A hint of a sickening odor spread through the room. Bitter, nauseating, sweet, and coppery, it was like nothing I had smelled before; a greasy, burned pork roast mixed with charred leather. Bile rose to my throat.
I turned away and saw Runa, standing statue-still behind me, her face so pale she looked dead herself. And in a sense, she was. Losing my mother and sister would’ve killed a part of me. It must have hurt so much. All we could do was hope that they’d died before the fire reached them. Nobody deserved to burn to death.
“Satisfied?” Conway asked. “Wouldn’t it have been better to remember them the way they were?”
“No,” Runa said. “I want to remember them just like this. I’ll never forget this, and I’ll make whoever did this pay.”
“This was a tragic but accidental fire,” Conway said. “It’s natural to look for someone to blame, but we’ve found no signs of violence. My estimate is that the arson investigation will uncover the source of the fire and the final finding will demonstrate a terrible turn of events but not a criminal one. Go home, Miss Etterson. You’ll find no answers here.”
“Was there particulate found in the lungs?” I asked.
He glared at me and took a step forward. Trying to intimidate me with his age and size.
All my life I worked at being overlooked. Drawing any attention to myself meant putting others in danger. I didn’t just avoid conflict, I made sure I would never be anywhere near it. My natural inclination was to flee; out of the institute, to my car, and then to the safety of the warehouse and my family where everybody loved me, so I could recover from being glared at by this jerk.
However, there were two bodies on the tables and Runa needed answers. I took the job and I had to do it. Besides, I was right, and he was wrong.
I channeled my best impression of a displeased Arrosa Rogan, fixed Conway with a frigid stare, and held it. Eye contact and derision didn’t come naturally to me, but Rogan’s mother had been adamant that I learn how to do both. I practiced this expression in the mirror for weeks until I got it just right. It was like firing an emotional shotgun loaded with cold disgust.
Conway halted in mid-move.
“I assume they keep you around because you’re good at your job, since your manner and conduct are appalling. That you would meet a survivor with aggression and arrogance is beyond any guidelines of the ME’s office or common human decency.”
Conway’s face turned purple.
“So, I’ll ask again. Was there smoke in their lungs? If you can’t answer my question, find someone who can.”
Conway drew in a deep, rage-filled breath. I braced myself.
Victor appeared in the doorway.
“What?” Conway roared at him.
Victor stepped aside, letting a man in a severe black suit into the room.
“Hello, Mr. Fullerton,” I said.
The Scroll representative walked into the room. He was in his forties, trim, neat, with skin tanned by the sun, and dark hair combed back from his face. His eyes were an unexpected, very light shade of blue. They were also the only spot of color. Everything else—the Wolf & Shepherd oxfords, the tailored suit, the crisp shirt, the impeccable tie, and the glasses—was black.
“Ms. Baylor, it’s always a pleasure.” He offered his hand to Runa and she shook it. “Ms. Etterson, my deepest condolences.”
“Who is this?” Conway demanded.
Fullerton looked at him for a full second. “I’m here on behalf of Scroll, Inc., to perform genetic identification at House Etterson’s request.”
Conway’s eyes went glassy and wide. Panic shivered in his brown irises. He took a jerky step back and threw his arms out to his sides, touching each corpse. A wave of revulsion slammed into me, sudden and overwhelming, a terrible feeling that things had just gone horribly, horribly wrong.
The desiccated body on the table next to me lunged up. I saw it coming but my mind had half a second to react, and it refused to accept what it was seeing. The corpse leaped at me. Cold, hard fingers locked on my throat.
Panic slapped me. The air vanished. Pain clamped my throat in a steel vise and squeezed.
Conway sprinted to the door. Fullerton stepped aside, letting Conway pass, his face perfectly calm as if we were at a society lunch. Runa spun, aiming at Conway with her hand. If she poisoned him, whatever he knew would die with him.
I clamped my hands together and drove them up between the corpse’s arms. Its hands fell off my neck and I rammed my heel into its midsection. It stumbled back.
“No!” I croaked.
A burst of green shot from Runa like a striking viper and lashed Conway’s shoulders, just before the other corpse jumped over me and landed on her back. Conway dove through the doorway and vanished from sight.