Oh yes, what a great place to be – not – on a Monday morning this was, thought Detective Senior Sergeant George Fletcher. It was bad enough to have a blinding hangover on a Monday morning. But being here, in the Forensic Pathology department of the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, greatly compounded it. And he hated all this bullshit newspeak. It was the city morgue, for God’s sake. It was the place where dead bodies got even more dead. It was the last place before the cemetery where you’d ever have your name on the guest check-in register.
And at this moment he was being assaulted by a grinding, whining sound that shook every atom in his body as he stood in the cramped CT room, watching the body of Unidentified Female pass slowly through the doughnut-shaped hoop of the CT scanner.
She had not been touched since being removed from the boot of the car yesterday, bagged and brought here, where she had been stored in a fridge overnight. The smell was unpleasant. A cloying stink of drains and a sharp, sour odour that reminded George of pond weed. He not only had to fight the pounding noise in his brain, but the heavings inside his stomach. The woman’s skin had a soapy, bloated look, with large areas of black marbling. Her hair, which had probably been blonde and was still fair, was matted and had insects, bits of paper and what looked like a small bit of felt in it. It was hard to make out the features of her face as part of it had either rotted or been nibbled away. The pathologist put her age, as a guesstimate, at mid-thirties.
George was dressed in a green gown over his white shirt, tie and suit trousers, and white rubber boots, like his colleague, DS Troy Burg, beside him. Thin, wiry-haired and with a prickly attitude, Barry Manx, the Senior Forensic Technician, operated the machine, and the pathologist stood running his eyes up and down the woman’s body, reading it like the pages of a book.
It was routine that all bodies admitted here for post-mortem were scanned, checking primarily for signs of any infectious disease, before they were opened up.
Unidentified Female’s flesh was missing in several places. Her lips had partially gone, as had one ear, and bones showed through the fingers of her left hand. Although she had been sealed in the boot of a car, plenty of aquatic wildlife had, nonetheless, managed to gain entry and had had a good time feasting on her remains.
George had had a good time yesterday with his wife, Janet, feasting on his cooking. A few months back he had enrolled on a cookery course at the technical college in Geelong. He’d prepared a meal last night of stir-fried Morton Bay Bugs, followed by garlic-marinated rib-eye beef, finishing with kiwi panacotta. And accompanied by-
He groaned, silently, at the memory.
Far too much Margaret River Zinfandel.
And now it was all coming back to bite him.
He could do with water now, and a strong black coffee, he thought, as he walked behind Burg down a shiny, spotless, windowless corridor.
The post-mortem room was not his favourite place. Not at any time of any day and least of all with a hangover. It was a cavernous arena which felt like a cross between an operating theatre and a factory floor. The ceiling was aluminium with massive air ducts and recessed lights, while a forest of booms swung out from the walls, containing spotlights and electrical sockets which could be directed over any part of a body under inspection. The floor was a deep blue, as if in an attempt to bring some cheer into the place, and along each side were work surfaces, trolleys of surgical instruments, red trash cans with yellow liners, and hoses.
Five thousand cadavers were processed here each year.
He slipped a couple of paracetamol capsules into his mouth, swallowing each one with difficulty with his own saliva. A forensic photographer was taking pictures of the corpse and a retired policeman George had known for years, who was now the Coroner’s Officer for this case, stood on the far side of the room, by a work table, leafing through the brief dossier that had been put together, including the photographs taken at the river yesterday.
The pathologist worked at a brisk pace, stopping every few minutes to dictate into his machine. As the morning ticked away, George, whose presence here, along with Troy’s, was almost superfluous, spent most of the time in a quiet corner of the room, working on his mobile phone, assembling his inquiry team and assigning each of them duties, as well as preparing for the first press conference, which he was delaying as long as possible in the hope of getting some positive information from the pathologist that he could release.
His two priorities at this moment were the woman’s identity and cause of death. Troy’s sick joke that maybe she had been trying to replicate one of Harry Houdini or David Blaine’s stunts might normally have raised a smile, but not today.
The pathologist pointed out to George that the hyoid bone was broken, which was an indicator of strangulation. But her eyes had deteriorated beyond the point of providing supporting evidence he might have got from petechial haemorrhaging, and her lungs were too badly decomposed to yield clues as to whether she was already dead when the car had gone into the water.
The condition of the woman’s flesh wasn’t good. Prolonged immersion in water caused degradation of not only all soft tissues and hair, but, most crucially, the nuclear – single-cell – DNA that could be obtained from them. If there was too much degradation, they would have to rely on the DNA from the woman’s bones, which provided a much less certain match.
When he wasn’t on the phone, George was propping himself quietly against a wall, badly wanting to sit down and close his eyes for a few moments. He was feeling his age. Policing was a young man’s game, he had thought more than once recently. He had three years to go before collecting his pension, and although he still enjoyed his work, most of the time, he looked forward to not having to keep his phone on day and night, and worry about being dispatched to some grim discovery in the middle of his Sunday morning lie-in.
Troy was calling him.
He walked over to the table the woman was lying on. The pathologist was holding something up with forceps. It looked like a dimpled, translucent jellyfish without tentacles.
‘Breast implant,’ the pathologist said. ‘She’s had a boob job.’
‘Reconstruction from breast cancer?’ George asked. A friend of Janet’s had recently had a mastectomy, and he knew a little about the subject.
‘No, just bigger boobs,’ the pathologist said. ‘Which is good news for us.’
‘All silicone breast implants have their manufacturer’s batch numbers stamped on them,’ the pathologist explained. ‘And each implant has a serial number that would be kept in the hospital register against the recipient’s name.’ He held the implant a little closer to George, until he could see a tiny row of embossed numbers. ‘That’ll take us to the manufacturer. Should be a shoo-in for you to find her identity.’
George returned to his phone calls. He made a quick one to Janet, to tell her he loved her. He had always called her, at least once a day from work, from almost their first date. And he meant what he said. He still loved her just as much all these years on. His mood had improved with the pathologist’s discovery. The paracetamols were kicking in nicely. He was even starting to think about lunch.
Then suddenly the pathologist called out, ‘George, this might be of real significance!’
He hurried back over to the table.
‘The uterus wall is thick,’ the pathologist said. ‘With a body that’s been immersed for a length of time like this, the uterus is one of the parts that degrades the slowest. And we’ve just got really lucky!’
‘We have?’ George said.
The pathologist nodded. ‘We’ll get our DNA now!’ He pointed down at the dissecting board that stood, on its steel legs, above the dead woman’s remains.
There was a mess of body fluids on it. In the midst sat a cream, internal organ, like a U-shaped sausage that had been sliced open. George could not identify it. But it was the object that lay in the middle that instantly drew his eye. For a moment he thought it was an undigested prawn in her intestine. But then, peering closer, he realized what it actually was.
And he lost all his appetite for lunch.