R e v e r i e
by Politic X
10: the autopsy suite


The hospital is rather large for the size of the town, old and rambling, with narrow corridors and yellowed tiles; it has an autopsy suite, a fact which greatly pleases me.  Nothing's worse than conducting examinations at a mortuary, unless it's traveling thirty miles to the next town over to perform an autopsy and thirty miles back to continue the investigation.

The suite is ancient and tiny, with a single porcelain autopsy table.  The rooms are cramped and stocked full of bodies, dead and alive.  Besides the females from our case, there are also three male corpses - two dead from gunshot wounds and one from an apparent heart attack.  It's been a busy week in Aural, Washington.

The pathologist is here, waiting for us with the assistant that helped him perform the autopsies over the course of the week, and Detective Richard Heitt makes introductions all around.  He's a tall man, graying and slender, with a bent nose and broad shoulders.  His face is animated and intelligent, his eyes warm.  His regard for Monica is one of respect and familiarity.  Apparently, they've hit it off.  Heitt's regard for me is another story.

His eyes stay on mine throughout our brief introduction and he seems reluctant to pull them away to tell us of the latest news.  "Another one was found twenty minutes ago.  I'd like to get you both over to the crime scene."

Monica shakes her head.  "I'd rather you stay here," she says, looking at me.  "I'm anxious to find out the results of your examination."

I nod, mutely.  I'm watching Heitt, looking impossibly like Alan Alda in a charcoal blazer and denim shirt.  Heitt is, in turn, watching me.  Monica shifts uncomfortably. 

Heitt peels his eyes away from me to glance at her.  "It would be nice to have another scientist at the scene.  With all due respect, Dr. Scully can always come here later in the day."

Monica looks at me, waiting for my decision.

"Thank you, Detective Heitt, but I agree with my partner on this.  There's something that we need to know about the victims as soon as possible."  I stare into Monica's brown eyes.  "Something that may have been overlooked."

Heitt nods.  "Of course."  He waves a hand at the room.  "The people of Hemec County, both living and dead, are at your disposal.  If there's anything you need...."  His words trail off.

"I'll call you,"  Monica says to me.  She points to the case file that I've been holding since we departed from the airport.  "Take a look at the pictures when you get a minute; the quality's a lot better."

As they exit the autopsy bay, the door swings slowly shut behind them and I hear Heitt's voice.  "You failed to mention she was drop dead gorgeous."  And I strain to hear Monica's reply.  I miss most of it, just one word: "yep" and the rest is lost to my ears.

The manner in which Heitt had gazed at me leaves me feeling amused and flattered.  Apparently the under-eye concealer I buy is worth my money.  It's enough to buoy me up for a few moments, and Monica's terse "yep" buoys me even higher, until I begin my work.

Examining the bodies will be a slow process.  What Monica believes is that I'll simply cart each one out, give it the once-over, and be done.  What she fails to realize is that we need to conduct thorough inspections of each body.  Thoroughness may be painstaking, but it's proven its merits.  I want to know that the locals haven't been sloppy in their work.  I want to know if there are clues that have gone undiscovered.  I want to satisfy myself, and this is not done in speed.

Impatiently, I wait for the Aural pathologist to take me through the results of his autopsies.  He seems to be a diligent man, carefully slow.  I listen as he reads his notes, but I don't hear him.

My mind is focused on the coffee cup he holds.  It's an opalescent piece of stoneware - pink, black and gray swirled together.  It's the color of the three basal cell carcinomas that were removed from my oldest brother's neck last year.

Maybe it's because of my medical background that I associate color with disease.  Autopsies are sickening whorls of blue-tinted flesh, black-red blood, brown-yellow bile and gray-brown brain tissue.  The smells are just as overwhelming.  Despite menthol under the nose and formaldehyde in the jars, the odor of death can't be masked.

A forensic pathologist doesn't become accustomed to the hues and aromas of death; she just tunes them out.  For most, this means detaching themselves from the situation.  Once the autopsy is over and the doctor returns to the world of the living, she tunes herself back in to the messages the occipital and parietal lobes are sending her.  She can leave the coroner's office or crime scene or morgue and go home to her quiet apartment, appreciating the soothing pink of her easy chair and the strong scent of freshly brewed coffee.

Sometimes, however, the forensic pathologist can no longer continue the attach/detach dance.  She may find that she's tuning in to the frequency of her occipital and parietal lobes during an autopsy.  She may find herself suddenly aware of the yellow-white mucus and the yellow-green pus; she may find herself suddenly aware of the cloying, foul stench of death.  She may become dizzy or faint.  She may vomit into the open bowels of a cadaver.  She may leave the autopsy bay vowing never to return.

Years later, instead of tuning in at the inappropriate times, the forensic pathologist may find that she's tuning out her occipital and parietal messages altogether.  She may find that she no longer processes color or aroma, even when the information being sent to her nose and eyes is pleasant.  She may not notice that the great-looking woman smiling at her has eyes that are a rich, coffee brown or that she's wearing a sage green vest or that she smells like eucalyptus and honey.  The appetite of the forensic pathologist may suddenly vanish, as the pungent smell of her favorite spaghetti sauce no longer pierces her senses.  She may take careful time with her wardrobe and appearance only to be surprised when she opens her closet one day to discover nothing but monochrome suits.

The forensic pathologist may find herself becoming dulled by the routine of autopsies.  She may find herself searching for something more than skin that's stripped from shoulder to ankle, for something more than missing ovaries or carefully placed microchips.  She may find herself searching for something more gruesome, more outrageous, more interesting. 

She may find herself pleased when another anomaly presents itself.

At three o'clock Monica stops in to check on my progress and my general well being.  "Have you found anything?"  She watches me from a couple of yards away as I examine the feet of one victim. 

"I'm only on the second, Monica."  With the back of my sleeve, I wipe away a strand of hair that keeps falling over my field of vision.  "The first does have an implant, though.  And missing ovaries."  And other aberrations that I'm not willing to discuss until I've finished examining all of them.  "What did you find?"

She runs a hand through her own disheveled hair.  "Fifth victim is Kim Timur.  Thirty-one; an engineer.  Single.  Same method, same everything.  Messages written in blood on her walls."

I walk to the other end of the table that holds Jessie Ramsey and begin manipulating the head.  "What do the messages say?"

Monica glances at a notepad she's removed from a pocket.  "The walls are hard to read.  What we could decipher from them was due to our expectations based on the last victims' notes.  She wrote her name again, and 'go away', 'leave me alone,' and 'all these singing voices'.  So this just keeps getting stranger all the time, doesn't it?  You were hearing singing voices in your dream, right?  A song, anyway.  'Don't Fear the Reaper.'"  She watches me for a few minutes in silence. 

"Have you eaten?"

I nod.  I had a pack of crackers from the hospital vending machine two hours ago. 

"I'm going to do a quick walk-through of the other crime scenes."  She rubs her neck.  "I only got to see one of them last night.  I'll check back with you later."

I nod again.

When she's gone, I move back to Ramsey's feet and examine something that had caught my attention before Monica walked in the door.  There are markings on an area of the right ankle that haven't been obliterated by a knife.  I push the cut folds of skin together so that the markings form a small picture.  Dolphins. 

Ramsey's body, like those of the victim I've already examined, has a tattoo.

Time is being marked by organs.  They've all been previously removed per the parameters of autopsy work, and are packed in jars and containers, weighed and labeled.  The skin has been measured.  The strips of flesh range in size from 1.5 to 2.75 centimeters wide, and each is as long as the limb it's attached to. 

I study photographs of the women from the case file Monica left me.  Five lives cut short by their own hands.  I can't understand how those hands managed such a perfect job.  The incisions are too precise to have been self-inflicted; no one could have done this to themselves.  Still... my mind drifts back to the dream and I remember clearly the straight line drawn on my arm by the knife.  It had been painless in the dream; the knife had almost moved of its own volition.

I go back to work, alternately reading notes, examining tissue and surveying the hulls of the bodies left.  The victim found today will be brought here shortly and I'd like to be finished when she arrives.  I don't want to follow up on someone else's autopsy with her; I want to conduct my own.

The third woman is blonde, fair-skinned and small.  Her tattoo is not of dolphins, but a heart.  It's not on her ankle, but on her arm.  Her ovaries were not found when the pathologist did his work on Friday.  She has a chip implanted in her neck.  I place it in a small jar and label it.

And so it goes.  When Monica comes in again, I'm weary.  It's almost eleven p.m. and I'm finishing the fifth victim, the engineer.  Her body, once whole and healthy, is an empty shell. 

I've removed all of the organs, leaving open pits in the chest, abdomen and pelvic regions.  There were no ovaries to cut in half and examine, but I incised the neck, and the microchip is in a row of bottles with the others. 

Kim Timur's brain is hanging by a string in a jar of formaldehyde.  When it's stable enough, the pathologist's assistant will slice tissue samples for study, and what remains of the brain will be incinerated with the rest of her organs.  Kim Timur, whose organs currently reside in bottles and jars, whose body lies open on the table, will never be whole again.  Parts of her will go to a grave and parts of her will be burned.  The parts of her that I've been most interested in will become slides under a microscope. 

I stand over the shell of her body.  The top of her head is gone.  The scalp is pulled down over her face.  I feel, as I sometimes do, like a vulture, feasting on a carcass.

"What've you got?"  Monica stares at the corpse with either detachment or fixed horror; it's hard to tell which with her frozen face. 

"They're all the same, Monica."


I nod.

"Missing ovaries?"

I nod.  "And tattoos.  They all have tattoos."

She tears her eyes from the body and studies me in fascination.  "What kind of tattoos?"

I shrug.  "Different.  Butterflies, dolphins..."  I point to the table.  "Elvis.  All different."

"You have a tattoo, Dana."

"It's not that uncommon."

"Not in this case, at any rate."  She cracks her knuckles, one by one.  "It's not something I expected, but it ties in with the theory I've got."

I want to separate myself from the immediacy of death before getting into semantics.  "Why don't you wait for me outside?  We'll head back to the motel and review."

Monica leaves and I look at the pathologist, who has stuck with me through almost twelve hours of endless death, on a Sunday, no less.  His autopsy bay is overflowing.  Tomorrow morning the bodies will be transported to the various funeral homes chosen by the victims' families; there's simply no room for another Aural death.

All that remains is for me to give the word to the pathologist's assistant to do the sutures.  When Timur's body is closed, the organs won't be inside.  Her body will be sunken and twisted like Frankenstein's bride when she reaches the mortuary.  It's my job to determine cause of death; it's someone else's job to make her presentable for the ceremony which follows, if that's possible.  I highly doubt that even those closest to her will see her face in repose.  Timur will have a closed casket service.

I nod at the assistant, signaling him to close her up, and to the pathologist himself, signaling my appreciation.  He answered all of my questions, allowed me to further examine the bodies he'd been so thorough with and bowed aside gracefully when I asked to perform the fifth autopsy myself.  I strip off my gloves to shake his hand.  


 Posted 10/31/03