When Mabel’s old hatchback Toyota stopped in front of the Pretoria State Morgue, she felt light and content, and it was all Annie Botha’s fault. Annie Botha Street runs into the road that ultimately leads you to the Morgue and it’s lined on both sides with giant old Jakaranda trees that bow gracefully over the road and create a vibrant green leafy ceiling. Except in October and November. Then the emerald roof is swallowed by bright purple flowers that explode over every possible surface of the trees. These flowers would fall down and line the entire length of Annie Botha Street in purple flowers. It was breath-taking.
But that was not the only reason Mabel felt contentment. This was her job. No. This was her calling. And she felt honoured to have been chosen to speak for the dead.
She took a deep breath, inhaling the faint smell of Jakaranda flowers.
Mabel hopped out of her beat up ol’ tin lizzie and discreetly avoided looking at anyone in the foyer of the square brick building. She would have felt shame to feel such contentment while locking eyes with grieving family.
She headed left to the doctors’ dressing rooms. As she opened the door to the rooms, she noticed the faintest smell of Familiarity. She was home.
‘Morning formaldehyde. Morning decomp.’
Decked out in a white robe and black gumboots, Mabel walked down the wide passage toward the main cutting room where she was due to do her first official autopsy as qualified forensic pathologist. The faint smell of morgue grew into a full on nasal assault…something that she hardly noticed; something that hardly anyone noticed anymore.
She turned into the main cutting room and her already happy heart bounced with joy. Themba Ndlovu, for Mabel the greatest bull elephant in all of Africa, was dressed for cutting.
‘Cap! Aren’t you a sight for nervous, slightly happy eyes!’
‘Morning Doctor Ackerman.’ Themba’s voice was deep and warm and welcoming.
‘Oh please, it’s Mabel. ‘Doctor Ackerman’ is just for intimidating students.’ Mabel exploded in laughter and her freckled nose curled up, exposing a set of perfectly straight pearls.
‘So what do we gotz, Cap?’
‘Two females, one male. Apparent murders-suicide. GSW. According to the detective the male was a police officer. The two ladies were part of a love triangle turned ugly. ’
‘Well let’s put the scalpel where our mouths are!’ Mabel secured the plastic visor and mouth guard on her face and with gloves firmly in place she started her preliminary examination of the three bodies.
A tunnel formed in front of Mabel’s sight, drawing her focus to what she saw in front of her.
‘Male. Seems like GSW entry wound to the right temple. Do we know if he was right handed, Cap?’
‘Nothing in the docket.’
‘Yes, look here. Callus on the base of the right thumb. Pistol burn. And high velocity blood spatter on the dorsal surface of the hand. All expected findings in a GSW suicide.’
‘Hhm-uhm…’ Themba was moving behind Mabel, observing the new path in action.
When Mabel finished her preliminary examination of her male body, she moved to the first of the two females.
‘Cap, do we know which of the ladies were shot first?’
‘Nothing in the docket. They were both found DOA on the scene at the male’s home.’
Mabel’s eyes moved intensely over every aspect of the body surface in front of her.
‘Female A, GSW entry on the frontal lobe of the skull, no apparent exit. Entry wounds shows abrasion ring and pretty wide tattooing. I’d say intermediate to distant shot.’
‘Probably. Let’s see the other lady…’ Mabel moved to the second female body.
‘GSW entry wound, also apparent distant wound, in the lateral aspect of the right arm.’ Mabel moved forward and lifted the woman’s right arm to look for an exit wound on the inner side of the arm. A small irregular exit wound features in the medial aspect, indicating a straight trajectory from the entry wound on the outer arm, inward.
‘Oh my. Look here, another entry wound.’
‘What?’ Themba took a step closer to the woman’s body.
‘Look here! Well colour me white, there’s another entry wound in the chest! Right next to the exit wound in the arm! No exit from there. Something interesting happened here, Cap.’
Mabel proceeded with her autopsies. For the next five hours she was engaged in tunnel vision. Tunnel vision that locked out the world and allowed her into the deepest recesses of a human’s secrets. When she was done, she looked at Themba, astonished.
‘This is incredible! The woman who was shot in the head didn’t die immediately, Cap! The projectile penetrated the frontal lobe of her skull, but the impact changed the trajectory of the bullet in a way I’ve never seen before. The bullet never penetrated the cerebral matter. It moved upward, up against the line of the skull, through the narrow fissure and came to a standstill at the base of the skull! She could have been alive for an hour or more after being shot…’ Mabel felt a stab of sadness. One hour. And nobody helped her. The loneliness…
‘Cause of death?’
‘Exsanguination from the GSW. ‘ Mabel took a deep breath and collected herself. ‘But Cap, that’s not the only interesting part. Look here. The other woman was shot in the upper right arm, right? She died almost immediately!’
‘Hao. How is that possible?’
‘The projectile entered her right arm here.’ Mabel lifted the arm to give Themba a better view of the upper right arm. ‘The exit wound is in the inside of the arm, here. But that same projectile re-entered her chest, missed the ribs and then the misshapen bullet destroyed the heart. The trajectory took the bullet right through her heart.’
‘I know right? What are the odds? Gosh I love the human body.’
‘Is that why you chose forensic pathology?’ asked Themba.
‘Yes. But not only that.’ Mabel stared at the face of the first woman. A beautiful face once filled the shell that was now maimed and destroyed by investigation. Another of many women who lose their lives in this country.
‘I tell you what, Cap. If you grow up alone…I mean truly alone…you understand everything about loneliness. And there is nothing more lonely than soaring above yourself, looking down on your own hollow eyes. If I can spend my life finding the stories in those lonely moments, I’m happy to do it.’
Themba stared at Mabel for a few seconds, then started moving slowly toward the passage.
‘I will see you later, inhliziyo enhle.’
‘I will see you later, Good Heart.’