The Office of the County Medical Examiner is located inside a large, architecturally impressive glass building tucked back from the street and nestled neatly amongst several century-old brick buildings. Glass wall partitions separate the various ground floor offices. The front desk clerk, a short, clean cut young man with thick framed glasses and a slick comb over with rulered part, reminiscent of the dapper do’s of the 1940’s and a favorite of young hipsters, tells us he’d answered Natalie’s inquest regarding a body matching the description of James Vance.
“The body came in early this morning,” he says in a voice much deeper than I would have expected. “I handled the processing myself.”
“You?” I say.
“That’s right. I’m certified as an assistant M.E.”
“What´s going on?” I ask, nodding through the glass at all the empty desks. “It feels kind of dead in here. Where is everybody?”
“They’ve already gone home.”
“But it’s only 2:45,” I say, glancing down at my watch.
“That’s right, we close at 3:00pm on Thursdays.”
“No kidding,” I say, biting down on the inside part of my cheek. “I don’t suppose we’d be able to get a look at that body today, would we?”
“Sure can,” he says. “Let me just go make sure it’s ready.”
The young man disappears, only to return a few minutes later wearing a look of perplexity on his face.
“Something wrong?” I ask.
“I’ll say,” he says, shaking the computer’s mouse as he fixes his attention on the computer monitor.
“Excuse me,” Natalie says, “but what does that mean?”
“It means the body is no longer here,” he says, without looking up. He’s punching away at the keyboard, clearly searching the system for an explanation.
“Where did it go?”
“The only place it could go, up in flames,” he replies. “Cremated.”
“I don’t understand?” Natalie says. “I got a call this morning, saying the body was here.”
“It was here this morning,” he tells her.
“That seems like a rather quick turn around,” I say. “I was under the impression there were identification procedures: autopsies, locating next of kin, that sort of thing, no?”
“Oh, definitely,” the young man says. “In most cases like these, we’re required to wait up to thirty days before disposing of a corpse.”
“So, what’s so special about this one?”
The kid shakes his head. “I don’t know.”
“Who gave the go-ahead?” I ask.
“Generally speaking, who would be in a position to give authorization like that?”
The young man shrugs, “Any of about a dozen people, I suppose. The governor would be the most senior in that line, followed perhaps by the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Chief Medical Examiner, though I’m sure the city commissioner, or executive officer of public safety might also be in a position to make that call.”
“What about his file then?” Natalie asks.
“I’m pulling it up now,” he says.
Together, we watch as the young man sorts through the system’s electronic files. After a minute, his face scrunches around the eyebrows. “That’s strange,” he says.
“You mean to tell me the file has disappeared?” Natalie says, peering over the counter.
“To the contrary, the file is right here. It just doesn’t show anything about having been cremated.”
“Had you at least identified the body in order to notify his family?”
“It doesn’t look like it. ”
Natalie throws up a hand of caution. “You mean to tell me a body comes through here having clearly died under suspicious circumstances. Yet no real effort is made to identify the man, let alone locate and notify a next of kin. Then, a call comes down from who knows who and the next thing anyone knows, the body is being cremated. And all of this just hours after this office received my phone call inquiring about that very body.”
“There may be another explanation,” the young man says, disappearing down the same corridor as before. Only this time, when he returns, he’s balancing a proud smile between his cheeks.
“I think I know what’s going on here,” he says, returning again to the system’s electronic files. Navigating the keyboard once more, he appears to locate whatever it was he’d been looking for. Running his finger along the screen, he begins to slowly nod his head.
“That’s it,” he says.
“What’s it?” Natalie demands.
“I don’t know how to say this, but it would appear there’s been some sort of mix up.”
“Mix up, did you say?” I ask, hoping to draw out a more revelatory explanation.
“A switch,” he says. “A mistake with the paperwork.”
“You’re telling me you cremated the wrong body?”
“I’m sure it was an accident.”
“Just out of curiosity, how long have you worked here?”
“From the date of my first internship until now, five years.”
“And in all that time, how many of these sorts of mix ups have you heard of happening here?”
The young man lifts and lowers his shoulders. “None.”
“An accident,” I say, stepping away from the counter. Taking out my phone, I dial Cassie’s number. She picks it up on the first ring.
“That’s crazy,” she says, “I literally just picked up my phone when your call came through. What’s up? Any luck at Vance’s this morning?”
“It depends on how you look at it.”
“Hmm, cryptic. And what does that mean exactly?”
“It means something fishy is going on here.”
“Speaking of fish, how would you like to treat me to lunch at Cassis?”
“Treat no, but I will let you pay for yourself. In the meantime, I need you to get ahold of some information for me. I want a list of everyone who the chief medical examiner might answer to, along with whatever statutes, civil or otherwise, that govern the treatment of unidentified bodies.”
“Okay…” Cassie says, holding onto the end of the word, “and is there anything specific in these statutes I need to be looking for?”
“Possibly,” I say. It only takes a minute to explain the rather bizarre circumstances surrounding the cremation of James Vance’s body.
“What about the autopsy files?” she asks.
“Aside from a visual examination of the body, I don’t think they’d even done an autopsy.”
“Actually,” the young man’s voice cuts in.
“Excuse me,” I say, tossing a glance over my shoulder.
“What you said about the autopsy. That’s not exactly true.”
“I’m sorry, Cassie, can you hold on?” I lower the phone, turn around.
“The autopsy was performed this morning. I happen to know, because it was my first time assisting the pathologist.”
“So, you have the autopsy there?” I ask.
“Even better,” he says, his mouth pulling to one side as he raises a small plastic bag. The muscles around my eyes tighten.
At a table beside a window, I find Cassie sipping a mint julep tea. She’d apparently chosen a dress to match the venue. Ivory shoulders peek out of a strapless, yellow chiffon dress with matching heels. The dress plays well with her soft platinum blonde hair, which she’s gone to the effort of curling.
I greet her with a kiss on the cheek, introduce her to Natalie who thanks her for agreeing to put her up at her place.
“With everything I’ve just learned, including what happened this morning in the metro—”
“It’s no problem,” Cassie says, laying a reassuring hand over Natalie’s forearm. “It’ll be nice to have some company.”
“Meanwhile,” I say, raising a flat palm, “I think it’s time we started treating this case as a conspiracy.”
“Conspiracy?” Cassie repeats. “As in conspiracy, conspiracy?”
“I don´t know how far up it goes, or even what´s driving it, but it’s clear, someone is trying very hard to keep things well-contained.”
“And what about you?” Cassie asks.
“I know the risks.”
“Do you? You just said you don´t know who´s behind it, how far up it goes, or what´s driving it.”
“I appreciate your concern, honestly, but as far as I can tell, I’m not on anyone’s immediate radar.”
“I couldn’t disagree more,” Cassie says, glancing at Natalie as if unsure whether to dress me down in front of a client. Taking the charge out of her voice, she continues in a more pragmatic tone. “You’ve been at the center of each of these incidents, beginning with your arrest at the strip club, the rescue of your neighbor, the death of James Vance, and the shooting this morning in the metro. Not to mention, what just happened at the morgue.”
“What would you suggest I do, go into hiding?”
“Why we don´t let the police handle it?”
“The police are handling it, but that´s no reason why we shouldn´t do our part.”
The waiter comes by to take our order. In addition to three Greek salads, our order includes, a falafel wrap for Cassie, a plate of Moussaka for me, and chicken souvlaki for Natalie, along with a side order of dolmades and blue cheese stuffed olives. When the waiter leaves, Cassie presses me for what I’d found at the medical examiner’s office that had caused me to cut short our phone call.
“First, did you manage to come up with the information I asked you for?”
“Of course,” she says, reaching into her purse for a folder that she slides across the table. I open it. The contents include several pages of documents printed off the Department of Health and Human Services website outlining the various bylaws governing the handling of unidentified bodies. According to state law, medical examiners are required to investigate all unexplained deaths, especially those likely to have resulted from a crime. Once the cause of death has been properly determined, the medical examiner has an obligation, by law, to attempt to identify the victim in no less than thirty days.
“And the list?”
“Right here,” she says, passing another piece of paper across the table.
On it are the names and positions of precisely twelve people in various positions of state or local government, including those the clerk had mentioned and another six.
“This is it, huh?”
“Your turn,” she says.
I remove the small plastic bag the assistant pathologist had given me at the medical examiner’s office containing a single, .22 caliber slug and toss it onto the table.
“Is that what I think it is?”
“The bullet that put a hole in James Vance.”
A look of steady concentration colors Cassie’s face. “So, someone goes through all the trouble of killing a man, sneaking in and switching his medical files in order to dispose of his body, only to allow the only piece of physical evidence that exists to escape in the hands of an assistant pathologist?”
“It’s about time something went our way in this investigation.”
“So, where do we go from here?”
“First things first,” I say, picking up the plastic bag, “I’m going to have this slug tested.”
“It’s a longshot, but if the signature of these bullets matches any in the system, it may give us a bead on whose behind all of this. Which reminds me, I’m going to need to borrow your car. Natalie has her own, so you’ll be just fine getting home.”
Handing him the keys, Cassie’s voice softens. “You will be careful, won’t you, Sphinx?”
“Why?” I ask. “Have you let your coverage lapse?”
“I’m not talking about my car,” she says, “and you know that.”
“Of course,” I tell her, “but at this point, I really don’t think there’s anything to be worried about. As far as I know, no one but the three of us here even knows I’m on this case.”
“Just remember,” she says, “that hair on your chest is no substitute for a bulletproof vest.”