I walked slowly to the address. It was only six blocks, but I needed to think. I had just met my new client, and the puzzles were already starting to stack up.
For one, how did he know so much about me? Was he having me followed? No, I would have noticed that. And exactly what had he meant when he said I was gifted? Also, if his sources were so thorough, why did he need a detective in the first place?
None of it was adding up. I was starting to get the sneaking suspicion that I was being used to take care of someone’s dirty laundry. I was still scratching my head when I arrived at the address.
The house was one of the less dilapidated Victorians in the neighborhood. It had been kept up by its owner, but just enough to rent. Detective Justin Hagen waited for me outside when I walked up. His nose was firmly buried in a notepad, and his glasses had slid almost completely off his face. Shrugging the hunch out of his shoulders, I could see his muscles shifting under the fabric of his suit. Justin’s built like a sprinter; probably ran track in high school or college. He must have slimmed down some in the time since, but he was still in much better shape than I was.
Justin was one of those people who wouldn’t have made it past beat cop in this town just twenty years ago. His skin, hair, and eyes were all a deep caramel, a trait I find fascinating, but that would have sunk him in an instant as a cop in a Southern city like Knoxville. Thankfully he was born in the right generation. He’s a hell of a detective. I’d thought about offering him a partnership, but I was barely making enough money to get by as it was. He’d have been a good partner, too. Everything about him screamed attention to detail, from his perfectly pressed slacks to his immaculately kept hair to his perpetually polished wingtips that gleamed like volcanic glass in the afternoon sun. The only piece of his ensemble that was out of place was his tie. It didn’t hang down or loose, no. It was a loud, blue and red number that looked like paisley, if paisley been painted by Salvador Dali, during an acid trip. I had to suspect the same attention to detail went into the choosing of his ties. Probably some kind of statement against authority.
“I thought you said fifteen minutes,” he said while pushing his spectacles back up his nose when I approached.
“Yeah, well, not all of us set our watches by atomic, naval standard. You have to allow for a few minutes in either direction,” I said.
“What ‘ya got?” I asked.
“Inside. Front room. You can’t miss it,” he said with a minuscule grimace.
I had worked with Justin a few times since he was handed the dubious honor of heading up the Special Crimes department, but I had never really seen him show any kind of emotion at a crime scene before. At the bar, after a case, with a drink in hand, sure. But never at a crime scene. He’s too professional.
Something must’ve spooked him.
A feeling like cold quicksilver wormed around in my guts as I climbed the porch steps and ducked under the police tape. I wrote it off as the hangover.
The front hall of the house was awash in the aroma of barbeque. It made me hungry and sick at the same time. My second reaction was sheer surprise that someone had been allowed to grill out at a crime scene. Then my brain kicked in and the cold chills trickled down my spine like ice water.
No one was cooking. Someone was cooked.
I made my way into the parlor and nearly retched.
Human flesh gives off a less-than-distinct odor when it burns. If you don’t know it’s a human being, charring, I’m told it can smell a lot like barbequed pork. I did not have the luxury of not knowing. In the middle of the parlor, on a small, oval throw rug, were the scorched remains of a person.
I felt the coffee come up in the back of my throat and knock its acidic fist on the back of my tongue. I choked for breath, caught it and forced myself to swallow. Puking at a crime scene is ok, for rookies. Puking on a crime scene is strictly taboo.
The body had been reduced to a cinder. There was no way of telling if it was male or female. It just lay there, curled into the fetal position, like some charcoal caricature of a person, its arms and legs folded up as if it had been trying to stay warm. My stomach threatened to crawl back up my throat for a second time. I jerked my eyes away from the corpse.
I tried to take in the details of the room; anything to take my mind off the lifeless cinder at the center of everything.
It was the type of parlor I expected to find. They run pretty standard in the renovated Victorians in this section of town; high ceilings, plaster coated walls, and smooth, hardwood floors. It was neatly kept. Nothing looked out of position. A small couch and a few end tables sat, minuscule, in the expanse of the room. Pictures hung, straight, on the walls, and fresh flowers filled a vase on a low coffee table. No television. There also weren’t any knocked-over lamps or gouges in the walls or floor. No signs of a struggle at all.
I suddenly found it hard to believe that someone could have burned to death in a room that well kept.
I stifled a nervous laugh and coughed into my hand instead. The boys in the crime scene unit looked up, for just a moment, before returning to the investigation. I spun on my heel and strode back out into the sun. Justin was waiting for me, sitting on the stairs, smoking a cigarette.
“How can you smoke those things?” I asked, settling down on the step next to him, “Especially with the smell coming from in there.”
“Smoke hides the smell,” he said, “A little. Want one?”
“I don’t think I’m up to it just yet.”
“Yeah,” he said, “You look a little green around the gills.”
We both snickered, then we both sat and stared off into the distance. I can’t say that I was doing much thinking. I don’t think he was either. I forced my eyes to move around, to come back to the moment.
There were a few people, civilians, milling about. Deaths and crime scenes are like any other spectacle: people tend to rubberneck. Hell, even one of the local goth-punks made an appearance to see the show.
Just another freak, trying to see what death looks like.
“What do you think?” Justin asked.
“About the rubberneckers?”
“Oh, that,” I said, “I’m having a hard time with the whole thinking thing at the moment. I’ll get back to you on that.”
“Took a couple of minutes for me, too,” he said, exhaling a long stream of smoke.
“It’s definitely a she,” I said, “No man keeps his home in that kind of order.”
“I know a few fastidious souls who do,” he said with a smirk, “but what makes you so sure this is a woman?”
“Fresh cut flowers,” I said, “It speaks of someone who wants to bring beauty into her house.”
“Could be gay,” he countered.
“Nope,” I said, “Too subtle with the decorations.”
We looked at each other for a second, the barest traces of smiles daring to form at the corners of our mouths.
“Yeah,” he said, “I figured it for a woman too. No pictures of her or of family in the house. Think she was renting. We’re trying to nail down the landlord now.”
“Who called it in?” I asked.
“Anonymous,” he said, taking another drag on his smoke.
“That’s weird,” I said, “I kind of figured you’d have all of this wrapped up. Why’d the captain want me in on this one?”
“Not sure. It could have something to do with the circumstances,” he said blowing smoke through his nose like an amused dragon, “or it could be because I told him you might have some insight.”
“Maybe,” I said, going over the image of the parlor in my head, “It’s definitely strange. Nothing out of place. No scorch marks around the body. Spontaneous Human Combustion maybe.”
“Don’t know much about the phenomenon myself,” he said, “And that answer won’t earn your rate.”
“Figured as much,” I said, “If some kind of accelerant was used, there’d be signs of burning on something other than the body.”
“You’d think,” he said.
The coroner’s van pulled up and parked at the curb. The man in the passenger seat stuck his head out the window.
“The CSU guys done in there yet?” the passenger asked.
“Just about,” Justin said, “Should only be a few more minutes, I think.”
I walked over to the van and shoved my head through the open window.
“You got any of that menthol stuff to put under your nose?” I asked.
“Don’t really need it,” the driver said, “but we keep some on hand for you guys, just in case.”
He handed me the jar. I took some and smeared it under each nostril. I tossed it back and trudged up the steps to the house.
“What’s up?” Justin asked.
“I want to take another look around,” I said, “Care to join me?”
“Why not?” he said with a shrug.
He followed me back into the house.
The menthol didn’t exactly hide the smell of burnt flesh, but it lent it enough of a strange counterpoint that I could sense it as an abstract, instead of a more concrete, there’s-a-charred-body-on-the-floor smell. It kept me from wanting to vomit every couple of seconds.
I didn’t go back to the parlor, not at first. I headed upstairs to look around the second floor.
A neatly kept bathroom and office faced each other at the top of the flight. I poked my head into both. Nothing to see. So, I went for the bedroom at the end of the hall. It, too, was extremely neat and tidy. I was beginning to wonder if the woman who lived here was a woman at all. Maybe she was a nun, or a robot, or a robot nun. I was pondering her strange metal habits when the buzzing started.
Just an itching at my brain stem, at first, but the sensation grew more intense as I moved deeper into the room. It was positively jarring as I stood in front of the woman’s closet. The electric bees were awake.
I looked at Justin. He nodded, and I opened the sliding doors. The inside was out of place.
Thank god. I couldn’t have tolerated any more neatness.
Clothes hung at the sides, and a small altar stood in a cleared space in the middle. It was about three feet tall. Gold and green cloth lay draped over its surface. Several small statues, some of which I recognized, many of which I didn’t, stood arrayed around a small, silver bowl. Lying across the rim of the bowl was a slender, golden, ceremonial dagger. Whoever she was, she was a practitioner of some sort.
“Wiccan?” Justin asked.
“I can talk to some of the people I know. See if they knew her,” I said.
“But you don’t think so?”
“Not really,” I said, “The bowl and dagger fit, but the statue of Ganesh and some of the other figures, not so much.”
I took a step back and scanned the room again.
“What are you looking for?” Justin asked.
“This,” I said, lifting up an innocuous-looking throw rug.
Underneath, painted in white on the floor, was a circle, three feet in diameter.
“Don’t see that every day,” Justin said.
“Not on hardwood floors, no,” I said, “Not unless you’re hanging out with Aleister Crowley.”
“Isn’t he dead?”
“That’s what they say.”
Justin shot me a quizzical look. I just smiled.
“How long on the ID do you think?” I asked.
“We should have something later today.”
I dropped the rug back in place and headed for the door.
“What now?” he asked.
“Now we take another look at the body,” I said over my shoulder.
We hustled down the stairs and into the parlor. The CSU guys were just packing up. Justin told them to give us a few more minutes before they told the coroners to come get the corpse. I walked circles around the body. On the second turn, I saw a glint of metal out of the corner of my eye.
I knelt down by the body, motioning for Justin to join me. When he got to my level, I pointed out the glint.
Somehow, a necklace had survived the flames. The crime scene guys must’ve missed it under the layer of char.
Justin called one of them back into the room. The investigator slipped on a fresh pair of latex gloves and set to releasing the necklace from the burnt flesh. He snapped a few pictures, then pried it off the corpse, placed it in an evidence bag. He handed the bag to Justin and walked out.
“What do you make of this?” Justin asked, tilting the bag to catch the light.
“The chain might have been silver,” I said, “but whatever was on it looks like copper. Some kind of symbol or talisman, I think.”
The heat had melted the copper thing at the end of the chain. It was deformed beyond recognition. If it had been a talisman, there was no way to tell what kind.
“A copper talisman?” Justin asked, “What would someone use that for?”
“Don’t know,” I said with a shrug, “but if it was for protection, I’d really look into getting my money back.”
“Somehow,” Justin said, “I don’t think she’ll be redeeming her warranty.”
Gallows humor, sometimes it’s the only thing that lets you keep doing the job. Sometimes it’s the only thing that keeps you from crying. I hear it a lot at crime scenes.
Justin and I walked back to the front door. He signaled the coroners to come in and collect the corpse. We stood on the porch as they went about their duty. Justin lit another cigarette. He offered the pack to me. I waved him off.
I have no way of knowing if I smoked in my previous life, but I saw no use in starting up now.
“Oh, shit,” Justin said, almost choking on a puff of smoke.
There was only one thing that I knew of that could elicit cuss words from Justin while he was on the job. And she was slithering up the sidewalk directly towards us.
Barb, as we all called her, was as sharp and dangerous as her nickname implied. Barb was the star reporter for a local rag of a tabloid that specialized in strange happenings. She always dressed in classy blouses, skirts, and sensible pumps – nothing over three-inch heels. The professional manner of her wardrobe belied the creature that writhed underneath. She was lean and hungry in the way Shakespeare wrote. She had the look of someone who burned lean tissue into the night, thinking up ways to get a story or to get ahead.
And I hated her.
“You better get out of here Caleb,” Justin said.
“Yeah, before I punch her fucking lights out,” I breathed, already dangling one leg over the railing at the side of the house. She got up to the porch just as I managed a safe straddle.
“Caleb, Justin, how nice to see you here,” she said in that typically Southern, insincere, and saccharine-drenched drawl.
“That’s detective Hagen, Miss Hicks,” Justin said with only a minor scowl, “Try to remember it.”
“Oh, I’m sure I won’t forget,” she said, her intonation giving me a toothache, “and where are you going, Caleb?”
“Away,” I said, smiling as wide as I could, “and that’s Mr. Carson to you.”
I tried to make my voice as insincerely sweet as hers. I managed, just barely.
“Why, I haven’t seen you two together since the Delilah Simmons case,” she said.
I had to fight the urge to jump back over the rail and stomp on her empty, bleach-blond head. I could see Justin fighting a similar if more subdued urge.
“Yes,” Justin said coolly, “And, as I recall, you were warned against ever interfering with an active case, again.”
“And what are you gentlemen investigating now?” she asked, unphased by Justin’s threat.
“You know the police do not comment on active cases, Miss Hicks,” Justin said, ever the professional.
“What about you, Mr. Carson?” she asked.
“Go fuck yourself,” I said, my smile growing so wide it felt like it would crack my face.
“Charming as always,” she said, “but the both of you know that the press cannot be kept out forever.”
“Is that what you’re calling that rag of a tabloid you scribble for?” I asked, dripping sweetness.
“Knoxville Uncovered is a respectable journal of reporting, I’ll have you know,” she said, her fake sweetness slipping.
“I’m sure it makes a perfectly respectable liner for birdcages,” I said, my smile becoming somewhat more genuine.
“Why, I have never….”
“Sure you have. That’s why you walk like that,” I slipped in before she could finish her sentence, the sweetness never leaving my voice, and the smile never leaving my face, “Now, get the fuck out of here before you get someone else damn near tortured to death, you fucking leech.”
That’s what it took.
She stiffened, spun on her expensive heels, and strode away, muttering something about not forgetting.
Yeah, I hope she doesn’t because I couldn’t forget – not ever.
Justin stared at me for a moment, arched his eyebrow in mock reproach, and continued puffing on his cigarette.
“You have no idea how much I’ve wanted to say that to her,” he said in between puffs.
“About as much as me, I’m figuring, but you have the grace and position to restrain yourself,” I said, “I have no such hindrances in my profession.”
“Sometimes I envy you,” he said.
“Sure,” I said, “And sometimes I get the bills paid on time.”
“Well, maybe not that part.”
“Definitely not that part,” I said.
“You better get going before she comes back with a lawyer or something,” he said.
“Yeah, sure,” I said, “Call me when you get a name.”
“Sure,” he said, “Call me when you get anything.”
“Sure,” I said and slid off the porch.
I slipped behind the house and down a couple of blocks for good measure. The long way home would keep me far enough away from Barb Hicks to avoid being tossed in the tank on an assault charge.
I could not afford bail just yet.
More images of Delilah Simmons’ face welled up in my mind. The picturesque school photo her parents had shown us at the beginning of the case clashed with the bloodied and battered image of when we found her. The blood won. It burned into my brain, the dark, dried streaks of blood in her dirty, blond hair; the jagged hole where her left eye had been. The anger bubbled up from my guts and made my hands tremble. I shook it off – pushed the images from my mind and attempted to concentrate on the case at hand.
I stalked back to my office in my own little world of rage and confusion.