CODE BLOOD

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Chapter Eighteen

“Don’t let the Coroner become your designated driver,” admonished the public service television ads. Colt had heard the message many times. On Wednesday morning, he drove through a part of East Los Angeles he had never seen before. On one side of Mission Road, a rail yard went on forever. Trucks pulling shipping containers filled the oncoming lane and lumbered past him spewing diesel exhaust. Above, he saw the gray cement underside of the freeway he had just exited. Ahead, past a string of fast food restaurants, he spotted the large white sign:

Los Angeles County Coroner

Medical Examiner

Forensic Laboratories

Law and Science Serving the Community

When Colt became a paramedic, he realized the time would come when he would have to visit a morgue. That day had now arrived. He felt he could deal with any medical situation that required a response in the squad, but he dreaded going into a morgue—he knew it would bring back all the painful thoughts of his mother’s death.

Soon after the sale of the ranch, Colt spent an afternoon cleaning out the office where his father worked every Sunday, managing their precarious finances. Thirty years of his father’s life was jammed into the drawers of the desk. Colt dumped everything out on the Indian rug, sat on the floor and began to sort through the remains. A decade of Sheridan Bank statements and cancelled checks went into a box that Colt later discarded. He saved a couple of pictures of horses long gone and the rodeo belt with the beautiful silver and gold buckle that his father had won for bronco riding. Most of the documents and correspondence no longer had any significance. Letters from packhorse buyers, animal health and feed articles, a $575 invoice for his father’s Savage Model 110 30-06 deer rifle and a Wyoming registration for an old trailer went directly into the trash.

Amid the jumble of paper, Colt found his own birth certificate, dated June 2, 1985, and the picture of his mother wearing the blue CALIFORNIA T-shirt, holding hands with his father next to the pickup truck. He also found anenvelope containing a certified letter addressed to his father, dated September 14, 1994, from the Texas Department of Public Safety. Colt read it once, stood up and walked to the window. He looked out at the high plains grassland and rocked slowly back and forth. When his emotions subsided, he took a deep breath and rubbed the tears from his eyes. He reread the letter several times, hoping for more information than the sterile sentences contained.

Dear Mr. Lewis:

The Texas Highway Patrol in Dallas County has tried without success to contact you on several recent occasions. Our investigation shows that you are the spouse of Carol Lewis, D.O.B. 5/12/57.

We are sorry to advise you that Mrs. Lewis died on the night of September 2, 1994. The vehicle she was driving was involved in a head-on collision with a semi trailer on U.S. Highway 30, approximately 10 miles west of Dallas, near the city of Grand Prairie.

The Texas Department of Public Safety extends its condolences to you and your family. We request that you contact the undersigned immediately. The Department needs instructions concerning the disposition of Carol Lewis’ remains.

Sincerely,

Wesley Dawkins

Texas Department of Public Safety

Austin, TX 78701

Colt laid the letter on his father’s desk and went back to the window. It looked like it might rain. Black storm clouds were pushing across the sky, ending the day.

For years, Colt believed his mother had divorced his father and found another husband. He thought she might even have more children—half brothers or sisters he would never know. The letter shook all his assumptions. His mother had died just after his ninth birthday. For more than half his life, Colt bore the pain of what he thought was her rejection. Now he realized that what he thought to be real was untrue. His mother might have still loved him when she died. She might have had plans to see him. She could have even been thinking of him that night, at the time of the accident.

Colt wanted to know why she was in Dallas. Did his father ever respond to the letter? Did he go to Dallas in 1994 to arrange for the burial of his wife, or did he ignore the letter and leave it in his desk drawer? Why hadn’t he said anything? Colt was entitled to know; she was his mother. Was there no one in Texas to claim her body? Did she ever have a funeral, or a memorial service?

Colt didn’t sleep the night he discovered the letter. He lay awake going over the same unanswered questions, and felt guilty for his unkind thoughts about his mother. The next morning, he called Texas and spent two hours in voice mail hell, switched from one extension to another at the Department of Public Safety. When he finally spoke to a human, she referred him to the Highway Patrol in Dallas. They told him only criminal records were kept indefinitely; files concerning automobile accidents were destroyed after seven years. They had nothing. The following day, he checked with the morgue in Dallas, but there was no record of Carol Lewis. Grand Prairie didn’t even have a morgue. Colt agonized that his mother’s body might have been left unclaimed somewhere in Texas. He would never know; his father took the information with him to his grave.

Until he discovered the envelope in his father’s desk, Colt lived with the hope that someday he would see his mother again and ask why she left him. Once he realized she was dead and there was no further information beyond the three-paragraph form letter from the Texas Department of Public Safety, he plunged into a depression that lasted several months. He was left to decide which was worse—wondering if his mother would ever return or knowing she would not. Both hurt. He thought of driving to Dallas to try to find out more information about what happened to his mother’s body. He decided it was useless.

When he moved to California and began studying for his fire science degree, some of the sadness dissipated, but Colt still wondered what happened to his mother. Was she cremated? Was she buried somewhere? Was there an urn with her remains or a grave he could visit? The reason she left her family in Big Horn was never explained, and her departure left a wound that never healed. Colt grew up with an empty spot in his heart, which only her love could fill.

Colt parked next to a dozen white cars marked CORONER. A red brick building surrounded by old streetlights with glass globes stood at the end of the parking lot. Carved granite decorated the front façade and lined the wide stairway leading up to the entrance. Colt had once seen something similar on a horse buying trip with his father—the Cheyenne City Hall, built in 1889.

He ascended the steps two at a time. Inside, the floor of the lobby consisted of thousands of small black and white six-sided tiles. Slabs of gray marble reached halfway up the walls. A light fixture with one large globe, surrounded by several smaller globes, hung from the center of an ornate ceiling. Plastic trees covered with dust surrounded the entrance to the restrooms.

Colt was wearing his County Fire Department blues and tried to look official when he approached the front desk. A receptionist in a tan uniform was busy talking on the telephone. “No ma’am…no, the body would not be here…what? No…no, it would still be at the hospital…thank you.” She hung up and looked at Colt.

“Good morning,” he said.

The phone rang again, and again. The clerk held up her hand to silence him. “Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office, may I put you on hold?... Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office, how may I help you?”

Colt gave up and walked past the receptionist toward several doors with frosted glass. He opened the first, marked NOTIFICATION SECTION. Inside, several clerks worked at computer screens. One looked up and asked, “Can I help you?”

“I’m here to find out about a body that was sent from the CU trauma center on Sunday afternoon.”

The woman stood up and came to the counter. “Do you have the name, or a case number?”

“No, there was no ID other than a first name.”

“You’re in the wrong place. This is for death certificates. You want the medical examiner’s office. Behind this building.”

“Thanks,” Colt said, already halfway to the door.

Colt descended the outside steps and walked around the building. Behind it, he saw a two-story rectangle cement structure. It had tiny square windows, a nest of radio antennae sticking up from the roof and looked like it could survive a direct hit from a nuclear bomb.

When he entered, a blast of ice-cold air hit him. Behind a pane of security glass, a man wearing a shirt with the Los Angeles County logo and a photo ID hanging around his neck was finishing a telephone conversation. Colt wondered how many people died each day in Los Angeles and how many calls came into the Coroner.

Colt spoke through the hole in the glass. “I’m a County fire paramedic. I came to get some information on an accident victim.”

“What day did the body arrive?”

“Sunday.”

“Name?”

Colt shook his head.

“Hold on, I have to call an investigator. Have a seat.”

Colt remained standing and looked around the bleak reception area. It was inhospitable and clearly not intended for visitors. A security door on one wall announced AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY. The bare walls were a tan color. The cement floor, also bare, was a darker color, almost brown. A row of off-color blue chairs lined one wall. That was it; there weren’t even any dusty plastic trees.

Colt waited for a few minutes until the door opened and a man came out. He had a law enforcement haircut — shaved close and flat on top — but not the body to match. He was short, had no ass, and a middle-aged belly protruded over the front of his pants. A silver carabiner with a cluster of keys hung off a belt loop.

“Nate Petruno,” he said. When he stuck out his hand, Colt saw short, muscular arms and enormous hands.

“Colt Lewis.”

“What can I do for you?” Petruno cracked his knuckles.

“Sunday afternoon we responded to an accident in Malibu. The victim was a female. She died on the way to the CU hospital. I need some information.”

“You don’t have a name?”

“Just her first name. Bibi. Does that help?”

Petruno cracked his knuckles again. “We get 350 bodies a day in here and—” His cell phone rang. He pulled it out of his pocket, glanced at it and silenced the ringer.

“She came in without her right foot,” Colt said. “We never recovered it.”

“Oh yeah, I know that one. A Jane.”

“Jane?”

“She’s a Jane Doe. Unidentified.”

Colt frowned. “You’ll find out who she is? How many ‘Bibi’s’ can there be?”

“She didn’t give you a last name?”

“No, she was in shock. She was in such bad shape, all alone when it happened. She could only whisper a couple of words.”

“Well, she was two months pregnant.”

“Pregnant?”

“Yeah.”

“Jesus,” Colt exclaimed. “She was gonna have a kid?” He paused and thought about it for a moment. “Maybe she whispered ‘baby’ to me.”

Petruno looked at Colt. “What’s your interest in this?”

“I wanted to tell her family what happened, and how we tried to find the foot. They should know.”

“Sooner or later we’ll ID her, but until then she’s a Jane Doe.” Petruno’s phone rang again. He looked at it again and stopped the ringer. “Dead people have parents, friends, and lovers. Eventually they start asking questions. If it’s a recent death, they usually call us. We ID more than half the Janes and Johns. It’s just a matter of time.”

“Can you believe someone walked off with her foot after the accident?”

“People pick up all sorts of body parts. We get a lot of skulls. Someone finds one, takes it home, leaves it in a closet for years and then drops it off at the Sheriff’s Department. They bring it to us. Those are the tough cases.”

“This is different. The foot might have been reattached.”

Petruno shrugged. “Must be something in the water out here. I come from Indiana. No one back there would pick up a severed foot.” Petruno looked at his watch. “I have to be somewhere in 45 minutes. Want a quick look around?”

“Yeah, sure,” Colt said without enthusiasm. “Why not?” During two years as a firefighter and five weeks as a paramedic, he had avoided the morgue. It was time to complete his education.

Petruno went to the security door and waited to be buzzed in. “C’mon,” he motioned to Colt. “This place is the end of the line. When you leave here, you’re goin’ on someone’s mantel or into the ground.”

Colt followed Petruno through the door and down a hallway. A woman came out of one of the small offices and handed Petruno some papers on a clipboard. “Each morning we do a printout of everyone who arrived in the last 24 hours.” Petruno looked at the last page. “No Janes or Johns yesterday. We’re supposed to determine the cause of death and identify every body that passes through here. Most are easy and we take care of them in a couple of hours. Some take months or years and there’s a few where it just doesn’t happen.”

“So what happens if you can’t ID…uh…Jane?”

“Her body’ll be cremated after 60 days. We’ll keep tissue samples and prints.” Petruno stopped and punched an elevator button. “We’ll skip the labs. It’s just a bunch of guys running blood and tissue samples through chromatographs.” The elevator door opened and Petruno nodded to a group of men wearing green medical scrubs. “I’ll show you the morgue.” He held the elevator door for Colt and then hit the button for the basement.

The hydraulic elevator groaned and moved at a snail’s pace. When it bumped to a stop and the doors opened, cold air blasted Colt again, this time carrying a slight odor like a veterinarian’s office. He followed Petruno out into the hall.

“Here, you have to wear this.” Petruno paused at a cart with a box of surgical masks. “Put it over your nose and mouth and pinch the little metal band over the bridge of your nose. It’ll keep it from sliding off.” Petruno handed Colt a white mask with elastic bands and took another for himself. He pulled on flesh-colored latex gloves. “Don’t touch anything, OK? And breathe through your mouth.” Petruno laughed. “You know, we tell visiting VIP’s that the purpose of the mask is to catch their vomit. You’d be amazed how many people believe that.”

Colt slipped on his mask and thought of the day he and his classmates practiced intubation on a cadaver. They had been so nervous, their masks were soaked with sweat. He followed Petruno around a corner and the first thing he saw were three naked bodies, two men and a woman, lying face up on stainless steel carts along a wall. One of the men had filthy, calloused feet. Colt thought he must have been homeless, wandering the streets without shoes. The second man had more hair than Colt had ever seen on a human body. The woman looked young.

Petruno turned to him. “I know what you’re thinking, but there’s no modesty down here. We’re about to cut them open to find out why they died. No reason to cover them up.”

Colt checked the woman more closely. Her skin was starting to turn gray, but it was unblemished. Her eyes were open, gazing up at the ceiling, seeing nothing. They were human eyes, but void of life, empty and glass-like. Her mouth was also open, as if she were about to say something. The hair on her head and her pubis was jet black. He guessed she might be 35. She appeared to be healthy.

Petruno looked at the woman. “Here’s a bit of trivia for you. If the eyes are open when rigor mortis sets in, you can’t close the lids. Way back when, people were superstitious about a corpse with open eyes, so they covered them with coins.” Petruno paused for a few seconds. “Of course, we’ve got a budget crisis, so the County cut off our supply of pennies.”

Petruno turned and led Colt down the hall and into an enormous tiled room where several autopsies were underway. Colt counted ten bodies stretched out on marble tables with grooves at the edges to catch and drain fluids. Each cadaver was undergoing a full or partial autopsy. The first three had the classic Y incision, starting at the shoulders, meeting at the breastbone and descending down past the stomach. A doctor had just finished cutting off the top of a man’s skull. Colt watched him peel part of the scalp down over the face, then remove the furrowed pink-gray mass of the brain and drop it into a metal bowl. One technician used an overhead hose to wash body debris off a table, pushing it across the floor into a drain.

Everyone in the room wore green scrubs, gloves that reached to the elbows and full plastic facemasks connected to air filtration units hung on their backs. Colt thought it looked like a scene out of an alien abduction movie.Strange green life forms from another planet were bent over their victims, using saws, cutters, clippers and unfamiliar instruments to slice, carve, probe and dissect, searching for secrets about the human race. The nearest body was open from neck to waist. Colt watched someone remove a spleen, set it aside, then turn back to the cadaver and begin to cut again. Another doctor reached into a chest cavity, lifted out a lung and walked to another part of the room cupping it in his hand and dripping liquid across the floor. He deposited it in a plastic container containing a clear solution. As soon as the organ was submerged, the fluid became red with blood. The doctor sealed the container and added it to dozens of others.

“Just like on TV,” Colt said to Petruno. He tried to sound casual, but the sight of the lifeless, dissected bodies was more disturbing than any injuries he had dealt with as a paramedic.

“On TV you just see one cadaver,” Petruno said. “And it’s all squeaky clean. Here we process ten at a time, 24/7, and it’s anything but spotless. Everything on TV’s a full postmortem. We do a limited autopsy whenever possible. We have to be fast and efficient.”

As Colt turned to walk out of the autopsy room, he saw a carved wooden mask mounted above the door. It was two feet tall and adorned with a crest of black, red and white feathers, which reached almost to the ceiling. The face was white with the red marks of a warrior. The mouth was an open grimace, displaying two even rows of carved wooden teeth. The nose was sharp and strong; the eyes were empty semicircles below a furrowed forehead. Colt had never seen anything like it. “Is that the official mascot?” he asked.

Petruno smiled. “It’s actually a Polynesian war mask that one of the docs brought back from vacation. It’s here to scare off any spirits or lingering life forces.”

“Life forces?”

“A couple of years ago, there was a TV series about a group of angels who retrieved souls from the bodies of people just after death. Well, in one episode, an angel screwed up and forgot to get the soul of a person about to go through an autopsy. We were all creeped out after that one. So we got Martin.” Petruno pointed up at the mask. “It’s his job to make sure the souls clear out before the autopsies start.”

“His name’s Martin?”

“What? He doesn’t look like a ‘Martin’?” Petruno tugged at Colt’s shirtsleeve and led him back down the hall. “Do you want to see Jane?”

Before Colt could say no, Petruno stopped in front of a large stainless steel door and slid it open.

“She’s in here,” Petruno said.

Colt had always assumed that bodies in the morgue were stored separately, each resting under a sheet on a shelf. What Colt saw was a mass of bodies packed in plastic bags, stacked up floor to ceiling in a walk-in meat locker.

“I think that’s her.” Petruno pointed to one of the bags in the middle of the pile.

“Oh no,” Colt said. “I don’t want to see her. Not in a cooler.” He turned away. A chill rippled up his spine. It could have been his mother, folded up in a bag, sandwiched in between the other cadavers.

“We call it a refrigeration crypt, it’s one of three,” Petruno said. “Slaughterhouses have meat coolers.”

Colt stood motionless, trying to sort out his emotions. This was exactly the scene he did not want to see.

Petruno slid the door closed and led Colt back to the elevator. “Sorry, I didn’t think you’d mind.” He removed Colt’s mask and his own mask and gloves and dropped them in the trash. He cracked his knuckles again and said, “If you want to give me your number, I can let you know when we find out who she is.”

They stepped into the elevator and Colt pulled a fire department card out of his wallet and handed it to Petruno.

Petruno glanced at it and put it in his shirt pocket. He took out his own card and gave it to Colt.

“Do you take any of this home with you at night?” Colt asked.

“I try not to. When I first started, I had to sit in my car for 15 minutes every time I went home. I couldn’t be with my family until I decompressed. I don’t have to do that any more. There is one thing that still bothers me.” Petruno stared down at the floor of the elevator for a few seconds. “I see all these people, all different ages, at the end of their lives, and it reminds me how close death is to everyone. You just never know when it’s coming for you, and when it does, that’s it, over and out. All the things you planned to do, or hoped to do.” Petruno shook his head.

The elevator lurched to a stop and the doors opened. Colt stepped out first and shook Petruno’s hand. “Thanks, Nate. Find the girl’s family, OK? While you’re doing that, I’ll find her foot.”

“We’ll find the family before you find the foot.” Petruno turned and started down the hall.

“Nate?” Colt said.

“Yeah?”

“What do you think? Do people have souls? Are there spirits lingering around?”

“I don’t know.” Petruno cracked his knuckles. “With all the stuff I see, I kinda hope they don’t.”

Outside, sitting in his truck in the parking lot, Colt rolled down the windows and let the dry September air fill his nostrils. Even the smell of diesel exhaust from the street was better than the air in the morgue. Colt pictured his mother, years ago, in a morgue in Texas, folded up in a plastic bag. The thought, the image, was too terrible to consider. He knocked his head twice against the steering wheel, as if to clear his mind.

In place of his mother, the image of Bibi’s body appeared, stuffed into a plastic bag. Colt couldn’t bear to think she ended up like this either. He wanted to remember her while she was alive. He wanted the vision of the pretty blond with the eyes that matched her blue CALIFORNIA T-Shirt. The girl from Malibu he might have dated if she wasn’t engaged to a fighter pilot. The girl he promised to save. The girl who was going to have a baby. In his mind, she would remain “Bibi” until her real name was discovered.

Colt wondered whether anyone would ever come to identify and claim her body. Where were her friends, her family, or anyone who knew her? They should be searching for her right now. Wouldn’t someone have already contacted the police or called the morgue? Wasn’t there a missing person’s list? How could someone not come forward to claim Bibi?

Colt couldn’t think of anything worse than ending his life as an unclaimed body in a refrigeration crypt, in the hands of uncaring strangers. If he suddenly died, who would miss him? Who would search for him? Not his mother. Not his father. He had no siblings, and his grandparents were long gone. He was a County firefighter and paramedic—it would be left to his firefighter family to find him. They would not forget him.

Colt drove across Los Angeles and listened to the Wednesday midday weather forecast. A red flag warning was in effect for the next 72 hours. The Santa Ana winds sweeping in from the east were bringing low humidity and highfire danger.

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