Dose Unto Others

Excerpt from the unpublished manuscript, Dose Unto Others, by Jeffrey Lockwood

Sergio pressed me for more about why I was interested in the body, wanting to know if it had to do with my time on the force. I was reluctant but he’d become a friend of sorts. A fellow something-American working his ass off because he took duty and dignity seriously. He loved and lived deeply, with niceties. Sergio had told me all about his family, his beautiful but volatile wife, his plans to one day turn DiMaggio Pest Services over to his son if only the little shit would acquire a sense of responsibility, and his dreams of opening a café in the heart of the San Pedro neighborhood. So I figured it wouldn’t hurt to reveal a bit more about myself, keeping the ugliest parts for some other day. Or never. If he really wanted to know, he could check out the Chronicle headlines from the summer of ’69.

“By the time I quit the force, I’d made detective. I was the department expert on postmortem insects. You know, like using flies and beetles to figure out how, where and when a victim bought it. I didn’t crack many cases this way, but we got some important leads.”

“Like what?” Sergio was stuffing a triangle of club sandwich into his mouth. For a guy hoping to open a restaurant, he sure didn’t seem to be picky about what he ate. I kept the butterfly-and-mafioso story for Tommy, but there were plenty of others.

“I remember the time a suspect’s alibi collapsed when the maggots that were feasting on the victim’s brains were three days behind those setting up house in his mouth and nose. Turns out his business partner poisoned him at his house in the middle of the week and stuffed the body into his car trunk for a couple of days, where the flies found easy pickings. Then he hauled the corpse up to their office on the weekend when nobody was around. That was the hard part. The easy part was propping him in a chair, putting his hand around a .38 and blowing out the guy’s brains. The staged suicide might’ve worked, but a few enterprising flies found their way into the office through an open window. So, when I looked at the mess on Monday morning, the ages of the maggots on the splattered brains didn’t match those who’d set up house in his face.”

“A badass cop armed with a butterfly net. If your buddies only knew.”

“That’s a damn good story,” Sergio nodded approvingly. “But I thought the universities had experts who picked up a few bucks with that sort of stuff.”

“They do. But the cops and the faculty at UC Berkeley don’t play nicely. Hell, even the entomologists over there were peaceniks. For the most part the professors hated cops, and we didn’t have a whole lot of interest in asking for their help. So I learned everything I could about maggots.”

“Ok, but why you?” He was working his way through the soggy fries, although with less enthusiasm than he’d had for the sandwich. At least the man had some sense of taste.

“It’s kind of convoluted.”

“A badass cop armed with a butterfly net. If your buddies only knew.” Sergio chuckled and punctuated his cleverness by shifting the toothpick to the other side of his mouth.

“They did. Sort of. In my rookie year, my partner came by my house and saw the display cases with insects. He ragged on me and told the other guys. At first they made fun of the ‘bug guy’ but over time they brought me all sorts of interesting specimens in pickle jars and pill bottles wanting to know about them. Mostly it was great.”

“Mostly?” His eyebrow arched, as if he was a reporter catching a politician hedging on a campaign promise. I indulged him.

“Well, there was the sergeant who brought in what he thought was a tick that he’d found in his son’s beard. The kid had been out the night before at a prayer meeting. It was one of those churches where the teens sing hymns around a campfire while some youth minister strums a guitar. The old man was a holy roller and figured that his son must’ve picked it up walking through the beach grass. A good theory, except.”

“Except what?” Sergio leaned forward, momentarily stopping the excavation of lunch from his gums.

“It was a crab louse looking for a new home. He didn’t pick it up going down to the beach. The kid picked it up going down on some girl. Pubic hair, beard—any port in a storm when you’re a louse.”

Sergio gave a belly laugh, leaned back in his chair, and resumed scraping his teeth. “Did you tell the sergeant?”

“Nah. Once the kid moved onto real sex, I figured he’d pick up a ripping case of the crabs or something worse and learn his lesson.”

“So that’s why you’re interested in seeing the body this afternoon. An ex-cop checking out a corpse for old times’ sake?” Sergio started working the toothpick around his upper molars, like he was trying to flush a rat from a drainpipe with a broomstick.

“You know, even the maggots down here dress in leisure suits.”

“Yep. I still like trying to make sense of the insects at crime scenes. My old buddies call me to help out sometimes, off the record. So I like to keep up, learn new stuff. And I’d like to see which of my little friends answer the dinner bell LA.”

“You know, even the maggots down here dress in leisure suits.” Like me, Sergio was not a slave to fashion and had little love for popular culture. He dropped the toothpick into his shirt pocket, either having succeeded or given up on the molar project.

“Sounds great. I could use a rhinestone-studded blow fly in my collection.” I was tempted to tell him that I had stopped to check out a road killed rabbit outside of San Luis Obispo on the way down and nabbed a gorgeous burying beetle. I doubt he would’ve been as disgusted as I was with his tableside hygiene.

My gut was getting used to the reek. It’s funny how you can adapt to the environment. People can get used to most anything, which explains a lot about ghettos, dictators, and factories. The room, like the rest of the hotel, was overly air-conditioned and the coolness made the place more bearable. I wasn’t enjoying the odor, but at least it faded into the background. And this allowed me to concentrate on the flies.

A dozen or so metallic-green flies were buzzing around in circles, evidently frustrated by having the object of their devotion zipped into a plastic bag and hauled off. The blow flies were looking to lay their eggs on a corpse that could smell but couldn’t find. From what I’ve seen, they favor bullet holes and knife wounds. A shotgun blast is a virtual nursery. But they’ll settle for most any orifice, including the openings that nature provides. I remember the naked corpse of a hooker that washed up on Hunter’s Point. Somebody had smothered her by tying a plastic bag over her head, and the flies had played the hand they’d been dealt. After working that crime scene I wasn’t interested in sex for a month. Which was fine, given my luck with women at the time.

There was also a cluster of flesh flies, grayish insects with black stripes. They too were hoping to find a home for their little maggots. Several were resting on the landscape painting over the bed, making it look like a mountain valley that had been invaded by giant flies. I thought the insects improved the unimaginative original. When I was on the force, I called these ‘sergeant flies’ which pleased the guys on the beat to no end. I told them that three stripes meant you’re dealing with a sergeant, so the same holds for flies. If only the two-legged sergeants could find bodies as quickly as their six-legged counterparts. The insects hone in on the first whiff of death, before we can detect the faintest odor. I’ve seen ‘em coming in for a landing ten minutes after a victim’s last gasp, especially on a hot day. And LA started delivering its renowned heat yesterday afternoon, once the rain quit.

© 2011 Jeffrey Lockwood, republished with permission. This copyright notice must be included in any republication of this excerpt from Dose Unto Others.

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