An Axe to Grind
Genre: Mystery Oak Tree Press
Trade Paperback, $12.95
An imaginative stalker’s decapitation sends Detectives Doug Milligan and Frank Marshall on an investigation that includes the stalker’s family, his victim and her family—a family with ties to Sergeant Navarro. Vice-Officer Stacey Milligan goes after a soccer coach who may be a pedophile. As usual, because of their jobs with the Rocky Bluff P.D., Stacey’s and Doug’s romance is put on a back-burner. When Doug strikes out on his own to corner the murderer and no one knows where he went, it is up to Stacey to find him before it’s too late.
AN AXE TO GRIND is the sixth of F. M. Meredith’s Rocky Bluff PD series. The previous five, in order, are FINAL RESPECTS, BAD TIDINGS, FRINGE BENEFITS, SMELL OF DEATH, and NO SANCTUARY (which I reviewed on this site a year ago).
For those who might want the books, I should mention that FINAL RESPECTS is no longer available unless you can find a used copy. The next three are available only from the author’s website (www.fictionfoyyou.com), and the two most recent ones are available or can be ordered from anywhere you buy new books. All the books except for BAD TIDINGS are also available on Kindle.
When I first heard of the series, I thought it was about a private detective named Rocky Bluff, which struck me as a hackneyed-sounding name. I realized PD stands for ‘police department’ only when I started to read NO SANCTUARY. Rocky Bluff is a good name for a small fictional community on the California coast.
I enjoy Meredith’s unforced prose. Sergeant Abel Navarro is looking at a man whose head has been cut off, and he summarizes, “Including the missing head, he would be around five-foot-ten.” The arrival of Detective Frank Marshall leads to this exchange:
“Do we know the identity of the victim?”
“Nope, haven’t touched a thing, “ Abel said, and hoped he didn’t have to.
“Know where the head is?”
“No, but I didn’t look for it either.”
The people of Rocky Bluff are as real as your neighbors. Meredith is the American version of England’s Barbara Pym, a writer known for characterization and sketches of village life. Of course Pym’s books are comedies of manners and Meredith’s are murder mysteries, but good characters and good stories are what make any genre work.
The plot of AN AXE TO GRIND engages the reader comfortably. The beheaded man was a lout who had been stalking a young woman, so her protective brother, her hot-headed father and her jealous boyfriend all make interesting suspects.
Meredith is also good at suspenseful finishes, and AN AXE TO GRIND does not disappoint on this score. With an old warehouse, lots of fog for which Rocky Bluff is famous, a cop following a hunch that backfires, and his fiancé wondering where he is, it’s a nail-biter.
The Rocky Bluff PD books are police procedurals given depth by attention to how the officers’ personal lives are affected by their work. Over the course of the series, there are deaths, divorces, and weddings. Friendships are made then, in the next book, frayed. Each book is a stand-alone, and they needn’t be read in order, although I know many mystery fans insist on doing that. It may be a bit better to do that, but I haven’t and I’ve enjoyed the three I have read thus far.
I believe I bought one of the last copies of FRINGE BENEFITS. I look forward to reading the remaining three if I can find a copy of FINAL RESPECTS.
--Mike Orenduff, author of The Pot Thief mystery series.
Sergeant Abel Navarro fought to keep from gagging. It wasn’t only from the smell, though that was bad enough.
“Somebody really did a job on the poor slob.” Officer Gordon Butler spoke from the open front door.
“You could say that..” Abel shook his head, had to be the understatement of all time. His wife, Maria, would have a fit if she knew he was in a room with this much spilled blood without any protective gear on. As a nurse, she’d lectured him many times about how airborne droplets of blood could contain the HIV virus along with other terrible diseases. He’d have to take his chances. Until the detectives arrived, there wasn’t anything he could do except make sure no one messed with the crime scene.
“You didn’t touch anything, did you, Butler?”
“Nope. Only poked my head in the door. It was obvious from here the guy was dead.” Gordon was the newest and youngest officer on the Rocky Bluff P.D. Mostly because of his gung-ho attitude, he had a record of mishaps. He’d calmed down a bit, and finally earned the respect of most of his fellow officers.
There wasn’t any need for medical help, though the EMT’s would arrive soon. The victim’s body lay sprawled in a pool of blood that had emptied from the neck cavity. The head was missing. Abel couldn’t spot it from where he stood about two feet inside the modest living room. Globs of blood and rivulets decorated the plain white walls, the beige slip-covered lumpy couch, and light green overstuffed chair. In fact, there didn’t seem to be any surface free from congealing spots of blood.
“What brought you to the scene?” Abel asked.
“Paperboy,” Gordon said. “Poor kid’s pretty shook up. Got him sitting in my unit now. He was collecting, went to knock on the door and realized it was open. Gave it a shove and this is what he saw. Jumped on his bike and went racing down the street. Flagged me down. I took one peek inside and called it in.” Gordon’s cheeks flamed red. Obviously, what he’d seen had shaken him too.
“I got your call about twenty minutes ago, around seven-thirty and notified Milligan and Marshall. They should be heading for the crime scene about now.” Abel longed to be outside to breathe in the fresh sea air. He would never get used to the pungent coppery smell of freshly spilled blood, the sickening stench of evacuated bowels and urine. Though murder wasn’t unknown in the seaside community of Rocky Bluff, this was one of the most brutal and gory he’d ever seen.
“Anyone around when you drove up?” Abel asked.
“Nope.” Butler nearly filled the open door with his bulk. His arms were crossed over his massive chest, and dark glasses hid his eyes. Bright pink colored his cheeks.
Abel glanced again at the victim, ignoring the gore, he took in the fact that the body was that of a white male. Including the missing head, he would be around five-foot-ten, slim build, no noticeable tattoos on his arms. The body was clothed in a striped polo shirt, khaki pants and sneakers. He had on a watch, but no rings. Studying the rather plain room, except for the body and the blood, nothing seemed out of place. It was an ordinary living room in an ordinary small rental.
The sound of squeaky brakes announced the arrival of at least one of the detectives. Taking care to walk out exactly as he’d come in, Abel stepped outside.
Fog was beginning to roll in, softening the reality of the old beach neighborhood. Built in the thirties as vacation homes for people who lived in the Los Angeles area, most of the small houses were in various states of disrepair. Abel knew that even though they weren’t kept up, they brought in relatively high rents because of their proximity to the Pacific Ocean. Fortunately, Rocky Bluff hadn’t reached the popularity of its neighboring cities of Ventura and Santa Barbara.
Except for tonight, Abel loved living here. It was a great place for Maria and him to raise their daughter. Maybe no one had been around when Butler arrived, but now people had come out of their houses, peering curiously at the unusual activity, huddling in small groups.
Frank Marshall stepped out of his battered Pontiac that he’d parked behind Gordon Butler’s police unit, just as a red, vintage MG came to a screeching halt across the street. Doug Milligan joined Frank and they both strode across the dry Bermuda grass toward Abel pulling on latex gloves as they came.
“Who’s the kid?” Frank gestured toward the unit. He wore a navy jacket over a plain white T-shirt. He had on a well-worn pair of faded jeans. Abel suspected Frank had been relaxing in front of the TV when he got the call.
Both detectives were taller than Abel--for that matter nearly everyone in the department was taller than Abel. “Paperboy. He discovered the body. Butler says he’s pretty shook up. When you see the body you’ll understand why.”
“I’ll go talk to the boy and let Gordon take him home,” Doug said. Milligan had two children of his own, though they lived in San Diego with their mother and her new husband.
Even though he no longer had a wife to watch after him, his tan sport jacket and slacks were neatly pressed.
Marshall rubbed his bald pate. “Okay, let’s see what we’ve got here.”
Gordon moved out of the doorway. Abel allowed Marshall to enter first.
Marshall halted. “Whoa. What an unholy mess. Do we know the identity of the victim?”
“Nope, haven’t touched a thing,” Abel said, and hoped he didn’t have to.
“Know where the head is?”
“No, but I didn’t look for it either.”
“Butler touch anything?”
“Good. Did you call the coroner?”
“Did that before I left the station.”
“Start snapping pictures, Navarro. Get the cameras out of my car, and take the scene that way first. Be sure and get some good shots of the blood spatters. Then I want you to video the evidence collecting.” Marshall already had his notebook out and started writing.
Abel knew the detective was methodically putting down everything he could see.
By the time Abel returned with the cameras, Marshall had moved across the room. He gestured toward an alcove that served as a dining room. “Killer thought it would make a nice centerpiece, I suppose. Be sure to take a photo of it.”
Placed exactly in the center of a square wooden table, blue eyes stared from the long, pale face of a male, early to mid-thirties with brown hair cut extremely short emphasizing his large ears. Abel photographed the body from every angle, the gory blood spatters, and the head. He tried not to think about what he was recording as he methodically went about the task.
Opened mail, along with the envelopes, lay scattered about the head. It was all addressed to Kenneth Buchelo. While Abel took pictures, Milligan returned from his interview of the paperboy. He stared at the victim while he talked. “Kid’s name is Robert Villard. Eleven. Goes to the same school my kids went. Doesn’t know anything, except who the man is--Kenneth Buchelo.”
“He’s sure that’s who is lying on the floor?” Marshall asked.
“Sure as he can be without seeing his head. Terrible shock to a kid. Butler’s taking him home now.” Doug Milligan touched his upper lip. It hadn’t been too long ago that he’d sported a mustache, but now he was clean-shaven. “I’ve called for extra help, the crowd is getting bigger outside. We need some uniforms to start asking the neighbors what they know about this guy. The Chief’s been notified, and I thought Strickland ought to be here. The media is going to love this one.” Ryan Strickland was the Department’s public relations officer. “What do you think it is, a homosexual murder?”
Murders involving homosexuals tended to be more bizarre; the decapitation had caused Abel to think the same.
“Don’t know,” Marshall said. “Won’t until we’ve gotten a positive ID on the body.” They really wouldn’t even have a tentative identification until the coroner arrived and checked out the guy’s wallet. According to California law only the coroner could take anything off the body. Though it was also the coroner who made the decision on cause of death, it was pretty obvious what happened to their victim. It was up to the detectives to discover who did it and why.
Hopefully, as they slowly and meticulously gathered the evidence it would become clear who and what had caused Kenneth Buchelo’s death. From Abel’s viewpoint it didn’t look like an easy matter. So far they hadn’t even recovered the weapon.
“Hey, we got a bloody one.” Ryan Strickland, also tall and extremely handsome, strolled into the room but halted immediately when he saw the body. “Oops, guy lost his head.”
“Hasn’t gone far.” Marshall pointed toward the dining alcove.
Strickland edged his way nearer. “Ugh, not too appetizing. Media’s going to love this one. What have you got?”
“Decapitation, no ID as yet. But so far it looks like our victim is a Kenneth Buchelo.”
“Know anything about him?” Strickland asked.
“Not yet.” Marshall continued his methodical walk around the scene. Abel followed closely with the video camera capturing everything Frank was looking at or touching with his gloved fingers.
“Anyone ever heard of this guy before?” Strickland asked.
Though Abel hadn’t recognized the face of the victim, there was something vaguely familiar about the name. Until he could remember though, he wouldn’t say anything.
Eliseo Alvarado, the deputy coroner of Ventura County, popped into the room. He was a wiry, dark-skinned and haired gnome-like fellow. “Hi everybody, what’ve we got here?”
Alvarado put his medical bag down beside the corpse, and opened it. “Where’s the head?”
“In there, smack dab in the middle of the table.” Frank pointed with his thumb.
As the coroner began examining the body, Frank said, “Come on Navarro, let’s take a look in the other rooms.”
Abel followed the detective into the small, neat kitchen, recording everything with the video camera. Though the appliances were old-fashioned, the cabinets were freshly painted, the worn linoleum clean. The bathroom was much the same. Everything neatly in place, the medicine cabinet held the usual assortment of pain relievers, razor and blades, shaving cream, cologne and deodorant.
Frank slid open the drawer beside the sink and lifted out a package of condoms. “Looks like he was sexually active...or at least hopeful.”
The bedroom was more interesting. Though small like the rest of the house, it only contained a neatly-made twin bed, a small bedside table, a battered dresser, a small desk with an open laptop computer and printer, and a folding chair.
Taped and thumb tacked to the walls were at least a hundred photographs, big and small-black-and-white and in color--of one young woman--an Hispanic girl, early twenties, pretty.
Frank paused in front of the display. “H’mmm. Interesting. Notice anything unusual here?”
Abel took the video camera from his eye and squinted at the photos. “Nice looking.” He studied a bit more. “None of the pictures are posed. She’s doing something in each one. Sitting in a restaurant, peering through a window. That one she’s coming out of the library.”
“Obviously she had no idea her picture was being taken.” Frank opened the door to the closet. Inside, an array of ordinary short- and long-sleeved shirts, dark brown, navy and black slacks, along with one navy sports coat and dress slacks hung neatly. Lined up on the floor were three pairs of worn men’s shoes, two black and one brown, and a fairly new pair of name brand sneakers.
On the overhead shelf was a small digital camera. “We’ll take the camera and the computer as evidence, as well as the picture gallery,” Frank said.
He found one other item of interest in the drawer of the bedside table, a journal filled with neat writing. He held it aloft. “Bingo. This should tell us plenty about our headless wonder.”