Beauty Deeper Than Skin
Nick pulled up to a crime scene next to a gully and climbed out of his Tahoe with field kit in hand. Below him, work lights lit up trash, two police officers standing at the edge, and Doc Robbins with his assistant David. The two medical examiners were pulling a female body from the trash. Nick scuttled down the gentle slope to join them.
The Latino woman’s ash colored skin was stretched across her bones, revealing every sharp angle and joint. She had died with some kind of rash that was bright red against the ash color of death. Her dead eyes stared at the night sky overhead. She looked like a mummy who had been lying out in the sun for days. She wore a spaghetti strap red dress and pearls strung with silver, but no shoes.
“How many days has she been dead?” Nick asked Robbins.
“Based on the liver temp,” Robbins answered, “she either had a fever, or she died four hours ago.”
Confused, Nick looked from the Robbins to the corpse several times.
“She’s skin and bones, Doc. If she was alive even four hours ago, how?”
“I don't know, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find the cause of death was malnutrition.”
Nick knelt down by her with a slight shake of his head. He brushed hair out of her face, quietly promising her, “I’ll find who did this to you. I promise.”
A drizzle fell steady on the thirsty desert. Nick pulled up to a crime scene next to a gully and climbed out of his Denali. He pulled a cap on and zipped up his jacket. He pulled on a rain poncho, drawing the hood over his cap. He snapped his hand around the handle of his field kit and started down the gully slope. Over the years it had become less gentle from erosion and frequent climbers, forcing him to slow down and pick his way carefully. If it hadn't been raining he would have taken the time to use the road not far off, but time was of the essence right now.
Below him, Assistant M.E. David crouched next to a dead, emaciated female half buried under trash. An officer stood back by the work light, warily watching David and not hiding that he was too nervous to get any closer.
Like the other victims, this woman wore a spaghetti strap red dress – most likely silk – and pearls on a silver string. Her open eyes stared at the black sky above. He noticed that this one had what looked like a nicotine patch on her upper arm. Nick pulled a camera out from under his poncho and started snapping photographs as he hurried toward them. The rain slowly began to change from a drizzle to a downpour.
David pulled a liver thermometer out of the bag next to him.
Nick told him, “Super Dave, do that when you get her to the morgue. We gotta get her out of the rain before I lose everything. Be sure to get that patch on her arm to Henry.”
David waved the Officer over. Reluctantly the officer walked over. Dave the man and Nick a pair of elbow length gloves. The officer took them, but he didn’t put them right away. He even backed up a few steps.
“I’m not touching that,” he informed them, nodding once at the body.
“What’s wrong?” Nick asked.
“The others had scabie mites,” the officer said, "There is no way I'm touching that body.”
“Man! Get down here and help us right now,” Nick ordered, “or scabies will be the least of your worries by this time tomorrow!”Reluctantly, the officer obeyed. The three cleared the trash around her and lifted her into a body bag. David zipped it closed and carried her to the van by himself. Nick watched him leave before he turned back to documenting and collecting as much as he could before the rain washed everything away.
In the morgue, Robbins erected a HAZMAT bubble around a table in an alcove. Everything was covered in plastic, including Robbins. He hadn’t pulled the hood of the HAZMAT suit up as he lumbered around preparing for an autopsy. On a TV on his desk, a talk show host is laughed with American sweetheart, actor Jonathan Massie. He glanced through the plastic when the two began talking about Jonathan’s relief contributions following an earthquake overseas.
The doors burst open and David wheeled a gurney with the body bag through the morgue and into the bubble. Everything was dripping wet.
“Red Jane Seven,” David announced.
“When did it start raining?” Robbins asked.
“An hour ago. Nick wasn’t happy.”
“I bet not. In evidence versus Mother Nature, she always aids the criminal. You were careful? You made sure everyone put on gloves?”
“Yes I was and they did. I’m going to change. Be right back.” David exits the bubble with the gurney.
Robbins pulled on his helmet and easily picked up and placed the body on the table. He paused to look at her face. With her eyes closed, she looked like she was sleeping. He looked up when Russell entered the bubble. Russell wore a surgical gown, face shield, and was pulling on elbow length gloves.
“Hello, D.B. What brings you to the morgue?”
Russell looked over the body, answering, “I’m trying to get up to speed on this Red Dress Killer.”
“This is Nick’s case,” Robbins said, hinting there would be a fight if Russell tried to take over this case. “It has been for six years. Not even day shift picks up one of these girls.”
“Yes. Many people have made that abundantly clear tonight. I understand that this killer dumps a body every year, around the same time, and each are in a red dress, a pearl necklace, and nothing else?”
“I noticed that the media began running stories about the Red Dress Killer last Monday, before she was discovered. Does the killer tip them off about the dump?”
“No, but after the third year, they started counting down the days like Nick. They all knew it was near that time again.”
“Seven years is a long time to be chasing a ghost, isn’t it?”
“Yes it is.”
“Has it ever been released to the media that the women were infected with scabie mites?”
“No, and it looks like this one is too, so keep your distance while we’re doing the autopsy. If we have another outbreak, the lab may go after Nick’s head!”
Russell smiled. “I heard about that, also. It’s still a sore subject with some of his co-workers, apparently.”
Robbins laid his hands on the woman’s face, tilting it as he inspected her for injuries. “Well, when you’re laid up with these things for days, your thoughts aren’t very pleasant. It was probably myself and David that started the infestation, but everyone blamed Nick.”
Russell pushed a finger against the skin of her arm. It turned white but when he pulled his finger back, the skin slowly sprung back and turns ashen again. “Her skin is still pliable and I’m not seeing signs of rigor. Are all the victims like this?”
David lumbered into the bubble in a HAZMAT suit.
“No, and I don’t see any lividity. What was her core temperature, David?” Robbins looked up at David.
“Nick was more concerned about preserving the evidence. I haven’t taken it yet.” David looks into the woman’s eyes. “Her eyes haven’t clouded yet, either.”
Robbins looks at him, then down at the woman. “Huh. Her eyes were closed when you brought her in.”
“No. They were open.”
“David, they were closed.”
“No. They were open at the crime scene.”
“Did Nick shut them?”
“No. They were open at the crime scene, Doctor.”
Robbins started to argue but shrugged off the eyes as a possible post-mortem reaction instead. He asked David, “Did you see the paramedics check for vitals, not just assume?”
David pulled a patch off her arm and slipped it in an evidence envelope. “When I noticed there was no lividity, I checked myself. I thought I heard her heartbeat, but the thunder and rain were starting to get loud. I did check again once she was in the van, but I couldn’t hear anything or feel a pulse.”
“Draw blood for tox panel, and then remove her dress and necklace.”
“The tox on all of the other victims came back negative,” Russell commented.
Robbins nodded. “She probably will too, but Nick always orders full panel for these victims. He’s thorough with his girls, here; I guess he’s hoping that the killer will slip up and give him the break he needs to find the person.”
Russell nodded, understanding why his C.S.I. would want to be so thorough. David prepared to draw blood from her arm. Robbins picked up a liver thermometer and probed her abdomen. He pulled back when he thought he felt the woman flinch.
Across from him, David pushed the needle in, prepared to pull hard to get any blood to come out. Instead, the blood began flowing easily into the tube on every beat of her alive and still beating heart.
David’s voice shook when he began stuttering, “Uhm… Doc… We… Got… She’s not… Oh God!”
Robbins looked up, watching blood quickly fill the vile. The Hazmat suit hid him suddenly going pale.
“What’s wrong?” Russell asked them.
David and Robbins both looked at the woman’s face.
“Oh dear God!” Robbins gasped.
Russell followed their gazes and saw tears streaming from her open eyes. Her bottom lip barely trembled, a movement that was slowly creeping down her famished body.
“SHE’S ALIVE! CALL AN AMBULANCE, DAVID!” Robbins ordered.
David quickly pulled the needle out and lumbered as fast as he could to the phone outside the bubble.
“We need blankets,” Robbins ordered Russell. “Over there. In that cupboard.
Russell ran over and dragged an armload out. Robbins hobbled to another and pulled sheets out. David, having shed his HAZMAT suit, ran back to the bubble.
“The paramedics are coming. What can I do? Oh God! Ma’am, I—”
“Go find anything you can to cover her. I’ll go get linens out of the laundry room. D.B., she doesn’t have enough fat to keep her warm even in here. Move her onto a padded gurney.”
Both M.E. rushed out of the morgue.
Russell retrieved a padded gurney and steered it into the alcove. He easily picked up the woman and moved her onto it. He lifted the side rails and then piled all the sheets and blanket that had fallen off in the transfer. He leaned over her, looking her in the eyes.
“I’m D.B. Russell and I work in the Las Vegas crime lab. I know this is frightening, but you’re safe now.” Russell smiled, laying a hand on her head.
She stared at him, crying silently.