Sweet Dreams

Excerpt: (Copyrighted Material)

There are Seasons and There are Reasons . . . and then there is, The Inevitable.

Troy Norton

ATLANTA

When Leo left the coroner’s office, his eyes stung with gathering tears sharper than the shafts of afternoon sun bouncing off the sidewalk. Squinting, he popped on a pair of Ray-Bans and crossed the four lane street, dodging heavy traffic.  He’d catch a cab, make it to the airport by five, and be back in Baltimore in time to watch a game before collapsing into bed. He needed something to take his mind off what he’d just seen.

It was autumn; lazy clouds dotted a bright blue sky, and within an hour dusk would creep across the horizon. The city was a picture postcard, but a beautiful woman wasn’t enjoying the day, or the scenery. She was stretched out on a slab in the building behind him, stiffer than the knot inside Leo’s chest.

When the file crossed his desk back in the Baltimore State Prosecutor’s office, Leo couldn’t believe his eyes. Rather, Leo didn’t want to believe the dead girl in the photo was Gina. So he had flown to Atlanta to convince himself that the familiar name on the manila folder was actually the Gina he knew — had lusted for — but had never made love to.

The coroner, who led Leo into the morgue, was a middle-aged schlep, bushy-haired, prematurely gray with overworked eyes and matching green scrubs.

“She’s in the cooler. And we have a full house right now. Hope you’re not squeamish,” he apologized. “The city keeps promising to hire help. But that’s been going on for years now.” The coroner shrugged. “Still not enough of us. For the traffic going in and outta this place, we need a dozen more.” He stuck out a hand streaked with veins, “I’m Andy, by the way. Forensic Pathologist.”

With a firm shake, Leo nodded. “Hell of a job. I’m Leo.”

“Yeah. I know who you are. We don’t usually get visits from district attorneys. Especially from outta state.”

“Hmm.” Leo grunted, shrugged his brows and bobbed his head once.

Leo felt for the man. He was obviously under a lot of stress. Leo also felt for Gina, and braced himself for the viewing of her body. However, nothing could have prepared him for what he’d encounter during his twenty minute visit. The most gruesome twenty minutes of his life — so far. . .

After passing through two sets of swinging doors,  Andy ushered Leo down a long, hospital-like corridor, to the threshold of the autopsy suite where Andy nudged a floor pedal with his gray running shoe and the brutish door automatically slid to the right, baring the chilling interior.

They entered the spacious cooler, or as Andy proclaimed, “This is the crypt.”

The morgue was one big refrigerator. Bodies littered the room, resting on gurneys shoved flush against the two side walls. A narrow pathway in the center offered  just enough space for an average sized adult to shimmy through without colliding with the gurneys, or their wrapped contents.

Leo wasn’t expecting a grand tour of the place, but he got one. “See those wall shelves?” Andy stopped walking and pointed with a steady hand, exposing a slice of bulging gut when his scrub shirt strained. “Extra storage.” He motioned to steel-braced metal racks, suspended five feet above the floor, ascending almost as high as the ceiling.

“Hmm. The ones piled with plastic bundles.” Leo’s comment sounded droll.  His hands were planted in his trouser pockets, and as he pivoted, his eyes narrowed. “Christ. It’s like an industrial warehouse,” he said sarcastically.

“Wall to wall,” Andy said. “When we run out of room— Well that’s what happens when funds aren’t allocated.” His thin mouth drew into a scowl, tugging at the corners of his already drooping eyes. “Politics. Money for everything except where it’s really needed.”

“Tell me about it.” Leo shook his head. “We go through the same shit. Not with morgues, per se, but the city in general. Too much skimming and waste. Nothing left for community.” Thinking of local politics, Leo soured. The citizens he worked hard for always seemed to get the shaft.

Leo  swore the stale air inside the crypt was tainted, and found it difficult to inhale rhythmic breaths. “Full house.” He couldn’t seem to clear his mind of sarcasm. “Damn. Doesn’t seem to be much respect in packing them like bundles onto storage shelves.” His mouth felt dry. He thought of the glass of scotch he’d grab as soon as left.

“Not usually referred to that way, but yeah, I guess you could call them bundles. Those are the postmortems. They’re waiting for a funeral director to pick them up,” Andy explained as he once again began to make his way down the path. “The ones on the gurneys are scheduled for autopsies.” As he walked, Andy’s fingers fidgeted almost constantly, either rubbing his nose, scratching an ear, smoothing his hair, or pointing out the dead.

It was then that Leo’s gaze, and mind, absorbed the morgue’s layout, and silent occupants. From beneath form-fitting sheets, a variety of feet in an assortment of colors ranging from white, brown, purple, to gray, protruded deliberately, toe tags their only identifiable labels of death.

Leo focused on the mounded gurneys. Like a crowded airport, he mocked the morbid scene. The feet didn’t point to the ceiling, but in death eased east and west, and a taunting juxtaposition crossed his mind. Idling jets, stuck on a runway, waiting their turn to take off for the friendly skies. . . more like the unknown.

“Feel the cold?” Andy asked. “Goes right through you. We keep the refrigeration set at thirty five degrees.”

Beads of perspiration formed along Leo’s  hairline. “You okay?” Andy asked.

With a rapid heart rate, and expanding lump in his throat, Leo nodded. Although the epitome of macho, he was human, and certain things still had the ability to penetrate his tough outer layer. “I have to admit. This place is creepy, Andy. Makes my job look a hell of a lot better.”

Andy chuckled. “Eh. You get used to it. This place is like a conveyor belt. They come in. They go out. There’s no focus on who they are, who they were. They’re just part of a job that somebody has to do. We try for a twenty-four hour turnaround time. But it doesn’t always happen,” Andy explained while pulling on the lobe of his ear. “If they’re here too long, or arrive too decomposed, we need to store them in the freezers.” He motioned to a free standing unit in the corner. “Even at this temp, decomposition’s quick, you know?”

“Hmm,” Leo said. “Rich. Poor. Doesn’t matter. I guess in here, all men are equal, huh?” His stomach began to unwind as the initial shock wore off.

“That’s right. This is one of the few places where money doesn’t matter. No preferential treatment here. No politics,” Andy smirked. “You know. I can’t seem to locate your friend.” He looked puzzled. “I’ve been checking tags, and I don’t see her in here. She’s not shelved, because my assistant just finished stitching her—”

Leo paled. “What?” He sucked in an involuntary gulp of nauseating air that coated his throat with a taste of death.

Leo had almost forgotten the reason he was here. Gina. And with relaxation came apprehension. Enough of the tour and lecture. Leo didn’t need to know about the system, frozen bodies, or processing time. And he certainly wasn’t interested in a crash course on how to perform an autopsy. This was taking too long. He was growing anxious. He was here to see Gina, and then get the hell back out into life. “What are you talking about, you can’t find her—” Maybe it had been a mistake. His mind reeled. Maybe Gina isn’t here after all. . . Leo wanted to believe, but reasoning held him back from rejoicing. Reasoning and questions. If she wasn’t here, then where the hell was she?

Andy let out a sigh and shook his head.  One of his hands rested on a hip, while the other raked his hair. “Don’t mind me. The brain’s slipping.” For a moment he squinted at the high ceiling, a confused look on his face. “Ah, right.” He nodded his head enthusiastically. “The body’s still in my office.” He shot Leo a sheepish glance. “Sorry. Hope I didn’t scare you.”

Leo just rolled his eyes. “Can we get on with this?”

From the crypt they entered a smaller room, similar to a doctor’s office, but instead of a comfortably padded examination bench, a stainless steel autopsy table was bolted by its pedestal to the floor. A side table held trays of medical instruments, some like garden tools as cracking open a ribcage using long handled loping shears was easier than state issued bone busters. The room also held cabinets and a desk.

“This is my office. She’s in here,” Andy said. “In her own private refrigerator.” He offered Leo a compassionate look, then stared soberly. “One thing I did give your friend is respect.”

“I’m thankful for that,” Leo replied. “She was a cool girl. She didn’t deserve this.”

“No one does.”

“I know. But when it’s your own. . . I guess it seems to matter more. Although it shouldn’t.”

Andy nodded and stood before the refrigerator. “Ready?”

Leo’s eyes searched the room. It was cleaner, fresher than the rest of the place, but still unsettling. He noted there were no detectable organic odors, only chemicals, bleach and strong antiseptic. He was thankful he didn’t find Gina’s body in the mass cooler, with the others. Privacy seemed kinder. “As ready as I’ll ever be.”

Andy pulled out a metal drawer, and Gina’s shrouded body. It was worse than Leo had imagined. He stood on legs he couldn’t feel. And as a sheet was pulled down to just below the body’s clavicle, Leo sucked in a sharp breath to stop the room from spinning. For a moment, he closed his eyes to escape a bout of de-realization — holding his breath for as long as he could to avoid inhaling another whiff of the indescribable smell of decomposition. Was there an odor? Maybe it was just his imagination. . . He patted the pocket of his jacket, feeling for the bottle of Xanax. If things got much worse, he’d have to take one.

It was Gina alright. Even in death she was a knockout. Clotted blood had been rinsed from her hair that now looked soft, and although her skin was white marble, she looked peacefully asleep. Her brows and lashes appeared groomed, but her mouth was a different story.  The plump, laughing lips he had years before kissed were ice blue where trapped blood pooled, and coiled into two swollen rows of pinpricks from where a fine wire, attached to a long-stemmed rose, had sewn her mouth shut. Like an orifice on a Thanksgiving turkey. Leo cringed.  He’d have to free himself of gruesome analogies if he didn’t want to lose his lunch right on the spot.

Voodoo, then flashed across Leo’s mind. But Gina wasn’t a zombie. Still, could this be a crucial factor in the case? Was the killer some kind of voodoo freak? Leo would have to mention this to Cassidy, one of Baltimore’s detectives, a good friend, and the guy who had clued him in on Gina’s death. Cassidy knew Leo well — and was certain he would want to know everything about the murder. Even if it hadn’t occurred in Baltimore, it was still big news — and Cassidy already had his hands on all the facts and was methodically sorting through files. Just in case. . .

The voodoo analogy was inescapable as his eyes then stumbled across the bold Y shaped gathering of stitched skin that crept to Gina’s shoulders. Laced up like cowhide on a baseball. Leo knew the incision ran straight down to her groin, covered by the sheet. He envisioned it, then forced his mind to roam elsewhere. Leo remembered the shell of the woman who had been gorgeous in life. Then he looked over at the man, who hours earlier, had seen Gina from the inside.

Shock that had dissipated to sorrow, welled up into rage. Leo’s face flushed. He rolled his hands into white-knuckled fists as he stared at her remains. Gina’s throat had been slit; her torn neck was obvious. From a puncture beneath her left ear, a gash crossed her larynx, ending at her severed right carotid. A blue tint around the cleaved edges, and pallor of the skin, were telltale signs of massive blood loss. Other slashes bit into sections of her shoulders and chest, as if someone had tried to hack her into pieces. The wounds were still open. None had been stitched like the coroner’s incision. They would be closed and packed by a mortician whose expertise would camouflage the violence her body had endured. But the lips. The lips would be a challenge for even the most skillful makeup artist. Gina’s body was a symbol of hatred, anger, insanity — all things evil and demonic that would plague Leo’s mind for as long as he lived.

Leo knew there was even more butchery hidden by the sheet. For as much as he wanted to turn away, he stood his ground, unable to resist a sudden urge to reach for Gina’s hand. He wanted to take her in his arms, to comfort her, to let her know he was with her, standing at her side, ready to break down and cry, and that he would never forget her.

Gina’s skin felt like ice. Leo sifted her fingers with his. Her once impeccably manicured fingernails were ragged where they had been clipped by investigators searching for traces of DNA. Leo held Gina’s hand, remembering the girl he had known, had touched, had cared for.  He grimaced, then tucked her lifeless hand back beneath the sheet. He couldn’t look any further. With closed eyes, filled with memory, he ran his fingers gently across her hair.

“Are you done?” Andy asked.

Leo nodded.

Scheduled for 2012

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