I know that I frequently talk about Henry as though he’s some kind of investigative super-giant mega-hero… and he is. Henry has been in the game since before it was a game. Henry was death-investigating when Cain killed Abel. I’m pretty sure that as soon as that little sibling rivalry crash-landed into its inevitable end, Henry rode in on a donkey, took one look at the carnage and said something like, “Behold! Verily I say unto thee, thine sons hath argued and alas, one hath bashed the other about the noggin with ye olde rock! Thus goeth such travesties betwixt men and I heartily declare the manner to be a homicide! The first of its kind! Now where are my cigarettes?”
I’m not gonna say Henry’s older than dirt, but I will say I’ve seen his apartment and some of the coffee mugs in his sink haven’t been cleaned since a mass-casualty incident known as The Donner Party staggered in from the cold.
Every time I see him at shift change, I’m awash in a salty wave of sympathy co-mingled with fear. Because Henry is scary when he gets off shift… as scary as a gnarled old tree, alone at a crossroads, bereft of leaves or birds… twisted and malformed as it struggles toward the light… while smoking a Marlboro red and grumbling that Starbucks coffee tastes burnt.
God, he looks tired… I always think. When I see Henry at the end of his 48 hour shift… which actually marks the beginning of mine… he’s always sporting a scraggly grizzle of a beard and clothes that look like he’s just fought his way up a volcano to dispose of a cursed ring. He looks kind of like a brillo pad that’s been used to clean a barbecue.
We smoke together at the end of his shift, it’s the only time I do so anymore. The two of us leave the sterile blue maze of cubicles and meander across the street for caffeine and nicotine. And to be fair, I don’t actually smoke so much as I take a few drags from his cigarettes as we loiter juuuuuust outside the boundaries of what’s considered “county property”. I tell Henry about my latest dating misadventures and he offers me nuggets of wisdom which he mined from his three marriages. Then he fills me in on whatever lunacy happened during his shift- thereby preparing me for the screwball calls I’m going to get over the course of my shift.
“Some dumbass gave the family of this suicide victim our cell phone number so be prepared to deal with that… they’re doing the typical bullshit, claiming that someone must have murdered him and then forged the note…” he’ll tell me.
“This doctor is refusing to sign this death certificate. Or rather, his STAFF says he’s refusing to sign the death certificate. See if you can actually get the doc on the phone because his secretary is a moron.”
“This funeral home is saying they don’t have this guy’s wedding ring and they claim he wasn’t wearing it when he came in, but its right there in all our scene photos so tell them to check their employees pockets again and quit blaming their fuck-ups on us.”
And so it goes.
For the most part Henry’s hand-off reports tend to be pretty standard. But as you may remember from previous tales. Henry is the king of weird shit, the Mayor of crazytown… the crowned prince of “what-the-hell”?
Some mornings Henry is particularly quiet. He smokes his cigarette in sullen contemplation as he threads through exactly how to explain the sordid tale he’s about to tell me. Because the fact is, sometimes shit goes so screwy on Henry’s shift that it defies description. But he has to describe it to me, since I’m the one batting clean-up.
“Listen,” he said to me one morning. He had been standing on the curb, silent for the last 10 minutes, thoughtfully examining the glowing ember at the end of his cigarette. “You might get a call from a guy today…”
“Okay…” I said carefully.
“He called yesterday and wanted to talk to our supervisor about the suicide prevention program…”
“Okay…” I said again. We get calls from time to time on our suicide prevention program. It’s considered groundbreaking amongst our profession and our office has managed to quantify the suicides we’ve curtailed as a result of our policies and practices… which sounds great to say, but it looks even better on paper. Other agencies call from time to time asking for information and training- hoping to implement our program into their region so that they might have to deal with fewer suicides. Which I don’t mind telling you are probably the most prevalent non-natural deaths that we medical examiners see. I know shows like “Criminal Minds would have you believe that the United States is just writhing like an ant-hill with serial killers at any given moment. But the fact is, the biggest killer of people in America is themselves… followed closely by big pharma and doctors who prescribe too many goddamned narcotics.
Anyway, Henry rubbed his forehead in consternation and the lines around his eyes deepened.
“This guy… he called wanting to talk to Ken about the suicide prevention program… because he wants to commit suicide.”
“Yeah, he called and said that he was planning on committing suicide and he wanted to talk to Ken about suicide prevention.”
“I don’t understand… did he want help or something? Like was he looking for mental health resources?”
“Nope.” Henry shrugged. “He said he had decided to commit suicide and he wanted to know the best way to do it. He also said that it wasn’t going to be anytime soon, but it was what he’d decided to do and he figured he also had some insight that might be helpful to our program.”
“Wait… he called to find out the best way to commit suicide?”
“I told him that our program was suicide PREVENTION. And was there anything I could do to help him other than help him kill himself. He said ‘no’ and insisted that he wanted to talk to Ken.”
“What the hell, man?” I marveled as I throttled back a laugh and plucked Henry’s cigarette out of his hand. I took a deep drag and handed it back. “What did Ken say?”
“Well… Ken didn’t know what the fuck to make of it so he called up HIS supervisor, who called the head of Health and Human Services. They called the police shrink and adult protective services before the whole shit-parade marched right in to county council…”
“Jesus, it went to county council?”
Henry nodded emphatically as he sucked the last gasp from his cigarette and lit another one. Just to be clear I’ve never actually met anyone on county council. I’ve never even seen them. They’re like this mystical panel of administrators who convene in a big mahogany room decorated with brass light fixtures and maps. They all sit in big-ass leather wing-baked chairs and decide shit as they swirl around big snifters of brandy. And much like the gods on Mount Olympus, it’s never a good thing to be on their radar unless you’re one of their illegitimate children… even then it’s a dice roll.
“So what’s the word from on high?” I asked
“So… basically…” Henry looked up and met my eyes for the first time that morning. “They said we can’t do a damn thing about him. He’s perfectly sane and he’s not an ‘immediate’ danger to himself or anyone else. We can’t put him on a mental health hold or make him a ward of the state. All we can really do is hang around and wait for him to kill himself. And County Council is telling Ken not to talk to him. No one who has an office wants to get blamed for failing to intervene when this dude finally decides to lay down for the long-dirt nap.”
“Fuck me, seriously?”I spat through my mouthful of coffee.
“So… anyway… he might call during your shift. Good luck.”
Well, the good news is he didn’t call… and the bad news is he didn’t call. Nor has he turned up dead in our county, and no one has spoken a word about him since Henry gave me that hand-off report. It seems to me as though if we were serious about suicide prevention, we might actually follow up with this guy and see if there’s anything we might do to… you know… PREVENT HIS SUICIDE. But it appears that everyone would much rather swirl the brandy around in their glasses and discuss policies without ever actually implementing any of them.
Ahhh, the life of a politician.
Meanwhile, scrubs like Henry and I are flailing around in the quagmire of human existence and dealing with situations like this one:
I was out with a few of the local deputies and we may or may not have been drinking adult beverages when one of them blurted out to me.
“So, I hear anal kills!”
“Anal!” He hollered at me over the jukebox. “You know, like anal sex? Anal kills!”
“Dude,” I hollered back at him, “Is this like a PSA or something?”
“Was this not your case?”
“Jesus… no! I have no idea what you’re talking about!”
“Oh,” he said, looking disappointed. “Maybe it was Henry, I don’t know but there was some death with anal sex.” Then he continued drinking his beer like he’d never said a thing and didn’t bother to tell me what curiosity drove him to yelling “ANAL KILLS!” in a crowded drinking-class bar that was full of off-duty dock-workers and cops.
So, the next time I saw Henry, I got the real story. And I elicited it from him in much the same way that it was presented to me. The two of us were sitting down to lunch in a local restaurant and I didn’t even bother wait for the waitress to finish taking our drink orders.
“So, I understand anal kills…”
The waitress didn’t bother giving us the day’s specials and hustled away like a scolded puppy.
“I beg your pardon?” Henry said, daintily dropping his napkin in his lap and pulling out his glasses to examine the appetizers. I could have just said, “Looks like rain” or “I hear there’s a meteor hurdling through space at our heads and we’re all going to be dead in 36 hours.” It wouldn’t matter. Henry is unfalteringly Henry, regardless of the current crisis.
“Anal, Henry” I pouted. “Anal sex killed someone recently and you didn’t even tell me about it.” I sighed with a wounded air and gazed sadly into the middle distance, feeling as though something had gone tragically wrong in our relationship if Henry neglected to tell me about an anal-sex death.
“Oh, that…” he said, flatly. He folded the menu and leaned back in his chair, pausing to remove his glasses and polish them on his shirt. “I mean it wasn’t anything too outrageous.”
“How could an anal-sex death not be outrageous?”
“So… this dude was having his 50thbirthday. He finally talked his wife into trying anal sex. I’m not sure who she asked about it or who she was talking to, but I guess she went into Sneakers adult store and the guy there gave her some poppers.”
“Yeah… poppers. You… you… do KNOW what poppers are, right?”
For a second I considered playing it off. I like to think I’m fairly in-the-know when it comes to kink and I’ve, like… you know… been to Burning Man and stuff. But I’m a shitty liar and Henry has been an investigator sniffing out lies longer than I’ve been alive so what was the point?
“Do you mean like nitrous?”
“No, poppers are amyl nitrite. They sell it in little vials at sex stores, it’s supposed to relax the sphincter to make anal sex easier or something. But you’re supposed to inhale it. This woman was so freaked out about anal sex that she went to get some of it. The guy at the shop told her to inhale it, NOT drink it. There were two warning labels on it that said ‘Do not drink’. But guess what she did.”
“Oh… she drank it.”
“Yup, at first she just thought she felt sick after they… you know…But she started vomiting and he found her on the bathroom floor a couple hours later.”
“Yup,” Henry sighed. “So have you tried the Hungarian mushroom soup here? It’s supposed to be pretty good.”
But that’s Henry: Completely unflappable and utterly placid. Nothing ripples his surface… or rather, almost nothing.
There was one morning that Henry and I went out for our traditional coffee and cigarette meeting and he seemed particularly unnerved. I would even say “spooked.” That morning he scorched through his first Marlboro red with distracted agitation. And rather than press him for information, I waited until he was ready to talk.
“Yesterday.” He rubbed his hands together nervously and looked up at me. “I went to the death of a younger guy, 34. He didn’t have any history other than feeling sick and missing work. His brother found him when he went to check on him. The guy hadn’t been answering his phone for a couple of days. No drugs, no alcohol, nothing suspicious.”
“Okaaaaay…” I said carefully.
“Thing is,” Henry continued. “I was on-scene in his apartment for almost three hours. And when I finally came back out again… the entire family was there.”
“Oh god, that’s never good,” I responded.
And it isn’t. The arrival of an “entire family” as Henry had put it, generally heralds a shit-show of epic proportion. Don’t get me wrong, we have no issues with people wanting to support each other and say goodbye to their deceased loved one. The problem is, that’s NOT what they’re doing when they show up on-scene. Families that show up on-scene are flipping the fuck out. They’re screaming and crying, not only at the death itself, but also at each other. All of the latent family-issues and quiet resentments start tumbling out like a goddamnned clown car and as the medical examiner, you’re the fucking ring-master. Everyone is full of outlandish demands and truly baffling misinformation that they gleaned from watching CSI. And it doesn’t take long for someone to pull out the blame-gun and just start firing it off in every direction.
“So, what happened?”
“Well,” Henry muttered, rubbing his face with his free hand and flicking the ash from his cigarette. “They prayed.”
“I came out of the apartment, and the entire family was on their knees on the front walk, praying.”
“Do you mean…” I balked to say it out loud. “Were… they… praying for him to come back to life?”
Henry pointed at me with his cigarette. “Bingo.”
“Oh, shit!” I gasped
“Yeah, and I had to tell them that I was taking him in for an autopsy.”
“Yeah… and you know what they told me?”
“They said they wanted me to postpone the autopsy for three days.”
I blinked in disbelief. “You mean… like Jesus Christ? Like… they think he’s going to come back to life on the third day?”
“Yep. And so, I called Dr. Stone and she was like, ‘Fuck it’ we’re too busy anyway, tell them we’ll wait if that’s what they want.’”
“So… so… wait, that message that I picked up this morning on the office phone before you got there…” I HAD picked up a message on the office phone. Henry had been a bit late so I was killing time with checking voice-mails before he showed up to hand off the shift. One message had been some frantic-sounding guy, asking that we wait to talk to him before doing his brother’s autopsy. I had been planning on calling him back later on in the morning.
Henry nodded. “The family wants to go to the morgue and pray over him one last time before the autopsy.”
“Ummmm, what are we going to tell him?”
I was fairly certain we weren’t going to accede to that request. One of the many features of the medical examiner’s office that TV gets wrong is the highly dramatic “body identification” scene. You know, the one in which a dead person’s family stands there while the body is rolled out on a table and everyone has their poignant last goodbye? Well that doesn’t happen. The medical examiner’s office is a secured facility that doesn’t allow visitors for any reason. And if we don’t allow people to come in to identify a body, we sure as hell aren’t going to allow them in to pray over one. Not that it mattered in this case.
“It’s too late.” Henry said, cringing.
“Well… I know that. But what are you going to tell the brother?”
“No, no,” Henry shook his head. I mean it’s TOO LATE.”
“What do you mean?” I was still confused.
“It’s too late. Dr. Stone said she’d wait to do the post mortem. But Dr. Gillis came in and saw how slammed Dr. Stone was. So he went ahead and started doing autopsies on Dr Stone’s cases. He started cutting people up like fuckin’ Hannibal Lecter before anyone could stop him.”
“And Dr. Gillis… “
“Dr. Gillis did this guy’s autopsy two days ago… literally 4 hours after he was found.”
“Oh shit…” I gasped again. “So this family has spent the last 3 days thinking their son was going to come back to life. And he’s… he’s…”
I didn’t have to say it out loud. We both knew because we’ve both seen autopsies. This family’s son had been completely dismantled like a stolen car. I mean, I won’t go into details, but suffice to say that his brain was now in slices and wrapped up in a plastic bag inside his abdomen. And, I mean…theoretically, if God can bring someone back to life BEFORE their autopsy, what’s to say he can’t bring them back AFTER it. But still, I’m not sure if there’s a statute of limitations on miracles. And I have to assume that putting all those organs back together in their original order would be a pretty hefty favor… one I doubt the almighty would be willing to undertake even for the Pope, let alone some dude named Craig with bad tattoos and an uninsured Hyundai.
Henry sighed miserably.
“Dude…” despite my horror, or maybe because of it, I had started giggling. “You have to call this family and explain to them that we ruined their son’s resurrection by doing his autopsy 2 days early?”
“They’re gonna be SO pissed…”
I shook my head. “What the hell…?”
It’s perhaps the only time I’ve ever seen Henry scared. Which is pretty impressive considering he’s only about 2 years out from retirement. I have no idea what he’s going to do after that, maybe finally wash his dishes. But until then, you can catch the two of us, standing on a curb passing a single cigarette back and forth like the baton I’ll eventually take when Henry decides to move on. We’re pretty careful about what we say when other people are within ear-shot, but if you sneak up on us, you might manage to catch snatches of conversation that go something like this:
“-took his head clean off like a dandelion…”
“-so I told her, ‘ma’am you can’t bury him in your backyard, no matter what your shaman told you…’”
“-an entire crate full of dildos under his bed…”
But that’s all you’ll get. Henry will likely catch sight of you and the two of us will clam right up until you walk away. And as you do, you might overhear us saying something to the tune of :
“That guy was listening to us.”
“Yeah, he was. How much do you think he heard?”
“I don’t know. God, people are so weird.”
“I know, right? I mean who wants to hear stories like ours? What the hell?”