Part Three of
by Jeani Rector
What happens when a rookie cop witnesses her first autopsy?
You can buy the complete novel HERE.
“You can't be serious!” I exclaimed into my cell phone.
“Yep,” Foley told me, “I’m sick. I can’t make it to work. That means you have to go to the autopsy without me.”
“But I’ve never seen an autopsy before!” I wailed.
“Consider that I’m doing you a favor,” Foley said. “You’ve already seen the outside of the body, now you get to see the inside as well. Just think….if you don’t puke over this, you’ll never puke over anything ever again. So like I said, I’m doing you a favor.”
“Gee thanks,” I said and pushed the off button on the phone.
Good lord, I was about to witness my first autopsy.
I knew where the Rancho Cordova County Coroner’s Office was located. The building stood among a cluster of other buildings whose contents the general public would prefer to ignore, which was why all of these county services were located on the outskirts of the town. All were located on Kiefer Road, a street located in just about the only semi-rural area left near Rancho Cordova. I figured that area was still semi-rural because nobody wanted to live there.
The reasons why nobody wanted to live near that area were because the cluster of County buildings on Kiefer Road contained the Animal Control, the Juvenile Court and Detention Facility, the Mosquito and Pest Abatement and Control, and of course, the County Morgue. None of which, the majority of the public felt, would make desirable neighbors. These were the types of necessary services that the general public knew existed, but didn’t want to know too much about.
To top it off, at the very end of Kiefer Road, about seven miles down the road from the County buildings, was the County dump. So, even though there was a boom in suburban housing all over Rancho Cordova, that housing boom would never materialize in this neighborhood.
I slid behind the wheel of my car and put it into gear. I drove off, and after about fifteen minutes of driving down a lonely road, I pulled into the County Coroner’s Office parking lot, and swung my car around to the back of the building. I instantly saw that this was where the coroner’s van was kept when not in use.
I wondered how long it had taken Guidotti to get used to the tools of his trade. Certainly he must have been aware that when he drove the van to pick up dead bodies, the vehicle would attract stares from the living.
I didn’t have any time to ponder, however, because on this day, Guidotti was not driving the van. Just as I parked two spaces away from the coroner’s van, Guidotti’s dark blue Ford parked beside me.
I got out of my car at the same time he got out of his.
“Let’s go,” he said, and took my elbow to guide me in the right direction. I could feel his warm fingers on my arm and wondered if he was just being polite, or was he hitting on me just like Foley had said? I actually hoped he was.
But the moment was over quickly, because Guidotti let go of my arm and reached in his pants pocket for keys. He retrieved a set, winked and said, “The door’s not locked to keep the bodies in. It’s locked to keep the curious out.”
Once inside, Guidotti led me to a small dressing room. “Here,” he told me as he held out an armload of clothing. “These are your scrubs.”
I accepted the clothing, and then entered the small room. The scrubs were white, doctor-like outer clothes that I placed over my street clothes then tied in the back. I put on a long-sleeved fabric gown, and then placed a plastic, disposable apron on myself.
I was ready for the next item, but wasn’t sure what it was. I held up two long non-porous things, and then realized that they were sleeves. I put on eye goggles and a surgical mask, which was a paper cup held to my mouth and nose by an elastic string around my head.
I finished my outfit by putting on the shoes. I had expected little slipper-like things, and was surprised when the shoes resembled garden clogs more than anything else.
By the time I exited the dressing room, I felt as though I looked like a being from another planet. All I would have needed to complete the image would have been a space helmet. But I stepped out to see that Guidotti was waiting for me, and he was dressed in an identical fashion. Because he had dressed this way so often, he had beaten me in getting ready by a wide margin of time.
I was slower because this was my first autopsy, and this wasn’t the sort of thing we got training for, even at the Academy.
The door to the lab opened, and I turned around to see who had entered the room. I felt my jaw drop as I realized that Detective Johnson had just walked in.
“Guidotti…” Johnson began, then stopped when he recognized me. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“Hey,” Guidotti spoke up. “Officer Meyers is my guest.”
“You have guests in the morgue?” Johnson said as his eyebrows rose in disbelief.
“She is to be the witness to the autopsy,” Guidotti said.
Johnson scowled at me. “This wouldn’t have anything to do with my murder case, would it?”
“Damn right I do,” Johnson said, his voice rising. “I’m a homicide detective, in case you forgot. You’re patrol. Know the difference?”
Guidotti jumped in. “Johnson, what do you want?”
“I came for the autopsy report,” Johnson said. “You told me you’d have it completed by today.”
“Jesus Johnson,” Guidotti said. “I haven’t even had a chance to perform your damn autopsy yet. Now get out of here before you contaminate the place. And I am not referring to your germs.”
“You’d better call me when you have that report,” Johnson told Guidotti, ignoring me.
“If calling you will keep you out of my building, I’ll call you for sure,” Guidotti said, and then he turned his back on Johnson.
“Follow me. Don’t worry about Johnson,” Guidotti told me as he held open the door. “It’s not because you’re patrol that he’s such an ass. You see, Johnson’s an ass to everyone.”
“Thanks,” I said with a smile, “but I kind of figured that one out for myself.”
He let me walk through first then shut the door behind himself. Once inside, he put on rubber gloves.
I was surprised when I saw the main autopsy room because it was large and spacious. It looked nothing like the basement dungeon that I had imagined. There looked like three individual autopsy stations, each one equipped with a wall that contained shelves and sinks.
One station, at the farthest right, was being used. Guidotti gently steered me to the station at the farthest left. In that station, there was a table, but a sheet was draped over the body that was lying upon the table. I couldn’t help but stare at the sheet, knowing that the bulges underneath contained the remains of the woman from the woods.
“Each autopsy bay is self-contained,” Guidotti explained. “That’s so we don’t have to move the body anywhere once the procedure starts. Here, you can see that the sink areas are designed to allow the autopsy table to overhang the basin. The tables that hold the bodies are molded plastic, although we do have stainless steel ones. But the stainless steel tables are oversized and their purposes are to hold the really big bodies. So we use the plastic ones for regular folks.”
I listened, and tried not to glance to my right where an autopsy was taking place as he spoke. I was thinking that I never in all of my life could have foreseen that someday I would be taking a guided tour of an autopsy room.
“I’m going to remove the sheet now,” Guidotti told me.
My hands were shaking and my knees felt too rubbery to hold myself steady. My stomach burned with acid, and my chest and upper arms felt clammy.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Guidotti asked gently.
How had he known what I was feeling? I thought I had looked grim and determined on the outside. Apparently not.
As I had done many times, I told myself that I needed to get a grip. I knew that, to keep my perspective as a police officer, I should not allow myself to personalize death as something that had more meaning for me than what it should be. But I was disturbed by the grim nature of death. It was such a mystery, and I was helpless because I had no answers; and I could only speculate.
And I wondered for the millionth time, Is there life after death?
No one had ever come back from the dead to talk about it.
“Officer?” Guidotti brought me back to the present moment.
“Oh,” I said, “I’m sorry.”
Gently Guidotti began removing the sheet from the head. I observed how the sheet seemed almost to be a shroud. Very appropriate, I thought. Guidotti was gentle in his handling of the sheet; he unfolded it so only the face was showing, and then stopped.
He stepped aside, and I stepped closer. I shut my eyes, feeling the nerves in my fingertips tingling. My heart slowed, and I took a deep breath. Finally I forced myself to open my eyes, and I looked.
Her face appeared smooth but waxy. Her eyes had sunken into her skull, and her skin was drained of most color. I could see that behind the ears the skin had gotten very dark, and I realized that the livor mortis had set in. I knew she had lain on her back after death. The blood had seeped to the regions of her body that had been lowermost since her death.
She looked like a doll. My thoughts kept replaying over and over again: She’s so incredibly still.
“Are you okay?” Guidotti asked me.
“Yes,” I sighed. “I’m okay.”
And I was. The anticipation was worse than the reality. I had expected something hideous. But on the table lay only a woman, not some hideous creature. Except for the sunken eyes and lips eaten by insects, she really was not horrible, just incredibly still. She was the same woman I had seen lying dead in the woods; now she was simply lying dead on the table.
“What do we do now?” I asked.
“Are you ready to proceed?” Guidotti answered my question with another question.
“We have to move her.”
“Why?” I asked. “I thought you said that the autopsy bays were all self-contained.”
“They are,” he said. “But this is a homicide. We need to take this lady to the homicide bay. That’s a separate area.”
“How can you tell she’s a homicide before the autopsy?” I asked.
“Obvious bullet wound in a position that is not self inflicted,” he answered.
I followed him as he rolled the table out of the left autopsy bay. He pushed the gurney that carried the body towards a door. “You want to get that? I don’t want to touch door handles now that I’m gloved.”
“Sure.” I opened the door. “But why do you need to be so careful when she is already dead? It’s not like you could give her germs.”
Guidotti said, “I can’t give her any diseases, but she might give them to me. Also, I don’t want to contaminate any evidence that might be in or on the body. Hence the gloves.”
The homicide bay was similar to the others except there were two large lamps over the autopsy area. Guidotti rolled the table up to the sink. There was a scale hanging next to the sink that looked similar to the scales in grocery store produce departments. There was a little metal tray on a metal stand next to the sink that contained a towel with scalpels and other instruments on top.
Gently he began removing the sheet off of the body. I saw that the young woman was nude, just like she had been in the woods. “I’ve already photographed her,” he said.
He went on, “The table on which the victim is laying has a drain hole at the end so that all fluids run out into the sink. That’s why the table overhangs the sink, as you can see. Now I have to put my headphones on.”
Guidotti reached for a dictaphone headset. The headset was attached to a connection that was suspended from the ceiling. “I have foot pedals,” he told me, “to control playback, rewind, and the works. I will dictate during the entire exam. If you need to ask questions, tap my shoulder first so I can shut off the dictaphone.”
Then he spoke, “Body is a Caucasian female, one hundred twenty-two pounds, five feet four inches, approximately nineteen years of age,” Guidotti began speaking into his dictaphone. “Examination of the body’s surface reveals a tattoo on the left forearm in a rose design, and a bruise to the left leg at mid-calf, approximately two inches in circumference. There are needle puncture wounds on both inner elbows, and some sclerose, or scar tissue, is apparent. A bullet entrance hole is observed in the right chest directly above the right breast.”
Guidotti was silent a moment, then said, “Insect damage to the face and fingers is evident. The lips have been eaten and there are marks from ant bites on the fingers. Maggots have been washed from the body but damage is apparent. Eyes have dehydrated into the orifice.”
He reached for a scalpel from the metal tray and I turned my head. I couldn’t make myself look.
He paused, and I shut my eyes. I still could not force myself to look at what Guidotti was doing. But I could hear. And the sounds were making me nauseous, because I could hear cracking as he removed the ribs.
“Gross examination of the heart…” Guidotti began, and then he paused for a moment. “Well, the heart contains debris from necrotic tissues adhering to the heart valve, possibly produced by bacteria. This is an indicator of heroin abuse. A sample of blood is being taken from the heart after opening the pericardial sac. Removing and weighing heart….victim’s heart weighs two hundred, fifty-three grams.”
I heard Guidotti step on the foot pedal to stop it. “You still okay?”
“I’m not sure,” I admitted.
“Do you think you can continue?”
“I’m going to try.”
I opened my eyes. Although there was an unnatural, gaping hole down the length of the torso, I had forgotten that once a victim is dead, the heart is not beating to pump the blood. Therefore, there was no bleeding from the cuts, just a tiny bit of seepage. It wasn’t as messy as I had assumed it would be, and it just didn’t seem real that I was looking at an actual human being lying there on the table with the insides exposed.
Guidotti stepped on the pedal again. “Over a thousand cc’s of bloody pleural effusion are present in the right thorax. The inferior branch of the right main pulmonary artery is transected and the right lung near the hilum shows damage. There is extensive hemorrhage in the right lung…oh…I’m now extracting a bullet.”
Any feeling of dissociation was beginning to leave me. I suddenly experienced a belated shock. I felt the nausea travel up my throat and my forehead broke out in a sweat. My chest felt constricted and my skin felt cold and clammy; my head felt light and the room suddenly got brighter. Oh my god, I thought, am I going to pass out?
No. I would see this through to the end.
I calmed myself by taking a deep breath, which was hampered by my breathing mask. I held my breath for a moment, and then took another deep breath. After that, I felt I could breathe normally.
I heard the plunk as Guidotti placed the bullet into a metal container with forceps. Good, that meant there was evidence for forensics to examine later.
I needed to concentrate on facts. This was a necessary part of the evidentiary procedure. The police had to be present in autopsies of murder victims in case it was necessary to testify in a court of law further down the road. I needed to be here today in case I was needed to be there later.
And so I endured the first autopsy I had ever witnessed. And I wondered, Would I ever make it as a good cop? Would I ever toughen up?
I had to. It all boiled down to this: as a police officer, I had a unique opportunity to make a difference in the world. So, at every autopsy, I would stay until the finish. It was part of my job, and part of my responsibility as a human being to help stop murderers before they kill again.
In Guidotti’s autopsy room, I became a different person, and I knew it. Life had more meaning because now I had experienced death.
by Jeani Rector
Melissa is determined to succeed in her chosen profession, despite prejudice against her gender. And she does hold her own, going by the book... until the day she finds a dead body in the woods.
Buy the complete novel HERE.