Snowball in Hell

Тема

«Hell of a thing,» Jonesy said for the third time.

And Matt agreed. It was a hell of a thing. He turned his gaze from the gaggle of reporters smoking and talking beside the grouping of snarling cement saber-tooth tigers, and returned his attention to the sticky, bedraggled corpse currently watching the birdie for the police photographer.

Whoever had dumped the dead man had counted on the body sinking in the black ooze of the Brea Pits, and in the heat of the summer when the tar heated up and softened … maybe. But it was December, a little more than a week before Christmas, and it had been raining steadily for two days. No chance in hell. Face down in the rainwater, the body had rested on the treacherous, hidden crust of tar. The museum paleontologists excavating the site for fossils had made the grisly early morning discovery.

«Looks kinda familiar,» Jonesy remarked gloomily, as the plastered hair and drowned eyes were briefly illuminated in the white flash of the camera.

Matt bit back a laugh. «Yeah? Must be the fact that he's dead.»

Jonesy looked reproachful, although after thirty-three years on the homicide squad, he'd seen more than his share of stiffs. They both had, though Matt had seen more violent death and destruction during his seven months in the Pacific than he had in his eleven years on the force.

«No identification on him at all?»

«Nope. Even the label was cut out of his jacket. No sign of his hat or shoes.»

Matt considered this. Soaking in water and tar hadn't done John Doe's clothes much good, and they'd have to wait 'til everything dried before they could hope to get much from an examination. How much they would get then was doubtful, but that suit didn't look particularly old or worn, and the tailoring was the kind that showed its worth even in the worst conditions-which these were.

Laughter drifted from the circle of statues where the reporters and a couple of photographers waited impatiently. Matt knew most of them: Williams from «The Peach,» Mackey from the Times, Cohen from the Mirror, and Tara Renee of the Examiner. The only one he didn't recognize was the slim man lighting Tara's cigarette. Thin brown fingers cupped the lighter against the damp breeze; lean, tanned cheeks creased in a smile as Tara flirted with him. Tara flirted with everyone, but she was a good little crime hound.

«Who's that?» Matt asked, and Jonesy looked up from the meticulous diagrams he was making of the crime scene, and followed Matt's stare.

«Doyle. Tribune-Herald. Heard he was with the Eighth Army in North Africa 'til he picked up a case of lead poisoning.» Jonesy grinned his lopsided smile. «Got hit by machine gun fire in Tunisia.»

«Yeah, well, there's a lot of that going around.» But Matt's interest was unwillingly caught. «So he's English?»

«Nah. Hometown boy, Loot.»

«Doc's here, Lieutenant,» one of the uniformed officers said as the police ambulance bumped its way over the grassy verge.

Matt nodded and then nodded again toward the reporters. «Tell 'em I want to see Miss Renee and…» he thought it over «Doyle.»

When he glanced back, Jonesy was giving him an old-fashioned look.

«What's that for?» He'd known Jonesy a long time; Jonesy had been Matt's old man's partner. Back then he'd been big and rawboned with a shock of red hair and a face full of freckles. The hair was grey now, and the freckles had faded into a permanently ruddy complexion, but he was still one of the best detectives on the force-sometimes Matt was afraid Jonesy was too good a detective.

«She's a firecracker, that dame. Can't understand why any woman would want the police beat.»

«I guess she got tired of garden parties and ladies fashion.» He watched the uni approach the reporters. Heard the protests of the men from the Daily News, the Times, and the Mirror. Watched Doyle's surprise at the summons. Doyle looked past the officer and caught Matt's gaze. Matt held it for a moment, then looked away, jotting down a few more crime scene details in his notebook. From the tire tracks, it looked like whoever dumped Mr. Doe into the goo had driven as close as he safely could to the water's edge. Maybe that meant something, maybe not.

Out of the corner of his eye Matt saw Tara and Doyle crossing the soggy grass toward him. Tara's heels sank into

the mud, and Doyle cupped a chivalrous hand beneath her elbow, which amused Matt in a sour way. Tara either had designs on Doyle or thought she could get something out of him-anyone else would have been handed his arm back half-chewed.

«Doesn't look like he drowned,» Jonesy was saying.

«He didn't drown,» Matt replied absently.

The police ambulance rolled to a stop and parked in the weeds and mud. Across the field and through the trees Matt could see oil derricks slowly bowing and scraping against the leaden sky.

«What a smell!» Matt heard Tara exclaim, and the other reporter, Doyle, said, «Bitumen.» He had a quiet voice, and Matt only caught his reply because he was listening for it.

«Hello, Lieutenant,» Tara said, and Matt turned to face her. «To what do we owe this honor?»

Tara was a very pretty girl with glossy black curls, sparkling dark eyes, rosy cheeks, and a little pointed chin that she wagged too much. But somehow Matt didn't like to shut her up. Maybe because she reminded him a little of Rachel.

«Miss Renee,» he said gravely. He glanced at her companion. «You're Doyle from the Tribune-Herald?»

«That's right.» Beneath the khaki trench coat, Doyle was medium height and very thin. His hair, what Matt could see of it beneath his wide-brimmed hat, was very fair-sun bleached. He had the overlay of tan that comes from years spent under a blazing sun, but beneath it he was sallow. His eyes were light, maybe blue, maybe gray-unexpectedly bright in his lean face. He studied Matt curiously.

«We've got a little problem,» Matt said to Tara. «I thought you might be able to help.» She gave him a pert, inquiring look, and Matt stepped aside so they could get a look at John Doe. «Either of you recognize him?»

He was watching Doyle. Not because he expected Doyle to recognize the dead guy; he didn't figure Doyle had been back in town long enough to be of much use there, he was just giving him a break after Tunisia.

Doyle glanced down at the corpse with the weary indifference of a man who's seen too much death-and froze.

There wasn't any mistake. Doyle's blue-gray eyes widened. He went perfectly still, apparently forgetting to breathe.

Next to him, Tara gasped, and Matt automatically turned his attention, thinking a drowned man was too much for her first thing after breakfast. «Phil Arlen,» she murmured. She raised her dark eyes. «That's Philip Arlen.»

Jonesy gave a low whistle.

Matt asked, «Benedict Arlen's kid?»

«I'm sure of it.»

Matt could feel the echo of her words rippling through the ranks of the crime scene men. Benedict Arlen was old money, oil money.

Matt looked back at Doyle, but Doyle had recovered himself. He met Matt's gaze and agreed evenly, «It's Arlen.»

«You knew him?»

«I went to school with Bob. His brother. Robert Arlen.»

«The old school tie,» Matt said dryly. «Was that high school or college?»

«Loyola High School. Loyola University.»

Catholic, Matt thought. Jesuit trained. Not that it mattered to him. He hadn't given a damn before the war, and he sure as hell thought the world should have learned something about hate by now.

The coroner joined their little tableau. Doc Mason was a beanpole of a man in a black raincoat. As usual, he was smoking a pipe, the pleasant homely scent carried on the rainswept breeze, helping to mask other, less pleasant, odors. «Okay for me to get to work, Lieutenant?»

«He's all yours,» Matt said. «The crime scene was contaminated from the minute the professors pulled him out of the drink.»

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