The sky was gray and the wind blew. The shift in weather was sudden and drastic. “Avalee! Get me those Vanmeter files.” Well-manicured hands shuffled papers covering the massive, mahogany desk. “And find me another goddamn pen!”
Avalee Talbott strolled through the open door that separated the reception office from Dixie’s own, her wide hips moving in a slow and not entirely un-seductive sway, all natural. Avalee was stunning. It could almost make one overlook her smart mouth.
Avalee spoke in her Georgia drawl. “Why don’t you use a computer like the rest of the free world? You wouldn’t need a pen.” Avalee offered up a pen.
Dixie pulled the hair away from her face. “Don’t point that thing at me.”
Clipping the pen inside, Avalee tossed the open folder on the desk.
Dixie stared down at an 8X10 photo that seemed to stare back. Marcel Vanmeter, white and without expression, his lips colorless.
“What?” Avalee had re-entered the room unnoticed.
“For hell’s sake, don’t creep up on me like that. You scared the shit out of me.”
“Saahh-reee!” Avalee sat on the edge of the desk. “What’s up with this weather? It was beautiful ten minutes ago.”
Dixie switched on the desk lamp. “Who the hell knows? Maybe God decided to fuck with us and turned on the big, giant fan in the sky.”
Sandstorms and wind weren’t unusual. After the dust would come the rain. The air would clear, and the city would become a mud-streaked mess. It was growing darker by the minute.
“Look at this Avalee.” She turned the open folder toward Avalee.
One eyebrow raised, Avalee tilted her head. “What am I lookin’ at?”
“Tell me what you see.”
“Ugly dead guy?”
“Sarcasm is not attractive on you. Look at the rest,” Dixie pointed to the photos. “I want your first impression.”
“Avalee,” Dixie stood and placed both palms on her desk, leaning forward, “What do we do here?”
Avalee removed the paperclip, holding the photos she queried. “Hummm. No obvious head wound. No upper body trauma, at least nothing frontal. Back wound?”
Dixie didn’t answer. Avalee hadn’t seen all the photos yet. “Keep looking.”
Avalee methodically moved photos to the back of the stack. “What the cluck? Where’s the rest of the body?”
“Well, I gotta tell you. I have no idea on this one. You’re the detective. Looks like you’ve got work to do.”
Dixie put the contents back together and tucked the folder into her briefcase. “I’ll be at the morgue.” Thunder rattled the windows.
“You might want this, I don’t think the Big Guy is finished messin’ with us.” Avalee held the umbrella out.
The rain had become a downpour, so Dixie parked in the space closest to the door. Umbrella offering little protection, she ran to the building.
The first time she walked this hallway was twenty years before, about this same time of year. They’d found her father’s body behind a strip club in South Central Phoenix. His wallet and I.D. were scattered on the asphalt still wet from the previous night’s rain.
The heels of her boots clicked on the old, once-white linoleum, now tired and gray. Depressing. She pushed through the doors bearing the words “RESTRICTED AREA,” and into the autopsy room.
“Hiram, what’s up?”
Tired brown eyes peered over the top his glasses in Dixie’s direction. He placed a just-removed spleen into the plastic bin on the cart next to him. He motioned her in. “Why Ms. Duel, to what do I owe this pleasure?”
“I want to talk to you about the John Doe. Missing legs? Came in a few days ago? I’ve seen the file and the photos from the scene.” Dixie stopped and smelled the air. ”I never thought death smelled like fast food. What is that?”
Hiram motioned to the desk several feet away, “Dinner. Jack-in-the-Box. Want some? The fries are good.”
“No thanks. How do you do that?”
“What? Eat? I’m hungry so I eat.”
Dixie worked to control her gag reflex. “What do you think happened?” The rain pelted the skylight overhead, filling the silence.
“Your guess is as good as mine. The skin connecting the legs to the torso appears torn. Both femurs were pulled away from the ligaments that attach them to the pelvis.”
At that moment the entire building seemed to shift, tilt really.
“What the hell?” Dixie gripped the edge of the table.
“Johnny! Don’t carry that around. When your dad brought this home, he told you it is not a toy. Put it back on the table and turn off your ceiling fan, or turn it down. You have dirt and water everywhere.”
“Sorry,” Johnny mumbled.
“When it needs water you’re supposed to use the spray bottle. Remember how I showed you?”
“Well, when I took the top off it got all dusty.”
“Right. Ceiling fan.” She looked up at the fan.
“So I sprayed the dirt but it didn’t seem like enough, so I poured some in.”
“Okay, just don’t do it again.”
Johnny sat motionless, his eyes downturned.
“I don’t want you to be mad at me.”
“I’m already mad at you. Spit it out.”
Johnny lowered his hand into the opening bringing out something tiny. He held it with his thumb and index finger.
“I don’t want it. Your dad’s not going to be happy about this. Jack!” Beth called to the other room. “I told you he wasn’t old enough to have an ant farm.”
Jack entered the bedroom, “God, Beth, it’s not an ant farm! It’s an occupied terrarium. They’re not ants.”
“Whatever. He opened it and now look what happened.”
Johnny held out his hand, dropping the tiny, unmoving object into Jack’s extended palm.
Jack brought his hand up for a closer look. “Shit. He pulled the legs off this one.”