It took me a second to distinguish the corpse from the mud that surrounded it.
It lay face-down, on the very edge of the water, feet and calves being routinely submerged and then exposed again as the murky water rolled in and out. It looked like it had been underwater for a while: the flesh had the same pruney texture you get from staying in the bath for too long, but cranked up to eleven, and it was severely discoloured and bloated, purples and greens and browns and every other colour that instinctively made you think of bruises and decaying flesh. The suit it had been wearing was in marginally better shape, mostly just sodden and mud-covered, but it had begun to fray around the edges, and blood stained the top of the white dress shirt.
The shattered, half-missing skull, I was pretty willing to attribute to other causes.
“Jesus,” I muttered as we approached the second barrier of tape that surrounded the body. “What the hell did that?”
“If we knew that,” Terry replied tiredly, “then we’d be doing a lot better than we are.” He gestured at one of the two figures in the HVAC suits, and they began trudging through the mud over to us.
“Who were they?” I asked, gesturing towards the corpse. “Do we know?”
“We do,” he nodded. “Olympia Gianni. On paper, she’s an accountant for a legal firm called Heracles. In practice, she’s one of the Lebanese mob’s top people – not quite Family, but close enough.” That explained the suit, I guess. “We’ve had tabs on her for a while as a rising star, so to speak. A lot of involvement in bigger and bigger deals, a lot of money passing by her, and at least one disappearance that we can say pretty confidently she’s responsible for, although we couldn’t prove it in court.”
“And now she’s dead,” I said grimly.
“And now she’s dead,” he confirmed. “Like I said, the river’s covered up a lot of detail, but currently we estimate that she’s been in there for about six days.”
“So not off to a great start, then.”
“What? Why?” Sorayah asked. “I mean,” she clarified as we both looked at her, “I can figure out the basic shape of it, I’m not that stupid. I was just wondering specifically what you meant in this case. The details, I guess. The reasoning.”
“Yeah, I get you, don’t worry.” I glanced over at Terry, who made a little ‘go on’ gesture. “Okay, as we’ve already established, I’m not an expert or anything, so I might get some of this wrong. There’s a rule of thumb with… kidnappings, I think – if you get more than 48 hours from time of abduction, then it’s not really a kidnapping case any more so much as a homicide one.” Sorayah covered her mouth, looking sick.”Yeah. Murders are different, obviously, but the same principle still applies. The longer the gap between the time of death and the discovery of the body is, the more room the killer’s had to navigate, to get away, to clean up things or to shore up an alibi. Even beyond that, natural processes make the odds of getting usable evidence smaller and smaller as time goes on.” I clicked a few times, before looking to Terry for confirmation. “Did I miss anything?”
“Not bad,” he said with a small smile. “We’ll make a detective of you yet.”
“Ugh,” I groaned, “don’t even joke about that, please. I just want to get back to helping middle-aged white ladies prevent their dogs getting out and living off of Chinese takeout and bakery end-of-day sales.”
“Ooh, did I hear someone say ‘end-of-day’ sales?” The figure that Terry had waved over was now close enough that their face was visible through the plastic visor of the suit, and they gave us all a big toothy grin. “Me, I like the donut shops, cause honestly they taste a lot better when they’re a little stale.”
“June, Sorayah,” Terry said with exasperated humour, “this charming lady is our coroner’s assistant-
She stuck out a gloved hand. “Vimean Mak,” she said cheerily, muffled through the suit. “You can call me Vim, though.”
It seemed like it would violate some sort of procedure to shake her hand, so I just held up my hand in greeting instead. “June Young, like he said, and this is Sorayah Khan. Mak – that’s Cambodian, right?”
She winked. “Laos, but close! Most people guess Singapore. Sometimes Indonesia but like, white people, so.”
“Vimean,” Terry interrupted, “Wisemann and I have to attend to other cases, so these two are going to be handling this from here. Run them through what you have?”
“Oh, um, sure?” She seemed caught off-guard by that, but recovered quickly. “Yeah, sure, okay. Come on, then; lets get you suited up-”
I’d already begun to pull a pack out of my bag, and showed it to her. It was a disposable cap, pair of gloves, mask, and set of booties, all inside a sealed bag. “Will this do?”
“Let me check.” She twisted her head around, towards the other suited figure. “‘EY, TAFFY!” They turned towards us, irritation clear in their posture. “DO THEY NEED FULL SUITS TO COME HAVE A LOOK?”
We couldn’t hear it, but it was very obvious that they sighed heavily, then shook their head.
“Dope,” she grinned. “‘Aight, lets go get corpsed up! See you round, Terry?”
“Good luck,” he said, more to us than her.
I bit back on the snark that I’d almost gone for instinctively. “Yeah, you too.”
“So,” Mak asked as we trudged down to the shore, my plastic booties crunching strangely as I walked, “can I ask what your, like, job is?”
“One hell of a question, honestly. Technically, I’m a wardlayer.”
“That sounds like it’s got one hell of a ‘but’ attached.”
I snorted, waving a hand around us. “I’m at a crime scene, so yeah. How about you, then? A ‘coroner’s assistant’ doesn’t usually do this much talking, do they?”
“Oh, the verbosity is all me, baby. But yeah, nah, Taffy’s not really the ‘explaining things’ or ‘being polite’ or ‘interacting with other people at all’ kind of person, so I end up doing most of that stuff. They’re pretty good at the other parts, though, so I guess it all evens out.” The person in question stomped past us with a grunt, carrying sample bags as he headed towards the truck. “Love you too!” Mak called cheerily at him over her shoulder.
I decided not to push it, and instead leaned down to inspect the body. None of my early observations bore out false on closer inspection, and now I could see that not only had the head been shattered, but it was also empty. “What’s cause of death?”
“Well, it wasn’t heart failure, I’ll say that much,” she joked. “Sorry, couldn’t resist. Honestly, we’re having a bit of trouble figuring that part out. I mean, obviously, she died because a big chunk of her brain got removed, but like, how, you know?”
“…yeah? I know?” God, she was weird.
“…I definitely don’t,” Sorayah said, bemused. “It looks like she’s been shot, doesn’t it?”
“Man, you’re a great Watson!” Mak exclaimed, beaming.
“…thank you? I think?”
“So yeah,” she continued, “that’s definitely what this looked like at first. Some kind of high-calibre round, straight to the dome. Burrt, we checked up some ballistics tests we had on file, and the pattern of the fracturing doesn’t match any sort of ammunition or weapon we know about, and, when you start looking at the commonalities, doesn’t look like a bullet at all. Also, from the shards that we recovered, the fracture pattern is too… even, I guess. It doesn’t look like it splintered outward from a bullet, or even from a blunt force injury. It’s closer to what we’d expect from someone who’d fallen onto concrete, except that to get this result the flesh would’ve needed to be peeled away first.”
“That’s… not impossible,” I mused. “Corpse could’ve been mutilated, then dropped, then thrown in the river?”
“Mmm, it’s a possibility? But I can’t really think of how you’d get,” she pointed at some of the strands of muscle that hung away from the side of the skull, “this sort-of tell-tale splitting with some kind of high-velocity something, and I’m not sure how you’d do that without destroying the skull.”
“Something to consider, though.”
“Well, we’ll see. Have a look at this.” Very carefully, she used what looked like a beefed-up q-tip to roll the head over slightly, exposing the interior of the brain cavity.
“…what happened to the brain?” Sorayah asked. The skull looked like it had been hollowed out, and it was surprisingly clean considering the state the rest of the body was in. The only thing that wasn’t clean white bone was the small, rotting stub towards the back of the cavity.
“Good question!” Her enthusiasm would have been pleasant if it wasn’t about someone’s brain matter. “Obvious answer would be that it got kablooied out by whatever did the skull, but it’s pretty obviously not that.”
“How so?” I asked.
“Right, well, see how smooth the inside of the skull is?” She indicated the section, and it was, indeed, very clean.
“I see it.”
“Yeah, so…” she clicked her tongue against her teeth. “That’s cool, huh?”
“Wait, is it actually relevant?”
“No, I just think it’s neat. What is relevant, though, is,” she pointed with the scalpel, “this bit here.”
She was pointing at the bottom of the brain cavity, where the decaying brain stem sat. “What about it?”
“It’s a bit hard to see from this angle, plus the degradation from the water, but there’s actually a relatively neat cut across the stem to separate it from the brain. What we’d expect to see in a situation like this is sort of like… broccoli, I guess, with the stem coming up like normal, and then uneven chunks coming off of it where the water and sharks and stuff have gotten to it.”
Yes, there are sharks in the river.
“But instead,” Mak continued, “we barely have any brain matter at all; just the little bits that stuck to the skull here,-” she indicated the spots with a hovering finger, “-here and here.” They looked like tiny barnacles. “The rest is just, poof. Gone.”
“Did someone… did someone remove her brain?” Sorayah asked.
“Bingo bango bongo,” Mak said, with accompanying finger guns. “That’s what I reckon, anyway, cause we’re missing 95% of the brain matter, and even though the water’s degraded it a bit, the top of the brain stem is suspiciously flat. Like if it was, say, cut with a knife.”
“Why would someone steal brain matter?” Sorayah asked, baffled and disgusted in equal measure.
“Who fuckin’ knows,” Mak replied. “For eating? I’ve seen grosser shit.”
“Could be to use it as a reagent,” I suggested.
“You can do that?” For the first time, the seemingly-unflappable woman seemed to be… somewhat flapped.
“Yeah, mostly for pretty nasty stuff; ‘dark magic’, if you’re into labelling things like that.”
“Huh. Gross.” She stood up, and made the motion of brushing her hands off one her thighs, but without actually touching them. “Anyway, that’s the salient stuff. No other wounds, or signs of a struggle, no identifying documentation.”
“What about magical residue?” I asked.
“Pretty much nada, we think? I mean, she’s been underwater that long, it’ll have eroded most of it anyway, right?” She gave me a curious look. “I actually thought that’s what you were here for, tee bee haitch.”
I blinked. “Oh, um- right. Yes.”
“Unless I’m assuming, sorry. It’s just that normally when it’s outside-department, it’s Jones, so I kind of assumed you were here for specialist stuff.” She frowned, as if realising something. “Is Jones here, actually?”
“No,” I snapped, without thinking. “…no, she’s not.”
“..ooohkay, I can read signals, don’t worry.” She held up her hands, with a slight grin. “Won’t press. You wanna make with the magic, then?”
“Hrm.” It’s not her fault, June. “Stand back,” I said, raising my hands and beginning to cast.