Maggie Swain (Short Story)




I first met Maggie Swain in a run-down motel room. She was tied to the bed with venetian blind cord, duct tape over the mouth, throat slashed, semen on her body, a Budweiser long neck in her vagina.

Frank Kopf and I had been partners in Philly Homicide for the better part of a year, and we got along fine, which isn’t always the case with partners. Frank was a big guy, running to fat, which he tried to keep under control by skipping lunch once a week. He was older and had more experience, having been with the department for seventeen years, but I was in no sense the junior man.

We were working the graveyard, twelve to eight, Last Out we called it. In my experience bad things tend to happen after midnight, even on beautiful late spring nights like this one was. We were called to a motel just off I-95 in Port Richmond, a Philadelphia row house neighborhood that had seen better days. The night manager said he had a dead woman in one of his units.

When we got there a car from the 24th District was already there, lights blinking, door open, radio blaring, attracting attention for miles around. The motel was falling down, a one storey stucco job in desperate need of a coat of paint. According to the numbers on the doors, there were twelve units. The manager’s office was at one end, a neon arrow flashing Vacancy. At the other end, in front of unit number 10, lit by the light from the open door, stood an ambulance, the two-member emergency medical team sitting in the cab. Four civilian vehicles sat off to the side. A short distance away traffic on I-95 hummed incessantly, vehicles and drivers on the elevated highway a world away from the dark and gritty streets below. There’s no let up to the traffic, even at four o’clock in the morning.

We introduced ourselves to the patrolman, a beefy old hand named Hogan. “Anybody go in or out of the other units?” Frank asked.

“Not while I been here,” Hogan answered.

“Go tell the manager not to let anyone else check in, and find out if any of the other units are occupied. When you’re finished with that, run those four tags, will you?”

“Yessir,” Hogan said, and left for the manager’s office.

We walked over to the ambulance and introduced ourselves. “Whatta we have?” Frank said.

“A bad one,” one of the medics replied. “Nothing we could do except wait around and take her back to the morgue. We called the medical examiner, should be here shortly.”

“Were the room lights on when you got here?” Frank asked.

“Yes sir,” the medic answered. “Lights on, door open. We didn’t touch a thing, didn’t even go in the room. One look was enough to tell she wouldn’t be needing us.”

We thanked them and headed for the open door. Whatever was inside, you could smell it from out here. I stopped just inside the doorway. The stench of human waste filled the room. “The man was right,” I said. “This one’s real bad.”

She lay on her back, naked, duct tape wrapped around her head a couple of times, covering her mouth.

“Bastard made sure he didn’t tape up her nostrils,” Frank said. “Didn’t want her dying on him before he was ready for it.”

Her legs were in the air, knees bent, in the ready for sex position, arms under her thighs like she was hugging herself. She was trussed up with venetian blind cord like a Thanksgiving turkey, tied so tight her knees touched her breasts. Her slashed throat was gaping wide. Even from the doorway I saw the edges were neat, like she’d been cut with a razor. Both she and the bed were covered with blood. She’d lost control of her bladder and bowels, probably at the moment of death, or maybe when she realized what was going to happen to her.

What made the scene unusual was she had a beer bottle stuffed into her vagina. She was tied in such a way that the bottle stuck up at a forty-five degree angle.

I went back to the car and got a consent to search form.

“I told the manager about check-ins,” Hogan said, coming up to me. “There’s one other unit occupied. Want me to roust ‘em?”

“Not yet,” I said. “But if they come out, detain them and let me know.”

I went into the office and the manager signed the consent to search form. If you don’t, you stand a good chance of some defense attorney getting all your evidence thrown out. I put the form back in the car and rejoined Frank in front of the unit. We walked into the room, careful where we stepped.

“Looks like we got ourselves a pervert,” I said. “The backs of her thighs, her pubis and her buttocks are covered with semen. Doesn’t look like she let herself be tied up voluntarily. Hard to tell if he had sex first or killed her first. Maybe we got ourselves somebody enjoys sex with a corpse.”

“She might not have any of it inside her,” Frank said. “He might have killed her and jacked off.”

“Well, that’s been done before.”

Frank sighed and said, “We’ll know soon enough. Let’s see what we have, partner. I don’t see her pocketbook.”

I went outside to the patrol car. “Call downtown and get a crime scene unit up here,” I said.

“Yessir,” Hogan said. “Got them tags for you. The Buick’s registered to a Charles Luber, the Subaru next to it to Lois Vorse, and the Ford over in the corner to Aurelio Martinez. Aurelio’s the night manager. The Honda’s registered to a Maggie Swain.”

I thanked him and went back to the room. When I walked in Frank was looking in her handbag.

“Name’s Maggie Swain,” he said. “That’s what it says on her driver’s license. Maggie, not Margaret.”

We had done all we could at the crime scene. The victim would be examined by the medical examiner and the room would be gone over by the crime scene unit. While waiting, we talked to the manager.

“No sir,” Martinez said, shaking his head, “I didn’t notice anybody with her.” He was a dapper little man, shirt and tie, black hair, black mustache so thin it looked like he painted it on. His dark eyes danced from Frank to me and back to Frank again.

“Did she just come in herself, get a room?” Frank asked.

“Yes sir. Paid for it with a credit card.”

We checked the register and saw she’d arrived at 12:15 a.m.

“Charles Luber and Lois Vorst,” Frank said. “Are they together?”

“A Charles Luber is in unit 5. I have no idea who Lois Vorst is. Unit 5 is the only other unit currently occupied.”

“What time did Luber check in?”

Martinez consulted the register. “Eleven thirty-five.”

“We need names and addresses of everyone who was here tonight.”

“Yes sir,” Martinez said. “There were eight in all, not including Mr. Luber and Miss Swain.”

Stan Morwald and the crime scene people arrived. After the photographer shot Maggie Swain from every conceivable angle, Morwald put on a pair of latex gloves and removed the beer bottle.

“Budweiser long neck,” he said, showing it to us. “Empty. I don’t see any beer around, it looks like it was empty when he shoved it in her.” He placed the beer bottle in a large, padded envelope, which he sealed, dated and initialed. The beer bottle would be dusted for prints later, but I didn’t expect much to come of it, not unless our maniac was also an idiot.

The crime scene unit efficiently collected blood and semen samples, including vaginal, oral and anal swabs. You can never have enough DNA, like you can never have enough fingerprints. If we were lucky, the perp left some of those behind as well.

Frank said he wanted the rope cut, preserving the knot. Stan cut the cord with scissors and lowered her legs to the bed. There was no rigor, which meant she’d been dead less than four hours, probably a great deal less. The knot was placed in an envelope and sealed, dated and initialed. That done, Stan cut the rest of the cord, freeing her hands and feet. The cord was collected and placed with the rest of the accumulating pile of evidence.

A man poked his head in the door and said, “The photographer just shot the car, inside and out. The tow truck’s here to take it to the yard, unless you want it here for some reason.”

“I’ll take a look at it before they take it away,” Frank said.

The guy said, “Okay,” and left.

“We’ll dust it when we get it back to the garage,” Morwald said.

A guy came in with a small vacuum cleaner and began going over the carpet, putting the sweepings in envelopes, tweezing things that caught his eye. We walked outside and looked at the car, a fairly late model Honda, black or dark blue, it was hard to tell. The sky was getting lighter now, turning pink at the edges, and looked to be another warm day.

“Nothing unusual that I can see, partner,” Frank said. “Let’s let these people get on with their work.”

We left them putting the car on a flatbed, and returned to the room. The vacuum guy was finished, and the fingerprint guys were dusting the room. The medical examiner arrived, rubbing her eyes.

Sylvia Ruhl said god what a stink and got to work. Snapping on latex gloves, she took a thermometer from her bag and stuck it in the victim’s rectum. Reaching in the bag again she drew out a tape recorder and told it her name, location and time.

“Early non-fixed lividity,” she told the recorder, “body warm to touch, no rigor. Eyes flattened. Feet and hands blue, nails and lips pale.” She put the recorder away and examined the slashed throat, shaking her head all the while.

“Cut with a razor, Frank,” she said. “Scalpel maybe. Something very sharp, anyway.”

“How long she been dead, Sylvie?” Frank asked.

“More than thirty minutes, less than four hours.” She took the thermometer from the rectum. “Ninety five degrees. At a one and a half degree loss per hour, that would make it about two hours. If heat loss is accurate, and it seldom is.”

“Two hours would make it about three a.m.,” Frank said.

“Sounds about right,” Sylvia said, packing her gear. “Sometime between two and three, probably. Get her downtown. Maybe the autopsy will tell us more.”

The EM team wheeled a gurney into the room. Sylvia Ruhl said goodnight and left. The medics put the body of Maggie Swain in a rubber bag and took her to the morgue.

We rousted Charles and Lois. Embarrassed, they’d seen nothing, heard nothing. Charles drew me aside while Lois got dressed.

“This won’t make the paper or anything, will it?” he asked anxiously. “I can’t afford anything like that, and neither can Lois. We shoulda been outta here long ago, but we fell asleep. We’ll both have some explaining to do when we get home as it is.”

I told him their secret was safe with us.

As expected, the beer bottle showed no prints. Maggie Swain’s car was taken to the garage and gone over with a fine-tooth comb. We found lots of prints, lots of hairs and lots of fibers, and if we ever find the perp, and if he was ever in the car, we’ve a good chance of matching him up.

Sylvia did the autopsy next day and found marks on the neck consistent with manual strangulation.

“Rough sex, probably,” Sylvia said.

“Could be,” Frank said, “if he was into playing games. Coulda just waited till she got undressed and choked her till she lost consciousness, then he taped her mouth and tied her up.”

How long he waited to kill her after she regained consciousness I don’t know. Whether he killed her and then jacked off all over her, or jacked off and then killed her, I don’t know. Whatever her last moments were, they were spent in a dirty motel room with a maniac.

We found out a lot about Maggie Swain in the next few days. We found out she was a prostitute, twenty-six years old, with two small children being cared for by her mother. We brought the motel night manager downtown, to the Police Administration Building, figuring he might know more than he put out the night of the murder. Sure enough, Mr. Martinez was a lot more talkative sitting in the Roundhouse.

“How well did you know Maggie Swain, Mr. Martinez?” I asked.

“Just to talk to,” he shrugged. “She was a regular, she rented a room maybe once or twice a week.”

“Did you know she was a prostitute?”

“Sure.” He smiled, showing two rows of very white, very even teeth. By the way he smiled it was clear he was proud of them.

“What made you look into the room, Mr. Martinez?” Frank said.

Martinez leaned forward, as if about to tell us something unusually important. “We have an arrangement with the ladies, Mr. Kopf. Miss Swain wasn’t the only prostitute to use the motel. They rent for one hour, two hours. I’ve never seen one of the ladies rent a room for the whole night. That is why I went to the room. Miss Swain should have checked out, and she did not.”

“I looked at the register, Mr. Martinez,” I said. “I didn’t see anything about renting for one or two hours.”

He shrugged again. “No, it isn’t noted. But I know.”

“How long did Maggie Swain rent the room for?”

“For two hours. She should’ve been out by two fifteen, but we usually give them some leeway, being regulars.”

“How much leeway did you give her?”

“At four o’clock I walked down to check the room. Sometimes they leave and forget to turn in the key. The door was locked, the key in the lock. I thought it was strange she’d do that, you know, leave a key in the door like that, anybody comes by can get in the room. I opened the door and smelled something bad. I turned on the light and saw her on the bed. I ran back to the office and called 911.”

“Thank you, Mr. Martinez,” Frank said.

We discovered Maggie Swain had a more or less regular clientele. We eventually found out who they were, or most of them anyway. We talked to everyone who had been in that motel that night, and no one had seen or heard anything.

The DNA came back and the technicians went over it with us. The technicians talked about autorads and markers, but it was beyond me technically. All I knew was, if we ever caught the guy, the DNA would prove it was his semen.

We braced for more beer bottles, but as the weeks and months went by without another killing, we gradually forgot about the beer bottle murder, and went on with our lives. Leads would pop up then peter out, and gradually even the leads stopped. We never found him.


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