DEATH, WITH A CHASER OFmagick.
Anya wrinkled her nose as the odors burned into her sinuses. Unmistakable, they awakened a primal fight-or-flight response in the most primitive part of her brain. She forced one foot in front of the other, her fingers tightening in a sweaty grip on the handle of her tool kit. Any ordinary person would have license to flee from those smells, but Anya had no choice. She was not ordinary. And this was her job.
The hoarder’s house smelled like burned bacon, fetid and greasy. The stench clung to the stacks of newspapers littering the kitchen table, the bundles of National Geographic
magazines and cardboard boxes stacked along the walls on the scarred black-and-white linoleum. Dishes in the sink were coated with dried lemon dish soap; the garbage reeked of coffee grounds… but all the other odors were overwhelmed by the stink seeping through the peeling wallpaper.
A knot of cops milled at the back kitchen door. As if some invisible ward prevented them from crossing the threshold, the uniforms remained steadfastly outside, their voices kept low, thick with tension. There was none of the wisecracking and bravado gawkers usually brought. Transfixed, they didn’t want to walk away from the scene, but were unwilling to enter the house.
Someone had cracked open the window over the kitchen sink, allowing a breeze to creep through. Anya reached over the dishes to pry it open further, hoping to dispel the odor. A hazy film covering the pane obscured her reflection. Her latex-covered fingers smeared the glass, thick with grease. In spite of her gloves, the slickness of it made her skin crawl.
Anya tipped her head. A fringe of chin-length sable hair curtained her amber-colored eyes. Her hair had burned off six months ago and was now at that annoying stage where it still wasn’t long enough to pull back into a ponytail. She shoved it behind her ear with the back of her clean hand. The motion revealed a copper torque peeking out over the edge of her hazmat suit. The metal salamander curled around her neck, grasping its tail in a deep V above her collarbone. The collar always felt warmer than her skin, pulsing with its own presence. The salamander torque was always most active around death; she was certain it smelled the death as acutely as she did. For the moment, she ignored it.
“Thought you’d enjoy this one, Kalinczyk.”
Captain Marsh dumped a tackle box of tools on the kitchen table. Even in these stiflingly close quarters, her supervisor wore his firefighter’s coat open over an immaculately pressed white shirt and tie.
Anya’s brow arched. “Something stunk, and you automatically thought of me?”
Marsh’s mahogany face creased in a grin. “I thought it might have spooked some of the other fire investigators.” He crossed his arms over his crisp shirt. “But seriously… we need for this to be kept low-key. Quiet.”
She glanced at the cluttered, humble surroundings, brow creasing. There was nothing in the scene that suggested to her a need for secrecy. Sadness, perhaps… but not secrecy. And she was certain none of the others could taste the sharp tang of magick in the air, distinct as ozone. “What’s the backstory?”
“This house belongs to a seventy-two-year-old man, Jasper Bernard. A neighbor called nine-one-one because she saw strange lights and thought burglars might have broken in.”
Anya gestured to the kitchen table with her chin, looking askance. “Does he have anything worth stealing? Anything that could be found in this mess?”
“Yeah, well.” Marsh spread his hands. “I guess she could tell that something was different. Police tried the front door, and no one answered. All the doors and windows were locked. When they peered into the windows with their flashlights, they saw evidence of fire in the living room, and broke in.”
“They saw fire?”
Marsh shook his head. “No. Just char and ash. The fire was long cold. So was Bernard.”
“What did Bernard die of? Smoke inhalation?” Anya envisioned an old man dead on his couch of a fire started by a forgotten lit cigarette. As far as ways to die went, suffocating in one’s sleep was not the worst way to go. Anya had seen much worse. Though she knew the official coroner’s report wouldn’t be available for a few days, a preliminary opinion would help her move forward with the investigation.
Marsh nervously scrubbed his palm over the scar crossing his bald head. Marsh was rarely nervous, but Anya recognized the unconscious gesture. “No.”
“Burns?” Anya winced. There were only two ways to die in a fire: burning or asphyxiation. Burns were the worst.
“You gotta see this for yourself.” He jabbed a thumb at the six-panel door off the kitchen. It stood ajar, and only cool shade stretched beyond. “That way.”
Heat had lifted the paint into bubbles that burst like blisters under her fingertips. She pushed the door open, sucked in a breath as her eyes adjusted to the half-darkness.
The living room was a pack rat’s nest. Above, a bare lightbulb had melted in its ceiling socket. Painted-shut windows had been forced open, allowing gray light to ribbon through bent blinds, over pressboard shelves warping under the weight of books. Anya scanned the titles, but most of them were in incomprehensible Latin. Sculpted shag carpeting was mottled under the weight of years of dirt and too few vacuumings. Unopened mail rattled on a dusty credenza, envelopes curling in a breeze that failed to chase out the bitter reek of death.
As disorganized as the room appeared, the scene was surprisingly intact from a forensic viewpoint. No scorch marks blackened the walls. It was unlikely that someone could have actually died of burns or smoke inhalation in a room showing so little damage. Only a swirl of carbon smoke stained the ceiling, surrounding the melted lightbulb over the couch.
Anya frowned. Maybe the old man had had a heart attack. Maybe he’d died of cancer. Or a drug overdose. Surely the autopsy would reveal something other than burns or smoke inhalation. There simply hadn’t been a fire here big enough to traumatize a mobile adult.
The threadbare couch faced away from Anya, toward a fireplace. The fireplace mantel sagged under an odd assortment of objects: a clutch of brass keys dripping over the edge like the limbs of a spider; a Tiki god beaming over his domain of clutter; a tarnished sword with an elaborate gilt hilt. Smoke had stained a collection of bottles in various sizes and shapes. They were now all the color of gray quartz, nearly concealing their contents: gleaming bones suspended in liquid.
Anya’s skin crawled. These things smelled like magick, like rust and salt. Old magick. Not the new, ozone tang of fresh-brewed magick that she had smelled in the kitchen. Anya picked her way around the couch for a better look and nearly stepped into the remains of Jasper Bernard.
Not that there was much of him. A greasy black burn mark spread from the middle couch cushion to the floor, scorching the carpet. A pair of feet in black socks and blue slippers extended from the bottom of the stain. Squinting, she could make out a few finger bones from a right hand at the perimeter of the scorch, but nothing else of Jasper Bernard remained. The burn had chewed through the carpet, leaving white ash on the unmarked hardwood floor. In front of the slippers sat an unharmed TV tray, a micro-waved dinner preserved in its compartmentalized plate. Meat loaf and green beans, from the looks of it.
She rocked back on her heels, breathing: “Holy shit.” This wasn’t a natural fire. It wasn’t even a possible
fire. Human bodies didn’t burn like that, not even when they were doused with gasoline and set ablaze in cars. There was always something left behind. Nothing burned like that, even in crematories. Crematoriums had to physically pulverize the remains to get them into a box.… Where the hell had Bernard’s remains disappeared to?
She knelt to stare incredulously at Bernard’s feet. Through a hole in his sock, she could see pink flesh. The intense heat that had reduced his body to ash hadn’t touched the lint underneath his perfectly intact toenail.
Marsh’s steps scuffed up dust from the carpet behind her. “Is this what I think it is?”
If it was, it was the holy grail of fire investigation. She hedged. She hadn’t seen enough of the scene to be positive. “I don’t know for sure. We need to collect more evidence, but it has all the hallmarks of it.”
“Of what?” He pressed harder, leaning forward on his now-dusty spit-shined shoes. He didn’t want to be the first one to say it, the first one to step off the cliff into an irrational explanation.
She swallowed, kept her voice so low that the uniforms eavesdropping past the open door couldn’t hear: “Spontaneous human combustion.”
Silence stretched. She couldn’t believe she’d said it.
Marsh gestured to the open windows. “That’s what the uniforms are saying. That’s what the press would say if they knew.” He looked down at the hole in the carpet where a human had once sat, preparing to eat his TV dinner. “Disprove it. Find the truth.”
She rocked back on her heels, voice dry. It was too soon to even begin conjecture, and she resented being pushed. “Sir. I haven’t even begun to seriously consider any theory.…”
“Find a reasonable explanation for this. Take the time and resources you need, but make this go away.” His gaze drifted out the window to the darkening skyline. Somewhere out there a siren whined. “De...