“People who are brown will usually fall down.”
– Detective Jerold White in reference to Next of Kin notifications.
As quickly as the bullet entered his body—slightly to the left side of his chest, piercing his heart—so did it get swept up in the ebb and flow of excited adrenaline, that fight or flight response, and leave the heart via the pulmonary artery, settling just right of center behind the opposing shoulder blade. After using the x-ray as an anatomical GPS, the medical examiner lifts him up onto his right shoulder, and presses his dark brown skin in search of any abnormality.
I am somewhat hesitant. This is my first time in the morgue, and I do not speak. All around me are broken things. I think of Humpty Dumpty, and how, like all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, I am standing by in helpless wonder of death.
At neighboring workstations, there are two other bodies, uncovered and exposed, the bright lights leaving nothing to the imagination. On television, blue sheets cover victims, a modest protection of virtue. Here, in real life, an infant child is on one table, already examined, his head full of soft brown curls resting quietly on a blue plastic block; the better to see inside, to unravel the mechanism of death. And now a technician deftly puts back together what the doctor methodically took apart; her hands sewing cross-stitch after filling the empty spaces with white clouds of cotton. On the other table, a middle-aged woman, partly incinerated by her own hand, smells faintly of gasoline and fear, her arms drawn up in a permanent “Thriller” dance move.
And I should be solemn. I should be sick with anger or pity, or something other than this curiosity now taking hold. Stepping away from her, the odor of gasoline fades. I wonder where the other smells are, the rot and funk I was expecting, forgetting momentarily how this place is new not only to me, but to the examiners as well; each workstation with state-of-the-art ventilation designed to suck out the foul stench of death and decay, replacing what should be the normal smell of rot with 21st century technology and climate control, a cleaner scent of sterility and fresh pumped oxygen. My thoughts wander back to the task at hand and the single item scavenger hunt in progress; one spent .380 caliber bullet.
“Yep. Here it is,” the medical examiner says, calling her assistant over. “Let’s see if we can get it out of there from behind.”
I instinctively reach for my phone and push the video mode as she reaches for a scalpel to make the first cut, both of us anxious to see what is discovered, but then I remember my place.
“Can I take a picture in here?” I ask.
“We’ll give you one in the report,” she says, two fingers spreading the skin for a cleaner cut. She doesn’t look up at me as she speaks. “And not that you would do it, but Dr. G doesn’t like to have independent photos floating around out there.”
I put my phone away and reach for my iTouch, texting digital notes instead. This is my first autopsy as a Homicide detective, and aside from my initial somberness, I now find myself smiling while surrounded by death. Is it wrong to be excited by this?
Twelve hours before, I am sitting in the living room of the victim’s apartment asking his girlfriend if she knows what her boyfriend had been doing that afternoon. This is just before I tell her he is dead. Shot and killed, I say. Before she collapses in grief. Before I think of the words coming out of my mouth. Four years of investigating sex crimes has numbed me. I’m used to receiving the bad news, not doling it out. At least not to the victim’s family. I must remember the nuances of loss and grief. Channel the child I was when I heard the crunch of the tricolor lunch box under the tires of my school bus on the second day of first grade. Stare at the bloody t-shirt in my mind, the one my father was wearing as he counted out chest compressions, buckling six year old ribs, trying to bring the boy back. Recapture the fear I had each night after that, praying that no one I loved would die before I woke the next morning. I need to start empathizing with the victims again and remember to be something other than a cop. I reach over and pat the girlfriend on the back in a sad attempt to console her. It isn’t working.
My temporary partner during my transition into the unit, Detective Dottie Rivera, stands in the dining area of the small apartment while I break the news. She holds the dead man’s MacBook in her hands, turning it this way and that, trying to escape the shadows of the dimly lit room to locate a serial number. The assumption is that it is stolen.
“You know what kind of things he’s into?” Dottie asks, still shifting the laptop around, not looking at the girlfriend. “Because it would really help us if you could tell us why he was over at those apartments.” Dottie grew up in the streets of Chicago. She raised her three kids with a belt in her hand. She has no bedside manner.
“He was going to be a music producer,” the girlfriend sobs, still on her knees. “He’s going to Full Sail,” she adds, keeping him alive for the moment.
It dawns on me that the laptop came with his tuition, but I don’t tell Dottie about it right then. The girlfriend starts the mantra that will continue until we leave. This isn’t real. She just spoke to him. She’s having his baby. This can’t be real.
Back at the medical examiner’s office, the assistant is taking the victim’s fingernails for evidence, clipping one end and then ripping. Perfect, I think. No pop off. No need to keep the edges smooth and ready for polish. He then moves from finger to finger, pulling at each one, massaging the rigor mortis out. He does this without sentiment. Silent. Fingerprinting made easy with outstretched hands. Later, this same technician will lean on the bloody, exposed skull of my victim, the face already peeled back, while he tries to get the right angle for a photo. Then he will lift his own foggy face guard and use a miniature electric saw to power through the bone of this dead man’s forehead.
This is my new normal.
We are still in the rigor window, only fourteen hours since he stumbled backwards from the gunshot wound, turned and fell face first onto the steps of the apartment stairwell. Thirteen hours and fifty-five minutes since he held his best friend’s hand and died. Two months since he made love to his girlfriend and created something new.
A few hours before I broke the news of her boyfriend’s death, I had no idea the girlfriend even existed. I was focused on the witness, his best friend and roommate, who was less than forthcoming about why he and his friend were at the apartment complex. What were they buying out of the back of the shooter’s trunk? Neither party lived there and he kept swearing to God that he didn’t know anything that could help the investigation.
“I just ran like a punk when I heard the shots,” he said under his breath, more to himself than to me. “I just ran,” he said again, his head hung low in shame. I did not console him, nor explain the nature of survivor guilt. Right now, I want him to feel bad. I need his help. Every interview is a poker game, cards dealt on the down low with each player being the master of his own little world. But sitting in the front seat of a police car after your best friend is shot is not the time for a poker face. At least not for him. And I didn’t believe him anyway. If he believed he was a coward, I would play on that later if need be. I wanted to know about the guy pulling the trigger. It’s heads up time. All in. Lay the cards on the table.
And I don’t care about his sense of self-preservation or whatever retribution he might be planning. The rule of the street tells him otherwise. Tells him not to cry. Tells him not to feel the loss, but later, in the presence of the girlfriend falling apart, he will falter. Streams of tears streaking down his face. His hand coming up flat against them. He is the Dutch boy with his finger in a dam. He will lift his head a little, the way one does to stop a bloody nose from breaking through. Tough guy. Stiff upper lip, staring at the poster of Pacino’s Scarface on the wall of his best friend’s living room. Why is that poster on every single wall?
But here in the front seat of the car, he tells me of another friend, when he was sixteen, gunned down in the street. This being his second rodeo, and once again, forced to cowboy up. On his arm, a tattoo of art imitating life; drama faces, laugh now, cry later. Soon, in the shadow of the girlfriend, down on her knees, begging to wake up from her own personal nightmare, the walls of his inner strength, and all his conditioning and compartmentalizing will crumble.
In the autopsy room, my smile remains, still in the bubble of newness and the possibilities of helping a true victim. No more sex, lies, and videotape. With a dead body as proof, no more deciphering crimes from cries of wolf. No more second-guesses.
The medical examiner cuts a slit in the back of the dead man’s shoulder and spreads the skin apart and the bullet peeks out like a third eye; an all knowing, omniscient eye, who once sat quietly in the chamber waiting to spin up. The first to look down the barrel before the hammer came down, ripping striations into its sides before swimming into bloody currents. The medical examiner probes with her small fingers trying to grasp it without pushing it farther back into the body. My breath shortens. In my mind, I have already seen the lead and copper drop into her hand, heard the clink of metal on metal like in the movies or the reality television show filmed right here in this very room.
I do not think of the possibility of it recessing back into the body, squirreling away from my sight, taking with it the secrets I need to hear. All I can do in that moment is hold my breath, make my body stiff while I stand on tiptoes to see what she is doing, quietly willing the bullet back to the surface.
Vance Voyles works as a Major Case detective in central Florida and received his MFA in creative writing at the University of Central Florida. His work is forthcoming in Creative Nonfiction’s anthology—True Crime: Real-life stories of grave-robbing, identity theft, abduction, addiction, obsession, murder, and more—scheduled for publication with In Fact Books in March 2013. Other selections of his fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have been featured in Burrow Press Review, J Journal and Rattle Magazine respectively. He is currently working on a memoir, Waiving Miranda: Confessions of a Sex Crimes Detective, about his time in law enforcement.