The parking lot is loaded with pot-hole puddles and loose asphalt. I roll along the wet ground and park at my usual spot in front of the building. My ID badge is in the glove box next to my registration and insurance papers. They all have the name "Ben Skinner" on them. It took a few thousand to create the required credentials for my Pathologist Assistant job. The fake name and ID and cloned credit and forged fingerprints. It's hard to get a gig working with the city police department when you're a former felon.
The work's not too difficult. I do the prelims and prep. Full dissections for the civilian requests. Document any tattoos and scars and distinguishing marks, all visible wounds. Clean the body for the incisions. Lay out the sterilized medical tools. I get to weigh and record whatever the ME narrates. Then stitch the stiffs back up and clean up the mess. The county MEs make the final rulings. I'm better at picking up on the small details and the cause of death, but it's hard to get papers and testimony for a doctorate, so I'm stuck doing basic grunt work. So I just keep my head down, and work flawless.
It's a pretty good legit gig and pays well. I get to keep the hours I want. I don't have to deal with anyone except for the MEs and CSIs, and maybe a few detectives and beat cops here and there.
The Shelby County Regional Forensics Center building is deep on Madison. It's a large one story brown stone block with a tall glass awning that speaks modern and slick.
I slide my ID badge over my neck and pull a pawnshop MP3 player out of the center console. I put in the ear buds and turn on the player as I walk inside. Social Distortion's "I Was Wrong" chugs out an outlaw melody, vocals and lyrics channeling sorrow and a slow simmering anger. The lobby is bright and inviting, trailing off to labs and cubicles and closed offices. I swipe my badge across the magnetic reader at the doors to the basement. I skip the freight elevator and take the stairs down to the morgue where there are more labs and sterile autopsy rooms and the stainless steel freezer filled up with corpses.
The building closes down at four-thirty. The only people left are overtime stragglers, security, and the over-flows in the freezer. I only work nights. They never had anyone work that shift until I convinced them. I offered to expedite the civilian autopsies so the higher ups could focus on the criminal cases. I also said I was fine with making thirty percent less than everyone else in my job description because "I need the money". The Chief ME was more than happy to comply.
Stiff Little Fingers "Alternative Ulster" rocks through my ear buds as I turn on the basement halogens. The grit guitars sprint along with rough vocals and simple gunfire drums. I bob and nod along as I go through my duties. I put my coat on a rack in the locker room, a space a little larger than a janitor's closet with a small row of black paint brushed personal lockers.
The main autopsy room is large and gleaming clean. It's all white and stainless steel and near-invisible glass. Cabinets filled with various medical supplies and instruments. A metal wall of gridded refrigeration blocks where we hold already examined bodies for second opinions. The autopsy table is an angled aluminum-alloy slab with a rubber brick in the center to elevate a body's back and make the chest easier to cut into. Various faucets line the edges of the table to help wash away whatever leaks out after the incisions begin. There's a basin at the foot of the table that's meant to collect blood and other excrement and drain it out into the plumbing under the floor. A business class PC sleeps in the far corner of the room. A modest LCD monitor rests on top of the desktop case.
Farther along, the hall veers left at the freezer and runs into a few small labs and a couple smaller autopsy rooms for overflow. I rarely have to go down that way.
I log into the computer and pull up the files on the two bodies I'm supposed to handle tonight. Typically, it takes a person four hours to conduct a full autopsy. Since all of the preliminary documentation and external examinations have been done on the corpses I'm going to be working with, it shouldn't take more than two hours a pop. I print off the files and attach each one to a separate clipboard and flip through them making mental notes of anything out of the ordinary. It all seems pretty straight forward. I memorize the toe tag numbers and hook the clipboards to the counter near the autopsy table.
I wipe down the autopsy table and counters with sanitizer sheets. I take the autopsy instruments from their proper cabinets and drawers and racks and lay them out on an alloy tray next to the autopsy table.
Scalpel. Breadknife. Toothed forceps. Rib cutters. Scissors. Hammer with hook. Bone saw. Skull chisel. Enterodome. Stryker saw. Hagedorn needle. A few steel evidence pans All lined even and shining. Staring back at me hungry and silent. Perfect.
I go to my locker and change into my pale green scrubs, plastic apron, and face shield. Snap on a pair of black latex gloves. I wear the scrubs over my normal clothes. The face shield sits snug against my forehead and flips down like a riot mask. Have to follow procedure, even if I'm alone and no one would care. It's the principle of the act.
I go to the freezer at the end of the basement hall and pop open the latch. A tiny blizzard sweeps over my face. The temp in the freezer sends bumps along my skin and makes my eyes dry out. There is a cluster of stretchers resting eerie along the walls. Some of the corpses are in heavy black polymer body bags. The others are covered by thin cloth sheets.
I find the toe tag for my first body. The sheet slides soft and easy from her face. The file says her name was "Esmeralda Guadalupe". 41. Five foot Four inches. A hundred-fifty pounds. Found dead in a desperate part of North Memphis. An abandoned lot on the corner of Sam Cooper and Tillman. Probably dumped there. The prelims say overdose. The deep track marks all over her arms agree. There isn't a tox report in her file, so I have to look for the cause of death based on her insides.
She has that haggard angry Hispanic mother look. Face deeply etched with wrinkles. Brown hair, long and filled with knots. Her eyes are wide and filled with stirring storm clouds. Her limbs are contorted at shallow angles, barely enough to notice. Her back is slightly arched and locked in an uncomfortable way. Well, uncomfortable if she were alive. I take a deep breath and stare into her for a minute. I'm pretty sure I know how she went.
I've always been calm around the dead. Comfortable in a way. No worry, no threat, no need to predict actions. No judgment. No reactions at all. The dead are just there, waiting to speak a language of silence and flesh.
I grip the edge of the stretcher near her head and nudge her out and along the hall to the autopsy room. The stretcher creaks under my hands. The wheels clack on the tiles. The body isn't that hard to move into position for the examination. It's something I'm used to. I'm delicate and make sure the head and back are aligned proper on the table. I remove the sheet, place it on the stretcher, and then wheel the stretcher to a far corner of the room.
Esmeralda's breasts sag low and heavy against her torso. Her flesh is gray, sunken in and coated in a light frost. Her back is purple-black from where the blood has rested. There's a light smear of rust red at the corner of her mouth. The blood stain wasn't in the prelim. Someone either missed it, or is avoiding another homicide.
I pull down the pressure hose from the ceiling and wash off any excess debris and contaminants. I scrub down her skin and it feels rubbery. Her body writhes under my touch. I gently soak down her hair, it's still soft and the nats come out with the water. I breathe calm as I do my work. In through my nose and out through my mouth, ignoring the sting of antiseptics and decay.
I start with the Y-incision. I curve the scalpel along the underside of her breasts and complete the cut at the sternum. I cut quick and strong and the skin and muscle and fat separate with no resistance. The lacerations open up like whispering mouths. Ready to spill secrets like the trailing blood. I peel back the flesh with my hand and expose the ribs. Thick gore clings to my fingers. I snap the rib cage at the cartilage with the rib cutter. It reminds me of the Bonzai tree I kept in prison. The one that I used to harvest ice-pick sharp branches. Weapons that the COs had too much trouble locating. I remove the front of the rib cage and set it aside in a wide multi-purpose sink along the counter. Then I go to work with the scalpel again, removing the larynx and esophagus. Then the arteries and ligaments. Then I disconnect the major organs from the vertebrae.
Nick Cave's "Song of Joy" creeps slow and dark through my ear buds setting a solemn mood. The piano sings sinister and the vocals narrate intense and unsettling. It makes me remember evil men I've met. Massacres I've seen. That I've caused and hidden.
I go to the sink and rinse my hands. The fat and blood whirlpool yellow and red down the drain. There's a digital camera in a drawer near the computer. I take out the camera and snap reference shots of her chest cavity then set it back down on the counter.
I remove each of the organs one at a time and weigh them on a digital scale and memorize the weight and take tissue samples. Heart. Liver. Lungs. Kidneys. There are patches of deep worn tissue on the heart, dead tissue from strain, and dark pockets of blood along the lungs. Esmeralda's file said she was to be cremated by request of her family. A husband and two teenage sons. I place the samples in small zip baggies and the organs in clear epoxy-sealing plastic bags marked for incineration. The samples go on the counter. The organs are dropped into a red plastic biohazard bin.
Next is the stomach. I cut it out and then slit it open. I drain the contents into a sample bag and inspect it. There's a high concentration of bile. No sign that she'd eaten anything noticeable in the hours before her death. The acid levels will have to be tested, but I know the cause of death now.
Esmeralda was the victim of a hot shot. Her last dose was heavily cut with rat poison. Probably cyanide based. It caused hemorrhaging of the lungs. She coughed up blood and foam that was probably wiped away by a bad cop or the spill she took from her dealer's car. Her stomach acid level will be incredibly high. Her blood will be saturated with the kill-chemicals.
I don't even bother with the brain at this point. I take the ribcage out of the sink and settle it back into place. I fold the torso skin like origami to prep for the final stitching. The Hagedorn needle is cold to the touch. It's a heavy gauge and has a curve to hook deep into flesh and muscle. The stainless steel gleams as I thread the tough surgical thread into it. I move with the speed I learned through my combat medic training. When I finish I snap off my gloves and drop them in the biohazard bin and move back to Esmeralda's side.
I remove my ear buds and look back into her hurricane eyes and stand still, just breathing. I swear that the hard edges in her face soften. The reposed expression calms. I swear I can feel the serenity wash over her. I don't smile, but feel like I could.