Christina Lightfoot's burgundy '88 Maxima barreled down interstate 210, the needle of the speedometer creeping past ninety. Moby's techno version of the James Bond Theme blared from the cheap twenty watt speakers. There was not much traffic on the tree lined, two lane highway. She slapped her hand against the fuzzy steering wheel to the beat of the music as she weaved the car around a tanker truck and blew past the on-ramp from route seventeen.
The lights of a highway patrol car flared to life.
She glanced up at the rearview mirror and frowned. She pushed the accelerator to the floor, squeezing her car between a mini-van and a silver Tiberon.
The police car followed, catching up to her as she crossed the bridge above Black Water River.
She reluctantly let off the gas and pulled over.
Officer Lyle Brighton, a young slender built man stepped out of the brown and white cruiser, gun drawn and slowly started toward the Maxima.
"Driver...," a voice shouted. "Put both hands on the steering wheel."
Brighton glanced back at his partner sitting in the car, the mouthpiece of the radio pressed against his lips. He shook his head then turned and crept toward the Maxima.
"With your left hand, turn off the ignition and drop the keys out the window."
Officer Brighton wiped the sweat from his face with his shoulder. "Step out of the car please," he yelled.
Christina sighed heavily. She shut off the car then reached through the window and opened the door. She slowly stepped out. She was a fairly tall girl, stocky built and tanned. Her shoulder length blond hair was pulled back from her chubby freckled face. She was dressed in a white t-shirt and a pair of fringed denim shorts.
"Turn around and place your hands on the hood of the car," Brighton said.
She turned slowly and laid her hands on the top of the car burning herself in the process. "What did I do?"
Brighton holstered his gun as he walked toward her. "You know what the posted speed limit is around here?" he said, running his hands over her wide hips.
"I was only speeding?"
Brighton spun her around to face him. "Only speeding," he said, a frown creasing his boyish face. "Ma'am, it's Fourth of July weekend. There are more fatalities on the highway this time of year than any other because of people like you who were 'only speeding'."
Christina fluttered her pale blue eyes at him. "I'm sorry," she said softly.
"Sorry doesn't cut it with loved ones who lose someone because someone was speeding." He backed away from her and wiped his brow with his sleeve. "License and registration please."
She stared back at him, a hint of panic in on her face.
"It...it's not really my car," she said, stuttering. She turned and slid back into the driver's seat.
Officer Brighton let his hand rest on his gun as he watched her open the glove compartment.
"I borrowed the car from my mother." She opened the glove compartment and pulled out a stack of papers. A silver .22 fell out along with an empty plastic bag.
"Hands on the wheel," Officer Brighton shouted nervously. "Now, Ma'am."
She looked up at him, startled and saw the barrel of his gun pointed at her. She raised her hands slowly then glanced back at the .22.
"Now," he yelled again.
Christina quickly laid her hands on the steering wheel. She closed her eyes and shook her head. "My mom gave it to me for protection."
Officer Brighton stepped sideways, putting the door between him and her, glanced back at his partner in the squad car then gestured for him to step out of the car. He turned his attention back to the girl. "Pick the gun up slowly, by the handle and toss it out of the car."
Christina took a deep breath then reached for the gun. She tossed it out of the car and it landed beside her keys.
Officer Brighton stepped around the door, kicking the gun away. "Ok, now," he said, the nervousness seeping out his voice. "Hand me your license and registration."
Officer Poole cautiously walked toward the car, his gun drawn. "Out of the car," he barked. "Now."
Brighton looked back at his stubby middle-aged partner then at the girl. He grabbed the papers from her as she stepped out of the car.
"Hands in the air," Poole said, glaring at her.
"What do we have, Poole?" Brighton said, scanning the registration papers.
Christina turned and laid her hands on the car, burning herself again.
"This car was reported stolen two days ago back in Yuma Arizona," Poole said.
Christina hissed. "Shit...." She tried to look back at the officer. "I can explain...."
Poole stepped toward her unhooking his cuffs from the pouch on his belt. "You'll have plenty of time to explain." He snatched her arm from the hood of the car and locked a cuff around her wrist. "I'm sure it'll be a good one." He pulled her toward him and drug her toward the cruiser.
Officer Brighton picked up the gun. It felt light. He checked the clip and found it empty. A smirk crossed his lips. He grabbed the keys, locked the car and followed them.
The crystal clear cordless telephone sitting on the butcher-block kitchen counter rang.
Sharon Wilson pushed aside the glass door leading to the patio and quickly hurried across the terra cotta tile floor of the kitchen and grabbed the phone. "Hello...," she said and climbed onto one of the wrought iron and wicker stools by the counter. She glanced at the caller ID box and saw the familiar Merrill Lynch number scroll across the screen. A smile spread across her face.
Mattie, her hyper, year-old golden retriever, came bouncing through the door and took a seat in front of her.
"Hey, sweetie," the voice on the other end of the line said.
"Hey yourself," Sharon said. "What are you doing still there?"
"I just have a little more paperwork to finish up and I'll be right home," he said. "Tomorrow's gonna be a bitch and I wont have as much time to get everything done."
Sharon rubbed her slightly swollen brown belly protruding between her tie-dyed t-shirt and the bottom of a purple bikini. "Well, hurry up, the little one misses you."
David chuckled. "Yeah...ok," he said. "When is everybody supposed to get there?"
"I told Chuck and Ver to be here around five, five thirty...." Her attention turned to the thinly built teenaged girl walking across the living room. She was dressed in tight black and white tank top and tighter black spandex skirt. She glanced at Sharon, holding her gaze a beat then turned and headed for the oak double doors.
"Hold on, baby," Sharon whispered. She set the phone down on the counter and slid off the stool. "Aimee...."
The girl stopped and turned to face her. "What...?" she groaned.
She stopped abruptly and glared at the girl, watching her settle into an apologetic posture. "Where are you going?"
Aimee sighed. "Over to Tina's," she said. "We're gonna go hang out at the mall."
Sharon brushed a few strands of her auburn hair from her face and sighed. "Well, don't stay too long," she said. "We're having a cookout and your mother's stopping by to see you."
Aimee rolled her eyes and turned away from her. "Big whoop," she mumbled.
A slight smile curled the corner of Sharon's mouth. She stepped toward the girl. "She really wants to see you," she said, looking the girl over. "Ok."
"So when is this nightmare supposed to happen?"
Sharon chuckled. "Around seven, we're all gonna go down to the river and watch the fire works."
Again, Aimee rolled her eyes.
"It'll be fun."
She nodded sarcastically.
"Go...have fun." She turned and headed back to the phone.
"Thanks, Sharon." She spun on her heels and quickly ran out of the house.
Sharon grabbed the phone as she climbed back onto the stool. "Your daughter just left to go hang out with her friends."
"Yeah...," David said. "Oh...Sharon, what's up?"
"Aimee went to the mall with her friends."
"She coming back for the party?"
She nodded. "She doesn't seem too interested in seeing her mother."
The sound of two fighter jets passing overhead filled the house.
She looked up at the ceiling, shook her head then turned her eyes to the dog pacing nervously. "Hurry up and get here," she said softly.
Christ, it was hot. The air-conditioner in the dirty white Caprice Classic was doing nothing to abate the growing stuffiness filling the car. Wallace Crane pealed off his black pinstriped sport coat, tapped the button on the door and the window slid down into its sheaf.
In the distance, beyond the radio antennas and tree tops, a plume of black smoke spiraled toward the cloudless sky.
Wallace sighed angrily. This same scenario happened every year. An explosion at a fireworks factory. A couple years back, a disgruntled employee dropped a lit pack of matches into a crate of what he thought was just sparklers. Turns out it was a crate of gunpowder.
This explosion was slightly different. The gun powder explosion had produced half a dozen bodies. When the employee realized what he'd done, he turned himself in before the fire was even out. This fire, there was just one body and no guilty party waiting to turn himself in.
Wallace followed a haz-mat truck into what was left of the gravel parking lot and pulled to a stop beside a brown and white Chrysler sedan.
A tall slender built black man dressed in jeans and a baggy white t-shirt made his way between the array of emergency vehicles toward the white Caprice wiping sweat from his bald head. "Detective Wallace...?" he said to the stubby brown skinned man stepping out of the car.
"Crane...," he said. "You Wilks?" He looked past the man at the smoldering structure that used to be Bam's Fireworks Supply Company.
The man nodded. "Yeah."
"You wanna tell me what made you bring my black ass out here in this heat," he said, trying to force a crooked smile to his face. "To investigate a fire."
Chauncey Wilks stared back at the man a moment then grinned. "This way," he said. He turned and lead the detective between the fire trucks from station 22.
"This same shit happens every year," Wallace said, eyeing the crew working to contain the blaze that had ignited a thicket of trees.
The young arson investigator looked back at him and smirked. "It's a ritual." He lead him through the rubble to toward a clearing beyond the rear of the building. "We almost didn't find him."
Wallace could see the flies beginning to swarm over the charred patch of saw grass. The sweet stench of decomposition filled the air. Lying in the grass was the upper torso of what appeared to be a dark skinned man. His flannel shirt had been burned off. "Oh, Jesus Christ," he said.
Chauncey looked back at him then down at the body. "Looks like he got tossed from the building," he said. "Or at least part of him. So far we haven't recovered anybody else." He ran his hand across his head. "No sign of the rest of him yet either."
Wallace knelt beside what was left of the body. "What makes you think this is a homicide?" he said, studying the smoldering remains.
"We just deal with the fires, detective." He backed away from Wallace covering his nose and mouth. "It's up to you and the ME to determine whether it's a homicide or not."
Detective Crane looked up at him and shook his head. "With an attitude like that...," he started, his eyes scanning the area. He stood abruptly and stepped past Wilks heading toward the building, glanced back at the body then rubbed his eyes. "What else do you guys know about this place?"
Wilks shrugged. "Fly-by-night fireworks dealer...."
"Any idea how the fire got started?"
"Not sure yet," he said. "We're still in the preliminary stages."
"Owner been contacted yet?"
Chauncey sighed. "We haven't been able to get in touch with him yet."
Wallace stared up at him a moment. "Who is he, what's his name?" He turned abruptly as a white Range Rover bounced over the lumpy terrain heading toward them. He stepped away from the arson investigator and headed toward the SUV.
"He's got a funky name," Chauncey said, following him. "Hezekiah Safawi."
Wallace glanced back at him. "What is he, Arab or something?" he said and continued on toward the truck as it came to a stop. He gave the investigator a second, puzzled look.
"Do you fellas know how hot it is out here?" the fat, white woman said, climbing out of the truck. She strode toward them carrying a leather banker's box.
"Ellen...," Detective Crane said, grinning. "I though you'd be upstate by now."
"I would be," she grumbled. She pushed past the detective and the investigator and started toward the patch of charred grass. "Well, what have we got here?" She stooped over the body and opened the box.
Riley Oster looked up from polishing shot glasses startled. He turned his attention toward what sounded like a dog barking. Sitting at the far end of the marble topped bar was Jason Caldwell nursing a bottle of Budweiser. His fist was pressed against his lips as he continued to cough.
"You alright, buddy?" Riley said. He cautiously started toward the scrawny toe-haired man then glanced over his shoulder at Sheila making her way through the modest crowd, heading for the bar.
Jason sighed heavily, calming the cough. He swallowed another gulp of beer then turned his tired blue eyes to the bartender. "I'm fine," he grunted and stroked his stubbly beard. His gaze shifted to the crowd.
An American flag had been strung up across the entrance to the dimly lit hole-in-the-wall bar. Someone had pinned letters across it spelling out United We Stand.
Jason shook his head.
"Cheer up, man," the bartender said. "It's the Fourth of July...celebrate."
"Celebrate what," he mumbled. He coughed again, this time bringing up a glob of phlegm. He caught it with one of the red, white and blue napkins. "I just got fired." He crumpled up the napkin.
Riley sighed and shook his head. "Sorry about your luck." He grabbed another bottle of Budweiser from the cooler and slid across the bar toward him. "On the house."
Jason looked up at him and nodded.
He turned to see Sheila leaning against the bar waving a slip from her order pad at him.
"I need a Heine', a Guinness and two Denver Pales."
Jason snorted and a smirk curled the corner of his mouth. "Does anybody drink any normal beers around here?" he mumbled and turned the bottle up to his lips
"Coming up," Riley said. He glanced back at him then turned to the cooler.
Sheila slid onto the stool beside Jason. She eyed him a moment then tossed her braided blond hair over her shoulder. "Hi...."
He looked back at her and nodded curtly.
Riley set the two bottles of Denver Pale Ale on Sheila's tray along with a pair of pint glasses. "So what kinda work were you doin'?" he asked, filling a mug from the brass handled Guinness tap.
Jason chuckled. He looked up at the bartender. "I used to deliver fireworks," he said. He turned the bottle up and swallowed a gulp then stood. "Thanks for tha' beer."
Riley added the mug of Guinness to the tray. "Happy fourth," he said.
Jason turned and headed for the door. He glanced up at the flag, stared at it a moment then raised his fist, middle finger extended.
The traffic along Jefferson avenue had slowed to a crawl as the cars diverted from Main street for the Fourth Of July celebration on Monument Square jostled for openings in the north-bound throng. A cream colored Acura nudged its way out of the center lane and in front of a gray mini-van creeping along the curb. It pulled up to the gate of the garage beneath the Plaza One Tower.The driver's window slid down and a ruddy-faced middle-aged man sat behind the wheel, a cell phone wedged between his shoulder and ear."Sir...," a voice said.The man fumbled his pass-card out of his wallet and started to swipe it through the card reader when he saw Ronnie Sykes swaggering toward the car dressed in a pair of dirty bellbottoms and a Baltimore Ravens jersey. He shook his head and turned away."Sir...," Ronnie said again, rubbing his stomach. "You got any spare change?" His gaze fixed on the man. "I haven't had anything to eat since yesterday.""You'll live...," the man said. He quickly passed his card through the reader and the Acura slipped into the garage.Ronnie watched the car disappear down the ramp and exhaled angrily. He turned away, his eyes scanning the stalled traffic then sprinted across the street, weaving his way between the cars.Gillian sat atop one of the warped wooden picnic tables in Morgan Park sipping from a liter size bottle of Mountain Dew. A hand rolled cigarette was pinched between her thin fingers. She passed the bottle to the short Hispanic boy sitting behind her and watched as his head bobbed to the music blaring from his headphones. She quickly looked past him at Ronnie running toward them then slid off the table."Hey...," she said, taking a long drag on the cigarette.The Hispanic boy looked up at them and pulled off the headphones. "Ese...," he barked and stood.Ronnie nodded to him as he took the cigarette from Gillian."So how much did we get?" the Hispanic boy said.Ronnie took a puff on the cigarette. He shoved his hand in his pocket and pulled out a fistful of change and crumpled dollar bills. "I don't know, man," he said, holding the smoke in his lungs. "Count it yourself." He laid the stash on the table then turned back to Gillian. "Where's Greg?"She shrugged and took her cigarette back. "I don't know." She slid back on the table, glanced back at the Hispanic boy then grabbed the bottle of Mountain Dew.
"Shit...," Ronnie hissed, exhaling a cloud of pungent smoke. "Where the fuck is he?"Gillian swallowed another gulp of soda then brushed the strands of her cherry-red hair from her face. "He said he had somethin' to take care of." She pinched the cigarette between her lips and took a slow drag."Fifteen bucks...," the Hispanic boy said.Ronnie looked back at him. "Not bad," he mumbled. "We could get a little somethin' with that.""That's everything...," the boy said and rose up from the bench. "Including mine and hers...minus the drink.""Fuck...," Ronnie grunted. "Where the fuck is Greg?"The short slender boy skipped across the faux stone bridge over the duck pond at the center of the park. He crept through the grove of evergreens and found the rest of the gang waiting for him at the picnic tables."What's up?" he said, bouncing toward them. He stared at Gillian's curvy frame a moment then abruptly turned his attention to Ronnie."Where the hell have you been" he barked.Greg fished a pair of folded bills out of the pocket of his jeans. He tossed them onto the table along with a dime bag of marijuana. "Don't worry about it," he said.A smile lit across Gillian's face as she stared at the dime bag."Thirty bucks...," the Hispanic boy said as he unfolded the bills. "Where'd you get this?""I said, don't worry about it," Greg said again.An awkward silence passed through the group.He nodded toward the bottle in Gillian's hand. "Let me get a sip."She looked down at the bottle then handed it to him. "Keep it," she said and winked at him.They stared at each other a moment. He took the bottle and swallowed a quick gulp."Let's head down to the river," Ronnie said, his eyes on Greg. He shook his head and turned away. "Before the Amberzombies show up."The Hispanic boy scooped up the money and shoved it into his pocket. "Shouldn't we get some fuckin' food first?""Get what you want," he grumbled.Gillian followed Ronnie with her eyes as he started up the cobblestone walkway. She glanced back at Greg, curling her pale lips into a crooked smile then followed him out of the park. Captain Cummings' hand shook as he filled the glass mug from the pot of tepid coffee. He set the mug down, flexed his fingers then picked it up again. He took a deep breath and walked out of the break room into the maze of desk cluttering the squad room.A pale thin girl sat at Detective Harris' desk, her slender wrist shackled to the top drawer. She was dressed in a dirty denim skirt and a bright orange ruffled halter top that looked to be a size too large. She turned her eyes from the detective to the tall lean man walking toward them.Harris looked back at the captain then stood. "Domestic dispute," he said with a sigh. He combed his curly black hair with his fingers and glanced back at the girl. "Says her boyfriend came at her, cracked-out, tried to hit her with a marble elephant...."The captain nodded as he sipped his coffee."She countered with a baseball bat," he continued. "He's over at Martin-Brooks now."He looked past the detective at the girl. Specks of dried blood dotted her shirt. "How is he?" he said, watching her legs bounce nervously.Again, Harris glanced at the girl. "Stable...for now."The glass doors at the far end of the squad room opened and Detective Wallace Crane walked in.The captain nodded to him then turned back to Harris. "You buy it?"He shrugged and sighed. "She's got a long list of priors," he said. "Mostly assaults and petty theft....""Captain...," Wallace said, gesturing toward the office.He stared at the detective a moment then started toward his office. "Get Miss Broadus over here," he said and took another sip of coffee. "See what she thinks." He turned away from Harris and hurried across the squad room.Wallace leaned against the mahogany desk, his gaze turned to the floor. He stood up as the captain walked into the room and rubbed his tired eyes."What's up?" Captain Cummings said.Wallace looked back at the door, considered shutting it then turned to face the captain sliding into the leather chair behind his desk. "Our mister Crispy turns out to be a Pakistani exchange student," he said. "Zalmai Meerza....""An exchange student...," he said. "Studying what?""Economics...," Wallace said, shrugging. "I think." He looked back at the door again. "The owner of the factory is some guy named Hezekiah Safawi, I haven't been able to run down anything on him yet."Captain Cummings set his mug on the desk. He caught Wallace glancing back at the door and nodded.He pushed the door closed then turned back to the captain. "Maybe I'm just being paranoid," he started. "But...with everybody on high alert today, this has got me more than a little spooked.""Jesus Christ," Captain Cummings hissed and shook his head. He sat up, resting his elbows on the desk. "We know what caused the fire?""Wilks is still working on it.""Where's this mister Safawi?"Wallace stared back at the captain a moment then shook his head. "Haven't been able to reach him.""He got an address?"Wallace nodded."Check it out.""I'm gonna need some paperwork, Cap'n.""Don't worry about it," he said. "I'll check with the local feds...see if they have anything on him."Wallace turned and walked out of the office. He ran his hand across his forehead, wiping away a film of sweat then quickly headed for the glass doors."Wally...," Detective Harris said.He spun around to face the short stocky man. "Yeah...?"Gloria called."A slight smile split his weary face. Denise Marquez fastened the sterling silver clasp of her beaded hematite and ruby choker then winked at her reflection in the mirror of her brass vanity. She stood, stepping into a pair of black suede Kenneth Cole mules and walked out of the cramped bedroom."Honey...," she said, reaching for the zipper hidden in the seam down the back of her strapless black bustier dress. She stopped as she walked into the living room and glared at Randy sitting behind his desk. His dusty blue Vans were propped up on the edge of the walnut colored desk while he pecked at the keys of his laptop.He stared at the neon green screen of the computer trying to find the mate to the red dragon at the top of the pyramid of Mahjong tiles. He found it tucked into the corner at the bottom of the stack."Is that what you're wearing?" she said as she slowly crossed the room toward him.He looked up at her startled. He quickly tapped the touch pad and the Mahjong game disappeared, replaced by a blank word processing document."Zip me up," she said and turned her back to him. "You gotta get dressed, Sharon and her husband are expecting us in an hour."Randy sighed heavily. "Go without me."She turned to face him, a scowl spreading across her tiny brown face. "Get dressed.""I don't want to go," he said and went back to pecking at the keyboard. "besides, I'm working."She glared at him angrily. "Randy, that excuse is getting old...."The phone rang, cutting her off.He looked past her at the phone lying on the kitchen counter then sat up and turned his attention to the computer.Denise reluctantly backed away from him and snatched the cordless receiver from its base. "Hello...."Silence."Hello...."Silence.She stared at the phone a moment then switched it off. She looked back at Randy making an effort to keep his eyes on the computer. "Get dressed," she said again."I'm not going," he mumbled.She watched him, his fingers slowly moving over the keyboard. He looked up at her and their eyes met. "Fine...," she said and slammed the phone on the counter. "I'm leaving." She turned away and walked out of the apartment. The door closed with a thud behind her.Randy sat back in his chair and exhaled his frustration. He stared up at the ceiling a moment then let his eyes close.The phone rang again.He sat up quickly then pushed himself away from the desk. "Hello...," he said, hesitantly.For a moment, there was silence."Is this a bad time...?" Christina said, her voice barely above a whisper."Chrissy...," Randy said surprised. A smile lit across his face."It's me...," she said and giggled nervously. "Can you come get me?""What...?" She took a deep breath. "I...I got pulled over.""Where are you?""Some place called Middleburgh," she said, trying to stay calm. "I...looked at the map, it's not far from where you are.""Chrissy....""I gotta see you," she said, tears seeping into her voice. "Come get me, please."Randy's heart hammered inside his chest. "Chrissy...," he sighed."Please....""Ok," he said and glanced around the room. "I'm on my way." The John H. Patterson high school marching band stormed onto Monument Square, drums pounding, horns blaring. The troop split creating two ribbons of crimson and gray as they wove their way through the crowd gathered in front of the stage. The music stopped abruptly and the crowd broke into a tepid round of applause.Sandy Lewis brushed his graying brown hair with the palm of his hand and sighed heavily. He fondled the gold toned pocket watch in the pocket of his beige linen blazer, took it out and flipped it open. Taped to the inside of the lid was the picture of a little girl, smiling a gapped-tooth smile. He quickly closed the watch and grudgingly walked out onto the stage.He was a fairly handsome-brown skinned man who was just a little taller than the microphone stand. "Is this thing on?" he said and cleared his throat. A crooked smile crept across his face.An echo of laughter trickled across the crowd."Happy fourth of July...," Sandy shouted.Suddenly, the crowd roared with cheers.Sandy's smile widened. He glanced over at the Budwiser truck parked by waterfall fountain that was the centerpiece of the square. "I see the beer truck's doing brisk business today."Another roar of cheers."But seriously...," he started. "It's been a rough year for all of us. So have a round on me."A pair of F-16 screeched overhead then peeled off heading in opposite directions.He watched them fly over and shook his head. "In the light of the events in New York on September eleventh, I feel we have grown stronger as a nation. And we need to stay strong."A rumble of agreement rippled through the crowd."Not just today, but everyday," Sandy continued. "And we need to recognize that the person next to you, though he or she might be of a different race...religion or whatever, we are one nation and we have to stand together.""That's right," shouted a woman dressed in a black tank top and camouflage pants."If we don't stand as one," Sandy said. "Then the terrorist will win." He reached back into his pocket and felt the watch again. "And we can't afford to let that happen."The sound of applause rang across the square."Lets all join hands in a moment of silence to remember all of those lost in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington."A hush fell over the crowd.The thin blond haired woman quickly made her way through the crowd heading for the beer truck. She glanced at the stage as a young-looking boy stepped up to the microphone, a tattered Fender
"What you got for me, Ellen?" Detective Crane said, striding across the examination room toward the woman hunkered over the charred corpse on the stainless steel table.She looked up at him and smirked. "You rushin' me?" She glanced at the faded gold watch on her wrist. "I should be knee deep in crab cakes and fried okra by now." She gave him another glance and a wink. "And working on my third Coors Light."Wallace grabbed a stool and pulled it up to the table. "You know...," he said, grinning. "If I were forty years older...."Ellen glared at him above the rim of her glasses then shook her head and turned her attention back to the body. "So, what ever happened with you and Gloria?"He sighed. "It's been a long enough day as it is, Ellen," he said. He let out a dry cough and ran his hand across his forehead. "What can you tell me about mister charcoal?""Well...," she said and pushed away from the table. "Your mister Meerza didn't die as a result of the explosion." She turned to face him."What...?" he said. "Look at him."Ellen took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes. "Had he been killed in the blast, there would have been more blood." She looked over at the body again then stood. "The heat cauterized the wounds, but his blood had already congealed, settling in his lower back."Wallace stared back at her with a blank expression on his face."Blood...fluids drain to the lowest part of the body," she said. "Somebody propped him up after he died."He leaned forward. "So...what was the cause of death?""Come here," she said and stood.Wallace slowly stood and walked over to the table. He stared down at the naked torso as she pointed to a rash of circular whelps spreading across the right side of it."What's that look like to you?" she said.He shrugged. "I don't know...blisters...from the fire...."She backed away from him and slid back onto her stool. "It's small pox," she said. "He's been dead at least twenty-four hours."Wallace stared at her stunned.