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Cary, North Carolina, April 21, 1999
Nick Polchak rapped his knuckles on the frame of the open doorway. He glanced back at the Wake County Sheriff’s Department police cruiser blocking the driveway, orange and blue lights silently rotating.
“Yo!” Nick called into the house. “Coming in!”
A fresh-faced sheriff’s deputy in khaki short sleeves poked his head around the corner and beckoned him in. Nick wondered where they got these kids. He looked younger than some of his students.
Nick stepped into the entryway. Dining room on the right, living room on the left. It was a typical suburban Raleigh home, a colonial five-four-and-a-door with white siding and black shutters. A mahogany bureau stood just inside the door. At its base lay three pair of shoes, one a pair of black patent leathers. Nick shook his head.
He knew the layout by heart: stairway on the left, powder room on the right, down a short hallway was the kitchen, and the family room beyond that.
Nick paused in the second doorway and took a moment to study the young officer. He stood nervously, awkwardly, constantly checking his watch. His right hand held a handkerchief cupped over his nose and mouth, and he winced as he sucked in each short gulp of air. Nick followed the officer’s frozen gaze to the right; the decomposing body of a middle-aged woman lay sprawled across the white Formica island in the center of the kitchen.
Nick knocked again.
“Officer … Donnelly, is it? I’m Dr. Nick Polchak. Are you the first one here?”
“I was just a few blocks away, so I took the call.” He glanced again at his watch. “Our homicide people ought to be along within the hour.”
Nick began to stretch on a pair of latex gloves and stepped around to the victim’s head. “The name on the mailbox said ‘Allen.’”
“Stephanie Allen. That’s all I’ve been able to get so far.” The deputy nodded silently toward the family room, where a solitary figure sat slumped forward in a red leather chair with his face buried in his hands. Nick raised his own left hand and wiggled his ring finger. The deputy nodded.
“I didn’t get your name—did you say Kolchek?”
“Polchak. Nick Polchak.”
“You don’t sound like you’re from around these parts.”
“I’m from Pittsburgh,” Nick said. “And I’d say you’re not.”
The deputy grinned. “How’d you know?”
“You left your shoes at the door.”
“They don’t do that in Pittsburgh? I guess they don’t have the red clay.”
“The police don’t do that in Pittsburgh. They figure if you’ve got a dead body in the kitchen, you’ve got more to worry about than dirty carpets.”
The body lay faceup, stretched out diagonally across the island under the bright kitchen fluorescents.
“Very handy,” Nick said. “Too bad I don’t find them all like this.”
The head rested in one corner, with medium-length blond hair flowing out evenly on all sides. There were deep abrasions and contusions on the neck and lower jaw. The body was in putrefaction, the second major stage of decomposition. The skin was blistered and tight from expanding gases, and the stench was considerable. There were sizable maggot infestations in both eye sockets and in the gaping mouth cavity. She had been dead for several days—maybe a week or more.
“You got here fast, Doc. I thought the medical examiner’s office was in Chapel Hill.”
Nick shook his head. “I didn’t come from Chapel Hill. I came from NC State. I picked up your call on my police scanner.”
“From the university? What were you doing there?”
“That’s where I work.”
Nick removed a pair of slender forceps and a small magnifier from his coat pocket. He bent close to the victim’s head and began to carefully sort through the wriggling mass of maggots in the left eye socket.
“Wait a minute. You’re not from the medical examiner’s office?”
“Never said I was.”
“Then who in the—”
“I’m a member of the faculty at NC State. I’m a professor in the department of entomology.”
“A professor of what?”
“I’m a forensic entomologist, Deputy. I study the way different necrophilous arthropods inhabit a body during the process of decomposition.”
The deputy stood speechless.
Nick plucked a single plump, white larva from the wiggling mass and held it under the magnifier. “I’m the Bug Man.”
The deputy began to blink rapidly. “Now just hold on … you’re not supposed to … you’re not a part of this …”
“Relax,” Nick held the forceps aloft. “It’s just one bug. There’s plenty more where that came from.”
“You need to leave, Dr. Polchak.”
“Because—you’re not a medical examiner, and you’re not with the department. You shouldn’t be here. It’s not procedure.”
“Not procedure. I have assisted the authorities on seventy-two cases in thirteen different countries. How many homicides did you have in Wake County last year? Five? Ten?”
The deputy shrugged.
“And how many of them did you work?”
“I never heard of any Bug Man,” the deputy muttered.
Nick glanced down at the man’s stocking feet. “Now there’s a surprise.”
Now Nick turned to the motionless figure in the red chair. “Mr. Allen,” he called out. “I’m Dr. Nick Polchak. I’d like to ask you a few questions, if you don’t mind.”
“No,” came a whisper from under the hands. “No questions.”
“Mr. Allen,” the officer broke in. “This man is not a part of the official police investigation. You don’t have to answer his questions.”
“He’s right,” Nick said. “But you can if you want to. And when the homicide people get here, Mr. Allen, they’re going to ask questions—quite a lot of them. First the police will ask you when you first discovered your wife’s body.”
The man looked up for the first time. His face was ashen and drawn, and a deep purple crescent cradled each eye.
“It was less than an hour ago,” the man said. “I called the police immediately.”
“Immediately? Your wife has been dead for quite some time, Mr. Allen.”
“I’ve been out of town. I just got back, just today. And then I found her, like … like this.”
Nick nodded. “Next the police will ask you where you were during that time.”
The man did a double take. “Me? Why me?”
“Because the one who discovers the body is always a suspect.”
“Like I said, I was out of town. I was in Chicago, on business. For a whole week—they can check it out.”
“I’m sure they will,” Nick said, “and I’m sure they’ll find you’re telling the truth. Their next question will be: What day did you leave for Chicago?”
The man thought carefully. “Last Wednesday. The fourteenth.”
“That would be … seven days ago exactly. And prior to that time, Mr. Allen, did you see your wife alive and well?”
“We said good-bye right here, on Wednesday morning. She was perfectly healthy.”
“You’re sure you left that day? On the fourteenth?”
“Of course I’m sure! You think I can’t remember a week ago?” Nick held the specimen up and studied it closely. Then he looked back at Mr. Allen.
“Care to try again?”
Nick dragged a chair from the breakfast nook into the family room and sat down opposite the man, with the tiny white specimen still writhing in the forceps in his right hand. He offered the magnifier to the man. “I want you to take a look at something.”
“I can’t look at that. Get that thing away from me!”
“Oh come now,” Nick whispered. “You have a stronger stomach than that—don’t you, Mr. Allen?”
The man looked startled; he hesitated, then reluctantly took the magnifier in his left hand.
“Pull up a chair,” Nick called back to the deputy. “Learn something.” Nick slowly extended the forceps. “Take a look at that end. Tell me what you see.”
The magnifier trembled in the man’s hand.
“Little lines,” he mumbled. “Sort of like slits.”
“How many little lines?”
“Give the deputy a look, Mr. Allen. Those ‘little lines’ are called posterior spiracles—think of them as ‘breathing holes.’ The maggot you’re holding is the larva of a common blow fly. That fly landed on your wife’s body shortly after her death and began to lay eggs in the softest tissues—the eyes, the mouth, and so on. Those eggs hatched into larvae, and the larvae began to feed and grow.
“Now when a larva grows, it passes through three distinct stages of development. Are you following me, Mr. Allen? Because this is the important part: The larva doesn’t develop those breathing holes until the third stage. And after many studies, we know exactly how long it takes for this species of fly to reach that third stage of development. Guess what, Mr. Allen? It takes more than a week.”
The man began to visibly shake as Nick rocked back in his chair and folded his hands behind his head.
“Let’s see what we’ve got so far. You’ve been out of town for a week—exactly a week. You say that you saw your wife alive one week ago, yet there are insects on her body that prove that she died more than a week ago.”
“Well … uh …,” the man stammered, “maybe I was gone … longer than I thought.”
“The airline’s records can clear up that little point. And I’m betting those same records will show that you made your reservations the same day that you traveled—sort of a last-minute business trip, you might say. I have just one more question for you, Mr. Allen. The police won’t ask you this one, but it’s something I’ve always wondered about …”
Nick leaned forward again.
“When you strangle someone, can you feel the hyoid bone break, or is it all just sort of soft and squishy?”
The man jumped frantically from his chair and lunged toward the door. He ran like a man in a funhouse, stumbling first one way and then the other, throwing himself from wall to wall, ricocheting wildly down the hall toward the open door.
The deputy sat frozen in astonishment, staring wide-eyed at the doorway.
“I think you’re supposed to run after him,” Nick said. “That’s what they always do on TV.”
The deputy thrust the magnifier and forceps into Nick’s hands and raced barefooted down the hallway. Nick rose slowly from his chair, shook his head, and headed back toward the body. As he passed the hallway he caught a glimpse of the mahogany bureau just inside the front door.
The top drawer was open.
Nick ran to the door and leaped out onto the brick porch. There was no sign of the deputy or his quarry—they had already rounded the house, probably headed for the woods in back.
“He’s armed!” Nick shouted. “Your man is armed!”
Nick looked both directions. He chose left and raced toward the corner of the house. “An amateur cop chasing an amateur murderer,” he said aloud. “Someone could get killed this way.”
He rounded the corner in a wide arc, expecting to lengthen his stride into a long run for the woods—but there, bracing himself against the far corner of the house, leaned the quivering figure of Mr. Allen. In his right hand a .357 magnum dangled toward the ground.
Nick skidded to a halt. The man saw him, straightened, and wobbled out away from the house. He turned to face Nick and slowly raised the weapon. He couldn’t steady it; Nick felt the barrel sweep back and forth across his body again and again. The man’s arm shook so violently that he looked more like he was whitewashing a fence than aiming a firearm. Nick marked the distance between them—fifty feet at least. At this distance, it would take several tries for the man to hit him.
But it only takes one.
“Listen to me, Mr. Allen. You did something stupid. Don’t make it worse. You cannot get away, and you know it. You’re only running because you’re scared.”
The gun swept past twice more, marking Nick with a broad X. “Think, Mr. Allen. Maybe you didn’t mean to kill your wife—but if you shoot someone else, they’ll hang you for sure. Put the gun down. Call a lawyer and see what you can work out.”
The gun began to steady …
Over the man’s shoulder Nick saw a khaki figure step out silently from behind the house. The deputy drew his own handgun, leveled it, then opened his mouth as if to shout. Nick held up both hands and shook his head violently.
You idiot! I’m in your line of fire!
The man spun around, firing wildly before he even faced his foe. The officer fired back; the first shot streaked over the man’s left shoulder. Nick could feel it coming, he could sense the air compressing ahead of the bullet as it tore past his left ear.
Nick dove for the ground. The man continued to fire blindly—three shots into the ground, one into the air, two into the side of the house.
The officer fired twice more, shooting for the torso, not trusting his own aim. The first shot caught the man in the lower abdomen and the second hit square in the chest. Nick watched the man take both bullets. It was not at all like the movies—no violent recoil, no sense of impact at all. The man stood motionless for a moment, then his knees suddenly bent in opposite directions, and he sagged to the ground like a crumpling sack.
Nick crawled toward the broken body. He pulled the gun away and tossed it aside; the barrel burned his hand. He placed two fingers on the carotid artery and waited.
Nick looked up at the deputy and shook his head. The officer’s knees buckled, and he dropped to the ground, vomiting.
Nick rolled onto his back and stared up into the April sky.
“Seventy-three cases,” he said.
North Carolina State University, April 22, 1999
“Nicholas? A word, if you please.”
Nick stepped into the office of Dr. Noah Ellison, chairman of the department of entomology and by far the most senior professor in any department at NC State. Dr. Ellison quietly closed the door behind them.
“Nicholas,” he began, wagging a spindly finger, “it has been brought to my attention that you failed to appear for another of your classes yesterday.”
“Sorry, Noah, I had to make a house call.”
“It is my responsibility as chairman of this department to remind you that your contract involves a certain amount of teaching—and your colleagues have reminded me that it is my duty to discipline you appropriately.”
Noah picked up Nick’s right hand and slapped him on the wrist.
“Consider yourself disciplined. Please do not force me to resort to such extreme measures again.”
The old man motioned for Nick to sit.
“I have good news and I have bad news, Nicholas. Which would you like first?”
“Give me both at the same time.”
“Very well. The good news is the National Science Foundation has granted funding for your summer research proposal—continuing study in your beloved field of forensic entomology. The bad news is that the grant is woefully inadequate, hardly more than a one-way ticket out of town.”
Noah slid a check across the desk. Nick glanced at it and rolled his eyes.
“Can’t we do any better than this, Noah? Aren’t there any departmental funds?”
He shook his head. “I control the purse strings, Nicholas, but not the size of the purse. I’m afraid that’s it; take it, as they say, or leave it.”
Nick studied the check again, hoping to discover a floating decimal point. “What am I supposed to accomplish with this?”
“You have the faculty committee’s permission to spend the summer at our Extension Research Facility in Holcum County. And you may take your research assistant, Dr. Tedesco, along with you.”
“Holcum County? Is that in North Carolina? Please, tell me it’s not.”
“Forgive me, Nicholas.” Noah smiled. “Sometimes I feel like the poet Virgil, leading you to ever deeper levels of hell.”
“Holcum County.” Nick groaned. “Just the sound of it.”
“Try not to think of it as a place, but as an opportunity—an opportunity to get away from the university, away from the classroom, away from students … and, I might add, away from the authorities.”
“I received a rather belligerent phone call this morning from the Wake County Sheriff’s Department regarding the way you—how shall I put it—expedited one of their investigations. I’ve spoken with the chancellor; he agrees that this would be a propitious time for you to take an extended leave. Purely in the name of science, of course. May I make a suggestion, Nicholas? As a friend? The next time you desire to assist the authorities, you might consider—just once—asking them first.”
Nick grinned at the old man, slid the check from the desk, and headed for the door.
“One more thing, Nicholas. This is to be a summer of theoretical research, not applied science. Please … for the sake of the university, the department, and your weary old mentor—for the sake of your job—try to stay out of trouble.”
“Noah,” Nick said yawning, “what kind of trouble can you get into in Holcum County?”
© 2009 Tim Downs