Body Language – A. K. Turner

The zip of the body bag parted to reveal Cassie’s first customer of the day. The woman’s half-open eyes, a surprisingly vivid blue, gazed up at her, unseeing. ‘Hello there, Mrs Connery.’ Her voice became gentler than the one she used with the living. ‘My name’s Cassie Raven and I’ll be looking after you while you’re with us.’ She had no doubt that the dead woman could hear her and hoped she took some comfort from the words. The previous evening Kate Connery had collapsed while getting ready for bed and died, there on her bathroom floor one week short of her fiftieth birthday. Laughter lines latticed her open, nononsense face beneath hair too uniformly brunette to be natural. Cassie glanced up at the clock and swore. There was a new pathologist coming in to do the day’s post-mortem list and with Carl, the junior technician, off sick and three bodies to prep, it was shaping up to be the Monday from hell. Still, she took her time working Mrs C’s nightdress up over her head, registering the faint ammoniac smell of sweat or urine, before carefully folding it away in a plastic bag. The things somebody had been wearing when they died meant a lot to their loved ones, sometimes more than the body itself, which grieving relatives could struggle to relate to. A dead body could feel like an empty suitcase. ‘We need to find out what happened to you, Mrs C,’ Cassie told her. ‘So that we can get Declan and your boys some answers.

’ From her first day in the mortuary five years ago it had felt totally natural to talk to the bodies in her care, to treat them as if they were still alive – still people. Occasionally they would even answer. It wasn’t like a live person talking – for a start, their lips didn’t move – and the experience was always so fleeting that she might almost have imagined it. Almost. Usually they said something like ‘Where am I?’ or ‘What happened?’ – simple bewilderment at finding themselves in this strange place – but now and again she was convinced that their words contained a clue to how they’d died. Cassie had never told a living soul about these ‘conversations’; people thought she was weird enough already. But they didn’t know what she knew deep in her gut: the dead could talk – if only you knew how to listen. The only outward sign of anything wrong with Mrs Connery was a few red blotches on her cheeks and forehead and a fist-sized bruise on her sternum where either her husband or the paramedics had administered desperate CPR. Cassie looked through the notes. After a night out at the pub watching football, Declan Connery had come home to find his wife unconscious.

An ambulance rushed her to the hospital, but she was declared dead on arrival. Since Kate Connery had died unexpectedly – she’d apparently been in good health and hadn’t seen her GP for months – a basic or ‘routine’ post-mortem to establish the cause of death was an automatic requirement. Cassie put her hand on Mrs C’s fridge-cold forearm and waited for her own warmth to expel the chill. ‘Can you tell me what happened?’ she murmured. For a few seconds, nothing. Then she felt the familiar slip-sliding sensation, followed by a distracted dreaminess. At the same time, her senses became hyper-alert – the hum of the body-store fridge growing to a jet-engine roar, the overhead light suddenly achingly bright. The air above Mrs Connery’s body seemed to fizz with the last spark of the electricity that had animated her for five decades. And out of the static Cassie heard a low, hoarse whisper. ‘I can’t breathe!’ Chapter Two As always, it was all over in an instant.

It reminded Cassie of waking from an intense dream, your mind scrabbling to hold onto the details – only to feel them slipping away, like water through open fingers. In any case, Mrs Connery’s words weren’t much help. Cassie could find no history of asthma or emphysema in the notes, and there was a whole bunch of other disorders that could affect breathing. She was still wondering what, if anything, to make of it when she heard the door from the clean area open. It was Doug, the mortuary manager, followed by a younger guy – tall, with a floppy fringe – who he introduced as Dr Archie Cuff, the new pathologist. Stripping off a nitrile glove, she offered Cuff her hand. ‘Cassie Raven is our senior mortuary technician,’ beamed Doug. ‘She’s the one who makes everything run like clockwork round here.’ Although he wore cufflinks (cuf links?!) and a tie, Cuff couldn’t be much more than thirty, barely five years older than Cassie. A single glance told her that his navy waxed jacket was a genuine Barbour, not a knock-off – its metal zipper fob embossed with the brand name – and going by his tie, a dark blue silk with a slanting fat white stripe, he’d been schooled at Harrow.

Cassie noticed things like that, had done ever since she could remember. ‘Looking forward to working with you, Cathy.’ He spoke in the fake, demi-street accent favoured by the younger royals, his smile as glib as a cabinet minister’s, but it was clear from the way his glance slid over her that she’d already been filed in a box labelled ‘minion’. Cassie didn’t often take an instant dislike to someone, but in the case of Archie Cuff she decided to make an exception. ‘Me too,’ she said, ‘especially if you get my name right.’ A flush rose from Cuff’s striped shirt collar all the way to his gingery sideburns, but at least he looked at her properly this time. And from the flicker of distaste that crossed his face, he didn’t much like what he saw – although it was hard to tell whether it was her dyed black hair with the shaved undercut, her facial piercings, or simply the way she held his gaze. She had to fight a juvenile impulse to lift the top half of her scrubs and flash her tattoos at him. Doug’s eyes flitted between the two of them like a rookie referee at a cage fight, his smile starting to sag. ‘Right then, I’ll leave you folks to it.

’ Cassie knew he would probably remind her later of his golden rule: ‘Never forget, the pathologist can make your job a dream – or a nightmare.’ * After Cuff’s brief external examination of Mrs Connery, during which they barely spoke beyond the essentials, he left Cassie to do the evisceration. She placed her blade at the base of Mrs C’s throat. This was the moment when she had to stop thinking of Kate Connery as a person and start viewing her as a puzzle to be unlocked, unmapped territory to explore. Without that shift of perspective, what normal person could slice open a fellow human being? After the initial incision, a decisive sweep down the sternum laid open the tissue as easily as an old silk curtain. Reaching the soft gut area, she didn’t pause but let up the pressure to avoid damage to the organs beneath, ending the cut just above the pubic bone. Within five minutes, the bone shears had cracked open Mrs C’s ribcage, exposing her heart and lungs, and Cassie was deftly detaching the organs from their moorings. Once that was done, she used both hands to lift out the entire viscera, from tongue down to urethra, before delivering them gently into the waiting plastic pail. This was a sombre moment, which always made her feel like a midwife of death. Now for the brain.

Going behind Mrs C’s head, Cassie repositioned the block beneath her neck. The scalp incision would go from from ear to ear over the top of the head, so that once it was stitched up again the wound would be covered by her hair – especially important since the Connerys were having an open coffin funeral. Combing the front half of Mrs C’s thick dark hair forward over her face, Cassie noticed a shiny red patch on the scalp. Eczema? It hadn’t been mentioned in the medical notes, but in any case, eczema didn’t kill people. After peeling the bisected scalp forward and back to expose the skull, Cassie reached for the oscillating saw. Moments later she had eased off the skullcap and was coaxing the brain free. Cradling it in both hands for a moment, she imagined Kate Connery as she would have been in life – a down-to-earth matriarch with a ready laugh, surrounded by family and friends in a Camden Town boozer. When Archie Cuff returned in his scrubs, the atmosphere between them stayed chilly: in the forty minutes it took him to dissect Mrs C’s organs, he only spoke to Cassie once, to complain that the blade of his PM40 was blunt. That only confirmed her initial impression of him as the latest in a long line of arrogant posh boys who viewed mortuary technicians as one step up from abattoir workers. A more experienced pathologist would have asked her opinion on the cause of death, and not just to be polite: technicians spent far longer with the bodies and sometimes spotted clues that might otherwise be missed.

As Cuff moved along the dissection bench to rinse his bloodied gloved hands in the sink, Cassie started to collect Mrs C’s organs into a plastic bag, ready to be reunited with her body. ‘So, what’s the verdict?’ she asked him. ‘There’s nothing conclusive to account for her death.’ He shrugged. ‘We’ll have to wait and see whether the lab finds anything useful.’ Toxicology would test Mrs C’s bodily fluids for drugs, while samples of her organs would undergo histopathology to look for any microscopic signs of disease. ‘Did you find any petechiae in her lungs?’ asked Cassie, keeping her voice casual. Cuff turned to look at her. ‘Why do you ask?’ So he had. She lifted one shoulder ‘I just thought her face looked quite congested.

’ I can’t breathe. Petechiae – tiny burst blood vessels – could signal a lack of oxygen. Cuff looked flustered. ‘She was found face down. It’s clear from the latest literature that a prone position post-mortem can cause petechial haemorrhage.’ He managed a condescending smile. ‘If you were hoping for a juicy murder, I’m afraid you’re out of luck: there’s absolutely no evidence of strangulation or suffocation.’ Cassie knew as well as Cuff did that asphyxia could just as easily have a medical cause, but she stifled a comeback. Dropping a nugget of kidney into a pot of preservative for the lab, she caught sight of Mrs C’s body on the autopsy table – her ribcage butterflied like an open book, a dark void where her organs used to be. Above the ruined body, her shiny brunette hair looked out of place.

The light from the fluorescent tubes overhead flared, forcing Cassie to close her eyes, the everpresent reek of formalin suddenly harsh enough to claw at her throat. Behind her eyelids, images flickered: Mrs C’s blotched face, the scaly patch on her scalp. She felt her throat start to close and in an instant, everything clicked into place. ‘Just popping to the loo,’ she told Cuff, before slipping into the corridor, where she pulled out her phone. ‘Mr Connery? It’s Cassie Raven from the mortuary.’ * Ten minutes later she was back. ‘Sorry I took so long,’ she told Cuff. ‘But I just had an interesting conversation with Mrs Connery’s husband.’ ‘Husband . ?’ He sounded confused at the idea of a body having a spouse.

‘Yes. Before he went out last night, she told him she was going to colour her hair.’ ‘I don’t see what . ’ ‘He says that she had suffered allergic reactions to her hair dye twice before. Nothing too serious. But this time, it looks like it triggered a fatal anaphylactic shock.’

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