The Price.“What do we have?”
“John Doe. Male, in his early forties I’m guessing. Identification from dental records is impossible, frankly. Multiple contusions, severe fractures, lacerations, third-degree burns to nearly all of his body… The list of what this guy died from is longer that what’s left of his arm there.” The medical examiner pointed to the mangled stump of a limb closest to Detective Courtney. She glanced down at the glossy mess, and then quickly averted her eyes again.
“So no personal effects at all?” she asked thickly. In her time as a beat cop, she’d seen plenty of grisly sights, but this? Her cornflakes seemed to want to enter the Olympics for tumbling.
“Nothing. Well, nothing yet. I still have to sort through - at least I think it’s an arm - to look for a ring.” The examiner gestured to a separate pile of what appeared to be ground meat mixed with gravel. Courtney looked up at the ceiling.
“All right, well, call me if you find anything.”
“Will do detective,” said the examiner as she peered closer at the body.
Courtney hastened from the room. She caught the lift doors and stepped inside, hitting the button for the second floor. She shivered and concentrated on the tinny muzak emanating from the lift’s speakers, trying to drown out the memory of the sounds of minced body parts under the medical examiner’s hands. She sighed and got out as the lift doors opened again. Nearly all of the cubicles up here were empty now. Dusty golden sunbeams streamed in through the blinds in her boss’s office. Courtney headed down the well worn path to her cubicle at the end. She gathered up her things and tapped her keyboard. Her ancient computer screen flickered to life again, revealing the article she’d been perusing while the ME had been doing her cursory examination. The media hounds had gotten to this one incredibly quickly and the captain had wanted to shut the lid on it and find out who was at fault as soon as possible.
NEAR TRADGEDY ON I35
A head-on collision between a school-bus and an SUV on the highway this morning has left one adult dead, three adults and eighteen children hospitalized and a further twelve children under observation at the nearby St James. This gruesome scene is the result of a night of drinking…
Courtney scrolled down past the image of the blackened bus and cars – after the initial collision a separate sedan had plowed into the bus, toppling it onto its side. Shattered glass spread out from the scene like a creeping frost.
It was a miracle that only one person died in this horrific crash. Somehow, all victims had been safely removed from the blaze by the time the fire department arrived to douse the flames. What caused this hellish crash is still unknown-
“You coming out tonight, Court?”
Courtney jumped and looked around.
“Hi Jake. I’ve told you to quit creeping up on me like that. You know you walk like a cat…”
“And you grumble like a badger.” Jake cocked his head and grinned. Courtney rolled her eyes.
“Not tonight Jake. Don’t think I’d be able to stomach a beer after what I’ve seen down the morgue today.”
Jake’s eyes slid to her screen.
“Ah. I see. I heard about the man who died. Poor guy,” he said. The ivory smile receded and he shook his head slightly. “Well, maybe on the weekend then.”
“Sounds good,” said Courtney. She shut the computer down and turned back to Jake.
“Walk you out?” he asked, grin flashing again mockingly as he held his elbow out to her. She shoved him away, a smile curling at the corner of her mouth.
“So how’s that lovely nurse going?” she asked as they headed towards the lift.
“Oh she’s wonderful. I barely see her because of the hours she works, but you know what they say – absence makes the heart grow fonder,” he said.
“It’s so refreshing to know that there are still men like you in this world. Guys who are just good,” Courtney said as the doors pinged open. “Some men I know would just not want to support a woman who works those crazy on-call hours she does.”
Jake gasped in mock surprise. “Detective Tate? A compliment? From you?”
Courtney punched him again. He groaned and rubbed his arm.
“Yeah, I dunno. I just feel… after today… Anyone who just goes out of their way to help others is a hero to me.”
Jake smiled. “Yeah, she’s a bit of a badass my Janey.”
Courtney found herself shielding her eyes, even with the dark wraparounds she’d donned that morning. She’d told Jake she hadn’t wanted to go out, but he’d wheedled and whined and she’d given in. She’d gone heavier than usual on the vodka, just trying to drown out a few of the memories.
“Okay, I get your point,” she mumbled, holding her head which currently felt like it was committing suicide by ice pick.
“Good morning detective!”
Courtney winced as she stepped out of the elevator.
“Whoever said it was good?” she mumbled.
“What was that?”
“I said morning, Captain James,” she said, flipping her hair back from her face and trying to look as though the morning glare wasn’t making her head ache.
The captain raised one bushy brow at her and then turned back to his desk. Courtney ducked her head again and hurried to her cubicle. She switched on her computer and checked her emails. Lily the medical examiner had left one telling Courtney that she’d found something. Courtney headed for the lifts.
“I’ve been working here for three years. Every time I come down here, I forget it’s like walking into the arctic,” said the detective.
“And every time you mention the temperature, I tell you that it’s not the living who need it down here,” Lily said, pointing a blue gloved hand at her. Courtney rolled her eyes.
“You said you had something?”
Lily screwed up her face, her lips – they were a vibrant shade of purple today – pursed.
“Sort of. It’s what I don’t have is the interesting thing.”
“What you don’t have?”
Lily walked over and pulled open one of the storage units along the wall. Mr. Mincemeat John Doe slid out. Courtney sighed heavily and walked over.
“I went through everything, but we do not actually have all of Five Star here.”
“Mince quality. You don’t cook much, do you detective?”
“Chinese takeout mostly. It’s got vegetables. It’s healthy. Beside the point. What do you mean you don’t have all of him?”
“Well, I sorted out that pile of arm that they brought in. Not all of it is there. We have an assortment of radius, humerus and ulna fragments, but none of the carpals, metacarpals or finger bones. It’s like the whole lower arm is just missing. Including any ring if there is one.”
“So… what? I’ve got to go looking for a missing left hand?”
“Unless you can come up with a better way to identify the poor soul?”
Courtney groaned and put her head in her hands.
“Oh come on. It won’t be that hard.”
“No it’s not the case. I went out drinking with Jake last night.”
Lily raised her pretty red eyebrows.
“You know he has a girlfriend Lily,” Courtney snapped. Lily pursed her lips again and turned away.
Courtney groaned and stomped out of the morgue.
The contents of the evidence box lay spread from one end of her diminutive desk to the other. Crime scene photographs always threw such a harsh light on everything.
“What are you looking for?” Jake was peering over the wall of her cubicle, eyes bright and catlike in his curiosity.
“A missing hand apparently,” said Courtney.
“Sounds like fun,” said Jake, giving her a deadpan look.
Jake scratched his nose. “I hear that the parents of fourteen of the kids are taking the city to court over this. Unsafe highways or something.”
“Whereas the driver of the SUV is attempting to sue the bus driver,” Courtney said, shuffling through more photographs.
“What a world we live in now. They should really all just be thanking their lucky stars they all got out of it relatively unscathed. Janey was there when the kids were all brought in for observation. She had seen the crash on the news and was expecting… She said it was a miracle that they were all okay.”
Courtney frowned and looked closer at one of the photographs.
“Tell me again where they keep the wrecked cars during an investigation?”
“There’s a yard down on Gull Road that stores them all.”
The girl at the counter must have been cold in those cut off shorts. She let Courtney through to the yard when the detective had flashed her badge. Courtney made a beeline for the sedan that had added to the pileup. The whole front of the car was crumpled and blackened. The interior wasn’t much better. Completely black and nearly unrecognizable. With considerable effort, Courtney cracked open the driver’s side door. Snapping on a glove, she pawed through the blackened upholstery. Finally she hit upon what she’d seen in the photographs and smiled.
“Well, that definitely explains why he didn’t seem to have a lower left arm,” said Lily as Courtney plonked the prosthetic hand down on the examination table. Lily picked it up and looked inside the cuff.
“And luckily, this will also help us to identify our mystery man,” she said. She turned to her computer, pulling up a database.
“Ah, here we go. Jason Gadreel. Interesting name. Forty-one. Many thanks to you detective we can now let his… zero next of kin know that he’s down here.” Lily face creased. “Poor guy.”
Courtney looked at the floor. “Ah well. Anything else come back on everyone? Blood toxicology?”
“The bus driver, sedan and SUV drivers were all clean. I thought I’d save the department some money and not worry about the kids’ blood. It’s doubtful that any of the six-year olds on the bus were intoxicated and driving the bus erratically.”
Courtney huffed out a laugh.
“One weird thing did come back though. Our friend Jason here has several strange blood markers. Apparently, he had cancer. Also, he was in the early stage of AIDS,” Lily said.
Courtney shook her head. “The world just didn’t want to give this guy a break, did it?”
Courtney groaned and let her head fall onto the desk. She hit it harder than she meant to and groaned again.
“What’s wrong, badger?”
“Go away Jake. I don’t need your annoying optimism right now.”
“Aw. Tell me. Maybe I can help. You know, fresh set of eyes and everything.”
Courtney let out a deep breath.
“I went by the hospital this morning to get the victims statements. None of this makes any sense anymore.”
“How so?” Jake cocked his head as Courtney looked up at him.
“The driver of the SUV swears black and blue that he was in his car alone, heading home from work.”
“Well, so does the sedan driver. She said she was also alone.”
“There was only two other cars in the crash apart from the bus. So unless our ground beef imitator, Mr. Gadreel, was on the bus, how did he sustain all those injuries?”
Jake frowned. “I see your problem.” He rubbed his forehead. “Have you-”
“Yes I’ve spoken with their doctors. They both say it’s unlikely that their injuries have resulted in head trauma, and thus resulted in memory loss. They were both incredibly fine after the accident.”
“The bus driver is still unconscious.”
Jake shut his mouth. Then he raised a finger. “What about all the kids? Surely you’ve taken their statements too?”
“The statements of twenty overexcited five-year olds is not going to help.”
“Well, what other avenues of investigation do you have?”
“You raise a fair point, detective Evans,” grumbled Courntey.
Courtney felt incredibly out of place walking into the children’s ward. Her parents had doted on her sisters two sons. She herself had never been comfortable around the two boys. Even her black, serious clothes seemed unwelcome here in the brightly lit and gaily colored hallway. She approached the reception desk.
“I’m here to see, uh…” She cleared her threat and pulled her notebook from her pocket. “Lukas Brown,” she said, reading the first name of twenty.
“You’re working on the case of that awful crash, aren’t you?” said the nurse behind the desk. Courtney nodded. The nurse gave Courtney a confidential grimace. “It’s about time. You need to put away whoever caused that dreadful accident. The harm that could have come to all of those kids - it really was a miracle…”
The nurse led her up the corridor and into a room. Five sets of parents, five beds, and five huge piles of get-well cards and flowers filled the room. She nodded to the heads that turned to her as the nurse led her to the far bed.
“Mr. and Mrs. Brown?”
The man and the woman stood up to shake her hand.
“I’m here to ask your son some questions, if that’s okay?”
The two looked at each other.
“Darling, do we need the lawyer present for this?”
Courtney resisted to the urge to roll her eyes.
As she’d suspected, basically all of the information the children could provide was useless. Only a handful of them had even been conscious when they’d been pulled from the wreckage. The closest she’d gotten to concrete information from any of them was a little boy who’d told her he remembered a tall man carrying him away from the crash. There had been speculation about how all the children had escaped the bus before it burst into flames. It seemed there was a good Samaritan somewhere out there.
“He had red stuff on him. And he smelled funny.”
Courtney sighed and pretended to write this down.
“Thank you Danny. But do you remember anything from before the bus crashed?
The boy scrunched up his face.
“It was really loud.”
Courtney knew she’d read somewhere that deep breathing was good for calming oneself. Heavy sighing probably didn’t come under that banner though.
“Thank you for your help Dan. I’ll be sure to give your mom and dad a call if I need anything else,” she said, gathering her jacket and getting up.
“Okay,” said Danny and proceeded to pick his nose.
Courtney looked at her list as she walked away. One name left.
“Olivia is it?”
The girl nodded. She was sat up in bed. Surprisingly she was the only one in this ward. The other beds were empty and she didn’t have two anxious parents hovering about.
“Where’s your mom and dad?”
The little girl smiled, revealing two missing teeth. “Mommy’s at work. She has to work a lot. I don’t have a daddy.”
Courtney shifted in her chair.
“Do you think your mommy would mind if I asked you some questions about the bus crash?”
Olivia’s tiny face creased. “No, I don’t think so.”
“Ah, good. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome!” said Olivia with a bright smile.
“Ah. Okay. Maybe we can start with the bus ride. What do you remember of the events leading up to the crash?”
Olivia crinkled her nose up. “Lea- leading up?”
“What do you remember of before the bus crashed. Before it fell over?”
“Oh! Lots and lots. I remember looking out the window at all the other cars. There were birds in the sky! I like birds.”
“Okay, we’re not talking about the birds. I need you to focus on the cars. Was there a white car?”
“What about a big blue car?”
“I remember a blue car. It was going very fast. I was watching it. It tried to go in front of the bus. Then the bus stopped really sud- suddenly,” said Olivia.
Courtney sat back. “The blue car, huh?”
“Yep. All the other cars were angry at it. Like ‘eeeeeeeEEE’-”
“They were honking?”
Courtney scribbled in her notebook. “Thank you Olivia. This is very helpful information.”
“Do you want to know about the man?”
Courtney looked up.
“The man who saved me. Who saved all of us. I remember him.”
Courtney fingered the paper in her notebook. Olivia looked out of the window. There was a serene smile on her little freckled face.
“I remember the bus crashing. My head was very very sore. Then the bus fell over even! The ground came up so fast – wham! And then there was all this white-ness. Like snow, but whiter.”
Olivia’s hands crept around her shoulders. Courtney swallowed.
“It was so warm there. I was floating. You know like when you go swimming and you dive down and you just float around a bit? And then the man was there. He picked me up and he put me on the side of the road. He was so red. It was blood I know. I’m pretty sure it was my blood.”
“Your blood? But you had no injuries when you came in.”
“Yep. Because he took them away. He’s an angel, you know.”
Courtney gave an unconvinced smile.
“An angel huh? He certainly was a hero. I heard about him from the other kids,” she said. Olivia nodded enthusiastically. Courtney gathered her things quickly and stood up.
“Thank you again for this Olivia – you’ve actually been a really big help.”
“You’re welcome!” said Olivia again with another huge smile.
“So the SUV driver is taking the rap?”
“Yep. After we leant on him a bit, he confessed to distracted driving – was texting while changing lanes. Dumbass thing to do really.”
“Yay! Case solved then! Celebratory drinks!” Jake’s smile slid off his face when he saw that Courtney was still staring at the crime scene photos. “Or not?”
“It still doesn’t add up though. Yes, the SUV caused the crash. The sedan knocked the bus over. Fuel tanks on fire, blah, blah. But where does Jason Gadreel come into this? I mean, we know now he was obviously the one who rescued all the kids, but how did he go through a car crash, and not go through a car crash?”
“Was he on the road perhaps? Did the bus fall on him? Was he somehow hit by one of the cars?”
“His injuries aren’t consistent with it. And how did his prosthetic hand end up inside the sedan?”
Courtney continued staring at the pictures. A hand waved in front of her face.
“Earth to Detective C…”
“I – sorry Jake. This has just got me all confused.”
“That’s okay. I’ll leave you to it super sleuth. Got a date with Jane tonight anyway. Wish me luck.”
Courtney had already turned back to the photos, her bottom lip between her teeth
“Still there, Court?” Jake asked. She didn’t reply. Jake smiled again and shook his head as he walked away.
The office grew dark around her. Frustrated, Courtney threw down her pen and leant back in her chair. She raked her fingers through her hair and looked at her computer. With nothing else to turn to, she opened her web browser and typed in Jason Gadreel’s name. The first couple of results turned out to be news articles. The first one had a picture of Jason that she recognized from his DMV picture. Lord knew she couldn’t recognize him from his real face. It really was a unique name, she figured, to get a hit instantly. She scrolled through the piece.
HORRIFIC TRAFFIC ACCIDENT ON MAIN STREET
Four teens have been pulled from a horrific t-bone at the intersection of Main and Drake on Monday night. Shockingly, only one has sustained serious injuries. The driver of the 1991 Ford has been summoned to appear in court under accusations of underage drinking and driving under the influence. Jason Gadreel is in a critical condition at the local hospital, but is expected to recover.
Courtney frowned. She navigated to the next article.
TRAGIC HIT AND RUN LEAVES ONE CRITICALLY INJURED
A horrible incident occurred last night when a speeding car clipped young Ms Demi Jackson and Mr Jason Gadreel. Authorities are still on the lookout for a black Cadillac. Both victims were taken to hospital. Despite witnesses saying that Ms Jackson seemed to have ‘disappeared under the wheels like roadkill’ she is miraculously unharmed. Mr Gadreel however is in intensive care and will most likely lose the most part of his left arm.
Courtney sat back again. After a moment, she shook her head. She turned off her computer and headed out.
“You figure out how poor Mr. Gadreel was killed yet?”
“No. Not yet. I have no idea what happened. I put an APB out on his car. Apparently it was found abandoned up there on the highway right near the accident. It ended up in a tow yard.”
“Oh? Was it smashed up too?”
“Nope. Not a scratch on it.”
Lily paused, scalpel in hand.
“Well, if you ever do figure it out, let me know. That way I can fill out the rest of his documentation.”
“The poor sod is off to be buried by the state tomorrow. Mortician’s already come to pick him up. Left the personal effects behind by accident though. Would you be able to take them over?” Lily nodded to a box on the far end of the workbench.
“Sure.” Courtney went over and peered into the box. There wasn’t much. The man’s clothing and a few loose coins.
“I did have this one weird theory as to what might have happened,’ she said.
“Oh?” said Lily.
Courtney picked at the clothing and grimaced. Even after washing, they were never able to get all of the bloodstains out of crash victims’ effects.
“I thought… you know, never mind. It’s extremely stupid.”
“C’mon Court – you’re killing me here.”
“Nah, it was just something one of the kids said… You know what they’re like; they love to embellish stuff, or just plain make it up. It’s just…” Courtney trailed off. At the bottom of the box was a single feather. Pure and white. Courtney stared at it.
“Total nonsense…” she whispered.
Feeling: Much too sedentary. I need to do... something.
Wearing: PJ pants and my RvB Red Army tee.
Listening to: I See Fire by Ed Sheeran. Man, that song gives me shivers like you wouldn't believe.
Eating: I had cookies and coca-cola for breakfast. Then I ate a banana! I'm so healthy...