WHERE THE SUN IS SILENT
It took me three years working as a crime reporter for the Times before I learned who he was. And once I knew his name, there was no letting go. Being on the outside, I only saw glimpses of the whole, otherwise obscure vignettes, seen alongside anecdotes, told to me by those who knew him. They were like old photographs seen through a stereoscope. Maybe that’s an unfair reference for a modern world. Then again, perhaps that’s the best way to explain it.
Knowing what I know now, I can’t say that my search was abundantly fruitful. I don’t know that anyone will ever understand him, but I’ve tried. And in trying, I’ve found myself to have more in common with him than I’m comfortable with. Any judgments about the person, or what he’s done; I leave it to you, to make up your mind. In general, I’d say that at our worst we’re all capable of terrible and ugly things. At times when I’m most hopeful, I think we all deserve another day, and maybe even one more after that.
It’s a cynical view of the world, but it’s not unfounded. Naturally, I didn’t start out this way, but I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t there. Being a witness to the crimes and violence, night after night, can turn a man toward pessimism, but the bureaucracy of the job made it even worse. As journalists, we were fighting for scraps; looking for anything that wasn’t fed to us by the NYPD. There was rarely anything to be had. The days of print news were all but over. It had been dying for decades, though no one wanted to admit it. Paper is for the purists, and in case you haven’t heard, there aren’t too many of those around anymore. Once the NYPD started using Twitter, it was all over. Social media and self-published press releases allowed the department to control the narrative, avoid hard questions, and inform the public faster than we ever could. I did my best to portray the truth as I saw it, but we were all pulling water from the same well. We were all telling the same story, in the same language. After three years of self-imposed insomnia, my life seemed to mimic the nocturnal habits of a fruit bat. Only after this realization did I resign myself to re-wording press releases, like everyone else. I can say that I was one of a few who still went out to crime scenes; the last of the 3 A.M. radio-vampires. I’d like to say I did it out of professional pride, but it was equally a matter of personal curiosity.
Until that point, the great love of my life had been literature. From Faulkner to Plath’s Bell Jar, and the great Truman Capote, I had long been enamored by diction and the confines of the page. But now that was changing. It was as if those hours spent in the company of such writers had been a preamble. They’d been pointing me toward it all along. Yes, the crimes were often hideous and unsightly, but they were more than that. It was human nature in its truest and most unabridged form, and it was there for anyone to see, if they cared to look for it.
It was around that time that the lines between work and my personal life became blurred. Not long after they were indiscernible. I found myself more interested in the anthropology of it all, and I focused more on causality rather than brevity and word count. The facts relative to crime reporting seemed to matter less than the crimes themselves. I wanted to know the dark mechanics of it, its movements and subtle gestures. Were some people just bad; irredeemably predestined? Or was it something that we all had a share in, a common strand of corruptibility that made otherwise good people do devious things? Was it a sudden drop, like a cut elevator cable, or was it a slow, tectonic slide, akin to the earth moving under our feet? Capote warned about giving your heart to a such a wild thing.
Because of these questions, I became a student again, and although I wasn’t far from Cooper Square, this wasn’t NYU. How does one learn about such intricacies from a distance; from outside the crime scene tape? Sure, I could acquire the distilled, underlying facts, but the emotional substance and physical palpability of murder and madness were always just out of reach. I wasn’t getting the answers I was looking for, so I went to find my own subject. I had learned all that I could from books. There was only one option left. I began responding to suicides.
Every correspondent in the city would turn up for the homicides, but no one cared about the suicides; in Hollywood maybe, but rarely in New York. No one wanted to hear about the lonely death of an otherwise forgettable person; certainly not in the open folds over Sunday breakfast. But for me, these deaths held all the forensic elements of a murder, because the inarguable fact remained that someone was killed by a person. They held the tragic evidence of motive, and mental illness, loneliness and death; often paired with the violence of a murder. These secret characteristics, still reverently held, were less guarded than those of a criminal nature. Police procedure was far less stringent, because a suicide would never go to trial. There was no crime, no suspect, no victim; at least not as far as the State was concerned. After months of quiet attendance, and much to my surprise, police investigators began allowing me unprecedented access to these scenes. I was let in with the strict understanding that I wouldn’t report the details of the suicides, or disclose the names of the deceased. They recognized in me a shared interest, and in return I kept my promise. I became an ally, and eventually a friend to many of the patrolmen and investigators of the NYPD who served as my guides, like Virgil, through those deep places where the sun is silent. My education had begun, and it was through these unnamed tragedies that I came to know the stench of decomposition, the shot patterns of a twelve-gauge shotgun, and the life cycle of blow flies.
Prior to that, I was sure that things happened for a reason and that we lived in a world that was relatively safe and peaceful; a believable fiction with all the relevance of a destination wedding. I untied my blindfold and turned my back on the mirage. Some people have their fitness clubs and Caribbean vacations. I had Friday night photo-sharing with the interns at the Medical Examiner’s Office, and ‘off-the-record’ choir practice with officers from the 13th Precinct.
In those early years, what proved to be most significant was the fragile trust of an NYPD detective, Edward McCuen. He would become the Captain of the NYPD’s Crime Scene Unit, responsible for the forensic investigation of every major homicide in the five boroughs. For years, I preserved his trust and enjoyed his friendship, while I pursued a carefully guarded secret —his secret: a man named Anselm Winterbottom.
I first saw Winterbottom in January 2010, at the scene of what would later become known as “The Flatbush Killings”. I knew most of the detectives in all the major crime units, if not by name, then by face. But he was a stranger. In his late forties, he had dark brown hair and sheltered an average build beneath a drab, canvas field jacket; the kind often worn by bird-hunters. You could imagine my surprise when I watched this stranger get escorted beneath the tape, to meet directly with Captain McCuen. I began seeing him at every major crime scene, but he was never so openly on display. It made me wonder how long he’d gone unnoticed, giving rise to the possibility that I’d been seeing him for years without realizing it. After months of contemplation, I felt compelled to ask McCuen about him. When I did, my friend of many years paused for a moment, sipped his coffee and said, “I don’t know who you’re talking about—and you can’t ever ask me about him again.” As his friend, I took comfort in the fact that he didn’t lie to me outright, but I felt slighted by his abrupt refusal to say any more. From that moment on, I couldn’t let it go. I needed to know who he was, and the more time that passed without answers, the more determined I became. I knew even early on that I’d have to betray my friend to learn his secret.
In writing this, I’ll tell you what I know; less from my recollections, and more from those of my reticent friend, Captain Edward McCuen. It wasn’t until after his retirement from the NYPD, that he spoke more candidly about his enigmatic friend, Anselm Winterbottom. I learned a great deal, and yet some things he kept hidden from me, even in the days before he died. I felt like he was protecting someone, or maybe he was just keeping an old promise—secrets told to the wind will surely be revealed to the trees. Even now, I’m haunted by a few unanswered questions. The worst part is, I don’t know if they even matter. I suppose that’s the difference between curiosity and obsession. There’s always one more unanswered question.
The events of most interest began in late September when the nights fall heaviest in lower Manhattan. The hours just after midnight had passed into relative obscurity, except for a murder-suicide on Monroe Street. I heard the call come over the police frequency and those of us on scene had already put most of the pieces together. It was an old familiar swan song. Wife cheats on husband; husband kills wife, then turns the gun on himself. I wasn’t at all surprised to see McCuen standing in the doorway. It was in moments like these that I admired him most. His dedication was eternal. I had met his wife, Catherine, and she was remarkable, but I found it difficult to believe that she could be so understanding of his absence, so regularly. I’m sure that it took its toll. Yet, there he was, like Wellington at Waterloo, right in the thick of it.
As personnel from the Medical Examiner’s office carried two amorphous body bags from the entryway, McCuen’s cell phone rang. I watched as he bowed his head in quiet disappointment, signaling that the night was still young. He had hours to go before he’d sleep. Given the distance between us, I couldn’t make out what he was saying, but I could tell it was bad news. When he hung up the phone he quickly dialed an uncatalogued, but well-memorized phone number. I moved closer and strained to hear.
“I have something for you,” said McCuen. “The Bethesda Fountain—when can you be there?”
Just then a transmission crackled over the radio of a nearby patrolman. A body had been found in Central Park.