Authors: Michael Angel
Centaur of the Crime
Book One of ‘Fantasy & Forensics’
Copyright 2011, 2014
Includes a sneak preview of
the second fantasy novel in the
‘Fantasy & Forensics’ series,
also by Michael Angel.
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COLOR AND B&W MAPS OF ANDELUVIA
Centaur of the Crime
Book One of ‘Fantasy & Forensics’
By Michael Angel
Just my rotten luck.
In the movies, when crime scene analysts arrive at the site of a murder, it’s usually deep in some dark, woody glen. Or, if the murder takes place in an urban area, cops from film-land know enough to hang around on the edges, quiet and respectful like mourners at a funeral. Call it in, set up the yellow tape, and get-the-heck-outta-the-way so my work space stays pristine as fresh-fallen snow.
That no-touchee mojo wasn’t working for me today.
I couldn’t get something as simple as a body lying up by the Hollywood reservoir, or down one of Topanga’s blind slot canyons. The crime scene I’d been called in to work had enough cops snooping around to put on a St. Patrick’s Day parade.
I parked the van at the curb and squinted through the grimy windshield and the glare of the noonday sun, trying to make sense of the site. The body of an adult white male had been discovered lying atop a heap of rubble, smack in the middle of a newly demolished city block.
The rectangular piece of property was an ankle-turning warren of shattered concrete blocks, tangled steel rebar, and patches of common mallow. The weed’s flowers filled the air with a dusty, nose-tickling scent like ragweed pollen.
California low-rise buildings bordered three sides of the block. Two were clinker-brick apartment buildings that sported rickety metal cage balconies jammed to bursting with curious onlookers. The third was a decrepit office building that some thoughtful ethnic Angeleno had decorated with a multicolored spray-paint mural of the Aztec God, Quetzalcoatl.
Quetzo appeared to be giving everyone at the crime scene the finger, but then I’ve never been good at interpreting urban art.
I got out of the van, went around back, and threw open the rear doors to finish suiting up. I slipped a disposable jumpsuit-style jacket and pants over my civilian clothes, and then sat on the rear bumper. A dull summery warmth radiated from the metal. I hoped that the plastic pants wouldn’t melt in the heat.
I tucked my long black locks into a dingy gray hair net for that oh-so-attractive cafeteria lady look and then jammed the lot under a dark blue Dodgers baseball cap. Finally, I kicked off my flats and slipped into a pair of zip tack shoes that I’d nicknamed my ‘stompy gothic boots of doom’. They wouldn’t win any awards on the fashion runway, but they’d keep corpse juice out of my socks.
The shoes also gave me almost three more inches in height. I’m already pretty tall, at least for a woman, but when you’re dealing with cops, men who each think they’re as tough as Clint Eastwood and hung like Mr. Ed, every extra inch counts. Don’t ask me why. I think it’s a dominance thing. We really are still primates at heart.
I grabbed a heavy aluminum case by its textured plastic handle, heaved it up to my side, and slammed the van doors shut. I stepped over the worn side of the curb and picked my way through the mallow flowers and gravel.
Broken glass and dry twigs snapped under my feet. The cops milling about the scene looked up and watched me approach. They looked unsure as to whether I was there to help clear things up.
Or just muddy the waters a little more.
This wasn’t like a bunch of construction workers ogling a tight-bloused secretary on her way to work. Believe me,
looks sexy in crime scene gear. But show me a beat cop, and I’ll show you a frustrated wanna-be detective. If there’s less than three cops at a murder scene, they’ll sidle up to you to offer their pet theory on how it all happened. Three or more, and they’ll hang around, hoping to overhear something they can gossip about to their buddies back at the station.
The debris formed a gentle slope of loose material that’d have been hell to walk through in my flats—let alone high heels—but my stompy boots handled it just fine. One of the guys separated himself from the mass of the LAPD’s finest and waved as he came towards me. Hazel eyes, close-cropped hair, and a friendly face that shone through a perpetual haze of beard stubble.
I recognized Alanzo Esteban from working a couple of these joyful little scenes. One of the few detectives in Homicide who I actually liked. Judging by the bashful way he snuck glances at me when he thought I wasn’t looking, the feeling was more than mutual.
“Why, señora del acero,” he said with a smile. He wasn’t a good looking man, but his warm Latino accent sent a thrill down my spine. “So good of you to join us, Dayna.”
“Yeah, but I’m sure no lady of steel, no matter what you say,” I replied. I fought to keep a grin off my face and lost. “Fill me in. What the hell’s going on here, Alanzo?”
Esteban had worked with me enough to know that I wasn’t asking about the crime scene, at least not yet. I wanted to know why so many cops were wandering over the site, making my job harder and more miserable by the minute.
“What’s going on is that some
dumped our dead guy in the middle of this demolition zone,” he said. “Construction’s due to start here on one of the mayor’s pet projects. So you have politicos falling all over themselves to jump into everyone’s soup. And when the Chief heard…”
I held up a hand. “He sent McClatchy out, didn’t he?”
He nodded. I let out a groan.
“Esteban, I’m not done with you yet!” came a harsh voice. We traded a glance that spoke volumes.
“Speak of the devil,” I said.
I followed Esteban across the tumbled surface of concrete and rebar. The sun beat down on the exposed city block and I pulled my cap brim down as far as it could go. Perspiration already stained the inside of my jumpsuit. No wonder I was always able to keep the flab off my hips and the cottage cheese off the thighs. I carried my personal one-size-fits-all sauna around with me. I licked a stray bead of sweat from my lips and came away with the gamy taste of body salt.
We came up to a barrel-chested, red faced man busy shouting orders at the officers towards the far end of the field. His salt and pepper hair was balding, his jowls were threatening to sag, and he clenched a red and black-tipped toothpick between his teeth. A snazzy gray pinstripe suit tented over his wide frame. Office wear for field work always marks you as one of two things: a rank amateur, or a politically appointed desk jockey.
Deputy Chief Bob McClatchy fell into both categories.
“Esteban, see what you can do,” McClatchy said, with a wave of one hand. “You know, tell these scene techies to hurry up. We’ve got real work to do.”
“As it happens, you can pass the message on directly,” Esteban said, indicating me with a nod. McClatchy squinted at me like Esteban had brought him a new kind of bug to look at.
“Dayna Chrissie, Office of the Medical Examiner,” I said. I put my hand out. McClatchy stared uncomprehendingly at my open palm for a moment, as if I were offering him a dead fish. Then the automatic courtesy I was counting on kicked in, and he gingerly shook my hand. “We’ve met before, in passing. Phone booth shooting in Northridge.”
“I remember,” he said. “Not you. The case. Took your people eight days to go over a crime scene the size of a shower stall. Real pain in the ass, if you’ll pardon my French.”
“I pardon and parlez French,” I said wryly. “But crime scene processing is always a pain in the ass if you do it right. You don’t just run in, scoop up a handful of DNA, and boom, you’re finished. And you’re going to make it harder for me to do my work if you keep using beat cops to comb the area for evidence.”
He scowled at me. From the pattern of wrinkles on his face, I could tell that the scowl was one of his favorite expressions. Maybe he practiced in front of a mirror every morning before he went to work.
“Fine, anything to speed this mess up.” He spoke to one of the nearby officers and sent the man off to round up the boys in blue. He shifted the red and black toothpick in his mouth and then jabbed a finger at me. “You’re going to perform your initial report with me present, got that, Chrissie?”
Esteban coughed. McClatchy stared at him.
I pointed at the Dodgers insignia on my baseball cap. “I’m not LAPD, McClatchy. I’m a non-com private contractor, like most of your Crime Scene Analysts.”
“A lot of the M.E. offices are moving that way,” Esteban added. “Gives people like Dayna here more flexibility while it saves the city money.”
“Well,” McClatchy huffed, “I still want to be there—”
“Then come along,” I said brusquely.
I turned away and started hiking towards the yellow and black scene tape markers. I heard the two men follow in my wake, but I didn’t turn to talk with either of them. My meager store of patience had run bone dry. When you come down to it, I think that’s why I got into this line of work in the first place. Compared to the living, dead people are so much more agreeable, in no small part because they don’t try to pull rank—they just smell it.
Esteban stepped quickly to keep up at my side. He said, “You got lucky. Hector Reyes got here ten minutes before you did. Before the rest of the local police division arrived.”
good news.” Hector was the best crime scene photographer in the department. If he got here before too many extra footprints were set down, we’d have more to work with than a smeary blur of shoe marks.
“Somebody called the body in around eleven this morning,” Esteban added, as we each slipped under the yellow tape perimeter. “No eyewitnesses to the killing, or, if the body was dumped here, any reports of suspicious people, suspicious vehicles.”
We crested a small rise where the mess of concrete blocks and rusted iron gave way to a pitted gravel surface. I didn’t see the body at first, but my eye followed a little trail of red droplets that dotted the ground. Several little trails, actually, that led back to a patch of mallow that’d been half-crushed by a pair of feet, clad in a pair of worn leather boots.
The stench of the body hit me then. The corpse hadn’t been lying out too long. Insects were just beginning to gather, and even in the burning heat of the Southern California summer, it smelled only of newly decomposing flesh. On the Chrissie Scale of Stinkiness (patent pending), our guy still only rated a five out of ten. But it still made Detective Esteban pause and His Highness McClatchy reel back as if someone had punched him in the gut.
I stepped up and took my first look at the body. Let my reptile brain sift through the images to pick out any curious, out of place details later. The corpse belonged to a man in his late thirties to early forties. Caucasian with sandy blonde hair. Well built. Looked like he’d been in good health and pounding the weights at Gold’s Gym.
And that’s when I saw something that really got my attention, got my pulse pumping like I’d gone down to Starbucks and mainlined a Venti espresso.
The skin on the man’s arms was covered in little white scales like a snake.
I knelt a couple meters away from the body, set down the aluminum case I’d been lugging along, and cracked it open. I hurriedly slipped on a pair of shoe covers over my stompy gothic boots of doom, a surgical mask over my face, and finished the outfit off with a pair of latex gloves. I chewed my lip in thought for a moment, and then looked up at Esteban.
“You up to taking some body pics for me?”