Authors: Edna Buchanan
For Teresa Johnson,
who tamed the Dragon
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
The shoes startled me. They dangled in midair, at eyeâ¦
I blew into the newsroom in a hurry. My editorsâ¦
Hoses snaked through the streets and alarms howled like woundedâ¦
“How could I have known he'd be watching The Historyâ¦
Burch and I rendezvoused in mid-beach, at the Fisher monument,â¦
“You look like you've been shot at and missed,” Stoneâ¦
I hit the road again early the next morning. Sunny'sâ¦
I cursed Tyler's name all the way back to Miamiâ¦
“Can't blame 'er,” Burch muttered gruffly as I sat atâ¦
“Wait till you see her,” I said, sotto voce, asâ¦
The viewing for Andre Coney was set for 7 toâ¦
I called Burch about Cubby Wells and Parvin Stokes, streetâ¦
Shelby Fountain stood in the back of the screened-in gardenâ¦
Lottie sashayed down the hall, a stack of photos inâ¦
I felt numb and powerless when I got home, asâ¦
I called Burch from a cubicle in the public informationâ¦
It was the worst kind, according to our research inâ¦
I found him at an inner-city church where clothes areâ¦
Too much champagne, I thought, my visions of disaster nowâ¦
“Where's Sunny?” I gasped.
“Relax,” Burch told me when I called his office atâ¦
“Sunny? You scared me. What are you doing up there?”
The telephone line was dead and Sunny had no cellâ¦
They say you have begun to heal when it's notâ¦
The shoes startled me. They dangled in midair, at eye level. They were scuffed, meant for running, and they were occupied by a dead stranger who was stuck in the ceiling.
The cops were furious at the stranger.
The firefighters were irritated.
He had left them a problem: his corpse and how to extricate it. Homicide detectives, a fire department battalion chief with the personality of a pit bull, and an assistant MiamiâDade County medical examiner noisily debated how to tackle the job.
The dead man had missed a spectacular dawn. The rising sun had ignited a magnificent city of fire, its own face reflected in glass-and steel-walled skyscrapers. Their flaming towers pierced a radiant blue sky, their golden glow an empty promise to shell-shocked com
muters still haunted by smoldering images of carnage and death.
The fire chief insisted that the corpse, tightly wedged in an air-conditioning grate, be pried free and lowered to the floor. Far more efficient, he claimed, than dragging dead weight up to the roof and then down a ladder. Three of his bravest, he pointed out, were still recovering from injuries suffered when they removed an eight-hundred-pound heart patient from his tiny apartment and down three flights of stairs. He wanted his men to tug the dead man's legs from below as others exerted pressure from above.
A sweaty homicide detective disagreed. The corpse was caught at the thighs. His hips were wider and his pockets stuffed with bulky items. He would have to leave the way he arrived, through the roof of this small shop, similar to so many others along Miami's downtown fringe.
“How did it happen?” I asked a young uniformed cop. “Was there exposed wiring?”
“It's absolutely shocking,” he said, grinning at his little joke.
Hector Gomez, a small man in a well-pressed but shabby suit, did not smile. The proprietor of Gomez Jewelry and Watch Repair stood stricken amid plastic and cardboard displays of cheap watches and costume jewelry, his dark eyes soulfully regarding the skinny, dangling denim-clad legs.
“He was like this when I unlocked the store this morning. I think it's the same one as last time,” he confided, misery on his face, voice barely audible. “I recognize the sneakers. It was raining that night. He left
footprints when he climbed over the counter.”
We studied the soles of the well-worn Nikes. There was a distinctive pattern visible in the tread.
“The seventh break-in in two months,” he whispered. “With times so hard, nobody is buying now. How do I make a living? How do I feed my family?”
“Well,” I said, “this one won't be back.”
He wasn't cheered. When I told him I was a reporter, he was pathetically eager to explain.
“First I installed an alarm; then I thought burglar bars would stop them, but they come in like cockroaches through the roof, stealing everything, even the watches here for repair. My customers want their watches back. Some threatened to sue me. I begged the city, the police, for help. I even wrote to the mayor. Twice. Write that down,” he said, actually wringing his hands. “They didn't answer. Nobody did. The cops don't come anymore. My place was burglarized so many times they stopped sending anybody. They take the report over the phone. If only they had listened, this never would have happenedâ¦”
“I'm listening now, pal,” interrupted a burly curly-haired detective named Oscar Levitan. “You got my undivided attention. Okay?”
The detective also squinted at me, as though I too were a cockroach who had skittered in through the ceiling. “Britt Montero, ain't you supposed to be on the other side of that line?” A gangly, pimply-faced public-service aide had nearly finished stringing yellow crime-scene tape between light poles along the sidewalk outside.
“Outside,” Levitan repeated, his stare hard.
“Okay, okay.” His attitude irritated me. This was no major murder mystery. Like everyone, burglars have bad days. Breaking and entering is risky business. They crash through skylights and are cut by broken glass, caught by bullets, or nibbled on by Dobermans. Some thieves are exterminated along with the termites inside tented buildings. One of a pair of burglars slipped while maneuvering a heavy safe down a dark and narrow stairwell; next morning he was found crushed beneath it at the bottom. Another thief executed a perfect swan dive from a third-floor ledge. He would have successfully eluded police if he hadn't missed the pool and kissed the pavement instead. Death is an occupational hazard for thievesâor poetic justice, depending on your point of view.
I left the shop reluctantly.
“Did anybody advise this guy of his rights?” Levitan bawled to the uniformed officers.
“You're charging him?” I asked, as the detective steered Gomez out into the harsh and unforgiving glare of the relentlessly climbing sun. “Why? The burglar was electrocuted as he broke in, right? Exposed wires or poor electrical work is only a code violation, not a crime.”
“Homicide,” the detective said, snapping metal cuffs around Gomez's wrists, “was still a crime, last I heard.”
“Homicide? You think it was deliberate?”
Gomez's resignation, shoulders slumped as Levitan led him to a cage car, answered my question.
We spoke through the patrol car's half-open window
as detectives and a crime-scene photographer scaled a ladder to the roof. Huddled in the backseat, wrists cuffed behind him, Gomez trembled as though cold, despite the scorching early-morning heat.
“Never would I hurt anybody,” he swore, eyes moist. “I only wanted to shock them, to make them leave my shop alone.” His voice cracked. “It wasâ¦you know,
Not to kill.”
“A booby trap,” I said sadly. “You built a booby trap.”
He gave a weak shrug. “Nothing fancy. Only an electrical cord connected to the metal grate where they come in through the ceiling. I plug it in, that's all. I didn't think it would hurt them. Only household current, a hundred and tenâfifteenâvolts. A deterrent.”
He'd succeeded. This thief had been deterredâpermanently.
Levitan waved me away from his suspect.
“You really aren't going to arrest him, are you?” I asked.
“Kidding me?” he demanded, his loosened tie hanging limply from his thick neck. “Only question in my mind is whether to book him for manslaughter or second degree. Look,” he muttered under his breath, “I have to charge him.” He said an assistant state attorney he'd consulted by phone had advised him to make the arrest.
“It's not fair,” I said, aware I had abandoned my professional level of objectivity. “The man was a repeat victim, trying to earn a living and protect his property.”
“Since when is burglary a capital offense? You can't use deadly force to protect property; it's against the
law. You know that, Britt. What if some fireman went in there to fight a fire and got zapped, or a police officer chasing a suspect?”
I saw his point.
The corpse, wrestled unceremoniously down the ladder, was ready to be removed. Gomez was asked if he recognized him.
Levitan peeled back the sheet to expose the dead man's face. The watchmaker nodded solemnly.
“That's him,” he said, his words nearly drowned out by angry shouts from a growing crowd. “Came into my shop once, tried to sell my own merchandise back to me. He just laughed when I threatened to call the police.”
Nobody was laughing now. The dead man appeared to be in his late thirties. His pockets yielded pliers, a screwdriver, a small wrench, a crack pipe, a couple of joints, and seventy-five cents in small change. He was black. So was the neighborhood. Gomez was Hispanic. Was the quick decision to arrest based on race? I wondered. The already surly crowd became more unruly as the body was loaded into the medical examiner's van.
A few rocks and bottles flew. As we left, community-service officers were fanning out into the neighborhood in an attempt to avert further hostilities.
Both men were now in custody, en route to county institutions: Gomez to jail, the dead man to the morgue. Each would be photographed, fingerprinted, measured, and weighed. One difference: Nobody escapes from the morgue.
This story was more than a parable about life being unfair, I thought, as I drove to the big
building at the edge of Biscayne Bay. The store owner's arrest would certainly generate controversy in this volatile and passionate city. In my business, the newspaper business, we thrive on controversy. Sudden death and good intentions gone bad are always good copy.
Bobby Tubbs, the assistant city editor in the day slot at the city desk, the heart of the newsroom, half listened as I explained.
“After being burgled to the brink of bankruptcy, the owner built a crude booby trap to zing the next thief with a little electrical jolt, a deterrent,” I said.
“So why is the guy dead?” Tubbs's round face puckered into a skeptical scowl. “I've been zapped by household current a dozen times. The Christmas-tree lights knocked me on my ass again last year.”
That could explain a lot. “Maybe a bum ticker?” I said. “Or drugs he had on board that were incompatible with electricity? I don't know.”
“Find out,” he snapped.
I knew who to ask, so I drove over to number 1 Bob Hope Road. I liked visiting the morgue. The dead always reveal something new, and I want to know all their secrets. What went wrong? What happened? What brought them there? There are always surprises.
This time was no different. The chief was performing an autopsy. The corpse's toe tag was bar-coded like all the others, a practice borrowed from supermarkets to prevent mix-ups, but this man's slim and hairy naked body would never be confused with any other. It was decorated with sparkling silver glitter, chicken feath
ers, and several large-caliber bullet holes, both exit and entrance. The glitter that adorned his skin was the sort used on greeting cards and children's school projects. Chicken feathers, lots of them, had been glued to it.
The chief looked up, his shiny pink face alight with a warm smile. “My secretary tells me you have questions about the electrocution.”
“Yes, but first, whatâ¦?” I watched, distracted, as a single chicken feather took to the air, fluttering in slow motion to the quarry-tile floor. The chief shut off his bone saw, silver flecks of glitter twinkling like grains of stardust from his immaculate scrub suit.
“Oh, this fellow?”
The shooting victim, he said, had been alarmed by an imminent confrontation with an irate husband. So he did what any sensible Miamian would do: He consulted with his clergyman, a SanterÃa priest, who assured him that if he wore only glitter and chicken feathers he would remain invisible to his enemies.
I scribbled notes and then inquired about the dead burglar.
“Here he is.” The chief gestured accommodatingly, as though introducing me to a new friend.
The corpse appeared normal enough for a man who'd lived hard and died the same way. His face had an innocent quality, almost childish in profile. But from his neck to his groin he was horribly disfigured, his skin shriveled and distorted, deformed by odd grapelike clusters.
“Ouch,” I said. “Are those electrical burns?”
“Nope. Had nothing to do with his death.” He studied them thoughtfully. “Interesting, aren't they? Proba
bly a childhood incident. Those nodules are keloids, old scar tissue caused by severe burns. You can see the splash pattern.”
“Think he was scalded by hot water?”
“Nope. Most likely battery acid, lye, or some other equally corrosive substance. That spatter configuration indicates that, unlike scalding water, even the smallest drop of whatever he was splashed with destroyed the tissue.”
I shuddered. “So this guy had a bad start and his luck never got better. If it was only a hundred and ten volts, why was the shock fatal?”
The chief patted a gloved hand to his left chest. “The heart has its own electrical system. A foreign electrical shock can interfere with that system and shut it down. It's not so much the voltage but the path it takes through the body. To be fatal, the current has to pass through the heart during a certain part of its cycle. When most people receive electrical shocks, their hearts aren't involved. No problem if the current enters your hand and exits your elbow. Another story if it passes through your chest.”
“So it's the opposite effect of a defibrillator, which shocks hearts back
“Sort of. When this fellow came down through the roof into the attic space, he kicked open the metal grate, which had been electrified by the store owner. The grate was hinged on one side and swung down from the ceiling. When he began to lower himself, as he'd evidently done before, he found it a tighter squeeze, probably due to the tools in his pockets. When he tried to pull himself back up, his upper thighs
made contact with the metal rim and the current passed through his torso. Once he was dead weight, he became even more tightly wedged. I understand they had quite a time extricating him.”
I drove to Miami Police headquarters, wondering about the man's final moments. Crime accelerates heart rates, sharpens senses. Thieves I know compare it to sex. Heart thudding, on an adrenaline high in the slick dark night, he had listened for footsteps, watched for police, but never saw the killer at hand. Twitching uncontrollably as his muscles contracted, his skin sizzling as he wet himself, he must have smelled the unmistakable odor of burning fleshâhis own.
Nobody in the Public Information Office just off the first-floor lobby could give me an update on the charges lodged against Gomez. Detective Levitan didn't pick up his phone in Homicide. I suspected he was in the building and wanted to track him down, but the new police chief frowns on reporters roaming the premises, and security is even more rigid since the terrorist attacks. I was told the top cop had no comment on the Gomez case.