The speed and efficiency of the sheriff’s medics impressed Ness – perhaps the only part of the office that did. In fewer than five minutes, they had arrived at cell B-4, lowered the body from the hook and administered oxygen, then insulin, in the hope of restarting his heart. But they were too late. Frank Dolezal was dead.
“Well,” Sheriff O’Donnell said, sighing heavily, “that’ll save the state the cost of killing him.” He was surrounded by three of his uniformed officers.
Ness had remained silent and out of the way while the medics did their work, but now he could hold his tongue no longer. “I thought you said you had two men watching him at all times?”
The sheriff shrugged. “It was a fluke thing. Schuster left to escort some visitors downstairs. Then I called for Crawford. Apparently this man was just waiting for an opportunity. They were only gone a few moments.”
Ness peered through the bars into the tiny cell. “I noticed the cell doors were unlocked.”
“Dolezal was the only prisoner in this cell block. There was no reason to restrict him to the cell. The doors to the block were locked and bolted.”
“But any one of your officers could’ve gotten in.”
“But the point is, Dolezal couldn’t get out.”
“No, the point is, anyone who wanted to get to him, could.”
“Just what are you saying?”
“I think you know.” The medics had told Ness that Dolezal had been found dangling from a hook on the ceiling of his cell, hanging from a noose made from twisted rags. “Where did he get these rags?”
One of the uniforms, Crawford, stepped forward. “He said he was bored. Wanted something to do. So I gave him the rags so he could clean his cell.”
“Is that right?”
Ness faced O’Donnell. “I thought you said he was on suicide watch.”
“So if he’s on suicide watch, why would your men give him something he could easily turn into a makeshift rope and hang himself with? For that matter, why would you give him a cell with a hook in the ceiling?”
Crawford and O’Donnell exchanged a glance.
“Guess we never thought about that.”
To their surprise, Ness withdrew a tape measure from his coat pocket and began measuring the cell.
“Now wait just a minute,” O’Donnell said. “It’s one thing to have you come look around but where do you get off-”
“Five feet seven,” Ness said, cutting him off.
“Uhh… come again?”
“This hook in the ceiling. It’s five feet seven inches off the ground.”
“So perhaps you can explain to me how a man who was five feet eight could hang himself from a hook that was only five feet seven inches off the floor.”
Ness ’s inquiry was met with stony silence.
“I think perhaps it’s time for you to leave, Mr. Ness.”
“You won’t get away with this, O’Donnell.”
“The door is this way.”
“I don’t know why you thought you had to do this. I don’t know if you and your squad of hooligans fancy yourselves some kind of avenging lynch mob, or if it’s that you knew your case wouldn’t hold up in court. Or a combination of both. But you won’t get away with it.”
“You’re talking through your hat. You’ve got nothing. No one is going to care about how many inches high some hook is.”
Ness smiled thinly. “Ever seen a man hanged before, Sheriff?”
“Haven’t had the pleasure.”
“I have.” Ness crouched down beside the corpse. “Hanging leaves a very characteristic mark, because the back of the noose hangs higher than the front due to the upward pull of the rope. Makes a V-shaped scar.” He pulled the sheet covering the corpse down slightly. “But as you can see, the bruising on Dolezal’s neck circles the middle of his neck. There’s no upward slant.” Ness replaced the sheet. “He didn’t hang. He was strangled.”
O’Donnell squared himself directly in front of Ness. “You’re asking for trouble, Mr. Safety Director.”
“No, you asked for trouble,” Ness replied, looking right back at him, not flinching an inch. O’Donnell’s men moved in closer. Ness ignored them. “First, when you decided to mess around with my case. Second, when you decided to take a human life. And you will pay for that, Sheriff. I’ll make sure of it.”
“No one will believe you. They’ll say you’re just bitter because you didn’t catch the killer. You’ll look like a fool.”
“Well, I’ve looked foolish before,” Ness replied. “But I never killed anyone to cover up my own incompetence. Or political bias. That might be something you want to keep in mind.” He placed his hat on his head and started toward the door. “Thank you for your trouble, gentlemen. I’ll see myself out.”