Detective Ray Greiman called me at midnight. “Luther Ridley Delor’s house is on fire. One body so far. They’re bringing it out. Get over there now.”
My heart sank. I’m Angela Richman, Chouteau County Death Investigator. That’s like a paralegal for the medical examiner: I handle homicides and unexplained deaths.
This was the third major fire in Chouteau County, a ten-square-mile preserve for the one percent and those who served them, near Saint Louis, Mo.
Seventy-year-old Luther called himself a financier to take away the sting of how his family made a trainload of money: running a nationwide chain of payday loan companies. I wondered who’d died: Luther? His 20-year-old fiancée, Kendra? A servant?
Burn victims were worse than badly decomposed bodies. When I arrived, the scene at the fiery mansion was controlled chaos. The victim was Luther, not Kendra Salvato, his Mexican-American fiancée. Detective Greiman had already decided Kendra had killed the old man. He told me Luther spent his last night at a local bar “pounding down Dos Equis and grabbing Kendra’s ass. Popped Viagra with a beer and said he and his little ‘greaser gal’ were going home to screw and we should expect to see flames. Too bad they were the wrong kind.”
Greiman’s evidence? A half-melted gasoline container found by Luther’s door. It had the logo of Kendra’s father’s lawn service. Jose mowed the lawns in Luther’s neighborhood.
“So?” I said. “The crew lost it.”
“Right before the house happens to go up in flames? I don’t believe in coincidence.”
I tried to ignore Greiman and concentrate on Luther’s body actualization – the examination. Luther seemed smaller in death – and he really was. Burn victims could lose up to 60 percent of their weight.
I slipped on four pairs of latex gloves. I’d strip off the gloves and put them in my pocket as the examination went on so I wouldn’t contaminate the investigation with fluids or fibers from other areas. I called up the “Body of a Burn Victim” form on my iPad. The routine questions soothed me, restoring order to this hellish chaos.
Were there any thermal injuries? Luther’s arms were raised in the classic “pugilistic stance” of a burn victim, as if he’d gone nine rounds with death and lost. His arm muscles had contracted in the heat. I measured the burns and blisters on his seared flesh, then carefully covered his fragile hands in paper bags secured with rubber bands. They might crumble when the body was transported to the morgue. The heat from a fire made bones brittle, and they could fracture when the body was moved. No bones jutted through his skin. I noted that, then tore my eyes away from the horror for the next question.
Hair color? Luther’s magnificent white hair had been burned away, but I knew the color and noted the absence of hair.
Eye color? I couldn’t tell. The eyes were cooked and shriveled. I fought back my nausea. Focus. You have a duty to help Luther. He was a rich, silly old fool led around by his libido, but now he needs your skill. Local gossip said the old man had given his young mistress $2,000,000 to wear his ring and another $2,000,000 when she married him. Now he was a brittle-boned mess of kindling.
Was the victim’s clothing consumed by fire? Luther wore the remnants of white silk boxer shorts: a melted elastic waistband and enough cloth to cover his genitals. I saw no sign of other clothes and didn’t remove his underpants. That would be the ME’s job.
Was there an odor of petroleum product on the clothing? I forced myself to lean in closer but couldn’t smell either oil or gasoline.
Was the victim known to drink to excess? I had no idea how much he’d drunk tonight—or rather, last night—but it had to be a lot. If his body was too cooked to do a blood alcohol test, the ME would have to use a piece of brain.
Could the victim’s medical problems have contributed to the fire or to his/her inability to exit the fire scene? “Witnesses said the victim was extremely intoxicated when last seen alive,” I wrote. Was Luther too drunk or confused to follow Kendra’s instructions? Did she even try to save him? If she abandoned Luther, she’d still have $2,000,000 – a lot of money for a manicurist.
Was the victim heard to cry out by any witnesses? That was the question. Plenty of witnesses were still watching the firefighters. I’d seen Greiman jump to conclusions before. It wasn’t my job to investigate Luther’s death—in fact, it violated the rules.
But I did have to record the facts. And I’d do everything I could to make sure Kendra was fairly treated.
You can read more about Angela in Fire and Ashes, the second book in the “Angela Richman, Death Investigator” mystery series.
In the exclusive, gated enclave of Olympia Forest Estates, death investigator Angela Richman watches a mansion go up in a fiery blaze. Seventy-year-old Luther Delor, who owns a sleazy but profitable chain of payday loan stores, dies in the fire. Luther, a drunken, bed-hopping rhinestone cowboy, scandalized the community when he left his wife for a twenty-year-old Mexican-American manicurist, Kendra Salvato. She’s accused of killing him and setting other fires in Chouteau County. Kendra is being railroaded to death row as a gold-digging killer.
All there is against Kendra is vicious gossip and anti-Mexican rage, and both are spreading like wildfire. Meanwhile, Angela is trying to douse the flames with forensic work that’s putting the Forest on edge. After all, facts could implicate one of their own. Now, sifting through the ashes of a vicious crime—and the guilty secrets of the privileged—only Angela can get to the truth, and prevent an innocent woman from getting burned.
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About the author
Award-winning author Elaine Viets has written thirty-one mysteries in four series, including the bestselling Dead-End Job series, featuring South Florida private detectives Helen Hawthorne and her husband, Phil Sagemont. She also wrote the Josie Marcus, Mystery Shopper mystery series and the dark Francesca Vierling mysteries. She has served on the national boards of the Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. She’s a frequent contributor to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine as well as anthologies edited by Charlaine Harris and Lawrence Block. Viets has won the Anthony, Agatha, and Lefty Awards.
The Angela Richman, Death Investigator series returns the prolific author to her hard-boiled roots. Brain Storm draws on her personal experiences as a stroke survivor, as well as her studies in the Medicolegal Death Investigators Training Course at Saint Louis University’s School of Medicine. Fire and Ashes, the second novel in the series, was published July 25, 2017.
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