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The doctor shook his head. "No idea yet."

Yes. And if the case file can be believed, SHC-spontaneous human combustion, as it's referred to-is far from being a joke.

The voice was cut off by the unbearably shrill sound of the fire alarm in the hall, followed by the even louder blare of the siren within her apartment. She dropped the phone, covering her ears. A moment later there was a snapping noise as the sprinklers went off, and suddenly the room was full of water, streaming everywhere.

The doctor shook his head. "No idea yet."

There is more in the world than is dreamt of in your philosophy, Doctor-or in theMerck Manual . I will send over the case file for your perusal.

The M.E. ducked in. "Finished?"

The M.E. ducked in. "Finished?"

Not yet. Heating,burning , is clear. But as for the cause . . . I have no idea.

Mrs. Dallbridge was in such a state of shock that she remained frozen as a statue, uncomprehending, while the spray slowly darkened her gown and her lovely bedspread and refilled the teacup on her tray with gray, chill water.

As you wish. The doctor departed with the SOC man, leaving them alone with the body.

He had seen a lot of unpleasant homicides in his day, but nothing could have prepared him for what lay on the floor beside the bed. It was a corpse, that much at least was clear: it had ruptured in a way he'd never seen before, the corpse unzipping itself from pubis to sternum, vomiting a shrunken tangle of burned and blackened organs. In an almost unconscious gesture, he reached up and touched the cross underneath his shirt, feeling its reassuring presence. If there was a devil, this was how he'd do it. This was definitely how he'd do it.

Negative, at least prelim, the SOC man answered. "There are other anomalies. Note the lack of the pugilistic effect-there's none of the contraction of the arm muscles one usually sees in such severe burn cases. Note also the heat fracturing in the bones of the extremities. Nearer the center of the body, the bones have actually been calcined. Do you have any idea how hot a fire would have to be to cause this kind of damage? Well over the combustion threshold. And yet there was no room flashover. In fact, from the look of things, the fire never evenapproached flashover. The heat was localized to the body, and the body only."

Not yet. Heating,burning , is clear. But as for the cause . . . I have no idea.

It's kind of a legend in medical school. A joke, really. I seem to recall the FBI handled it.

There is more in the world than is dreamt of in your philosophy, Doctor-or in theMerck Manual . I will send over the case file for your perusal.

The doctor gave a low, cynical laugh. "You FBI fellows and your acronyms. I don't believe you'll find 'SHC' in theMerck Manual , Mr. Pendergast."

Not yet. Heating,burning , is clear. But as for the cause . . . I have no idea.

Accelerants?

There is more in the world than is dreamt of in your philosophy, Doctor-or in theMerck Manual . I will send over the case file for your perusal.

As you wish. The doctor departed with the SOC man, leaving them alone with the body.

He glanced over at Pendergast and felt faintly gratified to see that even the great detective was looking whiter than usual. Pendergast's normal impulses to poke, pry, and sniff seemed to have deserted him. He stood there, dressed in white tie and tails, something almost like shock on his face.

You know of that case, Doctor?

What kind of heat was applied?

He had seen a lot of unpleasant homicides in his day, but nothing could have prepared him for what lay on the floor beside the bed. It was a corpse, that much at least was clear: it had ruptured in a way he'd never seen before, the corpse unzipping itself from pubis to sternum, vomiting a shrunken tangle of burned and blackened organs. In an almost unconscious gesture, he reached up and touched the cross underneath his shirt, feeling its reassuring presence. If there was a devil, this was how he'd do it. This was definitely how he'd do it.

It's kind of a legend in medical school. A joke, really. I seem to recall the FBI handled it.

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