Chapter One: Squashed
The Honorable Judge, Robert Knoche, retired, turned left off of 48th Avenue onto Lincoln Way, South of Golden Gate Park. The head lights of his 1947 Chevy Impala sucked from the darkness a gruesome scene on the North wall of Comte's French Restaurant. Knoche's stomach cramped. Bile surged up his esophagus, gushed from his mouth and nose, and splattered off of the steering wheel. It burned, ran, trickled into his lap, and made a river down his pant leg.
Knoche's peripheral vision spied a XJ6 Jaguar and a Lincoln parked at the curb. He heard, rather than knew, that an involuntary knee jerk locked the brakes in ABS mode. The chattering screech and burning of rubber etched a groove across his brain as he twisted the wheel, squeaked between the parked cars, pounded over the curb, demolished a public works trash receptacle, and tore off his passenger side mirror while careening off the restaurant's brick wall. For a split second, his psyche reeled, registering as thunder at Mount Sinai, an earthquake, a supernatural trumpet blast, haze, smoke, and flame. It smelled like hell.
"God," Knoche thought, "Everything's slippery. When I was seven I ate a warm butter scotch pie behind the barn, the whole damn pie. I'd never been so ill so quickly, until now."
Suddenly it was dead quiet. A gentle rain bathed the windshield and the slow swish of the wipers calmed the tempest of Knoche's vision. Swish--swish--swish.
A rapping on the driver's side window brought Knoche back into the world of reality.
"Are you all right, Judge?" It was one of San Francisco's finest, Sergeant Frances Norma Steinmann, known as Frankie by her fellow police officers. Judge Knoche remembered her from his recent visit to Precinct 6, after becoming a certified Private Investigator. Frankie had logged his name into the roster of PI's residing in the bay area.
Knoche rolled his window down an inch before it jammed. "Sure Frankie, I'm great. I just bathed and sprinkled myself with La-Smell number nine. Got a towel in your back pocket?"
Knoche leaned against the door and pushed. The car door faltered a moment, and then popped open with ease. As his hand slipped off of the arm rest, Knoche fell sideways with his right foot twisted under the brake pedal, preventing a graceful tumble to the pavement. He dangled there -- half in, half out -- like a flounder on a line grasping for a way to escape. The flood lights of WHIT, Channel 5 provided a stimulus for speedy action. Knoche felt a red heat seeping into his face. His right shoe came off and he crashed down onto his left shoulder.
"That was one hell of a grand entrance," remarked former Prosecuting Attorney Tabbelle as he approached. "Would you care for a greasy chicken leg, Judge?"
"Strap your trap or you won't have a greasy chicken leg to stand on." Knoche staggered to his feet, flexed his shoulder, retrieved his shoe, and stared into the lights of the Channel 5 camera.
"I think you've just made your début as a movie star, Judge."
"Tabbelle, stop it! This is no time for nonsense. Let's take a look at the vic."
"Sure, Judge, but don't you think you should clean up a bit? You sort of smell you know. You don't look too appetizing either."
Judge Knoche glared at Tabbelle, then stomped off toward the yellow ribbon sectioning off the crime scene and pushed his way through a group of gawking spectators.
The concrete was a time worn dirty gray with random black specks and a few dots of various colors, cracked and crumbling in spots, not a bit unusual. The trickle of red running from the seam between squares, through the crack, and oozing downward to the litter strewn gutter was a new addition, added less than twenty minutes ago.
Robert Knoche, former Judge from Clarkstone, Ohio rhetorically turned to Tabbelle and asked, "Why did I ever move to the city and become a Private Investigator? I should have stayed retired and enjoyed a peaceful life in the country."
"That goes double for me," responded Tabbelle who had encouraged the move. They had been best of friends through high school, and after college served for more than thirty years in partnership as judge and prosecuting attorney. It seemed like a good idea to end their careers by becoming co-partners in their own Private Investigation firm.
"Frankie," asked Knoche, "What happened?"
"Judge, all I can tell you is that the vic was sitting on a bench outside Comte's restaurant when she was run over by her own car and crushed against the restaurant wall. It's a real mess."
"By her own car?"
"Yeah, I don't know how, but she accomplished it."
The platinum blonde's body and splintered pieces of wood of the twisted steel frame of the bench were plastered to the wall, wedged in place by the crumbled hood of a new 300E Mercedes. It was difficult to identify the various body parts splattered on the hood and windshield. The blonde's crushed skull was twisted so far around that her face appeared to be on the wrong side of what was left of her head.
Lightning flashed and thunder rumbled in the distance, threatening to make life more miserable than it already was. The air smelled of dampness and screamed of murder.
"Frankie," asked Tabbelle, "Who's the vic?"
"I'm told that it's a Mrs. Sharon Stensen," she responded.
"Oh, shit. Tabbelle, this is not a good way to start a new career," said Knoche. "Mike Stensen is not going to be a happy client. He took a chance by hiring two old codgers. 'Find out if she's cheating on me', he says. Hell, the first time we see her in real life, she has no life; she's just smashed up pulp waiting for a body bag. Damn, I hate this job already."
Homicide detective, Lieutenant Ronald Grouter, and Chief of Police, Merle Mahan, stood by their squad car. Grouter shouted into his radio mike, "I don't give a damn what he's doing. I want him here, and I want him here, now! You hear me?" He slammed the mike into its cradle on the patrol cars dashboard.
Turning to Chief Mahan, Grouter growled, "Joanie said the coroner's on his way, which probably means she doesn't know where he is. They should fire her fat ass. She never gets anything straight."
Rookie police officer, Ted Fortney, who was searching along the restrauant wall and the dumpster, shouted "Lieutenant, I've found something. It looks like the murder weapon. There's blood all over it."
"What da ya mean, the murder weapon? The Mercedes is the damn murder weapon."
"Hell, I don't know. It's got blood on it. That's all I can say."
"Don't touch it. Just leave it there. We're coming." Lieutenant Grouter and Chief Mahan talked quietly as they walked toward the officer who was holding his flashlight on something lying in plain sight on the only patch of ground not covered with trash or overgrown weeds.
"Didn't even try to hide it," commented Grouter.
Mahan kicked aside a black plastic bag of trash, and a rat scurried away from its dinner feast. "You'd think a fancy expensive restaurant would be more particular with their garbage. This is worse than a pigpen."
Knoche grabbed Tabbelle by the arm. "Let's go see what they have. We need every clue we can get if we're going to solve this murder."
"What do you mean, solve this murder?" asked Tabbelle. "We're private investigators' not detectives. We were hired to see who she's sleeping with, not who killed her."
"I'd say that our job just got bigger. Our client wanted to know who she was sleeping with; but now, whomever she was sleeping with might also have killed her. Let's see what they've found." Knoche had no intention of having his first client disappointed just because someone killed his wife.
Looking over at Knoche and Tabelle, Grouter yelled out, "What do you boys want? This is police business. Get the hell out of here. Stay behind the yellow tape. This is part of a murder scene."
"I'm Judge Robert Knoche, private investigator, hired by the lady's husband to check on her. So this IS my business."
"Oh, you think so, huh? Let's see your PI ID," demanded Grouter.
Frowning, Knoche dug his wallet out of his back pocket, removed his ID, and handed it to Lieutenant Grouter.
"What the hell, it's all sticky and smells like … Jeeze, I don't know who you are, and right now, I don't care. Just get your sorry ass behind that yellow ribbon."
Grouter tossed Knoche's ID into the street, and turned his back on Knoche. "I've been working fourteen hours non-stop," he complained to Chief Mahan. "I'm tired and irritable, and I'm not going to waste my time with a slimy PI snoop. Frankie, bring me an evidence bag, medium size."
Tabbelle snickered, "Well, so much for first impressions and our PI prestige."
Knoche ignored Tabbelle's sarcastic remark and barked out instructions as if he were still a judge on the bench. "Tabbelle, grab your camera and get a picture of what they've found. It might be an important clue. Stand out of sight, use the telephoto lens. We don't want that prick head confiscating our picture."
Knoche picked up his ID and wiped some of the vomit off on his coat sleeve.
"CSI, CIA, FBI stuff…Impressive, this is so exciting, boss! I'll hide behind the parking meter. They'll never know." Tabbelle scurried toward his car to get the camera. He was out of hearing range before his melodramatic sarcasm registered on Knoche's brain.
Need a diversion, thought Knoche, Tabbelle's a smart ass, but dependable. He'll get a good picture, if it's possible.
Knoche walked the opposite direction from Tabbelle. Leaning against the corner of an adjoining building, he withdrew the stub of a soggy cigar from his coat pocket and stuffed it in his mouth. As Grouter and Mahan passed by, Knoche asked, "Do you have a light, Lieutenant?"
All he received was an angry stare.
Knoche smiled and sucked on his unlighted cigar. The evidence found was bagged and deposited by Lieutenant Grouter in his patrol car. The coroner arrived and did a cursory look at Mrs. Sharon Stensen's mangled body. He took several pictures from various angles and then asked for the car to be backed away from the wall.
"Frankie, back the car up," ordered Lieutenant Grouter.
Judge Knoche estimated that Sergeant Frances Steinmann was about five foot ten and weighed about 175 lbs. She had buxom breasts. So it would be necessary to tilt up the steering wheel and slide the seat back for her to get into the driver's seat.
"Interesting, thought Knoche. Frankie seems to be about the same build as Sharon Stensen. I wonder why the steering wheel was so far forward when we first saw the car. The driver was thinner than Sharon, or the killer wants investigators to believe the driver was thinner."
Frankie backed up the Mercedes, climbed out, and returned the steering wheel to its original location by moving the seat forward. Mrs. Stensen's body, along with the crushed bench, peeled off the wall, fell onto the hood, then slid off, and fell into a grotesque pile in front of the car.
The coroner began examining the body. Tabbelle, with a swaggering movie style walk, sashayed to the judge's side. "Sorry Judge. I couldn't get a good picture of their treasure. They bagged it too fast, and the burned out street light made it difficult to see. It looked like a tire iron to me."
"It's all right, Tabbelle," Knoche answered. "Why don't you go into the restaurant and find out who knows what?"
"Damn it Tabbelle, we need fresh information on the killer as we can get before the witnesses distort or forget what they heard and saw."
"Yeah, sure," Tabbelle said with a shit eating grin. "I forgot we need to catch the killer. Maybe I'll have a juicy steak or a greasy chicken leg while I snoop around for clues."
'Tabbelle…" Knoche tightened his lips, shook his head as if disgusted, but couldn't control the chuckle rumbling up in his throat. "Today's your turn, but beware, mine's coming."