Bodies didn’t usually talk back to Bill. Until Rose, that is. That day was already one of an unusual quality. His coffee machine had stalled, his cup markedly half full. The lab coat he had set out his threadbare chair had ended up on the floor. And in his blind haste to brush his teeth, he had tripped over the coat spastically, getting closely acquainted with the floor at too early an hour. The newspaper had not yet arrived, so Bill puttered around his kitchen rather aimlessly, reading a catalogue from which he didn’t intend to buy anything. Even the drive over had been befell with a vehicular accident, delaying his day for another thirty minutes. Bill wryly wondered if he would be seeing the body in his office later that day.
Bill was not an unusual looking fellow. Upon first glance, perhaps you’d think he was of a professional sort, head tucked down, tasteful but ungaudy clothes, a determined stride to his step.
One wonders what type of person chooses to become a coroner. Chooses to spend their day surrounded by the dead, with intent to mutilate to yield a discovery that will provide little relief to the dead themselves. But Bill found himself much more suited to life among the dead, than life among the living. The dead were quiet, secretive, and really no bother at all. The living were altogether much too rambunctious.
He got to his office, tucked in the bottom floor of the general hospital. The routine at this point in his career was mindless. The plasticky snap of his gloves, the clink and clang of the metal instruments, the stillness...oh yes, the stillness...Bill liked the stillness. Bill’s assistant didn’t arrive until later. She was young and didn’t share Bill’s philosophy that the best work was done in the morning.
There was a new body on his table. If Bill had looked closer, if he had not been so absorbed in the banality of his routine, perhaps he would have noticed how the bag rose and fell rather gently.
Bill hummed some Chopin as he set up.
“What do we have here?” he murmured, resting one hand lightly on the bag. He looked around for the case file, but found none. ‘How peculiar,’ Bill thought. He wrangled with the zipper, the sound like the drone of bees, to reveal a young woman. Her skin was peaked with color, hadn’t yet reached the pallor that marked the dead. “Jane Doe,” he muttered. Then her hand twitched.
Bill’s eyes narrowed. Perhaps a spasm, he reasoned. But her eyes flung open. They were an icy blue, enunciated by a dark blue ring. Before Bill could register this new event, the young woman, clearly dead no longer, yanked Bill closer by the lab coat, the fabric pulling sharply at his neck, until he was nearly nose to nose with her.
“Help, help,” she rasped. “Help me.”
Bill cleared his throat, the shock muting his reaction, unlatching her clammy fingers from his coat gently. “Miss, are you lost?” It was the first thing he could think to say. He had never been particularly blessed by the ability to speak on his feet. Bill shook his head rapidly, she wasn’t lost...she was in a body bag on his operating table. Bill found the corners of lips quirked up. This sort of thing really shouldn’t amuse him, but coroners generally had a dark sense of humor.
The young woman rubbed at her throat, eyes wild. “Sir, sir…you must help me.” Her hands flailed out for him again.
But Bill backed away, “Perhaps I should call for someone.”
The wildness shifted briefly to anger before resolving to desperation again. “No one else. You must help me.”
He tried to capture the authority of the detectives that came whizzing in and out of his office, demanding lab reports before he had the chance to complete them. “Miss, I am coroner. I handle dead people,” he enunciated slowly, sincerely believing she was confused.
But she scoffed. “I know you are a coroner.”
“I came in a body bag, did I not?”
“Erm...yes...about that. We do have a door,” Bill gestured rather awkwardly toward it.
“I didn’t know if they’d let me in.”
“Thus, you figured a body bag would be your way in.” He rubbed his chin, “A memorable entrance no doubt.” As a child, Bill had always been particularly taken by oddities. It eluded him how people chose unexpected pathways, how people’s lives could be guided by spontaneity rather than routine. Bill preferred routine.
“It wasn’t nearly as difficult as you would imagine. Your body bags are not well guarded. Then I pretended to visit someone in the hospital, came down here, zipped myself up, and took a nice, long nap.”
“It would have been a very long nap if I had not realized you were alive,” Bill reprimanded warily. It suddenly occurred to Bill, tat he was having a conversation with someone who had been a corpse on his table not two minutes ago. “Miss, it would be best if you leave now. I have more...ahem...bodies to examine.”
She shook her head rapidly, “I have a body for you to examine.” Her voice was resolute.
“Well, if you file with the office-”
“I can’t do that.”
Bill eyed her curiously, “Why is that?”
She shook her head, lips pressed together.
This young woman bewildered Bill. “Do you know how the person died?”
“You must find out. The circus master, he-” she swallowed. “I can’t say much more.”
“Where is the body?”
Her eyes flicked around the room, searching out the corners for cameras. Then slowly, leaning forward to Bill’s ear, she whispered, “In the tent.”
Bill turned to rustle with something by the cabinets, turning, holding a black bag. “Let’s see it then.” His hands shook slightly as he turned off the lights, scrawling a note to his assistant that he was taking a vacation day. Once outside the room, Rose stuck out her chin, striding confidently towards the employee parking lot. Bill followed helplessly, tussling with the hem of his sleeve. When they arrived at his car, Rose made way for the driver’s seat. Bill noticed she walked to a beat...a dance step: a little hop and a skip every third beat.
“Keys,” she called casually as if this was a routine between them.
“Umm...well,” he scrambled in his pockets, “perhaps I should drive.”
“You don’t know where we’re going, silly,” she plucked the keys out of his hand.
The roads turned long and flat, concrete shifting into dirt, as Rose stomped down on the gas, propelling his poor car wildly through the countryside. Bill’s knuckles were nearly white as they gripped the door handle, half-attempting to launch himself from the car before she flipped the car over into a ditch. Bill’s imagination often supplied such scenarios.
The billowing red and yellow circus tents drifted in the wind, like the body of a galloping animal. Rose swerved into the gaudily marked entrance. Bill had not been to the circus since he was a boy...and if he remembered correctly he didn’t particularly enjoy the experience. The clown had made him wet his pants, and his own grandmother had mocked him. Bill’s cheeks tinged red at the thought.
Rose bounced from the car. In a sudden spurt of speed she displayed a running jump over a crowd of trash cans, performing a small bow once she landed on her feet.
Approaching the tent, Rose yanked him down to her height, thus Bill waddled forward in an awkward crouch. Then she swept up the side of the tent like a magician, beckoning Bill through. It was clear she was at home here. Her hair far flung around her, her smile was easier now, less forced than it had been at the hospital. She leapt into the air, her hands catching onto a trapeze as she let her body swing back and forth.
Bill was hesitant. It felt almost sacrilegious to have only the two of them in so large a place. It reminded Bill of the one of the cathedrals from his youth.
The sound of voices echoed languorously. A small girl wandered into the room, sky-seeking ponytails affixed to the crown of her scalp, a dirt ridden dress almost swallowing her body whole. “Mom,” she cried. She threw her hands up, then performed a somersault towards Rose. Rose’s face grew white. She murmured something to the young girl that Bill couldn’t hear and the girl scurried off again.
“Who was that?” Bill shifted on his feet.
Rose sat herself cross-legged on the floor of the stage, staring at her clasped hands. “My daughter.” She stretched one of legs. Her voice quieted. “Come with me.”
She led Bill back to a dressing room area. Only because Bill was accustomed to the smell, could he detect the faint aroma of dead body. She wandered over to the chest, taking a zig-zag route, as if her feet forced her away each step. Bill could see her hand tremble as she rested her hand on it.
“How did you find him?” Bill asked gently.
“The circus master and him were fighting,” her mouth was set in a grim line.
“The Wrangler wanted a bigger share of the show. He was trying to support my daughter with more showtime, more money.” Rose’s head was down.
Bill was not good with nuance. “Your daughter?”
“The circus master had one of the bats we keep for corralling the animals and swung it around to hit the Wrangler in the head. He collapsed bef-before me. I ran before the circus master could see me.”
Bill peeked the chest open. Sure enough, a middle aged man was tucked into the chest, knees pressed over chest. This time, his skin did fit the pallor of the dead. Bill estimated he had been dead for two days. He could see a head wound, but waited to examine further until he was in the lab. “You did the right thing,” Bill assured her as he grabbed one side of the chest, gesturing at her to grab the other.
“The right thing,” she murmured back at him. She hefted the chest...she was surprisingly strong.
Back at the lab, Rose stood by his shoulder as he examined the body. Bill imagined the life this man must have had, in the circus no less. Bill pulled on gloves, padding down the arms and legs of the man carefully, then examining the head wound carefully. He noticed strangulation marks around the neck with bruising. Someone attempted to strangle him before hitting him over the head.
“What are you doing?” Rose demanded shrilly. “Aren’t you going to cut him open?”
“Hmm, the cause of death seems pretty clear. I’ll run a few DNA tests, butー”
“I think a full autopsy is necessary.”
“We’ll see,” Bill murmured non committedly. He set the blood samples from his hand on a nearby table.
Rose paced the room. “What do you think?”
“Blunt force trauma to the head, brain swelled...he died. I will contact the precinct about arresting the circus master.”
“No,” her voice had grown higher and higher.
But Bill wasn’t paying attention, he was lining up his fingers with the bruises along the victims neck. They were short fingers, much smaller than his. “How tall is the circus master?” Bill asked offhandedly.
Rose shrugged, her arms crossed. “I don’t know. Your height?”
“Hmm.” Bill narrowed his eyes thoughtfully, “Hold out your hand.” He gripped her wrist, maneuvering her hand to fit over the bruises.
Bill noted that Rose was holding her breath.
“It seems like the murderer was not the circus master at all, but a much smaller person. With hands...well...much like your own.” Bill was still very much in his own head with this realization. He was thinking of the mechanics of the hand and the necessary force to close a person’s windpipe sufficient enough for strangulation. He was remembering a case he had once conducted with–
Then there was a sharp sting on the back of his neck. He reached for it, his nose curled up. Rose held a scalpel, previously set beside Bill, up to his neck. The way she held it, rather expertly, Bill noted, made any further piercing catastrophic for him. Her hand was shaking, leaving the blade flirting with his skin dangerously.
Bill was removed from the fear, actually curious of it. The feelings, his heart pulsing so rapidly, the sweat gathering under his brow, were all foreign sensations. “Rose?” he tilted his head. A reluctance to believe that this beautiful acrobat now held him at knifepoint puddled his mind into confusion.
“Conduct the autopsy.”
Bill tapped his fingers on the table. “I don’t intend to mutilate a dead body unless I have to.”
“You don’t understand,” her voice was wavering.
Bill turned slightly, a surrender almost, placing the scalpel right at his throat. “What do I not understand?” Murder had always seemed very cut and dry to him. Once he had matched the method and murderer there wasn’t much more for Bill to understand. His portion of the case was over.
“He was threatening me,” her ice blue eyes were almost white now, breath coming in like a freight train.
“Well, if it was self-defense…”
“He didn’t want us to leave,” she whispered. She stared stonily down at the body. “The circus is like a prison. They bring you in and they don’t let you out.” Her eyebrows furrowed, “They recruited me from high school. I ran away from my family to join them. All day, all day I would get to flip and spin. I thought it would be perfect. I was wrong. I don’t want my daughter to be stuck there too.” She loosened her grip on the scalpel. “All of my money is in the form of diamonds, kept in a knapsack. Better than money in the circus. It was my way out, for me and my daughter.” Her mouth was scrunched up, “but he didn’t want us to leave.” She took several deep breaths, “I found him, popping my precious diamonds like pills. If you don’t have any money, you can’t leave, he taunted me.”
Her hand shook, “I was so angry. I charged at him, trying to strangle him. I’m stronger than I look, but he was able to throw me aside.” She rolled up her sleeves to reveal purple and blue mottled skin along her biceps. “I took one of the poles we use to construct the tent, and then swung it at him.” He was dead before I realized what I had done.”
She swallowed, “The diamonds are still there, still in him. I need you to extract them for me.”
“I am a medical examiner Rose, not a surgeon.”
“But you can do it?”
Bill examined the dead body before him. “Ethically, it is inadvisable.”
She laughed coldly, “I am far past caring if it’s ethical.”
“It will be messy.”
“Do it,” the blade of the scalpel inched closer to his throat.
“Ahem, if I am to proceed, may I have my scalpel back?”
“Get another one.”
Bill lifted his hands up, backing towards the cabinetry. He lifted a hand to his jaw, it was trembling against his will. Bill slowly retrieved another scalpel, but was having trouble getting his fingers to stop jittering.
Under Rose’s watchful eye, Bill dissected the intestines, protracting the glints of diamonds lodged in the intestinal lining. If the man had not died from the blow to the head, he was sure to be visiting the hospital soon from all the intestinal tears Bill had found. It was still a slow and tedious process. His nervousness impeded his speed, and Rose’s shrieks at every joltish move he made, which Bill could attest was frequently.
Finally, all of the diamonds neatly glistenedd on a paper towel. Bill realized that his brow was brimming with sweat. He turned awkwardly, pulling off his gloves. “You have your diamonds. I am done now, right?” Bill’s voice was hesitant.
Rose shook her head. “No one can know of what’s happened, of what I’ve done.”
Bill nodded, albeit too vigorously, “I will not say anything. You have my word.” But Rose had already lunged forward, the blade of the scalpel lodging in Bill’s throat. Bill registered the squirt of the blood, and then the haziness as everything went dark.
“Your word is not good enough. I can’t risk anyone knowing.” Rose’s face was pale and drawn as she stared down at the grown man collapsed at her feet. She drew a body bag from the cabinet, then yanked Bill by his underarms onto the table. Acrobatics had made her strong. Her whole body quivered as she zipped up the body bag, pausing once as she reached his face. “Thank you Bill.” She manually closed his eyes, “You’ve been so very helpful.”