BEAUTY DEEPER THAN SKIN
By A. Rhea King
Doc Robbins spread a blue, sterile cloth out on the metal surgical tray. He placed each tool on it as if he were setting a table for a czar. The silence of the morgue was a comfort to him and gave him time to think about the victim that was coming…
A steady drizzle fell on the thirsty Mojave Desert. It was a sign of fall ending and winter coming.
That wasn't what Nick thought about as he drove up the bumpy road toward the revolving blue and red lights of police car ahead. Parked in front of the car was the black coroner vehicle. He'd passed an ambulance leaving as he turned onto the road, something he expected but with regret.
He knew this call – there had been six calls just like it in the last eight months. The Red Dress serial killer had left another gift in the desert; another body Nick was unlikely to identify. That fact tore him between gut-wrenching frustration and fire spitting anger. He kept it to himself that he was hoping, even praying, that when they did find the killer, he'd do something, anything, that would give Nick a reason to put a bullet between his eyes.
It was a minor surprise Nick how quick Ecklie had given in to letting Nick be lead on the case. After his bought of insanity, Ecklie seemed to give into his requests quicker. Was it sympathy or fear that drove that? Nick couldn't decide, and he didn't care. As long as every Red Dress Jane Doe stayed in his care. He thought of them as his girls. Despite his determination to see their killer caught, it ate at him that so far he hadn't been able to give his girls the justice they deserved.
Nick parked and got out, flicking up the hood of his raincoat. He grabbed his field case from the passenger seat and jogged toward David. The medical examiner was covered head to toe in protective gear, even wearing a face shield.
Nick pulled his camera out from under his raincoat and started snapping off photographs before he reached the scene. Mother Nature loved to make his job harder, didn't she? When he died, he was going to look her up her and give her an earful about it.
He was now close enough to see the latest victim and despite seeing six others like her, the sight stole his breath.
Like her sisters-of-crime, this woman had been starved until her skin was taut across her bones, making her look more like a skeleton. Her eyes, now sunken in their sockets, stared at the dark overcast sky. She wore a necklace of pearls strung on silver. Her lower torso was covered by trash, but he recognized the red spaghetti straps of the knee-length red silk red dress. He knew she would be barefoot, there would be signs of recent sex but no semen, no signs of restraints, and it was likely he'd never identify her – just like the other six. He would label her file Red Doe #7. He'd chosen to give his girls some of their identity back by giving them a unique name, but even the press was calling the women Red Dress Jane Doe, so he wasn't sure he'd accomplished much.
David reached in his kit and pulled out a liver thermometer.
"Do it when you get her to the morgue, Super Dave. We gotta get her out of the rain before I lose everything," Nick told the assistant coroner.
He nodded and then waved the officer over. He handed him a pair of elbow length gloves. "Put these on and help us uncover the body."
Nick dug a pair from his hip pocket and the three uncovered her.
"Grab her ankles," David ordered the officer.
The officer hesitated. "But the others had—"
"Come on, man. Grab her ankles!" Nick ordered.
The officer grabbed her ankles and they placed her in the waiting body bag. David and the officer picked the bag up and ran it to the wagon. David sprinted around to the driver's side and got in. He paused to wipe off his glasses, then started the engine and headed down the hill toward the highway.
Robbins didn't look up when David wheeled a gurney in and parked it next to the surgical table. David had just missed the antics of him pulling on his Hazmat suit, but he hadn't pulled the helmet on yet.
"Another Red Dress Jane Doe," David announced.
Robbins shook his head. "I wish they'd find this guy and throw the book at him."
"And drop him in an oubliette."
Robbins smiled, looking up when David unzipped the body bag. He noticed water dripping off the body bag and David. "When did it start raining?"
"About an hour ago. Nick wasn't happy about that." David easily lifted the body by himself and placed her on the autopsy table.
"In evidence versus Mother Nature, she always aids the criminal."
"Yeah. It's too bad we can't lock Mother Nature up for abetting."
Robbins chuckled with David.
"I hung up a fresh suit in the locker room for you. Nick must have called ahead, Ray's already getting geared up."
"Nasty old scabies. I don't even want to imagine the place these poor women were held before he murdered them." David headed toward the locker room in the back.
Robbins agreed. The mites were near impossible to get rid of, and both he and David had been out for a month when the first body was brought in and they discovered she was infested with them. They were now much more careful when a Red Dress Jane Doe came in.
He hobbled around the surgical table to begin examining the body, deciding where he wanted to start the autopsy. He looked up at her face, pausing to wonder if David or the paramedics had closed her eyes.
He looked up when Langston came in. "Ready for another disappointing autopsy?"
"Have some faith, Doc. She might give Nick something new."
Langston stopped on the other side, looking over the body. He pointed at the rash and scabs on her skin. "Scabies on her too. I bet they'll have the same DNA markers as the others had"
"Wouldn't it be nice," Robbins asked, "if the killer would go in to the hospital or a clinic for treatment?"
"That would be too easy," Langston commented. There was a touch of anger in it.
Robbins pulled his helmet on and zipped it closed. He checked that his respirator and helmet mic were on.
"Can you hear me?"
Langston and David both answered, "Yes."
Robbins laid his hands on the side of the woman's face to tilt it while he examined the skin for injuries. He let go, staring curiously at her face.
"Her skin is still very pliable," Robbins said. "Did you take her liver temperature, David?"
David came back into the room, lumbering in his Hazmat suit.
Langston pushed on her skin. "No fixed lividity. It's as if her blood is still circulating."
David answered Robbins. "Nick was more concerned about preserving the evidence and asked me to take it when I got her here."
"She couldn't have been dead for more than four or five hours," Langston commented.
"She might have had a high fever before death, I guess." Robbins turned to pick up a liver thermometer. "Although none of the other victims showed signs of a fever."
"She has beautiful eyes, doesn't she? I noticed that at the crime scene," David asked Langston. "But they aren't clouded. That's strange."
"There are chemicals that might keep them from clouding," Langston pointed out. "I'll have to have Henry test for those."
Robbins turned, looking at her face. Her eyes were open.
"Her eyes were closed a minute ago," Robbins said.
David shuddered. "Those after death remind me of zombie movies. Where do you want me to start?"
Robbins and Langston both smiled at the young man's humor.
"I'll have you start with the Y," Robbins told him.
Robbins began probing for the right spot to push the end of the thermometer in. He glanced up when David clanged something against the tray. David was trying to start the bone saw and it was being finicky.
"Give it a whap with your hand right over the made in Japan. That usually works," Robbins told him.
David did and the saw burst to life. David grinned and Langston chuckled.
"It's a good thing we're not surgeons down here," Robbins commented. "We'd be killing them off with all this old equipment."
Robbins pushed a little harder than he meant to against her abdomen and felt her flinch. His head snapped around, his eyes going to the spot. He moved his fingers, watching the white spot turn back to ashen gray.
"What is it, Doc?" Langston asked.
"Did you see that?" Robbins asked back.
Robbins looked up at her face. A tear was sliding down her face. If his guess about the time frame of the body dump were correct, a tear wouldn't be entirely unheard of. But with the flinch, with the skin returning to color – however sickly a color it was…
Was she… His mind didn't finish the question that was causing a cold, sinking feeling in his stomach.
Robbins moved toward her head. He leaned over her, finding her eyes had slid as far to the side as they could to watch David. Pools of saline were welling up and as he watched, another tear slid down her face.
His body cast a shadow over her face and jerky and slow her eye met his. His heart skipped a beat and then a second, and he had to catch his breath.
"David, turn off the saw," Robbins ordered.
"Why? What's wrong?"
"David, turn off the saw," Langston ordered louder.
David did, looking at him. "What's wrong?"
This exact moment was a secret horror of Robbins and it was happening for the second time in his career. 'She's alive and she just woke up in my morgue! Oh God!'
"Get my stethoscope," Robbins demanded as he pulled off his helmet.
"Is she crying? How is she crying?"
David hurried over to the desk and brought it back. Robbins put the earpieces in and pressed the end to her chest. Her breathing was short and very shallow, and her heart was beating at a dangerous slow and irregular pace. Was she dying or trying to come back to life?
"Call an ambulance," Robbins ordered.
Robbins yanked the stethoscope off. "CALL AN AMBULANCE!"
David ran over to the phone and dialed.
"Ray, grab everything you can find to cover her."
Langston ran to the room, tearing off his helmet as he disappeared.
Robbins tossed his stethoscope, not caring where it landed. He hobbled to a metal cupboard and ripped open the door. He grabbed all the sheets in it and hobbled back. Her body was beginning to lightly shiver, the beginnings of hypothermia. He knew her weakened body couldn't handle being cold and wet; the race to save her life had begun.
David ran back to him. "They're on their way. What can I do? Oh God! Ma'am, I—"
"Not now, David. Go to the lab and grab anything you can to cover her. Hurry!"
David ran out of the morgue.
Langston returned and began piling towels, clothes, and coats over her. "We have to get her off this metal table. I'll be right back."
He disappeared through the doors and recklessly drove a gurney back in, almost hitting Robbins as he came to a stop. The two doctors moved her to it, pulled up the sidebars, and piled everything they had back on her.
"I'm going to lost and found to grab everything I can," Robbins told Langston. "Stay with her."
He nodded, watching the coroner leave. Langston leaned over her, staring into her eyes. He smiled as he laid his gloved hand on her hair and gently stroked it.
"I can imagine how frightening this must be, but I promise you're safe now. And the CSI that's assigned to your case, he won't stop until he finds who did this to you."
Silent tears answered his promise.