Get on the Good Foot
Paper filter mask on, LAPD Detective Second Grade Desdemona Valdez breathed out of her mouth as she walked through the coroner's department located on the grounds of the general hospital. No matter how many times she'd been here, the rotting peach smell of decomposing bodies mixed with the overwhelming tang of disinfectant was not an aroma she got used to. She had on rubber booties over her shoes to prevent her from slipping on the primordial ooze, the ghastly mix of dispelled body fluids and protean goo that permeated the concrete floor. She passed by the body of a nude old woman wrapped in clear plastic, a serene look on her gray, withered face. Valdez paused to stare at her, questioning would she live this long, winding up alone and probably unclaimed.
At the small window of a closed door, she looked in and tapped on the observation glass. Inside the examination room, Deputy Assistant Medical Examiner Leland "Sonny" Tanaka, respirator on, was removing the brain from a body and placing it on a scale with the practiced care of the craftsman. He nodded at Valdez and pointed toward his left. She headed that way.
"Des, got them tix for Friday's game," one of the assistants said as he wheeled a body around her. He had a friend who worked the overnight set-up crew at the Staples Center and got discount good-seat tickets to Lakers and Clippers games.
"Can't make it, but thanks, Cory. I'm down for when the Sonics get to town next month though."
"Bet," he said. The corpse on his gurney was a bloated individual with signs of adipocere, the body fat turning soapy.
Valdez willingly looked away as part of the deceased dripped off, and was glad to reach the relative blandness of Tanaka's so-called office. Space in the facility was at a premium even with a lower homicide rate this year in the city. Tanaka didn't have an office in the sense of an enclosed room with its own door but a sectioned-off area in the storage section.
Valdez sat across from Tanaka's tattered banker's chair at his industrial desk. Upon its surface were several neat piles of files and paperwork. The screensaver on his computer was a well-endowed warrior woman from some damn video game Tanaka was always playing online. Valdez had brought her copy of the report on the death of Grish Waller and she reread some of it before Tanaka arrived.
"What's up, player?" she kidded him. She kept the file open on her lap. There was an up-close photo of the dead Congressman lying, face to the side, on the carpet of his home. A ragged hole in his temple and red soaking the carpet below him.
"You scoff, but one day I will be king of the geeks." He sat down.
Tanaka had removed his respirator and rubber gloves. He was a trim man in his 50s with a thick mustache, who shot a decent game of golf and had a 20-year-old tatted, anarchist daughter in college. He'd been a widower now going on eight years. It was after the unexpected death of his wife that Tanaka had taken up video gaming, an obsession usually pursued by much younger enthusiasts. But it provided him with a sense of community and beat playing bingo or going on endless Vegas turnarounds, he'd said.
"You're still bothered by that?" He indicated the file.
Valdez gave a measured response. "The gunpowder stippling on Waller's hand, the exit wound, the position of the revolver on the floor near his body----"
"Consistent with where it would have fallen from a reflexive release as one expires," Tanaka finished in an observational tone. He was neither defensive nor indifferent to the conclusions his office had reached concerning Waller's death.
"All add up to suicide," Valdez said. She looked at the photo again.
Tanaka tapped the ends of his long fingers together. "But there's the missing bullet and the dust."
"Yes, the dust," she drawled. In the cylinder of Grish Waller's revolver were two spent cartridges. But there was only one entrance and exit wound in Waller's head, and so far the other bullet hadn't been recovered. Speculation was that Waller may have shot the first round into the air or somewhere away from his condo to get up his nerve or check to see if the gun was working properly. Added to that, there was dust on the weapon and in the barrel attesting to its non-use for some time until the politician's death. But if two bullets had been fired, there shouldn't be any dust or very little in that barrel.
Discussing this again in his cubbyhole, Tanaka reiterated, "Yes, this was a subjective call. But dust could have easily resettled in the barrel during transport of the weapon from Waller's house and testing at the lab. The uniform on the scene told you he picked up the weapon by the butt to preserve trace evidence and placed it in a paper bag as was proper." Plastic baggies weren't used since an object inside a sealed plastic bag could sweat and contaminate evidence.
The M.E. continued, "But the bag was dusty from being in the patrol car's trunk where there were gym clothes. So that presented a possible way in which dust could have been reintroduced into the barrel as the bagged weapon was placed on his funky sweat pants."
"And there were no hair or bone in the muzzle as Waller, allegedly, did not press the barrel against his temple but held it about a foot away." She pantomimed holding a gun away from her head. "The wounds being consistent with that postulation," Valdez added.
"Doesn't mean there wasn't somebody else in that room holding a gun on him to make Waller kill himself," Tanaka offered.
Valdez said, "Somebody has a gun on me, tells me to kill myself or he'll kill me, let him shoot. I'm dead either way and at least this way everybody knows to look for the killer."
Tanaka remained quiet.
"Okay," she said, closing the file and rising. "As our spiritual inspiration JB would say, 'I gotta get on the good foot,' Sonny. I was hoping for some brilliant flash of insight here among your deceased buddies, but guess it's the living I have to shake up."
"The body's in the ground, Des. The brass is satisfied, aren't they?"
"I'm not." Upon Waller's death, and even though it certainly appeared that death was self-inflicted, word had come down to completely examine the circumstances to allay rumors. As of yet, she hadn't been given new orders and Valdez was determined to work it till then. She dialed a number on her cell phone.
"I 'd like to talk with Congresswoman Kang," Valdez said into her cell phone after identifying herself to Kang's assistant, Lettie Cortez. The detective was particularly interested to know if Kang knew where to find Lacy Mills. Waller's former chief of staff had been the one pressing through her elected contacts to get Waller buried yet hadn't been at the funeral and hadn't been around since.
There was some back and forth as Cortez checked the Congresswoman's schedule and Valdez made an appointment to see her that afternoon as she was informed the representative was anxious to talk to her as well.
"Kang, huh?" Tanaka said.
"What about her?" Valdez made to leave.
"Oh, nothing. Just that she's tough, smart and a looker. Reminds me of somebody I know."
"Really? I hadn't noticed."
He smiled. "Going to see if what they say about her is true, Des?"
She winked at him and left.
To Be Continued...
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