In the wide and cold corners of the morgue you heard Mabel Ackerman long before you saw her. And when she finally did come around the corner, flopping in her big, black gumboots and white coat, she was one part human, three parts hair and smile.
Themba Ndlovu, morgue manager and former cop, was readying his knives and tools for the morning’s autopsies when he heard the loud chuckle of the young pathologist moving down the corridor. He smiled. He adored Mabel, and because he did, everyone else in the morgue did too. Themba was the ‘big elephant’, as the morgue assistants referred to him behind his back. Ndlovu is a Zulu tribal name meaning ‘elephant’ and it was as though the name was conceived especially for Themba. He was a Zulu man; tall and strong and imposing. His voice fell deep like a well and though he spoke softly and patiently, there was something in the way he looked at people that issued warnings that disrespect will be dealt with harshly.
‘Ouch! Who is this pillar of fineness I see before me?!’ Mabel screamed as she bopped into Autopsy Room A.
One of the autopsy assistants had told Mabel that lothandekayo means ‘dear one’ in Zulu. She loved it and promised herself that if she ever managed to properly pronounce it, she’d name her first-born daughter Lothandekayo…and then spend a lifetime trying to learn to spell her own daughter’s name…
The body of the small boy that was found dead and tied to a tree was lying in front of Mabel on the silver morgue gurney. The wounds to his abdominal sides were the work of wild animals in the area. Nothing that would have taken the young life. There were horizontal lines all across his chest area where the tight ropes cut into his skin and were made permanent by blood settling in quiet vessels.
While performing the preliminary autopsy Mabel’s bigger than life, tight curls bounced around as she looked back to the boy’s face every few minutes. Those dried tears on the brown skin.
‘He must have been in some pain. And so uncomfortable, hey Themba. Those ropes were tight. With him crying his little chest must have struggled getting in enough air…’
Mabel’s examination turned to the boy’s head and neck. Apart from scratches on his face she noticed gross swelling of his tongue and some blood spotting in his eyes.
‘Petechial spots in the conjunctivae…I don’t think the ropes were tight enough to cause compression asphyxia…’
Mabel took one step away from the body and looked at the boy’s neck.
‘Themba, come stand here. Do you see that?’
Themba moved like a ship around the gurney and took position next to Mabel.
‘Yeah…that’s dark right?’
The boy’s dark skin made it difficult to notice on the crime scene, but Mabel could see it clearly now. The boy’s neck, only his neck, was darker than his chest. Mabel stepped closer and lifted the boy’s head to closely examine the neck.
She felt it. The warm fog of certainty that she’s arrived at the answer. She always felt The Fog when she had finished an exam and knew she would pass it with flying colors.
The answer to the boy’s cause of death was here. In his neck. And she was going to find it…
‘Morning…’ The exhaustion had infiltrated Solomon Shabalala’s voice and he sounded like he had a stroke not many hours before sauntering into Autopsy Room A. He was the investigating officer in this case of the boy and the tree and the expensive shoes.
‘Ah, Warrant Officer Shabalala! Welcome!’ Mabel flashed him her large, white smile.
Mabel self-consciously broke off her smile.
Not in a happy place today then…
‘Oh! Solomon, could you find out about the boy’s school uniform? What school…’
‘Yes. We found his parents.’
‘What?’ Mabel felt the Black Wolf stir in the pit of her stomach. Oh, the loss those poor people must feel…
‘They are in the waiting room. The father is a businessman. Rich. He says he was supposed to pick up the boy from Bridgetown Primary yesterday afternoon but the boy was already missing. Boy’s name is Phelo Leeuw.’
‘Oi…that explains his expensive shoes and uniform. Listen Solomon, I’m still going to be a few hours. We should talk with them but I want to finish here first….’
‘That’s fine. I’ll take them their statements so long. I’m sure they’ll want to wait.’
With that, Solomon Shabalala wandered out of the cutting room with the same drained strain as what he entered with.
Mabel turned back to the boy.
Okay Phelo. Let’s do this…
Mabel walked out into the corridor that led to the morgue waiting rooms with forcefulness. Her usually bright face had made room for an angry scowl and for a moment she wondered if her short legs were going to keep up with her storming torso. Themba moved in behind her. Though Mabel’s big hair was bouncing even more than usual thanks to her rapid fire steps, Themba seemed to move as slowly and smoothly as always.
‘Themba, don’t interfere!’
‘Easy, Mabel. Think before you speak in anger. This is a case…’
But Themba knew he was just following Mabel to war and that unless he was the Almighty, he would not be able to stop her.
Phelo Leeuw’s parents were sitting in a VIP waiting room on large brown couches. When Mabel appeared in the doorway, the father, Mr Anderson Leeuw, CEO of Some or Other Company of fat cats, looked up disinterestedly. His expensive shirt and tie fitted tightly around his thick neck and his Armani suit seemed one size too small for his big shoulders and arms. A gold Tag Heuer adorned his wrist and small diamond rings snaked around both his little fingers. Mrs Leeuw, also decked out in the finest that South African money can buy, sat motionless on the corner couch. She didn’t even look up when Mabel appeared.
‘So! Which one of you two killed your son?!’
[To be continued]