What secrets did the photograph contain?

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A VG Serial: ToxiCity

Episode 10

The next morning blew in one of those crisp fall days that made Matt think of fresh starts—a new school term, new friends, a new suit for the High Holidays. Autumn was a time of possibilities. As he sped up I-94 to Kenosha, blurry clumps of red, orange and green shot past the car. He rolled the window down and let the sun-warmed air whip through the car. Maybe he’d stop for a bushel of apples on the way home. Georgia would like that.

Earlier that day, he’d gone back to the high school. The Glenbrook police officer assigned to the school had questioned over a dozen teachers. No one knew of any problems between Romano and her students, teachers, or parents.

“Parents?” Matt asked. The officer explained that some parents were known to strong-arm teachers for a fraction of a grade point, if it meant getting their kids into a better college. Matt asked him for a list of all of Romano’s students and their grades.

Once over the state line, Matt turned onto a road where frame houses and weathered barns shared space with new colonials and offices. He couldn’t tell if the neighborhood was supposed to be rural farmland or suburban sprawl. Apparently, the developers couldn’t either.

He turned into a driveway beside an old farmhouse with patchy siding. The concrete on the driveway had long ago cracked, been repaired, and re-cracked. But a wrap-around porch and a sturdy oak gave the place an air of permanence. He got out of the car and sniffed fertilizer. He walked up, hearing the crunch of dead leaves under his feet.

“Not bad,” he said to the man who opened the door.

“Nice of you to visit. What’s it been, a year?”

Denny Horton was a commercial photographer who had escaped to the country after burglars made off with most of his camera equipment. Matt had worked the case, and although he never recovered anything, he and Denny had struck up a friendship. In the past year, though, Denny had grown a full beard, probably to compensate for the pink, shiny skin on top of his head. But he still had the same twinkle in his eye, as if he’d just heard the funniest joke in the world and couldn’t wait to pass it along.

“Come on in, pal.”

Heavy furniture and faded raglan rugs gave the living room a timeless feel. The smoky aroma of bacon wafted through the air. Matt’s mouth watered. He tried not to eat pork.

“You’ve done well for yourself.”

Denny’s eyes crinkled. “You see the back yard?” Without waiting for an answer, he dragged Matt to the kitchen window. Outside was a huge meadow, large enough to accommodate a couple of football fields.

Matt whistled. “If you build it, they will come.”

“I did. Come upstairs.”

Denny led Matt up a flight of steps, where the décor was as high tech as the downstairs was low. Two doors led off a stark white hall. The first room was a traditional photography studio housing a computer, art stand, and mounted camera. Pictures, both landscapes and portraits, hung on gray walls. The second door led to a video-editing suite with banks of monitors, switches, and a Mac in the center well.

“Meet my true love,” Denny said proudly.

“What?”

“An Avid. A real-time digital editing system. I bought it with the insurance proceeds.”

“What does it do?”

Denny bent over the monitor. “Where have you been, pal? I can shoot, edit, and post any kind of video right here. Special effects too. In fact, it’s gotten so that it almost doesn’t matter who does the location work. With this baby, chicken shit turns into chicken salad. And I hardly ever have to leave the house.” He turned to Matt with a wry smile. “And I owe it all to you.”

Matt saluted.

Denny straddled a chair from the back. “So what’s shakin’?”

Matt pulled out the envelope with the photo from Julie Romano’s kitchen. Denny wasn’t a forensic photographer, but Matt had seen him work magic with photos, sometimes better than the FBI. “You mind taking a look at this?”

“Sure. What am I looking for?”

“I don’t know. Anything.” He explained about Julie Romano’s death. “Be careful. I had to jump through hoops to get it out of evidence.”

Denny extracted the photo and turned it over. He ran his fingers over the back of the print.

“What are you doing?”

“Trying to figure out the paper stock they used. Here, see how light and flexible it feels?”

Matt fingered it gingerly.

“It’s RC.”

Denny explained that most prints from Kodak used resin-coated paper now. “RC stock contains plastic, which gives the paper that light, rubbery touch,” he said. “Twenty-five years ago, people used fiber paper — you know, the stiff, white paper.”

“So the picture’s less than twenty-five years old?”

“The print is. But who knows about the negative? If it was stored properly, it could have been shot anytime.”

Denny sat down at his computer and booted up Photoshop. Matt was familiar with it; they had it at the station. But he was beyond remedial when it came to photography, and most of the other cops weren’t much better. Denny placed the photo in a flatbed scanner. A few clicks of the mouse later, the image of an empty field appeared on the monitor.

“Now for my next trick.”

Denny pulled down a menu and a group of icons appeared on the screen. He clicked on a graphic that looked like a hand.

“What’s that?”

“Exactly what you think it is. Watch.” Denny moved the hand slowly over the image, which made the photo pan from left to right. All Matt could see was prairie grass, but Denny narrowed his eyes and stopped at a small dark lump in the grass. Then he dragged an icon that looked like a magnifying glass over the lump. The lump grew larger and blurrier. Matt watched Denny play with the contrast, brightness, and resolution. Something materialized in the grass.

Matt leaned forward. “What is it? “

“I’m not sure.” Denny pulled down another menu and clicked a couple of times.

“What are you doing now?”

“Creating more contrast. If something is blurry, we can sharpen it up, maybe figure out what it is. I’ll try five hundred per cent. You lose detail, though.”

Denny clicked again and suddenly the image of a small animal, frozen in time, appeared in the grass. Matt stared at the screen. “Is that a rabbit?”

“Two points,” Denny said. “Or a field mouse.” He clicked on the image he’d initially scanned in. “See where we started?” The un-retouched original showed nothing but a shadow in the grass.

“Impressive.”

“Let’s take a look at these trees.” Denny began to work on the image again, but this time he went more slowly, panning the hand icon across the tree line, then backing up the other way.

“You see something?”

“I don’t know. Something may be standing out from the rest of the foliage. Could be a different tree.” As Denny clicked on the mouse, something long and skinny appeared behind the grove.

“That’s interesting.” Denny mumbled. Magnifying the image, he pasted it into a new file and tinkered with the sharpness and contrast. “Take a look.”

Matt squinted. Between the trees was a solid object with a vertical pole extending above. As Denny continued to sharpen, a steeple with a cross came into focus. “What is it?”

“It’s a church, brother.”

“A church?” Rick Brewster said doubtfully, fingering the print. He planted his lanky frame on Matt’s desk. “No way. There’s nothing there.”

Matt handed over the print Denny created on Photoshop. “Now look.”

A dark chunky steeple was now visible, poking through the top of the trees.

Brewster compared the two shots. “That’s amazing. What does it mean?”

“Beats me. Got any ideas?”

Brewster ran a hand through his thin blond hair. “Do we know when this picture was taken? Or where?”

“No. All we know is that the print is less than thirty years old.”

“That narrows it down.”

“The trees are probably pine. Or spruce. It could have been shot around here.”

“Or not.” Brewster handed the shot back. “What do you want to do with it?”

“I don’t know.” Matt slipped the photo back in the file. “But it was sitting on Romano’s kitchen counter. Who keeps pictures in their kitchen?”

“Maybe we should send it to the Bureau.”

“Are you crazy? By the time we hear back, we’ll be on social security.”

Episodes in the novel will be published on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Please click the following title,ToxiCity, to read more about Libby Fischer Hellman’s books on Amazon.

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