The morgue was colder than Douglas expected. He jammed his good hand into his pocket, but the fingers trapped in his cast were exposed. The cold bit into them, and he prayed they would go numb soon.
“Detective,” the coroner said as he came out of his office. “How nice to see you again. But to be honest, you weren’t the detective I was expecting. Where is McKenzie?”
“Probably hiding under his desk. I got roped into coming down here to talk to you.”
“Hmm. I wonder what I could have done to make him avoid me. Well, no matter. I’ll be with you as soon as I finish signing these release forms. It’s always bittersweet, letting the corpses go to their loved ones. I feel like a bond has formed during our time together.”
“The corpses from the bridge?” At the coroner’s nod, Douglas put his head in his good hand and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “When was the last time you saw the psychiatrist?”
The coroner laughed. “Oh, please, Detective. Do you know how they go about hiring coroners?”
Douglas shook his head. “Enlighten me.”
“They issue a psychological exam. If you fail, the job is yours.”
Despite the man’s smile, Douglas couldn’t tell if the coroner was serious. He decided to take his chances waiting in a corner. His fingers still hurt from the cold, so he occupied himself with trying to jam his hand under his other arm to warm it up.
“There. All done. Now if you’ll come with me, detective, I believe I should be introducing you to someone.”
He followed the coroner to a group of tables and watched as he picked up toe tags and let them fall again. “Ah,” he said after the fifth one. “Here we are. Detective, meet Arnold Farington, formerly of the United States Air Force.”
“A veteran? What would be doing under a bridge?”
“From the state of his clothing, I’d say he was living there.” The coroner brought out a box of dirty clothes that Douglas assumed had been on the man when he was found.
“Cause of death?”
The coroner pulled on a clean glove and opened up the chest cavity. “Severe corrosion of the stomach wall, fatty deposits in the heart and kidneys. I’d say he was poisoned. I took some samples and sent them to the lab for testing.”
Douglas looked around and counted at least six other tables. “I see he’s got some friends.”
“Indeed. But not all of them are as lucky as our friend. A couple of them may never be identified at all.”
“Great. Give me a call when those lab results come in. I’m gonna go run your buddy Arnold through the system.”
“Good luck, detective. And remember, my door is always open.”
He stopped mid-step and turned back to the coroner. “Actually, I just remembered something. How do you feel about snakes?”
* * * * *
“So what did the coroner say?”
“He said you never call him any more.”
McKenzie shook his head. “About the corpses?”
“The guy he showed me was a homeless vet. Most likely poisoned. Lab’s gonna take some time to confirm what kind of poisoning it was.” Douglas grabbed McKenzie’s coffee and took a drink.
McKenzie stood up and snatched the mug back. “What the hell, man?”
Douglas shrugged. “It’s cold down there, and you owe me for fetching your information. Needs less sugar, though. Make me a cup of coffee and I’ll see about finding a list of homeless shelters in the area. Maybe he checked into one of those at some point. Caruthers, I need you to type something for me.”
“Wait a minute.” McKenzie turned around and walked back to the desk. “This is my case. Get your own coffee. I’ll look it up.”
Douglas took his mug and vacated McKenzie’s chair and headed for the break room. “You doing work. That’s a first.”
The address McKenzie dug up took them downtown to a building that was made up of crumbling bricks and a faded sign that proclaimed it to be the Mercy Meadows Shelter.
“Wow. What a dump.”
“What did you expect? Manicured lawns and marble facade? It’s a shelter.”
McKenzie threw his arms wide and looked up at the sign. “Well, yeah, but they could try not to act like it. Spend a little money and make it look nice, you know?”
Douglas brushed past his partner and made for the door. “I think they’re more worried about things like blankets and electricity than about aesthetics.”
The inside of the building was just as depressing and run down as the outside. The floor was peeling, discolored linoleum, and the overhead lights flickered and buzzed. The few chairs in the common room looked as though they had been picked out of different dumpsters around town. There was an older woman at the front desk; her habit was pulled away from her ear to accommodate a large, clunky phone.
She yawned when she saw them and put down the receiver. “May I help you gentlemen?”
Douglas elbowed McKenzie and nodded toward the desk. He rubbed his arm and stepped forward. “I’m Detective McKenzie with the Middle City police force. This is my partner, Detective Douglas. We’d like to talk to you about Arnold Farington.”
“Arnold Farington. Well, if he’s ever checked in here, we’ll have him in the system. Let me see if I can pull anything up.”
They listened to the clicking of fingernails on keys while they waited. McKenzie shuffled his feet and looked up and around at the walls and ceiling. Douglas couldn’t find anything interesting enough for anyone to focus on.
“Yes, here he is. Arnold Farington checked in here more than a week ago. Is he in some kind of trouble?”
Douglas waited for McKenzie to answer, but he seemed keen on staring at the linoleum. “He’s dead,” Douglas said. McKenzie jumped.
“Oh.” The woman crossed herself and put a hand to her chest. “What happened?”
This time Douglas didn’t bother with subtlety. He punched McKenzie’s arm hard and gestured to the woman. “Uh, that’s what we’re trying to find out. We’d like to take a look around, if it’s all right with you.”
She rose from her chair and walked around to stand in front of her desk. “Of course, detective. We’ll be happy to aid your investigation. I’ll give you a guided tour myself.”
McKenzie backed away, hands raised as if warding off an attack. “No, no. That’s not necessary. I mean, we could just look around for ourselves. You don’t have to come with us.”
The look she gave him made Douglas distance himself by a few steps, grateful that he wasn’t on the receiving end. He wondered if all nuns were equipped with scowls that fierce.
She barely came up to his chin, but McKenzie cowered under her scrutiny. Douglas tried not to show how much he was enjoying the show.
“You’ll either take a guided tour or you’ll march right back out that door, and you won’t get back in here without a warrant. Which will it be?”
McKenzie swallowed, and Douglas could have sworn he heard the other man’s Adam’s apple slide up and down as he did so. “We’ll be happy to have you give us the guided tour, Sister.”
She shot a look at Douglas, but he held up his hands in a helpless gesture and fell into step with McKenzie as she led them into the day room. The sole occupant sprang from the couch at their approach and seized a nearby vacuum.
“If you’re going to be here during the day, you’ll be working, Carl. I expect this room to be spotless by the time I return.”
The sleeping room was being tended by a small group of teenagers in shirts that advertised their position as volunteers. They smiled and waved as the Sister moved through. She called them each by name and praised their hard work before explaining that only the first fifty people in could be given blankets. “There’s just not enough funding to buy more. It’s still better than sleeping in the streets, though.”
They passed the showers, and Douglas made a mental note to include them in their search when they came back through. The offices were more crowded than Gail Andrews’s office at the orphanage.
“And this is the cafeteria. Everything we provide depends on donations from local businesses and people looking for tax write-offs. What are we having today, Jeffrey?”
A gawky teenager wearing a hairnet and rubber gloves popped up behind the counter. He began to ladle something that looked like oatmeal into bowls, but he stopped when the Sister held up a hand.
“It’s pease porridge, Sister,” he said.
McKenzie looked into the pot. "Aw, sick. It looks like old gravy." The nun swatted McKenzie's arm. "I mean, what is pease porridge?"
“It’s a thick sauce made from peas, and it can be reheated over and over. None of it will go to waste, and it’s really nutritious, too. We learned about it in World History, even downloaded a recipe so we could try it.”
“Very clever, Jeffrey. What else is there?”
He disappeared behind the counter and reappeared a moment later with a tray of muffins. “The Drury Lane Bakery sent down more muffins this morning. They look pretty fresh.”
The nun picked up a muffin and looked it over. “They do indeed. Well, if it’s generosity, so much the better. If it’s guilt, pray the Lord lets it continue.”
“Sister Agatha.” Another teenager raced into the room. “We’ve got some people asking to check in. I'd do it, but I haven't been shown how to work the computer.”
“Thank you, Jessica. Kindly show these men out through the kitchen. I don’t want them thinking that we have regular patrols going through here. Please excuse me, gentlemen. Have a pleasant day.”
When she was out of earshot, McKenzie moved up to the counter. “Hey, kid. Do you think I could get one of those muffins?”
“You can’t have those. They’re for homeless people.”
“No, man, it’s cool.” McKenzie fished a five dollar bill out of his pocket and handed it to the kid. Jeffrey had the good grace to look confused. “I’ll pay for it.”
“Just don’t tell my supervisor, okay? He’ll have my head.”
Before Douglas could object further, McKenzie reached over and took a muffin. He took a big bite and chewed it slowly. “Look, almond slivers. That’s so classy.”
* * * * *
Douglas spent most of the ride back with his eyes closed and his hat pulled down. “You know, we could have gone to the bakery and bought you a muffin.”
“But they were right there. And I was hungry.”
“You took food out of the mouths of homeless people. Maybe even some starving child. Your stomach could have waited.”
He opened his eyes long enough to see McKenzie’s sidelong glare. “Hey, they get those muffins for free. I paid for mine, probably more than that muffin was worth. It tasted really good, though, so maybe not.”
McKenzie coughed, and Douglas peeked out from under his hat again. “You look kinda pale. Are you feeling all right?”
He shook his head and hunched his shoulders. “I don’t know. Maybe you should take the wheel.”
Douglas took hold of the wheel as McKenzie began to swerve into the other lane. “Are you crazy? I’ve only got one good arm!”
“Oh, God.” McKenzie moaned and pulled his knees as close to his chest as the steering wheel would allow. “Pull over. I’m gonna be sick.”
“You’ve got to hit the brake, you lunatic! Put your foot down!”
McKenzie shook his head, turned, and vomited on the driver’s side door. Douglas released the wheel and went for the emergency brake. As he started pulling it up, the car veered into oncoming traffic and Douglas had to grab the wheel again.
He needed to stop the car, and McKenzie wasn’t helping. In fact, he was still vomiting. Douglas used the fingers on his broken hand to activate the siren.
“God dammit, you’re going to get us killed!” he said. McKenzie coughed and heaved again.
Douglas looped his good arm through the steering wheel and waited until most of the cars ahead had pulled aside. When the way was clear, he killed the engine and pulled back to regain his grip on the wheel. He yanked his arm up and down, forcing the car to swerve from side to side. Slowly, the car lost momentum, and they rolled to a shaky stop.
After he engaged the brake, Douglas picked up the radio. “Station, this is Detective Douglas. I need an ambulance on Fourth and Edmond Street. We have an officer in peril.”
“Ten-four, Detective. Stay where you are. Help is on the way.”
Douglas looked over at his sick friend and thumbed the button on the radio again. “Station, could you send some breath mints and a change of clothes, too?”
* * * * *
After a quick examination at the hospital, the emergency workers turned Douglas loose. He took up a bench in the hallway. It was the same one he had used during the kidnapping case. He almost expected Caruthers to turn up with a plate of hospital eggs.
Instead he was greeted by a tired looking doctor. His name tag labeled him as a lab technician. “Detective Douglas?”
“That’s me. How’s McKenzie doing? Will he be all right?”
The doctor put his hands on Douglas’s shoulders. “We’re treating him now. It’s good that you got him to us so quickly. Arsenic is only life threatening if you wait too long to seek treatment.”
“Has anyone else been treated for arsenic poisoning recently?”
“I don’t know off the top of my head. If you want, I’ll check the records and have them faxed over to the precinct.”
Douglas nodded. “I’ll fill out the paperwork. Any chance I can get in to see McKenzie?”
The technician nodded. “He should be doing all right now.”
McKenzie sat up and smiled as Douglas came in. “What, no flowers?”
“What are you, my girlfriend? You’re lucky I didn’t shove you out of the car when you ruined the upholstery.”
The smile on his face melted away to a rare look of seriousness. “Dude, those muffins looked so fresh, but I think they gave me food poisoning or something.”
“It wasn’t food poisoning. It was arsenic.”
“Arsenic.” McKenzie’s eyes grew wide. “The almonds! They must use those to disguise the taste.”
“No. Arsenic doesn’t taste like- You know what? Never mind. It looks like the muffin man is poisoning the people at the homeless shelter. You need to get a warrant and search the place.”
“But I’m sick,” McKenzie said as he flopped back onto his pillow. “Can’t you do it?”
Douglas shook his head. “This is your case, not mine. I can’t do everything for you.”
McKenzie sighed. “I guess not.” He pushed up onto his elbows. “Hey, do you think we could go by that bakery and get some fresh muffins on the way home?”
* * * * *
When the warrant was approved, Douglas helped McKenzie pull together a search team and went down to the Drury Lane Bakery. Douglas stood as support while McKenzie served the warrant and pulled the man aside for questioning.
“I don’t understand, officers. What’s going on?”
“There have been reports of arsenic poisoning in the area,” McKenzie said.
“Arsenic? What does that have to do with my shop?”
“Turns out most of the victims had two things in common. One of those was having recently eaten one of your muffins,” Douglas said.
The owner shook his head. “I assure you I am not in the habit of poisoning my customers. I’d be buried in lawsuits, and I’d lose business.”
“The other thing they had in common was that they had checked into the Mercy Meadows Homeless Shelter, where you donated said muffins.”
“By the way,” McKenzie said, “I had one of those muffins. They were delicious. Well, aside from the part where I started puking my guts up.”
Douglas punched him in the arm. “Focus.”
The owner balled his hands into fists. His face turned colors. “Why in the hell would I poison food that I donated to anyone? That doesn’t make sense. If I didn’t care about those people, I wouldn’t be sending them food, now would I?”
“Dying or not,” Douglas said, “you’ll still get a nice tax write-off for the donation.”
“Do I look like a psychopath to you?” Douglas took a step back in case the man decided to take a swing on them. “Come with me.” He stalked away, leaving Douglas and McKenzie to follow. When they got inside, the owner yanked out a tray of muffins and slammed it down on the counter. “You see these? They’re today’s donation to the Mercy Meadows shelter. Take them. Take them all. Run them through your labs, or test them on yourselves. I can assure you there’s nothing harmful in these muffins. I’m even safe for people with nut allergies.”
McKenzie smiled and took the tray. “Hey, thanks!”
“Choke on them,” the man muttered as he walked away again.
Douglas waited until the guy was gone, and then he took the tray away from McKenzie. “You are such an idiot.”
Before he could respond, Caruthers approached them. “Hey, McKenzie. We searched the place over, but all we found were cooking ingredients. We took samples to run through the lab, just in case.”
“Okay. I guess we’re done here. Let’s go.”
“Ooh, muffins. Can I have one?”
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” McKenzie said. “Douglas says they’re evidence.”
Caruthers looked disappointed. Then he smiled. “That doesn’t stop us from buying one while we’re here.”
McKenzie grinned, too. “That’s right! Let’s go get some.”
“You’re both idiots.”
* * * * *
When the test results came back, they showed nothing wrong with the muffins. McKenzie celebrated by eating the ones that hadn't been sent in for testing.
“I can’t believe you saved those back,” he said as he added creamer to his coffee.
“Dude, you’d understand if you had one. They’re amazing. Even without the almonds.”
Douglas looked at the muffin in McKenzie’s hand. “Isn’t that the same flavor as the one you ate at the shelter?”
McKenzie scowled. “I bought it. But yeah, same flavor. All the ones at the shelter had them, but none of the ones that nice owner gave us had them.”
He thought back to the shelter. Every muffin had been topped with almond slivers.
“Caruthers, did you find any almonds in the bakery?”
“No.” He shook his head. “There weren’t any anywhere.”
“Yeah,” McKenzie said around a large bite. “Guy told us he doesn’t do nuts. There was even a sign that said ‘nut-free’.”
Douglas kicked himself for not having paid attention. It may not have been his case, but he had been asked to help. “We’re going to need another warrant. And I’m going to need a drink.”
* * * * *
A few days- and several more bodies- later, Douglas and McKenzie found themselves standing outside the Mercy Meadows Homeless Shelter once again.
“Douglas. I don’t feel so good. Maybe it’s that poisoning acting up. You should do the search. I’ll wait in the car.”
He caught McKenzie’s arm before he could slip away. “No. This is your case, you have to lead the search.”
“But you didn’t lead the search of Blansky’s property.”
“No. I was inside, questioning a suspect while the search was going on. You need to be in there questioning Sister Agatha.”
McKenzie shook his head. “No way. She’ll eat me alive.”
“Are you kidding me? She’s like a hundred years old, and you’re twice her size. Worst she could do is maybe gnaw on your arm a little. Now go in there and serve her this warrant so we can get started.”
He ushered McKenzie inside, vowing to ask him about his fear of the nun after it was all over.
Before they could open their mouths to greet her, Sister Agatha was already bearing down on them. “What is the meaning of this? There are enough rumors floating around about police stalking places like these, splitting up families and jailing the homeless for no reason. Having an entire police force on my front steps will do nothing to help me dispel those rumors!”
Douglas elbowed McKenzie, who looked like he wanted to curl into the fetal position on the floor or to run out the front door. “Oh. Uh, we’re here to serve this search warrant.”
“Give me that!” She snatched the paper away from McKenzie and looked it over. “Why do you need to be in my kitchen?”
McKenzie said nothing, so Douglas cut into the conversation. “We’ve done some investigating, and it turns out that the poisoning is occurring right here in the shelter.”
She gaped at him, speechless. Douglas considered it a win and waited for her to gather herself. Finally, she came back around, shaking her head. “No. It’s not possible. I screen every volunteer and employee personally. If they had any sort of criminal background, I would never have hired them.”
“Then you shouldn’t have a problem with letting us look over your kitchen. If we don’t find anything, we’ll apologize, make it a big public thing. Maybe even donate some money to the cause.”
He waited for her to think it over. After a moment, she handed the warrant back. “Fine, but I want to be there.”
The kitchen was cleared out, and all the workers made to stand in the cafeteria. Sister Agatha walked back and forth, muttering reassuring things and eying the progress in the kitchen as McKenzie’s search team crawled over everything.
“I got almonds here,” one officer stated. He slipped a few into an evidence bag and sealed it.
A few moments later, another cry went up. “Hey, guys? This doesn’t look like anything my wife has in her kitchen.” He held up a large glass jar filled with white powder. “Well, it looks a little like cream of tartar, but usually that comes in smaller containers. Labeled, too.”
“Get some prints,” McKenzie called back.
“That’s vitamin powder. Our supervisor has us mix it into the porridge. He also has us make it into a paste to put on the muffins. He says it’s better than giving them vitamin pills.”
Douglas approached the kid. It was Jeffrey, the kid who let McKenzie have the muffin. “Have you ever tried any?”
“No, sir. It’s for the homeless, and Joe said he’d throttle any volunteer he caught taking food from the cafeteria.”
“Which one of these guys is your supervisor?”
Jeffrey pointed out a portly, balding man with a scowl carved into his face. Douglas went over to him. “Hi. Joe, is it? How are you doing today?”
“I’d be doing a lot better if you’d get the hell out of my kitchen and let us get back to work.”
“We’ll be happy to do that in a few minutes. But first, I think my friend McKenzie would like to thank you for the muffin.”
“I would?” McKenzie turned at the mention of his name.
The guy sneered. “What are you talking about? I don’t give out food here unless it’s to the participants.”
Douglas shrugged. “Sure, but sometimes, rules get broken, and people get things that weren’t intended for them.”
“They’re police officers, Joe,” Jeffrey said, his voice high. “He paid me for it, and I gave the money straight to Sister Agatha, I swear. Please don’t tell my school counselor. I need the volunteer hours or I can't get into college!”
The sneer was disappeared from Joe’s face, as did the color. “He gave that cop one of the muffins?”
“He sure did. Do you know what the penalty is for killing a police officer?”
The guy shook his head. Douglas smelled fear. “It’s probably the same as it is for murdering just about anybody else. But let’s go down to the station and discuss that further, shall we?”
McKenzie came over with a pair of handcuffs out, already reciting the Miranda warning as he walked.
“Really?” Joe tried to pull away, but McKenzie held him fast. “Over a bunch of homeless bums? I’m doing the city a favor by getting rid of them!”
Sister Agatha approached Joe before McKenzie could lead him away. There was a collective gasp as she slapped him hard across the face. “God have mercy on your soul, Joseph. I pray the court system doesn’t.”
The others were led to tables in the cafeteria to give statements. As Douglas escorted Sister Agatha to a table, McKenzie stopped long enough to lean in to him. “Dude, watch your back. That nun is hardcore.”