Custard Creamed

 

custard

The crime scene is never pleasant – that’s the one thing they all have in common – that aside, you never quite know what you’re going to be faced with. Sometimes the juxtaposition of death against the extraordinarily mundane and commonplace trappings of everyday life can be more disturbing than the act itself; there’s something deeply disturbing about a body lying in a shopping mall surrounded by onlookers, a bloodstained kitchen with the remnants of the evening meal still on the hob, or a kiddie’s park boasting a half-naked dead prostitute entangled in the chains of the swings. It just doesn’t fit with your picture of how the world should be – it’s disturbing, very wrong, and it’s something you never really come to terms with.

This one was one of the more offputting.

Downtown bakery, early afternoon, the smell of freshly-baked bread mingling with the sickly-sweet ferrous tang of freshly-spilled blood. It was messy: Not in the way you’re thinking – yes, there was blood, but what you really noticed was the disarray. Cakes scattered over the floor, a film of cream and the crunch of sugar underfoot, panini and French sticks flung around like so much garbage. And there, lying awkwardly, slumped backwards over the counter, the victim – early forties. I guess he liked his pastries, judging by the folds of fat beneath a somewhat grubby baker’s apron, a couple of nondescript tattoos, nothing remarkable. Nothing, that is, save for the ugly, messy bullet hole in his temple, and the larger, messier exit wound at the back of his skull.

The forensics boys were busy with the tools of their trade, camera flashes bouncing off the shop windows – left them to it; it never paid to get in their way, they just got pissy about it. I’d find out soon enough what they’d come up with, anyway. Times like this, you feel a bit of a spare part, so I was glad when Jimmy from ballistics beckoned to me. He was looking concerned, which was never a good thing, it either meant he had nothing to go on, or something bad was going down – bad like a cop’s piece found at the scene – I hoped to hell it was the first option, I really didn’t want to have to deal with the second.

I needn’t have worried – there were complications, but not in the way that would cause me sleepless nights. Clearly the vic had been shot, but with what was a mystery – no powder burn, no casing, no identifiable slug fragments – obviously the bullet wasn’t in the body, the gaping hole in in the back of his head, along with the liberal pasting of brains over the teacakes behind the counter were testimony to that, but it was nowhere else either. Irritating, but not particularly unusual, if this was a professional hit – and it had some, although not all, of the hallmarks – then there was a good chance the killer would have taken pains to clear up afterwards. Even so, nothing at all wasn’t a whole lot of evidence to be going on.

ooOOOoo

If there’s thing I hate, it’s having my lunch disturbed, more so when when it’s a call to haul ass down to the morgue. It’s not as if I get much chance to chow down as it is, so when I do, I resent any interruption – this had better be good!

‘Good’ is a relative term, it’s not like the pathology lab is my preferred alternative to lunch at the local diner, and it always gave me the creeps when I was called down there, but I guess it’s all part of the job and it’s one of those things you have to do when you’re in the business of dead bodies and how they end up that way. I don’t know what’s worse – the smell of the place, or the smell of the menthol vaseline up your nose that sticks with you for the rest of the day – given the choice, I’d rather do without either, but I wasn’t going to forego the menthol, that’s something I learned a long while back.

Jock Matheson, unsmiling, clinical and damn good at his job, was the pathologist. He glanced at me over his glasses as I pushed through the swing doors, then carried on talking into his recorder. When he was done, he pointed to the hole in the vic’s head – “any idea what did this?”

I should my head in the negative.

“Thought not. Well, the body’s not telling us a great deal either. Whatever it was, it’s nothing standard, and it made a helluva mess.”

He paused.

“I did find something odd, when I explored the wound though…”

People always think that these moments are like in the movies: They expect the doc to pick something odd out of a kidney tray with a pair of tweezers – something that’s unique to the killer, or something weird, that by rights should never be found inside a body cavity, dead or alive. The truth is, it’s never like that – it’s usually just a piece of gravel, or some fibres; maybe some foreign organic matter – but it’s never anything I’d call particularly odd, or interesting. Until today.

Jock explained what he’d found liberally smearing the path of the projectile that had sent the baker to that great pastry shop in the sky – a compound of cream, eggs and sugar – custard, to you and me. OK, let’s face it, the guy was shot in a cake shop, hell – I’d had to practically wade through custard to get to the counter, it was no wonder he’d got a liberal helping of it himself in whatever struggle had led to his unfortunate end. Jock waved a cautionary finger at me – this wasn’t splashback – I spent a nauseating five minutes while he probed the wound with his endoscope, as I watched the gory spectacle on the screen. The custard was present throughout the length of the wound – yep, custard right inside the guy’s brain, and right out the other side of his head.

Still, I wasn’t buying that this was significant, despite Jock’s meaningful stare: Maybe the bullet had sliced through a custard tart or something before taking the baker out? It just didn’t feel sinister to me. But what did that leave me with? Not much – just a stiff and a wrecked cake shop – hardly my easiest case yet.

ooOOOoo

Gino Fratelli. That was his name.

Aged 45, divorced, no kids, lived downtown in small apartment. Fourteen hundred bucks in the bank, and a couple of spent convictions for petty crime in his twenties. Since then, it seemed he’d kept himself a clean slate, although you never knew with these Italians – I always felt twitchy with an unexplained murder from that neck of the woods, you just never knew what sort of racket they may have been involved in on the side.

Our boy Gino didn’t seem the sort though; and there was nothing to suggest any motive anyone might have for topping him. It was looking more like a random shooting than any sort of premeditated crime, but I’d learned over the years than nothing is ever that simple, and I wasn’t taking any chances.

Around midday the forensic report landed on my desk – I grabbed a coffee from the machine and settled down to read it.

As forensic reports go, I’ve seen better – if you were looking for a reliable picture of an catastrophe in a cake shop, it was ideal; as a tool for understanding the mechanism of a murder, it was pretty useless.

We had liberal quantities of whipped cream, custard, pastry and royal icing, but little in the way of fingerprints, trace samples or any sort of evidence I could use. Based on that report, if you hadn’t seen the crime scene you’d be forgiven for thinking the vic had succumbed to cholesterol, rather than to a high velocity projectile. I re-read the finer points again – nothing. The only remotely interesting find was a small fragment of plastic wrap – the kind you’d wrap your sandwiches in, clings to anything but the intended object – hardly out of place in a bakery, but the report mentioned it was covered in blood – again, hardly surprising – even so, it was the only thing with any potential at all, so I flagged it for the lab to check out.

I closed the report wearily. Why did I get the feeling this investigation was going nowhere?

ooOOOoo

I’d pretty much resigned myself to a long, slow and mostly unproductive investigation. I wasn’t convinced that this case wouldn’t end up in the box marked ‘unsolved’ – it certainly wasn’t looking hopeful right now.

So the last thing I was expecting when I saw the scribbled note on my desk ‘Ring lab’ was a lead on this particular case, which just goes to show that you never quite know what’s going to turn up in this line of work.

Turns out that the piece of plastic wrap I’d flagged was more significant than expected. Typically, the lab techs had taken their time getting round to even looking at it – guess they didn’t expect anything either – but when they did, it gave us our first real break, along with a helluva lot to think about, and nothing much in the way of answers.

It was an odd one: The boys had found powder trace on the polythene, along with evidence of melting, but then it got weirder, it wasn’t just blood smearing the plastic, it was mixed – well, the lab were saying ‘heat fused’ – with a decent amount of confectioner’s custard. Their tentative suggestion was a weapon, wrapped in polythene for protection, hidden inside some sort of cake – when it was fired, it took the wrap and half the cake with it, hence the sticky mess left inside Fratelli’s cranium. Well, it sounded plausible, but that sixth sense you develop after years on the job was telling me something just didn’t ring true. I wasn’t until later that afternoon that it came to me – you can’t just secrete a weapon inside a cake; it takes time and preparation, and that means getting things ready up front. That piece had to be put inside its cake disguise well before it arrived at the bakery… And who the hell takes a cake into a bakers – you take cakes out, you don’t take them in! Plus there was the matter of the missing bullet – the clean-up guys were adamant there was nothing, which meant the killer was either very, very good at their job, or we were missing something big.

OK, so you’re way ahead of me – it wasn’t until the end of the shift, driving back home that I realised how stupid I’d been. Who takes cakes into a bakery? Delivery guys, that’s who! I turned the car around and headed right back to the precinct and by the next morning we had a full list of suppliers, inventories, their vehicles, drivers, mates and packers – all hauled in for questioning, and every damn one of them checking out as legit. We were getting nowhere and I didn’t like it.

The cake thing didn’t feel right anyway. Our man Fratelli was despatched with a single, clean (albeit messy) shot. You don’t get lucky with shots like that, you need to aim, take your time and do it right… You can’t aim a cake! I wasn’t buying it, but I needed ballistics to back me up.

ooOOOoo

Yeah, in a way it was kinda funny, first of all baking guns into cakes, then watching the ballistics boys doing their thing. It proved my point pretty rapidly – the only way you could even fire the piece was to rip it out of the cake first, which made the whole exercise a bit pointless anyway: If you’re going to shoot someone, you may as well just slip your weapon in a pocket, it’s easier, cleaner and a damn sight more likely to achieve the desired result. I could think of a hundred different ways to get a weapon into that store without it being seen, and not one of them involved embedding it in a cake.

The other thing we learned was that, no matter how we set things up, we couldn’t replicate what we’d found at the scene. Firing from inside a cake, through a cake or any other set up you can think of, simply failed to produce that weird, fused-together custardy, bloody, plastic mixture, neither could we find a way to transfer cake ingredients to a wound by way of a bullet – it just didn’t happen. Frankly the whole scenario made no sense at all.

Then came the break I’d been hoping for – at least, it was a lead of sorts: CCTV had picked up a known suspect in the area at around the time of the killing. Danny Tobin had form – he’d just completed a 10-year stint for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon – the trouble was we couldn’t come up with anything to connect him to Fratelli. Even so, it was just too much of a coincidence that he should be hanging around that particular neighbourhood, on that particular day. We brought him in, persuaded Judge Naylor to give us a warrant, and searched his bunk house – well, the guy was going to be heading straight back to jail on account of the firearms we recovered, but I wanted to nail him for murder too – I knew he was the perp, I just didn’t have my proof yet.

Just when you think everything is sweet, it goes sour on you. I’d been convinced we’d find the murder weapon in his stash, but it wasn’t going to be quite that easy. With no ballistic evidence at the scene we couldn’t prove conclusively that any of his kit was what we were looking for; sure he had ammo, but without the fatal bullet the best we could do was comparison – I needed hard facts and concrete evidence to nail him, and right now I had squat.

We turned his place upside-down and went through it with the finest of fine-toothed combs, completely failing to turn up anything helpful. I was kinda hoping he’d recovered the bullet and kept it as a souvenir, but no such luck. Ballistics was having a hard time too – they’d tested everything he had, even firing through cakes to replicate the possibilities, all with no luck: The only conclusion they could come to was that none of the rounds or weapons in his possession could have caused the wound in Fratelli’s head. We threw the book at him anyway, but I couldn’t pin the baker’s murder on him.

ooOOOoo

It must have been a week later I picked up the file again and flicked through it. It was only as I was about to toss it back in the tray that I suddenly saw the light! I grabbed the ‘phone:

“Murphy, when you did the search at Danny Tobin’s place, didya check the whole house?”

“Yeah boss. You suggesting we missed something?”

“Don’t worry about that, Murph… Did you check the kitchen cupboards?”

“‘Course we did. No guns, no ammo, no nothing. Just the usual kitchen stuff.”

“Murphy – I want to know what was in those cupboards!”

Sure enough, we found custard powder and polythene wrap, just as I’d suspected – not unusual for a kitchen, but somehow Tobin struck me more as a pizza and takeout kinda guy. More to the point, once the lab boys had done their stuff, we had a conclusive match to the evidence we found at the scene; turns out that the kind of custard the bakery used was different to Tobin’s, and it was Tobin’s we found at the scene.

He, of course, was saying nothing, and we were still drawing a blank. Sure, we had conclusive proof that he – or someone with access to his kitchen cupboards – had been in the bakery that day, but that’s as far as it went. We could hardly book him for possession of confectionery! Once again, the case stalled – Tobin was banged up for illegal possession of weapons without a licence and, whilst he cooled his heels, the case itself grew colder and colder.

ooOOOoo

Time passed, we moved on and Fratelli ended up in my unsolved tray. Occasionally I’d take out the file, thumb through it and run through endless scenarios in my head; I’d even go take a look down the lab in the hope something we’s missed might hit me, like the custard in the kitchen cupboards.

“Funny thing, custard…”, observed one of the junior lab rats, during one of my infrequent visits, as I was poking through the bags of bullets covered in the stuff.

“Why’s that?”, I asked, more to pass the time than for any other reason.

“When it’s liquid, it’s a non-Newtonian fluid.”

“Say what?”, I replied, rapidly losing interest as soon as he started spouting geek speak.

“Non-Newtonian – push your finger into it and it’ll give way, but punch it as hard as you can and it’ll go rock hard… Break your fingers!”

I could have kissed the guy!

ooOOOoo

I think Tobin was enjoying his little day out from the pen, right up to the point I said:

“You made a bullet out of custard, didn’t you? Packed a slug of custard inside that cling wrap, and then shot Fratelli through the head! No bullet, no evidence, no comeback!”

We’d tested it, of course, time and time again – it was crazy, but brilliant. You form a ‘bullet’ out of custard, tightly packed in the plastic wrap and load it up in the gun chamber… At two thousand feet per second, the weird properties of the fluid meant that when it hit you it was harder than solid steel; and afterwards, it just turned back to regular custard. Genius! The ballistic gel tests we’d conducted resulted in wounds that matched Fratelli’s – we had our murder weapon and our method, now I wanted Tobin.

I saw the cockiness dissolve and the light went out in the guy’s eyes – he knew we had him, and he also knew he be facing the chair if he didn’t cooperate.

“Yeah, I did it, but the jerk had it coming.”

“Whaddya mean, Tobin, and why the whole custard thing?”

“Hey look, I was  banged up – and thanks to him, for way longer than I planned. I had all the time in the world to come up with something special. The custard? Call it poetic justice – you live by the sword, you die by the sword – the guy was a baker, I thought it was a fitting way to finish him.”

We went through the whole thing from the beginning. When Tobin was sent down, he had an ‘insurance policy’ in place, and that was Fratelli – not that the baker knew anything about it. Fratelli, like any number of the stores in the neighbourhood was being extorted Tobin’s brother, Gerry, was the main man – a guy who had no problem laying down the law – protection rackets had a habit of becoming nasty when you didn’t do as you were told, and that’s exactly what had happened to Fratelli.

Shortly after Tobin was sent to the pen, Gerry paid Fratelli a visit – he wanted a cake made, a special cake from Tobin’s mom, for his birthday. This was no ordinary cake though, Gerry wanted a package baked into the cake – he wouldn’t say what was in it – but the baker got scared and point blank refused to do it. When the message got back to Tobin, he was furious: That package was his ‘get out of jail’ card, and he’d pulled in a load of favours to get it together. Gerry was sent back to persuade the baker to cooperate – unfortunately, he never got there – the cops got him first, for a dodgy brake light, then threw the book at him for extortion, assault and whole host of other petty – and not so petty – crimes. As for Fratelli, when he heard the news he thought he was off the hook, went back to making pastries, and forgot all about it.

Tobin however, didn’t forget.

Somehow he got himself detailed to the prison kitchen, and it was there that he discovered the interesting properties of custard, coming up with his shocking plan against the guy he now blamed for making him complete his sentence.

Seven years later, free and vengeful he walked through the door of Fratelli’s bakery… And you know the rest.

As the officer took him away, I called over to him – unable to resist having the last word:

“Hey, Tobin! You learned an important lesson today – don’t ever trifle with me!”

 

 

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