Death was cold, invisible, and remote.

More chapters from ToxiCity

A VG Serial: ToxiCity

Episode 11

Matt took the picture of the Romano family and pinned it on the fabric board above his desk. “Tell me about the autopsy.”

Brewster detached several papers from his clipboard. “The medical examiner says she died of a belly ache.” At Matt’s puzzled expression, he went on. “Cause of death is acute gastro-enteritis. Complicated by sepsis.”

“Sepsis?”

“Infection causing massive shock and organ collapse. Her GI system was a mess.” Brewster rubbed a finger under his nose. “The rest of her wasn’t much better.”

“Are we talking food poisoning?”

“Poison, a virus, who knows? They’re doing cultures and screens. A full work-up. It’ll take a while.”

“The woman died from a stomach ache?”

“Not the kind you’d ever want,” Brewster said. “Her insides were swollen and red. Lots of vomit and bloody diarrhea. The rest of her organs collapsed too. Spleen, kidney – totally degenerated. Whatever she ate ate her up.”

“But it was ruled a homicide.”

“Well, we might have a problem there.”

“Pete –she went through the teeth of a garbage truck. That sure as shit ain’t natural causes.”

“No, but technically he can’t rule out suicide. Or some kind of accidental overdose. They’re ruling it inconclusive.”

Matt blew out a breath. “The woman was killed. Dumped in a truck. And we’re supposed to think it was just food poisoning or a bug? Did you check her prescriptions?”

“We’re doing that now.” Brewster said. “So far, nothing you don’t already know. According to her files, the amoxicillin was for a strep throat she had a few months ago. The diuretics were for kidney stones, like her mother said. There wasn’t much else.”

“What about the timing?”

“Timing?”

“How long was it from the onset of symptoms until she died?”

“Hard to tell, but with the deterioration of the organs and the shock, the ME says it could have been a couple of days.”

“We found her on Monday.”

“Right.”

“And she took her mother to Field’s the Friday before.” Brewster nodded. “Tell me something, Pete. If she got sick over the weekend, why didn’t she get help?”

“Help?”

“A weekend is a long time to suffer with food poisoning or a virus in your gut. Did she call a doctor or go to a hospital between Friday and Monday?”

Brewster shrugged.

“Check the ERs, will you?”

“What are you saying?”

“You’d think if she got sick, she’d ask for help.”

“Maybe she was too sick to…” Brewster gazed at the report. “Oh.” He looked at Matt. “You thinking someone kept her from getting help?”

“I don’t know what I’m thinking. Just check it out.” Matt stared through the glass wall of the Detective’s office, which gave onto the hall of the police station. Julie Romano must have been in agony at the end.

Brewster cleared his throat. “There is one piece of good news.”

Matt looked over.

“The crime lab found some of Romano’s hairs and clothing fibers on a blanket in the trunk of her car. The fibers were consistent with the clothes she was wearing when we found her.”

“Meaning someone could have wrapped her in a blanket and taken her to the dumpster.”

“But nobody heard anything.”

“There are a set of stairs right across the hall.” Matt picked up a pencil. “The killer wraps her in a blanket, drives over to the high school, throws her in the dumpster, then puts the blanket back in the trunk of her car.” He looked at Brewster. “Which means the killer had her car keys.”

“They could have taken them out of her purse.”

Matt drummed the pencil on his desk. “We have the blanket?”

“It’s at the crime lab.”

“Any vomit or excrement on it?”

Brewster rifled through a sheaf of paper on his clipboard. “Doesn’t say. And I don’t re—” Pete stopped. “You think he cleaned her up?”

“Maybe.”

“Why?”

“To cover up the crime?” Matt said. “Have them check the blanket again.”

“You got it.”

He?” Matt turned to Brewster. “I was thinking there had to be more than one killer.”

“How do you figure?”

“The dumpsters at the high school are what, eight or nine feet above ground, right?

“Right.”

“It would be pretty hard for one person to throw a body in there by themselves. They’d have to lean her up against it, lift her up, then flip her over. Unless they’re a Sumo wrestler, they’d need help. Another person. A ladder. A stack of boxes, at least. “

Brewster swung his legs off the desk. “There wasn’t anything there. No boxes. Or ladder.”

“Exactly. Which means it could well have been a two-man job… or two-person job.”

“That could explain how they got away. They took two cars to the high school—hers and theirs. Once they pitched her into the dumpster, they split in their car. Nice and neat.”

“And two people could overpower a defenseless woman easily.”

“Could be.” Brewster kicked his feet against the desk. “But I don’t get something. Why not hit her with a twenty-two or a thirty-eight and get it over with? Why screw around with poison, if that’s what this was? It takes much longer. And you have to know what you’re doing.”

Matt stared at the picture of Julie. Brewster was right. There was a certainty, certain simplicity with a gun or knife. A slug piercing flesh and bone, a knife slashing through someone’s gut is ugly. Painful. But tangible. You knew what you were dealing with. But this death was cold, invisible, remote. It had none of the clarity of a bullet or blade. Which made it more insidious. “We probably ought to run this through VICAP, you know.”

Cops generally took a dim view of the FBI’s profiling system, since most profiles ended up describing the same guy: a white, dysfunctional, male loner in his thirties. Matt remembered Stone saying, “This must be one busy dude.” But they needed help. “Send out a LEADS too.” LEADs, the Law Enforcement Agencies Data System, was the statewide computer system police used to share crime-related information. Matt gathered up the files. “I’ve got to report to Doyle.”

“Have fun.” Brewster pulled his body off the desk. “I’ll go put out those calls.”

As he went down the hall to Doyle’s office, Matt realized he’d forgotten to buy apples for Georgia.

Episodes in the novel will be published on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Please click the following title,ToxiCity, to read more about Libby Fischer Hellman’s books on Amazon.

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