‘It’s not funny Themba, I went down that ravine slightly respected and I emerged from it completely ridiculed,’ said Mabel while laughing almost as hard as her audience of one. Themba, the universally esteemed head of the Pretoria morgue, was laughing at Mabel’s narration of her crime scene visit down a sharp ravine. He threw his head back and deep, cavernous laughter rose from his huge chest. Themba means ‘elephant’ in Zulu and it occurred to Mabel that he laughed exactly like she imagined elephants laughed.

With white coats, gloves and boots Mabel and Themba were getting ready to perform the autopsy on the corpse found at the bottom of the ravine just hours earlier.

‘I’m just thankful I had Michelle with me. Because I might have been the opening clown, but she was the main event…’

At that moment Michelle Kruger walked through the wide entry to Cutting Room A.

‘Michelle? What are you doing here?’ asked Mabel.

‘I want to attend the autopsy. I’m busy with my ballistics rotation and I can’t think of a better case,’ answered the slightly uptight and formal forensic postgrad student.

‘I see you’ve de-forested yourself,’ said Mabel and packed out some big laughter of her own, complete with huge, bouncy hair. Michelle had emerged from the ravine crime scene with so many leaves and twigs in her hair and clothing that she became a fire hazard. Mabel had ordered her home, but she was clearly not the type of soldier to be broken by Autumn. Or a dozen laughing police officers and firefighters…

‘Indeed I have, Doctor Ackerman. I am ready to apply myself and focus on the task at hand.’

‘Michelle, do you have family in the military?’

‘Uh, no Doctor Ackerman, why do you ask?’

‘No reason.’

Because your genome is 10% actual genetic material and 90% whatever the shit they use to starch collars.

‘I was hoping it’d be done by now,’ said Warrant Officer Paul Hoffmann as he too appeared in Cutting Room A.

‘Well damn, we’ve got ourselves a parté!’ said Mabel in an ill-considered attempt at breaking the suddenly very stiff ice. Themba – at least – sported a grin.

‘Doc, this is a suicide. I just need your report then I can sign this one off to the inquest court,’ said Paul, almost begging. ‘There was a suicide note on the scene. Right handed woman, right temporal lobe entrance wound. Gun on scene. This is South Africa. No-one leaves a gun anywhere.’

Mabel didn’t much care for Paul. He wasn’t an arrogant white boy, but he kept to himself more than other detectives and he never smiled. Certainly never laughed. And he was a master at the sarcastic comment. And Mabel hated sarcasm. Taken together, Mabel considered him stand-offish and condescending.

‘I hear you, Paul, but this is my job and I’m concerned about some…things. I just want to take a closer look.’

‘Should I come back later?’

‘No man! Stay awhile, it won’t take forever. Like you say, this is South Africa. Autopsies take an hour, not five like in first world countries.’

‘Yeah, and detectives in first world countries have ten murder dockets on their tables. I have a hundred.’

Mabel looked at Paul, at his very skinny, tall frame. His shabby jeans and tired, hollow eyes. And the thin, pale little mess on the top of his head that resembles a patch of dried grass. He fitted the usual detective profile only partially. Usually they are big men, imposing to look at. And emotional. Mabel have found detectives – at least most she’s worked with – to be strong, yes, but quick to anger, quick to move to emotion. Not Paul. He was tall, sure, but he was skin and bone. And he never showed any emotion. His voice might reveal inflections of mood, but never his face. That made him difficult to read.

Mabel suddenly felt compassion for the twiggy detective.

The burden he carries. The load of lost lives and the remaining hopes of loved-ones left behind…

‘Well then. Let’s get to it.’

Mabel stepped up to the corpse of the woman on the table next to Themba. He was already standing ready, camera in hand, waiting for Mabel’s instructions.

‘Let me show you what bothers me,’ said Mabel.

She picked up the woman’s right arm. Michelle stepped closer to help with the rigored body.

‘You said the victim was right-handed, right?’

‘That’s right,’ Paul said and smiled.

Look at Detective Serious all jokey joke!

‘Well, what do you see here?’ Mabel held up the woman’s hand in and stood out of the way for Paul to lean in.

‘Nothing. I don’t get it. What am I supposed…oh wait…’

‘What?’ said Michelle, doing her best to both observe and take notes.

‘There’s no blood spatter,’ said Mabel. ‘The weapon used was a very big caliber revolver, a serious gun. You’d expect to see blood spatter on the shooting hand in contact GSW’s.’

‘So it’s murder?’ cried Michelle, looking at Mabel with big eyes, then to Themba.

‘Not necessarily,’ said Themba in his deep drawl.

‘No, not necessarily,’ said Paul. ‘But maybe in this weird suicide the vic wiped her hands?’

‘Uuug, funny bunny!’ shouted Mabel at Paul. ‘No man. But no Michelle, not necessarily. We can’t build bricks without clay! Let’s move on. Look at the wound. Look closely. Michelle, lean in.’

Mabel had turned the head of the deceased to properly reveal the entrance gunshot wound on the right temple.

‘I see nothing out of the ordinary,’ Paul said.

‘Me neither,’ said Michelle. ‘Soot ring, muzzle imprint, smoke ring. Everything is as it is in the textbooks. Isn’t it?’

‘Perhaps. But I noticed something on the scene. Themba, would you please hand me the shaver?’

Themba walked over to the table where the instruments were kept against the northern wall of the room. He put down the camera and rummaged through a cupboard to find the small electronic shaver.

‘Not something we use every day, hey Thembs?!’

‘Sure not, Doc.’

After struggling to plug it in, he handed it to Mabel. Carefully she shaved the right part of the deceased woman’s head, taking care to remove as much hair as she could. When she was done, Mabel stared down at the woman’s head like it was lost treasure.

‘I still don’t get it,’ said Paul.

‘See this? It’s a smoke stain. Similar to the smoke ring. But removed from the main wound.’

Paul stood closer to the wound and peered down with concentration. A small, dark stain could be seen just inside the woman’s hairline. It was about 7cm above the right ear, slightly diagonally upward from the muzzle imprint wound.

‘Okay, I see it. But so what?’

‘Revolvers can induce unique smoke stains because apart from exiting the barrel, smoke also escape from the extractor rod. In rare circumstances, pathologists have noted smoke stains next to the entry wound that came from those rods.’

‘So we’re seeing an extractor rod smoke stain in a woman who shot herself with a revolver that has – as fate would have it – an extractor rod. My dress isn’t quite blown up, Doc.’

‘Paul, how would you hold the gun to ensure you get the stain on that exact spot on your head?’

Paul simulated holding a gun to his right temple. He twisted his elbow forward to move his ‘weapon’ upside down. He moved his arm back, then tried the other way around. Finally, he dropped his arm.

‘But there was a note. And the gun. I shouldn’t even be here,’ he said.

‘But that’s it, isn’t it? How do you commit the perfect murder? Don’t tell me you haven’t thought about it because I get asked that question all the time. I know you do too.’

Paul remained quiet for a while. Mabel spoke again: ‘I’d walk up to someone, shoot them in the head and leave the gun right there. Do you know why, Paul?’

No response. Maybe a sigh.

‘Because – contrary to protocol – police decide mode of death on the scene and investigate accordingly. If it’s a suicide, the guns are given to the family immediately. Pathologists are never called to those scenes. Never. Because cops know that in this country we don’t have the luxury of wasting resources on what we think we know. So that brings me to my next point: you called me, didn’t you? Why? Why did you call for a pathologist to visit this scene?’

‘I don’t know. The scene is strange. Although I’ve seen suicides in weirder places.’

‘I can imagine. I have too. But something bothered you about this one.’

Paul remained quiet for a while.

‘But the note…?’

‘What’s easier to fabricate? A handwritten note? Or a smoke stain hidden in hair?’

‘Fuck, Doc,’ Paul said, then ran his hands through his grassy little toss of hair.

[To be continued]



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