I was supposed to be in a trapeze class.
“I’m supposed to be in trapeze class.” I wailed to the officers who had called me to the scene of another suicide.
They didn’t look terribly sympathetic.
“Dammit,” I grunted as I surveyed the setting.
On the upside, at least this guy had the decency to off himself outside, rather than in his home… like so many, less conscientious suicide victims who don’t really think about the mess they’re going to leave behind- physically or mentally. Of course, I get that during the dark night of the soul, most folks are thinking about the meaninglessness of life… the slate gray expanse of time that stretches before them like an ocean-less beach on the shores of eternity. They’re not thinking about the fact that their family is going to have to do something about the bullet hole they left in the wall, nor are they considering that a really gruesome bio-hazard clean-up is going to cost their next-of-kin at least a couple thousand dollars…
… and that’s just the corporeal mess.
I’m not sure if I believe in hauntings, possessions, poltergeists and all of that cable TV hooey. All the same, I can’t imagine continuing to live in the same home where a loved one killed himself. Regardless of one’s belief in the metaphysical, it would just be fucking traumatic… to look around and see “the aftermath” every damn day. Seriously, that would utterly suck.
So every time I come to a scene where someone has gone outside to kill themselves, I always kind of want to high-five the corpse for having been a thoughtful person and saving everyone the trouble of bloodstains and brain matter on the carpet. Strong work buddy, you might have been drowning in the inky blackness of self-loathing, but you’re top notch in my book.
Of course… my kudos for this, particular dude were curtailed by the fact that he had opted to hike into the thorny, brambled woods behind his home and then descend the steep face of a 100 foot ravine before he shot himself in the head. His choice in locale for his final exit would mean an extensive extrication effort involving lots of ropes, pulleys and of course my least favorite heavy machinery devices: the fire department.
My last interaction with this, particular, fire department had been anything but satisfactory- It had been Thanksgiving day, and they seemed particularly miffed at the notion of doing some actual work… which rudely pulled them away from their crucial duty of accepting homemade baked goods from the desperate housewives of their neighborhood. These heroes had balked at helping me and a single funeral home employee as we two wrestled a blood-soaked 400 lb homicide victim out of a back room, stuffed him into a body-bag and then hauled him to the front entryway of his residence. But as soon as the time came to actually move the dead guy out of the house…. and into the view of roughly half-a-dozen news crews that had responded to the scene of the “holiday shoot-out” …the fire prima-donnas had scurried forward to seize the dead guy and the stretcher, shoo-ing me and the funeral home guy aside, making sure the media caught an unadulterated view of them earning their pumpkin pies…
… then they ate all our donuts and left.
Back to the present (sorry, I get distracted whenever I am compelled to describe how much I loathe firemen), I had just given the edict to get the fire department headed to our “high-angle rescue” and I was gazing down the ravine with what I can only assume was a dismal expression on my face. A police officer approached, grinning. He had apparently mistook my displeasure for fear because he asked me if I needed to be carried down to the decedent. I turned to look at him and squelched the flashing impulse to punch him in the balls. I didn’t know this cop. He was new, a little young and (I couldn’t help but notice) absolutely adorable. He had at least 5 inches on me- pretty impressive since in my work boots I top out at just about 5’11”. He had wide, blue eyes, a strong jawline, the broad shoulders and narrow waist of a well-trained boxer and when he grinned at me, impish dimples pinched into his cheeks… Not only that but he was also carrying a firearm and hand-cuffs… be still my throbbing…. heart.
I stared blankly at him for a second, then shook off my sudden burst of pheremones. I shrugged as nonchalantly as I could and replied, “Nah, this is no big deal. After all, I’m supposed to be in trapeze class.”
He looked confused… which, truthfully, is how men normally respond to me.
Officer Cutie was what you’d call “a probie”- which is to say he was a new hire and was on probation. This was his first day and his first dead body… like… ever. As four of us (Officer Cutie, his preceptor, another cop and myself) descended to the decedent’s location, Officer Cutie’s preceptor was instructing him to stick close to me, ask a lot of questions and pay attention to everything I said and did. (Meanwhile, I made a mental note to make a generous donation to the Fraternal Order of Police… seriously, the boys in blue really don’t get enough appreciation) As we gingerly picked our way closer to the decedent, my attention was pulled away from the preceptor’s acclaim for my professional talents as I noticed something a little off about our decedent… or rather, I noticed a little something ON him.
Our dead guy was covered in ants.
Everybody knows that flies and maggots will go to work on a dead body. Most people are aware that wild animals will dig in as well. But people forget about ants. I know I do. I mean they’re… ants. They’re tiny and boring and… tiny. When you think of the word “scavenger”, the minute, 6 legged pip-squeak of the animal kingdom doesn’t exactly spring to mind. But one should never discount ants. They are capable of some truly remarkable work. For example: A modest army of ants (a battalion?) can completely skeletonize the carcass of a small animal, such as a bird or a lizard, in approximately 9 hours. So, the average adult gecko weighs about 60 grams. Let’s say an adult human carcass weighs about 150lbs… or 68,000 grams. That same group of ants that devoured that gecko could do the same to a human corpse in a little over a year. But, it’s safe to assume that a bigger corpse is going to attract a larger number of scavengers, so double the amount of ants- and you’ve got a human skeleton in 6-7 months. Quadruple the ants, and they can make short work of a human in 90 days. Long story short, even the most docile and benign ants are total BAMFs. They are HUNGRY and they are not fucking around.
These particular ants were enthusiastically engaged in just such an activity. Having smelled the blood oozing from our decedent’s self-inflicted gun-shot head wound, they had closed in on their task with truly remarkable intent and precision. Naturally, they had been drawn to the open wounds on our guy, as well as the orifices from which he bled. But, as is always the case, the scavengers made a bee-line (ant-line) for the soft tissues first: the eyes and mouth. The little soldiers had formed an assembly line and were busy crowding into the decedent’s face, removing microscopic loads of tissue and blood and carrying our decedent back to their home, one itty-bitty bite at a time. It’s gross and more than just a little disconcerting to see a person who seems to have clumps of dirt on their face, only to realize those clumps are moving. Of course, having viewed dead bodies in a far more… consumed state, I wasn’t terribly put out by the sight, unlike our probie who was doing a really terrible job of hiding his abject disgust. Which probably meant that yet another good-looking cop now had a Pavlovian association between me and rotting carrion. Whatever, I didn’t take this job because I thought it would be a great place to meet men.
“So,” I said to the probie, figuring I might as well just charge right in and get his analytic mind working before his instinctual mind took the wheel and he either vomited or ran away. “The first thing we want to consider here is… ‘Could this have been a homicide’…” and I was off. I chatted away about post-mortem changes, signs of a defensive struggle, how to determine the distance from which a gun was fired judging by the characteristics of the wound it made. All the while I was turning the dead guy’s head back and forth, rolling his body from back to front… and back again, pulling his clothes off and examining his palms and fingertips and blah blah blah.
It wasn’t until I had already covered my gloved hands with TONS of blood and brain matter that I realized my mistake. As I had been fiddling around with this dead dude, I had been brushing the ants off of him with a handful of leaves and branches. Of course, once the ants were out of my line of sight, I completely forgot about them. They, however, were not so easily put aside. Unbeknownst to me, while I had been happily blathering on and on to Officer Hottie, the ants had been slowly making their vengeful way up my pant legs. And in a profound display of poor judgement, I had left for work that morning wearing a brand-new, super-flattering white sweater-top that didn’t tuck into my pants. In what I can only assume was a coordinated assault, all of the ants that had crept up my legs, under my sweater and on to my torso, suddenly began biting me… all at the same time.
I had been right in the middle of explaining to the probie why I examined every dead body’s arm-pits when the blitzkrieg struck.
“So, you have to examine the pits because- HOLY-FUCKING-SHIT!” I shrieked, springing back from the body and jumping around, trying to dislodge the ants from my person. “They’re ON ME! They’re fucking ON ME! OW! OW! OW!.”
“This is our dead body!” I could hear a thousand Lilliputian voices screaming in rage as they chowed down on my bare abdomen. “Go find your own!”
Even in my sudden, needle-like pain, I realized with dismay that I couldn’t yank my shirt up and start brushing the little monsters off of me because I was wearing my brand-new, super-flattering white sweater and my hands were covered with blood and decayed tissue. So I hopped around in futile agony for a moment before the cop, god bless him, decided to take matters into his own hands… literally.
“Hold still!” Commanded the probie as he ran to my side and began swatting at the ants on my legs.
“No!” I howled in misery. “They’re under my shirt! They’re biting me under my shirt! OW! OW! Help me!” The officer saw me fluttering my bloody hands over my white sweater and seemed to “grasp” my dilemma. Being the young go-getter that he was, he didn’t hesitate to dive right in and… um… handle it. He grabbed the hem of my sweater, yanked it up to my chin and began whacking at my belly and breasts like we had just stepped off the pages of “Fifty Shades of Grey”
It was at that moment that I remembered I was wearing my purple-leopard-print bra.
“You’ll never take us alive, copper!” the wee voices screamed as they were forcibly detached from my front and tumbled down into the dirt.
“Oh… MY… GOD…” I gasped as I looked down to see a generous scattering of crimson welts erupting on my pale stomach and chest. At the same time, I could feel the same shade of red spreading up my neck and across my face.
“Um, I think I got them all…” the probie mumbled as he released my shirt and shuffled backwards with his eyes on the ground.
“Right… uh.. okay then.” I delicately plucked the bloodied gloves off my hands in the slow and conscientious manner required to prevent the blood from getting on my hands or flicking into my eyes. “So… anyway… this guy’s dead and it’s a suicide.” I concluded lamely. I turned away from the officers, straightened my clothes and shook out my hair in case any of the little invaders had achieved the summit. “Right,” I said as I turned back around, mustering whatever dignity I could and pretending not to notice that the other officers were really doing a piss-poor job of NOT laughing. “Let’s get the fire department down here.”
With that I clambered back up the hill and spent the rest of the call holed up in the decedent’s living room with his widow- drinking coffee and talking about her favorite crime novels in which the main character is a female medical examiner who, undoubtedly, NEVER gets molested by a legion of ants AND a police trainee in the same afternoon.
Her enthusiasm for the book series was so contagious that I actually went out and bought a few of them. I was right. At no point does the heroine ever get bitten by a bunch of pissed off, territorial ants. A cop DOES end up taking her shirt off in one of the books, although not in the same context that it happened to me…
And although Patricia Cornwell never explicitly says so… I get the distinct impression that Kay Scarpetta is never so short-sighted as to wear a cropped white sweater to a gun-shot suicide.