My dad used to always say, “If you don’t find trouble, trouble will find you.”
It took me way too long to figure out he was being literal.
Kath’s old ute rattled and clanked as we pulled to a stop, and I looked up from my phone. “Kath,” I said slowly, looking around, “you said we were going grocery shopping. This is not grocery shopping.”
In fact, it was about as far from grocery shopping as it was possible to get. We’d pulled up on the street next to the tennis court at the bottom of Neal Macrossan Park, just opposite Suncorp Stadium. The playground to our right was empty, the bitter chill of winter combining with the overcast sky and today being a Wednesday to successfully convince any parents to keep their kids inside. Or it could’ve been the swarm of police hovering over the skate park less than a hundred meters away.
I leaned my head back on the seat, eyes closed. “Kath,” I said tiredly, “have you brought me to another crime scene?”
“Technically, it’s not a crime scene yet.” She twisted the key and the cacophony of the engine cut out.
I rolled my eyes. “I have a client coming at 10:30. I don’t have the time to deal with you trying to use me as a sidekick today.”
She glanced at the clock, which read 9:15. “You do not. Besides, that’s like a whole hour away. Plenty of time!”
“One, I do too have a client coming, and I know you know that because I told you.”
“No you didn’t.”
“I did! Remember, last week, when I came running in in the middle of the night, yelling and screaming and jumping about because I finally had a client?”
She frowned pensively. “I remember the jumping and the screaming, but I don’t remember it being about a client. I thought it was because they’d announced a new Jenna Stone book.”
I shot up straight in my seat. “They’ve announced a new Jenna Stone book?!”
Kath shrugged. “I don’t know, I just thought what would get you most excited and assumed it was that.”
I groaned. I’d been waiting three years for that damn book. “You had to get my hopes up, didn’t you?”
She gave an easy wave, dismissing the issue. “So wait, you actually have a client?”
“Yes,” I said tiredly, “I finally have a client, and you’ve just dragged me to a crime scene in my pajamas.”
She winced. “Whoops.”
“Bu-ut,” she continued, unabated, “now that we’re here…”
I groaned, relenting. “Fine, we can look at the crime scene.”
She clapped her hands together excitedly, like a little kid. “Then what are we waiting for? Let’s go see some murder!” She flung the door open and hopped out, full of energy. I sighed again, and did the same on my side, considerably more restrained.
The wind was sharp and biting, frozen sandpaper running over my exposed skin. I wasn’t actually wearing my pajamas: I do have standards. I’d only been expecting a quick run to the supermarket a few blocks away from the office, so all I was wearing were a set of dark grey sweatpants, an old, faded Power Rangers t-shirt, and my sandshoes, none of which were much good at handling the winter chill. Admittedly, it wasn’t very cold from an objective standpoint, probably not even below 10 degrees, but I’d lived in Brisbane my whole life, so it was cold to me.
I stuck my hands in my armpits and hunched up in a vain attempt to preserve some heat, but the shivers set in almost immediately. I bit my lip to prevent my teeth from chattering, but before they could start, I felt something heavy and warm drape over my shoulders. I turned my head, surprised, to find that Kath had taken off her greatcoat and wrapped me in it. Underneath, she was wearing one of her business suits, the dark crimson one she liked because it hid bloodstains. Honestly, that should’ve tipped me off as to her true destination when we’d left, but I had had other things on my mind.
“Thanks,” I said grudgingly, slipping my arms through the sleeves. “You gonna be alright?”
“What,” she scoffed, “in this? Ain’t no thing.”
“Alright, if you say so.” I probably looked ridiculous, but I was warm, so who cared?
We began walking towards the congregation of cops. There was a scattering around the edges of the skate park, mostly at the entrances, behind barriers constructed of flimsy tape and implicit authority. The majority of the boys in blues, though, were centered around the bottom of one of the ramps, the… sorry, it’s been a long time since I skated. The half-pipe, I think.
We were stopped at the main gate by a private, a young white woman with a shaven head. Her gaze was suspicious as it passed over Kath, and that emotion only deepened as she turned it on me. I gave my best disarming smile, but it didn’t have much effect. I imagine my best is still not very good, which couldn’t have helped.
“Move along, please,” she told us, with forced politeness. “Active crime scene.”
“Ooh,” Kath said brightly, “can we see?” The private turned the icy glare back on her, but she seemed unfazed. “Kidding. Katherine Jones. I’m here to see Terry.”
“…do you mean Detective Phillips?”
She shrugged. “Sure, if you like.”
The private, whose namebadge read JACKSON in blocky caps, frowned, and reached for the radio strapped to her vest. Before she could grab it, though, a hand fell on her shoulder, stopping her cold. “It’s okay, Private,” the new arrival, an older woman with a sergeant’s badge pinned to her lapel, said easily to her. “The detective’s vetted them. Morning, Kath,” she said to my friend, who nodded amicably in return. “And, uh…”
“June Young,” I said quickly, not wanting to leave her hanging. I think we’d probably met at some point or another, but I didn’t remember her any more than vice versa.
“Right. Terrence said you’re good too.”
“How bad is it, Nielsen?” Kath asked the sergeant.
She frowned. “It’s… I’ve seen nastier, but not many. Probably better if you see it yourself. Private?” The younger officer moved to the side, a grimace on her face, allowing us through. We followed Nielsen as she led us into to the skate park proper, towards the large congregation of officers, she and Kath almost in lockstep while I trailed behind by a few steps. Not intentionally, but Sergeant Nielsen was walking pretty briskly and Kath has long legs, so keeping pace was a bit of a struggle for me.
The hustling and bustling crowd (well, I say crowd, but really it was maybe ten or fifteen people, mostly techs) parted for the Sergeant, and we rode the wake all the way to the center. A solitary figure stood there, apart from the crowd. Unlike the others and their dark blue uniforms, he was wearing a heavy brown longcoat over a pinstriped shirt, dark burgundy tie and grey slacks. As we approached, he turned to face us, moving his attention from something obscured by his body. His face was long and narrow, his skin a sallow brown that marked him as being at least partially of Indian decent, and there were bags under his eyes and a deep-set weariness in the chocolate irises. Nevertheless, he greeted us with a smile.
He opened his mouth to utter a greeting, but Kath beat him to it. “G’day, Terry!” she practically shouted as she strode up to him. “How the heck are you?”
To his credit, he rolled with it well. Then again, he was almost as used to Kath as I was. “Not bad, Kath, not bad. Morning, June.” He tipped his head to me in acknowledgement.
“Morning, Detective Phillips.” Despite my mood and lack of rest, I managed to make it genuine. It helped that I did actually like the detective; he was always unfailing friendly and polite.
He gave me a quick once-over, taking in my less-than-appropriate attire. “I’m guessing you weren’t expecting to be here?” he asked with a wry smile.
“You’re guessing right,” I replied, equally wry. “Someone told me we were going grocery shopping.”
He winced. “Well, if I were you, I’d put thoughts of food out of your mind, cause this one ain’t pretty.” He stepped to the side, revealing the object of his attention only a few moments ago.
At first, it didn’t seem so bad. I think it was because my mind didn’t really process it properly. A pile of clean, white bones sat on the concrete, scattered and disordered. The concrete surrounding it had been charred completely black in a perfect circle around it, and outside that, a single thing pile of ash. On top of the concrete, in an inconsistent smattering, was some kind of sticky, burnt substance that for some reason made me think of a barbecue-
“Oh lord that’s fat,” I blurted out as the realisation struck me. “Oh god.” Detective Phillips gave me an affirming grimace, and my stomach churned. I was suddenly very glad I hadn’t eaten that morning. Next to me, Kath didn’t look as perturbed as I felt, but her face was still drawn tight, features drawn thin with distaste. She was used to this sort of thing, but I don’t think that made it any less horrible.
“What happened?” she asked Phillips, lacking some of the energy she’d had before.
“Spontaneous combustion,” he replied almost instantly.
“Nope.” She shook her head, emphatically. “Uh-uh. I’ve seen spontaneous combustion before. That gets you a charred corpse, not… this.”
“Yes, I’m well aware. But we have four eyewitness accounts of the victim just going up in flames.”
“Who were they?” I asked, not looking away from the bones.
“The victim?” He pulled out a notebook, flipping through the pages. “Kelly Grace, eighteen years old. Just started uni this year. Parents live out in North Lakes, so I’ll have to head down there and deliver the news after this.” He sighed heavily at that. “According to Jan Lipinski, the victim’s friend, they’d come down here pretty frequently, just to hang out and, well, skate. She’d apparently just taken a bit of a fall, and a few seconds later…” he trailed off, the conclusion to the sentence obvious from context.
“Was she magical?” Kath asked, staring intently down at the remains with one hand on her chin.
“If she was, she’d hidden it very well. Nothing on any of her medical forms, but we’re not yet discounting the possibility that this was her Sparking.”
“Eighteen’s pretty late for that,” Kath noted.
“I was seventeen for mine,” I volunteered, “so it’s not out of the question.”
“Hm.” He flipped his notebook closed, tucking it back away in his jacket. “We’ll let the lab figure that one out. Until then, this is being treated as a SC.” Kath opened her mouth to protest, but he cut her off with a waved hand. “I know it doesn’t fit, but that’s what’s going in the books. Maybe it’ll get changed if something comes up in the cursory investigation an SC requires, but I doubt it.”
“So that’s why you called me?”
“That’s why I called you,” he confirmed. “You know the drill. Just get me enough that I can make a convincing case to the higher-ups.”
“I know, I know. And my fee?”
He sighed heavily.
As the two of them began hashing out the financials, I knelt down in front of the… body, I guess. I left enough distance to not have to worry about contaminating it, but close enough I could still have a look. Technically, I didn’t need to bother with any of this. Unlike Kath, I wasn’t a PI, and also unlike Kath, I wasn’t actually going to get paid for this job. She’d only brought me along because… well, who knows why Kath does what she does. Lord knows I don’t half the time. But still, once I got past the horror and disgust, there was something fascinating about the case. Something… puzzling. And I’ve always liked puzzles. Heck, maybe in another life I could’ve been like Kath, or Detective Phillips. And even though I picked a different kind of puzzle to solve, sometimes I felt like I could see glimpses of that other me.
“Hey,” I noted. “What’s up with the ash?”
The pile was barely a pile at all: it was quite flat, spread perpendicular to the burnt circle’s radius. And it wasn’t even, either; in fact, there were quite a few gaps in it. It almost made it look like…
Kath and Detective Phillips peered over my shoulders at the ash. “Huh,” Kath said, “that kind of looks like a word.”
“Does it?” the detective asked.
“Yeah, see, that could be an ‘s’, then maybe annn… ‘i’, probably an ‘l’, a ‘v’ or an ‘r’…” she trailed off, studying the pile more intently. “Yeah, them’s definitely letters.”
Phillips frowned, then straightened up and gestured to one of the interminable techs milling around, who quickly hurried over. The detective quickly explained something to him in a low murmur. The tech nodded, and moved over to stand in front of the ash pile, gesturing for Kath and I to move out of the way. He held his hands out in front of him, in that little rectangle you do with indexes and thumbs when trying to imitate a photograph, and began muttering a string of syllables too out-of-focus to hear. The space between his fingers began glowing gold, and as he drew them out, the rectangle he’d created expanded with them, until it was almost a meter, corner to corner. A gold-tilted plate of ethereal glass, hanging in midair. Through it, tinged by its natural hue, we could see the scene, the pile of bones, the scorched circle, the ash. Only… not. The angles of the lighting were different, lessened. As we watched, some of the… of the fat, bubbled and popped slightly, as if it were still hot. Because it was, I realized. We were looking at the scene probably just shortly after the event had occurred. And sure enough, as-yet undisturbed by the elements, the ash spelled out a word in neat cursive.
“What the hell is a silversmith?” Kath asked, bemused.
“Well, just based on logic, its someone who smiths silver,” I replied.
“I think my grandpa used to call people that,” said the until-now-silent tech, still projecting his lens. “In the same sort of tone he’d use to call people chinks or japs, though.”
“So it’s obviously an insult or a slur,” Detective Phillips mused. “Why is it here, though? And what does it mean?” The notebook had come out again, and he was furiously scribbling in it. “Hmm. Either way, it pretty clearly makes this something other than an SC.”
“Sooo, you don’t need me any more, then?” Kath asked. “Fair warning, I’m still going to bill for a consultation.”
He chewed on his own for a second. “I can probably spin this into a legitimate case, but just in case,” Kath chuckled at that, he didn’t, “I want you to dig around, start following stuff while any possible trails are still fresh.”
“Yassah,” she drawled in a mock-American accent, giving a lazy parody of salute.
“I’ll leave the starting point at your discretion.” He nodded to me. “June.”
I nodded back, and he tapped the tech on the shoulder and walked off, beginning to bark orders as the other man scurried after him.
I stared down at the pile of bones, pensive. That poor girl. I wondered if-
An arm flung itself around my shoulders, and I jumped. “Right,” said Kath, “I think we’ve seen enough here. Let’s hit the road, get you back to the office.”
The office, right. I nodded, affirming her statement, and began following her back to the car. I did my best to put thoughts of the scene aside; it was definitely going to come up all too much in the next few days.
For now, though, I had a client to win.