Authors: F. Paul Wilson
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There never was an idea stated
that woke men out of their stupid indifference
but its originator was spoken of as a crank.
âOLIVER WENDELL HOLMES, SR.
I can believe anything, provided that it is quite incredible.
Laura Fanning's sense of something terribly wrong had grown as she'd walked through the silent, empty Mayan village. She found the inhabitants standing in a circle in a clearing by a tall ceiba tree, staring up at the body swaying in the breeze.
Someone had set him on fire and hung his blackened remains from a thick branch. Whoever had done this had tied wire around his neck, looped it over the branch, and secured it to the trunk. The flies hadn't wasted any time getting to work.
She felt her gorge rise. Used as she was to death, this struck homeâand hard. She hadn't known him wellâhardly at allâand hadn't particularly liked him. But she'd
him. He hadn't deserved to die, and certainly no one deserved this.
Laura hadn't signed up for anything even remotely like this. The deal had been to fly to the YucatÃ¡n Peninsula, talk to a local medicine man, gather information on a supposed miracle cure, return home, collect her money, and return to her daughter and her quiet, uneventful life.
She wished she'd never agreed, wished she were back home with Marissa or even at work on her cadavers, teasing a cause of death out of them one at a time.
In fact, the Suffolk County morgue was where it had all started: with a charred corpse like this one and an unknown cause of death. Who would have dreamt when she'd been called out to a crime scene Wednesday morning that it would lead toÂ â¦
“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.
Â â¦ she hated the way the term casually objectified a dead fellow human being. Same with the ever-popular
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
“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 crackedâlike 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
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 daysâexcept 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
By the time the fire crew got here, it was pretty much over. This baby burned hot. I mean
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 subsetsâfirst degree, manslaughter, felony murder, whateverâdidn'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 deathânot just beyond a reasonable doubt, but beyond
doubtâbecause 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 steelâall 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 rentalâfound a âFor 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 crispyâskin 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
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 gonnaâ”
She put out a restraining hand. “I've got it.”
She was aware that her looks attracted attention. Her mother was Mesoamericanâfull-blooded Mayanâand 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.