Authors: Chris Carter
Tags: #Thriller, #Mystery
‘How about the kid?’ Hunter finally asked. And for the first time, Garcia heard Hunter’s voice quiver.
Doctor Hove shook her head. ‘I’m sorry. Sean Hannay was finishing his third year of pathology at UCLA. His ambition was to become a forensic scientist. I was the one who approved his internship only six months ago.’ Her eyes glistened. ‘He wasn’t even supposed to be in this room. He was just helping out.’ The doctor paused and considered her next words carefully. ‘I asked him to do so. It was supposed to be me assisting Jonathan.’
Hunter noticed that the doctor’s hands were shaking.
‘It was a special circumstances death,’ she continued. ‘Jonathan always asks me to assist on those. And I would’ve, but I got held up in my meeting and asked Sean to take over for me as a favor.’ Her eyes filled with horror. ‘He wasn’t the one who was supposed to have died here today – I was.’
Hunter understood what was going through Doctor Hove’s mind. In the immediate aftermath of the blast, her self-preservation instinct had kicked in and she had felt relief. She’d had a lucky escape. But now reason and guilt were settling in and her mind was punishing her in the worst possible way.
If my meeting hadn’t run late, Sean Hannay would still be alive.
‘None of this is your fault, Doc,’ Hunter tried to reassure her, but he knew that words would have little effect. Before accepting anything, they all needed to understand what had happened in that room.
Hunter took a step up to the autopsy room door as his mind tried to process the scene in front of him. Right now, nothing was making sense. Suddenly, something caught his eye and he squinted for a second before turning to face Doctor Hove.
‘Are autopsies ever videotaped?’ he asked, pointing to something on the floor that resembled a camera tripod leg.
Doctor Hove shook her head. ‘Very rarely, and the request has to be approved either by me or . . .’ her eyes moved from Hunter to the inside of the room, ‘. . . the chief medical examiner.’
‘Doctor Winston himself.’
A single, hesitant nod from Doctor Hove.
‘Do you think he might’ve chosen to record this autopsy?’
Doctor Hove considered it for a moment and her face flared with hope. ‘There’s a chance. If he considered the case intriguing enough.’
‘Well, even if he did,’ Garcia cut in, ‘how would that help us? The camera was certainly blown to shit like most of the room. Just look at it.’
‘Not necessarily,’ the doctor said slowly.
All eyes went back to her.
‘Do you know something we don’t?’ Hunter asked.
‘Autopsy room four is sometimes used as a lecture room,’ the doctor explained. ‘It’s the only examination suite we have equipped with a video camera connection hub. It links directly to our mainframe computer. That means that the images are simultaneously stored into our mainframe hard drive. To videotape a lecture or an examination, all a doctor has to do is set up a digital camera, hook it to the hub and they’re good to go.’
‘Can we find out if Doctor Winston did that?’
Doctor Hove moved purposefully back to the same stairway they’d come down and went up to the ground floor. They passed the reception area before continuing through a set of metal double doors and into a long and empty hallway. Three-quarters of the way down, they turned right. A single wooden door with a small frosted glass window stood at the end of the corridor. Doctor Hove’s office. She unlocked it, pushed the door open, and led them inside.
Doctor Hove went straight to her desk and logged onto her computer. Both detectives gathered behind her.
‘Only mine and Doctor Winston’s login has administrator’s rights access to the video directory on the mainframe computer. Let’s see if we got anything.’
It took Doctor Hove only a few clicks to get to the video directory where all recordings were stored. Inside the main folder there were three subdirectories – New, Lectures and Autopsies. The doctor expanded the directory named
to find only one .mpg file. The timestamp on it indicated that it had been created an hour ago.
‘Bingo. Jonathan did record the autopsy.’ Doctor Hove paused and anxiously looked at Hunter. He noticed that she had fractionally pulled her hand away from the mouse.
‘It’s OK, Doc; you don’t have to watch this. We can take it from here.’
Doctor Hove hesitated for a second. ‘Yes I do.’ She double-clicked the file. The screen flickered and the computer launched its default video player application. Hunter and Garcia moved closer.
The pictures weren’t of great quality, but clearly showed a white female body on an autopsy table. The image had been filmed from above and at an angle, and was partially zoomed in so that the table occupied most of the screen. On the right, two other people in white lab coats could be seen from mid-torso down.
‘Can you zoom out?’ Garcia asked.
‘The image was recorded this way,’ Hunter replied, shaking his head. ‘We’re not controlling a camera here. This is just playback.’
On the screen, one of the two people to the right of the table moved towards the body’s head and bent down to examine it. Doctor Winston’s face suddenly appeared in the shot.
‘There’s no sound?’ Garcia asked as he watched Doctor Winston’s lips move in silence. ‘How come there’s no sound?’
‘The microphones on the cameras we use to video examinations aren’t of great quality,’ the doctor explained. ‘We usually don’t even turn them on.’
‘I thought pathologists had a habit of dictating every step of their examinations.’
‘And we do,’ she confirmed. ‘Onto our own personal recording devices. We take them into the examination rooms with us. Whatever Jonathan was using, is now mangled up with everything else in that room.’
Eyes – hazel, skin is well cared for, earlobes look like
they’ve never been pierced . .
’ Hunter said before the video showed Doctor Winston turning away from the camera. ‘Damn! I can’t see his mouth any more.’
‘You can lip-read?’ The question came from Doctor Hove, but her surprised look was mirrored on Garcia’s face.
Hunter didn’t reply. He kept his attention on the screen.
‘Where in the world did you learn to do that?’ Garcia asked.
‘Books,’ Hunter lied. Right now, the last thing he wanted to do was talk about his past.
They watched in silence for the next few seconds.
‘Jonathan is performing a regular external examination of the body,’ Doctor Hove confirmed. ‘All the victim’s physical characteristics are listed, including first impressions of their wounds, if any. He’d also be looking for any physical marks that could help identify the victim – she was brought in as a Jane Doe.’
On the screen, Doctor Winston paused and an intrigued look passed across his face. They all watched as his assistant handed him a small flashlight. Bending over, he focused the light directly on the stitches applied to the victim’s lower body, moving the light up and down and from side to side. He seemed baffled by something.
‘What is he doing?’ Garcia instinctively tipped his head to one side, trying to get a better view.
The video played on and they all watched as Doctor Winston used a metallic pointer to probe through the stitches and into the victim’s body. The doctor’s lips moved and they all looked at Hunter.
It’s something metallic,
’ Hunter translated, ‘
but I still can’t say for certain what it could be. Pass me the stitch-cutting scissors and the forceps, will you?
‘There was something inside her?’ Doctor Hove frowned.
On the screen, Doctor Winston turned away from the camera again and proceeded to use a pair of scissors to slice through the stitches. Hunter noticed there were five in total. The doctor inserted his right hand into the victim.
Moments later, Doctor Winston managed to retrieve an object. When he turned, only its edge flashed past the camera.
‘What was that?’ Garcia asked. ‘What was left inside the victim? Did anyone see?’
‘Not sure,’ Hunter replied. ‘Let’s wait, he might turn and face the camera again.’
But he never did.
Within seconds there was a blast and the whole image was substituted by static. The words –
Room 4. Signal fail
– flashed across the center of the screen.
Absolute silence filled the room for several seconds. Doctor Hove was the first to speak.
‘A bomb? Someone put a bomb inside a murder victim? What the hell . . . ?’
There was no reply. Hunter took over at the computer and was already clicking away, rewinding the images. He pressed play again, and the video resumed from just a couple of moments before Doctor Winston pulled his hand from inside the victim’s body, gripping the unidentified metallic object. All eyes reverted back to the screen.
‘I can’t make it out exactly,’ Garcia said. ‘It moves past the camera too fast. Can you slow it down?’
‘It doesn’t matter what it looks like,’ Doctor Hove said almost catatonically. ‘It was a bomb. Who the hell puts a bomb inside a victim, and why?’ She took a step back and massaged her temples. ‘Terrorist?’
Hunter shook his head. ‘The location of the attack alone defeats the very essence of terrorism. Terrorists want to cause as much damage as possible with as much loss of life as possible. I hate to state the obvious, Doc, but this is a morgue, not a shopping mall. And the blast wasn’t even powerful enough to destroy a whole medium-sized room.’
‘Besides,’ Garcia said, with no sarcasm in his voice, ‘most bodies in here are already dead.’
‘So why would someone place a bomb inside a dead body? It doesn’t make any sense.’
Hunter held the doctor’s gaze. ‘I can’t tell you the answer to that question right now.’ He paused for a moment. ‘We need to stay focused here. I’m assuming that no one else has seen this footage?’
Doctor Hove nodded.
‘We need to keep it this way for now,’ Hunter said. ‘If news gets out that a killer has placed a bomb inside a victim, the press will turn this into a carnival. We’ll spend more time giving pointless interviews and answering stupid questions than investigating anything. And we can’t afford to lose any more time. Despite our emotions on this, what we have here is someone who is crazy enough to kill a young woman, place an explosive device inside her body and stitch it shut. Consequently, he also took the life of two other innocent people.’
New tears started to form in Doctor Hove’s eyes. But she had worked with Hunter in many cases over the years and there was no one in law enforcement she trusted more than him. She nodded slowly and for the first time Hunter saw anger in her face.
‘Just promise me you’ll catch this sonofabitch.’
Before leaving the coroners building, Hunter and Garcia stopped by the Forensics lab and picked up all the available information the team had collected so far. Most of the lab test results would take at least a couple of days. Since Hunter had never got a chance to see the body as it was found at the crime scene, the reports, notes and photographs were all he had to go on at the moment.
He already knew that the body had been found eight hours ago in the back room of the disused butcher’s shop in East LA. An anonymous phone call had tipped off the police. Hunter would get a copy of the recording later.
On their way back to East LA, Hunter slowly flipped through all the information in the forensic file. The crime-scene pictures showed that the victim had been left naked, lying on her back on a dirty metal counter. Her legs were together and stretched out but not tied. One of her arms was hanging off the side of the counter, the other rested on her chest. Her eyes were left open, and Hunter had seen the expression in them many times before – pure fear.
One of the pictures showed a close-up of her mouth. Her lips had been stitched shut with thick black, thorn-like thread. Blood had seeped through the needle punctures and ran down her chin and neck, indicating that she was still alive when it was done. Another close-up showed that the same thing had been done to her lower body. Her groin and inner thighs were also smeared with blood that had seeped through the puncture wounds. There was some swelling around the stitches – another indication that she had died hours after being violated by needle and thread. By the time she died, the wounds had already started to go septic. But that wouldn’t have caused her death.
Hunter checked the location photographs. The butcher’s shop was a dirty mess. Its floor was covered in crack pipes, old syringes, used condoms, and rat droppings. The walls were plastered with graffiti. Forensics had found so many different fingerprints it looked like a party had taken place in that back room. The truth was: right now only an autopsy examination could shed light onto the case.
Everyone had already left by the time Garcia dropped Hunter back to his car. Crime-scene tape still marked the perimeter around the butcher’s shop. A sole uniformed cop guarded the entrance.