Suspect Zero

Suspect Zero

by Michael D. Kelleher

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781929429875
Publisher: Dead End Street, LLC
Publication date: 06/03/2003
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.72(d)

Read an Excerpt

Introduction

In 1968, a serial killer with the moniker ?Zodiac? began his career with a double homicide in the city of Vallejo, California, just east of San Francisco. Within a year, he had attacked seven people, mostly young couples, killing five. In a series of bizarre and disturbing letters to the San Francisco Chronicle, this murderer would eventually lay claim to more than three-dozen victims. In 1978, after two dozen of these letters, Zodiac disappeared, leaving investigators confused and empty-handed.

While an army of law enforcement personnel was busy chasing Zodiac, another series of murders was taking place less than an hour north of San Francisco, in the semi-rural community of Santa Rosa. Between early 1972 and late 1973, at least seven girls and young women were slain in a similar way by an unknown male assailant. Because Zodiac had attacked at a variety of locations around the Bay Area, including Vallejo, Lake Berryessa, and San Francisco, many investigators assumed that the Santa Rosa murders were also his doing, although the fugitive himself never took credit for them. These crimes came to be known in the press as the Highway 101 Murders. As with the Zodiac killings, the case has never been officially closed.

But even unsolved cases sometimes find a resolution. There is often a sea of certainty and understanding that lies forgotten or ignored between what is known and what can be proved. This was certainly true with the Highway 101 Murders. It was true, and for Lieutenant Manny Bruin of the Sonoma County Criminal Investigations Division, and those who worked the case with him. It was also true for the victims of Byron Avion.

When traditional justice fails due to unexpected circumstances, lack of hard facts, insufficient resources, or unremitting confusion, there is still the possibility of discovered truth. What happened in a few years ago in Sonoma County, California, is cause enough to believe in that possibility, even when fiction must, of necessity, take the reins from fact.

First Chapter

Death is Not a Christmas Present

 

     Manny Bruin pushed his battered, squeaky chair away from the undersized desk until its back bumped against the wall behind him. Impelled by the force of his 215-pound bulk, the chair?s gray metal frame dug into the plaster, deepening the long gouge that had formed from years of abuse. He tilted his thick head back, resting it against the wall, and slid the palm of his right hand across his forehead. It was warm and damp to the touch. The lieutenant wasn?t feeling very well. In fact, he hadn?t felt well all week.

     Bruin let out a sigh and glanced down at his crotch. It was half-hidden by a middle age paunch that he couldn?t seem to control anymore. Unwillingly, he let his eyes creep closed and rested his stubby hands in his lap, left over right. In the darkness behind his eyelids, Bruin had only a single thought to carry him away. It was December 18, 1980 ? a week before Christmas. As usual, he had nothing to show for it. No shopping, no ideas, no gifts, nothing but a vague belief that some idiot had invented this holiday for his personal torment.

     The lieutenant shuffled his head from side to side, rubbing against the wall behind him. Long ago, the wall had been a pristine white, but now it was gray and rough. Frustrated, he sighed loudly and shuffled around in the undernourished, noisy chair, trying to get comfortable. He had to get his mind off this thing. He needed something else to think about ? anything but Avion, and Christmas.

     ?Lieutenant...? She hummed at him from the doorway, offering him a deep, rhythmic sound that was both familiar and unwelcome. Bruin closed his eyes tighter. Maybe she?d just go away.

     ?Lieutenant,? she repeated, an octave higher. He could hear her shuffling her big, flat feet back and forth across the paper-thin carpeting. The nightstick on her belt rattled against the doorframe. Bruin pushed his head forward and reluctantly opened his eyes, pulling his chair back toward the desk with a burly left hand.

     ?Yeah, Sherry... sorry... I?ve got a few things on my mind.? He didn?t bother looking at her.

     She hummed again, this time with a hint of understanding. She slipped into the tiny office, positioned herself directly in front of his desk and forced him to look at her. His expression was nondescript and uncomfortable; his eyes were drawn and dark.

     ?Sergeant Millian is on line four, sir. He didn?t want to leave a message. He says he needs to talk to you now.?

     The lieutenant rolled his head to the left and stared at the ebony phone perched on the edge of the desk. Line 4 was blinking at him furiously.

     ?Okay, good, thanks...? he said flatly, nodding a dismissal toward the open office door. She spun around and slipped away to her desk, just outside his office. Bruin reached for the phone.

     ?Hi Mick,? said Manny. ?What?s going on?? This was his best lieutenant?s voice, carefully constructed to sound sure and ready.

     ?Hey, Manny,? said Millian. ?Listen, I?ve got a good one for you. This will make your day...? He paused, tempting Bruin with silence.

     ?Yeah, well, if you say so,? Bruin answered hoarsely. ?Just about anything would make my day right now.?

     ?Well,? Millian began, ?I?m standing about two feet from a corpse, Manny, and I think you?ll...?

     ?What?!? Bruin shouted. ?I didn?t hear about any homicide!?

     ?Whoa... slow down... take it easy,? said Millian. ?It?s not a homicide, Manny, it?s a natural. Or at least it looks that way to me. What you want to know is who he is.?

     ?Okay, okay... sorry, Mick. So, who is it? And, please, none of your Santa Claus jokes. I?m not in the mood.?

     ?It?s Byron Avion.?

     The phone rattled around in Bruin?s fingers, nearly falling to the desktop. He steadied his hand and moved the phone back to his mouth.

     ?Are you kidding me, Mick? Is this a joke??

     ?Nope. It?s Avion. I?m looking at his dead body right now.?

     More silence. Bruin?s mind raced. Suspect Zero. A thousand pictures flashed by. The names of the dead ? the places their bodies were discovered. Avion?s tight, unsteady smile. That room in the basement.

     ?You?re sure this wasn?t a homicide, Mick??

     ?Pretty sure, Manny. The ME?s not here yet, but I?m pretty sure. It looks like he took a header down the basement stairs.? Millian?s voice drifted away from the line as he glanced at the body.

     ?So... you?re at Avion?s house right now?? Bruin asked.

     ?Yeah.? He shuffled some notebook pages. ?I?m at 165...?

     ?I know where it is!? Bruin snapped. ?You say the ME?s on her way, Mick??

     ?Yeah.?

     ?How long before she gets there??

     ?Well... I guess she should be here within a half hour or so. We called her just before you.?

     For Bruin, there was another flash ? this from that special theater of the mind that seasoned investigators keep close at hand. He wondered how Millian had found his way to the scene so quickly, without any word back to the SCCID. He made a mental note to ask him.

     ?Okay, Mick,? said Bruin. ?I?ll be out there in ten minutes. Don?t let the ME start without me, okay? I want to see just what you?re seeing now.?

     ?You got it.?

     Bruin slid the handset back on the cradle and stared out the door into the narrow hallway. He felt his pulse racing; his breath came in short, sharp bursts. This was the last thing he had expected ? the very last. Suddenly, the season took on a very different meaning. Different, but not necessarily welcome.

      

      

December 18, 1980
1654 Callihan Creek Road, Santa Rosa

 

     When Manny Bruin first stepped through the doors of the Sonoma County Criminal Investigation Division in 1966, Santa Rosa was a relatively small town, with a population of less than 35,000. It was a time when folks still knew a good deal about each other ? sometimes more than they should have known. It was a safe place then. Everyone knew your name, your kids? names, and even whose unlicensed, untagged dog had pooped in which spacious, unfenced yard. But even then it was a time of change, and those who had lived there for years couldn?t help but worry about it. Everything in 1960s America was shifting unpredictably, and Santa Rosa was no exception.

     By mid-decade, Sonoma County was becoming famous for its ?Wine Country? image. What had once been a guarded, inexpensive weekend retreat for San Franciscans was quickly becoming a terminus for rural wine-tasting and the bed and breakfast stopovers that dotted the hills around town. It was the beginning of the end of a forgotten country town, although no one could have suspected how rapidly that end would come.

     Fifteen years later, in 1980, Santa Rosa had blossomed to more than 95,000 souls. It wasn?t a town anymore. It was a city, with the full range of niceties and absurdities that typify California cities. Still, for those who remembered when Santa Rosa was just a country town, it remained a familiar, generally comfortable place to live.

     Like most long-time residents, Manny Bruin had always felt at home here, even when the quiet community was no longer so quiet. It was the price of change and, in the end, it didn?t matter what anyone thought about it. It just was.

     Highway 101 bisects Santa Rosa at an odd angle as it heads north, separating the East Side from the West, the ?downtown? side from the rows of California-style homes that stretch westward. Near the city center, on both sides of the highway, the homes are older and well-shaded, and the businesses thrive in modest, tightly compressed storefronts along straight, aging streets. Moving away from the highway in either direction, the homes become more generous, less well-built, and more open to the elements. The small, personalized downtown shops become impersonal, sterile shopping malls. On the East Side, cars and kids and people seem to be everywhere, all at once. It was here, on Callihan Creek Road, within a few blocks of Highway 101, where Byron Avion lived and died in a house with a history.

     In 1946, the Sandypoint Construction Company began leveling two square blocks of a dry creek that lay just north of downtown Santa Rosa. This was the first flush of a construction explosion that would mark ground zero for the emerging Baby Boom generation. In those days, Highway 101 was little more than a two-lane country road meandering north to nowhere. The population of the town was a bit over 13,000.

     The original owner of Sandypoint was Samuel Pinelli, a native who claimed that he could trace his Santa Rosa lineage back three generations. Because Callihan Creek was his company?s first attempt at a major development, Pinelli wanted to prove a point to would-be buyers, so he staked a claim to the first home that was finished. Its address was 1654 Callihan Creek Road ? Byron Avion?s last residence.

     In March 1947, Pinelli and his pregnant wife, Margaret, moved into their new home with substantial fanfare and one day?s paid holiday for all their workers. Standing on the first corner of the first block of the new development, the Pinelli home was a taut and tidy two-bedroom of frame and stucco. It was patterned after the homes being built to the south in San Francisco, except that it offered special amenities, like a rambling backyard. What was most unique about it, though, was the huge, windowless room that Sam had constructed below ground, underneath the living and dining areas. His was the only house in the development to have such a basement, and Sam quickly turned it into a combination of architectural planning office and entertainment center. It was this secluded and comfortable space that would become Byron Avion?s living quarters many years later. The narrow stairs leading down from the hallway would mark the path of his final earthly journey.

     The Pinellis raised their only son, Robert, on Callihan Creek Road. They sent him off to make his way as an East Coast investment broker and eventually grew old in that house. In 1970, Sam died of a cerebral aneurysm while sitting at his desk in the downstairs room. Margaret hung on for a time but eventually realized that she couldn?t live alone in a house so filled with memories. In the fall of 1971, she sold it to Jacqueline Avion, Byron?s mother, and took up residence in a care facility on the West Side. The next year, she died.

     Manny Bruin, who had known the Pinellis in passing, never had a good feeling about the white and brown house on Callihan Creek Road, and he certainly had little use for its current occupants, the Avions. The downstairs room that had once been Sam Pinelli?s pride and joy gave him the creeps. Byron Avion had transformed it into an inner sanctum that was his and his alone. It was a place of secrets, none of which would be shared, some of which were to be feared.

     As Bruin pulled his blue, 1978 Ford sedan across the mouth of the brick driveway, his mind was awash with memories of that room and its ominous occupant, Suspect Zero. As soon as the Avion house came into view, the Lieutenant felt those vacant rumblings in his stomach ? that cop-sense that always put him on edge; that thrilled him and sickened him, all at once. He was stepping back in time, into the hunt of his career, the case that had gone astray and left him old before his time.

     Bruin scanned the weathered house from behind the wheel of his sedan. He was thankful that he would be among friends today, Millian and Cindy Turgell. In front of the residence he could see Mick?s sedan, a twin to his, along with a white patrol car, aligned bumper-to-bumper at the curb. The ME?s car was nowhere in sight. No medical personnel had arrived either, which struck him as unusual.

     The lieutenant walked up the driveway, across the patchy brown lawn to the foot of the landing. He paused for a moment at the four concrete steps that led up to a wide, railed veranda. Beyond the half-opened front door he could hear Mick Millian?s muffled voice. The Detective was talking to someone in the front room. The other voice belonged to a woman ? a middle-aged woman with a crusty, harsh timbre that he immediately recognized.

     Bruin bounded up the stairs in two strides and through the vintage maple door, pushing it harder than he meant to and smashing it against the inside wall. It gave a resounding thud as he crossed the threshold, interrupting the conversation in the adjacent room. The lieutenant turned left, toward the voices, and squinted through the semi-darkness, trying to focus on the figures huddled around the high-backed couch under the draped far window. One of them turned and moved in his direction.

     ?Hi, Manny.? The sergeant spoke in a low voice as he stepped away from the muddy dimness.

     Bruin smiled and cleared his throat but said nothing. He slid silently to the right, to peer around Millian in the direction of the couch. The remaining figure was sitting on the edge of the couch with her legs tightly crossed and her hands on her lap. She looked like a gaunt, aging, overdressed statue.

     ?Is that her?? Manny asked. ?Is that Jacqueline??

     ?Yeah,? Millian answered. ?I?ve been trying to find out what happened here. She?s the one who discovered the body. Apparently, she got back from one of her trips this morning and found him at the bottom of the stairs. You know, Manny, she?s as matter-of-fact about this as anyone I?ve ever seen. It?s like she found a flower pot tipped over or something.? He shook his head with a narrow, confused look.

     ?Umm...? Bruin gurgled impassively. ?I?m not surprised.?

     ?You want to talk to her?? Millian offered.

     Manny shook his head sharply. No. He pulled back a bit and stared directly at the sergeant.

     ?Listen, Mick, I want to see the body, alright??

     Millian tugged briefly on the lieutenant?s right arm and headed down the short, narrow hallway. To the right of where they walked, steep stairs ascended to the second floor. Like those stairs, the flooring beneath their feet was deep brown, unpolished hardwood. The surrounding walls were painted a chocolate color, making the entire area seem tunnel-like and claustrophobic. Where the stairs reached a height of about seven feet, a maple doorway had been constructed in the space below. Beyond that door was another cramped stairway, this one constructed of unfinished risers, which led to the subterranean room.

     Millian pulled on the dented, tarnished doorknob. The stairs here were much steeper and less maintained than the ones above. A single bulb gave out a dim and diffused light, and the air rising from the room below was thick and still. Manny felt familiar knots in his stomach, took a few short breaths and quietly cleared his throat.

     Millian led them cautiously downward, bracing himself alternately between a solid plaster wall to the left and a rough, wooden handrail to the right. At the bottom of the stairs lay Byron Avion, his legs draped crazily upward on the last riser, his head face down on the concrete floor. The two men stepped delicately around the body and huddled together near the dead man?s head.

     Bruin pulled out a stout black flashlight and worked the beam around Avion?s head, leaning lower to examine the side of his face that was visible from above. The dead man?s eyes were half-open, grayish-blue, expressionless and cloudy. His right temple and cheek were marked by several abrasions. To Manny, they looked like a series of scrapes ? parallel wounds that had barely broken the skin. There was no bleeding and no other obvious signs of trauma to the body. The man was fully clothed, except for his feet. They were bare. The lieutenant placed two fingers on the side of Avion?s face. The skin was cold to the touch.

     ?Has he been moved, Mick?? Bruin asked in a hushed tone.

     ?No... I don?t think so. She said she didn?t touch him. Just called us.?

     ?So, she never called the EMT unit or 911??

     ?Nope... interesting, eh??

     ?Oh, yeah, Mick. Interesting, all right. She?s a real piece of work.? The lieutenant stepped carefully around the body to examine it from another angle.

     Behind him, from the darkness at the far end of the room, Bruin heard a scurrying sound. He snapped his head to the left and noticed that Millian was looking, too, and listening intently. A fat, black and tawny squirrel raced past the lieutenant?s leg, disappearing into the slit-like opening between the first and second stair.

     ?Jesus!? Mick gasped. ?Scared the shit out of me!?

     ?Avion collected them... or something like that, didn?t he, Mick? There are probably dozens of them down here.?

     ?Jesus!? Mick repeated. He ignored the question and stared at the opening. The sergeant hunched his shoulders, sucked in some air, and shook his hands to get the blood running again.

     Bruin slid down to his knees and tugged gently at Avion?s extended right arm, which lay palm side up across the small of his back. It was not stiff and immobile as he had expected.

     ?How long, do you think?? he asked Millian. ?How long has he been here, Mick??

     ?I?m not sure, Manny. A few days, maybe... maybe less. No rigor that I could see. The old lady claims that she?s been gone for over a month and no one else ever came to the house. From the looks of the body, I?d guess a few days, at the most.?

     ?Yeah, me too,? Bruin affirmed. ?Me too.?

     Bruin stood and moved cautiously around the room, weaving the beam of his flashlight ahead of him, looking for a better source of light. Against the far wall, toward the front of the old house, he found a massive metal desk with a black armature lamp. The lieutenant worked his way over and flipped the switch, casting light across the floor of the dungeon. He could see most of the room now, and it was just as he had remembered it: cluttered, but relatively well-organized. Bruin could hear the faint scurrying of squirrels from everywhere. They were moving around in the maze of boxes, crates, and containers that covered most of the floor in neatly aligned rows. Many of the boxes had been meticulously tied with white nylon rope. Still, there were plenty of places between the boxes for a squirrel to hide. Glancing at his partner, Bruin could see that Mick heard them too; his eyes darted back and forth, trying to follow the scraping sounds.

     ?God, Manny, do those things carry a disease or something? What happens if they bite you??

     Bruin laughed and hunched his shoulders. He didn?t know.

     ?I?m looking for two men and a stiff,? came a singsong voice.

     Manny chuckled and nodded knowingly at Millian. The diminutive, red-haired, middle-aged woman standing at the top of the stairs was Dr. Cynthia Turgell, the Sonoma County Medical Examiner. She had joined the ME?s office a decade earlier, in 1970, as the Assistant Medical Examiner. Two years later, she took over the chief?s post when the incumbent, Howard Vorhies, retired after more than twenty years on the job. Cynthia was the first woman to hold that position in the County?s history, and her early days were rough. In time, she proved herself in a big way, even in the male-dominated, locker-room environment of the SCCID. Turgell had a sixth sense that the law enforcement community respected. Better still, she was a team player, who worked hard to keep her name out of the papers and throw the credit to others. She was one of them now, and when Cindy Turgell spoke, the investigators listened.

     ?Come on down and join us, Cindy,? Mick replied. ?And the damn squirrels.?

     Turgell snorted something that sounded like ?squirrels? as she worked her way down the stars. The three of them stared at Avion?s corpse. Turgell scanned the area.

     ?So...? she hummed, nodding her head up and down. ?Here lies your infamous pal, Suspect Zero, eh? He doesn?t look like so much now, does he??

     Bruin nodded slowly but said nothing. The doctor pulled out a pair of flesh-colored latex gloves and snapped them over her thin fingers. She knelt next to the head of the corpse and ran a finger along the side of the dead man?s face. With her left hand, she jabbed at the flesh around his jawbone and throat.

     ?He?s been here for a few days, Manny. That?s for sure... the cellar kept him cool... kept him in good shape...? Turgell?s voice trailed off as she began extracting the tools of her trade from what looked like a cheap, red plastic tackle box. It was obvious that the ME was anxious to get to work.

     ?Well, at least he doesn?t stink yet,? she mumbled.

     Bruin shook his head in tight little jerks. His humor tank had already run dry and he had never been a fan of the coroner?s trade. It was time to get out of the basement.

     ?Listen, Cindy, we?re going upstairs to talk to his mother, alright??

     ?Umm...? was all she said, as she examined Avion?s right arm.

     ?Call us if there?s anything, will you??

     ?Umm...? She pulled on the wrist and fingers of Avion?s right hand.

     Bruin and Millian stepped cautiously over the dead man?s legs and made their way up the stairs. Halfway up, Manny stopped.

     ?Cindy, what about those scratches on the side of his head there? What about those??

     ?Yeah, I saw those, Manny,? she answered without looking up. ?Looks like he may have hit his head and face on the way down, although I can?t be sure.? She raised her arm over her head and jabbed at the wall along the stairs.

     The Lieutenant squeezed past Millian and moved carefully back down, scanning the unfinished wall where Turgell was gesturing. He flipped on the flashlight and found faint streaks of blood on the rough plaster. It looked as if Avion had hit his head against the wall about four steps above the floor. From there, he must have spun as he fell and crashed down across the last riser. At least, it looked that way.

     ?Yeah, okay...? Bruin said. ?Good catch.?

     ?Umm...? she hummed back. ?That?s one for me.?

     Bruin thought for a moment, still staring at the streaks. ?So, you?re telling me that he hit his head on the wall and then fell down the stairs??

     ?No, not necessarily, Manny. I didn?t say that. I don?t know yet. My guess is that he was dead by the time he hit the bottom stair, though. There?s almost no bleeding from these wounds.? She poked again at the side of Avion?s head.

     ?Okay, Cindy, we?ll be back.? Bruin turned to face Millian and waved him up the stairs. They worked their way to the darkened living room where Jacqueline Avion waited motionless on the couch. Millian stood back and let Bruin move in closer. Their routines were practiced and precise, perfected by years of working together.

     ?Mrs. Avion, do you remember me?? the lieutenant asked the old woman. Her face was cast down, her eyes aimlessly working around the intricate blue and pink floral patterns of the rug. She made no movement at all.

     ?Yes,? she answered, in a deep monotone.

     ?Can you tell me what happened here? What happened with your son??

     ?He died... obviously,? she snapped. ?I?ve already told Sergeant Millian about it.?

     Bruin shrugged his shoulders in Millian?s direction and gently sat down next to her. He looked intently at her rigid, unpleasant profile, waiting for some kind of response. There was none ? just the frail, impassive outline against the darkness of the room.

     ?Did you find him, Mrs. Avion?? Bruin asked.

     ?Yes.?

     ?When??

     ?A few hours ago... when I got back.?

     ?Back from where??

     ?A trip. I was in South American on a trip,? she said passively. ?I always travel in the winter.?

     Bruin looked up at the sergeant, who was standing a few feet away. As their eyes met, Millian tilted his head to the right, as if to say, ?I told you so.? It was obvious that Jacqueline Avion had little to say. She knew nothing, or at least wanted them to believe that she knew nothing.

     ?All right, Mrs. Avion, I just have one more question, then I?ll leave you alone.?

     The woman let out a hollow sigh and nodded her head.

     ?You didn?t like Byron very much, did you? You didn?t like your son?? Bruin sat back, expecting an onslaught that would bring her out ? hoping for some kind of reaction. No such luck.

     ?Not very much,? she whispered. ?Just like everyone else, Lieutenant. Just like you. Not very much.?

     Millian stepped forward to get Bruin?s attention. He motioned toward his own chest with a cupped right hand, silently asking the lieutenant to join him. Bruin pushed away from the couch and stood in front of the sergeant, with his back turned to protect their conversation. He needn?t have bothered. She was still lost amid the flowers on the rug.

     ?The ME?s wagon is here, Manny,? Millian whispered, nodding his head to the front door.

     Bruin turned around and stared at Mrs. Avion, hoping that she would offer a bit more, but still there was nothing. He decided that it didn?t matter. He had had enough of her.

     ?Sergeant Millian has a few more questions and a form to fill out, Mrs. Avion. Please cooperate with him,? the lieutenant ordered.

     Bruin didn?t bother to wait for a response. He strode quickly past the sergeant and back down the hallway toward the descending stairs. Standing at the top of the stairs, he could see Cindy Turgell still working on Avion?s body. Somehow, she had managed to turn the 230-pound frame onto its back. He had wondered more than once how she managed to do that kind of thing.

     ?Well, Cindy?? he asked. ?Anything??

     ?I think it?s a natural, Manny. No evidence of foul play that I can see. I?m going to need an autopsy and some forensic work to confirm that, though. Do we need someone?s okay for the autopsy??

     ?Yeah. Mick?s going to take care of that. He?s doing it now. No problem. You?ll have what you need in a few minutes.?

     ?Okay, Manny. Is the wagon here yet??

     ?Yeah. They?re out front. They?re waiting for you to release the scene.?

     ?Okay, good,? she chirped. She stood, ripping the latex gloves from her hands and stuffing them into the tackle box. ?Let?s haul him out of here and I?ll get right on it.?

     ?When?? the lieutenant asked.

     ?I?ll have something for you by tomorrow afternoon, Manny. Come on over in the afternoon, alright??

     ?Yep, perfect, Cindy. Tomorrow afternoon. Thanks.?

      

December 19, 1980
Sonoma County Medical Examiner?s Office

      

     The Lieutenant sat across the smooth metal table as Cindy Turgell fingered her way through Byron Avion?s last official file. Bruin could see the business end of the Medical Examiner?s office through a wide, thick plate glass window. Two stainless steel examining tables sat in the center of the room, dominating everything else. Around the walls stood a variety of sinks, cabinets, trays with implements whose names were unpronounceable, and dozens of containers with labels even more mysterious. Bruin was uncomfortable in this place. He squirmed in a pink plastic chair that was too small for his frame.

     ?So,? Turgell began, ?Do you want the English version??

     ?Please.? He gave her a squeamish look.

     ?All right. We diced him, we sliced him, and we sucked him dry...?

     ?Jesus!? said Manny. ?Give me a break!?

     Turgell laughed and rested her hand on his arm.

     ?Sorry, Manny... Maybe I?ve just been at this too long.?

     He nodded offered a stiff smile.

     ?I don?t have all the blood work or tox-screen stuff back yet, but it was probably a natural death. He blew an artery big-time, Manny. He was probably dead before he hit the floor. Now, there may be some stuff in the lab work that I haven?t seen, so this isn?t final. But, my guess is that it was a natural, subject to a few other oddities.?

     She sat back and waited for her guest to ask the obvious question, but he never did. Instead, Bruin just nodded and looked beyond her, fixated by the cold, clean tables in the next room. He wasn?t surprised by what the ME had said. He just wanted to get the hell out of there.

     ?Where?s his body now?? the lieutenant asked.

     ?He?s in the bin, waiting for some kind of disposition. I suppose you?re going to arrange that with the next of kin??

     ?Yeah... well, Mick will. Cindy, is there anything else? Can you tell me more, or is that it??

     ?Not much about the body or the man himself, Manny. He was well overweight, a smoker, bad lungs, bad kidneys. From the looks of what I saw, this guy did it all to excess. He could have blown an artery at any time.?

     ?Any sign of drugs??

     ?Nothing out of the ordinary. I need the blood work to know for sure, but nothing jumped out at me.?

     ?Any evidence of sexual activity??

     ?Nope. But his prostate looked like a zeppelin. It was cancerous.?

     ?Geez...? the Lieutenant grumbled, trying not to look down at his crotch. He continued to stare off into the examining room, feeling her eyes on him. Turgell finally decided to make an offering.

     ?Well, I guess this is your Christmas present, Manny? Putting Suspect Zero in the bag must feel pretty good.?

     Bruin snapped his head around and stared at her. His face was pale and twisted in anger, his eyes strained and frozen. Turgell slid back in her chair, but was stopped by the plate glass behind her.

     ?Death is no goddamn Christmas present, Cindy! Not even his,? Bruin shouted. He pounded his finger on Avion?s file.

     ?God, Manny, I?m...?

     ?This is no fucking present!? He ripped his gaze away from Turgell, threw himself from the chair and stormed out of her office, leaving his friend?s heart knocking uncontrollably.

     ?Jesus...? she mumbled. ?He never even let me get to the best part...?

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