Drug Groomer by W.C. Gordon
Elvis Costello fills the cool air inside my department-issued, grey Toyota Camry. The A/C is on high and struggling against the South Florida summer heat. Elvis belts out what was once considered an angst-ridden song but is now Classic Rock. Soft rock at that. This will be my last few moments of comfort before I battle the outside heat, followed by the stifling, still warm air of the indoors. The indoors without an A/C running. And the smell. Bodies decompose far quicker in high humidity and high temperatures. It’s Tuesday. Yesterday was a holiday and the groomers were closed. It was last open on Friday. Her son is allowed to live in the back area when the shop isn’t open. So that puts the time of death sometime after 4 o’clock on Friday and now. I look at my watch—a Citizen Eco-Drive that my wife got me for my 40th. It’s 9:30 am. I need coffee.
I pull up to the front of the shop. Scruffy to Fluffy. Very clever. I take quick stock of the scene: Five police cruisers. That’s a bit excessive for what they’ve already determined is an overdose. That being said, I know that two of the officers on scene are salty old vets just trying to hump this call for as long as possible to avoid being dispatched to another call. I see a very distraught woman at the front of the business being consoled by another, far less distraught, woman. I’ll assume that is the mother of the newly deceased. Thank goodness. Nothing worse than having to do a death notification. That’s the hardest part of the job. Figuring out how someone died is typically easy. Notifying their next-of-kin that their dearly beloved whoever has shed their mortal coil is usually an emotional endeavor. Usually but not always. When the family has located the decedent, that relieves me of the burden of the notification.
Bobby, one of the old salts, walks over to my car. I roll the window down and ask who the primary officer is. He says it’s Valinucci. Fantastic. A great cop who’s got more time backing his patrol car up to a curb than I do in a uniform. I ask Bobby to send him out to me. Within a few minutes, Valinucci is walking out to my car with a big smile on his face. He knows the drill and gets into the passenger’s seat.
“How’s my all-time favorite detective doing?” he says with a smile.
“Who knows? He’s probably at Lighthouse Diner enjoying a big breakfast with an even bigger mistress!” With that, Nooch lets out a laugh and we catch up on some small talk. Always invite the officer to have a seat in your car. Little things like getting the basics of an initial investigation inside the comfort of an air-conditioned vehicle do not go unnoticed by a patrolman.
“How’s the mom?” I ask.
“Heartbroken, but she gets it. She knows his issues. Enabled him. The usual. Thirty-six years old and living in the back of her grooming shop doing dope after hours.”
I make my way to the side entrance of the shop and sign the crime scene log. I can already smell it. That being said, the stench is not as bad as I prepared myself for. Not quite as heavy and cold as I anticipated. At least not yet. I walk past the grooming tables and bathing stations that are set up. I admire the organization of the brushes, combs, and shears that are neatly placed on a pegboard. The shelf has all manner of shampoos and conditioners. Eye and ear cleaning kits. I see a separate area for leashes and harnesses that brings to memory a human trafficking case.
As I approach the restroom, I can see through the threshold of the door what I recognize as a Vans checkboard slip-on shoe. I didn’t know grown men still wore those. I had a pair when I used to skateboard. I was thirteen then.
The decedent is in what is commonly referred to as the “praying position.” That’s when the body is found in a kneeling position, bent over, with the head between the knees. Lividity is noted as set and appears consistent with body positioning. His face is mushed into the floor and appears to be beginning to become one with the terrazzo. There is a considerable, but not excessive, amount of fluid around the head. Most perceive it to be vomit but it’s actually a foam. An opioid overdose causes the heart and lungs to slow which causes fluid to gather in the lungs. That fluid mixes with carbon dioxide and exits the mouth in a foam-like form. When someone dies on their back, a foam cone erupts from their mouth. You never quite enjoy a snow cone after seeing it.
I reach down and take hold of a finger. I have done this bare-handed in the past but with the lethality of fentanyl, or the even deadlier carfentanyl, I am sure to glove up first. The finger feels cold but in reality, is only room temperature. Rigor mortis is long gone and the skin is retracting. The medical examiner will call this ‘secondary flaccidity.’ So far, in this heat, I’m thinking he probably OD’d sometime Saturday. I give the body a quick scan and… What. The. Hell?! There’s a very familiar sticky thing attached to this guy’s lower right leg. Right above the shoe normally worn by a teenager. It’s a telemetry lead used to run an EKG.
“Did rescue come in here?” I ask, to nobody in particular.
“Yeah, they ran a lead on the guy.” Shouts the officer maintaining the crime scene log.
“You’re telling me they couldn’t figure out this guy was done?”
“I guess not.”
“I’m surprised they didn’t shove Narcan up his nose.” This last comment didn’t solicit a response from the officer. Probably a good thing, as I think the mother of the deceased could probably hear me shouting. I don’t know who I’m more annoyed by; the evidence destruction team marching in here with their dirty bunker gear to run an EKG strip on an obvious corpse or the officers for allowing it. Whatever; it’s not exactly the crime of the century.
I tip the decedent over to find what I’m looking for. And there it is, a syringe; however, I also cause the guy to expel some long pent-up gases. Now the stench has fully engulfed the room. I have what I need and make my way out of the business with haste.
A quick call to the medical examiner goes as expected: “Thirty-six-year-old white male… Moderate decomposition… No signs of trauma or deformity… History of drug use… Narcotics paraphernalia in the area… Needle… Yeah, needle, like a syringe… Yep… Yep… Ok… Great, thanks.”
My A/C is on full blast but the windows are down. I need the cold air on my face but also allow the dead guy’s scent to escape as it is lingering on my shirt. I debate about having the mom sit in the car. I decide against it. When I’m done, I can walk away from her but getting her out of my car could be a chore.
I walk over to the grieving mom and the conversation goes as expected: “My deepest condolences… Looks to be an accidental narcotic-related overdose… It’s such a terrible disease… Yes, ma’am, I will be doing everything in my power to bring the evil person who sold your son these drugs to justice… Yes, they can be charged with homicide… I will be in touch with you when the toxicology results come from the medical examiner’s office… Take care, ma’am.”
I then walk over to Bobby and tell him that the ME is not coming out. They’re going to send the body snatchers to scoop up the dead guy. I tell him to call me if they find anything out of the norm when they move the body.
Back to my car for more glorious A/C and to hear Elvis sing about watching detectives. Now for the most important decision of the morning: where to get a good cup of coffee.
W.C. Gordon is a cop, veteran, and author of the novel The Detective Next Door. His writing is influenced by his personal experiences in the military and in law enforcement, which he then mixes with bourbon and dark humor. He lives at his home in South Florida with his wife and dog.