by A.B. Richards
Houston Homicide Detective Quetzel Cazares squatted at the base of the shattered live oak tree. A yellowed, dirt-encrusted skull stared up at her. She noted the square chin and prominent brow ridges – probably male. She’d seen plenty of skeletal remains over her career, and she was right about gender more often than she wasn’t. The Harris County Medical Examiner’s office was busy setting up a grid for excavation of the bones.
“Wonder how old this tree was?” Cazares asked.
“No idea,” replied Cooper Morgenstern, an investigator from the ME’s office. “But it’s about the same size of the ones my grandparents planted when they moved out to their farm in the sixties.”
Cazares’ knees crackled as she stood up. Getting old is hell. She gave the dingy grey hulk of the Astrodome a long sideways look. Blue and red strobes from the police vehicles reflected crazily off the puddles in the parking lot, and a few of the NRG Stadium employees came out to see what the yellow crime scene tape was all about.
“Makes sense,” she said. “The Dome’s been around since the sixties. Maybe somebody planted our decedent here same time as the trees. They’re all the same size, so it doesn’t appear that a tree was dug up and replaced at a later time. That lightning strike was a one-in-a-million shot.”
Cooper nodded, then shifted his weight.
“You’ve never been to a crime scene this old, have you, Coop?” Cazares asked.
He shifted again, shaking his head. “I’m not sure my mother was even born when this site was fresh.”
Cazares chuckled. “I don’t imagine there’ll be much evidence to collect before the Skeletal Recovery Team gets the bones out of the ground and back to the lab. I’ve got some fresher corpses that need my attention, though.”
* * *
Cazares took a sip of her coffee and opened the case folder for the skeletal remains found at the Astrodome. A soon-to-be-eaten sandwich hid amongst the piles of folders stacked on her desk.
The forensic anthropologist estimated that bones belonged to an adult male, forty to fifty years old. His clothes had mostly rotted away and the decomposition process had ruined most of the items in his pockets. A handful of coins with dates from the 1950s and 60s, three bills too ruined to identify without serious technology, and a fragile, and folded piece of paper with some faded ink were the only contents, aside from his wallet. There was enough of a driver’s license left to determine that his last name was “__gers,” but the number, date and picture had been obliterated. The roots of the tree had grown through the decedent’s ribcage, so it was very likely that the body was buried around the same time as the tree was planted – the spring of 1965.
Cazares started by trying to match up the remains with any missing persons from 1965, but came up empty. Then she started going through open case files from 1960-65.
“Well, would you look at that?” she said out loud.
“What you got, Quetz?” Dmitri Ilyn, the detective from the next cube over, asked.
“Come see for yourself,” she replied.
He came around to her cluttered desk and looked over her shoulder at the forensics report, then to the cold case on her desk.
“No friggin’ way!”
“What’s that?” Tenner Morrison, her partner, asked. He had just come back from the break room and held a tepid cup of stale coffee.
“Quetzel may have just found the prime suspect in the Ice Box Murders.”
She had to read the murder book to refresh her memory – all local homicide detectives knew about the Ice Box Murders, but no one ever tried working the case because almost everyone involved was dead. DNA evidence wasn’t a thing in 1965, and even if the blood samples from the crime scene were not degraded and unusable, there were no known existing samples of the suspect’s DNA to compare them with. Unless there was a notarized confession in his pocket, there was virtually no chance of proving anything.
What was known, however, was that, on June 23, 1965, at the request of a nephew, two Houston Police officers performed a welfare check on an elderly couple, Fred and Edwina Rogers. At first, nothing seemed amiss. The house was very clean and tidy, but empty. Strangely, there was food sitting on the table as if a meal had been interrupted. When they checked the refrigerator, there was a large quantity of fresh, unwrapped meat stacked on the shelves. Neither officer thought much of it, until one noticed two human heads peering up at them from the vegetable crisper. Charles, the couple’s forty-three year-old son – and prime suspect – was missing. Drops of blood led to his attic bedroom, and a bloody keyhole saw was found inside. He was never located, and was declared dead in 1975. About ten years too late, apparently. Most neighbors did not even realize that Charles lived at the residence, as he was extremely reclusive. However, a witness said he picked up some dry cleaning on Saturday, June 19. Detectives concluded that the murders occurred on Sunday, June 20, because the victims were known to be alive on the 19th, and a Sunday newspaper was found inside the residence with blood spatter. Subsequent editions were left in the yard where the paperboy had thrown them. Charles had been a naval intelligence officer during World War II, and worked for Shell Oil as a seismologist, before suddenly quitting in 1957 for no apparent reason.
Still, finding these remains did nothing to clear up the mystery. It would be somewhere between difficult and impossible to confirm that the remains belonged to Charles. For all she knew, they belonged to a completely unrelated Rogers. Even if the bones were Charles’, it didn’t prove that he didn’t commit the murders. But he certainly didn’t plant himself under a tree on the grounds of the former Eighth Wonder of the World. As no one ever saw him coming or going from his house, it would have even feasible that Charles could have been dead for years before his parents were killed, were it not for the dry cleaning pick up the day before the murders. Unless it was only someone claiming to be Charles. Quetzel had never had a dry cleaner ask to see her ID when she’d picked up clothes.
One theory was that Fred and Edwina were abusive towards Charles, and he’d finally gotten fed up and killed them, then fled the country. But Charles was a grown, competent man. Why would he walk away from a stable, high-paying job to not only go live with his abusers, but be completely dependent on them? It didn’t add up.
She shook her head and got back to the report from the ME’s office. She almost choked on her next sip of coffee, then picked up the phone.
“Are you telling me,” she said when she finally got Miranda Taylor, the forensic anthropologist, on the phone, “that the DB had cancer?”
“Looks like it. Lesions on the bones are consistent with a metastatic carcinoma. I can’t say whether it killed him, but he did have it. Some of the lesions are quite large, deforming the bone, which suggests to me that it was in an advanced stage. Did you also notice in the report that there was no evidence of decomp in the soil samples we took?”
“You think the body had decomposed before it was brought to the site?”
“I’m saying that’s possible. Of course, the body has been there a long time, so perhaps the soil markers have dissipated. Sterols don’t persist forever. The tree would have taken up those nutrients over the years, too. Oh, and there’s one other thing. The decedent had once broken his left arm – the ulna, just past the wrist. It was well healed, so it probably happened when he was a child.”
When Cazares hung up the phone, she closed her laptop. It had already been a long day, and this case was making less sense with every new scrap of information she got. Besides, she had to go home and feed her kitten, Gato.
She hadn’t really ever considered herself a cat person, but she found a kitten – tiny, black, and starving – at a crime scene, and she couldn’t just leave him there. He’d turned out to be a good pet. He kept her company by sitting in her lap and purring, or supervising the work that she invariably brought home with her. Once, he’d even given her the inspiration to solve a case. Besides, having him forced her to go home from the office at night.
The drive from downtown Houston to Cazares house wasn’t too bad, usually less than half an hour, if traffic wasn’t heavy. She tried to think of what she needed to do on her day off, but the Rogers case kept popping up instead. Finally, she gave up, and started turning it over in her head, trying to see if there’s an angle that no one else has seen before. If the pile of bones in the ME’s office was Charles Rogers, the Ice Box Murders suspect, who killed him, and why? Was he mentally ill, hiding in his room and slipping notes under the door for his parents? Or was he incapacitated by cancer? Was it even Charles in Charles’ room? If he didn’t butcher his parents, who did? If this was a completely unrelated case, she had even less information to go on, because nobody’d gotten around to reporting him missing. Unfortunately, the only people who could answer those questions had been dead for half a century.
Gato met her at the door, meowing, when she came in. She scooped him up and he purred loudly as she carried him into the kitchen. He rubbed his cheeks against her chin and kneaded her arm with his claws. She gave his chin a little scratch before she set him down so she could open a can of food. She always left dry food out for him, given that her schedule could get weird at a moment’s notice. It was always gone when she got home. She just assumed he was making up for lost groceries, given how skinny he was when she’d rescued him.
“Keep your fur on. I’m opening the can as fast as I can,” she told him as he rubbed against her ankles. She poured the contents into a bowl, and Gato made his usual strange growly nom noms as he gulped down the food.
A thud came from the living room. Gato paused looked toward the door for a moment before resuming his meal. Quetzel went to investigate. The Fred and Edwina Rogers murder book lay on the floor. A picture of a young man in a US Navy uniform had separated itself from the rest of the papers and gazed cheerfully up at her. I was sure it was in the middle of the coffee table. How did it get on the floor?
She took her Glock out of the drawer she kept it in when she was off duty. The front door was locked. Quetzel searched room to room, but she was the only person in the house. She returned to the living room, replaced the gun in its drawer, and picked up the file and the snapshot.
Charles Frederick Rogers. The missing son. Maybe not missing any more. She studied the photo. He was pleasant enough looking, not quite handsome, but not unattractive, either. He did have a very square jaw, just like the skull she’d held in her hands earlier. Quetzel checked the file for his medical records. Nothing. This work up was made long before the digital age.
There was one thing though. The Rogers family was involved in a single car accident in Gonzales, Texas, in August of 1929. His older sister, Bettie had been thrown from the vehicle. She was transported to the local hospital, but was pronounced dead. Could Charles have broken his arm then? Maybe. But to find out, Quetzel would have to answer two questions: 1) was the hospital in Gonzales where Bettie died still around, and 2) did they keep records from 1929?