Friday, 10 May 2013

Excerpt from Reading The Dead - The Sarah Milton Chronicles

From Bookpulse:

Doctor Chase enjoyed my visits to the morgue. Not just because of the pleasant distraction that a live body added to the place, particularly when it came in the form of an attractive younger woman, but also because he knew that I never came empty handed.

Two years ago, his doctor diagnosed Wilbur Chase with type 2 diabetes. As a result, his wife put him on a strict daily diet of whole grain bars, fruits, and vegetables. The lack of sugar finally caused him to snap.

His wife might have the say over his food intake while he was home, but during his office hours, Doctor Chase became something of a sugar packrat. He hoarded enough junk food in his desk drawer to rot the teeth of an entire third grade classroom.

However, before you start condemning me for empowering his slide into failing health, let me just say that the tray of muffins that I delivered to his doorstep for months have always been sugar-free. I bought them from a natural foods place near my apartment. Of course, that remained my little secret. If his need to rebel against his wife, the sugar Nazi, furthered his enjoyment of the treats, I saw no reason to strip him of his illusions.

“Hey doc,” I smiled as I held up the tray of muffins. As usual, I removed all trace of the original packaging. As far as he knew, I baked them myself. “You have time for a special delivery?”

Chase’s eyes bulged. He was in the middle of an autopsy, but when he spotted the tasty delights I brought him, his gore-covered hands instinctively went up to reach for them. I pulled the food away in disgust. He peered at me questioningly for a second, before realizing that his cadaver’s insides were all over his fingers.

“Oh!” he chuckled, snapping off his rubber gloves and washing up thoroughly. “Sorry about that.”

An expression of almost religious ecstasy covered his face as I passed over the tray of pastries into his sterilized hands. “Mmm. These look delicious. You’re a Godsend, my dear.”

“Just don’t let your wife know I’m doing this,” I teased. Like that was ever going to happen.

“It’ll be our little secret,” he replied, half of his words muffled by the pastry he already stuffed into his mouth. His face was pure bliss. I’ve seen junkies who reacted less passionately to a fix. He smacked his snack down loudly, and then smiled at me with pink frosting on the corner of his mouth. “So good! Now, what can I do for you today, detective?”

I nodded towards one of the stiffs covered up on his examination tables. “Is that Ashley Hastings?”

“That’s her,” Chase said, setting his tray of muffins down on a nearby desk. “I just finished up her autopsy an hour ago. I think that you’re going to be pleased with the results.”

He wagged a finger at me, leading me to her examination table. Ashley’s corpse was covered head to ankle in a white sheet. Only her feet protruded from the sheath. Tied to her big toe was the last piece of jewelry she would ever wear.

“You found something?” I pressed him.

“I found something,” he smiled back.

Chase removed the sheet covering Ashley’s lifeless right hand. Most of her nails still retained their original manicure, except for the ones on her index and middle fingers, which were broken and ragged looking. Her arm – like most of her body, I would imagine – was a spider web of nicks and slices from shards of broken glass.

“The killer didn’t get away scot-free this time around. He may have come after his victim with a knife, but Miss Hastings got in a few licks of her own.”

“Brains…” a voice droned. It came from the next table over, the one behind Doctor Chase.

I threw a startled look over his shoulder as the blanket-covered corpse behind him slowly sat up on its examination table. The sight was deeply unnerving. The shrouded figure rose into a seated position upon the metal slab, as if preparing itself to turn and set its cold, bare feet upon the floor.

I looked back at Doctor Chase. If he were to notice the dead rising behind his back, I might find myself dealing with one more corpse in this antiseptic graveyard. I don’t know about the M.E., but the sight of the body’s lifeless head lolling to one side under its pristine white cover was almost enough to give me a heart attack.

It wasn’t the start of the zombie apocalypse just yet. This had all the earmarks of another one of Anna’s goofball stunts.

“I discovered traces of skin and blood under her fingernails that didn’t belong to her,” the Doctor continued, oblivious to the corpse rising behind him. “She definitely managed to scratch her attacker before she died.”

“Brrr-rains!” Anna’s zombie meat puppet moaned through its shroud.

“That’s… great news,” I responded to Chase, trying my utmost not to let on what was transpiring right behind his back. “With the DNA evidence and the eye-witness at the apartment, we shouldn’t have any trouble convicting this guy when we finally catch up to him.”

“Oh, but that’s not all!” Chase exclaimed. He was turning around, about to come face to face with the walking… well, sitting dead.

“What’s that on her hand?” I asked excitedly, pointing at the exposed appendage on the table.

He followed my finger, peering at the scratched, but otherwise normal looking hand of the victim. “What?” he inquired. “Where?”

“Tasty brainsss!” the zombie groaned.

“There!” I fished in my pocket for something to throw at Anna. My hand fell upon a pen. It would have to do. “Right there. You see? Look closer.”

Chase bent over to inspect the hand even closer. That was my cue. Over his head, I whipped the pen as hard as I could at the zombie’s sheet-covered body.

“Brai-”

The pen struck its head with a loud smack, bouncing off and skittering across the floor. Taken by surprise, Anna released her grip on the cadaver’s backside, causing it to drop back to the metal surface with a sick, meaty thunk.

With the body no longer concealing her presence, the girl grinned sheepishly at me from the other side of the examination table. She wiggled her fingers at me in a nervous wave as I threw her a hostile glare.

“What in the hell was that?” Chase cried excitedly, quickly turning to locate the source of the din.

“What was what?” I asked innocently.

As he turned back to me to respond, I plucked an imaginary object from the girl’s hand.

“Oh, look! Never mind,” I said, wiggling my fingers as if disposing of lint between them. “It was just a bit of dirt.”

“Did you not hear that?” Chase threw another look towards Anna. “It sounded like something heavy fell down.”

“I didn’t hear anything.”

The poor man opened his mouth to reassert his position, only this time he quickly turned around to look again for himself. Anna whistled innocently from the other side of the table in front of him. Finally, shaking his head, Chase turned back to give me a questioning expression.

“Did you really not hear that noise?”

“Nope.”

“Huh.” He shook his head again. “I must be losing it.”

“Maybe it’s ghosts,” I teased, throwing a glance at Anna. “So, you were about to tell me you found something else?”

“Uh? Oh, right! Right.” He looked around. “Now where did I leave that?” He spotted a manila file folder on a nearby table. In it were some forms that he filled in as part of the examination. He fetched them to refresh his memory.

“I found some irritation on the victim’s skin, isolated around the stab wounds. I checked with the lab running the tests on the knife found at the crime scene and it confirmed my suspicions. There were trace elements of benzalkonium chloride found on the blade. The killer must have disinfected it shortly before committing the murder.”

“Benza-whatnow?”

“Benzalkonium chloride,” he repeated. “It’s a common enough ingredient in most cleansers and disinfectants. Safe in smaller concentrations, but anything above ten percent will result in the kind of skin irritation I found on the body.”

“So you’re saying that he washed the knife in some kind of industrial strength cleanser?”

“I believe so, yes.”

As I dropped this nugget of information into the stew of clues brewing in my brain, my eyes wandered back to Anna. She remained glued to her spot next to the other examination table. I caught her sneaking a peek at the dead body under the sheet. She quickly replaced the cover with a grimace.

“Benzalkonium chloride,” I repeated. “That’s good to know. We’ll get on that right away.”

“Maybe once the lab finishes going over the blood spatter, we might find something more.”

I nodded. “Sure. We’ll be waiting. I should be getting back to it, but there is actually one more thing we need. Did Ashley Hastings happen to have her car keys with her when they brought her in? We wanted to check her vehicle for evidence.”

“Maybe. Let me check.”

Doctor Chase walked over to a filing cabinet at the back of the room. I gave a nod to Anna and followed him. Anna nodded back and slowly walked around the table to stand near the examination table of his current autopsy patient.

Unlike the others, this table contained plenty of extra equipment on hand, including a metal cart holding trays full of surgical implements, a bright light shining overhead, and assorted audio and video gear. It was a regular smorgasbord of distracting opportunities.

Chase fished into the cabinet for a moment, before producing a large plastic evidence bag with Ashley’s name on the front. He unfastened the clasp and deposited its sparse contents on the surface of the desk.

I spotted a watch, a ring, and a pair of earrings. That was it. No keys.

“Damn,” I muttered. “She must have left them in her purse. Okay, thanks anyway.”

Right on cue, Anna provided the diversion we planned before arriving here together. The large bulb of the light hanging over the autopsy table suddenly and dramatically exploded, showering the opened body beneath it with sparks and broken glass.

“What the hell?” Chase cried. “Oh, no! Excuse me a moment, would you?”

“Sure. You go ahead. I’ll just put this back for you.”

I slid Ashley’s personal belongings back into the bag, with the exception of a single earring that landed in my pocket. I was always losing earrings. I figured nobody would miss this one.

“How in the world did that happen?” Chase moaned, peering up at the shattered remains of his bulb.

Anna joined me at the desk with a knowing smile and a thumbs-up.

“Like I said, doc.” I returned the resealed evidence to its original place in the filing cabinet. “I think you have ghosts.”

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