Lozano squished down the trail hunched under his umbrella. The wind picked up, whipping the bottom hem of his raincoat around his legs. The dirt path had transformed into one long puddle of inch-deep mud. In the trees off to his left, yellow-slickered bodies milled about, so he bushwhacked in that direction.
At the scene, the officer who’d first responded stood under his own umbrella talking on his phone just outside the police tape. Inside the camp, a technician from the medical examiner’s office, a short Asian man with Clark Kent glasses, took pictures as quickly as he could, the rain so intense it sounded like bacon frying.
Since the cop was occupied, Lozano started with the tech. With the rain, both men got to business without the usual pleasantries. “Lozano. What have you got so far?”
The tech huddled under the umbrella to get a temporary respite. Lozano glanced at his lanyard, catching the name Vincent Chang. Rubber-gloved, Chang pushed his glasses back up the bridge of his nose with his bent wrist.
“Male, no ID, stage of decomposition makes age and race difficult to determine right now. Gun to my head, dead four to six days, but we should be able to give you a more accurate guess once we get him back to the office and take a better look.
“No blood anywhere, no obvious external trauma jumping out at me so far, but again it was a pretty quick look. Looks to have been a vagrant living out here. Mud everywhere rules out any chance of getting meaningful information from footprints.
“Found these in one of his pockets,” the technician said as he handed Lozano an evidence bag containing a small cellophane baggy with three small dull-yellow pills, each with “OP” stamped on one side and “40” on the other.
“What are they?” Lorenzo asked as he leaned forward, squinting to see them better through the two layers of clear plastic.
“Oxycontin. Must have been saving them for a special occasion?”
“Hmph. Anything else on him?”
“Pint flask next to him, and then there was this tucked in his belt.” From a second evidence bag he pulled a large hunting knife with a worn leather scabbard, the belt loop broken and flopping. He pulled the knife from its sheath. “Tip’s bent as you can see here, probably from trying to pry something open. Blade’s clean, though, no blood.” He re-sheathed it and replaced it in the evidence receptacle.
Lorenzo sucked his teeth then asked, “So what do you think?”
“Given the position he was found in, looks most likely to have died in his sleep. Means that statistically speaking, pills and empty alcohol bottle, plus this living situation”—he gestured, waving his hands around them in the air for a moment—“you’d bet on an overdose. No way of knowing accidental or intentional.
“Other big possibility is a catastrophic medical event while he was asleep. Big myocardial infarction, stroke, something like that. The fact that he was on his side when he died makes it less likely that he vomited and aspirated, so probably didn’t pull a Jimmy Hendrix. Weather’s been mild, so unlikely that ambient temperature played a role.”
“Chances of foul play?”
“Well, again if you’re talking statistically, that would mean your most likely suspect would be one or more of the other homeless guys in the park here. But a fatal assault by one of his neighbors would be highly probable to spill one whole hell of a lot of blood or have left him with a caved-in skull. It doesn’t look like the guy ever took this pig-sticker out”—he indicated the vagrant’s knife—“so if it was an assault, he didn’t see it coming.
“Bottom line, common things are common. I think you got a homeless guy who just turned up dead from one of a half dozen possible natural causes. John Doe here’ll get an autopsy, and that may or may not give us better information, but for now I don’t think there’s going to be anything here for law enforcement.”
Lozano nodded, then stepped past the tech to look under the makeshift tent. The rope which had been the support for the canopy had come untied from one of the trees, with that end lying coiled serpentine in the mud. As a result, the shelter, losing half its support, now sat looking like a pyramid open on one side. And like those Egyptian tombs, this one also held the dead.
The dead vagrant’s upper torso lay covered by the shelter, but his legs jutted out below the knees from the rumpled edge of the collapsed plastic. Lozano suspected it was Gansereit’s panicked retreat that had knocked the shelter down.
The technician came around and started taking pictures of the vagrant’s legs sticking out below the border of the tarp. Squinting into the viewfinder, he said, “Reminds you of the Wicked Witch of the East, doesn’t it?”
Lozano didn’t smile. He went to the other end of the tent that still stood erect and open. Peering inside, he found the stench much stronger, as this was sheltered from the rain. The corpse lay there on its side. He fished a pair of rubber gloves from his pocket and put them on before pulling the man’s hair out of his half-open eyes. Lifting the closer of the two lids, he saw the eye was dull and milky, like those of fish on ice at the market.
He was about to leave when he saw something curious. Pulling a penlight from his pocket, he flashed it on the white of the vagrant’s upward-facing eye.
Scattered across the milky surface of the eye were several small, red dots, like rosy freckles. Frowning, he turned the vagrant’s head to face him and inspected the other eye. Again, he found the same punctate red spots spread across the white sclera, each no bigger than a period at the end of a sentence in a magazine article.
He’d seen those red dots on a case years before, long enough ago that he was still drinking at the time. Lozano had been called to the Hilton when an out-of-town businessman—an accountant, Lozano vaguely remembered, in town for some kind of conference—missed his check out.
When the maid came to clean his room, the situation was already bad enough when she found the accountant hanging by his neck from a belt he’d looped around the bar in his closet. It was made worse by the lace bra and nylons he was wearing when she found him, as well as the array of pornography he’d arranged in a semi-circle in front of him. When the E.M.T.s arrived there was nothing they could do for a case of autoerotic asphyxiation gone wrong, Lozano recalled, but they had to sedate the poor housekeeper.
Poor bastard, Lozano had thought as he watched the investigative team chat animatedly and sift through the man’s belongings while his corpse dangled a few feet behind them. All these years later, he could still remember the man’s name: Brett Harnolde. It was funny, the things that stuck.
When he’d examined the accountant’s face, with its bulging, purple tongue and the eyes set in a glare of concentration that was now permanent, he’d noticed these same subtle, red spots on the eyes. He couldn’t remember the medical name for them but what he did remember vividly was what the medical examiner had told him later after the autopsy.
They were indicative of choking. As he squatted over the vagrant’s corpse that gave him pause.