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Four Degrees Above Freezing

It was the fastest I'd seen the ME move. He beat me to the call by at least five minutes. But it turned out he was already at Larry's, buying a six pack of piss-warm Bud Light when the page went out. When I asked if anything was out of the ordinary, he exhaled through his moustache. "Body core temperature of 36 Fahrenheit." He said it like it meant something, but didn't elaborate.

"How cold is it outside, Larry?" I asked. He stared at the mercury thermometer like he was reading a fine print book. "Thirty eight, thirty seven." I walked over. "It's almost forty one. Did you and Cheryl get in a fight, Larry?"

"No, sir," he said. "When'd you see her last?" "Couple days." His face was old, sad, worn, but his eyes wouldn't leave me.

"Where'd you find the body, Larry?" He adjusted his hat over his silvering hair. "Out back." He turned like a mastodon and lumbered across the floorboards like his grief was chained to his ankles.

There was a sign on the refrigerators by the counter said "Sale - All Coke Products 50%." Every two liter and glass bottle was gone, but the cans, which seemed to be the reason for the sale, were stacked unsteadily in their place in the warm fridge. "You coming?" Larry asked, stalled at the back door. "Yeah."

"I, I found her back here. Beside the dumpster, but hidden so's I didn't see her until I came back to empty the trash." His knees failed him and he caught himself on the edge of the dumpster. I helped him stand, and he leaned heavy on my shoulder. "Take her easy." There was a buzzing sound behind me, like a bug zapper. It was the old Coke machine, washing the back of the store in a diseased red light.

The marquee display on the Coke machine flashed its internal temperature, as if the promise of a cold drink was endorsement enough. "She was laying on her front, looking behind the dumpster. There was, there was a rat, sitting in the corner there, staring at her, like..." and I almost dropped him on the pavement.

"Come on, Larry. You need something cool to drink." His feet stopped moving, just planted on the concrete. "I'll buy you a Coke. On me."

"I'm not thirsty." He wouldn't budge, so I pulled until he tipped over, and he fell in step. I dropped three quarters into the machine, and it spat them all out at me. The display flashed red, angry letters at me: EMPTY.

"Now Larry, why would this machine be empty if you've got a dirge of cans just inside the door? Maybe folks buy in ones or twos to get them cold, but at the sale price for a buck you get six cans." The lock was busted clean open. "When did you report the door broken, Larry?"

"Few days ago." I pulled on the face of the machine, and it swung open. The machine had been gutted, all the cans and racks removed. It stank of lemon. "You kill Cheryl the same day?" He started to shake. "Christ, Bill, you don't understand." I took him as far as the back wall of his store and he used the wall to prop himself up. "No, Larry. Don't think I will, either."

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