The heat in the room was stifling, and the smell of stale incense, feces and decay as well as something sharp and acidic was overpowering. If it weren’t for the open window in the back of the room, Hugh knew that a thick haze of stench would have kept them out until a fan had been brought in. As it was he felt nauseous.
“He’s over here, Hugh,” said Derek, the patrolman who found the body late that morning. He pointed to an overturned chair that once faced a computer desk. The screen glowed with the image of a rapper who was still hopping and gesturing, the music still audible in the headphones around the corpse’s neck.
Hugh stepped over and saw the body, that of a young white man, once muscular, once handsome, now swollen and blotched with purple patches. He wore a yellow t-shirt with a pattern of green palm leaves and a pair of long, loose shorts. His hands were at his chest, and his tongue protruded between white, even teeth. The desk was in a corner between two long tables, both containing two large rectangular glass tanks without covers, all except the one nearest the window, which contained a large piece of wood, a hollow rock, sawdust and a small pan of water.
“Looks like he had a lizard,” Derek said.
Hugh turned and looked at him. “A lizard?”
“Yeah, an iguana, one of those big ugly-ass lizards,” Derek said. “People keep them for pets. I wouldn’t have one of the damn things in my house, I’ll tell you that. Jesus.”
Hugh looked at the tanks. “Just one?”
“Looks like it to me. Must have been in that last tank, see? It’s the only one that has anything else in it, and there ain’t no water.”
“A dead man with an iguana,” Hugh said. “I’ve been chief of police in this town for seven years now, and this beats all I’ve ever seen. Call Moreno and get him to pick up the body so we can look at this place. And open another damned window! Bring a fan!”
The body was found in a one-bedroom apartment in a small complex near the downtown business district on a street that ran parallel to the concrete-encased creek that still provided the nearby river with a venue for floodwater, but that didn’t prevent rampant development along the stream from downtown well into an old sedate residential district on higher ground upstream. The apartment complex had a variety of single and double bed apartments, and it was near a small shady park with picnic tables, a playground and two basketball courts that was always active with people, even in the hottest months in George, Mississippi.
Hugh didn’t have a forensics team in his department. Given the declining finances of the city, he considered himself lucky to have a secretary. But he did have a county coroner, who was an exception to the general rule of limited experience when it came to coroners in the rural South. The coroner for Poindexter County was Abraham Moreno, who for one thing was a licensed physician. Moreno was also a man of parts, having served in the Peace Corps during the Sixties and traveled around the world with his late wife before settling the little city of George with his daughter. When Hugh asked him why the hell he’d come to this piece of backwoods to make a home, Moreno said, “To go fishing, of course. That’s what old men do, Chief. Well, that and grow roses, but it’s too hot here for roses.”
Hugh went back to the station and settled in for a long afternoon of complaints, most of which his secretary Kelly dealt with, but some had to be dealt with personally. One such call came from the mayor, the Honorable Claude Thompson, who by the generous rule of the town charter, had the authority to fire the chief at the drop of a hat, and was not above reminding Hugh of that.
“Hugh, I’ve been getting calls all afternoon about that body on Henry Street. What the hell is going on?”
“Claude, we’ve secured the scene and Moreno has the body,” Hugh said. “I’ll call you when I have more to tell you.”
“Jerry Wesson called me out of his mind. In case you didn’t know it, Alderman Wesson lives one street over on Olive. I also got a call from Reverend Alice Monroe, whose church happens to be on the corner, and just in case you didn’t know, the victim was her step-son.”
Claude looked at the ceiling and counted to three. “Hugh, do you want me to call them?”
“That’s the last goddamned thing I want you to do,” Claude thundered. “Just get your ass in gear. Do I need to call the coroner’s office and talk to that foreigner?”
“He’s from New Orleans, Claude.”
“I don’t give a shit. You tell him to get his ass in gear too.”
Hugh stared at the dead phone, then called Moreno. “Abe, I’m over a barrel.”
“That makes two of us, Hugh. You should come here and look at this. Do you have any men at the crime scene?”
“I’ve got a patrol car on the street, but that’s it.”
“Good. Just get here as fast as you can,” Moreno said. “It wasn’t an iguana.”