A steel band cover of “Don’t Fear the
Reaper” makes for a lousy way to lurch awake. Couple of months back, some clown
of a coworker got ahold of my cell phone while I was busy in the autopsy suite,
and reprogrammed the ringtone for incoming calls from the Medical Examiner
Operations and Investigation Dispatch Communications Center. I keep forgetting
to fix it.
I reached across my bedmate to the only
table in the tiny room and managed to squelch it before the plinking got past
five or six bars, but that was more than enough to wake him.
“Time is it?” Anup slurred.
“God, Jessie,” he said, and pulled a
pillow over his head. I planted a nice warm kiss on the back of his neck.
Donna Griello from the night shift was
on the phone. “Good morning, Dr. Teska,” she said.
“Okay, Donna,” I whispered. “What do we
got and where are we going?”
I didn’t need the GPS navigation from my
one extravagance in this world, the BMW 235i that I had brought along when I
moved from Los Angeles to San Francisco, because muscle memory took me there.
The death scene was right on my old commute—a straight shot from the Outer
Richmond District, along the edge of Golden Gate Park, then the wiggle down to
SoMa, the broad, flat neighborhood south of Market Street. The blue lights were
flashing on the corner of Sixth Street and Folsom, just a couple of blocks shy
of the Hall of Justice. I used to perform autopsies in the bowels of the Hall,
before the boss, Chief Medical Examiner Dr. James Howe, moved the whole
operation to his purpose-built dream morgue, way out in Hunters Point. Along
the way, Howe made me his deputy chief. The promotion came with a raise, an
office, and a ficus, but I hadn’t sought it and it wasn’t welcome—I was only a
year and change on the job and didn’t have the experience to be deputy chief in
a big city. Howe needed someone to do it, though. So the gold badge and all its
headaches went to me.
The death scene address Donna had given
me over the phone was a construction site. From the outside, I couldn’t tell how
big. They’d built a temporary sidewalk covered in plywood, and posted an
artist’s rendition of a gleaming glass tower, crusted in niches and
crenellations and funky angles, dubbed SoMa Centre.
I double-parked behind a police car and
walked the plankway between a blind fence and a line of pickup trucks with
union bumper stickers. The men in them eyed me with either suspicion or
practiced blankness while they waited for their job site to reopen. A beat cop
kept vigil at the head of the line. He took my name and badge number, logged me
in, and lifted the yellow tape. He pointed to a wooden crate. It was full of
construction hard hats.
“Mandatory,” he said.
“You aren’t wearing one,” I griped.
“I’m not going in there, either.”
“Good for you. Give me a light over here.”
I sorted through the helmets under the
cop’s flashlight beam. Sizes large, extra large, medium. I am a woman, five
feet five inches, a hundred thirty-four pounds, and not especially husky of
skull. I certainly wasn’t husky enough to fill out a helmet spec’d for your
average male ironworker, which seemed to be all that was on offer.
I tried out a medium. Even when I
cinched the plastic headband all the way, the hard hat swallowed my sorry
little blond noggin.
“Yeah, laugh it up, Officer,” I said, while
“Sorry, Doc. You look like a kid playing
“Laugh it up,” I said again, because I
wasn’t equipped, at that hour, to be clever.
Not all the workers were stuck outside
in their pickups. A few men in hard hats stood around, waiting for work to get
going. They shied away from me, in my medical examiner windbreaker, polyester
slacks, and sensible shoes, like I was the angel of death collecting on a debt.
I found Donna. She’s hard to miss: more
than six feet tall, eyes and beak like a hawk. Her hard hat fit just fine. She
was leaning against the medical examiner removals van with Cameron Blake, her
partner 2578—our bureaucratic shorthand for death scene investigators—on the
night shift. Cam is round-faced and ruddy, half a foot shorter than Donna but
just as brawny. He greeted me.
“Any coffee?” I said.
“The site superintendent says it’s
brewing. First shift is just getting here. That’s how come they found the body.
You want to talk to him?”
“Let’s find out what the dead guy has to
Donna chuckled in a dark way. “Just you
wait and see, Doc.”
The pair of 2578s led me across the
construction site by flashlight. Work lights were coming on, but they left big
“Who found the body?”
Donna consulted her clipboard. “Dispatch
says a worker named Samuel Urias, opening up after the night shift.”
The construction site by flashlight was
a spooky place, even by my standards. Dirty yellow machines loomed in the
beams, and plastic sheeting fluttered from the shadows. Our feet crunched on
gravel, then whispered over packed dirt. The only thing that was well lit was a
mobile office trailer, on a rise to our left, surrounded by silhouettes in hard
Donna led us toward a detached flatbed
trailer, parked with its landing-gear feet pressing into the dirt. It was
loaded with long metal pipes, six or eight inches in diameter, in bundles of
twenty or so. The bundles were bound together with tight black bands at either
end and had been stacked four high on the flatbed. One of the bands securing
the top bundle had snapped. It waved drunkenly in the air—and half a dozen
pipes lay tumbled in the dirt.
Underneath them was a body.
It was a man. He was on his back. His
head and shoulders were crushed under the pipes. He wore a business suit and
black wingtip shoes, the left one coming off at the heel. His arms were flung
out. I determined his race to be white from his hands, which offered the only
visible skin. They were clean and uncalloused, fingernails manicured, wedding
band on the left ring finger, a college ring on the right.
I shined my flashlight at the pipes.
They had done a job on him. We walked around the body, looking for a pool of
blood. There wasn’t one.
When I pointed this out, Donna elbowed
Cameron and smirked. He scowled back.
“What?” I said.
“I noticed that too,” Donna said. “Cam thinks
it’s no big deal.”
“Can we just get this guy out of here?”
Cameron said. “The superintendent is antsy. He’s worried about press, and I
don’t blame him.”
I crouched to take a closer look at that
left shoe. The leather above the heel was badly scuffed. Same for the right
one. The dead man’s pricey wool dress pants were torn at the hems. My
flashlight picked up a faint trail in the dirt running away from his feet. I warned
the 2578s to watch their step until the police crime scene unit had
photographed the area.
“What—?” said Cam. “CSI isn’t here. This
is an accident scene.”
“Get them. This is a suspicious death.”
“Oh, come on…”
“It’s fishy.” I pointed my flashlight
around. “Where’s all the blood from that crush injury? There’s drag marks and
damage to the clothing to match. Soft hands, expensive suit. Where’s his hard
“Maybe it’s under the pipes.”
“Maybe. But does this guy look like he
belongs on a construction site, after hours? No way I’m assuming this was an
“Told you it was staged,” Donna said to
“Whatever,” he muttered back. He pulled
out his phone, said good morning to the police dispatcher, and asked for the
crime scene unit.
The sky was lightening behind the
downtown towers a few blocks away, and more construction workers were starting
to trickle in. “We need a perimeter,” I said. “And I want to talk to the man
who found the body. Do we have a presumptive ID?”
“We found this just like you see it, and
didn’t run his pockets yet,” Donna said.
“Let’s wait till crime scene documents
everything before we touch him.”
15 10/29/20 10:40 AM
Donna smiled. “Because this is fishy,
I couldn’t help smiling back. “You won
the bet. Leave Cam alone.” I started toward the lit-up office trailer.
“Where you going?” Donna said.
A figure in the small crowd huddling at
the trailer saw me coming and met me halfway. He was a late-middle-aged white
man with a gray mustache, dressed like a soccer dad in blue jeans and a
collared shirt. No tie, no jacket, heavy work boots. He had a fancy hard hat.
It said site super.
“Where’s the hearse?” the construction
I introduced myself and told him we were
waiting for the police crime scene unit to arrive and document the scene.
“How long will that take?”
Fuck if I know, I thought. “It could be
a while,” I said.
“What’s a while? We have work to do
Bałwan. I grew up outside of Boston, but
Polish is my first language. Sort of. My mother is from Poland and my father is
a son of a bitch. Mamusia taught me and my brother Tomasz the mother
tongue—which Dad doesn’t speak—and the three of us stuck with it inside the
four walls of our three-decker flat on Pinkham Street in East Lynn. Mamusia
said it was to preserve our heritage. It was also useful for hiding things from
the old man.
Polish has a lot of terms for a son of a
bitch. Bałwan was Mamusia’s word for her husband Arthur Teska on a good day. If
he had been drinking, he was a sukinsyn. So far, the site superintendent was
turning out to be a bałwan, but the day was young.
“First the police will do their job,
then my colleagues and I will do our job, and then you can get back to yours.”
“But the police are already here, and
they aren’t doing anything!”
“We’re waiting for the homicide
The superintendent went pale and
stammery. “Homicide—? But this isn’t… This is…”
“This is a death scene. It might be a
crime scene. That’s for the police to determine before I can continue my
investigation as the medical examiner, and certainly before we can remove or
even touch that body.”
The superintendent said nothing. He dug
into his pocket for a phone and walked away, dialing. Not an unusual reaction.
People freak out when they hear homicide is coming.
I dug a hand under the wobbly hard hat
to scratch my scalp. It was Anup’s damn shampoo. I had been dating Anup
Banerjee for seven, almost eight months. I live in a rental, a tiny back-garden
cottage in the Richmond District, half a mile from the continent’s Pacific
edge. Cottage does the place too much justice—it’s a converted San Francisco
cable car called Mahoney Brothers #45. It was abandoned in the sand dunes at
the end of the line after it had outlived its usefulness, until someone jacked
the thing up, built a foundation under it, and added box wings for a bedroom
and a kitchen and a water closet. Mahoney Brothers #45 covers 372 square feet
of the most expensive real estate in the country. Back when I had lived in it
alone with my beagle, Bea, it was my very own cozy paradise.
Anup and I were not quite living
together, but he had started spending most nights in Mahoney Brothers #45, and
the place is no cozy paradise for two grown adults and a demanding dog. It’s
more like sharing a Winnebago. I am not a domestic goddess. Anup is a lawyer by
training and a fastidious, detail-oriented person by inclination. I ran out of
shampoo; he got more. But it had turned out to be some awful stuff that only a
man would buy, and it made my scalp itch.
I scratched at it. Then I headed up to
the over-lit trailer to scare up some coffee.
I couldn’t juggle three cups, so I roped
one of the beat cops into helping. He told me that press and camera trucks were
already arriving at the gate.
“And our LT wants us to wrap things up
here. The captain’s already riding his ass. That means someone with pull called
I didn’t have the heart to tell him it
was a complicated and hazardous crime scene, and we’d likely be holding vigil
over that body for hours to come. Cam and Donna and I sipped our coffees and
waited for the crime scene unit. They didn’t take long. They rearranged our
perimeter. They took pictures. We stayed out of the way.
I was about to mosey up to the trailer
for a refill when Cam nudged me and pointed his chin toward the entry gate. A
Black man in a blue suit was swapping a fedora for a hard hat. Even at a
distance in the dismal predawn light, I could pick out that mustache of his. It
“Zasrane to życie,” I muttered. My shit
luck. It would appear that the homicide detective assigned to this case was
going to be Keith Jones.
Inspector Jones and I had a history, and
not a happy one. The year before, we’d done a case together, a drug overdose
that he and his partner wanted to call an accident. I disagreed and tried to
certify it as a homicide—but I was overruled by Dr. Howe, my boss. Jones had
never forgiven me for putting them through a pile of work over a stupid OD just
because I had decided it had to be a murder.
“Dr. Jessie Teska,” he said. “On a
construction site. So I’m gonna guess I’m out here wasting my time with another
The crime scene photographer’s camera
flashed, illuminating the dead man and the pile of pipes across his head and shoulders.
Jones nodded thoughtfully. “Will you look at that,” he said.
I bit my tongue. “Hello, Keith.”
“Why are we here?”
“It’s a suspicious death.”
“What’s suspicious about a load of pipe
falling off a truck?”
I ran through my initial findings for him:
the decedent’s inappropriate attire, damage to the heels of his shoes and pant
hems, drag marks in the dirt, the lack of evident bleeding.
“So what? Maybe he got drunk and tripped
and tore his pants. Maybe the blood’s under those pipes.”
“Maybe the scene’s been tampered with.
Maybe it’s a homicide dressed like an accident.”
“Who is he, anyhow?”
“We’ll try to get a presumptive ID when
crime scene clears us to handle the body.”
“So you don’t know. Witnesses?”
“No. One of the workers found him when
they opened up the site this morning.”
“You spoke to this worker?”
“I figured you’d want to.”
“That’s what you figured, huh, Doctor.
Did you figure maybe he could give you a presumptive ID on this dead person?
Get us started, at least?”
Again I bit my tongue. I didn’t like
being dressed down by Jones, especially in front of the 2578s and the precinct
cops, but nothing good would come from calling him out. By luck of the draw, it
was a case we had to investigate together.
Jones sighed and massaged his boxy
eyebrows. “Okay, then, Deputy Chief Teska. You’ve got the whole circus rolling
in, and it’s going to be here for hours. Let’s see what’s what.” He headed off
toward the lit-up office trailer.
I rejoined Cameron and Donna, who were
studiously pretending to ignore us by watching the crime scene unit photograph
the death scene.
“How are we going to get those pipes off
the body?” I wondered.
“Can’t be that hard,” Cam said. “I’ll go talk
to the superintendent.”
The pallid sky brightened a little, and
I could hear the growl of rush hour rising on all sides of the future home of
SoMa Centre. I checked my phone. It was 7:05. Anup would be getting up soon.
He’d take Bea out. He had no problem with the dog. I’m her alpha for sure, but
Anup is a runner and Bea enjoys chasing him around Golden Gate Park. I thought
about calling him, but decided it was better to let him enjoy his last few
minutes of sleep. Anup had a nice desk job at the First District Court of
Appeal. Never did he have to roll out of bed at 4:30 to sit around a
construction site and watch cops take pictures of a mangled corpse.
Cam returned. Behind him, the site
superintendent had picked two men out of the crowd by the trailer and marched
them over to a giant front loader.
“We have an issue,” Cam said.
Apparently, those two were the only workers on hand qualified to operate the
equipment that would safely lift the metal pipes off our dead guy—and they
refused to do it. They wanted nothing at all to do with dead bodies, especially
if the police were involved. The superintendent was threatening to fire them
both if one of them didn’t shift those damn pipes.
A ripple went through the crowd of
hardhats watching the confrontation, and they turned in unison toward a wiry,
sharp-angled man approaching from the entrance gate. The way he stalked across
the construction site told everyone he was not playing games. He went straight
up to the superintendent, and the two of them got to shouting, nose to nose,
like they’d had practice at it.
Homicide Inspector Jones intervened. He
brandished his pad and pen, introduced himself, and asked the men to give him
their names, addresses, and phone numbers.
“How come?” said the wiry man. “We didn’t do
“I’m not saying you did, okay?” Jones
assured him in a soft-glove way. “It’s just that this is a crime scene here,
and we need to document everyone who has been on it.”
“You can’t detain nobody that’s not
under arrest!” the man shouted, and repeated the message in Spanish to the
crowd of hardhats.
“Hold on, now,” said Jones, still
softly. “We can’t allow any of you people to leave this crime scene until we
document who you are and how to reach you. All of you.” He gestured to one of
the precinct cops, who said something into his shoulder mic. Uniforms
materialized from all around, and surrounded the crowd of hardhats.
The wiry man said, “Is anyone here under
“Nobody’s under arrest. There’s been a
death at your workplace, and there will be an investigation. We just need to
see your IDs, and then anyone who wants to leave can go.”
“These men were not even here last
“Until we get everyone’s information, no
one is leaving.”
I felt Cam, next to me, tense up. He’s a
crime scene veteran. His instincts are worth paying attention to.
The wiry man tried to stare down Keith
Jones. Jones didn’t blink. Nobody in the crowd moved a muscle.
Then the wiry man nodded and pulled out
his wallet, and we all unclenched. “I would like your business card, please,
Detective,” he said. “My name is Samuel Urias, and I am the union steward on
I cast an eye to Donna and she nodded.
Samuel Urias was the man who had called 911 to report the dead body.
Urias said something to the two men
behind him, and without a word they produced their IDs, too. Jones handed out
his card. “Mr. Urias,” he said, “we can’t determine what happened here to cause
this death until we get those pipes lifted. Will one of these machine operators
be willing to help?”
“No,” Urias said, without bothering to ask the
workers. “They’re not doing it. But I am certified on this equipment. I will
move the pipes.”
Urias started off toward the giant front
loader, and over his shoulder he said, “Clear the area.”
Jones let a narrow smile slip past his
mustache. Then he said to the nearest uniform cop, “You heard the man. Safety
Samuel Urias took his sweet time moving
those pipes off our corpse. He did a thorough walkaround inspection of the
front loader. Then he powered it up, fiddled with the coupling on its
talon-like grabber arm, and did another walkaround. Donna yawned. Cam worried
out loud about press helicopters being bound to appear, now that there was
daylight. One of the beat cops reported to Jones that a clot of trucks trying
to get onto the site had gummed up the intersections across Sixth Street for
blocks in all directions. That gridlock was spreading to the Central Freeway
off-ramp, which was, in turn, backing up the Bay Bridge.
“You know who lives in these condos?”
Cam murmured. “Tech bros. The Google bus can’t get down Eighth Street, that’s a
“DEFCON 1,” Donna agreed.
I scoffed at the pair of them. “Come on.
It’s traffic. There’s traffic every day. Big deal.”
“Just you wait and see,” Donna said for
the second time that morning. Her boardwalk soothsayer routine was starting to
grate on me.
The site superintendent complained that
the duty contractor should be here managing this emergency, but that he wasn’t
answering his phone.
“Maybe that’s him under the pipes,”
Donna said to Cam.
“Not in that suit. Or those shoes.”
It was getting near 8:30 by the time
Urias finally swung the arm of the heavy machine up in the air, opened the
grabber, and lowered it slowly onto our death scene. The grabber’s tines closed
around the pipes and they clattered. The truck roared. It heaved the pipes,
pivoted them well away from the body, and dropped them in the dust beyond the
Jones lifted the police tape to approach
the body, then jumped clear out of his shoes at a deafening blast from the
front loader’s air horn. Up in its cab Urias was wagging his finger wildly. He
swung the grabber arm away to the far side of the machine, lowered it to the
ground, and killed the engine.
“Okay,” Urias hollered. “Clear!”
It’s not easy to rile a big-city police
detective, but at that moment Homicide Inspector Keith Jones looked like he had
developed a burning desire to clean Samuel Urias’s clock for him.
We followed Jones under the tape to get
a clear look at the body. The head, neck, and upper rib cage had been
obliterated. I’d never seen a worse case of disfigurement, except maybe in one
or two bodies that had been left to decompose in the open, where animals had
gotten to them. A case from the year before, involving a coyote in the woods
near the Lincoln Park Golf Course, came vividly to mind. This pulpy slew
leaking into a business suit was even less recognizable as a human body. Brain
matter was smeared into the dirt, and hairy chunks of skull had been scattered
like pottery shards. The crushed area was pink in places, red in places, but mostly
just kind of tan colored.
Donna was seeing what I was seeing, and
shaking her head. “That ain’t right.”
“Well,” I replied, “it’s interesting.”
“What about it?” said Inspector Jones.
“I’m concerned that we’re not seeing a
giant puddle of blood here. I would expect much more bleeding from such a
crush injury. Practically all the man’s
pressurized blood should have gushed out of those ruptured neck vessels.”
“So where is it?”
“I can’t tell you that until I perform
the full autopsy. But just on first impression, this looks like postmortem
injury to me.”
I didn’t have to explain to the homicide
detective what that meant. “You think this is a homicide staged to look like an
“I think the visible evidence indicates
that this man was already dead when those pipes came down on him. Let’s see
what else we can determine right now.”
“Uh-huh,” said Jones with zero percent
The beat cops tried to keep the
construction workers from crowding the tape cordon, but it was no use. We had
an audience. The crew from CSI moved back in to take more pictures, then gave
us the go-ahead to handle the body.
“’Bout time,” Cam grumbled.
“Chill, big guy,” one of the crime scene
cops snapped back. Cam didn’t like that.
Identification is our first job and top
priority. We went straight for the dead man’s pockets and found a wallet. It
had a California driver’s license under the name Leopold Haring, address in San
Francisco on Castenada Avenue.
“Forest Hill,” Cam said. “Money.”
Jones peered at the picture on the
driver’s license, then at the pulp piled on the end of the man’s shoulders, and
grunted. I manipulated an arm. The body was in full rigor mortis. That meant, I
told Jones, he’d been dead at least six hours. Three a.m., maybe two a.m. at
the earliest for a ballpark time of death.
“But,” I reminded him, “that’s the
outside window. It could be a lot earlier.”
“Can’t you narrow that down?”
“Let’s do a body temperature,” I said to
We put the wallet back in Leopold
Haring’s pocket where
we’d found it, and Cameron yanked down
the trousers. It required some effort thanks to the rigor mortis. He inserted a
thermometer into the cadaver’s rectum and told Donna it came to 80 Fahrenheit.
She wrote that down, consulted an outdoor thermometer she kept in her death
scene kit, and told me the ambient temperature was 54. I looked at the time and
did the math.
“He probably died between six and ten
“That’s the best you can tell?”
“Yes. And I might be wrong.”
“You guys always say that.”
“We mean it. Time of death estimation is
unreliable. It depends on too many variables…”
“Okay,” the detective said. I recalled
from working with him before that he said okay a lot, but usually didn’t mean
“Detective!” someone yelled from behind
the cordon line. It was the superintendent, cell phone still on his ear. “Do we
know who it is?”
Jones wasn’t about to shout the dead
man’s name into the crowd, so he gestured the superintendent over. I watched
Jones read the name off his notebook. The superintendent’s jaw fell open. He
bobbled the cell phone, dropped it in the dirt, and scrambled to pick it up. He
stared at the shattered corpse in disbelief. Then he dusted off the phone and
walked away, dialing frantically.
“Hey!” the detective called out, irked.
“You know this guy?”
“Google it,” the superintendent said,
and disappeared into the crowd of hardhats.
“Goddamn people,” said Jones, and
stalked after him.
Donna already had her smartphone in hand
and was typing. Cam and I huddled with her.
Leopold Andreas Haring, 52, born in
Austria, immigrated in 1989 as a graduate student in architecture at the
University of Pennsylvania.
“Oh, man,” said Cameron.
Leopold Haring was one of the most
famous and acclaimed architects in the world, known for a boldness of vision
coupled with a towering intellect, said the one article. “‘Haring’s work unites
a classical rigor of form with a disciplined attention to, and intention of,
function as the sine qua non of a building,’” Donna read. “‘His use of
materials has proven famously visionary, yet has always been coupled with a
miraculous lack of pretension…’”
“Enough,” said Cam.
“Wait, you gotta hear this one. ‘He is
our great cityscape cubist, the Picasso of the building arts.’”
“Donna,” said Cam, “our shift ended half
an hour ago. Can we get the pouch and gurney, please, before we end up on the
news? I don’t like being on the news.”
“Fine, fine.” She produced a white
sheet, which she draped carefully over the acclaimed architect’s mortal
remains, and the two of them trekked back to the van.
I scanned the crowd of hardhats for
Jones, but didn’t see him. My cell phone rang. It was the boss, Chief Medical
Examiner Dr. James Howe.
“Jessie…?” He sounded faint and far
“Dr. Howe,” I hollered, and stuck a
finger in my left ear. The morning shift had been standing around with nothing
to do for more than three hours, and had apparently decided to fire up every
heavy vehicle on the lot in preparation for the moment we allowed them to start
work. I started walking and talking, searching for a quiet spot.
“What the hell is going on up there?”
Dr. Howe said. “I’ve got everyone from the highway patrol to the mayor on my
ass about your death scene. They’re saying you’ve locked it all down…?”
“Yeah, it’s not looking like an accident
“What do you mean? It’s a construction
site with a fatal crush injury, right?”
“Not exactly. The injuries all look postmortem.
It turned into a suspicious death pretty quick, so I had to call in CSI…”
I finally found a sheltered spot, a
section of unfussy concrete foundation behind a chain-link gate. It was below
grade and dark, but good and quiet.
“We just got access to the body a minute
ago,” I told Dr. Howe. “We also just got a presumptive ID, but that’s another
“Now it’s suspicious and high profile.
The driver’s license in his pocket belongs to a Leopold Haring. Apparently he’s
“Oh sweet Jesus.”
“You’ve heard of him.”
“Get that body into the truck and out of
there before the press shows up, Dr. Teska! What happened to him?”
I described the circumstances as we had
found them, and what we had gone through to extricate the body. Dr. Howe didn’t
like the story—especially once he reckoned how many scene spectators there were
among the hardhats, and how many of them might have been sneaking cell phone
pictures. I issued the soothing assurances I’d perfected in my short career
under short-tempered boss men. I was good at it, and it worked. Dr. Howe let me
I climbed back up to the cordon line.
Donna and Cam had staged their gurney and were laying out a body pouch next to
“Hang on,” I said. “Let’s get some
pictures of the damage to the trouser hems and the shoes, while we still have
them in situ with the drag marks in the dirt.”
“If those are drag marks,” Cam groused.
“That’s why I want to document them,
Donna lifted the sheet off the body and
set it aside, and Cam summoned the CSI photographer to take some close-ups of
the ripped fabric and scuffed leather, the socks balled down, and pale pink
abrasions on both Achilles’ heels.
27 10/29/20 10:40 AM
“Those look postmortem, too,” I started to
say—but was cut off by an anguished cry from behind us.
“Oh my God! Oh my God! What…”
It was a lanky man, well dressed, with
silver hair. His face had gone as white as the morgue sheet.
“Is that…is that Leo?”
“That’s what we need you to tell us, Mr.
Symond.” That was Jones. He was standing on one side of the pale man. The site
superintendent stood on the other.
“Do you recognize him?” Jones said. “I
mean, anything among his effects, maybe?”
“His head…what happened to his head? Oh
Jones put a hand on the man’s shoulder.
“Take all the time you need.”
The superintendent cleared his throat
and turned away. “I’ll be in my office, Jeff,” he said, and strode briskly
toward the trailer.
“Oh God…” the pale man—a Mr. Jeff
Symond, evidently—said again. “That’s his suit. It looks like his shoes. Is he
wearing a U-Penn ring?”
Jones turned his flat gaze to me. I
lifted the dead man’s hand and examined the college ring.
“What year, Mr. Symond?” asked Jones
They both looked to me. I nodded.
Jeff Symond’s mouth hung open. His
breathing was shallow, eyes glassy. He swiveled suddenly, stumbled, and vomited
into the dirt under the police cordon tape.
Cameron muttered, “That’s another DNA
profile to rule out,” and Donna stifled a snicker. I glared daggers and ordered
them to get going with collecting the remains.
Symond wiped his mouth with a
handkerchief, his back still turned. I went to him, asked if he was dizzy. He
shook his head. I waved over a patrol cop.
“Take Mr. Symond up to the trailer and get him
a chair and a glass of water, okay?”
They started off, carefully. Symond did
not look back.
“Can I talk to you, Keith,” I said to
Jones, and walked away from the cordon. He followed.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” I
spat, too loud, and turned the heads on a couple of nearby beat cops. I tamped
down my temper and dropped into a church whisper. “You don’t bring a civilian
to a crime scene! What were you thinking—?”
“What’s wrong with me? You’re forgetting
this is my scene.” He kept his body language lax for the benefit of the
uniforms and hardhats craning to eavesdrop, but the anger in his voice matched
mine. “This guy shows up at the gate, says he’s the decedent’s business
partner. Apparently the superintendent called him, asked him to get down here.
He demands—demands—to see the scene of the accident. He wants to see how it
“Yeah, accident. To me this looks like
an industrial accident. You say different, based, as far as I can tell, on
intuition about the blood spatter. Okay. Maybe you’re right—we’ll all find out
sooner or later. But you’ve been way wrong, calling accidents homicides before,
and I’m not taking any chances with your work, Doctor.”
“That is not fair.”
“Maybe not. Like I said, we’ll all find
out sooner or later. This Mr. Jeffrey Symond is the partner of the man who
holds the presumptive ID for our corpse over there. I figured he could tell us
something about the pipes and how they fell, maybe. Or at least he could confirm
“On a guy with no fucking face? Give me
a break, Keith. You and I both know we’re going to get fingerprints off that
body as soon as we get it back to the morgue, and those prints will match the
DMV database for our presumptive. The ID will be
solid. You didn’t have to drag that poor
man over here. It’s unprofessional and sadistic.”
“Sadistic—?” Keith Jones was losing his
struggle to keep his body language from matching his words, and the hardhats
were starting to notice. “Sadistic is leaving that dead man out there for,
what…? Four hours now? Why don’t you do your job and get the body out of here.”
“Your crime scene, Inspector, but my
body. You know that. The body and everything on it is my jurisdiction.”
“So why don’t you go look after it.”
“So why don’t you go—”
I stopped myself, which was just as
well. We turned our backs on one another and walked away.
Donna and Cam had slid the body onto the
white sheet, scooping up the mess that remained of the man’s head and
shoulders, along with some bloody dirt and rubble. They tied the ends of the
sheet into knots like a shroud, then lifted it up and placed it in the body
pouch, which in turn went onto the gurney.
I told them to take it back to the
morgue without me. “It’s too late to start the autopsy today. Print and weigh
him and hold him over for tomorrow in the cooler.”
The 2578s calculated overtime while they
pushed the gurney across the dirt lot to their truck. I covered a yawn and
rubbed my face. If Mr. Jeffrey Symond was still recuperating in the office
trailer, I figured I might as well go talk to him and see what he could tell me
about the late Leopold Haring.
I opened the flimsy door to find Mr.
Symond propped on a folding chair in a corner, drinking water from a paper cup.
He looked badly shaken, but not on the verge of puking again. I got him a
refill of water. He thanked me, absently.
I introduced myself. Jeffrey Symond did
the same. I asked him how he knew the decedent.
“I’m his business partner,” he said.
“Twenty years. More than that. This project is one of ours—his design, his
blueprints. I do operations and permits, pitching new clients, the business
end. Leo is the creative one.”
He sighed in the desperate way some men
do to keep from crying.
“Mr. Symond,” I said, “I’m very sorry
you went through that. No one should have to see a friend in that state.”
His eyes had a plea in them. I knew what
was coming next. It was the vanguard of the denial phase.
“Are you sure that’s him?”
“The driver’s license he was carrying
says it is, and the college ring you asked about substantiates that. We’ll know
for sure when we compare his fingerprints to the database at the Department of
“Oh,” he said, despondent again.
“He wears a wedding ring. Is he
“Yes. Natalie. Natalie Haring.” I wrote
it down, and asked him for Mrs. Haring’s phone number and address. He knew both
from memory. “We all work together,” he said. “We have a company. Natalie and
Leo and myself.”
“Does Mrs. Haring know yet?”
“I haven’t spoken to her…”
“I’m going to ask you not to, then. Our
office will provide notification once the fingerprints come back and it’s
official, which should be in the next couple of hours. Okay?”
I gave Jeffrey Symond a moment to fiddle
with his paper cup, then I continued.
“Did Leo use drugs or alcohol?”
“He drank. Not a lot.”
“No history of substance abuse that you
31 10/29/20 10:40 AM
“No drugs, and I can’t remember the last
time I saw him drunk, or even tipsy.”
“Was he on any medications? And do you
know if he has any medical history?”
“I don’t know. You’d have to ask
“Okay. When did you last see Mr.
“Yesterday around six.”
“In the evening, you mean?”
“At our office. Natalie and I were both
there, expecting him to be working with us. When he finally showed up, he was
agitated—he’d been in a fight with his son.”
“What’s his name and age, the son?”
“Oskar. He’s twenty-three.”
“Natalie is his mother?” I asked.
“But Oskar wasn’t there, at the office.”
“Did Mr. Haring say what the fight was
“No,” Symond said. “But he did say he
was planning on coming down here, to the SoMa Centre site.”
“I don’t know exactly. He had a lot of
complaints about the way they were doing this job.”
“What was going on?”
“Leo kept telling me the contractors
were cutting corners. Materials, even methods. He was worried about it. You
heard of the Leaning Tower of Pine Street?”
I nodded. The Leaning Tower was infamous.
One of the city’s tallest new skyscrapers, right downtown, had been built with
the wrong sort of foundation or something, and had started listing to one side.
Pipes ruptured, electrical wires snapped, and windows were cracking—one had
even popped out and crashed
to the street below. No one knew what
was going to happen to that building. Hundreds of people—very rich people—had
already invested in luxury condos there. They were bleeding untold millions of
dollars in lost real estate value. Demolishing the building was out of the
question and repairing it was impossible. Years in the planning and
construction, and it had yielded nothing but finger-pointing and lawsuits for
“The Leaning Tower is every architect’s
worst nightmare,” Symond said. “Something like that happens, it ruins your
life. So Leo was worried about the foundation work on this place, on SoMa
“Is that why he came down here last
“He didn’t say as much, so I don’t
Jeffrey Symond looked around the superintendent’s
trailer, as if noticing for the first time where he was. There was a poster of
the artist’s rendering. He rose and went over, contemplated it.
“They’re trying to keep too fast a pace
on this thing,” he said. “I’m not surprised there was a fatal accident. I’m
just surprised it was Leo.”
He moved to look out the trailer’s
little window. Jones must’ve allowed the site opened up for work, because there
was a lot more action—voices shouting commands, workers hustling around,
machinery belching smoke and hauling off. The death scene cordon was still in
place, but someone had shifted the fallen pipes farther off. A man in a hard
hat stood over them with a hose, rinsing them down. He was washing bloody bits
of Leopold Haring into the dirt.
Excerpted from Aftershock by Judy
Melinek & T.J. Mitchell, copyright © 2021 by Dr. Judy Melinek and Thomas J.
Mitchell. Published by Hanover Square Press.