The Black Minute: Excerpt



Detective John Santana of the St. Paul Police Department sat on his heels near a woman’s body that lay among the tall weeds near the East Grounds parking lot on Harriet Island. She lay on her back with her arms arched above her head, as though she were relaxing on the ground, looking for shapes in the dark clouds that scudded across the sky on this late September morning.

Santana felt a sudden chill in the air, as if a lifeless hand had reached out from a grave and caressed the back of his neck. Instinctively, he believed that the Asian woman had been murdered, and this familiar encounter with the hand of death helped reinforce his suspicions.

She appeared to be in her late teens or early twenties. Her manicured nails were polished bright red, and her long, black hair, parted in the middle, looked well cared for. She was fully clothed in a white silk blouse, black pants and black, open-toed heels. Small maggots had used their mouth hooks to attach themselves to the flesh around her eyes, nose and mouth.

Reiko Tanabe, the Ramsey County medical examiner, squatted on the opposite side of the body. She pointed to a dead fly she held delicately between her thumb and forefinger. “It’s a blue bottle, John. A Calliphora erythrocephalal. Female.  Bitches can smell death from a mile and a half away.”

“Okay, I’ll bite,” Santana said. “How do you know the fly is female, Reiko?”

“A female blowfly’s eyes are widely set. The male’s eyes are so close together they almost touch. Bitches will quit flying once the temperature drops below fifty degrees.” She was examining the fly as if it were a rare, fine diamond, not one of a million similar insects.

A gust of wind shook the trees surrounding the park. The leaves were turning yellow and red now. They rattled more than summer leaves. Some were floating on wind currents like sailboats on a wavy sea.

Yellow crime scene tape encircled the area. Three forensic techs dressed in white jumpsuits had examined the ground near the body looking for matted grass, broken twigs, indistinct footprints, and vehicle tracks, but had found nothing. Now they were fanning out, widening the search area.

“Probably some fresh flies here as well,” Tanabe said, tipping the tiny wings at an angle. “Species can be distinguished by color, size, and appearance, or by examining the rows of hairs that appear on every one. Different species. Different hair. All ninety of them.”

“Any idea as to time of death, Reiko?”

Tanabe considered the question. Santana knew it was because she wanted the answer she gave to be as precise as possible under the circumstances, and not because she was unsure of herself.

“Rigor is complete and the body feels cold and stiff. But there’s no discoloration of the skin in the lower abdomen and groin. No definitive signs of bloating.” She pointed with an index finger toward the body. “The first maggot instar begins anywhere from eleven to thirty-eight hours after the eggs are laid depending on the species of fly. Given they’re blue bottles, I’d say we’re looking at twenty-four to thirty-six hours.”

Santana was as familiar with the progression of decomposition as a geriatrist was with aging. The type of insects found on and around the body would determine where in the decomposition cycle they had entered the picture. The earlier in the process the body was discovered, the more accurate the establishment of approximate time of death. Accuracy dropped as the body moved through the five stages of decomposition from fresh to bloat to decay to dry to skeletal.

“I’ll take a look at the small intestine when I cut her,” Tanabe said.

Since a light meal took approximately two hours to digest, and a heavy meal from four to six hours, Santana knew the stomach would be empty and wouldn’t tell Tanabe what the dead woman had last eaten. “Any idea how she died, Reiko?”

Tanabe shook her head and unconsciously touched the café au lait mark just below her right ear; a habit Santana had noticed when he first began working homicide cases with her. “There’s no apparent evidence of trauma, John. Could be drugs. I’ll run some tests.” She held up something in her gloved hand. “I found this underneath the body.”

“Looks like a small piece of duct tape.”

“I’ll bag it,” she said. “Did you find any ID?”

“Nothing. No purse. No cell phone. No high school or college graduation ring. No watch. But looking at the line on her wrist, I’d say her watch may have been removed.”

“I don’t see any tats or outstanding characteristics. Maybe someone didn’t want us to know who she was.”

“Could be. Or the perp didn’t want us to know the exact time she died if the watch had stopped.”

“I’ll collect some maggots. They have to be raised until adulthood to be certain of the species identification. I’ll need to catch a few of the adults as well. There’s a professor of entomology at the University I’ve worked with before.”

Blowflies were the first colonizers and feeders feasting on bodies left outdoors. In summer, carrion beetles, ants and wasps would soon follow, feeding on the blowfly eggs and maggots. Forensic entomologists called it insect succession, a process that followed a continuum which began the moment death occurred and enzymes in the digestive system started eating the tissue.

“Make sure you get some nail scrapings and hair samples, Reiko. I’m going to need prints.” Santana could see that rigor had bent the dead woman’s fingers toward the palm of her hand. There was no point in attempting to extend a finger. It was too stiff to be straightened.

Tanabe seemed to know what he was thinking. “I could cut the tendons in the fingers, John, so they can be straightened. It’s effective, but I’d rather not do it. It’s simpler just to bend the hand backward at the wrist.”

Santana had seen it done before. Once the hand was bent backward it was possible to hold a finger firmly and lift it up to make the print. “Whatever you need to do, Reiko, do it quickly. Rain is coming.”

He stood when saw his partner, Kacie Hawkins, striding toward him. Hawkins was a fitness fanatic, and her lean body was as dark and hard as ebony.

Over her shoulder, the park spread out like a large grassy mat toward the Clarence Wigington pavilion and the Target stage band shell. Two tall towers, one on each side of the band shell, held up a roof that looked like the wing of a giant prehistoric bird. Farther west, the Minnesota Centennial Showboat was anchored at the Padelford Landing. During the summer, the University of Minnesota theatre department presented period musicals and melodramas on the turn-of-the-century-style riverboat.

The park was nearly deserted at this time of the morning except for two men from the city water department who had been marking the underground irrigation system with blue chalk lines, and were now standing just beyond the yellow crime scene tape, trying to get a closer look at the dead woman lying among the weeds.

“Tanabe give you anything?” Hawkins asked.

“She figures the vic has been dead at least twenty-four hours.”

 “Usually busy around here during the weekend, John. But people walking from the parking lot toward the promenade wouldn’t see the body in the tall weeds.”

“I agree.”

Santana watched Reiko Tanabe as she made several rapid, back-and-forth sweeping motions with a collapsible aerial insect net, reversing it on each pass, like a martial arts master performing an intricate kata with a Bo Staff. The net had an attachable handle, which increased the working distance as well as the speed at which the net could be manipulated. On the final pass, Tanabe brought the open portion of the net up to chest level while rotating the opening 180 degrees to trap the bugs.

She placed the end of the net containing the blowflies directly into the wide mouth of a killing jar. The killing jar contained several cotton balls soaked with fresh ethyl acetate. Once it was capped, the flies would die in two to five minutes. Tanabe would then give the jar to a University of Minnesota entomologist.

With any luck, Santana thought, he would find witnesses who had seen or been with the victim before she died and wouldn’t need to rely solely on the ME and a University entomologist to pinpoint the time of death.       

“What do you want me to do?” Hawkins asked.

“It’s going to rain soon, Kacie. Get a Crime Scene Tent set up over the body. Then run the description of the dead woman through the Missing-Person database and her fingerprints through AFIS. See if we come up with anything. Also check NCIC. And have some officers search all the garbage bins in the parking lot. Someone could have dumped her purse and ID there.” 

“I located the woman who found the body. She lives on her houseboat just through Gate F over there.” Hawkins gestured toward the river. “Third boat down on your right. Name is Grace Chandler.”

As Santana headed across the parking lot, he focused his eyes on the main walkway that continued west past a 1946 vintage towboat, the MV Covington, which was outfitted with rooms for guests and parties. The main walkway continued west, running parallel to the Mississippi, to a broad, twenty-foot wide promenade opposite the Clarence Wigington pavilion. Here, red tiles embedded in the promenade memorialized dead St. Paul firefighters, and a large set of stairs led down to a public dock that extended 800 feet into the river. A sidewalk that split off at a twenty-degree angle from the main walkway led to the Mississippi River and to the houseboats moored at the docks in the lower harbor. 

Santana walked past a set of Pioneer Press delivery boxes and went down a set of steps and through an open gate. People stood on the decks of their houseboats and along the dock, their necks craning as they observed the crime scene, their voices at first low and then turning to whispers when Santana approached, as though they feared any noise might disturb the investigation or somehow wake the dead.

From the deck of Grace Chandler’s houseboat Santana could see mallards swimming in the river and the sweeping panorama of the city’s skyline. The clouds were darker and lower over the city now, their underbellies swollen with rain.

An open sliding glass door on the houseboat led into a living room that was submerged in shadow. Before entering, Santana flipped open his badge wallet and held it up so the slim woman standing behind a center island in a U-shaped galley could clearly see it. 

“I’m Detective Santana, Ms. Chandler, from the St. Paul Police Department.”

The woman remained silent and motioned with her hand for him to enter and be seated.

He stepped into the room and looked quickly but carefully at the spacious interior of the houseboat. It was decorated with a rich brown carpet and wood paneling that matched the wooden blinds on the starboard windows as well as the couch and reclining chair. A coffee table made out of a ship’s wheel stood in front of the couch. Directly to his left was the ship’s instrument panel. A built-in fireplace and bookshelf filled with hard covers, paperbacks and a CD player covered the portside wall.

Grace Chandler came around the galley island and sat in the recliner.

Santana sat down on the coffee-colored leather couch and took out a pen and a small spiral notebook from the inner pocket of his sport coat. “I like your boat,” he said, trying to ease into the conversation.

He held his eyes on her pretty oval face and pale complexion, which was as smooth and clear as ivory.

“Are you at all familiar with boats, Detective?”


“This is a sixty-five foot aluminum hulled Skipperliner with a fifteen foot beam.”

“Seems to have plenty of room.” He looked around. Many boats had tiny little refrigerators. This one had a full-sized one. He also saw an oven and stove, a trash compactor and microwave in the galley. It didn’t have the compact, sometimes cramped feel of other houseboats he’d seen. “How many square feet does this place have?”

“The main deck has about nine hundred square feet and the open air upper deck about five hundred.”

“It seems well-appointed for a houseboat.”

The woman shrugged. “All the comforts I need,” she said, her tone deadpan.

“With the blinds closed, it’s easy to imagine this is a house rather than a boat.”

“That’s the general idea, Detective.” She spoke softly but with a trace of sarcasm.

“Seems a shame to miss the view though.”

“I much prefer the shadows and the solitude. I can still feel and hear the water.”

Her shoulder-length, dark brown hair was tousled and damp, as though she had used a towel instead of a comb after stepping out of the shower.

“How long have you lived on the river, Ms. Chandler?”

“Nearly three years.”

“Less expensive than owning a home?”

“Well, owning a home is more of an investment. This is like owning a car that depreciates in value. Living like this isn’t as cheap as most people think. I’ve got boat payments plus a slip fee I pay to the marina. And insurance can be expensive.”

“Why do it?”

She gently rubbed her palms on her faded blue jeans and then tugged at her denim shirt, the tails of which hung casually over her waist. “I’m pretty handy. I like being on the water and the freedom that comes from pulling up anchor and heading somewhere else. Though not all marinas allow full-time liveaboards.”

“Where did you live before you bought the boat?”


“Do you work there?”

“I’m self-employed.”

Santana waited, hoping that she might offer something more substantive, but apparently she was used to silence and comfortable with it. Not necessarily a bad habit, he thought, unless it hindered a homicide investigation. “I understand you found the young woman’s body this morning.”


“About what time?”

“I usually get up early and go for a walk,” she said.

“How early?” He waited patiently as she contemplated his question, listened to the mallards in the river quacking at one another, watched as a ray of sunshine seeped through the blinds and lit the carpet before the light faded away.

“I left here a little after seven fifteen a.m. I saw the flies on my way back to the boat.”

“What time was that?”

“Around eight o’clock. I thought an animal had died. Happens quite a bit around here.” She leaned forward and propped her arms on her knees. “Did you or someone you know ever get a strong feeling about something, Detective Santana? Like maybe something isn’t right?”

Santana remembered when he was in high school. He and his friends would save their allowances. On Fridays they would visit the witch who lived in the poor neighborhood of Manizales, Colombia. She would read the tealeaves and tarot cards, or the cigarettes of those who smoked, and predict the future.

“Sometimes,” he said.

“Well, I had this feeling. And then I saw the woman and I knew.”

“Knew what?”

“I knew she was dead.”

A stiff breeze suddenly blew through the open sliding door.

“Did you see anyone else near the body or in the park?”

“It’s pretty dead at that time of the morning.” She immediately caught the double-entendre and her hand went to her mouth, briefly covering the slight dimple on her chin. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to say that.”

“You never told me what you do for a living, Ms. Chandler.”

“You never asked, Detective Santana.” The corners of her mouth drew back in a slight smile.

He waited again, hoping that the momentary lag in the conversation would prove too uncomfortable for her and she would offer more information. But he was as wrong this time as he was before. “Would you like to tell me?”

“What does my occupation have to do with the investigation?”

“Maybe nothing.  Maybe something.”

Outside, thunder rumbled like a heavy weight rolling across a hardwood floor. Murder, Santana thought, was like a change in the weather, inevitable yet unpredictable.

“I’m an artist,” she said at last. “Water color mostly. I’ve had a few shows. I rent a small studio in downtown St. Paul.”

“That one of your paintings above the fireplace?”

“No. It’s a reproduction of the Legend of the Grateful Dead. Are you familiar with it?”

“No, I’m not.”

“The original fresco was painted on an ossuary wall in Baar, Switzerland. The man kneeling in the cemetery is being chased by a band of thieves and is praying for help.  Grateful for the man’s prayers so their souls can rest in peace, the dead rise up out of their graves to protect him, some with scythes, others with sticks. It’s actually a twist on the usual macabre genre of the time. Instead of being a menace, the fleshless corpses lend a hand to the people crying out in fear. The message being that we should pray in memory of the ones we loved.”

Santana remembered the earlier breeze on his neck, how it felt like the cold hand of death.

“You must get paid rather handsomely,” he said, nodding at the surroundings.

“There’s a price to pay for everything, Detective Santana. But I suspect you already know that.”

“I’d like to think so, Ms. Chandler. But there are some people in this world who do a great deal of harm and don’t appear to pay much of a price for the decisions they make.  Usually, it’s the poor and uneducated who end up paying, and often with their lives.”

“You’re quite the cynic,” she said with a little smile.

“An occupational hazard.”

Raindrops began hammering the roof. He could feel the houseboat shift underneath him as if the earth were moving. It reminded him of the earthquake that had hit Manizales when he was fourteen. Only five houses had collapsed in the quake. All five were designed and built by an American company for their employees.

“You’re the detective whose partner was killed eight months ago, aren’t you?” she said.

Her words jolted him, as if the dead had suddenly begun walking out of the painting on the wall. “How did you know that?”

She smiled in amusement. “I read it in the newspaper.”

He thought that she had a good smile, a warm smile, a smile that added some color to her complexion and some life to the blank canvas that was her face.

Santana could hear the river lapping at the dock pilings and the rain pounding the roof of the houseboat. Thick clouds had eclipsed the sun and turned the dark, lavender sky the color of a decomposing body. He thought of Reiko Tanabe, the forensic crew, and of all the evidence outside the tent that would be washed away in the pouring rain. And he wondered again if the dead women’s watch had been taken. Wondered if Grace Chandler knew something about it.

“Is there anything you can tell me about the young woman that you found this morning?” he asked.

Her gaze never wavered as she reached into the pocket of her denim shirt and took out a woman’s silver watch, which she held out in front of her like a worm.

“Why did you take her watch?”

“I didn’t take anything,” she said. “I found the watch near the parking lot when I returned from my walk. I thought it might belong to the dead woman, but I wasn’t sure. I wanted to ask at the yacht club first. See if anyone was missing a watch.” She tilted her head to the left and to the right, peering at the watch, as though she wanted to get a different perspective. Then she set it delicately on the table in front of her. “It’s made by Citizen,” she said. “There are no identifying initials or markings. I just wanted to double-check.”

If she was being honest about the watch, Santana thought, then the perp might have taken it as a trophy and lost it on the way to the parking lot. Then again, Grace Chandler might be correct. The watch could belong to someone else.

He took an evidence envelope out of an inner pocket, unfolded it, and lifted the watch off the coffee table with his pen and dropped it into the envelope.

“I’d rather not get involved with any of this,” she said.

“You already are, Ms. Chandler. You found the body.”

“As far as I’m concerned, that’s the extent of my involvement.”

“Is it?”

Grace Chandler blew out a long breath. “I’m sorry if I caused a problem. Are you going to arrest me for picking up the watch?”

He took out a business card. Set it on the coffee table. “I don’t think so.”

She picked up his card, glanced at it, and then appeared to come to a decision. “Ever do any boating, Detective John Santana?” Her pale blue eyes shimmered with energy, like a patch of water lit by an underwater light.

He knew that she was inquiring about more than his interest in boating. “Once in awhile.”

She smiled. “I could use a good deck hand.”

A single framed photo stood on a shelf. The man in the photo had thick, blond hair and resembled a model. Santana wondered if it was her boyfriend or her husband. “You know where you can reach me.”

“Yes,” she said, waving the card at him, “I certainly do.” She stood and walked away, disappearing into what he assumed was a bedroom in the stern of the boat. 

Santana stared for a time at the empty space she had inhabited and then peered down at the spiral notebook in his hand. Only then he realized he hadn’t written a word.

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