There is something perversely cheerful about a crime scene in the middle of the night, the pulsating red and blue lights, the great beams of white, the strobes of the photographers' flashes. Festively festooned with yellow tape, a crime scene at night is a place cars drive slowly by, as if before an overdone Christmas display with bowing reindeers and whirling Santas. In the uniformed workers busily going about their business, in the helicopters spinning madly overhead, in the television vans with their jaunty microwave disks, in the reporters giving their live reports, in the excited onlookers excitedly looking on, in all of it lies the thrilling sense of relief that the arbitrary finger of desolation has squashed flat this night a total stranger.
Unless the corpse within the tape is not a total stranger. Then, suddenly, the crime scene at night is not so cheery.
I didn't yet know why I had been summoned to the crime scene at Pier 84 on Philadelphia's dank waterfront, or who's death was the subject of this swirl of activity, but I knew the deceased was not a total stranger or I would never have been called, and that was enough to turn the cheeriness of the scene into something bleak and icy. The possibilities flitted through my mind like bats through a dusky sky, an endless swarm, each swoop or swerve carrying its own name and causing its own jolt of fear.
"I was called by McDeiss," I told one of the uniforms standing as solid as a Roman sentry at the gated entrance to the pier, his arms crossed, his thick leather jacket zippered tight. Far behind him, lying between two huge shipping containers, surrounded by cops and technicians, slipping out of a strange dark puddle, was a lump of something covered by blue.
"You a reporter?" said the cop.
"I'm a lawyer."
"Even worse. Yo, Pete," he called out to a young cop standing a few feet away. "What's more trouble than a lawyer?"
"Two lawyers," said Pete.
"Go tell Detective McDeiss to hold onto his wallet, there's a lawyer here to see him."
"Who died?" I managed to get out.
"Talk to McDeiss."
"Some guy got an early good night kiss."
Until then I hadn't known if the victim was man or woman, now the possibilities narrowed. Half of the swooping bats dissolved and disappeared, yet that didn't seem to help at all.
The pier was a flat sheet of cement, jutting out into the wide slow Delaware River, just north of the Walt Whitman Bridge. Rail lines criss-crossed its length and an arcade style warehouse squatted in its center, with trailers hitched at the bays in front like puppies sucking milk from their mother's teats. Chocolate milk, because Pier 84 was the premier cocoa-receiving facility in the entire country. On Pier 84 burlap sacks, unloaded from heavy cargo ships, were thrown into shipping containers and hauled by rail and truck to the gay little chocolate town of Hershey, Pennsylvania. You would expect you could smell the sweet rich flavor of the chocolate even on the pier, but you'd be wrong. All you could smell that night was the wet of the river, the oxide of rusting metal, and something dark and desolate and sadly familiar beneath it all.
The warehouse now was in shadow, the river itself a thick black void. At the entrance to the pier, brown and low, squatted Frank's, a lunch shack with tables out front and a blue sign reading: COLD BEER. To my right was the great steel bridge named after America's most American poet. I hear America singing, yeah yeah yeah. Not tonight, Walt, not with all the racket from the helicopters, not with that lump of something beneath the blue tarp. And to my left, the oddest sight, the red tilting stacks of what appeared to be a great ocean liner fallen on hard times. The red paint on the funnels was faded and streaked, the metal was rusting, the lighting was desultory at best, making it seem as if the great ship was sagging in the middle like a tired old horse. It looked as if it had suffered some foul disease and had crawled into the Philadelphia waterfront to die. Well, it had picked the right place.
The foregoing is excerpted from Past Due by William Lashner. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022
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