"Scorch" by John Beechem

Detective Ryu Murikami casts his shadow upon an unidentified male corpse found in an alleyway off 21st Ave. in the Central District. As he calculates trajectories in a notebook based on what ballistics he can gather, Henderson, the secondary detective assigned to case, approaches. In the bright light of the sunrise, only his silhouette is visible, but no one else can match that massive frame. As Murikami looks up, Henderson begins to speak.

“Goddamn, they weren’t fucking around with this guy.” It is an understatement. Murikami has counted six entrance wounds. When the Medical Examiner comes, they will be able to flip him and fish for bullets.

Henderson puts on a pair of latex gloves and takes a gun found in the victim’s waistband. “Motherfucker had the safety on. No wonder he got capped.”

The street banter is a joke with Henderson, a way to break the tension of an investigation. Murikami smiles, barely.

“No, not a good tactic, I agree. Do you notice the powder streaks near the end of the barrel? Count the bullets in the clip. Even though he had the safety on, this gun looks like it’s been fired recently. That must mean the victim felt he was safe. Maybe the murderer was a member of his crew? Some kind of disagreement about a drug debt?”

“Hell of a disagreement,” Henderson replies. “But you’re right; the clip holds twelve and there’s only nine in here. The chamber’s clear. This guy shot off three and hasn’t reloaded.”

“Weren’t there three shots fired in Detective Giduigli’s victim?” Murikami asks.

“Yeah, I think so,” Henderson replies.

“I’ll tell the lab to run it through ballistics it and match it against Giduigli’s,” says Murikami. “What was he? Seventeen? Yeah, that’s right. And this one looks about sixteen.”

“That’s fucked up. Back in my day, we’d throw fists, at least for most of it. Kids these days…”

* * * * *

The ballistics come up a match. For two recent cases, Murikami has solved another detective’s case. Giduigli gets a clearance without so much as an arrest. He takes Murikami out for a beer, a rare night out for the investigator.

The problem is Murikami doesn’t have much of a lead in his new case except for an aberration the Medical Examiner discovered in the victim’s physiology. His torso has a strange burn scar on it, even though nothing about it shows up in his medical history. That is to be expected. When they analyzed the victim’s fingerprints, they came up with an I.D. His name was Tyrone Walker. He spent time in juvie for dealing dime bags and petty theft. Not quite a gang banger. He also had only sporadically been with health insurance, so it was no surprise he never received treatment for the burn. The strange thing is its pattern. His favorite M.E., Wendy Barlow, explains it to him.

“It’s not the pattern you’d get from gasoline or acid poured on you. It’s a scorch mark. I don’t know how it got so big though. No fires at any past residences. One of the old timers says he saw wounds like that in ‘Nam, but they were from flamethrowers.”

Murikami looks down at Wendy’s small frame. Her youth conceals a kind of pure professionalism. She reminds Ryu Murikami of his daughter. “I hope none of the criminals in our city are armed with flamethrowers. They don’t cover that in the field manual.”

Wendy cracks a smile. “Very funny, Ryu.”

He is taken aback by the intimacy created from hearing his first name. These days, only his wife refers to him as “Ryu.”

“Do me a favor, Ms. Barlow,” Murikami says, subtly rebuffing the woman’s gentle flirtation. “Examine all of the other autopsies of homicide victims aged nineteen and under conducted in the past year. See if any of them mention burn scars. Can you do that on your computer?”

“Sure thing.” Barlow scoots her rolling stool away from the body and toward a laptop resting on an empty examination table. She puts in the parameters that Murikami requested, and pulls up the files. There are two. One is Jibari Miller. He had healed 2nd degree burns, but his father is jailed for arson. The next, however, is another mystery. Deandrae Price, 18, had scars on his thighs and buttocks, also in the strange scorch mark pattern. Despite his insured status since age two, Deandrae had never been treated for burns. In Murikami’s mind, that means gang connection. Gang members often bribe corrupt or sympathetic doctors with cash so that shootings and other wounds inflicted can’t be traced through medical records. Somebody, Murikami realizes, is burning victims. Burning victims before he shoots them.

Murikami thanks Barlow and makes his way up to Homicide. He looks up Deandrae Price’s high school and calls the Resource Officer assigned to them. Deandrae was a senior at Garfield High School when he was shot, and his classmates are graduating in four months. He asks the R.O. to bring any known gang members to his office. They’ll talk to Murikami at school, or go downtown for an interrogation. The R.O. agrees, and Murikami requests a black Chevrolet Camaro, a gift from the taxpayers. He also flags down Henderson and convinces him to come along. With two detectives, the questioning will only take half as long.

“Shit, I thought I’d never have to go back to the principal’s office,” Henderson quips.

“No, it’ll be in the R.O.’s office. The administration doesn’t know we’re coming.”

“Let’s hope they don’t find out.”

Murikami and Henderson drive in silence through downtown, the drone of the police radio crackling on the periphery of their awareness. As they turn onto Yesler, Henderson rolls down his window and lights a cigarette. Murikami takes sips from his coffee at stoplights.

“I must tell you about the burns,” Murikami states.

“Burns?” Henderson asks.

“The victim I found this morning had burn scars on his torso. The ME, Barlow, found them and I came downstairs to look. They’re different than any of I’ve seen before. I expect it was part of some kind of violent torture, though I can’t be sure.”

“Hmm…that’s pretty sick, Murikami. What did they use? Gasoline, kerosene, something like that?”

“No,” Murikami replies. “That’s the strangest thing. Barlow says there’s no splash pattern to the burns like there would be if liquid fuel was used. The burns aren’t even, either, as they would be if you used gasoline. There’s an intense section of 3rd degree burns, with 2nd and 1st degree burns on the perimeter of each wound. We checked the victims’ records for fires or histories of arson, but came up blank. I suspect someone in the crew is using a blowtorch, but for what reason, I can’t suspect. Initiation? Torture? I can’t imagine.”

“Mmmhmmm…” Henderson ruminates, letting the pair fall back into an easy silence.

After a few more minutes, they park in the school’s visitor spot, and head into the main office. Murikami and Henderson flash their badges, and tell the secretary they’re there to visit the R.O., a man named Bullitt. She nods her head, has them sign in, and gives them a couple of visitor badges they clip onto their coats. Bullitt meets them as soon as he can, and brings them back into his own office.

Officer Bullitt has been the school’s R.O. for over ten years, and says he’s seen it all. The school’s problems are mostly fights and petty drug trafficking, although six years ago there was a sexual assault in one of the boy’s bathrooms that almost cost him his job. Since then, there have been no problems; security was tightened and Bullitt’s new job mostly consists of breaking up fights and filing assault charges on violent students. Bullitt is a former army R.O.T.C. officer, with a squat body, shaved head, and a square jaw. He is authority personified, and if he exchanged his police blues for army greens, one could expect him to be a drill instructor at boot camp.

Murikami and Henderson go over the particulars of the case: the burns, the young victims, and the gang connection. Bullitt knows all of the particulars except for the burns, and informs the two men of the investigating he has done. Most of the violence goes on outside of school, he explains, but he has to be aware of what’s happening so he knows what the flashpoints will be through the school day. His counterpart at Rainier Beach High School has been following events closely too, since the Central District and Rainier Beach gangs have been at each other’s throats lately. Unfortunately, they haven’t uncovered anything extraordinary. The conflict is basically a struggle over territory, each faction competing for corners in neighborhoods outside of either gangs’ stronghold.

Once they’ve exchanged information, Bullitt and Henderson go into an empty classroom nearby and set up a second interview room. The students come down two at a time, summoned by Bullitt’s deep baritone over the school’s intercom. “Teachers, pardon me for the interruption, but I need Cesar Romero and Terrence Walker to come to my office. Thank you.” Every half hour, Bullitt repeats the command with two more names.

Unfortunately, it is a slow process. Each student has a gang connection, but the groups are so splintered and indistinct, it’s hard to determine before they come down who will have a connection to the recent homicide victims. Tyrone was a drop out, though some of the boys know him by reputation. He was a hothead, but no more than most of the young hoods. When Deandrae’s name is mentioned, the boy’s have a harder time providing information. Murkami finally finds one named Rome’o who is willing to talk.

“Deandrae Price,” Murikami repeats to Rome’o Walker. “What do you remember about him, Rome’o?” Rome’o is pronounced “Ro may o,” and Murkami winces with each pronunciation, since some of the students bristle when their names are pronounced incorrectly.

Rome’o stares at a spot on Officer Bullitt’s desk. Bullitt is gone now, helping Henderson work over a student that he believes had a close connection to Deandrae. “Yeah, I remember that fool. He was always getting’ up in our business. Yo, I hate poh-lice, but you like a’ight, and I want to help you. You know, Boogie?”

“Boogie?” Murikami asks. “Did he ever go by any other name?”

“Maybe, I only know him as Boogie. Anyway, Boogie was always fucking people up. He’s an enforcer, it’s his job. Anyway, one day Deandrae had to re-up, you know what ‘dat mean?”

Murikami nods. Re-upping is resupplying, buying more drugs to be sold out on the street. It’s how a dealer gets his “fix.”

Rome’o goes on. “Anyway, Deandrae was short. He’d gotten jacked by one of ‘dem Rainier boys over on Jackson. Boogie’s boss told him no way. He’d get half until Deandrae could pay him back. Deandrae was hella pissed, yo, he said he got customers waitin’ and he needed that shit or he’d be losing cash. He tried to take some off of the table, but Boogie stopped him. He grabbed his arms and pulled him away. Then he started to push him out the door. Deandrae pushed back, and then pulled out this silver gat, yo that shit was ill, and he starts poundin’ on Boogie and his boss. Boogie starts hitting back, and then all of a suddenwoosh there’s a flash and Deandrae’s on the ground, rolling around. Boogie just watched, so I took a blanket and jumped on Deandrae and put him out. After that, I bolted, yo.”

“I see,” Murkami replies succinctly. “Do you know what caused the burn? Did Boogie ever use a blow torch or maybe just a tricked out lighter?”

“Naw, man, none o’ that. Yo, I don’t be tellin’ people this,” Rome’o explains, “but Boogie got powers. Freaky powers, yo, like that X-Men shit. He don’t need no lighter to make a fire, believe me.” Rome’o pulls up his shirt, and Murikami flinches. The boy has scars up and down his torso. The wound is still pink in the middle, and each surrounding part of his flesh is slightly less scarred.

Murikami nods. “Rome’o, thanks for your help. You ought to stay away from Boogie. He may have a couple of bodies on him. Do you know where I can find him?”

“Sheeeeeeeit,” Rome’o replies. “What do I look like, some kinda snitch?”

Murikami knows the hustle. With an informant, an investigator has little leverage during an interview. Instead, police offer other incentives. Murkami pulls out two twenties, and places them down on Bullit’s desk, keeping his fingers on them.

“I need an address,” he explains.

“You find Boogie hanging on the corner of Yesler and 25th by the bus stop. He ‘dat nigga with ‘locks and a gold grill. Nasty motherfucker.”

Murkami nods, gives Rome’o his money for a job well done and tells the boy to get back to class. Informants are paid regularly, and each Vice detective can request a certain amount of money every month for their help. An inconvenient amount of paperwork is required for any other department, including Homicide, so Murkami just uses his own cash for the rare occasions that he needs to pay an informant.

In the empty classroom, Bullitt and Henderson are still trying to wear their interviewee down. Murkami motions Henderson over. “We have what we need. I got the address of a corner on Yesler. Let’s head back to the station and see what Vice has on it before we stake it out tonight.”

“Stake out,” Henderson repeats. “That’s some old school poh-lice work right there.”

“You bring coffee, I’ll bring cigarettes,” Murikami instructs him. “Lets get back to the station. Have you ever heard of a button man named Boogie?”

“Nope,” Henderson replies. “I bet you’ll tell me all about him.”

“Let’s find out tonight,” Murkami tells him, going over the description Rome’o gave him.

* * * * *

Vice doesn’t have any leads on the corner that Rome’o gave to Murikami. “The problem,” explains Det. Stanton, Vice’s lead dayshift supervisor, “is these corners change hands too often. Either a new crew handles them, or boys get placed into juvie, so it’s hard to pin down any one suspect to a specific spot unless we arrest him at that location. 25th and Yesler is fairly quiet; we go by every few weeks, get one or two on trafficking charges, and new boys are at the same spot the next day.”

Murikami and Henderson listen, and when it becomes clear that no one on that corner with the alias of “Boogie” has been arrested within the last couple of years, they leave the station. As they make their way back into the Central District, Henderson reminds Murikami that they haven’t eaten since lunch, and the stakeout will take at last at least until midnight.

“What are you in the mood for?” Murkami asks.

“Mmm, something greasy. I want a meal that’s going to take a couple of years off my life.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

The pair cruises through neighborhoods as the last of the sun’s rays paint a pattern of pink and purple against the western sky. Murikami spots a place out of the corner of his eye that looks promising. It’s called “Ezell’s Chicken” and from the crowded interior, it looks like a popular place. He pulls his Camaro close to the restaurant, puts it into reverse, and parallel parks with inches to spare on each bumper.

“This looks good, Murikami. Wanna split an eight piece?”

“With coleslaw and mashed potatoes.”

“Haha, now you’re speakin’ my language, brother.”

The pair walks into the establishment. The din and bustle of a busy diner greet them, the low conversation of the customers punctuated by the occasional sizzle of chicken being lowered into the fryer. A busboy glides easily around them with a plastic bin full of dirty dishes. “Good evening, fellas,” a voice greets them from behind the counter. “Take a seat, and I’ll be wit’ choo in a minute.”

Henderson glides in to a seat next to a window, and Murkami does the same. Murkami takes his glasses off for a moment, and rubs his eyes. A long day of running to a scene, an autopsy room, a high school, and now to a stakeout has taken its toll on both men, and with a hot meal coming soon, they relish this short chance for relaxation.

The waitress comes over. “Hi boys, my name’s Juanita, and I’ll be your server this evening. Can I start you off with something to drink?”

“I could do with a cup of coffee,” Murikami replies.

“Coffee for me too, ma’am. We’re ready to order.”

“What would you like?”

“We’re going to split an eight piece classic recipe, with coleslaw and mashed potatoes.”

“I’ll be back with your drinks in a minute.”

Murikami speaks up after she leaves, “This case is moving fast. Do you think we could bring our suspect in tonight?”

“I hope so,” Henderson replies. “Does your wife ever make you fried chicken at home?”

“I’m the chef,” Murikami explains. “When my wife does dinner, it comes from a box or it’s takeout.”

“Damn,” Henderson replies. “What’s your favorite meal to make on those nights, you know, those nights when you know you gots to get some?”

Murikami smiles. “I like to make Italian. Pasta mostly. I can make a smooth marinara sauce, create my own noodles from scratch, and then I add mushrooms, bell peppers, oregano, and garlic. Especially garlic. My secret is I slice a clove of garlic so thin you can see through each sliver. When you throw it into the sauce, it breaks up completely, and infuses the whole dish with flavor. Garlic is a beautiful plant, and a natural aphrodisiac.”

“Mmm, you’re making my mouth water, man. That sounds good. Me, I like to barbecue. I got a smoker in my backyard; that’s the secret. I leave some ribs in to smoke, grill ‘em real quick, brush some sauce on, and bring them inside. I serve ‘em with some greens and corn bread. The wife loves it.”

After a few more minutes of conversation, Juanita returns with a fried chicken, coleslaw, mashed potatoes, and a pitcher of ice water. The men smile appreciatively, and begin eating. As hungry as they are, they speak little during the meal, communicating mostly in grunts and nods. Once dinner is over, they decline dessert, and take the leftovers with them for the stakeout.

It’s dark by the time Henderson pulls up to their spot. They park in a lot across from the bus stop. There are a few cars parked in the lot overnight, and Murikami hopes they blend in. He doesn’t want them chasing away their prey. In a few minutes, a group of boys step off of a Metro Bus and stand at the station. They lean against the glass covering that surrounds a bench next to the bus stop, and begin operations. Whenever somebody walks by or gets off another bus, they speak a friendly greeting that’s street code for those who are aware. Every once in a while, one of the boys will slap hands with a customer, and complete an exchange.

“You see,” Henderson explains, “that boy on the left is a look out. He looks for stick up boys and po-po, and warns his partners if they need to run or drop their stash. The one on the bench, he’s the main man. He makes the deals and counts the money, then signals to a third boy what the customers are paying for. That boy around the corner keeps track of the stash. He hands out the goods and if it’s a busy night, he’ll call in a re-up. Someone will come by with a different pack and switch them out.” Henderson spent years in Vice and knows from experience the basic pattern of these corners.

“None of these boys match the description Rome’o gave us,” Murkami states. “We’ll give them until 11:30 to call for a re-up. After that, we’ll take them downtown for trafficking and question them about Boogie. If any of them know Boogie, we’ll lean on them and lessen our charge in exchange for information.”

“Sounds like a plan to me.”

The night begins slow, but picks up in about a half an hour. Men and women come by, barely make eye contact with the boys, and go through a subtle exchange of goods for cash. The boys are dealing crack cocaine in blue vials, and perhaps heroin too. It’s difficult to tell from far away. The routine is easy and consistent with each customer. The boys obviously have a lot of experience, and for an open air market, it looks like they’re getting away with as much as can be expected. Henderson and Murikami keep an eye out for any other gang members, but it stays quiet. At 10:45, Murikami spies the stash boy making a quick cell phone call, and ten minutes later a midnight blue sedan parks across the street. A boy with long dreadlocks under a Rastafarian cap comes out with a black back pack, and the detectives make their move.

They approach the pair as they’re exchanging back packs, opening the leather holsters that carry their .9 mm standard issue police guns. Before they can get within ten feet, the lookout shouts from half a block away “5-0! 5-0 up in here,” before he bolts. The boy on the bench does the same, running in the opposite direction. The stash boy is frozen in dumbfounded surprise, but the boy who matches Boogie’s description turns around and heads back to the car. Henderson pushes the stash boy up against the wall, and begins searching him for weapons. Murikami beats his suspect to the door, and when the suspect pulls the handle, Murikami grabs his wrist, closes the door, and turns him around to spread his limbs against the car.

Murikami hears Henderson reading the stash boy his rights as he searches the homicide suspect for weapons. He finds a joint in the boy’s pocket, and places it aside for evidence. If nothing else, they have a pain in the ass possession charge to use as leverage.

The detective turns the suspect around, and notices a flash of metal as he bares his teeth. Just as Murikami opens his mouth to begin reading him his Miranda rights, a jet of flame shoots from the suspect’s out stretched hand. Murikami ducks, and the flame grazes against his head, lighting his hair on fire. The suspect turns to flee, but Murikami lunges at him, and brings him to the ground, extinguishing his hair in the process. Before the suspect can turn around, Murikami takes his pistol out and cocks it. “Boogie?” Murikami asks.

“Yeah, I’m Boogie. Yo’ ass better step off, or I be hollerin’ police brutality.”

“I bet you could teach me a think or two about brutality, huh Boogie? Tyrone Walker, Deandrae Price. Those names mean anything to you?” This quiets the suspect.

“Hell yeah, Murikami. Let’s get back to the station.”

The men pack their suspects, along with the evidence, into the Camaro. The boys are cuffed, and a glass divider separates the back seat from the front seat. Murikami and Henderson exchange shop talk, while the boys in the back whisper quietly, synchronizing their stories so as to be consistent in the interrogation room. As juveniles, the penalties won’t be too harsh, as long as they don’t have any priors.

As the Camaro makes a turn, Murikami feels a flood of heat on the back of his head. The rear driver side window shatters with a pop, and the suspects jump out into the street. The car screeches to a halt, and the detectives go out onto the street after their suspects. Murikami sees Boogie pull apart his cuffs as they glow with an iridescent light. He scorches his friend’s cuffs too, but his friend screams in pain, and Murikami smells burning flesh. Boogie leaves, but not before sending a massive ball of fire towards the detectives that ends up igniting the Camaro’s hood. Murikami evades the blast, and Henderson knocks his suspect over to keep him safe. Within seconds, the group is running away from the car which has ignited. Boogie is nowhere in sight, and within seconds Murikami has placed a call to the Seattle Fire Department from his cell phone.

Henderson makes sure the remaining suspect is detained, while Murikami examines the boy’s burn wounds. Inexplicably, Boogie was able to heat his cuffs to the melting point, but his skin was unaffected. His friend couldn’t withstand the same from him. As sirens approach, the Camaro’s hood explodes in a ball of fire, metal and ash raining down onto the deserted city block. Within a half an hour, the fire department has put out the blaze, and a radio car has taken the detectives and their suspect back to the downtown station.

* * * * *

“Let me get this straight, boys,” the deputy commissioner, a pug-faced man named Green says. “You were in pursuit of two suspects caught in a drug exchange during a homicide investigation, and one of them resisted arrest. After a brief struggle, in which Detective Murikami received minor burns to his hair and scalp…” Green puts the file down for a minute, and takes a quick look at Murikami’s singed hair. “After a brief struggle, you arrested the two boys to bring them downtown, one in connection with the Walker and Price homicides. While en route, there was an explosion from within the vehicle, at which point one of the two boys got out of his cuffs and escaped. Before emergency personnel arrived, the car exploded, and you were driven back to Headquarters by Officer Kowalski.”

“That’s it in a nutshell, sir,” Henderson responds.

“What about you, Murikami? What have you got to say for yourself?”

Murikami clears his throat and speaks, “Sir, due to the sensitive nature of the investigation, I hope that the details of this case don’t leave this room. Some of the more skeptical members of the department will have trouble with my theories.”

Intrigued, Green encourages him to continue, “Yes, of course. Go on.”

“Based on an autopsy reported conducted by Dr. Barlow,” Murikami explains, “post-mortem is consistent between a number of recent, juvenile, gang-related shooting victims. Victims have a strange burn pattern along their torsos, inconsistent with any on record. During our investigation, we visited the school of one of the victims, Deandrae Price, and spoke to a student there who knew of the victim. From him, we learned of a gangland enforcer, known to us only as “Boogie” who burns victims as our witness could attest. Based on the witness’s information, we conducted surveillance tonight at a known drug trafficking corner the suspect was said to frequent. At approximately 2255 hours, the suspect known as Boogie made an exchange with the suspect in custody. The rest reads exactly as it is reported.”

“What is your idea as to the nature of the suspect?” Green asks.

“My theory,” Murikami responds, glancing at Henderson, “is that the suspect displays a rare ability known as pyrokenesis, the ability to control and manipulate fire with one’s own mind. I don’t have any proof of this theory, outside our suspect, Henderson, and myself, but find no other way to explain the damage done to the vehicle or my own burns. During my search, I found no weapons on the suspect, and nothing combustible is left in any police vehicle.”

Henderson remains quiet. Green speaks up, “Murikami, let me remind you how close I am to retirement. It wouldn’t do well for my pension, or for yours I might add, for my star detective to go around spreading wild rumors such as these. I don’t doubt the circumstances that you described, but I am skeptical of how you seek to explain them. Men, I will bury this case. Consider it closed. Hand your suspect over to Vice. Goodnight.

The detectives walk out of the deputy commissioner’s office. They exchange glances, and walk off in opposite directions, mumbling their “good nights.” Murikami drives home in his own car, parks in his driveway as the first rays of dawn begin to peak out over the trees. He walks inside, lies down next to his warm wife, and drifts to an unpleasant sleep full of nightmares of dragon’s fire.