It wasn’t supposed to be this easy, watching life seep out of a body. Knowing you were the cause of it. Standing in the motel room, fingers against the carotid, feeling the pulse dwindle to a weak, irregular tremor. Smiling, as his skin became translucent, a bluish tinge to his lips. Not so hard, now, to understand that doctor who helped people die. And sometimes stuck around to watch. Hadn’t someone said at the moment of death, he’d shout at his patients, imploring them to tell him what it was like?
The man on the bed wheezed softly. Not long ago, he’d been writhing, clutching his middle.
“Call an ambulance,” he’d gasped, the words barely audible. When there was no response, he struggled feebly for the phone.
Tying him down to the bed. Seeing comprehension dawn in his face. Telling him everything. Who knew how much he understood through his agony? But he did shudder, and he pursed his lips trying to spit. A final, futile attempt at resistance. Understandable. Who could blame him?
Waiting, light splashing across his face, as the convulsions wracked his body and his eyes bugged out until he stopped thrashing.
Easy. It had all been so easy. His face turned blue, and, like a gentle breeze that barely ripples the air, he was gone.
A quick shower, cleaning up with towels brought from home, wiping down surfaces. It didn’t take long.
A light tap on the door. The door swung open.
“You’re right on time.”
“Is it over?”
“Just like we planned.”
He hesitated, hanging back.
“Come on. He’s not going to bite.”
He stepped across the threshold, into the room, and together they dragged the body out. Following the dead man’s car, circling back. Dumping the car and the body and then heading back north.
The driver, still working off a Sunday night six-pack, wasn’t sure whether he heard it or felt it. A muffled thump, a fleshy noise that rose above the tinny, grinding sound of the gears. He released the clamps that locked the high school dumpster to the back of the truck. Blade’s probably chewing through a bag of meat, he thought.
Then everything slowed down.
Shit. Truck’s acting up again. That’s the problem when companies get too big too fast. No attention to maintenance. He couldn’t complain too much, though. RDM, Regional Disposal Management, had been pretty good to him. He made good money driving those big blue trucks. Especially since they’d locked up most of the contracts on the North Shore. It beat working on the line like he used to, assuming you could even find a place that wasn’t overrun by wetbacks.
Another thud. Fucking teenagers. Too good for the food in the cafeteria. Plenty of people would be grateful for a square meal, but they didn’t live on the North Shore of Chicago. He threw the machine’s gears into neutral and was climbing out of the cab when the stench assailed him. Garbage was always rancid, especially rotten meat. But this was different. Pinching his nose closed, he moved to the bed of the truck and opened up the hopper. Hooking his arm over the edge, he stepped up and peered in. Then he retched.
Glenbrook Detective Matt Singer folded his tallis and carefully slid it in the velvet bag Georgia bought him for his birthday. He should have gone to morning prayers but he’d drifted back to sleep after Georgia left, so he did them at home. He placed the bag on the shelf in the closet. Before closing the door, he ran his hand over Georgia’s clothes. Strange to see skirts and dresses next to the few things he needed to hang up. But not unpleasant. When he pressed his face against the purple dress she’d worn last night and inhaled her musky scent, he hardened. Smiling, he shuffled into the bathroom.
He turned on the shower, then stepped in. The jets of water loosened his neck muscles, and as he lathered the soap into foamy white bubbles, he realized he was humming. Afterwards he toweled off and wiped the steam off the mirror. He was shaving when the call came in.
In the neighboring village of Northview, Detective Sergeant John Stone poured a cup of coffee. The lunchroom in the village police station wasn’t much of a room—a cramped windowless space with cinderblock walls and a couple of vending machines, but that’s where the guys on the force hung out. Two officers lounged at a table while a third read aloud from the morning newspaper.
“Two Chicago tactical officers were shot and killed last night as they intercepted a drug sale on the west side. Members of the Gangster Disciples are suspected…”
Stone dumped three packs of sugar into his coffee. Why did cops abuse themselves by reading the paper? The reporters always got it wrong—who did what to who and why. And that “special” relationship between cops and journalists? The few times the reporters did get it right, their arrogance was insufferable.
“Bunch of fucking cowboys.” One of the uniforms said, pointing at the paper.
The cop who’d been reading out loud looked up. “At least someone’s still out on the street.”
“Not for long, if these yo-yos keep screwing up,” the second officer said.
Stone bit back a reply. Northview was a bedroom suburb of Chicago, and the cops in the lunchroom were young, green, and cocky. Twenty years on the West Side would cure them. Still, they had a point. Chicago had been plagued with so many bad cops and scams in recent years even the Chief of Police had been forced to resign. Those who survived were either running for cover or trying to be super-heroes. Stone was glad he was out of it. Not much happened in the suburbs. That was good.
The crisp sound of leather heels clacking down the hall cut through his thoughts. Stone knew it had to be brass—the rest of the world wore Nikes. Seconds later, Hank Phillips ducked his tall frame through the door.
“Stone. I was just coming to see you.”
“What’s up, Hank?” Phillips was the kind of boss who would find you rather than make you cool your heels in his office. Unusual for a Chief of Police. Even in the suburbs.
“You know the Feldman construction site?”
Stone nodded. Stuart G. Feldman, a successful developer, had bought one of the last unimproved tracts in the village. His plans to build a retail center, which everyone knew was a euphemism for a mall, had unleashed a storm of resistance that was gathering force. Village residents didn’t need the tax revenues, didn’t care about the amenities, and didn’t want the congestion.
Phillips poured coffee into a plastic cup. “Well, a few weeks ago, some of the good citizens formed a coalition to fight the project. They’re calling themselves CEASE.”
“‘Citizens’ Effort Against Senseless Expansion.’ Supposed to have some ties to those preservationists over in the next village.”
Stone couldn’t suppress a smile. They should have saved their energy. Ultimately the project would go forward. They always did. Especially when Feldman was involved. He had clout. Not to mention his hands in the right pockets.
Phillips shrugged as if he knew what Stone was thinking. “We got a report of vandalism over at the site. Normally, I wouldn’t waste your time, but it’s Feldman. We gotta check it out.”
“Someone smeared dog shit all over their sign and left a pile of it underneath.” Phillips spread his hands. “What can I tell you?”
Stone grunted. Such were the perks of working in the village. Chicago cops dealt with rape, drugs, and murder. He got to run down dog shit.
In Glenbrook Georgia Davis stretched yellow tape around as much of the parking lot as she could. A squad car blocked the entrance, but dozens of Blazers, Jeeps, and compacts managed to pull in around it. A cool October morning, condensation coated the windshields, but a bright sun hinted at the warmth to come. Word had spread quickly, and students, ignoring the bell that marked the start of classes, gathered in knots to gawk.
At the edge of the crowd, Robby Parker, her partner, wore a worried look. About a dozen kids were massed and pushing against the tape. If they broke through, they’d contaminate the scene. Georgia sprinted back to her cruiser and pulled a megaphone out of the trunk. Moving back over, she yelled into the crowd.
“Back up. Show’s over. Get to class.”
A collective grumble went up from the crowd. Most of the students dispersed, but a couple of rowdy types made a fast break. Robby grabbed one by the elbow, and Georgia barreled her shoulder into the other. Falling back, one of them clutched his chest, muttering something about police brutality.
“You think that’s brutality pal,” she said, “stick around.”
The boy eyeballed her but slunk off.
She sighed. She’d probably hear about it later.
A black Honda Accord swung around the corner and stopped a few yards away. Matt cut the engine and climbed out of the car, leaving the blinking light revolving on top—a beacon of sorts for the medical examiner, Georgia guessed.
At five ten, with powerful, well-defined muscles, Matt was compact but strong. Curly dark hair framed an angular face, and his long narrow nose looked like it had been broken more than once. Behind his rimless glasses, though, his large brown eyes were kind and gentle, and Georgia was a sucker for kindness.
He moved to the bed of the truck and climbed up. He covered his eyes for a moment, then dropped his hand and waved her over.
“Georgia, I need you to confirm that techs are on their way. And make sure they have plenty of gloves and Vicks. Call around if you have to. This is a hell of a mess.”
She nodded. She’d taken a quick look earlier. The bed of the truck was covered with garbage but she could make out bits of white bone and bloodstained flesh mixed in. Patches of tattered plaid material made a colorful addition. In a corner, under a layer of half-eaten lunches and homework papers, was a body minus an arm and leg. It was covered by the same tattered plaid. Another lump of flesh covered with blood lay in the opposite corner. A missing limb. Or part of it. In her three years on the job, Georgia had never seen anything like it. She’d blown out short bursts of air that vaporized in the morning chill.
Matt went over to the driver, who had situated himself as far away from the truck as he could. As Matt spoke to him, the guy started to nod, and his body language relaxed. That was Matt. Making you feel you were the only person in the world who mattered.
A Jeep Cherokee entered the parking lot and pulled up to Matt’s Honda. A young Asian woman climbed out. Jenny Lee, an evidence tech from the state crime lab. Village cops usually did their own tech work. If Matt had called Jenny, this was big.
Jenny dug latex gloves out of her pocket and walked over to the truck. Hoisting herself up, she studied the bed of the truck. Then she jumped down, and beckoned to Matt, the photographer, and the Medical Examiner, who had just arrived. Georgia heard them discuss how to break down the scene. Jenny suggested a square grid pattern, with the torso in the truck as the focal point.
Matt made some quick sketches of the scene, then nodded. “Go ahead. There’s a lot to sift through.” He turned to Jenny. “We’ve got extra hands, too, if we need ’em.”
Meaning her and Robby.
Jenny was good at her job, they said. As she made way for the photographer, Matt asked her something, and Georgia saw her hand him a jar of Vicks. He rubbed some under his nose—he liked to work crime scenes along with the techs. Kept him honest, he said. Then he went over to Georgia.
“Great way to start the day, huh?” He gently punched her in the shoulder. Before she could answer, he turned around to rejoin Jenny at the truck.
She watched him go, impressed by how well he could compartmentalize. Whether it was work, prayer, or sex, his mind placed everything in its assigned cubicle, filing the appropriate emotions until needed. She couldn’t do that. She knew she should be more professional and focused—like Jenny. But she couldn’t. She knew they were in the middle of an ugly death scene. She knew it was not a time for her mind to wander. But, Christ, all she could think about was the way Matt made her feel last night in bed.
Six hours later a local funeral home sent a hearse for the remains. The ME followed it to the morgue where he would determine cause of death. Or try to, he said. They had bagged the body and collected the missing limbs, but the ME said there wasn’t as much blood in the truck as he expected for someone who’d been through a meat grinder, and most of it was dark and viscous. Maybe the victim was already dead before they went into the dumpster. Matt dispatched Detective Pete Brewster down to the morgue.
By mid-afternoon, an officer, foraging in the bed of the truck, found most of a red purse under a layer of garbage. Cards inside the wallet identified its owner as Julia Rose Romano. Georgia checked with the high school. Romano taught math but she hadn’t shown up this morning. The secretary checked her file, and her blue Saturn, its doors locked, was found not far from the dumpster. Matt instructed the techs to go over it from bumper to bumper and told Georgia and Robby to tag all the cars nearby. An early-bird student or teacher might have seen something.
An hour later Brewster called with a positive ID.