Sunday, March 27, 2011

On the origins of CHEATER

The main ‘bad guy’ in CHEATER is a thoroughly warped and homicidal burglar who goes after his victims through the crawl spaces of their homes, cuts a trap door in the flooring, installs tiny hinges, razor-cuts through the carpeting, and then waits for them like a trap-door spider.

How did I get the idea for a character like that?

Well, early on in my career, when I was still learning the CSI ‘ropes’, I went out on a warrant search with three homicide investigators who were looking for a freak who had a nasty habit of hiding the bodies of his victims in the crawl spaces of old homes.  This guy was pretty elusive and the investigators didn’t have much to go on; but they’d received a tip on a location where he had supposedly lived for a few months, and the possibility that we might find a few more clues as to his identity and habits made the effort to get the warrant and the subsequent long drive worthwhile.

When we got to the residence – a creepy looking single story house that appeared to be sagging in all directions – the three investigators (two detectives and the homicide sergeant) entered the house and began their initial search while I began setting out and assembling my CSI gear.

I was still in the process of checking the strobe and loading a roll of 120 film into my primary camera when one of the detectives came back to the car and said they’d found something around the back of the house that they wanted me to see.

When I got back there, I found all three investigators standing around what looked like a very small hole in the concrete foundation wall that led into a crawl space under the house.  Following their request that I take a look, I got down into a prone position and shined my flashlight into the entryway.

What I saw was numbing.

To start with, the house had been built on top of a concrete foundation that looked like a checkerboard series of adjacent and very shallow 8-by-ten-foot pools formed by crisscrossing 4-inch wide concrete ‘walls’ that stuck up out of the ground about six inches.  At each wall intersection, a short piece of 4x4 post held up the house flooring that seemed to be sagging even worse than the external walls and roof.

It looked like it might be possible to pull yourself progressively through the roughly 8-inches of space between the series of internal concrete foundation walls and the sagging floor … if you didn’t mind the fact that you’d be pulling yourself through what looked like at least fifty years worth of light-impenetrable, dust- and insect-matted spider webs that appeared to fill all of the ‘open’ space as far as I could see.

Chillingly enough, it also appeared as if someone had done exactly that not  long ago … the ragged torn-webbing path heading toward what I assumed would be the far corner of the crawl space.

I remember my first thought being something to the effect of: “man, I’m sure glad I’m not going in there!”

I should explain here that my assumption that I wouldn’t be going in there was based on a perfectly logical and very-well-established division of labor during the serving of such search warrants.  The investigator’s job was to make sure the suspect wasn’t around (or to engage and deal with him if he was), and my job was to search for items of trace evidence in areas that had been previously cleared by the investigators.  While I was a deputy sheriff, armed with a .357 pistol and some presumably handy weaponless-control training; this guy really was a freak, and nobody would logically expect me to engage and try to deal with him … especially in such tight confines.
So I was still shining my flashlight beam into the crawl space with a calm sense of morbid curiosity when I heard the homicide sergeant say: “you’re going to have to go in there.”

I distinctly remember lunging to my feet and staring at the plain-clothed supervisor (with what I’m sure was a stunned and disbelieving look on my face) and asking in a choked voice “why me?”

It was a perfectly logical question, unfortunately followed by a perfectly logical answer: I would have to go in because none of the investigators could fit through the hole … two because of their shoulder size and one because of his gut.  I, on the other hand, was a skinny 165 pounds …

And no, there weren’t any other skinny 165 pound deputies or detectives within ready driving distance; or at least that’s what the homicide sergeant assured me was the case when I rapidly and not-quite-hysterically inquired.

Approximately ten minutes later, I was pulling myself through the hole and into the first shallow ‘pool’, staying as low to the ground as I could to avoid the innumerable rusty nails sticking down through the floor boards … my pistol in one hand and my flashlight in the other … scared out of my mind.

“Watch yourself,” the homicide sergeant suggested helpfully as I finally managed to get my entire body into the first spider-web-strewn pool, “he could still be down in there.”


I don’t know how long it took me to reach the far back corner of the crawl space, pulling myself through each successive slot of concrete-wall/sagging-floor space after making sure – as best I could – that there wasn’t anyone or anything in the next shallow ‘pool.’  It was probably only fifteen or twenty minutes, but it seemed like several hours … during which time it took pretty much all the mental powers I possessed to keep my mind tightly enclosed in a little imaginary walnut shell so that I wouldn’t start screaming.

By the time I got to the final corner ‘pool’, my entire body was covered by what looked like dozens of layers of dirty cob-webbing, and I could see an area in the next ‘pool’ to the left ---heading toward the next far corner of the crawl space – where it looked like something big had been dug up and pulled away.

I was still contemplating the pretty-much unthinkable idea of continuing my search toward that that next distant far corner when I happened to look around in my current location with my flashlight beam … and saw a huge spider walking across my lower leg toward my knee.

I almost shot it.

Fortunately, I didn’t shoot it … one, because I would have probably blown my kneecap off;  two, because I would have certainly blown out both of my eardrums; and three because the homicide guys probably would have started shooting in my general direction, thinking … well, Lord knows what they would have been thinking with all of the screaming and cussing that I would have undoubtedly been doing.

So I hit it with my flashlight instead … not realizing right away that it would have been a much better idea to have used the barrel of my pistol instead of the flashlight, because I missed the damned thing twice in the sudden darkness – giving myself a couple of nice bruises in the process --- before I finally switched weapons, gained visibility and smashed it.  Also drove my hand into several of the down-pointing nails in the process also, but that was going to be a minor issue of checking on my tetanus shot status at some later date as opposed to my pending coronary that was likely to happen at any moment.

I have no idea how long I stayed down there.  Could have been an hour, could have been more.  Basically it was just long enough to make sure that the freak -- or one of his unfortunate victims -- really wasn’t down there with me; with some ragged portion of my mind actually wanting him to be there so that I could shoot the SOB – a fair trade for the spider incident, if nothing else -- and bring the entire search to a rapid halt.

So much for the unbiased and emotionally uninvolved forensic point of view that us criminalists are supposed to bring to such operations.

We never did find the guy, at least not while I was employed with that Department; but I did come away from that nightmarish search with a deeply frightening idea for a fiction story tucked away in that little mental walnut shell.

… through the crawl spaces of their homes … cutting a trap door in the flooring … installing tiny hinges … razor-cutting through the carpeting … and then waiting for them like a trap-door spider.

Happy reading … :)

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