Letters from the front: Day 2

It could have been worse.

Day 1 was more or less uneventful aside from all the funeral home craziness. I had one dude jump off a 5-story parking garage (an unnervingly popular method of suicide) and an array of really uncomfortable phone calls… all of which kicked off with the previously blogged about situation wherein the funeral homes completely lost their shit in the face of crisis.

It’s fine.

On the one hand many of these phone calls weren’t anything unusual: mostly just folks asking questions about their loved one’s death. On the other hand, although these phone calls were “normal”, everyone that I spoke to had a panicky edge to their voice… more so than usual. The family of the suicidal jumper was downright hostile when I asked about the dead guy’s mental health history. And in another conversation in which a son was asking about the post-mortem changes he observed on his father’s body at the time of his funeral… well… the tone with which he asked these questions made me wonder if he suspected me of gleefully beating the shit out of his father’s corpse before we released him to a funeral home. I mean, decomposition isn’t pretty, but it certainly isn’t an intentional brutality that we medical examiners inflict on the deceased and their bereaved families. People die and then their bodies fall apart, it’s science, not a practical joke.

So what’s with the “HOW-DARE-YOU” tone?

I don’t know. It seemed to me like everyone I spoke to was significantly more on edge than usual- and seeing as how I regularly speak to people who are having the worst day of their lives- that’s really saying something.

Of course, in terms of being twitchy and unreasonable, one demographic definitely took the gold medal in the crazy olympics on day 2. They were so off-the-chain that they had me dropping the F-bomb all over the place.

That F-bomb being…

FIREMEN.

-DAY 2-

I awake at 0430 to the sound of the cell phone going off. Signaling someone has called our office number and the call went to voicemail. I pitch out of bed and drag myself out into the kitchen to call our voicemail. It’s a funeral home employee. He sounds confused and hesitant, like he’s not sure if he should be calling. I don’t blame him, I have something of a reputation for being a raging bitch when I’m woken up in the wee hours of the morning in order to deal with some inane problem that easily could have waited until I’m thoroughly caffeinated.

“Who daaares disuuuuurb my reeeeesssssst?!?!”

“Ummmm… Hi. This is Nate from *funeral home name omitted*. Can you tell me if Betsy Swanson (not her real name) is released from the scene? I just spoke to the family and they’re telling me that she’s been released and I need to come pick her up.”

I groan.

This is probably a hospice death and no one bothered to tell the funeral home. Hospice deaths don’t need to be reported to us as they don’t fall under medical examiner jurisdiction (except for a very few exceptions). But it should be pretty easy to deal with so I call Nate back and remind myself to be nice because if I raise my cortisol levels too high by bitching him out, I’ll never get back to sleep.

“Nate, this is the medical examiner,” I say, trying to clear the sludge of sleep from my brain. “What’s going on?”

“Hey, so I got a call from this family, asking me to come pick up a body… The name of the deceased is Betsy Swanson (not really) and I just need to know if she’s released.”

“Well,” I try to soften the edge from my voice, chances are Nate doesn’t want to be awake either and I don’t need to make it worse for both of us. “I don’t know anything about a Betsy Swanson (you get the idea) No one called me about any deaths tonight. Was she in hospice or something?”

“No. She wasn’t.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I asked the family. She wasn’t in hospice.”

“Is she at a SNF or something?” (A SNF is a “skilled nursing facility” and sometimes they forget to call on deaths because someone, somewhere perpetuated the rumor that residential medical facilities don’t have to notify us when someone dies.)

“No. She’s at a residence. The family called me. They said a medical crew had been there…”

“A medical crew was there?”

“Yeah, and the medical crew told them to call the funeral home. It sounded like they’re from another country or something.”

“The medical crew said WHAT?”

I can hear Nate shrinking away from his phone as though it’s going to spring out of his hand and devour him. It’s clear my confusion has taken an abrupt left turn into outrage. Nate scrambles to explain.

“The family told me that she’s got cancer or something. I have their name and address. And, yeah, they said a medical crew came to the house and then told them to call a funeral home and left.”

I copy down the information. I feel sorry for Nate. He’s obviously as baffled as I am by this story and he absolutely did the right thing by calling me. But that doesn’t mean he wanted to. I assure Nate that if a medical crew was at the house, I will get to the bottom of it soon enough. I’ll call dispatch and figure out who went to that address this morning and what, exactly, happened there.

When I call dispatch, they’re apparently training a new employee, because when I identify myself as the M.E. she refuses to pony up any information regarding the address Nate gave me.

“Look,” I tell her, not bothering to couch my irritation, “This is the MEDICAL EXAMINER my call sign is ******* (no, I’m not going to tell you what it is) I need to know who was called to this address and what happened there.”

“I can’t provide you with that information,” she recites mechanically, her voice beginning to waver slightly. “I can page the fire crew involved and ask them to call you.”

“Ok, I need to speak to your supervisor.” I don’t like pulling a move like that, but for the life of me, I cannot begin to comprehend what the big secret might be.

When I get the supervisor on the phone, she isn’t much more help. “Well… understand. We have no way of verifying who you are over the phone. So we can’t give you any particulars about this call-“

“Do you have a lot of people who call you at 4:30 in the morning, claiming to be the medical examiner and giving my call sign?”

She stutters for a second.

“I’ll have the fire crew call you.”

I have no idea how long it takes to send that page, but the fire crew doesn’t call me back for approximately 45 minutes- maybe because they have to turn off their night-light and do a round of pushups before they can interact with the public. When he does call, the interaction is short. I ask him if he was called to the afore mentioned address, and when he replies in the affirmative, I ask him to describe what happened.

“Well,” he says. “We were called for ‘shortness of breath’. When we got there, the family was from Algeria or something. Only a couple of them spoke English and their elderly mother was there. She was incoherent and having a hard time breathing. I mean, she really looked like she had been sick for a long time and was dying. Super skinny, jaundiced… you know. They said she’d been diagnosed with cancer a couple of weeks back at St. Joseph’s. They asked us to put some oxygen on her but we told them that if we treated her in any way we would have to transport her. And they said they didn’t want that. So I just told them to call the funeral home when she was dead.”

“You told them to, ‘just call the funeral home when she was dead’.”

“Yes.”

“OK.” I do my best to keep my voice level and not begin oozing the profound level of blinding contempt and anger I’m feeling. “Did you call medical direction?” (Which is to say, did he discuss this whole situation with anyone further up his own professional food chain)

“No.”

I grit my teeth. “Was this woman on hospice?”

“No.”

Deep breath. “Did she have a ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ order?”

He hesitates. I can tell the reality of his faux pas is beginning to dawn on him. “… No.”

“Did anyone at the scene have medical power of attorney?”

He gulps. “No… I…” He stutters, he chokes and I give him a minute to blurt out whatever equivocation he’s brewing.

“So… here’s the deal,” I do my best to sound conciliatory, but I’m fucking pissed. Can I speak to the Lieutenant?”

“I am the Lieutenant.”

“OK, look. I’m not even going to address the whole patient care aspect of this situation, because that is not my area and I don’t know what your standards are for ‘patient abandonment’ or ‘professional negligence’ and so on. That’s not my wheelhouse. I DO, however, take serious issue with the fact that you released a person to a funeral home from a scene before they were even dead.”

“Well… I thought-“

“You do realize, Im assuming, that it’s AGAINST THE LAW for anyone to release a body from a scene except for the medical examiner. And that doesn’t even address the fact that this woman wasn’t even dead yet. And she had nothing resembling advanced directives that might explain or justify why you thought this was a reasonable thing to do.”

“I just thought-“

“I’d like the name and phone number of your Battalion Chief, please.”

He gives me the information and I get back on the phone with dispatch and tell them that we need to get a police officer to that house for a death investigation. I then call the officer who’s going to the scene and explain to him that he’s walking into a situation with a very confused family from Algeria that isn’t culturally familiar with American death investigation laws. Then I call the family at the scene and explain to them that no one is in trouble, but a uniformed officer is coming to their house to make a report because that’s how it’s done here. The family member who answers the phone at the scene tells me that he just got a call from the firefighter who was at his house earlier. Apparently, the Lieutenant got the family’s phone number from dispatch (who had no problem handing out information to him) and attempted to furiously back-pedal and re-engineer his earlier recommendations to the family.

Finally, I call the on-duty battalion chief. When he answers, I introduce myself and he tells me he’s already spoken to the Lieutenant who has explained the situation and mia-culpa-ed until he practically wet his turn-out gear. I tell the BC that, while I appreciate the fact that the Lieutenant appraised him of the situation, I don’t believe there is a thorough understanding of what went wrong here. I reiterate that several laws were broken and that the local heroes need to understand that they are not the goddamned authority in every circumstance. They need to respect their own scope of practice, stay in their lane and stop authoritatively winging it when they encounter an unfamiliar situation. More importantly, they need to understand that it was pretty fucking hazardous to just leave it to this family to know when their family member was dead. By the Lieutenant’s own report, most of them didn’t speak English… so what assurance did he have that these people were in any way qualified to pronounce their own family member dead? Contrary to popular belief, it’s not always as obvious as you’d think- especially not when someone has been chronically ill and has looked like a corpse for weeks. How does the fire department feel about opening themselves up to that kind of liability? Imagine if she had arrived at the funeral home and they realize she’s still alive? Or worse, imagine the funeral home rolls her into the cooler and finds her on the floor the next morning, because she awoke, attempted to get out, and died of hypothermia, alone is a steel refrigerator surrounded by corpses.

The Battalion Chief harrumphs a few times and is infuriatingly dismissive of my points. He admits that the Lieutenant was out of line, but then says that the Lieutenant admits he was wrong (which is nothing short of a miracle, because in the 9 years I’ve worked this job… as well as the years I worked EMS before that… I have NEVER known a firefighter to admit he was wrong about anything. ) But then the Chief brings it all to a head with the two comments that are, truly, the crux of my long-term beef with the fire department.

“Well,” he says with a condescending tone that implies this settles the matter, “the Lieutenant, he screwed up, but he’s a good guy.”

I’m too infuriated to go on… so he goes on:

“Besides, the Lieutenant just went through his mother’s death. She was in hospice and I think the situation was triggering to him. He was just emotional.”

And there it is.

You might think that I’m being too hard on the fire department, but the truth is, I’m hard on them because no one else is. I don’t know what it’s like in other jurisdictions, but around here, the fire department lives in this magical white tower of imagined infallibility. No one ever questions their judgement or gets in their faces when they fuck up. This results in the Fire Department consistently thinking that they can, literally, do no wrong. I can’t count the number of times that America’s heroes have blithely broken state laws and severely compromised death investigations by simply doing whatever the hell they wanted, and then refusing to accept the possibility that maybe, just maybe, what they did was FUCKING STUPID. And the problem isn’t so much the firefighters themselves, but rather the upper management. The problem is guys like this Battalion Chief who seem to think the excuses he’s offering for his Lieutenant’s gaffe somehow balance out the severity of his mistake.

First of all, I have officially HAD IT with a man’s shitty behavior being dismissed because, “he’s a good guy”. How good a guy he is or isn’t doesn’t change the fact that he broke the goddamned law and put people in danger. So he makes great chili and really knows how to tell a joke… he still needs to do his fucking job. I might bake cookies for my co-workers, but that doesn’t change the fact that I have to show up when someone dies and then write a report about it. And shielding someone from some much needed correction and discipline doesn’t do him, the fire department or the general public any favors. This “good guy” talk communicates to the department as a whole that such behavior is acceptable and you can get a free pass as long as you’re a, “good guy”.

Secondly, as a woman, I’m assuming I don’t have to emphasize to anybody the kind of hit MY professional credibility would take if I explained away impulsive, uninformed behavior by saying I was “emotional”. I would be setting back the progress and self respect of every woman who ever dared to learn to READ if I chalked up my lousy job performance to being emotional. So I cannot stomach the notion that a tulip-toed FIREFIGHTER was using THAT as an excuse. I’ve come to work when I had a fever of 103. I’ve come to work on a freshly sprained ankle. And yes, I came to work less than a week after my own beloved father’s completely unexpected death. I sobbed my brains out in between calls, but you know what? I held it together because that’s what a fucking boss-bitch does. And with the rest of the world in a swirling, panicky, infectious tailspin, I cannot emphasize the importance of emergency workers HOLDING IT TOGETHER. AND NOT ACTING LIKE A BUNCH OF IMPULSIVE SCHOOLGIRLS IN THE MIDST OF A GLOBAL PANDEMIC. If you’re too “emotional” to do your job, then you’re compromising all of us. GO THE FUCK HOME!

Oh, them? They don’t really want to vote… they’re just “emotional”

But back to the story at hand…

I glance at the clock. I could growl this out with the Battalion Chief but there’s no point. He’s already boxed up this incident in his mind and filed it away in the “not-that-big-of-a-deal” drawer in his head. I can tell I’m going to have to take this further up their hierarchy and put something in writing. So be it. If I go back to sleep now, I might manage a total of 5 hours before shift change at 0800.

Fine.

Great.

I stagger into the office and hand the pager to my co-worker. I suck down some coffee and take a quick detour into my supervisor’s office to impart the happenings of last night and this morning to her. She’s amazing. No matter how busy she is, she always has time to hear about what fresh-fuckery we encounter on our shifts.

Did I mention she’s the county epidemiologist and she’s got an iron-clad PhD in infectious disease? Did I also mention that she hasn’t eaten an actual meal in almost a month and hasn’t had a day off for 20 days and counting.

Yeah. Guess how she responds to the “emotional fireman” story…

What the Hell?

Poor Henry.

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.”

“Ummmm… what?”

“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?”

Henry nodded.

“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.

Henry nodded.

“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!”

“Uh…what?”

“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.”

“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.”

“Ooof”

“Yup,” 

“Anal kills.”

“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.”

“Huh?”

“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.”

“Oh, fuck…”

“Yeah… and you know what they told me?”

“What?”

“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?”

“aw… dude, you’re too late. We already gave away your clothes!”

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?”

“Yeah.”

“They’re gonna be SO pissed…”

“Yeah.”

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?”