Digger and Winters stooped on the sidewalk. There was not much left to go on: the coat, or the tattered remains, your typical Goodwill rack model, shirt soot all that was left, belt buckle and some leather left, torso a burnt out husk, legs singed but mostly unharmed, charred bones singed perhaps from within, to the right just slightly melted metal, a button and a bloody oil slick that may or may not be blood that led to the curb and down the gutter. It looked more like the man had melted from torso out or had been blasted by a dragon in one of those B movies on the ScyFy channel, not like the photos of the other three they had seen on Winter’s phone, which looked like burnt out husks grizzled and charcoaled.
“Will ya look at that?” Brown moved around the zipper with a pencil, “The guy still kept his balls.”
“Really,” Winters sent him a withering look, “that’s all you have to say.”
“What do ya make a this?” Brown moved the thick liquid around with his pen. “This aint no damn dousing.”
“If this is a gang burning I’ve never seen anything like it,” Winters looked around. “Hey you,” he gestured for a uniform cop and, when the man turned, it appeared an eclipse had entered the alley. Taken aback for an instant by the size of the man, Saul squinted up, his arm across his face. “You say there were witnesses?” he pulled out the photos he was given before they left the office, “Because this doesn’t look like the other three.”
“Just the girl,” the cop shifted uncomfortably, “They say she landed in a pool of her own piss, probably saved her life. They revived her but she was burnt pretty bad, face, tits, a real shame she was a looker.”
“You do know who she is?” Digger looked hard at the African American face. “Dontcha?”
“No sir,” the man looked amused.
“Where the hell have you been, son,” Digger glared, “on the dark side of the moon?
“Just returned from Afghanistan, sir,” the officer was no longer amused.
“Well, what else you got?” Winters deflated the situation, letting the man know with a look who was in charge.
“Yes, sir.” The cop immediately whipped out a small notebook, his GI trim put a frown on Brown’s face. “The garbage collectors found them while emptying the dump alls. Said he was a crispy critter but the girl was mumbling something as they were moving her,” he gestured towards a melted garbage can, “you can see it must have been a hell of a flame.”
“Why, you ever seen this kind of crap where you were stationed?” Brown’s glare was brief; he reached into his jacket pocket for a well chewed cigar.
“Yessir, plenty of times,” the officer smiled, “whenever we used the flame throwers.”
“Flame throwers a little lunky to carry around, tho?” Digger flicked to light the droopy cigar.
“No, sir, the new ones got a good handle to them,” Gary Ward gave them a ready smile and a fake Uncle Tom accent. “They got them so you could hide it pretty good, if you had the itchin to do that.”
“So we got those kind of terrorists we all read about in the papers, eh?” Digger couldn’t quite get the stogie lit, “You seen a lotta them out in the desert, boy?”
The man ruffled for a brief flick of the eye, held them in his gaze. “Yes sir, the kind of terrorists I seen could surely do this kind a thing.”
“So you’re tryin to tell me that there’s some Alqa’ida cell operating around here torchin hobos?”
“No sir, you misunderstood. The kind of terrorists I’m talkin about,” his smile turned reminiscent. “They wasn’t no alqa’ida, you’ve got to understand.” He paused a moment to make a point. “In Afghanistan, we are the terrorists.”
“So you’re blaming our own government?!” Still no light.
“Those Aegis dudes had a license to kill and they did some nasty jobs,” He reached in his pocket and flashed a lighter with a flame on the end, “Wouldn’t put it past them to try their hand here.” Brown slapped at the flame, turning down the offer. “Word out on the street is Aegis workin for Drumpf.”
“Cut the crap!” Winters grabbed at Brown. “Thank you officer. By the way could the garbage collectors make out what she said?”
“Yes, sir, I have it right here,” the officer removed his notepad from his back pocket, “She said something like ‘my grace’ or something like “face within a face”. The garbage men looked pretty flustered, so I let them get on with their work.”
“Just great, could it have been “my face”?” Winters wrote as he spoke. “Maybe she realized her career was over.”
“I couldn’t say,” he turned to Brown. “Just reported what they said.”
“And I suppose we put that in our report!” Winters turned towards Brown, grabbed his arm.
“Leave the guy alone, he’s just reporting. By the by officer, what’s your name?” Winters had that cryptic smile on again. “In case I might need it for my report.”
“Gary Ward, sir,” the officer fell into attention.
The officer stood anticipatorily for an awkward moment, then turned and went about his business.
“I hate those assholes,” Brown wrenched his arm away from Winters, “Always with the yes sir no sir bullshit. I tried out, ya know, back when desert storm was happening, but they had some kind of fucking profile,” Brown took another toke from the cigar. “So what are you thinking?”
“Well, all these cases could be explained by spontaneous combustion,” Winters bent to re-examine the body. “Legs look unharmed, upper torso burnt with intense heat, melted flesh, but somehow this looks different than the others. You see this photo?”
“You really gonna go through with this?” Brown smoked intermittently. “You think that’s what we have here? Spontaneous Combustion? You and I both know that we aint got shit.”
“The only real question is what is triggering it,” Winters smiled grimly, “that is where we should start to look,” his smile lightened, “other than that, perhaps our officer has the right idea.”
“You mean the flame thrower angle?” Brown got a puff of smoke out of the cigar.
“Why not,” the smile cryptic, “and we can give full credit to Mr. Ward, especially if it doesn’t pan out.”
“I get it,” Brown toked again. “Give us a little time to sort this thing out. I like it.”
“I don’t know, it’s been hot lately,” Winters wiped his brow with his sleeve. “Maybe the bums are drinking something different, worse than Woolite.”
“Yeah, maybe it’s global warming,” Brown smiled sarcastically.
“It could be something the government’s testing,” Winters let it slide, “we both know they wouldn’t think twice about sacrificing derelicts, if they thought a profit could be made.”
“Hey, maybe its aliens, like that FOX show,” Brown was almost laughing, “we could end up on TV.”
“Well, how do you explain it?”
“How the hell should I know?” Brown lost his smile. “But we better have something. Now that Miss Tabloid is involved, it looks like the Mayor is going to take a hell of an interest.”
“Do you even know what spontaneous combustion is?” Winters shook his head.
“I know that we better have someone pretty damn fast,” Brown face reddened. “This makes the fourth and, with the girl, it won’t take long for the captain to show up to tell us just how badly we’re screwed.”
“Yeah, I guess.”