I stood in front of my locker and changed into my scrubs, one of the few things I considered a perk in my choice of careers, although I wouldn’t really call my career a choice, but that was neither here nor there. I’d chosen the slate grey set and topped it off with a black scrub cap covered with dancing skeletons, complete with top hats and canes. It wasn’t anywhere near Halloween, but I had an admittedly dark sense of humor. I had to or else I’d go crazy. It wasn’t like a saw a lot of civilian traffic working the late shift at the coroner’s office, but, again, that was merely another perk.
I’d already been briefed by Chow that there was a body in the autopsy room in need of my attention. Victor Madden was Shreveport’s official Coroner, but truth be told, he rarely got his own hands dirty anymore and was more interested in building a name for himself. He was the textbook definition of narcissistic and these days would only pull on a pair of latex gloves if it meant he’d be getting his name in the paper. Chow was the only other forensic pathologist in our small office, but since he specialized in adult and forensic psychiatry we’d agreed a long time ago that he would handle all of the calls needing emergency psychiatric evaluations and orders of protective custody while I tended to the actual dead bodies. Louisiana was one of the few states where the Coroner’s Office dealt the living as well and since I didn’t (do well with the living, that is), I was more than happy to work with the dead.
It was my forte.
I entered the autopsy room and went straight to work. Waiting on me was a male, roughly forty years in age, and by the looks of it had been out in the elements when he’d been found. His clothing had already been removed and bagged as evidence, but there were still traces of dirt on his face and arms, as well as leaves in his hair. I could see the trail of dried blood coming down his neck from the back of his head and when I turned it to get a better look I found what appeared to be blunt force trauma of some sort.
“What happened to you?” I asked.
“Looks like he was hit over the head,” I heard from behind me.
I didn’t bother to turn around, having recognized the voice, and instead asked, “Do you know what happened to him?”
“Not a clue,” he said whimsically and when I turned to look over at him I saw a rarely seen bright smile on his face. He pointed at my scrubs cap and said, “I like your hat.”
I’d met Detective Corbett Stackhouse eight years earlier, there at the Coroner’s Office, and couldn’t help smiling back as I asked, “What’s got you all chipper this evening?”
He’d become a regular of sorts since that time and often hung out with me in the evenings while I worked when he had nothing better to do. He smiled even wider and answered coyly, “Oh nothing…”
“Bullshit,” I declared, but turned to ignore him in favor of getting my work done. Corbett was a talker and I had no doubt he’d eventually spill his not so well kept secret.
He must’ve been really excited because without any more prompting from me, he said, “Alright, you forced it outta me. You know my daughter? Sookie?”
She was his pride and joy and there was rarely a night when he was there that he didn’t mention her in one way or another. The day she’d joined the Shreveport PD I thought he was going to have a coronary because his chest was about to burst with pride and I’d joked that he was lucky that I knew how to cut his chest open. I’d never actually met her though and said, “Well, yeah, sort of through you.”
His responding chuckle made me look back up at him as he said, “Well that’s about to change. She’s on her way here now.”
“What?” I asked. He’d been going on and on for years that I was perfect for her and should ask her out, but it seemed more than a little illogical that he’d somehow managed to get her to come to the Coroner’s Office for that reason. Since he was so damn happy I doubted she was being transported inside of a body bag, so I asked, “Why?”
“She got bumped up to Detective and this poor stiff is the first case she picked up!” he said as though she’d won the National Spelling Bee.
Interacting with people in the line of my work was one thing, but I didn’t really do too well in social situations. Corbett knew this, but, even so, I told him, “You know I have issues, so don’t expect to be making any love connections.”
I certainly wasn’t a saint. I was a man and had needs, but I mostly filled those needs with the occasional one night stand. My issues negated the possibility of having a long term relationship because I’d never come across a living soul that didn’t look at me like a freak when I’d tried to tell them about it; my own parents included.
I was a little worried that he might take my stance the wrong way thinking I thought that his daughter wouldn’t be good enough for me. I’d grown fond of him and it was nice to have a familiar face to talk to on a regular basis, so I’d hate to lose his friendship, but my worries were for nothing because he smiled again, saying, “You’ve been hanging around dead people too much. Just wait until you meet her. Sookie is pure life.”
I turned back to the body in front of me and tried to lose myself in my work, saying more to myself than to Corbett, “Dead people don’t judge me or look at me like I’m a freak of nature.”
He moved to stand across from me and leaned over the dead body until I looked up into his eyes. “Sookie won’t judge you either.” He smiled affably again and said, “I don’t!”
I could only raise my eyebrow at him and silently went back to work while he paced around the room regaling me with stories about his daughter that I’d heard a hundred times before, but I let him talk nonstop while trying to talk myself out of the idea that he could possibly be right. I’d given up on the fantasy of living a normal life a long time ago and learned early on to hide my freakishness from others. Even my own parents hadn’t been able to understand and it changed how they looked at me. I changed how I acted around them because of it and even though I pretended all was well, they were still wary of me on the rare occasion when we were in the same room. Although they only lived twenty minutes away from my apartment, I hadn’t seen them in over a year. It was just easier on everyone if I stayed away.
If only everyone would stay away from me.
I kept one ear on Corbett’s This Is Sookie’s Life dissertation while I continued working on the body in front of me. The cause of death was the blunt force trauma to the back of his skull, but since I had no idea of how or where he was found, I couldn’t yet rule it either an accidental death or a homicide. Conceivably he could’ve fallen and hit his head or he could’ve been bashed in the back of the head with what appeared to be a rock. I’d need to talk to the detective to find out more details before making my decision and when Corbett stopped talking mid sentence and turned to stare at the door, my whole body stiffened.
I could hear the telltale footfalls of people approaching and heard Corbett say, “I don’t want to make you nervous by hanging around, so I’ll stop back by later to see how it went.”
I didn’t turn to watch him leave because a moment later, seeing the curvy blonde walk through the door, something else stiffened and I was thankful he was gone.
I recognized the wall of man walking next to her. Detective James Flood had been Corbett’s partner back in the day and was a former Air Force Colonel. He still carried the air of a military man and I nodded my head at him saying, “Detective.”
I knew he’d heard the rumors about me and that I still made him uncomfortable. I could see it in the way his shoulders tensed as he nodded in return and turned to the blonde at his side, motioning to her and saying, “Doctor Northman. This is Detective Stackhouse.”
When she smiled at me I could see exactly what Corbett had been talking about. She practically radiated sunshine and it only made me feel even darker inside knowing I would never have a shot at getting to know her better. She held out her hand to shake mine as she said, “Please Doctor Northman, call me Sookie.”
I was still struck dumbfounded by her beauty until I saw Detective Flood shift his body a bit, breaking the spell I’d been under, and I pulled off my latex gloves with a snap, shaking her hand while unable to stop looking into her blue eyes as I said, “Nice to meet you Sookie. You can just call me Eric.”
Flood cleared his throat making us break apart and said, “Well now that introductions are over,” he pointed at the table and asked, “What can you tell us about our guy?”
“Aside from the gaping hole in the back of his head he was the picture of perfect health,” I answered. Looking back and forth between the two of them, I asked, “Can you give me any info on how he was found? Were there any witnesses?”
They both shook their heads, but it was Sookie that pulled a file folder from the large bag over her shoulder and said, “He was found by a runner jogging on one of the trails in Lakeside Park.” She opened the file and walked over to the desk, spreading out pictures all across the top of it, as she said, “Steve Newlin. Thirty-eight years of age. He’s a preacher by trade and according to his wife he never came home last night.” She looked up at me and raised her eyebrow as she added, “Apparently that wasn’t uncommon.”
I looked over the notes and saw that his liver temperature had been 94 degrees when he’d been found a little after noon earlier that day and given the agreeable temperatures we’d had that day, that put his time of death around three hours earlier and said, “Well he was alive up until around nine o’clock this morning.” I had no way to know beforehand how he’d been dressed, but seeing in the pictures he’d been wearing a suit, it was obvious he hadn’t been there jogging.
I walked back to the body and turned his head, shining the light down on the back of it to show them, as I said, “From the shape of the wound, I’d say it was caused by a large rock. I can’t tell you if he fell or if he was hit though.” My eyes were drawn back to Sookie as I asked, “Did you find anything like that at the scene? A wound of this size would’ve left noticeable trace evidence on the item.”
Everything from blood to hair and tissue would’ve transferred, but the way she chewed on her bottom lip was a little distracting and I had to force myself to pay attention when she answered, “No, but there was nothing like that around the body.” She flipped through photo after photo to reassure herself no one had missed it the first time around, but my eyes never left her.
Corbett hadn’t been exaggerating about her beauty.
When her eyes met mine again I was nearly left dumbstruck again and quickly averted them while mentally berating myself. Corbett aside, if Sookie was a detective with the Shreveport PD, having a one night stand with her wasn’t an option. It would make working together all too awkward afterward and I had no desire to go through that. Clearing my throat, I said, “Well the lack of anything at the scene that could cause that type of trauma would lead me to believe that he didn’t die accidentally, so I guess you have a homicide on your hands.”
Flood excused himself to make a phone call while Sookie gathered up the photos she’d strewn across the desk and when she was done, she turned to look at me and said, “Well, thanks Eric. I guess I’ll be seeing you around now that I’m on the detective squad.”
I should’ve just nodded silently so she’d leave, but I wanted to keep her there for just a few minutes longer, if only so I could see her beautiful face and said, “How do you like it so far?”
Her smile was practically blinding with a hint of a blush on her cheeks as she said, “I love it. I mean, today is my only first day and we already caught a case. I feel like I’ve known the Colonel, Detective Flood, for my whole life so I couldn’t ask for a better partner.” Still smiling, she looked me over and asked, “Have you worked here long?”
“Eight years,” I replied without thought and my stomach twisted a little when her eyebrows furrowed and sadness filled her eyes.
“Did you ever meet my father? He was the Colonel’s partner back then. Corbett Stackhouse?”
My eyes fell to my feet for a moment before they looked back into hers and my reasons for not being able to try and get to know her better like any normal man were crystal clear, to me at least, as I nodded and admitted, “He was my first. I was the one that did his autopsy.”