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“Got a crispy critter for you, Doc.”
Laura Fanning nodded absently as the deputy sheriff led her through the early morning light toward the smoking embers of what had once been a three-bedroom ranch on the fringe of Sunken Meadow State Park.
Crispy critter … she hated the way the term casually objectified a dead fellow human being. Same with the ever-popular DB.
But she suppressed a sanctimonious comment. No point in getting all holier-than-thou on him. She understood the defense mechanism involved, especially in cops and morgue workers: They saw so much death, so many horrendous examples of man’s inhumanity to man, or the results of simple stupidity, or the random assaults by nature and machinery on the human body, that they had to erect some sort of emotional firewall. Those unable to raise that barrier didn’t last long.
Laura made do with victim. Or vic.
“How’s Marissa doing?” the deputy said.
His name was Philip Lawson and he looked like he’d been plucked from central casting’s file of deputy sheriffs. Thinning hair under his black Stetson, florid face, button-stretching gut. But a good man. One of the first deputies Laura had met when she joined the Suffolk County Medical Examiner’s staff five years ago. He was already a veteran then. She figured he’d been with the sheriff’s department close to twenty years now.
He’d guided her through her first crime scenes. An easygoing man with a generous spirit. Her only problem with him was that he seemed to like her a little too much. He could get a bit clingy at times.
Oh, and he had this thing he did with his neck: rotating it back and forth until it cracked—like popping a giant knuckle. Very annoying after a while.
“She’s great,” she said. “Bored as all get-out with staying home all the time.”
“You’d figure she’d be used to it by now.”
“Would you be?”
He laughed. “I can’t wait! When I retire, I’m never leaving home. Not even for the paper. I’ll have Newsday and the Post delivered right to the front door every goddamn morning.”
Natasha, Marissa’s tutor, had agreed to come early today so Laura could get out to the crime scene. Being a deputy ME allowed her a normal work schedule on most days—except when she was on crime-scene call. And Wednesday was her call day. Accidents and murders always seemed to happen during the off-hours. Death tended to be inconsiderate that way.
“Not much left,” she said, looking around at the blackened ruins. “You suspect arson, I take it?”
He popped his neck. “Oooh, yeah.”
“The squad’s been out?”
“But all-knowing Swami Lawson’s got it pegged.”
He smiled as he shrugged. “Seen enough of these. The smoke was reported around two A.M. By the time the fire crew got here, it was pretty much over. This baby burned hot. I mean real hot. Hotter than wood and fabric will burn on their own. I don’t catch any odor of gas or kerosene, but some sort of accelerant was at work here. And you know what that means.”
Laura knew. Arson meant she’d be posting a murder victim. At this point, the legal subsets—first degree, manslaughter, felony murder, whatever—didn’t come into play. But later on the designation would hinge on her final report. The burden had now fallen on her to establish the cause of death—not just beyond a reasonable doubt, but beyond any doubt—because her findings would help determine the charges brought against the perp or perps when they were caught.
“How’d you get involved?”
“Well, the fire did threaten the state park, and that’s the sheriff’s turf.”
But murder wasn’t. The staties and local Smithtown cops would be handling that. Still, Laura knew how Phil liked to worm his way into any investigation that involved a murder. Deputy Lawson: detective wannabe. He probably would have made a good one. He liked to talk about vegetating through retirement, but she wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t end up doing some PI work.
They stepped through a leaning rectangle of blackened steel—all that was left of the front door. The walls were gone too.
“Do we have a name?”
“Not yet. We figure it’s a winter rental—found a ‘For Rent’ sign in the backyard. We’re tracking down the owner.” Phil stopped and made a flourish toward the floor. “There he be.”
Laura stepped closer and bent over the victim. He lay on his back and was indeed crispy—skin blackened and flaking and the air around him redolent of burned flesh. The fire had vaporized whatever hair he’d had, giving her a clear view of his scorched scalp. No obvious entry or exit wound. His face was gone, but his jaw hung open, revealing a mouth full of white teeth. Good. She could use dental records for identification. With his limbs bent into flexion contractions, his position was almost fetal. Not unusual. Intense heat shrank the muscles, contracting the limbs.
“This how you found him?” she said.
“Haven’t touched him.”
“No signs of foul play on the body?”
Phil shook his head. “Nothing obvious. No knife sticking out of his chest, no dents or holes in his head. No sign of ligatures, but the fire could have burned those away.”
“So he’s one big mystery for now.”
“Yeah, but maybe the motive isn’t so mysterious.”
Phil pointed to some of the charred debris. “He had lots of dirt inside the house. I mean lots.”
Laura knew what that meant. “Weed?”
“Can’t be a hundred percent sure, but you’re looking at what’s left of big wooden trays filled with dirt, and a shitload of lighting fixtures. So either he was filming mud wrestling or he was growing something. I’ll go with growing. The crop, whatever it was, is ash now, but I got a feeling it wasn’t orchids.”
Laura raised her eyebrows as she turned to him. “Horning in on someone else’s business, you think?”
“That’s my take. Turf wars tend to turn nasty real quick.”
Another reason for Deputy Lawson to be here: He was attached to some sort of joint task force between the DEA and the sheriff’s office. He’d told her it offered a nice break from serving warrants and eviction notices.
“When are they going to legalize that stuff, Phil?”
“Can’t be soon enough for me. I waste so much time busting people who just want to get high. If they don’t do it on county property, it’s not my business. But if folks could grow it and smoke it in their own backyards, you and me wouldn’t have to deal with shit like this.”
Her stomach gave a little lurch as she thought of her eight-year-old Marissa toking on a joint when she got to middle school. Although the poor kid sure could have used some form of it during her chemotherapy.
“People worry about their kids.”
Phil snorted. “Show me a kid these days who wants it and can’t get it, and I’ll show you a kid who’s still being potty trained.”
Laura couldn’t argue with that. As she turned to signal the morgue attendants who’d come along, she heard someone say, “Who’s the MILF?”
She looked over and found one of the firefighters leering at her.
“Punk!” Lawson muttered behind her. He popped his neck. “I’m gonna—”
She put out a restraining hand. “I’ve got it.”
She was aware that her looks attracted attention. Her mother was Mesoamerican—full-blooded Mayan—and her father lily-white Caucasian. Their mingling had left her with a slim, five-six frame, black hair, mocha skin, and startlingly blue eyes. Attention was fine; bad manners were not.
As she walked toward the man, glaring, his leer faded. A newbie, no doubt. The others knew better. He’d been standing with a buddy, both in firefighter PPE, but now his buddy faded too. The guy was all of twenty-five, if that. Laura had a good dozen, maybe fifteen years on him. She stopped and looked him square in the eyes.
“What did you call me?”
His brown eyes darted left, then right. “Uh, nothing.”
“I heard ‘MILF.’ I know of no such word, so it must be an acronym. What does it stand for?”
“Nothing. I was just talking to—” He turned to look at his buddy who was no longer there.
“M-I-L-F … let’s see…” DOLAN was stenciled on his yellow rubberized jacket. “What could that stand for, Mister Dolan? Morsel I’d Like to Fondue? Mignon I’d Like to Filet?”
“You weren’t supposed to hear.”
“Oh, yes I was. I’m not a MILF, Mister Dolan. I’m a deputy medical examiner for Suffolk County. Do you know what can happen when one public service employee sexually harasses another public service employee? In front of witnesses, no less? There’s alllll sorts of regs and nasty consequences for that sort of behavior.”
“Hey, I wasn’t—”
“Yes, you were—six ways from Sunday, as the saying goes. I’ll send a copy of the regs to your chief so he can explain them to you.”
With that she turned and continued her trek toward the morgue attendants. Lawson was already with them.
He grinned. “Carved him a new one?”
“I went easy on him.”
“But I bet he won’t be mouthing off anytime soon.”
“His type never learn. But, on the bright side, one of the perks of my practice is that my patients have impeccable manners.”
She told the attendants to tag and bag the victim. She’d post him later this morning.
Copyright © 2016 by F. Paul Wilson