The Kayak Instructor
*Regarding scenes with sign language. For clarity, ASL has been converted to American English. As recommended by consulted members in the deaf and hard of hearing community, facial expressions, and body gesticulations will be called out in these scenes to represent the real-life communication tactics of ASL users.
September 26, 7:55 a.m.
The tires of the kayak instructor’s Jeep screeched against the pavement as he pulled into the shop’s parking lot. He only had five minutes before his tour group was supposed to arrive. They’d be the last group this season. He could make it through just one more day. Tonight he’d head back downstate to school—all of his friends were already there.
He pulled his jacket’s hood over his head and marched toward the storefront. Once inside, he didn’t bother to turn on the lights. He hustled directly out the backdoor to the aluminum shed that stood just off the river; it housed the kayaks, life vests, and oars. On his way down the hill, something peculiar caught his eye. A large pink suitcase had washed up on the shoreline. It was lying on its backside, right in the middle of his boat launching zone.
He was accustomed to finding trash and other debris when he worked the morning shift. So, he walked down to clear the path, like he would any other morning. He assumed the weathered case was empty, but it was much heavier than he expected. When he tugged on its handle, the bag grated against the riverbed’s wet gravel.
“Finally!” he said. He never found anything good down here. Anxious to see what he’d stumbled upon, he knelt down and flipped open the suitcase.
He covered his mouth, nearly retching, and ran back to the store to call his dad. No, not his dad. His head was spinning. He ran to call the police.
◆ ◆ ◆
Detectives Kimberly Hall And Alex Diaz September 26, 2020, 8:30 a.m.
Alex Diaz spread peanut butter across another piece of toast and drizzled it with honey. He had eaten the first one while lost in his thoughts. The wedding was eight months away. There was a lot to plan, but peanut butter toast was part of his Saturday ritual. He deserved to enjoy it.
He closed his eyes, held the toast close to his nose, and took in a whiff. He prepared to take his first bite—mindfully this time—when his phone rang. It’s true that he was on-call, but he hadn’t taken that assignment literally. As one of the youngest detectives in the precinct, Alex usually handled high-volume, low-stakes work like burglaries and auto thefts. His cases rarely justified the use of costly resources like DNA analysis or even fingerprinting. They certainly wouldn’t warrant the overtime pay he’d receive for getting called in on a Saturday.
He checked his phone’s caller ID, but had no intention of putting his breakfast down to answer it. But it wasn’t one of his squad mates calling. It was Detective Kimberly Hall. A call from her on a Saturday morning meant two things: someone had been murdered, and, more importantly, she wanted him on her team. Alex dropped his toast and answered his phone.
Detective Hall said, “Diaz, sorry to interrupt your Saturday morning. Have you been listening to your scanner?”
He didn’t know he was supposed to be. “No,” he stammered, “I, um. I just woke up.”
“Interesting. I had pegged you as an early bird, but it’s good that you’ve gotten your rest.”
Alex checked the clock on his microwave. 8:30 on a weekend was early, wasn’t it?
Hall continued, “There’s been a murder, and I’d like for you to partner up with me on it.”
“Wait, you want me to be your partner? On a homicide?” Saying the words felt as strange as hearing them. “Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to work with you, but I don’t know if I have the right experience for that.”
“You’re a skilled detective, Diaz. I have no doubts you will be an asset on this case. As for your expertise, it’s not like you’ll be on your own. You can learn from me as we go. Are you up for it or not?”
“Sure,” he said tentatively. “I mean, of course.”
“Good. Right.” She said, “We’re at 1200 West North Ave. How soon can you get here?”
“That’s not far from my place. It’ll take me less than fifteen minutes.”
“Okay. When you get here, walk straight down to the river.” Hall said, “Oh, and Diaz, I should warn you: some of the other officers have found the scene...disturbing. Please prepare yourself.”
“Thanks for the heads-up. I will,” he said.
Prepare himself? He could handle this. Sure, it would be different than his typical workday. He didn’t see a lot of dead bodies, usually just stacks of case files. But it was a lot of cases, and the pile would only get higher as the week went on. There were too many thefts to chase after. He was only allowed to work on the cases that had solid leads. The other reports would be filed away, hardly revisited unless they matched a pattern with several other cases. Seeing a dead body is probably jarring, but it’s also pretty hard to stomach how many theft cases are left unsolved, uninvestigated even.
On homicide, at least you have an entire team to focus on a single case. Alex had worked with Hall once before; he could work another homicide case. He could handle seeing a fresh crime scene. At least it’s outside, and not in a creepy basement or something.
As Alex put on his jacket, his fiancée, Emily, walked into the kitchen. She was still in her pajamas. She’d been up until 2:00 a.m. working out of her makeshift office in their large, mostly unused hall closet. She squinted and tilted her head away from the light coming through the kitchen windows.
She signed to Alex “How many times are you going to check that pocket before you realize your keys aren’t in there?”
He signed back to her, “Depends. How many times did you see me check my pocket?”
“I found them in the freezer last night. I set them on the table.” She pointed to the round stool next to the door that she treated as a catch-all.
“I thought you were trying to avoid sweets after dinner. You made me promise to diet with you.” He signed.
“I suppose you left your keys in there because you were distracted by the frosty green beans?”
“At least I didn’t lose them again!” He smiled.
“Yes, we should give you a gold star for that.”
Then she cocked her head and asked, “Are you going to pick up breakfast?”
“No. Work. Want some toast?” he signed back to her.
“Not hungry,” she signed half-heartedly.
“Maybe just not hungry for toast?” Alex knew Emily wanted eggs and that she thought they tasted better when he cooked them.
“Why do you have to go in today?” She asked.
“Do you remember that homicide detective I told you about? Kimberly Hall?”
“I think so. Was she the one that sent that nice letter to your boss?”
“Yes. She sent formal accolades to my supervisor. She asked me to be her partner on a case.”
“Partner? Babe, that’s fantastic news!”
“Yeah, it will be great for me to get this kind of hands-on experience.”
“Wait, is this another homicide case?” He nodded. “The last one was so demanding. You were barely home. Will this one be as bad?”
He smirked. “Are you the only one who’s allowed to work all hours of the night?” On top of Emily’s unconventional working hours, she was also a board member for Deaf Techies, a local nonprofit. She had no room to talk about him working too much.
She exhaled, unamused, “You booked four wedding venue tours for us today. Four. You are the one who wants the big wedding. Remember?”
He winced coyly, “Dang. I completely forgot about that. Should we reschedule?” She shrugged and, with an exaggerated smile, signed, “I guess I get to go all by myself. You better not keep Detective Hall waiting.”
“Love you,” he signed as he walked back to the kitchen to grab his breakfast.
“I won’t wait up,” she teased Alex as he walked out the door, peanut butter toast held in his mouth.
◆ ◆ ◆
The kayak shop’s parking lot was swarming with news vans and reporters when Detective Diaz arrived. He wasn’t used to this kind of media attention, but he managed to get through the crowd and make his way to the crime scene’s perimeter. He had to flash his badge to the officer guarding the entry to be waved in. He saw Hall down the hill near the river. She was standing next to a bright pink suitcase with a team of Crime Scene Investigators who were processing the scene. He walked down toward her, and she broke from the group to greet him.
“Good morning, Diaz. You ready?”
Hall didn’t pause for a response; they both knew his preparedness wasn’t optional. “If you feel like you might get sick, don’t try and hide it. Get as far away from the body as possible, quickly. We can’t risk contamination. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about—happens all the time.”
She nodded her head and pointed to the suitcase. “Over there.”
Diaz proceeded with caution. Three Crime Scene Investigators were still hunched around the suitcase, blocking his view. First, he could only see two bare feet pressed against the bag’s edge. He expected the toes would look cold and blue, but they were still blushed.
As he moved closer, the small slivers of space between the investigators grew larger, and more of the victim’s body was exposed. There were gently arched calves running the length of the case, that lead to bent knees. Pale thighs were twisted and pressed back to fit against the inside lining. It was a woman. Her hips and belly button were resting unclaimed from the torso they belonged to, below a bloody edge.
He took a moment to validate what his eyes were reporting back to him—he was looking at the lower half of a woman’s naked body, dissected across the waist, and arranged to fit precisely in the suitcase. Diaz stepped closer and crouched to better examine the body. There were no apparent wounds, aside from the obvious dismemberment. Her legs looked like they could have been posed, but the positioning was likely done to accommodate the space in the bag. Suddenly, a dizzying panic hit him. The loud buzzing of the reporters became muffled as if his ears were underwater. He struggled to focus his eyes.
“This is all we’ve found so far,” Hall said, but it didn’t quite register with Diaz yet. “You still with me, Diaz?”
He cleared his throat and tried to swallow the lump in it. He asked, sounding a little hoarse, “Have you spotted any CCTV cameras?”
“Unfortunately, the tour shop doesn’t have any. I sent one of the other Detectives to see if any of the stores along the main road have external cameras.” She pointed to the bridge on North Ave. “If the killer dropped her from that there, we could get lucky.”
Two motorboats slowly buzzed down the patch of river near the detectives. “Are those CPD Marine units?” Diaz asked.
“Yep. They’re headed downriver to look for other body parts, but I won’t get my hopes up.”
“Finding something in this river? They’ll spend the day poking through garbage. They sent divers in around the bridge, too, but I don’t expect much to come from that, either. The water is so murky. There is zero visibility.
“They have to search by touch. Can you imagine? Diving into the river blindfolded and just reaching out trying to feel for body parts?”
“Don’t worry—that’s not part of your job description.”
“I am genuinely grateful for that. So, what do we do then?” He asked.
“We need to get her to the medical examiner. Her transport should be here by now.” Though she had continued answering his question, she was no longer talking to him.
She held her phone above her head. “Fuck, how do I not have service down here?” She trucked up the hill with her view fixed on her phone. Hall made it past the crime scene border before Diaz realized he probably should follow her.
As he hurried up the hill to catch up, a man jogged toward him. “Hey, are you Detective Diaz?” The man asked. The stubble on his face was gray and patchy, as was the bit of hair on his head.
Diaz recognized him, “Yeah, I think I’ve seen you around the precinct. Detective Morton?”
“Yeah, I’m on Hall’s team. You’re gonna want to stay behind the scene tape.”
“I am?” Diaz asked.
“Yeah, Hall was so fixated on her phone, she didn’t notice that she walked right into Jessica Steven’s setup,” Morton said.
“The reporter?” Diaz asked, “She’s not so bad.” Morton furrowed his brow.
“I mean, for a reporter,” Diaz said tentatively.
“Yeah, I have a thing for redheads, too, kid. But she called the Chicago Police Department incompetent on live television.”
“Yeah, I guess that was pretty bad.”
“Yep, but it’s not just about that for Hall. I heard they had an altercation at a bar. Hall tossed her beer in Jessica’s face.”
“Come on. You can’t believe rumors like that.”
“A few fellow officers were there; one told me it was a bottle she whipped. Hence, you should probably stay back a stone’s throw. Unless you think you know Hall better than I do? Go on ahead, kid.” Morton lifted the crime scene tape for Diaz to duck under.
“Maybe I’ll just give her a little space. Don’t want to follow too closely, this being my first day and all.”
“Yeah, and we’re close enough to hear,” Morton smirked.
◆ ◆ ◆
“Goddamnit!” Detective Hall said to her phone. It had a signal, but all of the reporters and their broadcasting equipment were probably interfering with it. “Detective Hall!” Reporter Jessica Stevens poked her microphone in Hall’s face.
“Hey there, Jessica, you staying dry these days?” Hall asked.
“I don’t see a drink in your hand, so I should be fine.” Jessica said.
“Don’t get too comfortable.” Hall said, “That is a river down there.”
Jessica barely flinched, “What’s down there is a dismembered body. Sounds like something a serial killer would do.”
“There is absolutely no evidence of that at this time.” Hall snapped.
“Come on, Detective Hall. You know as well I as I do, when someone dismembers a body, it’s usually not their first crime.”
“Sure, and what’s a little unfounded panic if it boosts your ratings, right?” Hall asked.
Jessica winced, “Almost,” she said. “Sometimes, the way you speak to me almost hurts my feelings, but then I just feel sad for you. Because I know how people like you are.”
“People like me?” Hall asked.
“Yes, Detective. Hurt people, hurt people.”
“Is that so?” Hall asked, “And what kind of people spread rumors to collect a paycheck?”
“I wouldn’t have to work with rumors if you would just give me a quote, for once,” Jessica said.
“Fine, here’s your quote.” Hall leaned into the mic. “We can’t comment on an open investigation.”
“You’re never any fun,” Jessica said. Then she looked past Hall toward the river. “I bet I could get that new detective of yours to give me a good sound bite. I never mind working overtime on a nice-looking man.” She chewed on her lip.
Hall saw Diaz standing behind the perimeter tape. He must have heard Jessica, because it looked like he was blushing.
She slowly mouthed the word, “No,” and knew he would listen. Anyone who saw her do that —even Jessica Stevens —knew he would listen.
“Very well, Detective. I guess I’ll have to come up with something on my own. I’m thinking ‘The people of Lincoln Park are struggling to come to terms with this gruesome act of violence, despite being left in the dark by local law enforcement’,” Jessica said. “Yes, that has a nice ring to it.”