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Too Hard A Haunt by Sophie Kearing

Updated: 7 days ago

Not only have I been saddled with a rookie, but he’s an annoying sunworshipper from Malibu who can’t stop complaining about how cold his hands are.

Well, this is a snow town, and weaklings need not apply. We veteran citizens are perfectly accustomed to the steady 27-degree climate and the perpetually white landscape. What we’re not accustomed to is the relentless storm that pummeled us for three days last week. It was followed by four days of subzero conditions that held us in a state of disgruntled hibernation. This is the first day in a week the sun has graced us with its dazzling presence and caused the temperature to rise above ten degrees.

The aftermath of the blizzard brings this station dozens of phone calls from the residents of our bewildered community: people trying to free their cars from enormous mounds of snow, people complaining about their frozen pipes. Eventually we get a call that actually applies to us: A body’s been found on old Sonny Vandrich’s property. At the risk of sounding like a complete sociopath, I’m pleased as punch.

The rook and I arrive at Vandrich’s house to find that the gray-haired man and two of his friends, oversized noses pink with cold, have been hard at work with their shovels.

“Took all three of us to dig out the shed so we could get my damn snow blower out,” Vandrich explains, leading me into the surprisingly large, well-ordered space. “But the snow blower ain’t all we found….” He thrusts a heavily gloved finger at the body.

It’s a man—naked, slim yet doughy, fingernails torn and caked with blood.

“And you had to pull aside these tarps in order to uncover him?” I ask.

“Yes, ma’am,” Vandrich says. “The killer must’ve piled ’em on top of the poor guy, hoping to hide ’im.”

I nod. “And do you know this man?”

“Hey now, Alex,” says Mr. Crayson, a man who’s known me since I was in his high school history class. “Don’t you go trying to make a connection between this dead guy and Sonny here. This is clearly a sex crime, and the three of us are happily married men.” He takes a step forward, boots depositing chunks of snow on the gray flooring.

“I’m gonna have to ask you to stay out of the shed, Mr. Crayson. In fact, ‘Sonny here’ will have to vacate as well. This is a crime scene now, fellas.” I say this even though I know fully well it isn’t.

Once we’re alone, the rookie rubs his hands together robustly. “This is great. My first murder.”

“It’s not a murder,” I say, eyeing the dead man’s ruined fingertips. “See his hands?”

“Yeah. Defensive wounds. That’s how I know the old guys didn’t do this. If they had, their faces would be scratched to shit.”

“Well, you’re right about Sonny Vandrich and his friends having nothing to do with this…but those aren’t defensive wounds. When this body’s lifted, we’re sure to find bloody streaks on the floor beneath it. That’s because in the final stages of hypothermia, people engage in something called ‘terminal burrowing.’ It’s when they give a last-ditch effort to conserve their body heat by digging for tight surroundings. This guy got under the tarps and tried burrowing into the ground.”

“Um, shouldn’t he’ve tried burrowing out of this fucking shed and into his house?”

I gesture around at the dead man’s bulging backpack, dirty sleeping bag, and two empty liquor bottles. “This guy probably didn’t have a house, Rook. He was probably squatting in here…passed out and woke up to find himself snowed in. When the subzero temperatures hit, even these tarps couldn’t’ve kept him warm, and he couldn’t get out of here no matter what he did.”

“I don’t buy it. This guy’s been stripped naked, Alex. If he was literally freezing to death, there’s no way he would’ve taken off his clothes.”

“Yes, he would’ve. In the intermediate stages of hypothermia, some people undress. The blood vessels in their extremities narrow to prevent heat loss. When that happens, it makes them feel like they’re burning up. They rip their clothes off, thinking they need to cool down. Obviously, that’s the worst thing they can do.”

“Well Christ. You’d think they’d know better.”

“They’re not exactly in their right minds.” I sigh, my breath blooming whitely before me. “Shivering and bad coordination are only the beginning for people with hypothermia. Their mental processes only get more impaired as time goes on.”

“Fine. Then we better have Corbin’s guys come pick up the body.”

I take out my phone. “No, we need Forensics. I’m pretty sure of my theory, but…we better treat this like a crime scene anyway.”

I wait for the rook to ask if there’s even a homeless population in this area. That’s the sort of question that should rattle around in his brain if he’s to succeed in this profession. I think about the prison escape that happened the next city over. The unfortunate soul on this floor is more likely to have been a felon passing through than a vagrant. There may be plenty of beach bums in Malibu, but a snow town like this would make too hard a haunt for a man unhoused.

“So…” The rookie crosses his arms and tucks his hands into his armpits. “Where should we go for lunch?”

Phone pressed to my ear, I roll my eyes. “Go question Mr. Vandrich and his friends.”

“In the house, right?” Rook asks annoyingly.

“Go,” I say. “And have him put on a pot of coffee.”

“Will do.”

I watch as the rookie follows Mr. Vandrich into the house. Forensics comes on the line. I give them the address and wait for them in the driveway, which is flanked by mounds of snow taller than I am. This isn’t a crime scene, but it is going to be a long afternoon. And it’s not even a murder. Just stupid hypothermia. Of course, I should be relieved there’s not a killer loose in this town, but instead, the itchy confinement of boredom sets in. I call Dispatch.

“Any new calls come in?”

“Not since you left. Why?”

“Oh, no reason.”

“Alex,” Dispatch says, amused. “Are you still waiting for murder and mayhem?”

“No,” I reply sulkily.

Dispatch chuckles. “You might wanna find a job in a more exciting town.”

I hang up and stare out at the colorless sky, wondering if Malibu has murders.

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