Now that I’ve had some time to digest…

•January 4, 2012 • Leave a Comment

The last couple weeks of December were, to put it mildly, pretty busy. This post will be the Good Parts Version, because there were some.

* Rin, you can tell Mom and Dad that everybody’s packages arrived. If mine haven’t, they should be there soon. Yes, I’m a slacker and didn’t get anything sent until after Christmas. You can yell at me at your leisure. Will send thank you notes out of the gigantic pile of stationary Mom sent at the soonest available opportunity.

* Also: fundoshi, Rin. Really? Really? Admittedly, I probably brought that on myself but…really? Where do you even buy those things anymore? And if you’re planning say ‘from a vending machine!’ I don’t actually want to know that badly.

So…Christmas with McDreamy.

It was nice. Really, really nice. Yes, Rin, ‘just nice.’

McDreamy lives in one of those big, three-story red brick condos up on Green — the sort of huge place you wouldn’t guess a single guy would be living alone in unless he’d converted the entire third story into an immaculately soundproofed BDSM dungeon/yoga room and the entire second story into a single walk-in closet. And I’m saying this as a single guy who lives in a one bedroom flat, who still feels I’ve got too much space and not enough stuff to put in it. Still…it’s a very nice place. Hardwood and slate floors, a kitchen that can legitimately be described as gourmet in its accouterments, an actual back yard with a patio and plants and a nice trellis/fountain/standing firepit thing. It was too cold to sit outside for any length of time, but I could see how it would be nice in the summer. An actual live Christmas tree with antique glass ornaments and an actual, functioning fireplace in the sitting room, all polished dark hardwood furniture and tastefully elegant leather and upholstery where appropriate. McDreamy, or whoever decorated for him, really does have a great eye for that sort of thing — he said to come casual, I work khakis and a niceish shirt, and I still felt severely under dressed for my surroundings. I’m pretty sure that the quality of the sheen on some of those walls was the result of linseed oil paint. Okay, yeah, I’m digressing.

Dinner was supposed to be around threeish, with people arriving more or less whenever, so I went over a little after noon with the appetizer I’d made — balsamic shallot-and-goat-cheese minitarts — to help get things ready. McDreamy was, according to himself, expecting four to five people to wander in either singly or together, and had cooked for at least a dozen. Guess how many people actually showed up?

If you said three, you’d be correct — McDreamy, myself, and a friend of his from the hospital dropped by briefly, but for the majority of the day it was pretty much just us. If it weren’t for the mountain of leftovers I’ve been eating for the last week, I’d say I think he planned it that way but, actually, I’m not entirely certain he didn’t plan it that way, since he seems to think I need to eat a sandwich. And also to work out more. He got me a guest pass for his private health club — a little bird apparently whispered in his ear that I had mentioned in passing that I missed swimming and had fallen out of my ordinary exercise regimen since I’d moved to Pennsylvania, and that the change might be aggravating my migraine symptoms. Mostly, we ate and talked. Or, rather, I talked — he’s really easy to talk to which is, I suppose, only to be expected given his profession — and he listened and interjected the occasional question/observation. Things I learned about him: he’s the middle brother of the three Brothers McDreamy, all of whom were apparently lovingly crafted from the perfect combination of Scot and Swede, poured into a lickable hunk mold, and then baked to international men’s underwear model temperature. (He had pictures of them all on his mantel, that’s how I know.) Eldest McDreamy and his lovely wife are both scientists, residing most of the time at a marine research station in Scotland — though they just recently had their first child, which is why Mother McDreamy and Father McDreamy are visiting with them this year. Younger McDreamy is, like Father McDreamy, career Air Force, currently stationed at Misawa Air Base in Japan. I found this rather disproportionately amusing, I’ll admit. McDreamy freely confessed to being a military brat who’d moved all over the place with his family as a kid — he’s only been living in Philly himself for a little over five years himself.

He was particularly curious as to why, with the forensic pathologist shortage in this country, why I’d decided to leave California, where I basically could have held on for a couple years and then named my own price in nearly any major city you’d care to pick. I gave my boilerplate “needed a change of scenery” answer, which I’m not entirely sure he bought, but I didn’t want to get into the topic just then. It was too nice of a day. Instead I talked about Granny Hanako and Grandpa Toshiaki and moving back and forth between California during the school year and Oregon during the summer, and living part of the time in Japan when I was too young to remember. Basically if we’d been in any decent romance narrative, at some point the scene would have gone into soft focus and the music would have changed tempo and there’d be a “and now these two lonely people fall in love in the midst of the cold northeastern winter” montage except instead of a montage I got one of those phone calls that nobody wants to get on Christmas Day and had to leave for a crime scene.

More on that later.

On 12/30, McDreamy called late in the evening, and asked if I’d like to meet him for brunch on Saturday and New Years activities the day after. I worked Christmas weekend so I was off New Years and, since I didn’t actually have any plans, I said “sure, why not.” I needed to be distracted and, well, McDreamy is admirably distracting at multiple levels. We met up at the King’s Oak, where the brunch spread is, I will confess, justly famed and then spent most of the day until the early part of the evening wandering around the shops and galleries in the vicinity. I wasn’t in a particularly cheerful mood when I’d arrived — the week I had didn’t allow for it — and McDreamy must have twigged to that because he did everything in his power to make me laugh. Including taking me into a place called Delicious and, uhm, making me try on clothes. Scary, scary, horrifically expensive clothes. In which I looked damned good, dammit. They knew him there, which made me think that my deranged fantasy about third floor  kitted-out BDSM dungeons might not be completely insane. He’s certainly got a wilder wild streak than you’d initially suspect. I actually spent way more money there than I’d intended to. On the other hand, I now have some items in my wardrobe that aren’t scrubs, khakis, or jeans.

Once it started to get dark, we headed down towards Penn’s Landing, where the actual New Year’s Eve party was taking place, on the piers along the Delaware River waterfront. It was, as they say in these parts, colder than a witch’s left pectoral glandular tissue down by the water but there was also an ice skating rink and music and the opportunity to huddle together with other people for body heat and hot chocolate. And then there were fireworks. Outstanding fireworks, at that. It was so late and I was so tired by the time we left that I didn’t really put up much of an argument when McDreamy suggested I spend the night at his place.

Shut up, Rin.

So I spent the night in one of his guest rooms and the next morning I made us both breakfast and we went to watch the Mummer’s Parade. My thoughts: more marcasite feathers and sequins than any six major Pride parades put together. On the other hand: lots and lots of Gaga and snarkass remarks about politics by men dressed in more marcasite feathers and sequins than any six major Pride parades. The Fancy division at the Civic Center afterwards left my ears ringing but was still a lot of fun. Altogether a fine way to bring in the New Year.


The House That WTF Built, Part the Second

•December 29, 2011 • Leave a Comment

So I bought a disposable digital-capable camera and a new set of maglites — including a head-band light — because I immediately went from the local shopping emporium to the house.

I will admit, after dark the site was a couple thousand orders of magnitude creepier than it had been during the day. The parking lot across the way was mostly unlighted except closest to the row of houses that started along the far side and more than half the streetlights were out, including the ones closest to “John Q’s” former place of residence. Further down the street most of the houses had Christmas lights up, there were cars coming and going, somewhere nearby I could hear carolers singing, and somehow that just made the place seem even more desolate. Also: the temperature was twenty degrees lower and the wind was coming up, which greatly enhanced both the creep-factor and my desire to get done and get gone as quickly as possible.

The problem with disposable cameras is, of course, the shot limit. The one I’d bought had twenty-one exposures on it and so I budgeted accordingly. Eight shots from up above, down into the cellar from the foundation edge, two to each side, for the ‘before’ documentation. I noticed, as I was taking the pictures, that the cellar floor was more scuffed up than it had been on my last visit. There’d been some very light rain between and the temperature had gotten noticeably colder both day and night, and there’d been at least one relatively breezy day. Natural environmental factors could easily be the culprit. As I came down the stairs, I found the smudged remains of my own prior footprints. Only my own footprints, which I admit gave me a little pause. The note that had been left in my car implied that someone had found me down there while I was too disabled by the migraine to be aware of my surroundings — which also sort of implies that there had been someone in the basement with me at some point. Even allowing for natural environmental degradation of the site by exposure to the elements, there just weren’t any other prints. Not unless whoever it was — Agent Felix Delgado, implied — had stood exactly in my own footprints and moved me without any pushing or pulling or dragging at all. I’m not heavy, but there’s a difference between dead-lifting, say, a small child and dead-lifting a grown man. Another mystery. For later.

I found the spot where I’d theoretically fallen, a few feet away from the steps that I hadn’t been able to see on the day. I took another series of ‘before’ pictures of that particular patch of cellar floor, and then went to work with the semi-firm bristled paintbrush I’d also picked up, trying to dislodge the layers of accumulated soot and randomly occurring basement grime as gently as possible.

Rin’s imagery genius friend was right: the four did have depth. They all did, as a matter of fact. I uncovered a couple square feet of cellar floor and all but a few inches of that was covered in carvings — the number four, repeated over and over again, in varying depths and sizes. Roughly carved, probably with a chisel or a file, and a hammer, not molded in when the foundation was poured. Up close, with the headband maglite on and a second directional torch, I could see that the carvings weren’t localized to that area but stretched off as far as the flashlight beam could provide decent illumination, probably right up to the basement walls. I opted not to explore that far. I’m not entirely sure why. I just took pictures of the basement floor nearest me and then of the basement walls from minimum safe distance, and got the fuck out as fast as I could.

Addenda 2

•December 14, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Sunday was basically uneventful — I was called in to cover for Dr. X, one of the senior assistant MEs whose wife was at the get this thing out of me now stage of pregnancy went into labor that morning. (A healthy little girl, eight pounds, ten ounces, for the record.) Fortunately, he had the time to actually finish sewing before he had to book it. Spent the rest of the day prepping his samples for analysis, transcribing his dictation, and being periodically harassed by my sister for more details RE McDreamy, specifically if he was married and, if not, if this Christmas thing was going to be an actual date-date or a group dinner deal and reminding me to ask if I could bring anything because of course she knew I had already forgotten to do that.

McDreamy is not, to my knowledge, married. Or, at the very least, he doesn’t wear a wedding ring. I’m not particularly up on the office gossip regarding the topic, if there even is any — “is the hot bereavement counselor married?” not being the sort of question you ask the deiners on a slow Sunday afternoon in the morgue. So I instead wrote a note asking if I could bring anything to the party on Christmas and departed for the day.

Monday was basically more of the same except twenty degrees colder upon leaving home in the morning. (Note to myself: warm winter jacket still not warm enough.) One of the deiners that I work with regularly asserted, when I came in with my teeth chattering and clutching a cup of local convenience store coffee, that we’re in witch’s left tit weather here in Pennsylvania right now, which led to a conversation about the endo/exothermic qualities of witch breasts. Which is about when McDreamy walked in.

Yeah, I know.

In response to my note, he let me know that it was going to be a small gathering, four or five people at most, and that he was planning to roast a real honest-to-gods Christmas goose and make an attempt at his Scottish granny’s plum pudding recipe. (It turns out that he’s only in town for Christmas this year because his parents are, in fact, going to Scotland to visit family — otherwise, he’d be in Massachusetts for the holiday.) He suggested I might want to bring an appetizer or a salad of some sort, assured me that there weren’t any strict vegans or vegetarians implacably hostile to the inclusion of eggs or cheese in their Christmas diet coming to the party, and that there was a high probability of alcoholic wassail being on hand, so if I intended to drink I should also bring an overnight bag — he’d have his guest room(s) set up for people who wanted to stay over.

Then he asked me out to dinner. Not that evening, but Tuesday, at a place in our neighborhood that I’d wandered past already, called the Abbaye. Gastropub, imported beer, superior vegetarian bar food, according to the reviews. I’d been thinking about it but there is literally nothing in the universe sadder than going to a bar by yourself because the chimay-marinated seitan cheesesteak with pomme frites sounds awesome.

I officially don’t even know.

I would also like to offer my heartfelt apologies to everyone in the Eastern Hemisphere whose rest was disturbed by a high-pitched noise at some godless hour local time — that was probably my sister squeeing when she got my text. Which is to say that I said yes and he walked back out all cheerfully and, seriously, if he’s not flirting at some low-key level I will just not know.

Remainder of the day was uneventful until late in the afternoon, when I got an email from Rin. One of her graphics wizard friends had done some magic on the picture I’d sent — it was, admittedly, still blurry and shaky but now I could definitely make out the writing: it was, very clearly, the number 4. The note included suggested that the text had distinct depth gradations and might be a carving more than something written with paint or marker. That afternoon, I went and bought a disposable digital-capable camera and a new maglite.


•December 12, 2011 • Leave a Comment

I decided, despite the numerous aggravations to my peace of mind lately, to stay in over the weekend and work on things that I could do on the computer, mostly shopping and research. I was still pretty pissed at myself for completely missing one of the classic symptoms of migraine prodrome, even if it’s not one of my own classic symptoms, and taking the risk of actually driving somewhere. I was also pretty pissed about the results of that situation, in general, and was chewing over what exactly I intended to do about it — if I could really effectively do anything. I somehow think that demanding the return of my stuff wasn’t going to get very far.

So I ordered another memory card for the camera. One day I will hand Agent Felix Delgado a receipt for that.

And then I took another look at my phone’s recording application, just to see if there was any way I had overlooked to recover the deleted file. As it turns out, the answer is no — once a file is deleted and purged, it’s gone for good unless I want to do warranty-voiding things of dubious legality apparently. I am not yet at that point. While fiddling around, however, I did discover something interesting: I had a new photograph on the phone itself from 12/3.

The last totally coherent memory I have of that day is of shutting down the recording application. It’s probably not impossible that I didn’t do that correctly and accidentally deleted/failed to properly save the file myself. I might have had the phone in my hand when the migraine hit — it’s not at all impossible that I accidentally triggered the camera if I seized during the course which, given the speed and severity, isn’t impossible either. The picture itself was pretty obviously not taken under ideal point-and-click circumstances in any case — blurry, shaky, super-close up, of the basement floor, a place where the soot had been washed almost completely away by the weeks and weeks of rain we had this autumn. Something was written on the floor. Pretty much the only thing that kept me from going back right then and there was the fact that it was after five and the sun was, for all practical intents and purposes down. Instead I downloaded the photo, emailed it to Rin, and asked if there was any way to make it clearer.

Then I very deliberately turned off the computer and walked away to do some regular homely stuff until the sudden-rush-of-excited-adrenaline shakes subsided. I watered the plant and thought about making dinner. Realized I didn’t want to eat anything I had on hand and walked down to the local grocery store to pick something else up. Bumped into Dr. McDreamy in the organic/vegetarian aisle.

Dr. McDreamy — not his real name — is one of the bereavement counselors employed by the coroner’s office — the very one, in fact, who hung with us back when Irene was coming through and whom I’d asked about the persistence of trauma-related psychological disturbances in what I hoped had been a sufficiently casual way when I’d started researching the life and times of “John Q.” While most of the grief counselors of my acquaintance are pre-doctoral and primarily certified by their professional guiding organization (the American Academy of Grief Counseling) — Granny Hanako is certified through the AAGC, f’rex — McDreamy is an actual PhD-carrying clinical psychologist who does counseling work as part of his practice, I’m assuming out of a deep and heartfelt commitment to the health and well-being of others, because otherwise he’d be raking down millions of dollars a year as a runway underwear model. Or any other sort of clothes, actually. Or whole or individual body parts. The man’s not hard to look at, is what I’m saying. Anyway, I bumped into him — it turns out he lives a couple blocks over — and we ended up chit-chatting about this and that and before we were finished checking out he’d asked me if I had anywhere to go for Christmas, since he knew I’d just moved into the area, and then invited me over to his place for the day.

….You know. Like you do.

So I went home and nuked myself some palak paneer and brewed a cup of tea, consumed both, emailed Rin to let Mom know she could stop wringing her hands about me being all alone at Christmas, and realized that I was still twitching. Twitchy. Energetically wired. And that this was only dubiously normal and good, given the circumstances and recent events. Restlessness and hyperactivity are prodrome indicators in a good-sized percentage of all migraneurs — behavioral/mood changes are, in general. My own most common prodrome symptom has, up to this point, been extreme physical and mental fatigue. So I took a shower and my interdiction meds and decided to make a conscious effort to get to sleep at a decent hour. Fortunately, one of the most helpful side-effects of amitriptyline is drowsiness — it’s one of those “do not operate heavy machinery” drugs — and, well, I don’t remember seeing midnight. Or even ten. I remember opening up my e-reader to get another couple chapters of the book I’m reading right now down and that’s pretty much it.

I woke up sometime in the middle of the night to the Demon-Auffenpinscher chorus, sprawled out on the living room futon, covered up in a blanket I don’t really remember getting. I also don’t remember falling back to sleep, but I must have, because when I woke up next the sun was high and my phone was beeping. Two texts from Rin (“So what you’re saying is that you’re dating Sebastian Vael for Christmas?” and “You bastard. You know I wanted him MORE.”) and a call-missed message from the office. My on-callness was being called, and so I went in.


•December 10, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Okay, not really gromsblood. But it looks like it. The poinsettia, that is.

I decided not to wait for the super to get involve and Friday took note of the number on the parking space next to mine. Each apartment is assigned a certain number of parking spaces in the lot and those numbers are associated with specific apartments. (I’ve actually got two assigned to mine, which is pretty standard since most couples have two cars nowadays, though I only use one.) I explained the situation and asked at the management office which apartment the spaces next to mine belonged to — fortunately, it was not the upstairs neighbor, Demon-Auffenpinscher’s Daddy, but my neighbors down the hall, whom I’ve seen coming in from time to time with their little girl.

So when I got home last night, I went down and knocked on their door, apologized for yacking all over their car and offered to have it detailed at my expense. As it turns out, they were a bit more worried about the whole “was this person drinking and trying to slot their vehicle into our relatively small parking lot” thing than the proceeds of the same all over the side of their car, but they accepted both the apology and the offer. I explained that I hadn’t been drinking — in fact, that I don’t drink at all — but was getting nauseous from an oncoming migraine. As it turns out, both Mrs. and Dr. Montgomery worked at the University of Penn hospital — missus is a pediatric oncology nurse and doctor is a pediatric surgeon — and they invited me in for dinner once the conversation turned in that direction. I had to beg off, because I was meeting Rin shortly online, but the meeting was at least a cordial one.

This morning, Mrs. Montgomery came over with the receipt from the local car wash and a plant. A horribly, wonderfully weird-looking plant — a breed of poinsettia that looks, I kid you not, like gromsblood. You know, from World of Warcraft. It is awesome. And now my apartment actually has its first plant.

…..And an invitation to a Christmas party. Man, it’s almost Christmas.

I should probably start shopping.

Better, for certain values of better.

•December 8, 2011 • Leave a Comment

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.


•December 5, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Going to bed. Will post more later. Investigation did happen. So did a migraine.