Better, for certain values of better.

Slept. Ate. Horked it all back up, because my stomach wasn’t having any of that. Slept some more. Remembered just in time to call off from work. Sometime in the night, the last of the pain and paresthesia subsided — without the need for meds this time, yay! — and by the time I woke up this morning, my stomach had completely settled, so I went by the local donut place to pick up pastries and coffee for the office to apologize for my slackeriffic absence on Monday. Dr. Weller made sympathetic noises — one of her teenaged grandkids has periodic migraines, too — and put me on desk duty, helping process our office’s mountain of paperwork, so at least I won’t have to spend all day sucking down formalin fumes.

So yes, Rin, I’m okay and I’m sorry I didn’t answer when you called. I was sort of prostrate and blessedly senseless. Cut your big brother some slack?

And, yeah, the house. Or, rather, the smoke-blackened hole in the ground where the house used to be. I did some research on the site, to satisfy that curious itch as to how the place came to be sitting empty, if I could find that out. It was somewhat unusual for the neighborhood, in general — a fully detached house with an actual lot and yard, whereas most of the residential streets up that way are row homes pretty tightly packed together, housing for factory workers, just like my neighborhood, except with more fish. Most of the rows have fish-shaped house number signs on them — remnants of when this part of the city was the heart of the Delaware River fishing industry, which more or less totally collapsed fifty-odd years ago. But, still, fish everywhere you look, part of the local identity.

This particular house did not have a fish number on it — or, rather, I don’t remember seeing one that night and I couldn’t find any direct pictures of it in the PhillyHistory photo archive to corroborate or refute my lack of memory. Poking around a bit in the local properties for sale, I found that the place had, technically, been on the market, and that it had been listed off and on for sixteen years. Poking around in the public probate court records, I discovered that the previous owner had died intestate and the house had been seized by his creditors, of which there were more than a few, and the ensuing legal kerfluffle in probate court had kept the issue of who had the right to the proceeds from the sale up in the air for the best part of a decade — during which time, it is to be presumed, the house was taken over by squatters and drug dealers and nobody in their right mind wanted to sink the money into rehabbing it, when you could buy another house with what it would have taken to make that property livable again. I poked around a bit more, searching the name of the previous owner, and came up with a short, two-line obituary in the local newspaper’s online archives, and a series of articles spread across a period of two years from 1994 to 1996. The wife and daughter of “John Q” were killed in a plane crash in September of 1994, coming back to PA from a trip to Chicago, and from there it was pretty much a downward spiral. Multiple arrests for drunk and disorderly, at least one arrest for simple assault (of an airline PR flack). He spent the last eight months of his life as an involuntary resident of Norristown State Hospital, in the closed forensic psychiatric unit.

This made my curiosity itch even harder, I’ll admit. Involuntary committal to a closed forensic psychiatric ward suggests that “John Q” was a couple things, including a) intractably, clinically insane and b) a provable danger to himself and others, such that it was unsafe to release him back into the general population. Something must have happened that exposed this pathology to law enforcement attention, but all the publicly available records were for misdemeanors at worst. It’s not impossible that the loss of his family sent him irretrievably psychologically over the edge but it’s extremely rare for trauma-induced psychological and emotional imbalances to be completely resistant to treatment. And, yeah, I have that on pretty good authority. Another mystery.

The information I had from the uniforms that night indicated that the house itself was a well-known drug hangout for the usual local suspects, dealers and doers alike. The community website had some items on it, mostly C&P’d from the local newspapers, and there was a distinct absence of any sort of chatter, even idle isn’t-it-a-shame gossip on the community web forum/message board. This was, to put it delicately, unnatural at best, and given that the local fire company was under a gag order on the issue, I suspect that the forum moderators were enthusiastically pruning any threads related to the fire or anything else that had gone on that night. Local usual suspects implied local residents to me, but there were no obits in the papers, no “collections for the family of” notices in the papers or on the assorted web forae, nothing. It was very much as though the at-least-four-maybe-more I’d been called in to examine had simply been erased from existence, erased from consideration. I admit that the circumstances probably made that easy enough. Who sheds bitter tears over criminals and drug addicts, after all? Their families, maybe, but if their families never know, who else would give a good damn about what happened to them? The neighbors? The local PD? Anybody?

Yeah. I can fully understand the ease with which this got swept under the radar.

I got up early on Saturday morning — I was too restless, too twitchy and wired to get much sleep not just that night but the night and day previous, as well. Which, in retrospect, should have been a dead giveaway that I was in prodrome, even given naturally occurring nervousness about going back to the house-shaped-hole-in-the-ground. It was not, because never let it be said that I can’t be a dumbass with a one-track mind. Instead of staying in with a bottle of Pepsi and my beloved Imitrex and Treximet close to hand, I made sure my phone was fully charged (I’m on-call at all times), that there were fresh batteries in my new digital camera, and that my field bag was completely restocked with supplies (gloves, biohazard bags, bindle paper, sterile sealed liquid collection containers, several sets of tweezers and droppers, ID markers, a new notebook, tape recorder and fresh tapes). My cell has a recording function, as well, but there’s no such thing as too many backups when in the field.

Then I waited until the sun was well and truly up before I went to the site. The day itself was clear and bright and cold, much colder than it’s been here in Pennsylvania for the last few weeks, which is to say it was close to seasonable temperature for December in the Northeast. I went over just after lunch, when it was brightest and basically as warm as it was going to get, and parked in the run-down municipal lot across the street. A couple of the local kids were playing street hockey down at the far end of the parking lot — this town is insane about hockey — and they stopped what they were doing and watched while I got out of the car; by the time I turned around from getting my bag out of the trunk, they’d scattered. I can’t say I blame them, if their neighborhood had been crawling with MiBs, to book it at the sight of somebody they didn’t know, even though I’d have loved to ask them some questions. PA invests quite a bit of police power into the officers of the County Medical Examiner but a CME ID doesn’t cut anywhere near as much mustard as an actual badge when it comes to knocking on doors and encouraging people to talk to you. For one thing, they don’t have to talk to you without a subpeona to coroner’s court.

I crossed over to the former site of the house. The real estate listings I’d found indicated that the whole lot was 0.06 acres (2613.6 square feet) and the house itself had been 1260 square feet, two stories, basically a standard detached single-family home for the neighborhood. Some of the larger apartments in my building have more square footage than that and, for some reason, that struck me as unutterably sad. I can’t even tell you why. The police line tape was all torn down except for tiny bits still clinging here and there to what was left of the mostly falling down wooden fence that marked off the perimeter of the lot. White pickets, literally — there were still chips of white paint in places, though the wood and the paint were mostly shades of gray now from weathering and smoke-stains. The remains of what was probably once a shed sat in the far rear corner of the lot, a broken-up concrete slab layered in graffiti, with a couple chunks of broken wood sticking out of the corners. I could imagine “John Q” keeping his lawn mower and weed whacker in there, maybe some gardening tools. The tiny yard was mostly high, weedy grass in the process of turning brown for the winter, knee-high and cut through with what had probably once been a gravel footpath. Another glob of cement set in the ground with a broken-off length of metal pipe in it suggested the presence of one of those old umbrella-shaped clothesline things, back when people still lived here.

The footprint of the house was the single largest thing in the whole lot and, as my contact at the firehouse had said, there wasn’t much left to indicate that a house had ever actually been there. Not a bit of physical wreckage from the house itself remained, just the soot-coated foundation slab and the supporting walls that made the basement, a set of concrete stairs slanting down one side.

Standing there on the edge of it, I wondered what, exactly, I had expected to find. What I was expecting to find. Why I was even there, why I had taken this particular thing in my teeth like a bone and didn’t want to let it go. Four, at least, and maybe more upstairs. Too many pieces. The look in that police detective’s eyes. He looked like nothing was ever going to make sense to him again after what he’d seen inside the place this house used to be. I hate that look. Hate it. There’s always an answer. Always. Always something left over, something left behind, someone left behind, someone those answers are owed to, even if it’s only to the dead themselves.

I put down my bag, pulled on a pair of gloves, and got my equipment out — tape measure, notebook, tape recorder, pencil. A ridiculously high percentage of all forensic investigation consists of taking measurements as accurately as possible and extrapolating from there. Made a quick sketch of the lot layout and then took pictures of everything. Actual forensic photography is a high art and science, and somewhat above my own pay-grade, but visually documenting a crime scene is also one of the fundamentals of investigation — memory alone frequently lies, photographic evidence usually does not. Measured out the perimeter of the lot, and noted the salient features, their locations, distances from where the house itself once sat. Measured the perimeter of the house’s footprint on a fresh page, and sketched the outline of the foundation and basement on a fresh page in the notebook.

By then, the sun was seriously declining and my hands and face were tingling with what I thought was the cold. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the cold now, but then I went down into the basement, hoping to finish up quickly and get somewhere warmer, since there was pretty much nothing down there but a quarter inch of soot, some standing water leftover from all the rain we’ve had in the last couple weeks, and the connections for municipal water and sewer. Even with all the rain, the atmosphere down in the actual basement recession was pretty thick — the smell of smoke lingered, and mildew, and my sinuses didn’t like either thing very much at all. I started taking measurements, which is where the rotten pear analogy from my previous post began making itself known again. The interior perimeter of the basement was…impossible. Literally impossible. The dimensional measurements of the interior basement perimeter were a full four inches longer than the exterior perimeter. The basement walls weren’t faulty. They weren’t bowed outward — maybe not flawless and uncracked, but they weren’t visibly canted, either. I climbed back out and redid the exterior measurements, because when all else fails, double-check your original work. No dice. The exterior perimeter numbers were accurate. I stayed upside for a moment, because my eyes were watering pretty hard — I thought from the lingering smoke-and-mold combo down in the basement — and then went back to take those measurements again. No change. Both sets of numbers remained the same. Physically impossible, mind you, but the same. The building’s footprint was measuring four inches larger on each side inside than it measured on the out.

If you’re thinking I found this some imprecisely measured combination of weird, creepy, and, just to emphasize for emphasis, completely fucking impossible you are thinking correctly. I decided, at that point, that I was going to finish photographing the basement, go home, and try to figure out if I knew any forensic architects with whom I could approach this information without sounding utterly fucking insane. About halfway through the picture-taking process, I realized that the flash and sparkle hanging in my field of vision wasn’t actually afterimages from camera-flash reflections on the walls, but the beginnings of scintilla, and that the prickling in my hands and face wasn’t the cold — it was actually pretty stuffy and warmish down in the basement — but paresthesia, and that I was sitting on the edge of a massive migraine, in aura. I believe my exact response to this development was some combination of “fuck” and “goddamn it, like I need this right now.” I shut down the camera and put it back in its case, shut down my tape recorder and my phone’s recording ap, and by that point it was pretty much already too late to do very much. I was getting scotomas all over my field of vision — everything that wasn’t flashing was greyed out, and everything that wasn’t greyed out was flashing, then washing away in a blurry slide, like a smeared pastel drawing. It came on fast — really, really fast — and for a minute I stood there hoping my vision would at least clear up enough to let me find the stairs, my eyes already starting the ache, like they were too hot to be held in my skull and were about to melt right out.

I didn’t find the stairs. The headache went off like a grenade — seriously, it felt like an explosion, that’s how fast and hard and strong it was, like I’d been hit in the back of the head with an aluminum baseball bat and in the face with a fifteen pound sledgehammer. I don’t actually know how I got out of the basement. My vision went red and white and then black and, when I woke up, it was actually dark and my head was still pounding and my stomach was churning like it was going to crawl up my throat and strangle my brain to death just to stop the pain. I was in my car. The passenger seat of my car to be more precise, with the back reclined, underneath the microfiber blanket I kept in my roadside emergency pack along with the flares and reflectors and the medical kit. I managed to get the door open and out before I chucked my cookies. It took me a minute to realize that I wasn’t actually “outside” outside, but in my building’s attached parking area, which is separated from the street by a chainlink fence and from the rest of the grounds by a larger, wooden fence, that creates the inner courtyard. I tried to remember if I’d driven home but that amount of thought actually made my head hurt more. The whole field of vision in my left eye was still grayed out, just totally gone, and it took me a while to get across the parking lot and inside the courtyard — my hands didn’t want to work and my depth perception was nonexistent. I don’t actually remember making it upstairs, either. I woke up, briefly, some time on the Fourth, and called out Monday.

Monday I woke up and the worst of it was over. My scalp was still tender and my eyes were still blurry most of the morning, but I managed to keep food and water down and by mid-afternoon, the last of my postdrome symptoms had subsided. At that point, I still wasn’t sure how I’d gotten home — I hoped to all the gods that ever were that I hadn’t actually gotten behind the wheel while I was in aura — and though I remembered what I’d been doing on Saturday, I didn’t have any idea where any of my stuff was. My field bag wasn’t in the apartment, so I went back down to the car. One of my neighbors — probably the asshole who owns the demon-Affenpinscher — had left a nice little note under my windshield wiper about not drinking and then driving and then throwing up all over the side of someone else’s car. I’m so sure I’m going to hear something about that from the super, I cannot even tell you. My bag was in the back seat, and inside it was my camera, my phone, my tape recorder, and my notebook. On the driver’s side seat was a little square of white paper — a personal card, as it turned out, with handwriting on the back and that schmancy glossy raised print on the front.

The back said, in the sort of slanty, swoopy cursive you pretty much only find in Catholic school nowadays, “You’re welcome.” The front said: Agent Felix Delgado, Department of Homeland Security, Office of Special Operations.

The tape had been removed from my recorder. The audio file that duplicated it had been erased from my cell’s recorder application. The sketches I’d made and measurements I’d taken had been very obviously torn out of my notebook. And the memory card had been removed from my camera.

I…haven’t really decided what, if anything, I’m going to do yet.


~ by Dr. Nate Harada on December 8, 2011.

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