Authors: Cameron Harvey
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For Mom and Dad
July 17, 1989
Dr. James Mason was more comfortable with the dead than the living.
It was morbid, sure, but sitting alone in his office, James had to admit it was true. At no time had his distaste for the living been more palpable than this week. He was interviewing new techs, and the process was exhausting. The spelling errors on their applications were beyond atrocious—since when was “morgue” a difficult word? And the outfits that some of them wore to the interview? Well, they absolutely defied description. There was no question about it; the world was getting dumber, and he was getting older and less able to tolerate it.
He could have gone home. That was the reason he had the beeper that clung to the inside of his coat like a troublesome insect. James neither liked nor trusted the little machine, and so he preferred to stay in his office in the Cooper County morgue during peak hours—between two and six in the morning—and wait. A multicar accident on the causeway had consumed the bulk of the night. Now it was almost four-thirty, and he could catch up on some paperwork.
James caught a glance at his reflection in one of the stainless-steel refrigerators. Not bad for forty. His hair was now almost completely the color of burnished metal, except for his two short sideburns, which stubbornly retained the reddish auburn of his youth. His face was smooth, having not yet fallen victim to the relentless Florida sun. He still had a lot of good years left, James thought. It was a good thing too, because there was certainly nobody else in the office with half a brain, let alone the smarts and patience it took to do his job.
The sound of the intake door buzzer jolted James out of his chair to a standing position. He glanced at the police scanner, still humming and gurgling incoherently on his desk. Protocol mandated that the responding officers notify him in advance if he was needed so that he could prepare—call one of the techs for help or head for the crime scene himself in the beat-up blue van. He was always reminding the cops: the medical examiner had primary jurisdiction of the crime scene.
Showing up unannounced ranked high on James’s somewhat lengthy list of pet peeves. Ringing the buzzer twice was just rude. James stalked towards the garage door, punching the button to lift it with an angry closed fist.
With a chorus of squeaky protests, the door began its slow ascent, revealing the feet, pants, untucked shirt, and finally the blotchy face of Detective Floyd Rossi, squinting in the rain. James hated Rossi. He was one of those irritating people who was perpetually in a good mood for absolutely no reason. You would think a cop, of all people, would know better. Even at this ungodly hour, Rossi wore a clownish lopsided grin.
Frowning, James looked past him for a van, for a body.
All he saw was a little girl.
“Oh, Doc. Thank God,” Rossi began, ducking under the door before it was fully opened, accompanied by a cloud of bugs from the humid night. Without bothering to remove his shoes or even wipe his feet, he marched past James into the pristine autopsy suite, half leading and half dragging his small charge by one of the puffy sleeves of her bubble-gum-pink windbreaker.
Rossi clamped his hands on James’s shoulders, and for one awful moment, James was sure he was going to hug him. Instead, he looked straight into his eyes and spoke.
“Doc, I really need you to watch her for a little while. Just a little bit.”
“Rossi, have you lost your mind? You want me to babysit? Here?”
“Listen, Doc. We found her about half an hour ago, outside Margie Belle’s mini-mart. Social services won’t be here until nine, and I would keep her with me, but I just got a call that there’s a”—here he paused and lowered his voice, eyes flickering towards the little girl, who remained expressionless—“body out on the water. I can’t take her with me.”
“What about the hospital?” James swept his eyes over the autopsy suite behind them. In the half-light, his spotless examining table and the rubber biohazard bins took on an otherworldly sheen. “Or the station? This is no place for kids.”
Rossi covered the little girl’s ears, his meaty hands framing the oval of her upturned face. “We think she may be related to the vic we found on the bayou. She may have witnessed something, and the killer’s in the wind. I can’t risk him finding her at the hospital. We’ve got every cop in the department down at the scene. The night shift dispatcher’s at the station by himself, but I’m afraid the perp might show up there too looking for her. I’ve got nowhere else to bring her. Please, Doc. She’s just a kid.”
For some inexplicable reason, James felt himself nodding.
“Thanks, Doc.” Rossi released the little girl from his grip and ruffled her hair, as if he were greeting a beloved pet. “Bye for now, sweetie.”
The girl shot Rossi a look of unbridled reproach, which James found immensely endearing.
Rossi frowned and rose to his full height. “She hasn’t said a word since we picked her up.”
“We’ll be fine,” James heard himself say, even returning Rossi’s silly thumbs-up sign. He hit the button for the garage and watched Rossi jog back to his cruiser.
The little girl turned her face up to James. Someone had brushed her dark hair into pigtails, and the humidity had curled them into two damp spirals. Someone had buttoned her jacket that morning, tucked her feet into white Velcro-strap sneakers with rosebuds emblazoned on the sides, even dotted her tiny half-moon fingernails with glittery polish. Someone loved this child, so why had she been left alone?
“I don’t know much about children,” James admitted out loud. The girl regarded him blankly. “My sister has two kids,” he continued. “They’re younger than you, though.” James thought about his twin toddler nephews, with their constant earsplitting screams and perpetually runny noses. “I don’t know if you’d like them very much. I certainly don’t.”
He led the girl into the autopsy suite and gestured towards a stool, as though he were seating her in a fancy restaurant. She instantly turned to the glass jars of tools on the counter. He liked that she didn’t seem afraid of the place; just curious. James wasn’t sure what a kid this age knew about death. Nowadays, everyone believed in sugarcoating everything until kids reached a certain age, when they would be abruptly informed that there was no Santa Claus, bad things happened to good people, and everyone they knew, including themselves, was someday going to die. It was better—and surely less traumatic—to just be up-front from the get-go, James thought.
“Those are my tools,” he began in what he hoped was not too academic a tone. “I use them on my patients. When they come here, it’s my job to figure out why they died. Like a puzzle. Do you like puzzles?”
The girl nodded so vigorously that the pigtails bobbed up and down. She drew a breath, and James felt sure that she was going to speak, but she stayed silent.
“Well, then maybe you’d like to be a doctor someday.” James was beginning to get the hang of this one-sided conversation thing. In fact, he rather liked it.
“How about something to drink?” James had no idea what kids her age drank. Undoubtedly some sugary concoction. The morgue refrigerator yielded a sorry selection—some diabetic-friendly shakes from one of the techs, and his secretary’s six-pack of Tab. James tugged one of the sodas free of its plastic harness and opened the pull tab too quickly, sending a spray of soda across his eyeglasses. He turned to see the little girl staring at him with an amused expression, the corners of her mouth twisting into a tiny smile.
“Yeah, that’s funny, huh?” he said, removing the glasses and wiping them with the cuff of his shirt. “Here you go.” She took the can from him with both hands and returned to her perch.
The back closet was stacked high with unclaimed property from the deceased who had come through, ready to be boxed up for the evidence room. James wondered if there were some kids’ toys or games back there.
“I’ll be right back,” he told her, but when he turned on the light in the closet, there she was right at his heels, a solemn little soldier, grasping the leg of his pants in her fist. It was a small gesture, the kind of thing that kids probably did all the time, but James felt an odd tightness in his throat, and an unfamiliar warmth bloomed in his cheeks. He looked down at her, and she yawned.
“Are you tired?”
She nodded. He was an idiot. Of course she was tired; it was almost five in the morning. James steered her towards his office and pointed to the couch.
She shrugged off her windbreaker, clambered up on the couch, and curled into a ball, hugging her knees to her chest. The first few fingers of sunlight were beginning to poke through the blinds in front of them. James pressed the blinds closed and folded the small jacket over his chair.
And then he noticed it.
Underneath the tag inside the little jacket, printed in runny blue Magic Marker letters.
Aurora Atchison. The name hit him like a fist, the shock of it traveling the length of his spine.
He said it out loud without thinking. She bolted up and stared at him, her eyes somehow clearer now, as though she had finally been able to hoist herself out of a dream. She closed the distance between them quickly, scrambling into his lap, clutching the lapels of his lab coat, burrowing into the folds of his shirt. Soundlessly she clung to him, but the face she pressed against him was wet with tears.
“Aurora.” He whispered it like a prayer, over and over, rocking her gently back and forth.
Outside, the sound of sirens split the dawn, and James covered Aurora’s ears as Rossi had, protecting her against the terrifying crescendo, bearing the news closer and closer.
July 17, 2014
The police department’s booth at the Cooper’s Bayou Annual Founders’ Day Fair was occupied by the oldest beauty queen Detective Josh Hudson had ever seen.
Josh had volunteered for set-up duty, and the booth was supposed to be empty; but somehow he wasn’t surprised to see the elderly woman in a tiara, reclining barefoot in a plaid lawn chair in the center of the enclosed space. Coming across the unexpected just went with the territory around here.