The Bathwater Conspiracy
by Janet Kellough
Copyright © 2018 by Janet Kellough
A murder? Unusual. We didn’t see many of those, and they were seldom very interesting, but I waited politely while Inspector Trent jogged some papers into a tidy pile and retrieved a stray paper clip that had gone skittering across her desk.
"This is little more than a courtesy request, Mac," she said. "The crime occurred in our jurisdiction, so we need to sign off on it, but it’s a Darmes case, and they’re handling the investigation. The only reason you’re at the postmortem is as a witness. All you have to do is sign whatever they ask you to sign."
I glanced at the clock. It was ten-thirty already and I still hadn’t had enough caffeine to jumpstart me into the morning.
Trent had been steeping tea in the ceramic pot that sat on a corner of her desk blotter. I could smell it when I’d walked into her office. I’d have liked a cup just then — I was feeling a little bleary-brained — but I knew none of it was coming my way, not even if I offered to drink it out of my old office mug instead of from one of the thin porcelain cups she kept for visitors. Oh well. I consoled myself with the fact that it was mid-morning and she’d probably already switched to decaf by now anyway.
She frowned at me. "Have you got that? Rubber stamp whatever they want."
Oh, cazzo crap, I thought. Just one more tick on the day’s list of Tiresome Tasks.
"Hey, MacHenry! Pulled in to see Boss Tweed, huh?" Detective Garin Davis smirked as she threw a pile of papers on top of the pile of papers that was already threatening to slide off my desk. "What have you done now? Or not done, more to the point."
"Thank you, Detective Diva," I said in a singsong schoolgirl voice. Diva hated her nickname. I used it whenever I could.
"Somebody run away from home? Dirty words sprayed all over the front door of City Hall?"
Detectives like Diva were usually assigned to the high-profile crimes, like kidnapping, because they could talk to the newsfeeds without the use of highly descriptive and borderline offensive language. Inspector Trent liked her officers to be polite and presentable at all times. I wasn’t. Or wasn’t often, anyway. Instead, I worked a lot of Tiresome Tasks. TT’s were a grab-bag of cases that were high-labor and low-resolution, like missing persons and vandalism — everything the uniformed cops didn’t have time to investigate. They were a pain in the ass for any number of reasons, not least because they generated enormous piles of paperwork. There weren’t a lot of us in Detective Division to begin with, and just then several of the regulars had been pulled off to provide extra security for the election, so there was a giant backlog of these nuisance cases, and a distressing number of them had ended up on my desk.
Having had her fun with me for the time being, Davis went off to impress the junior officers who had been assigned to trail after her. She was making the most of it, regaling them with all the cases that she’d solved, single-handedly to hear her tell it. I stared at the reports I was supposed to be filling out and drummed my fingers on the desk for a minute. I had a half-hour to kill before it was time to leave for the morgue.
Murder, huh? Strange sort of case for the Darmes to be involved in. Most murders occurred as the result of domestic disputes that got out of hand, or as accidental killings in the course of other crimes. Once in a long while, somebody was bumped off for the insurance or some other kind of financial gain. Cause and effect was generally pretty clear-cut, and the cases were sewn up quickly. Fraud and forgery were a lot more interesting. In those, motive was evident, but method was frequently convoluted, elaborate and inventive. I loved those cases.
I glanced at the clock. If I left right then, I would have time to stop and grab a take-out tea from the shop at the corner. The Tiresome Tasks could wait until I got back.
The only person I knew at the autopsy was the medical examiner. The rest of the people present were grim-faced agents in supremely unmemorable suits. You could tell just by looking at them that they were federal law enforcement, from the Gendarmes National Security Corps — "Darmes" in general parlance. City cops like me don’t usually have much contact with Darmes, and, when we do, we find them a little spooky.
I took a position on the opposite side of the body from them. No introductions were made, but one of them did glare at the cup of tea I was cradling in my hands. I smiled at her and took a sip. After that she joined her companions in ignoring me.
Dr. Jo Norris Hines, the medical examiner, was a small woman who always reminded me of a bird — a wren or a chickadee or something — one of those little jittery ones you see in the park. She flitted around a corpse, swooping at it with an instrument, then retreating and circling, and closing in again with a different instrument in hand. The fluttering was deceptive. She was fussy, but that wasn’t a bad trait in a pathologist, and her attention to detail was legendary, her testimony in court unassailable. I’d always had a bit of a thing for Hines, in a theoretical, remote, fantasy kind of way, not the least because she sort of reminded me of my ex-girlfriend, only classier.
Hines removed the sheet that covered the body, quickly and precisely folded it, then placed it on a shelf under the instrument tray.
The victim was in her early twenties, I figured, and had been quite pretty, if you could look past the facial bruising and the wound at the side of her head. There was quite a lot of bruising to look past. Somebody had whaled on this girl. Repeatedly.
Besides the ugly trauma to her head, the girl’s arms showed a mass of livid bruises, as did the lower part of her legs, but it was the damage between her legs that shocked me the most. Her whole vaginal area was pulpy, bloody, and covered in shit. Suddenly the tea was leaving a sour taste in my mouth.
Hines worked methodically, dictating descriptions of the injuries and carefully noting their locations on the body.
Any unexplained death warranted a full autopsy, and, as far as I could judge, the damage done to this poor girl’s body was inexplicable, but when Dr. Hines reached for the scalpel to begin opening the chest cavity, one of the Darmes stepped forward.
"That will do," she said.
Hines looked up, startled. "But I haven’t finished yet."
"I think we’ve seen all we need to see."
"No, we haven’t," Hines protested. "I can’t determine the cause of this death solely on the basis of a cursory body exam."
"I think it’s clear that the victim died as a result of being accidently pushed from the third floor of a building onto a paved surface," the Darme said. "Probably by a fellow student."
"No, that’s not clear at all. The condition of the body isn’t consistent with that conclusion."
"We believe it is," the Darme said. "Please wrap her up again and we’ll arrange for the transfer of the body to the family."
Open-mouthed, Norris Hines did exactly as she was told, but I could see how angry she was by the set of her shoulders.
The Darmes waited until the corpse was fully contained and deposited into the coffin-like vault, and then they sealed the edges of the drawer with police tape.
I’d never seen anything like this. Just for starters, there are few areas more secure than a morgue. Who were they expecting to break in, and why would anyone want this dead body other than to mourn over it? Then I realized that it wasn’t outside intruders they were worried about. They didn’t want Hines to look at the body again.
I was handed a sheaf of papers with x’s marking the places where I was supposed to sign. I did what I was supposed to — I signed them — but I did it slowly so that I could take note of any recorded details before I handed the report back to the Darmes. There weren’t a lot of them to note. Most of the spaces had been left blank. I wasn’t sure why I even bothered trying to see what was there, since it seemed that this case was being buried in a deep, dark place somewhere, but the whole thing was just weird, and I wanted as much ammunition as I could muster, in case, at some future point, I might have to cover my ass.
Inspector Trent was out of the office when I returned. She hadn’t requested that I report back to her after the autopsy — after all, it was simply a matter of, as she had put it, "rubber stamping" — so I wasn’t sure why I went looking for her, other than the fact that I was so puzzled by what had occurred. That, and the fact that Davis was in full-blown obnoxious mode, loudly reiterating evidence and making unfounded pronouncements about the Tanaka Tyler kidnapping.
As far as I was concerned, it was the same old story — an infant in a shopping mall with her parents, who turned their heads for a second or two, only to discover an empty stroller when they turned back again. In my experience, if these cases weren’t solved in the first week or so, there was little chance of ever finding the kid. She’d been snatched by some baby-starved couple with just enough counterfeit paperwork to pass in a far-off town, or worse yet, by a black-market ring who could smuggle a child across a border somewhere. Fortunately, there are a lot fewer kidnappings than there used to be, thanks to the Insemination Registry. Snatching a kid used to be dead easy and extremely lucrative. It’s not so easy anymore, but it’s still lucrative if you can get away with it.
Every once in a while, a snatchee from the old days will turn up as a teenager, when her papers aren’t good enough to get her into university or something, and she’s tracked down the truth of her parentage. By then it’s way too late. These kids have no memory of their real parents and it’s not like they’ve been mistreated by their new families or anything. In fact, most of them have been given everything they could possibly want. The reunions are nothing but sad and awkward. Honestly, if you can’t get the kid back to the old family right away, you’re probably better off leaving her with the new one.
All enforcement agencies have an obligation to make it look like they’re doing everything they can however, especially in an election year, so even though the Tanaka Tyler case was spearheaded by the Darmes, Davis had been seconded as City Police liaison. Whoever else not working political rally mob control had been left with the scut work.
Capital City Detective Division is jammed into a small space on the second floor of the Police Services building and my desk was shoved way over in the back corner of it. I had to shoulder my way past the crowd of juniors clustered around the evidence wall in order to reach it. Most of them ignored me, but one of them — the perky one with the reddish hair, Detective Nguyen — smiled at me and politely stepped aside to let me pass. Nice to know that at least one of the juniors had manners. No doubt Davis would grind that right out of her.
I ignored the delinquent paperwork on my desk and tried to shut out Davis’s braying voice as I slumped in my chair to think about the strange autopsy I’d just seen. If it was an accidental death, as the Darmes claimed, or even a simple murder, it should have come to City. That would be the protocol except in cases that somehow affect national security. But a student shoved off a building? There was a big, stinky smell all over this one.
For some reason, the Darmes had swooped in on the case and shut us out, but I figured there had to be a rudimentary report available somewhere in-house. We’d been called in only to keep the paperwork tidy, so there wouldn’t be much of a trail, I knew, but surely there was something, if only a notification and a request for a waiver of interest.
Curious to see what I could find, I keyed in the autopsy date and time and Dr. Hines’s name as the presiding medical officer. It was there, all right, but access to it had been blocked. That happened sometimes, if it was a sensitive case. I knew that there was no point in asking Trent for an override. The inspector had been clear — sign off, don’t ask questions.
I had too many questions not to ask them and I had lingered over the paperwork long enough to pick out a few details, so at least I was armed with a starting point. The girl’s name had been Alfreda Lucas Longwell. I hooked onto the Wire and typed the name into search, but nothing came up. I tried IMeMine. The girl had been young, only twenty-three according to her death certificate. She probably used the popular network to keep up with her friends. To my surprise, there was nothing.
I drummed my fingers on the desk as I tried to bring to mind what else I had seen. It was a nasty habit that bugged the hell out of people, especially people like Inspector Trent, but it helped me focus. There had been a downtown address at the top of the form — 91 Victoria Street — near the city center. And near the university. I found the school’s website and accessed the student enrollment files, but there were no Lucas Longwells listed. And yet the Darme had referred to a "fellow student" when she had directed Hines to discontinue the autopsy. There really wasn’t any other school close by, just a high school, and a couple of public schools. Alfreda had been too old for either.
I scrolled through the rest of the uni site, but it was mostly descriptions of courses and bios of faculty members. There was a link to the student council page. I clicked it. Their WirePage consisted of listings of club meetings and upcoming social functions — dances, rallies, the Chess Club, the hockey team. And then I found it. The contact for the student choir. Alfi Lucas Longwell. The link was inactive though. When I clicked on it, I got a message saying the page couldn’t be found. I looked through some of the other student activity pages, but that one listing seemed to be the only mention of the girl.
I was really puzzled now. I would have thought that anyone who was an organizer of a student function would be a student, but maybe it wasn’t a given. Still, it was beginning to look as though Alfreda Lucas Longwell had been virtually erased. I supposed the Darmes would have that kind of power, although the Wire is notoriously difficult to control. But why would they do that? Longwell was not a public figure, otherwise her name would have been all over the Wire. As far as I could tell, there was no notoriety to attach to her death, no reason to hush up whatever had happened to her. At least, not on her own account. I wondered about the "fellow student" who had supposedly pushed her from the building. Was there some connection there that needed to be protected?
I sat, staring at the Vu screen, my fingers drumming faster and faster as I tried to think the thing through. Trent had specifically warned me off, told me to cooperate with whatever the Darmes wanted. The shit would surely fly if I went snooping around in light of such a specific warning. And even if I found something, I wasn’t sure what I could do with it anyway. I had no official status in the case. Maybe, for once, I should just leave well enough alone. I closed the page I had been staring at, blitzed the files and rebooted the terminal. Best not to leave too-obvious a trail behind.