By Russell Guenther
In a suburb east of San Diego stands one of the busiest Department of Motor Vehicles offices in the county. The flag of the California Republic’s brown bear watches over the building, tucked away in a corner right beside State Route 67, as the surface road curves sharply from the city-to-county line, a point of contention between the county sheriffs and the city police. This contention is not due to either department being territorial; quite the contrary. The sheriffs regularly oust the abundant vagrants across the lines for the city police to deal with, who in turn boot them right up the road again. Few arrests are ever made. When one is found sleeping in the shelter of the strip mall adjacent to the DMV, they are read the rights of the homeless: “Go to Target.” The large department store serves its function as the nearest catch-all for the village flatfoots to inherit custody.
Aquanetta Anderson served, somewhat briefly, as regional manager of the DMV. She often had to call the sheriffs to deal with such problems, as well as unruly customers…there were seldom any other kind. She didn’t call the Department personally; she delegated this task to her underlings. She never seemed to remember the number, though it was conveniently programmed into the office phone’s speed-dial. Some said Anderson didn’t want to risk ruining her nails; she had them done in a new design weekly. They were her point of pride; dollar-signs one week,perhaps bejeweled lips the next. One particularly impressive set featured a custom portrait of her3-pound lapdog.
However Aquanetta Anderson obtained her position at the helm, it wasn’t due to competence, ambition, or personality. She was roundly resented, by staff and customers alike. Of this, she also seemed proud. She took great joy in dressing down an employee in front of the patrons, and denying service to people who had already been waiting hours, for reasons arbitrary at best.
The 8:45 call to the sheriff’s office on this particular Monday wasn’t the bread and butter trespassing or vagrancy complaint; this was a report of a homicide. Sheriff’s deputies arrived to disperse the crowd, and the doors to the DMV were closed for business, much to the chagrin of the clientele lined around the block in order to accomplish the impossible feat of beating the rush.
When County of San Diego Sheriff Detective Rogelio Santana arrived at the scene, he took the statement of the shaken employee who had been first to discover the body. Margaret Whipple, a 61-year-old divorcee and 25-year veteran of the Department of Motor Vehicles,stated that she had arrived as usual at 8:40AM to prepare for the opening of the office at 9o’clock. She’d gone to the lounge to procure coffee and prepare for the Monday morning rush.
After starting the coffeemaker, she went to the adjacent locker room, and discovered Anderson hanging by the neck from a coat-hook. The ligature had been a wide imitation designer pleather belt of pink leopard print. She’d also apparently been bludgeoned by an unknown object and stabbed through the chest with a letter opener.
Santana examined the body. Her eyes still bulging, her tongue lay obscenely bulbous down to the extreme bottom of her chin. The pink leopard print belt had indeed been a potentially legitimate cause of death, a post-production hole being borne into the fake leather to accommodate the necessary strangulation. A silver-dollar sized swollen welt adorned the right upper quadrant of her forehead, a large, presumable ante-mortem gash had soaked her purple lace top, doing little to alter the color. The letter opener would have been an unremarkable office variety item, had it not been plunged into the woman’s sternum down to the hilt. Last but not least, her wrists were bound behind her back with a pair of fuzzy handcuffs, likely purchased from the Deja Vu Love Boutique, less than a mile north from the scene of the crime.
Technically, the building stood on city property. However, the office itself was officially considered part of the county, according to the State Board of Equalization’s sales tax table. In this case, the county medical examiner took the case rather than the city coroner.
After making the rounds, Detective Santana was made privy to the fact that nobody stood much to grieve the loss of the deceased.
“Man, everyone hated that bitch,” Donald Dreir, 33-year-old employee of six months said.Big D, as he was known, indicated that he was neither surprised nor perturbed by Anderson’s murder. His succinct statement was recorded, and Santana moved on.
“It wasn’t me, if that’s what’s on your mind.” A 67-year-old retiree, Sam “Sammy” Haggar had come to work for the DMV two years prior after leaving his office post with Waste Management. His input was received as such to be of little value. Haggar became nervous and agitated when asked whether the department conducted regular drug-testing.
“So what do you think, Roger?” Deputy Hayes, who Santana had served with as a deputy before moving to detective, asked.
“They’re all guilty,” Santana said. “Temporary insanity, for wanting to work here.” Santana himself thought he might go insane when he and Hayes did the mundane patrols together; mostly domestic entanglements, noise complaints and court-ordered evictions. He didn’t know how his former partner could still stomach it.
While Santana awaited the results from the medical examiner’s office, he followed what little he’d had. The obvious first step was to check the surveillance cameras. Come to find out,they had been out of order for weeks. One of the deceased’s duties had been to regularly check them, and put in work orders for maintenance. No record of any attention to this had been logged. Security cameras located at the adjacent liquor store proved no help; they only monitored the property of the market itself, and the north-facing side of the parking lot. The Motor Vehicles building was to the south, completely out of view.
Further investigation revealed an employee had been terminated ten days prior to the murder. The policy had been to have any facility in the DMV organization re-keyed in the event of an employee turnover. This had also been neglected, another of Anderson’s duties. If it hadn’t been for the head and chest wound of the victim, the strangulation death would most likely have been immediately logged as a suicide. The presence of the fuzzy cuffs notwithstanding; suicides often bound themselves to prevent any last minute second thoughts. Santana himself had witnessed failed attempts where the man or, in fewer cases, woman, would have the survival instinct to save their own lives in spite of themselves. In Aquanetta Anderson’s case, she may have been indirectly responsible for her own death in her failure to perform routine precautionary tasks.
With the facility shuttered indefinitely, crime scene investigators were unable to locate the object that would have caused the head injury Anderson sustained prior to her death. Not even a paperweight. A coffee mug had been ruled out as the instrument used, not possessing the heft required to inflict that type of damage. The letter opener in the victim’s chest had been confirmed as being one missing from a teller’s desk drawer. Fingerprints drawn from the weapon would likely be of no help unless the killer was an outsider, and incredibly careless. The victim’s belt was logically one that belonged to her, being identified by coworkers as an item she regularly wore, and no belt was present around Anderson’s waist. Pending post-mortem analysis,the handcuffs were the only thread to chase.
Santana drove the county car the three quarters of a mile to the Love Boutique. It took as much time as if he had walked. The bridge to the freeway on ramp had three traffic lights, and Santana drummed his fingers on the steering wheel through each consecutive fresh red light,waiting three cycles in the middle; the on ramp had no turn lane and all thru traffic had to wait until all cars had made the turn onto the highway before passing. Santana considered it the worst intersection in San Diego.
Unlike its forefathers F Street Book Store and Hollywood’s Hustler, Deja Vu Love Boutique was an unashamedly commonplace business, well-lit, front and center. Customers weren’t sneaking in and out adorned in trench coats any more than they would if they had been shopping at Sherwin Williams Paints a block away, or getting a corn dog at the Wienerschnitzel across the street. Santana himself had long since left behind any Catholic guilt he would have felt, marching nonchalantly into the kinky emporium, official business or not.
He walked past mannequins tarted up in teddies and pasties. Santana’s wife, at 5-foot-2, 200pounds and retaining her devout Catholicism, would have probably dropped dead of embarrassment at the thought of wearing such attire. He chuckled at the thought. His eyes caught the bindings he sought; furry pink saffron handcuffs: $34.99. Hardly police issue. Santana approached the checkout counter, attended by a man of about 25 with more piercings than the detective’s wife and two teenage daughters combined. “Morning,” Santana said.
Santana showed his badge. “I’m working on an investigation, wondered if you could tell me a few things.”
“You for real, man?”
“Yeah, I am. It’s probably nothing. I just want to know if you sold some of these handcuffs lately.” He held up the box; the brand name was “Sinful.”
“Sell ‘em all the time,” the young man said, “I don’t know how I can help you.”
“OK,” Santana went on. “I’ll narrow it down. Maybe an African-American woman, 35.Five-foot-five, probably 170 pounds. She’d have had some funky nail design, does that standout?”
“Oh, snap,” the man said. “You mean that bitch from the DMV? Yeah, man, she came in for that. Some other shit too. She’s a regular.” So the cuffs likely belonged to her, a loose end that for now could be tied. Santana thanked the clerk and went back to the station to start his report.
Sitting at his desk, he had gotten word that there had been some progress made by the deputies’ detail. The terminated employee had been tracked down to Big Bear, a mountain resort three hours north, and had been there through the weekend. He’d had a rock-solid alibi. More promising was that a market other than the adjacent liquor store had seen the vic in his store that morning. A panhandler out in front of the pizza/liquor establishment had assaulted the woman whom the proprietor confirmed was Anderson. After being approached for money, she sounded off on the man, who then struck her on the forehead with a bottle of Thunderbird wrapped in a paper sack. When asked why the incident wasn’t reported to the sheriffs, the owner said the woman said she “just wanted to be left the hell alone.” The perpetrator of the attack fled the scene.
Santana visited the Market, less than a half mile east from the DMV, one of four such businesses dotting the square mile area. After gaining access to the CCTV system, they were able to view the action firsthand. No sound, but it was obvious the scene occurred exactly as described by the witness: the woman, animated in her delivery, visibly enraged, then being struck over the head by a glass bottle.
So she had already been injured before she got to the office. Another loose end, for what it was worth. Local ravines, laundromats, storefronts and other favorite vagrant haunts were covered with no sign of the man captured on the security tape.
“It seems highly unlikely that some drunk would hide out after a heat-of-the-moment assault at the woman’s job, considering he knew where to find her, or followed her somehow unobserved, then finished her off inside by choking her out. That still leaves the stabbing.”Santana agreed with his boss, as he stood in the Captain’s office.
“We’ll know more when we get the real cause of death: was it the strangulation or the stabbing?”
“Be nice to have at least an outside view of the place,” the Captain said.
“No dice there, skipper. We’re flying blind, thanks to the victim herself.”
After examination of the body, the cause of death was attributed to the stab wound to the chest.No suffocation occurred. Skin fragments were retrieved from underneath the zebra-striped middle fingernail. DNA results were put on a rush, matching up to a fellow employee: Randall Jefferson, 30, had been off that day. Deputies brought him in from his nearby apartment for questioning. Initially his story was that he had not seen Anderson since the previous Thursday,his last day at work.
“Look, man, I told you,” Jefferson told investigators. “I’ve been out sick since last week. Haven’t even left my apartment.”
“We have security footage that says otherwise,” Santana bluffed.
“What?” Jefferson practically shouted. “Those cameras been out for weeks.”
It was a duck snort away from a confession. “How’d you know about the cameras, you plan it that way?”
He froze, remaining silent for almost a full minute. “Look, the whole thing was her idea.”
“What do you mean, her idea?”
“OK, now you’re just messin’ with me. You guys already got it all anyway, right?” He got no answer. “Alright, like I said, I just kinda went along with it. Use my key and slip in long before anyone got there, no cameras, lock the door behind me. I’d be in there waiting, we’d fake the whole thing; sort of split the difference. Know one was ever supposed to find out.”
“Alright, junior, what the hell are you talking about?”
“Jesus, cop. I get it, you need me to lay it all out. You guys are sick. Aquanetta’s been wanting to rip of the damn place for months. She finally got someone dumb as her to go along.Me. We staged a break-in. I tied her up. The idea was to make it look like a struggle. Funny thing was, she was already all beat up. Seems some bum did the dirty work for me. So I just tied her up and boosted the place. Only there wasn’t nothing to boost. My guess is she already helped herself, knowing I wouldn’t talk.”
“Well, you’re right. She’s not talking,” Santana said. “She’s dead.” A deputy came into the interview room just then.
“Can’t this wait?” Santana shouted.
“Sorry, sir. This is urgent.” Santana marched angrily out of the interview room, slamming the door behind him. He was about to lay into the deputy when he said, “We’ve got a confession.” The boy was flushed with excitement.
“The hell we do. He’s still sweating in there.”
“Not him, sir.”
The confession came from another coworker of the victim. The man identified himself as 47-year-old Matthew Torres, recently transferred to the small commercial licensing facility 12miles east up Highway 94. “I just couldn’t handle the guilt any longer, I’d been wanting to do it ever since she snapped up that promotion that was supposed to be mine. I was hoping transferring out would help. I just couldn’t, let it go,” he said. “Doing it was easy. Afterward, I just couldn’t live with myself.” He made a wistful self-deprecating face. “When I finally got around to killing her, there she was, all set to do it herself. I could have just left, and not been involved.”
“But you stabbed her,” Santana said, at a loss. He left out the fact that she indeed would be alive if not for Torres’s coup de grâce. “Why?”
“I worked for years to get that promotion. I wasn’t going to let her take another thing from me.”
As the Department of Motor Vehicle commenced business, the new interim manager had the cameras repaired, the locks were changed, and alarm systems were inspected. Subsequent inventory confirmed the absence of original state documents and no more than two hundred dollars. The property was recovered in Ms. Anderson’s home; she had been likely planning to forge the official documents for sale at a later date.
Detective Santana went home to his wife and 6 children, whom he struggled to support with his sole income in pricey Southern California. His family stood waiting in the living room; it was his birthday. He had completely forgotten.
After a delicious dinner of tamales, his favorite, the detective and his wife sat together in the living room, their daily unwinding ritual. Santana reveled in these moments, quietly reflecting upon, then putting out of his mind the events of the day; he never brought up his work at home. He took out his wallet as he sat down. “Aye, Madre Mía,” he growled, the billfold open on his lap.
“What is it?” Maria Santana asked her husband.
“My drivers license expired today.”
(Bio: Russell Guenther is an emerging fiction writer based in the Pacific Northwest with a collection of darkly humorous short stories. His work has been featured in The Stardust Review, Drunk Monkeys Magazine (publishing soon), and previously in The Yard: Crime Blog. Currently, Russell is engaged in producing his first novel.)