John Mellanger stepped out of the driver’s seat of the Crown Vic and onto the dusty street. He looked back at the vehicle so graciously granted him by the Municipality of Ducksburg. It was unmarked, but it wouldn’t have looked much more like a cop car if it had flashing lights and an angry man in a wife-beater screaming obscenities from the back seat. He wondered if he was just the same as the car. If, without a uniform, he managed to look like a cop. He wondered if this was the kind of town where that mattered, these days. It had been a while.
“Detective Inspector Mellanger?” said a voice from behind him. He turned around and saw a uniformed officer trotting towards him, a tablet computer in one hand and a brown paper bag in the other. “Detective Inspector? Is that you?”
“Detective Inspector?” he asked as the woman reached him. “You were expecting Scotland Yard?”
“Oh, sorry about that,” she said. “Force of habit, don’t you know. Your predecessor, DI Matthews, I mean detective Matthews, that’s what she liked to be called. Bit of an Anglophile, I suppose. Crazy for Sherlock Holmes. A bit strange, that, since the inspector wasn’t the smart one, was he? But to each their own. I’m Chi. Chi-wei Taan. We spoke on the phone?”
She transferred the bag in her left hand to her right and reached out to shake his hand.
“Officer Taan,” he said as he gripped her palm.
“Oh, you can call me Chi,” she said. “We don’t much stand on formality here. Not like the big city, I suppose, though you’d know that better than I would. You’ll be wanting to see the crime scene, then?”
“That’s right,” said John. The crime scene was clearly visible from where they were, and he’d driven through the police barricade to park, but he didn’t see much reason to point that out.
Chi nodded. “This way.” She turned around and walked briskly towards the mass of people and mangled machinery.
John took the only cigarette out of the case in his jacket pocket and put it in his mouth. He didn’t light it. Chi wasn’t what he expected from speaking to her on the phone. She looked like she was from Taiwan, but sounded like she was from Minnesota. Both of those could be true, but it was unusual. Minnesotans and Taiwanese didn’t move to Ducksburg. People in Ducksburg came from Ducksberg.
Chi turned around and looked at him with an expression like she’d just remembered she needed to water the cactus.
“Would you like a javanut?” she said.
“A javanut,” she said, as she tucked her tablet under her left armpit and reached into the paper bag. She pulled out an unusual looking donut. “Coffee and a donut all in one package. My husband bakes them. Bernard, that’s my husband. He owns the Pie Walk, that’s the bakery down on Locust Street. You should stop in some time. No charge for police officers. Except for functions, of course. Like the upcoming ball. Are you going to the ball? We have to charge for those, otherwise we’d be out of business.”
“The Pie Walk?” John asked as he took the donut. It was still warm. “Not the Cake Walk?”
“Oh no, he prefers pies to cakes. Of course he does bake cakes. You can’t run a bakery without baking cakes, for birthdays and weddings and such. Of course Bernard always recommends speciality pies for those occasions, but I tell him, ‘Bernard,’ I tell him, ‘people do like their traditions. Not much you can do about that.’ Go ahead and eat that while it’s warm, now.”
John wasn’t hungry, but if eating a donut would get this woman to stop filling the air with words, it was donut worth eating. He slipped the unlit cigarette back into the case and bit into the pastry. The texture was dry, but it was filled to the edges with a thick cream that tasted like warm espresso ice cream. John had never had a sweet tooth, but it tasted magnificent.
“Good, isn’t it? The boys go crazy for them. Bit of a cliche, I suppose, cops and donuts. But who doesn’t love donuts?”
He couldn’t answer without violating the air of badass stoicism necessary for a police detective, so he grunted in approval. Chi grinned in satisfaction, then turned and resumed her walk. John followed, finishing the javanut in a few more bites.
“And here we are,” said Chi a minute later. “Here is the accident, and these are the boys.”
Three men surrounded the remains of two cars that lay sprawled across the left lane of the road and into the shoulder. Chi had described the accident to him over the phone, but seeing it in person was dramatic. The two vehicles had slammed into each other head on, apparently at speed, and fused into a single monstrosity of automotive wreckage.
He remembered hearing an urban legend about two cars that collided like this and compressed a pedestrian into the world’s least appetizing pancake. No one noticed there was a body until a few days later, when it started to stink. He’d have to make sure the guys at the yard checked for signs of a victim. In any normal situation the odds against it would be staggering. As far as he knew it had never really happened; it was just a legend. But that kind of thing didn’t matter. Not here, not now. This was Ducksburg, and even though he didn’t know what it was, there was a reason John was here.