Authors: Lee Goldberg
"We can't do that," the flat-nosed man protested.
Amanda shoved her ID in his face. "Do it."
The worker looked to Richonen for approval. Richonen nodded reluctantly. Cursing to himself, the worker hit a series of switches, powering down the gas incinerator.
"Stand back," the worker said. "That coffin is going to come out spewing hellfire."
Amanda glanced at the wall beside the cremator, found the fire extinguisher, and held it steady, ready for action.
"Here it comes," the worker said, pressing a button.
The metal mouth of the cremator slid open automatically to reveal the coffin inside, enveloped in flames. The heat immediately drove Amanda, Mark, and Richonen back towards the stairs.
"I'll push it to you from the back of the cremator," the worker yelled. "Douse the fire or this whole room could go up in flames."
The flat-nosed man scrambled to the rear of the cremator, put on a pair of protective goggles, then picked up a long handled rake. He opened the back door of the cremation chamber and, wincing against the intense heat and the flying embers, pushed the rake against the head of the coffin, easing the box forward.
As the coffin slid towards Amanda at the opening of the cremator, she sprayed it with foam, dousing the flames.
The coffin, devoured by fire, disintegrated into glowing embers, revealing the smoking, black corpse inside. The room immediately filled with black smoke and the putrid smell of burning flesh.
"You better hope that warrant gets here, Dr. Bentley," Richonen said evenly, holding a monogrammed silk handkerchief to his face. "Or that is what your career will smell like."
Amanda sprayed everything again, making certain the fire was dead. The foam smothered the smoke and most of the smell that came with it. She dropped the extinguisher, put on a pair of heavy gloves she found nearby, then grabbed Brant's foam-covered corpse by the ankles and pulled him swiftly onto the conveyor belt.
Mark grimaced against the smell and leaned over the body, studying it.
"What do you think?" Amanda asked. "Is he too far gone?"
"We won't know until we cut him open."
That's when Mark heard someone coming down the stairs. He turned to see Steve standing on the steps, surveying the scene in front of him in disbelief.
"Hey, Steve," Mark said. "Glad you could make it."
Steve shook his head. "You can't do anything the easy way, can you, Dad?"
"Do you have the search warrant?" Amanda asked.
"Hardly matters at this point, does it?" Steve said, tipping his head towards the smoking, charred corpse on the conveyor.
"It does to me," Richonen said. "I need to know who is going to pay for this outrage."
Steve produced a paper from inside his jacket, much to Mark and Amanda's relief. "Send the bill to the friendly citizens of Los Angeles County."
Mark and Amanda wore protective goggles, surgical masks, rubber gloves, and blue scrubs. They stood on either side of Winston Brant's charred corpse, which was laid out facedown on a stainless steel autopsy table in the Community General morgue.
The corpse had cooled considerably in the chilled cabin of the morgue van on the ride back to West Los Angeles. Any resemblance the body once bore to Winston Brant was gone.
It hardly looked human anymore.
"Are we all set?' Amanda asked.
Amanda took a scalpel and expertly cut through the burnt flesh to expose a section of the spinal column.
Mark peered over her shoulder and examined the scorched spinal column, looking for the least damaged section.
The spinal cord itself was a rubbery white strand about the thickness of a finger. The collection of nerves ran up through the canal in the center of the vertebrae. Nerves branched off from the cord every inch or so, passing through other openings in the vertebrae and out to the rest of the body.
Mark pointed to a portion of the spine near the shoulder. "This area looks like it came through relatively unscathed, all things considered."
Amanda picked up a pair of scissors and cut away some nerves from the spinal cord around the area Mark had chosen. "This is a first for me."
"You've never tried to extract a spinal tissue sample from an incinerated corpse?"
"Have you?' She used a scalpel to slice between two vertebrae, cutting a section of the spinal cord at the same time.
"Not lately," he said, holding out a sterile specimen pan.
With a pair of tweezers, she removed the inch-long piece of severed cord and placed it in Mark's specimen pan.
"This is a real long shot," she said. "You know that, don't you?"
"I know," Mark said. "But it's a chance worth taking." He set the pan on the counter, picked up the tissue sample, and carefully washed it in the sink.
When the tissue sample was clean, Mark set it on a slide and cut off an eighth-of-an-inch section, which he placed in a tiny metal container that resembled the perforated side of a garlic press.
Mark wrapped the remaining section of spinal cord in polythene, put it back in the pan, and handed it to Amanda, who placed it in her microbiology safety cabinet in case they needed it for future testing.
He slid the metal container with the sample into a machine that would bathe the tissue in formalin and then seal it in wax to make it easier to cut into micro-thin slices for analysis.
It would be twelve hours before the process, known as "fixing" the specimen, was complete and he could continue with the testing.
There was nothing more Mark could do now. He knew the next twelve hours of waiting and uncertainty would pass with excruciating slowness. But he took some solace in knowing that the night would be even longer for Sara Everden, who surely had guessed why he wanted her husband's body and what he must be doing.
Mark was wrong about one thing. He hardly noticed the time go by at all.
He'd accumulated a considerable sleep debt over the last few days and he paid it off that night. After a light dinner at home, he went to bed and passed out the instant his head hit the pillow. He slept dreamlessly and even managed not to club himself with his cast.
The phone rang at seven a.m., waking him from his deep sleep. It was Amanda, calling from the pathology lab. She'd processed and examined Brant's spinal tissue.
Using a microtome, she'd sliced the tissue into very thin, translucent sections. She stained the slices with hematoxylin and eosin, put them on slides, and studied them under a microscope.
"What did you see?" Mark asked.
"It's what I didn't see." She took a deep breath. "No degeneration or scarring of the lateral spinal nerve tracts."
"Thank you, Amanda." Mark hung up, put on his bathrobe, and walked into the kitchen, where he found Steve dressed and waiting, badge and gun already clipped to his belt.
"Winston Brant was a perfectly healthy man," Mark said. "He killed himself for nothing."
"Oh, it was for something," Steve said. "Let's ask Sara Everden what it was, shall we?"
Mark frowned and glanced at his watch. "Guess we're in for another Egg McMuffin breakfast and a long drive to Newport Beach."
Steve shook his head. "We're going out for a leisurely breakfast someplace on the water. I'll send a black-and-white to pick her up. She can sit in traffic for hours. That's only the beginning of the punishment she deserves."
The harsh light of the interrogation room wasn't kind to Dr. Sara Everden. It wasn't kind to anyone. The hateful snarl on her face as she sat across the table from Mark and Steve didn't help her appearance much either.
"This is an outrage," Sara hissed. "My lawyer will be here any minute."
"I hope he's good, because you're going to need him," Steve said. "You're charged with violating penal code sections 148.5, 205, 401, and 487. You know what all those numbers add up to? Thirty years in prison, minimum. Considering the heinous nature and depraved indifference of your crimes, it might take the jury as long as ten minutes to reach their guilty verdict."
"I haven't committed any crime," Sara said.
"You made your husband believe he was suffering from ALS," Mark said.
"What was I supposed to do?" Sara said. "Lie to him? He had the right to know he was dying."
"Before your husband's body was fully incinerated, we were able to remove him from the cremator and recover a sample of his spinal tissues for testing," Mark said.
"You violated my husband's body for some twisted experiment?" she said. "You're a sick man with no respect for the dead or their families."
"Aren't you interested in what we found?" he asked.
"I want my husband to be able to rest in peace," she said.
"There was no sign of ALS whatsoever," Mark said. "He was completely healthy."
Her face went pale and she swallowed hard.
"Oh my God. My poor, sweet Win." Her chin quivered; her eyes filled with tears.
"Spare us the fake tears," Steve said. "We're in a budget crunch here. I have to pay for the Kleenex out of my own pocket."
She glowered at him. "You should be going after the doctors who misdiagnosed my husband instead of dragging me out of my house in handcuffs. It's their incompetence that killed my husband."
"The doctors gave you accurate opinions based on the test results you gave them," Mark said. "The problem is, none of those test results were your husband's."
Mark opened the file in front of him and held up what looked like a full-color x-ray of a skull.
"This is an MRI taken from one of your patients, Mr. Theodore Trucott, two years ago. He was diagnosed with ALS and died last summer."
He removed another film from the file and held it up beside the other one.
"This is the MRI supposedly taken from your husband a few weeks ago."
Mark held the two films side by side for a moment, then put one over the other. The images were a perfect match.
"Mr. Trucott's blood work and muscle biopsy are also identical to your husband's, though the names, dates, and labs have been changed," Mark said.
Sara didn't bother to look at the films. She stared past both men defiantly, fixing her eyes on her own reflection in the mirror behind them.
"The least you could have done was cherry-pick test results from the files of more than one of your patients," Steve said. "But then again, you never expected anyone to check up on you. Your husband wasn't going to tell anyone he had the disease and you sure as hell weren't going to."
"The whole con would have worked, except for one thing," Mark said. "You didn't count on your husband leaving behind a letter to defend you. If he hadn't been so worried about your well-being, we never would have known that he thought he had an incurable disease. You could have cremated his body and, with it, the only way to prove your crimes."
Sara shifted her gaze to Mark, who met her look of intense hatred without flinching.
"If you want to cry now," Steve said, "I'll be glad to supply the Kleenex."
Sara's cheeks flushed with rage. Her whole body began to shake. "I told Win not to take the company public, but he wouldn't listen to me. He invited those bastards in. And while he was off climbing mountains, he let those parasites take our money and our future."
"So you came up with a way to get back the company and all the wealth that came with it," Steve said. "And punish your husband for his unforgivable mistake at the same time."
"I was protecting my family," she said, slamming her fist on the table. "We would have lost our house, the yacht, the condo in Cabo, everything."
"Instead, your children lost their father," Mark said. "And now they're going to lose you, too."
Jesse watched the ruination of Sara Everden from behind the mirror in the observation room. He wanted to applaud, and he might have, too, if Captain Newman wasn't standing beside him, looking mean.
"Don't you love the way Mark does that?" Jesse asked. "Just once, I wish I could look a murderer in the eye and unpeel the lies, one by one, the way Mark does. How about you?"
The captain regarded Jesse as if he'd caught him urinating in public.
"Who are you again?" Captain Newman asked.
"Dr. Jesse Travis, I work with Mark. I'm the one who hunted down the Trucott medical records for him. You might say I made the case."
The captain walked past Jesse and out the door of the observation room without saying another word. They emerged to see Steve clapping his father enthusiastically on the back.
I'm satisfied," Steve said with a grin, which evaporated when he saw the stern look on the captain's face.
Captain Newman approached Mark. "You actually interrupted a cremation and pulled the burning body out of the flames?"
"It's not something I recommend doing too often," Mark said affably.
"I would hope not," the captain replied, then walked back to the squad room, shaking his head.
Steve turned to his dad. "The fact the captain didn't chew us out is his way of saying how much he appreciates the good work we did."
"Then I'm flattered," Mark said.
"What does it mean when the captain looks at you like you're a cockroach?" Jesse asked.
"It's his way of saying he thinks you're a cockroach," Steve said. "You mind giving Dad a ride home?"
"No problem," Jesse said. "What've you got going?"
"A dinner date," Steve said.
"With who?" Jesse asked.
"Lissy Dearborn," Steve said. "Rebecca Jordan's roommate."
Mark glanced at his watch. "It's not even noon."
"Lissy works nights," Steve said. "So for her, it's almost dinnertime."
"Have a nice evening," Mark said. "Afternoon. Whatever."
"It's too soon for whatever," Steve said. "Maybe by the third or fourth date."
"That falls under the category of more than I want to know," Mark said.
"Not me," Jesse said. "I want all the details, in writing if possible."
Steve headed for the squad room, while Mark and Jesse started down the corridor in the opposite direction.