.” But I could tell that it certainly wasn’t all.

“Are you sick, Smut?” I asked. “Do you not feel well? Do we need to go to the vet?”

Looking resigned to having to interact with Mischief and me, Smut settled back on his haunches, pulled his pipe out of his pocket along with a pouch containing tobacco—or something—and after filling the bowl, tamping it down, and lighting the pipe with a match he found in his other pocket, he took a slow drag on the pipe and said, “I’m just a little upset about something I read, that’s all.”

Relieved that Smut wasn’t suffering from a physical ailment, I asked with sarcasm, “Oh, is there another conundrum in the world of particle physics?” I expected a lengthy discourse on some inconsistency in the way quarks react to mesons, or something like that.

“No,” he replied, “I decided to take a break from particle physics and read a newspaper. It was a story in your latest edition of the Wall Street Journal that bothered me.”

“What was it in the Journal that upset you so much, Smut?”

Smut took another puff on his pipe, looked at Mischief, then at me, and began. “Well, you know how you like to share that really delicious Stilton cheese and fine port wine with Mischief and me?”

I don’t like to share it with them. It’s just that they’re always begging and trying to grab it from me, so I usually give in and let them have a taste. “I love the taste of that cheese, and it goes so well with the port I lap up. When you share that with us, I feel a special friendship for you,” Smut continued.

“Save the flattery and get on with it, Smut,” I told him, sensing that his fawning behavior was leading to something I wouldn’t like.

“The story in the Journal said that import prices are going up as high as fifteen percent in 2014,” he reported with sadness. “I’m afraid as a result you won’t buy as much Stilton and port as we, I mean, you like!”

“Oh, no!” Mischief interjected.

“You’re absolutely correct, Smut,” I said. “That stuff is high enough already. I don’t have the money to spend on that kind of luxury, especially now the prices are going up.”

After a furtive look at Mischief, Smut turned to me and asked, “Could you perhaps get a second job? I hear McDonald’s is hiring.”

I should not indulge those dogs.