By Shane Ivey, (c) 1998
The Morgue was cramped and ill-lit, an archaic and frightful repository of death held over in the modern day only by the vagaries of city funding and dubious tradition. Its halls were narrow, as were its operating rooms and its storage chambers, all of them made narrower by the gurneys which lined every wall, rolling beds carrying the naked dead in every conceivable state of destruction. Some were pierced or torn by violence; some were discolored from bruises and battery; some were pallid and drawn from years of chemical abuse; here and there one was bloated and as green as neon from time spent in the unforgiving rivers. All faced upward, some staring through wide eyes, others seeming quite at peace.
News reports often said that winter was the hardest season, but not in New York; in the Kings County Mortuary in July the dead seemed to come as thick as the summer heat. Every wall-unit was occupied, every cold closet filled with corpses stacked inelegantly like cordwood. The floors were slick with blood and other fluids, less identifiable; the stench penetrated even nose-pincers and overrode the cough drops which visitors took to deaden their senses. It was sickening and sweet, the smell and inescapable taste of decay.
Mariette Monpierre worked nights. The Morgue was quieter at night; attendants went about their errands and there were inevitable deliveries, but most often it was still and calm. She had been a medical examiner for years; even her teenaged daughter was accustomed to the smell that infested her work-clothes. Sometimes she would arrange to drive in with a colleague or a friend, but at night Doctor Monpierre drove to work, taking advantage of the easier commute she could enjoy after the business and shopping hours of the normal world, the world of the living. She usually eschewed the protective measures which were required of others; the smell had become normal to her, and she knew how to avoid the stains of inadvertent leakage. Only when conducting an autopsy, with the body splayed out as red and wet as anything in a butcher’s shop, would she don a surgeon’s gown. She was past forty years old, an attractive black woman with smooth features and almond eyes.
“So,” she said curiously, looking at her current project, “let’s see what happened to you.” She always spoke to the corpses like that, with the friendly, businesslike voice of a family doctor. Sometimes she fancifully thought of them as her patients; it had been years since the bodies or the stench of rot or mutilation had disturbed or frightened her. They were her work, and in ways sometimes unfathomable even to herself they fascinated her.
“Szary, Casimir,” read the toe-tag, written in careful letters. Szary was nude atop a wrinkled blue plastic sheet. He was clean-shaven and heavy-set with thick black hair, but his skin already was shrunken against bone and drying muscles; his face and digits were quickly taking the tone of mummification. His skin was pale, but darkly discolored in many places. His face was empty of expression; his eyes had sunk slightly into their sockets and rolled up, their whites showing between open eyelids. But Dr. Monpierre stared only at his chest, where his flesh was ruptured and gaped open wetly, a blackened fist-sized hole glaring where his heart should have been, revealing the muscles and ribs of his back. The focused brilliance of a rolling halogen examination lamp revealed all.
She stared at the body in silence for five long minutes. Once she took a breath as if to speak, but then she remained silent again. A micro cassette recorder stood waiting nearby. Finally she sighed, and unconsciously took a half-step closer to the dead man as she began to speak. But another voice spoke first.
“Hhhhhheeeaaarrrr,” said Casimir Szary.
She froze. She looked at once to the dead man’s face, saw the withered flesh motionless in death; then she looked back to the doors, already forming angry words for the prankster. But none was there.
“Hear,” said the corpse, more distinctly this time. She saw fluids bubble in the cavity of his chest where air meant for the voice box escaped the ruptured and boiled lungs.
She blinked with deliberation. She drew her head back and inhaled, then exhaled quite slowly. She looked down at the body, and she felt sure that it was natural, that a pocket of air trapped within the lungs had finally bubbled forth, giving rise to the chilling illusion of speech. Yet her skin still crawled. She felt slightly defiant as she took a step again toward the body.
Casimir Szary’s head turned toward her with a moist grinding of drying muscles. His white eyes stared at her from the drawn and sunken face.
“Hear me,” he said, and this time his lips clearly moved.
She winced and felt icy cold, then stepped back. She gasped and nearly slipped when another man’s voice spoke behind her.
“Evening, doc. Mind if we have a little talk?”
She spun with wide eyes and mouth to stare at the intruder, a gangly-looking Caucasian man with thick curly brown hair, wearing glasses and a brown suit. Behind him was a dark-complected black man in a gray suit, shorter and stockier, looking about in evident boredom. The first stepped through the doorway and held up a badge-wallet.
“Detective Olaerrva, 38th Precinct,” he said matter-of-factly. “You okay?”
She looked incredulously from one to the other, then back at the corpse. It remained silent. She nodded. “Yes,” she said. “Yes. What can I do for you, detective?”
“Yeah? Sure, okay. I guess this place even gets to you once in a while.” He chuckled. His quiet partner smiled. Dr. Monpierre stared at them both, suddenly somehow sure that their laughter was a lie.
“What can I do for you, detective?”
He indicated the body with a nod. “Well, it’s about Father Szary, there. Casimir Szary, Saint Agnes’ Church and Children’s Home. We need you to tell us what killed him.”
She looked at the body for a moment, bewildered by the fact that she felt only more afraid with these living men in the room. “I… I have not yet conducted my examination,” she forced herself to say. “The wound in his torso is the most obvious trauma, but it remains to be determined whether the victim succumbed to other trauma or toxins prior to…”
“No,” said Detective Olaerrva. “He died from a fall. Jumped off the church steeple and broke his back on the sidewalk, rupturing his chest in the process. Strange, but that’s why they pay for your degree, right?” He looked at her with an artificial smile.
She looked at him in deepening fear. “As I said,” she said evenly, “it remains to be seen…”
Olaerrva frowned. “Your daughter runs with a bad crowd, doctor. I’ve seen gang colors on her last couple of boyfriends. A lot of drugs. A lot of guns. Things could happen, if a parent’s not careful.”
She stared at him with rising anger. “Don’t you threaten me,” she breathed. She became silent as the other detective drew a revolver from beneath his coat. He stepped toward her and aimed the pistol at her midsection.
“I can fix her so she never gives you a grandchild, bitch,” he said. You know what a street-bought hollow-point can do to a woman’s insides, right? Right? Answer me, bitch.”
She licked her lips and nodded. She took a step back, then whimpered slightly as she touched Szary’s gurney behind her.
“That’s right,” said the gunman. “Tear her all up. You remember that. What’s your report gonna say?”
Her voice shook only slightly. “A fall. He died from a fall. The impact caused a rupture of the ribcage and the–“
“That’s good. You do it just like that.”
Olaerrva stepped close to her, close enough for her to smell aftershave. He reached down and took her tape recorder. He pressed STOP, disabled the auto-record feature.
“Well,” he said. “I guess that answers all our questions. Thanks for your time, Doctor. I look forward to seeing that report so we can wrap up this case. The church is pushing us hard on this one, for some reason.” He turned and walked casually to the doors. His partner nodded and followed.
Monpierre stared after them as the doors swung shut behind the detectives. She breathed deeply for a time. She did not look at the corpse, even when she heard the desiccated muscles of its neck click with new movement. A name came to mind, and the face of a young FBI examiner she had met at Quantico not many years before. “Qualls,” she muttered to herself. “Jean Qualls. You fuckers think I don’t have friends?” She sought out the rage, to lessen the desperate fear which occupied her mind.
The two men walked quickly down the corpse-choked hall, their footsteps sounding moist echoes from the grimy tile walls. Olaerrva rewound the tape and pressed PLAY. He grunted and looked at it curiously, then rewound it again and turned up the volume.
“Hhhhheeeeaar,” said a strange whispering voice on the tape.