‘Hao, my dear. A priest?!’ Themba Ndlovu was sitting behind his beaten up old wooden desk. Government furniture. Pine and plain and rather characterless.
Mabel was sitting across from him, plopped into an old, poofy two-seater couch that somehow fit into Themba’s office. Her legs were folded in under her and right then her face was buried in her hands.
‘I know, I know! My seat to hell is booked, Thembs. Do not move past Start. Do not collect $200. Just go straight to hell.’
Themba let out a James Earl Jones chuckle. ‘He’s Anglican, my dear. He’s allowed to get married. And if God is okay with him getting married, I’m sure God won’t mind if he planted a wet one on you every now and again.’
‘Themba Ndlovu! Yuk man!’
Themba relished the rag and another deep chuckle escaped his broad, white smile.
Mabel smiled back. Since her rocky start at the state morgue in Pretoria she has had one constant source of support. This large, older Zulu man with a heart as big as his chest…his Mufasa voice and giant hands. She suffers no disrespect here in his office. Here in his dusty, cluttered office she often plonks down on his couch and unloads whatever is on her busy mind.
Themba’s phone rings. Probably another incoming body. Another life lost somewhere. Themba grunts in affirmation as he writes something down on the thin pages of a government writing pad. He pushes down hard when he writes, so the pages of the pad have started to curl from the pressure. A plastic black pen holder embraces the few cap-less BIC pens in Themba’s possession. They too have seen better days.
Probably bought it himself, Mabel thought. Government work is rewarding and noble, but God will not let you forget your nobility when it comes to lack of support and resources.
A large black and incomparably ugly letter opener also stuck out from the pen holder. A remnant of proud police days gone by. Its black wooden handle resembles the grip of a bulky tribal knife, but instead of a fiercely sharp metal blade, you find a blunt wooden one capable of damaging little more than an envelope. Apart from hundreds of pieces of paper and a few more government writing pads, the only other elements on Themba’s desk was the large log books containing the details of corpses, identifications, autopsies and a plethora of other details the old police captain jotted down in his daily operations of running the morgue.
You must be connected to the dark side, my dear Thembs. Keeping this place running on little more than a few BIC pens and log books…
‘Well, Doctor Ackerman is here with me. Would you like to speak to her yourself?’ Themba asked.
For a moment, Themba stops writing and looks up at the over-worked notice board on the wall to his left. Mabel noticed the muscles in his lower jawline twitching…
‘Warrant Officer Hoffmann, Professor Mokoena no longer attends crimes scenes and I can assure you that you’re dealing with the best. She will be attending your crime scene. Is there anything else?’
Ah, for the sake of all fucks…
Michelle, Mabel’s postgraduate student, was attending some classes on the day and Mabel was alone in attending detective Paul Hoffmann’s crime scene. Two weeks earlier she had worked a scene with him in which she concluded the gunshot death was homicidal…only for Paul to bypass her opinion and include her boss’s report in the docket: that the death was probably suicidal. The inquest court confirmed this finding. No further investigations needed. Mabel was overruled, and she ended up with egg on her face. Which was nothing compared to the thought that a murderer might be somewhere having a beer and watching TV…
She pushed open the large, heavy door to the old, French-style house in which the crime scene proper was located. The door opened into a huge, airy foyer in which three uniformed police officers were standing in a circle chatting. Mabel started to greet the officers with her usual large smile, but she didn’t notice the step leading down into the house. Her right foot came down hard on the lower floor and the heavy crime scene case in her right hand pulled her down, causing her to lose her balance completely. She dropped to the floor with a thud and her skirt flew up above her knees. As she tried to get up quickly she searched her brain for a clever joke that would defuse her humiliation. But the sight of two police officers giggling and the third rolling his eyes so hard that it sounded like a slot machine wiped her mind clean of all funny anecdotes or witticisms.
It’s official then. The universe hates me.
‘Doctor Ackerman. When you’re ready?’ Paul Hoffmann was standing in the door of the passage that led to the bedroom in the house and was looking down on her fumbling around on an old wooden floor.
Mabel got up, collected her things and followed Paul to the bedroom in which the body of a young woman was tucked under luxurious white linen and a duvet cover. The grey and white room was almost serene. On both sides of the bed were white night stands with elegant grey lamps and framed picture of what Mabel assumed were friends and family members. The room was clean and appeared unaffected by signs of violence. Even the woman seemed peaceful…sleeping…were it not for the pool of blood that had accumulated on her chest, neck and under her head.
Exsanguination. Little doubt of that.
‘Lady’s a law professor at University of Pretoria. You know her?’ Paul asked.
‘No, we’re on the medical campus. Main campus is on the other side of the city.’
Paul stayed quiet for a moment.
Oh, just go on you douche nozzle, I know what you did, and I know you make up your mind about these things.
Mabel felt her jawline tense up.
‘It looks like she cut her own throat. I didn’t know people could do that. The knife I think she used is over there.’ Paul pointed to a sharp-looking carving knife at the foot of the bed.
‘It’s rare but suicide by cut throat is well documented. I’ve seen a few.’
‘Oh. She had a history of depression and relationship problems. She was seeing a therapist. Clearly not very successfully. Her colleague wasn’t surprised that she would take her own life.’
Mabel walked up the side of the bed closest to the woman’s face. The woman had light brown, longish hair that was drenched in blood. Her face was rigid and very pale, but dotted with blood spatter, as was the linen.
Mabel pulled up the duvet to look at the top part: almost no blood spatter.
‘How was she found?’
‘A colleague phoned the police coz she hadn’t arrived at work for three days. Apparently she’s…she was…a workaholic. First responders found her like this. Duvet was pulled up to her nose. She must’ve become cold when she started losing all the blood.’
‘Left or right-handed?’
‘Was the deceased left or right-handed, Warrant Officer Hoffmann?’ Mabel had never called him by his formal title. She spat out the words.
‘I don’t know. Is it important?’
No, you fish turd. I ask useless questions on crime scenes all the time.
Mabel took out a water bottle from her case. It was one of those squirting bottles. She dosed a good amount of water on the woman’s neck. Not exactly standard operating procedure but Mabel was keen to examine the wound.
‘We just need time of death, Doc.’
Mabel ignored Paul. She bent down, looking at the wound closely. It was a gaping wound that stretched from the left side of the woman’s neck all the way to the right. The pressure on the knife was enough to sever the jugular and carotid vessels, but also the airway. The wound lay 100% horizontally, with the left side of the wound appearing much less deep than the right side. Mabel took her time examining the wound, the areas around the wound, as well as the woman’s hands and arms.
When she was done, she turned to Paul who was standing against the opposing wall, examining his undoubtedly poorly tended fingernails.
‘I know you don’t want to hear this, but this was not a suicide.’
Paul looked up at Mabel and dropped his hands to his sides. At first, he said nothing. Just stared at Mabel. He let out a sigh.
‘Doc, the knife is right there. And the depression. She lived alone and there were no forced entry signs anywhere in this house.’
‘How did the first responders get in?’
‘Warrant Officer Hoffmann, the appropriate response is “excuse me”. Only baboons say “huh”.’
Holy smokes. What the hell am I doing?
Paul remained silent. But Mabel could tell by the muscles jumping in his jaws that he was biting down hard.
‘You said the first responders found her. How did they get in?’
‘Front door. It was apparently closed but unlocked.’
Mabel threw her hands in the air like Cher in Moonstruck.
‘Well isn’t that funny! Law professor – with clearly nooooo idea of the crime situation in this country – leaves her front door unlocked! That happens…how often does that happen, Paul?’
Mabel was screaming now. But Paul was deadpan, no longer biting down on his teeth.
‘Suicidal cut throats normally – but granted not always – have tentative cuts at the beginning point. Small little superficial cuts where the cutter, apparently our wildly irresponsible law professor here, test out the pressure needed to break skin. She has no such cuts. Yet she somehow managed to cut her own throat so deeply that she also severed the trachea!’
Paul glanced in the direction of the woman’s body. He no longer appeared annoyed.
‘Oh, and then there is the little issue of the trajectory of the cut. In suicides or homicides from the back of the victim, the wound runs from higher up to a lower point. This one is perfectly horizontal. So clearly our girl was a surgeon in her previous life!’
‘And when she professionally and perfectly did all this damage, she became cold and pulled up the duvet to her nose to ease the chill. But only after putting the knife down gently at the foot of the bed. Strange then how research would suggest that cutting herself like this would send her into cadaveric spasms, leaving her unable to do anything, let alone arrange her bedding and knife!’
Mabel moved right up to Paul, pointing her finger at no one in particular.
‘Paul, look at the wound. It’s clean. It’s deep. There was no-one cutting her from behind, all the blood spatter is exactly where it should be. Someone stood over her and pressed down hard on the knife.’
Mabel took a breath and continued in a hushed voice.
‘Now you listen to me, you schlump. If you think for one second I’m going to allow you to go behind my back again to declare this woman’s death her fault, you don’t know me at all. I will end you quicker than a tsunami hitting a candle.’
Paul looked down at Mabel. He seemed flabbergasted. Then slightly amused. Then a pensive look crossed his face and Mabel felt slightly surprised that he was not exploding in his own little fit of anger.
‘Yes ma’am,’ he finally said.
[To be continued…]