“Mom, where are my socks?”
“Seriously? This is the third time this week you’ve called me at work to ask about your socks! I don’t have time for this crap! We’ve got a homicide screening coming in this morning and I’m trying to get everything together before the detectives get here. I put at least 27 pairs of socks in your drawer last weekend. Where did they go?”
“Oh. I forgot to look there.”
“Get yourself to the bus, young man. You should have left home by now and I swear to God that if I find out you were late for Biology again I’m gonna rip off your arm and beat you with the bloody stump!”
“Geez… you don’t have to go all postal.”
Della hung up and sighed deeply. Teenagers.
Della Denoria had been a paralegal at the Office of the District Attorney for about 15 years, eight of which had been on the Special Victims team. She didn’t get away from her cubicle too often but she knew most people around the office. The SV team was isolated from the rest of the office on its own floor. It was best to keep them separate from the flow of traffic, especially when the public was coming in on a constant basis, checking in with their subpoenas on the way to court to testify about the forgeries, assaults and criminal mischief cases that kept their office so busy. You never knew what details you might hear in the normal flow of conversation as the SV prosecutors discussed their cases. They handled sex crimes, child abuse, domestic violence, child homicides…pretty much if it involved guts or sex or death, it came to the SV team. It wasn’t unusual to hear terms like “digital penetration,” “blunt force trauma,” or “blow job” wafting over the walls of the cubicles. Words that would be shocking to the general public were as shocking as the word “toast” or “sofa” to the members of the SV team, thus their exile from the mainstream areas. When Della first transferred to the team she deliberately desensitized herself to the words, the sights, the stories that she had to endure every day as part of her job. It used to be awkward just to say the word penis, so she practiced saying it to herself over and over until it became natural. However, it had become so natural for her and her co-workers that when they were together in a social setting outside of work and some funny penis story would come up, they forgot the impact it had on the “gentiles.” One time, her husband’s friend was so uncomfortable with the word that he shouted, “Don’t call it a penis! It’s a dick!”
Detective Franks poked his head around the wall of her cubicle. “Where we meeting?”
Della liked to think of her workspace as a cave. The charcoal colored fabric walls were 6’ high and from where she sat, there was no sunlight or view available whatsoever. This suited her just fine because she hated the sunshine. It made her feel unsafe. Exposed. Vulnerable. Give her rain or a snowstorm any day and she’d be happy.
“Follow me to the conference room. Steve should be here pretty soon but we can get you settled.”
She knew Steve would be late. He consistently scheduled more than one meeting at a time and then forgot about both of them. And when he had early morning appointments it was worse because he never bothered to think about what his day looked like until he got to the office. The man was brilliant in court but when it came to the everyday ins-and-outs, he was lost.
Della stepped from the cubicle and nearly ran into another detective who appeared to be with Franks.
“Dell, Todd. Todd, Dell.”
“Hey. Uh… nice to meet you. Follow me, guys.”
They got to the conference room and the two men sat down. Franks was alert enough that she didn’t ask if he needed a cup of coffee. He’d looked like he’d probably been up for hours, but she decided to get herself a cup.
Steve almost ran into her as she started through the doorway.
“Mornin’. What’ve we got fellas?” he blared.
“Vic is baby Bea. Seventeen months old. Allegedly found dead at home in the crib. Mom and dad were both home. They both say they found the baby that way. The ME found some extradural hematoma spots on the inside of the scalp. Petechiae in the eyes but no external signs of injury. We’re waiting on the results for the skeletal scan to see if there’s any history of old or healing injuries and he says it’s up to 14 weeks before his final report and he’s not even ready to make a commitment on the manner of death, much less the cause.”
“Have you interviewed mom and dad yet?”
“Not formally. We just spoke briefly with them at the hospital, but they don’t seem to be responding appropriately. They’re pretty quiet.
“Just leave what you’ve got with Della. Go talk to mom and dad and neighbors and babysitters and everybody and their uncle.”
She could tell Franks was annoyed as Steve turned and dismissed himself from the room. He was hoping for at least a go ahead to arrest somebody.
“Sorry, guys. He’s a tough one to pin down,” she apologized.
“Well, here’s our photos and the initial report. Call us when he can give this some attention.
Della took the report and the photos and sat at the table as the detectives left. She slipped the photos out of the envelope. The crime scene photos were pretty unremarkable… they usually weren’t too bad. But when she got to the autopsy photos, she paused.
Detectives who attend autopsies take their own photos separate from the ones that the ME and his staff take. Della was often tasked with sorting the photos into the order of the chronological order of the procedures. She’d been to several autopsies…so she was familiar enough with the routine that she could sort the photos accurately and identify body parts that had been removed and put them in the stack in the right place. The first photo was always of the body in the bag. The pictures progressed as they went further into the body. The scalp was discreetly cut from the back and peeled up and over the face so that you wouldn’t see it when the person was later displayed in their casket. An assistant would cut off the top of the skull. When the brain was removed it was quite fascinating to gaze into the cavernous void of the skull. Then came the Y incision in the chest. All the organs weighed and recorded. Vaginas and uteruses were removed. Tongues were removed. The ME let her hold a uterus one time and she was awed by the thought that the cold, wet yellow-ish pink thing in her hand had once held a growing life. She observed an explosion/burn victim autopsy once. The ME opened up his throat lengthwise and slit open the esophagus. When she leaned in closer, it smelled just like a steak at a barbecue on the Fourth of July.
“See… right here… there’s soot on the lining of the esophagus.” The vic had beautiful teeth. Her eyes drifted down from his charred and inwardly curled lips to the incision in his chest. “This soot indicates that he was alive and breathing after the initial flash of the explosion. If there wasn’t any soot, I would determine that he had died immediately. And yes, I know what you’re thinking. He smells like a steak.”
She would never forget the smell of the raw ones. The first time wasn’t as bad as she thought it would be, but the scent stayed in her nostrils for days. No amount of saline spray would get rid of it. And then there was the smell of blood. Oh, God. One time there was a man who had severed his aorta. The ME literally had to scoop the blood out of his chest with a stainless steel ladle that you might find in the kitchen at your church. The man’s entire chest cavity was filled with blood and the smell was unforgettable. When she asked about the lopper tool that cut the ribs open, the ME grinned and said, “Craftsman. Straight from Sears. Seriously. They never ask questions when you have to return something.”
The first picture is of Bea’s procedure had the bag open and the child lying inside. She was wearing only a diaper and one sock. One precious, little sock. The same kind she used to buy for C.J. when he was a baby. White with a gray toe and gray heel. She started to cry. Softly, but enough that she had to wait a while before she was composed enough to return to her cave.
She fell asleep on the couch watching Ghost Hunters. CJ came home from skateboarding and went straight to his room. Della softly snored and CJ decided to turn the TV off and just let her sleep. It was almost dark and she would wake up eventually when she had to go to the bathroom and go to bed. She was always grouchy if he tried to wake her up, so he just let her be.
Images of baby Bea crowded her dreams. A womanly figure drifted in and out. Not really a figure as much as a shell of condensation that had formed over a body that had simply vanished. Occasionally a drop of condensation would trickle down and leave a shiny trail behind. There were no distinguishing features but for the outline of the being. She thought of a piñata she made in first grade. Her tiny hands covered a balloon with paper strips dipped in watery paste and when the paper dried, she popped the balloon, pulled it out and was left with the empty shell. The woman’s arms were melted into a clump at the front of her body and she was holding a swaddled baby. Della stepped closer, looked at the bundle, saw a baby wearing one sock and she cried.