Lit Up by M.E. Proctor

Punk Noir Magazine


 

“I swear someday I’ll throw that piece of shit through the window,” Tom Keegan says. “And I won’t bother opening the damn window either.”

Al “Matt” Matteotti looks up from his stack of notes.“Threatening violence against an inanimate object again? Not to mention that this piece of shit is government property.”

“See if I care.” Tom’s hunched over the bulky Underwood, with his fingers in the basket, untangling the typebars, swearing a blue streak. It’s a familiar sight. So far, the Underwood’s winning.

“You know what’s wrong with you?” Matt says.

Tom slides the carriage, making the boxy thing go ding.“No, enlighten me.” He works the lever return aggressively to get back to the right spot in the document. “Fucking nuisance.”

“It jams because you type too fast. You’re too impatient. You confuse the stupid contraption. Me, on the contrary…” Matt raises his index finger, holds it up in the air until Tom turns to look at him “One finger. See.” He switches to the middle finger, flipping the bird. He talks as he types. “R – clack – O – clack – B – clack – E – clack – R – clack – Y – clack. No jam, no tangle. Slow and steady does it.”

“There’s 2 Bs in Robbery, you clod,” Tom says. “It’s written on the fucking door. Right there.” He points at the office door. “You go through it a hundred times a day.”

“So?” The phone on Matt’s desk rings and he stares at it. “What’s it gonna be today? Jumper, floater, skeleton in closet? These people we’re sworn to serve and protect are damn tiresome.” He picks up the phone. “Detective Matteotti.”

Tom is about to give the typewriter another try when Helen walks in, prim and put together, as always, in her no-nonsense brown suit. She’s on her way to the captain’s office with a stack of reports.

“Helen, honey,” he says. “A little help here.”

She turns on her sensible heels. “Like what?”

He points at the typewriter. “This clunker is driving me nuts.”

“Put in a requisition,” she says.

They both know that’s not going to go anywhere beyond the rim of a waste basket. “Sure. Listen, if I could…”

“Tom! Gotta go,” Matt yells, slamming the phone down. He’s out of his chair, at the coat rack, grabbing his jacket, stuffing a notepad in the pocket, giving his hat a good push down. “Andiamo, buster, we have a hot one.”

Tom gives Helen another pleading look. “My report’s here, babe. It’s clear, readable, pretty as sin. It would take you ten minutes tops, I promise.”

“You must be kidding,” she says, one fist on her hip, indignant.

Tom reaches up to catch his hat that Matt sent sailing through the room. “Dinner and a movie. On my dime. You pick the place. Please.” He shoots her his brightest smile and rushes after Matt who’s already in the corridor, halfway to the elevator.

“You have no shame,” Matt says. “Putting the moves on your own sister.”

#

Matt’s driving. The radio is squawking and they both ignore it. Matt always drives. He’s by far the better driver. He says all Italians are born with a steering wheel between their little mitts and a gear stick for a pacifier. Most cops hate riding shotgun with Matt. Tom finds it liberating. The ride is so hair rising, he has no time to think about anything else. It clears his head.

“Where are we going?”

“The Mission,” Matt says. “Something crispy.”

“Arson?”

“From what the trooper said, I doubt it. A roasted body, nothing else damaged.”

“Fuck, Matt! I hate those. You know that. It’s…” Tomcloses his eyes. A tight curve sends him slamming into the door. He ought to keep his eyes on the road. “You should have taken Orlov.”

“Dee-fective Orlov is a brick,” Matt says, tapping the side of his head with a knuckle. “And you’re my preferito, partner.” He flashes a big white-toothed grin. “It is a mistero. You like those, no?”

Not when it involves cremated bodies. Tom saw enough of those in the camps. It’s not been enough years for him to forget. As if that kind of thing could ever be forgotten. “If I barf all over your mistero, pal, it’s on your head.”

Matt reaches for the glove box, driving with one hand, and retrieves a little jar of Vicks. He drops it in Tom’s lap. “Never leave home without it.”

Spoken from experience. Tom has seen his partner lose his lunch a couple of times. Matt hates small, dark, enclosed spaces. Everybody has their own flavor of things that go bump in the night.

“The doc’s on the way. We’ll beat him to it,” Matt says.

That explains why he’s driving even more like Fangio than usual. Nothing pleases Matt more than being first on site. Considering how sloppily some cops treat crime scenes, he’s not wrong.

“Okay, what you got?” Tom says.

“Private residence. The housekeeper came in at ten. Her employer wasn’t home. She smelled something bad and found the body in the greenhouse.”

“A greenhouse? In town? That’s unusual. Who’s the employer, some kind of garden freak?” Tom says.

“Painter. Carlos Camacho. He lives alone.” Matt shrugged. “Lived. It’s likely he’s the corpse.”

Depending on the condition of the body, identification might take a while.

Matt slams on the brakes in front of a two-story white-painted house in the pleasant Spanish style that goes so well with clinging bougainvillea and lush shrubbery. The house is pretty, the landscaping is neat. Carlos Camacho isn’t a starving artist. There’s a police cruiser in the driveway. It’s clean and glossy and doesn’t look garishly out of place.

“How do you want to play it?” Matt says.

“Let’s look around while we have the place to ourselves,” Tom says. “Interviewing the housekeeper can wait.”

The trooper is in the hallway. He looks a little green, mouth clenched, forehead coated with sweat.

“I’m Detective Keegan,” Tom says. “This is Detective Matteotti. You spoke to him on the phone.”

“Yes, sir. Officer Brockwoods, sir. I was in the neighborhood when the call came in. I put Mrs. Dantonio in the sitting room. Uh, she’s the housekeeper, she’s shook up.”

“We’ll be with her soon,” Matt says. “You went through the house?”

“To make sure there wasn’t anybody. I didn’t touch anything, and I watched where I put my feet, sir.”

Commendable. Tom nods in approval. There’s a strong smell of paint and turpentine that overrides whatever else might be wafting through. “The housekeeper told you she smelled something bad and went to look. Where was she?”

“The kitchen, sir.” The trooper points to the back of the house. “The kitchen connects with the greenhouse.”

“Stay here,” Tom says. “You can let the medical examiner in, but nobody else unless I say so.”

The trooper looks uncomfortable. “Uh, I’ll try, sir.”

“Won’t be for long,” Matt says. “Tell them it’s that asshole Keegan having the vapors.”

As soon as they reach the kitchen, the stench is unmistakable. Tom claps a hand over his nose, knowing full well that it won’t do any good. His last two cups of coffee are roiling. The camphor goop from the jar helps a little.

The door between the kitchen and the greenhouse is open, a gate to what should be, what’s intended to be, a leafy and colorful Eden.

Matt goes down on one knee next to a double set of footprints. The big ones are to the side, the small ones are in the middle of the kitchen. All prints come from the greenhouse and point toward the hallway. “Dirt from the garden. Trooper Brockwoods and the housekeeper. They were too preoccupied to wipe their feet. We’ll have to take off our shoes or we’ll track in some more.”

Tom peeks outside the door. “The path is all torn up and there’s an empty bottle smack in the middle of it. ”

Three steps lead down from the kitchen to the floor of the greenhouse. A modest difference in level in rollercoaster San Francisco. Tom is careful to avoid treading over the footprints. The soil is damp from the run off from the beds. Vegetables, flowers, decorative stuff, all mixed up in a display of joy and abundance. Cornucopia. The word pops into his head.

“You think Camacho paints still lives?” Matt says. “Or is he one of these impressionist guys, all green and fuzzy?”

“Maybe he just likes fresh salads,” Tom says.

The greenhouse is packed with vegetation but it isn’t large. The greasy black thing in the middle of the path is hard to miss. They both step into the beds to approach the scene. They stand on both sides of what’s left of the body. A charred husk.

“He sure is fried,” Matt says.

It appears to be a man, from the remains of the sturdy, thick-soled boots. And the size of the corpse, even if it has shrunk in the blaze. There’s a tool next to the body, a tube with a cracked cylindric container attached to it, brass or copper, blackened with soot.

“My pop has one of these,” Tom says. “It’s an insect sprayer.” He points at the limp plants nearby. “For the tomatoes, I guess.”

“Accelerant?”

“Gasoline, possibly, various chemicals, all highly flammable. We should ask the housekeeper if Camacho is a smoker.”

“He sure liked his booze. Should check that empty bottle for prints,” Matt says. “Vodka.”

Tom retraces his steps to the kitchen door, to the discarded bottle. He stares at the steps, at the grooves in the path. “Wanna hear what I think, Matt?”

It’s rhetorical. Of course Matt wants to hear – the mistero, right?

Tom badly wants a cigarette but this is definitely not the place. “Okay. Here’s the theory. Camacho is stone drunk. He decides to take a stroll in his private paradise. He opens the kitchen door and tumbles down the greenhouse steps. See the nick on the edge here? He drops the bottle and lands hard on the path. You can see where his knees went, hands, feet. He scrambles to get up and makes a mess in the dirt.” It’s like a movie in Tom’s head, frame by frame. “He lights a cigarette. Then, for some unfathomable reason, he decides to spray his tomatoes.”

“And goes whoof,” Matt says. “He’s a painter and his clothes have all that crud on them. Red-hot-whoof.” He looks at Tom and smiles. “You’re good, you’re so goddam good.”

“Yeah,” Tom says. There are noises coming from the house. Voices raised. “Lots of assumptions in there. Can the heat of a cigarette cause a fire so massive the guy has no time to run?”

“Ask all the idiots who manage to burn to death, in bed, with a smoldering cigarette falling on the mattress,” Matt says.

True.

“If he used a lighter, that’s an open flame,” Matt says. “And if that insect sprayer leaked…”

Tom’s cogitations are interrupted by the medical examiner and a bunch of cops jamming the kitchen door.

“What’s that, Keegan?” a beefy officer in uniform barks. “You tell one of my men I can’t come in? You’re shitting above your commode, boy. The Mission is my turf.”

“Wouldn’t dream of using your bathroom, sir,” Tom says. He’s seen that comedian before. In news photos, with microphones in front of his wobbly triple chin. “Securing the scene for you, doc.” He glances at the medical examiner, who looks harried, as usual.

“Yes, thank you, Detective,” the doc says. “I’ll take it from here. Come see me later. We’ll compare notes. I’d like a moment alone with the victim, now.”

Matt pushes through the kitchen door, parting the throng, Tom on his heels. They’re all big shoulders, sharp elbows and shoes stepping on toes.

#

The housekeeper is still in the sitting room. OfficerBrockwoods is with her, not saying anything, just watching her cry, quietly.

“I tried to stop them,” he says.

“You did good.” Matt pats him on the shoulder. “We’ll put it in the report.”

Tom sits next to the housekeeper. “Mrs. Dantonio, I’m so sorry you had to go through this. I have only a few questions. Is it okay to talk now?”

She nods, a hankie stuck to her face.

“Was Mr. Camacho a drinking man?”

She shakes her head.

“We found an empty bottle of vodka in the greenhouse,” Tom says.

She looks up. “That’s because he finished the big painting.” She points at the hallway door. “It’s in the studio. It’s wonderful. I went to look at it this morning before I started working.” A spasm overcomes her and she buries her face in her hands.

Tom waits for the crisis to pass.

“Mr. Camacho had a lot to drink because he completed his work?” Tom says.

“He does that,” she mutters. “Each time. A celebration.”She wipes her eyes. “This is terrible.” She sighs. “When he works, he only drinks water, maybe a glass of wine with dinner.”

“A disciplined man,” Tom says. “A smoker?”

“Cigarettes, like everybody.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Dantonio. Officer Brockwoods will take your information. We’ll contact you if we need to talk to you.”

She sits there, eyes on the carpet, hands folded in her lap,holding the wet and bunched hankie.

“Find somebody to take her home, will you, Brockwoods?” Tom says. He motions at Matt. “Let’s have a look at the studiobefore the horde invades.”

The studio is a large room, with a wide floor-to-ceiling window. It takes up the entire left side of the house. The painting Mrs. Dantonio mentioned is right there, a symphony of emerald greens with slashing bursts of sun. It’s the most beautiful thing Tom has ever seen.

Matt, not so much. “I know where he got his inspiration. From the cabbages out there.” He uses his handkerchief to pull two empty bottles of vodka from the dustbin. They’re nestled instained turpentine-reeking rags. “The man must have been so pickled he was swimming in it.”

Tom holds a crumpled pack of cigarettes. There are two left. He pops one out, looks around for a lighter. “You think the place would go up in flames if I lit up in here, Matt? See how fast that blowhard in blue and his minions can move?”

“That’s not funny.” Matt picks up a box of matches from a shelf and tosses it to Tom. “I need some clean air. Paint fumes are getting to me.”

They walk back to the front door and out toward their car. The place is swarming with cops now, most of them with no good reason to be there. The street is a parking lot. Neighbors are out on the sidewalk, in small groups, yakking.

“You write it up or I do?” Matt says. “Accidental incineration. Is that a category?”

“You do it, pal,” Tom says. “One finger at a time tapping on that fucking keyboard. Call it accidental death. It’s easier to spell.” He sticks the cigarette in his mouth and slides the match box open.

Freezes.

“I’ll be damned,” he says. “Look at that.”

There are five burnt matches in the box, side by side with a bunch of live ones.

“I’ve heard of guys doing that,” Matt says. “That’s one bad habit that’ll burn a hole in your pocket.” He takes a deep breath. “You think that did it?”

Tom shrugs, strikes a match, lights his cigarette, and blows out the flame. He lets the burnt match drop to the pavement, looks at it for a moment, pensive.

Then he crushes it under his heel.

 

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@MEProctor3