Welcome to Leclerc USA, thought Coffman as he cruised down a potholed stretch of highway called Memorial Boulevard. Some of the potholes were real craters.
Leclerc County, its county seat the mid-sized city of the same name, was one of the poorest Metropolitan Statistical Areas in the southeast United States. This had been abundantly evident to Coffman as he had driven from the airport past the abandoned storefronts, several of them burned out; derelict shopping malls and cheap by-the-month, by-the-week, by-the-hour motels. Pawnshops proliferated. Many of the billboard signs on the highway were blank or shredded, others peppered with holes that looked like small-arms fire.
I go where they send me, thought Coffman. Even here to Somalia on the Mississippi.
"This is highly irregular," said Dr. Ahmad Jones after Coffman parked the flex-fuel Ford Fueron SUV outside the county morgue and got out.
The county's Medical Examiner wore a charcoal gray wool suit and a tie despite the heat and humidity. Coffman thanked the ME for taking time to meet on such short notice, this banal and perfunctory statement being more or less obligatory, and offered him the folding plastic case that displayed Coffman's federally issued ID.
"Is there a problem with my credentials?" Coffman asked, knowing there wasn't. His credentials were in perfect form: impressive-looking, innocuous, and completely deceptive, a screen meant to conceal his actual function from petty local satraps like Doctor Ahmad Jones.
Don't alarm the public was the basic tenet of the job. Don't alarm the public, and get in and out quickly. And Coffman, who lived in a high-rise condo between D.C. and Baltimore, wanted to get out of Leclerc as soon as humanly possible.
"No, Mr. Coffman, there is no problem with your credentials," Jones said, handing them back. The ME was agitated.
"This investigation, I must say, is highly irregular. I want to go on record as saying."
"And you can't park there. That's a handicapped space."
In the vast parking area, simmering in the heat, there were only three vehicles: the rental that Coffman had picked up at the airport; a late-model white Lexus in the space reserved for the ME; and a real piece of shit, a pond scum-green Buick with primer-gray fenders and a cracked windshield, its muffler hanging by a wire, in staff parking.
"Are you kidding me?"
Jones made a squeezed-lemon face. "No, Mr. Coffman, I am not a jocular man."
"I do not indulge in humor or badinage."
"I'm not moving the car," said Coffman. He was a stocky, muscular man and he put on his no-nonsense, hard-as-concrete face. The ME was older and smaller--bantamweight.
"Hmph," said Jones, frowning and peering at Coffman through red horn-rimmed glasses. "Very well then."
Coffman gestured toward the building. "Shall we go in?"
The complex was housed in leased premises where a now-defunct computer superstore formerly operated. It was a snowfall white, cube-shaped edifice, modernist and bland, with a bright orange trim.
"One moment," said Jones, "while I speak to my wife." He strode to the Lexus and said a few hushed words to the young woman in a hijab sitting behind the wheel. Her face was the color of cocoa, her features soft and compliant. She nodded, started the Lexus, dropped it in gear and backed up, zigzagged, and pulled out. Doctor Jones watched her drive away. Then he strode back toward Coffman. "Let us proceed. This way, Mr. Coffman."
Coffman took his bulky black bug-out back from the Ford Fueron.
Jones looked at the bag with skepticism. "What is that?"
"What I need," said Coffman. "Equipment. Standard operating."
"I see," said Jones and hmph'd again.
Jones removed a plastic keycard from his wallet and swiped it through the slot. The doors susurrated open. Jones marched inside and Coffman followed, the webbing of his bag slung over his shoulder. It was warm inside the building too. Dead, stale air and no activity, no sound, no lights. The checkout counters were still there, stripped of registers, but the rest of the building had been filled with tall beige partitions to make a maze of cubicles. Fluorescent light panels, none switched on, hung from a low drop-ceiling.
"As you may or may not know," said Jones, "Leclerc County is, at present, in federal court in Chapter 9. That is municipal bankruptcy."
"I was aware." Coffman, always prepared, had done his homework on the red-eye flight. He liked to know the facts about whatever flyover shithole the agency had dispatched him to.
"We have been forced to make drastic reductions in staffing and hours."
"Uh-huh," said Coffman. The bug-out bag weighed heavy on his shoulder.
Jones led him through the dimly-lit, empty cubicles. Many were bare, never occupied. All the fixtures looked new. For a county that couldn't pay its bills, thought Coffman, a lot of money had been lavished on this facility.
"Cadaver storage and the lab are in the rear," Jones explained. "In special units with their own air system. That stays on 24-7, of course."
"We do the best we can under the circumstances. Staffing is bare bones. We are unable to adequately resupply the facility because vendors insist on cash. For a while we could not issue death certificates because of a paper shortage."
Coffman grinned. "So nobody died?"
"Not officially and not for statistical purposes."
"Must have been awkward."
"It was unacceptable," said Jones. "I was, and am, livid about the matter. I am Medical Examiner only on a part time basis now and I have not been remunerated for months. There is a dispute, in the court, over my compensation and expenses."
"You don't sound happy about it," said Coffman, and immediately wished he hadn't. This was a local problem and local problems did not interest him; they often impeded his work.
Another hmph issued from Jones, this one drilling into deeper discontent. He stopped and turned. "I am not happy about it. It is untenable, this bankruptcy. We drew a judge with political connections to the Republicans in the state capitol."
"I see," said Coffman.
"The bondholders and the banks are making the restructure problematic. It is a travesty! Leclerc, with the connivance of the court and the state legislature, is being plundered and disenfranchised! Public jobs lost, services cut, or privatized. It is pure thuggery, it is robbery."
He paused and looked at Coffman, a man who had a job to do, who had limited reserves of empathy, and whose face remained expressionless, except for an almost subliminal impatient tic. Abashed, Jones cleared his throat and said: "I am sure it is of no real interest to you, Mr. Coffman."
Coffman said nothing. They continued through the maze to the rear of the building. At the heavy metal door to the cadaver storage area, Jones stopped abruptly and turned to Coffman. He paused. He had something else on his mind now. His stiff stance barred the door.
"There was no autopsy, you understand."
"I understand," said Coffman. You had to hear out these local officials. Let them talk and get it out of their systems. Keep them placated.
"None was required. Not under the circumstances."
"EMT picked him up. Correct?"
"Yes. The decedent was lying under a highway overpass."
"Uh-huh." That figured. On the drive to the facility Coffman had seen the homeless and transients camped out along Memorial Highway, clinging to the concrete overpasses like barnacles.
"He was pronounced dead at County General. Coronary failure, quite simply. No autopsy, or investigation, required. Leclerc County has no reason to expend its limited resources on an unremarkable case such as this. I have the decedent for hugh-rud."
"U-H-R-D," said Jones. "Unclaimed human remains disposal. Cremation."
"Yes, I understand what it is," said Coffman.
"But I am curious, Mr. Coffman," said Jones. "Intensely curious."
"What drew your agency to this unremarkable case?"
"We analyze data. Extensively."
"That is not an answer. There is, I am sure, a virtual ocean of data to which the government has access.
What specific data, and for what purpose?"
"Public health issues."
"I see. Could you be more specific?"
"Data and communications you people monitor, I assume, that include but are not limited to 911 calls, hospital dispatch, police reports and like that."
"Yes," Coffman said.
"And some data was intercepted that prompted your agency to dispatch an agent, you, here to Leclerc County, an unimportant place in the scheme of things, to examine this particular cadaver."
"But what are you looking for?" Jones asked intently. "I must say I cannot, for the life of me, see any compelling reason why you would need to come all the way to Leclerc and examine this body."
"We have our reasons."
"And these reasons are?"
"I can't disclose."
"I am not authorized to."
"So you are merely doing your job, following orders. Like a storm trooper or something."
Coffman ignored the comment; he had been called much worse, sometimes without even leaving the office.
"I can tell you there are parasites extant in the general population, which may represent a public health hazard."
"A public health hazard," Jones repeated, furrowing his brow.
"You would not want to put the public health in jeopardy, Doctor Jones."
"No, of course, I would not," said Jones. "So, if I am hearing you, the ostensible explanation is that you are looking for some sort of parasite?"
Jones' skepticism and distaste was evident; the lemon look again, like a kabuki mask, Coffman thought. Cripes, he thought, I get tired of this drill with the local yokels.
"Again, I can't disclose."
Doctor Jones bristled. Indignation seemed to make him taller and bigger, like a cat getting its back up, and he raised his voice, not only in volume but in pitch, to a treble that sounded almost petulant. "I do not--do not--like this lack of transparency, Mr. Coffman."
'Frankly neither do I, but I have to follow protocol, doctor."
Jones wasn't listening. "This intrusiveness. I do not appreciate being summoned here, and waiting outside like a lawn jockey with a lantern, and being kept uninformed in regards to the purpose."
"Duly noted," Coffman said, thinking: OK, get that off your chest, like you did about the damn bankruptcy. The locals liked to stake out their turf and defend their status: it was a common, banal thing. Like tomcats pissing.
"Do not say 'duly noted' or 'I can't disclose' again."
"I'll try not to," said Coffman. "But they're operant phrases."
"Try, instead, to speak like a human being and not some sort of robot."
Robot. Coffman's teenage stepson had called him that too. The kid had written a song, Government Robot, that his ska band played, 'dedicated' to Coffman. He hadn't talked to Kyle since the divorce, but the kid had sent him a CD of the song and a DVD of Loose Change.
Coffman said to Jones: "You can observe the examination. You're the ME in charge here."
"Yes, I am!"
Coffman nodded and made no reply, letting Jones have a few satisfying seconds of catharsis, having made his declaration of authority. Usually that settled them down. Coffman changed tone, conciliatory: "Look, Doctor Jones, I will level with you as much as I can."
"Do so! It will be appreciated!"
First, the admission. "I have an onerous job to do."
"Duly noted," said Doctor Jones.
"And I want to get it done and get out of Dodge."
"You may not think much of Leclerc, Mr. Coffman."
"It's a fine place, really," Coffman said. A necessary, diplomatic lie.
"I am committed to this community. In a way you cannot understand."
"I don't doubt that and I respect it. Doctor, this is all routine, I assure you."
"And what, precisely, are your assurances worth?"
"You have my word," said Coffman. "I know the agency puts way too much emphasis on security and need-to-know and that alienates people. It's counterproductive."
"Yes it is," said Jones.
"We have analysts, so-called, mostly kids in their twenties and thirties, low paid, bright but inexperienced, easily bored. They process a huge amount of data. That is all they do in their little cubes all day. They are told what to look for, what template to follow. It's a drill. Field operatives like me, we get our marching orders. A lot of the analysis is in error. I am here, most likely, on a false alarm."
"Yes, you are," said Jones. "There is nothing here for you in Leclerc."
"The sooner I determine it's a fluke in the data, the sooner I can leave."
"Very well," said Jones, after a pause.
"Now if I could see the cadaver."
Jones, in a calmer tone, said: "Might I contact your superiors?"
"Of course." Please do that, thought Coffman, as he handed him a business card that had the pertinent toll-free phone numbers. Call them and get off my freaking back. I can get this done while they give you the runaround over the phone.
Jones accepted the card, peered at it, and then looked at Coffman. He stared at the floor and thought for a few moments, and seemed to weigh his course of action and make a decision. He put the card absently in his pocket, then turned and, using another keycard, opened the metal door to the cadaver storage area. A blast of cold air immediately struck Coffman as it opened.