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Pamela Ebel: When You're Dead, You're Done!

103_ym_whenyouredeadyouredone_hlyon.jpg
Art by Hillary Lyon 2024

When You’re Dead You’re Done!

Pamela Ebel

 

“I figured the chief would put someone low in seniority on this one. You’re the new detective, right? I’m Dr. Daniel Gravois, Chief Coroner.”

He looked up briefly from the body lying on the steel table in front of him. The woman entering the autopsy room pulled her turtleneck sweater up higher.

“Yeah, it gets pretty cold in here. Takes a long time to get used to it. Of course, it also cuts down on the various odors.”

The new arrival moved to the table and looked at the corpse of a young woman with chestnut hair framing an angular face. Though her thin body was now almost devoid of color her neck still bore the purple-bluish marks of the fingers that had ended her life.

Blues eyes stared up into the void the dead pass through. Always wishing she could enter there, sure the person who had taken this life would be seen, Corla Cross continued to study the young woman as she answered.

“It’s nice to meet you too, Dr. Gravois. I am Corla Cross. special agent of the State’s Bureau of Investigation. I am here at the request of Chief of Police Patterson. Is there a reason the chief wouldn’t want someone with substantial experience on this case?”

“You are definitely from out of town if you have to ask that question. Do you know how many murders we have in this city each week, Detective Cross?”

“Special Agent Cross, and at the moment, doctor, you are averaging about four to five murders a week.”

“Correct, and with limited personnel in the Homicide Division, our seasoned staff are assigned to high profile cases. Dandria Capple here, was just another young woman roaming the streets she knew were dangerous at night. That being said, I am surprised the Chief would ask for help on such a low-profile case.” 

Corla looked up from Dandria Capple into the coroner’s face. His eyes were almost as devoid of life as those of the young woman on the table that separated them.

 A danger of being on the job to long? She hoped that explained his attitude.

“Dr. Gravois, my file on this murder indicates that it is one of six over an eight- month period; that all of the victims were young women; that they died in the same general location and lived in the same general neighborhood. My report further shows that it was your conclusion that the previous five victims died of asphyxia due to strangulation. And when I met with Chief Patterson earlier this morning, he stated you concluded that the bruising on Ms. Capple’s neck appears consistent with strangulation in the same manner?”

“Oh! Now I get it. The Chief is responding to the media pushing the suggestion that these killings are the same as that spate of murders twenty years ago. I pointed out to him that ‘similar’ is not the same as ‘exactly’ when looking at the methodology of the perpetrator.  Also, what something appears to be, is not always the actual cause of a death. The killer wears gloves so, no traceable DNA samples. He also appears to surprise the victims from behind and subdue them. We never found any tissues or bodily fluids under the victim’s finger nails or other body parts or on their clothes. He was a clever killer.  But really! You seriously think that person would appear after twenty years?”

“Eighteen young women died over a two-year period and the killer was never identified or apprehended. I see no reason not to consider that the same person is possibly active again.  At any rate, the Chief has asked the bureau for help and I’m it. That means Dandria Capple will join the other twenty-four young women and their families who are waiting for justice. They’re part of my world now. If you will excuse me, I need to meet with Ms. Capple’s family.”

“I’m just about to start on the autopsy, detective, uh Special Agent. Don’t you want to stay for the exciting part of a murder case? Or don’t you have the stomach for it?”

Corla paused briefly to look at Gravois before continuing to the exit door. Chief of Police Eric Patterson stood in the shadows. They nodded to each other and as she left the chief walked over to his coroner.

“Eric, I’m surprised to see you down here. Keeping an eye on the Special Agent? I don’t know if she will be of any help if she can’t watch an autopsy.”  

“Dan, it is a damn good thing your patients are all dead because you wouldn’t have a practice with live ones with that bedside manner. I wanted to look at the victim and then I will be joining Agent Cross and the family. And there is something else you should know. Corla Cross would not be a bit bothered by observing or even conducting an autopsy. Harvard’s School of Medicine, from which she graduated with honors, requires all doctors to conduct autopsies before getting a degree. She also has a specialty in psychiatric forensic investigations with an emphasis on cases involving sequential killings. She volunteered her services and we are lucky to have her. Perhaps she’ll join you another day, but as she noted, we has twenty-five victims waiting for justice and a killer that needs to be stopped. Have a good day, Dan.”

Chief Patterson exited the autopsy room with Dr. Dan Gravois staring after him, scalpel raised and mouth open.

# # #

 

Corla looked into the swollen face of Dandria Capple’s sister, Patricia, who held her two-year-old niece, Krista. They had the same chestnut hair and blue eyes as the dead girl.

“I can’t believe she’s gone. Who would want to hurt her? To strangle her to death? Danny loved everyone and she took such good care of Krista. Even though there was just the two of them, she was a good mother. Who is going to take care of Krista now?”

“What about Krista’s father or his family? Can’t they help?”

“Right. Mr. Wonderful. He disappeared as soon as he heard Danny was pregnant. She hasn’t seen him since. He joined the army and is out of the country somewhere and Danny never heard from his family. Our parents are both dead. We had to go into foster care when we were little. Danny swore that would never happen to Krista. Now! Now what?”

“You said that Dandria worked six days a week and went to college classes three nights a week. Who took care of her at those times?”

“I took care of Krista at night when Danny went to school. She just got her associate’s degree and signed up to finish the bachelor’s degree to become an RN. She works for a firm that has their own day care. I have three kids of my own and I don’t know how I am going to be able to keep Krista all the time.”

Krista turned her blue eyes on Corla as she patted her aunt’s shoulder. No tears there. Just a look of concern and determination.

As Chief Patterson appeared and sat next to her, Corla leaned forward and slid a set of papers across the table.

“These are the forms that you will need to complete to give you temporary custody of Krista. It will allow you to care for her needs while Child Protective Services works through a plan for her future. In the meantime, I intend to find the person who took Dandria away from both of you. That’s a promise.”

“Mrs. Tucci, I’m Chief Patterson. I know this is a bad time but we need a positive identification of your sister. We have a special room with a glass partition. All you will see is her face.”

He rose and held out his hand.

“Krista. I can’t take her in there.”

Tears rolled down her face and the child touched them and kissed her aunt.

“I’ll take care of her.”

 Corla stood, walked around the table, and held out her arms and smiled.

“How would you like to get a coke, Krista? And maybe a doughnut?”

The child gave Corla a serious look, checked with her aunt who nodded yes, and then rose into the special agent’s arms.

# # #

A week later Corla had a detailed chronological chart of the original eighteen murders. The cold case file notes brought those victims into the present. Their photos and those of the six recent victims, including Dandria Capple, sat front and center on the bulletin board facing her desk. Chief Patterson sat across from her as she ran down the facts.

“The first eighteen were in their late teens or early twenties. All of them worked full-time jobs, were taking classes at the local junior college, lived in the same geographical location and knew each other in a casual fashion. They rode the same bus that dropped them off near the site where their bodies were found, and all were single mothers. They left behind a total of twenty-two children. Fifteen of them ended up in foster care. The four babies were all placed in adoptive homes and the other three children seemed to have fallen off the radar screen soon after their mothers died.”

“That’s a heavy burden, isn’t it? Not just the women’s deaths but all of those children losing their family unit.”

 Chief Patterson stood and stared out the window. Corla joined him as they quietly considered the facts.

“What about our newest victims. Any similarities to the first group?”

“The current six victims appear to be more diverse. They did live near each other, in an area near the riverbank where they died, and used the public transit to go to and from their homes. However, the first three had dropped out of junior college and did not work because they were single mothers and had no childcare options. The other three, including Dandria Capple, were single mothers who both worked and were attending the local JC. They had a network of family and friends to help them.”

They moved to the bulletin board where photos provided by family or friends were displayed. They showed young women smiling, their worlds filled with possibilities and futures still ahead of them.

“Chief, I see the obvious similarities between these victims, but there is something else underneath. I know it. I just need a few more days to line things up.”

“That’s fine. I think our victims can wait a bit longer for an answer.”

“What happened to the nineteenth victim, the one that survived twenty years ago? I didn’t find much paperwork on her in the files.”

“I was just a rookie back then. My partner and I took that call. A cab driver had just dropped off a ride and was headed back to the main road. He called in to the dispatcher that a woman with no top on was wandering around the riverbank but ran away when he called out to her. We responded and found her under the bridge. She had the bruises on her neck consistent with being strangled. She told us she was walking home from the bus and didn’t see the man because he attacked her from behind. The cab apparently scared him away. We took her to the emergency room and parked. When we went into the waiting room she was gone. We never could find her. She just vanished.”

“What about the security guard at the junior college that was a suspect. What happened to him?”

“Chris Green. We were never able to build a solid case against him. Most of the information was hearsay and many of the ‘informants’ wouldn’t make formal statements. He was placed on administrative leave for six months after the last attack. He went back to work at the college but said he couldn’t deal with the attitudes of everyone on campus. He moved and there were no further attacks until recently. Last I heard he was working private security in Missouri and there had been no cases like these there.”

“Do we keep tabs on him?”

“I don’t think we stayed on him after a couple of years. I’m not sure where he is.’

“Well, right now he is here in the city and has been for five days.”

Corla and Patterson turned to see Daniel Gravois standing in the doorway. She looked into the coroner’s eyes and saw a challenge she couldn’t quite place.

“Since Green fled the city and the killings stopped, I decided to keep my own investigation of him going. I mean, it should be obvious that his departure and the end to the murders are connected. And for your information Green started returning to the city because his father is ill. The murders started again when he began visiting regularly.”

“Dan, I can’t believe what I am hearing. You had this information, and you didn’t tell me so that we could put a tail on Green. How many more young women were you going to let die before sharing this with me?”

“Eric, I was not aware that my duties as coroner include doing the grunt work for your homicide department. And I wasn’t sure that this wasn’t just coincidence and didn’t want to get sued. I. . .”

Corla moved swiftly until she was face to face with Gravois. She spoke in a strong whisper.

“Why are you telling us now? Why did you suddenly decide to share your suspicions, Doctor? Was it my presence that caused you to be concerned about Green now?”

 She got the response she anticipated.

“I could care less about your presence, detective. Oh, excuse me – Special Agent. You should be thankful that I did my due diligence and have delivered your serial killer all wrapped up in a bow right to your office.”

Gravois threw a file on Corla’s desk.

“I have my own work to do right now.”

“Yes, like finally getting me Dandria Capple’s autopsy report!”

“I told you that I am backed up with the detritus piling up downstairs.”

They watched him stomp down the hall.

“Why the push on Capple’s autopsy? Do you think there will be something to see that will distinguish her death from the others?”

“It’s what I don’t expect to see that I am interested in. You’ve heard of Locard’s Exchange Principle in forensic evidence?”

“Yes, but I don’t think we’ve ever used it”.

“Well Chief, the basic tenet is that a criminal leaves something at the scene and takes something from it. Either one or both exchanges become silent witnesses to the crime, never forget and can’t be manipulated. I’ve looked at the reports from all twenty-four women and there may be something that was overlooked, particularly from those deaths that occurred before we had strong forensic tools. Once I see Dandria’s report, I will let you know what I found.”

 “I’ll pay Gravois a visit right now. You can pick that up this afternoon.”

Back at her bulletin board Corla Cross moved down three rows of photos looking at each one carefully and remembering their bios. She ended her review with Dandria Capple’s smiling face in her mortarboard and gown at her graduation. She leaned in studying the photo, straightened up, took her written bio chart, and drew lines into a central bullseye circle. Turning to the computer she did a new search, then sat back shaking her head.

The first thing they teach in the study of the criminal mind is that the obvious answer is the one usually missed. But not this time. This time will be the last time.

She placed an overseas call, waited for the email to send the confirmed answer to her inquiry, then grabbed her brief case, placed the new evidence in it and headed to the coroner’s office.

# # #

The autopsy room was empty, and Cross pulled her turtle neck sweater up around her neck as she walked toward the main office.

“Well, if it isn’t the Complainer to the Chief. I have already had a visit from Patterson. I’ll tell you what I told him. I will have the Capple final report first thing in the morning, and not a moment sooner.”

Dr. Dan Gravois stared at Corla from behind his desk. She smiled, set her briefcase on the floor, and looked around his office. There were the usual diplomas and professional accolades. The only photos were of Gravois in groups from ‘Doctors Without Borders’ and some of banquet events.

“That’s alright doctor. As it turns out I have a new lead that I have to follow up on. Tomorrow morning will be fine.”

“Don’t tell me someone is finally going to check out Chris Green?”

“The chief and I just talked about that. He is putting a team on it right now. I really have to go. I need to get to the scene of the most recent murders before it gets to dark. I think there may be some clues that have been overlooked. Thanks again.”

Leaving quickly, she left her briefcase sitting on the floor.

# # #

Corla walked the most recent killing fields as the sun began to set. She used a map that noted where the six victims were found to look over the ground at each site, saving Dandria’s for last. Her body had been found closest to the river and Corla could smell the brackish water and hear the fast-moving current.

She closed her eyes and summoned the pictures of the twenty-five women and pulled the turtleneck sweater up near her ears.

She heard the sound of breaking branches and the small shuffle of footsteps and felt hands close around her neck. As she was jerked backward off balance her taser came out of her pocket and hit the surgical gloved hands. With a surprised yell the hands fell away.

Turning sharply Corla tased the masked figure twice as he shouted obscenities and fell to the ground. She used his temporary immobility to flip him over and place hand cuffs on him. As the attacker regained enough momentum to turn back over, he kicked at Corla. Anticipating that move she tased him again then looked into the face of Danial Gravois.

“I’ve been waiting for you, doctor. I knew you couldn’t resist another opportunity to kill such an ‘easy target’. That’s your MO, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know what you are talking about. There is no MO. I was just out here because I got worried about you roaming around a murder scene by yourself. And I will certainly tell them about your wild use of force and inability to react with restraint in a dangerous situation. I will see that they pull your badge.”

“I kept looking for the connection between the women killed and the murderer. All of them were working toward associate degrees at the junior college and planning to enter nursing school.”

“That’s right and its why Chris Green is the murderer. He worked as a security guard at the college. He even said he knew some of those women pretty well. You should be off investigating him. Now let me up!”

“You counted on throwing me off with Green, but he wasn’t the only one that worked at the campus. All of those women needed a passing grade in the required anatomy class. I checked and they were all on your rosters. The same for the most recent six victims, including Dandria.”

With the taser effects wearing off Gravois moved his feet under him in a quick move to stand and was met by Corla’s steel-toed riding boot in his groin. He gasped but continued to try to get up.

“What was it doctor? I’m betting you tried to date all of those women and didn’t get anywhere. You’ve never married and I think you tried to use the grading pencil to get compliance and when that didn’t work you decided to eliminate them.”

“Those women were unmarried but they had children. Obviously, they were having sex with men who didn’t care. They should have been flattered to be involved with a medical professional with a career. But you’re forgetting one thing. There was no trace evidence left at any of those scenes.  You can’t implicate me.”

“That’s where I almost failed to see the obvious in my investigation. I just assumed you had done those autopsies twenty years ago. Then I saw that the previous chief coroner performed all of them. A foot note for each one indicated the bruise marks left on the victims’ throats indicated that the killer had a weakened index finger on the left hand. Reading your autopsy reports of the most recent victims there is no mention of the left finger indentation difference. But the state coroner is examining Dandria’s neck bruising as we speak and I believe that left hand issue will appear.”

“You are going to be sorry about this, you crazy bitch. I didn’t note bruising differences because there were none. More to the point, my hands are just fine. If you remove the handcuffs, I’ll show you.”

“Not going to happen, Gravois. Your medical school report shows that you weren’t able to get a position as a surgeon because an injury suffered during a college football game prevented full use of your left hand.”

   “Still makes no difference because all of those twenty are long gone. There is no way to prove that their killer had some hand issue from a foot note. If your theory is correct, what was I doing for the twenty years between killings? Taking a vacation”

Gravois struggled to stand again, shouting at Corla. Her eyes narrowed.

“Another piece of evidence I almost missed. You couldn’t resist looking in my briefcase, which is why I left it in your office. Your absence from this killing field was definitely not a vacation and the photos on your wall will prove it.”

“You are crazier than I thought. What do those photos prove?”

“They’ll prove that you used your time at ‘Doctors Without Borders’ as an escape route. You joined them six months after you lost your suspect coverage when Green retired and moved to Missouri. You traveled around the world for fifteen years, Interpol confirms at least one unsolved strangulation case in the ports you visited. I’m betting they will find more now that they know what to look for.” 

“I have been back here five years with no murders. What was I supposed to be doing if I’m the murderer?”

“Simple. You were running for the office of Chief Coroner and getting back into your teaching position at the junior college. Once you heard Green had started returning to visit his father you had the perfect setup to start again. The class rosters will show the six recent victims were in your college classes, just like the rest.”

“I will deny all of this and there will just be your word against mine, Cross.”

“Dr. Cross, Special Agent, to you Gravois. Remember it and my face because you aren’t going to get a chance to tell any more lies or do any more harm to women who are just trying to better themselves and take care of their children. My mother, Evelyn Crossland, was one of the eighteen women you murdered twenty years ago. You killed a wonderful woman who gave me a loving home and everything I needed, I was fifteen and they wanted to put me in foster care because we didn’t have any family.”

“And I’m supposed to feel bad for you? Looks like you did just fine for yourself without her.”

“Wrong doctor. I lived a nightmare for months after her death. I disappeared so that they couldn’t put me in foster care. I lived on the street for a while and with friends that helped me hide. Still, there were two more murders after hers.”

Gravois stopped struggling and looked at her. Fear began to replace outrage. That fear increased as Corla pulled down the turtleneck to expose her own neck.

“That’s right doctor, I made mom a promise that I would end it. I would have been your nineteenth victim and I have the scars to prove it, including the indentation mark for the left-hand index finger. I would have been your last in that series, except that cab came along and you didn’t have the balls to stay. I was the one that got away.”

“Well, I suggest you call for backup and then we will see what happens in court. In the meantime, I am going to stand up and you had better not try to stop me.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it, doctor.”

Gravois got to his feet and turned around with a growl.

“You are going to look very foolish when this is all over, Cross. When I tell them how you attacked me and….”

“You aren’t going to be telling anyone anything doctor.”  

“You aren’t making any sense. Call for backup.”

She pulled her service revolver.

“You can’t kill me. I deserve my day in court and you are an officer of the law.”

“I will have done my duty. You attacked me and gave me no choice but to protect myself. I’ll be sure they know how you followed me here when you found the evidence I left in my briefcase in your office.”  

As Gravois lunged at her Corla’s bullet hit him in the chest. He fell to his knees and then to his side. She watched as he struggled to breathe. Walking over, she released the hand cuffs and pushed Gravois to his back with her foot. He clutched his chest.

“You see, like those wonderful women whose lives you took, you aren’t going to have a chance to tell anyone anything anymore. You won’t get to see the sun come up or the days end. Most importantly, you won’t get to troll for more unsuspecting women and take them from their children. You should know that I am going to serve as Krista Capple’s foster parent and intend to adopt her. That means one more single mother that you won’t be able to hurt. I will also have done my duty by ending any chance you might have of getting out of this”

Gravois looked up at her as the light began to fade from his eyes.

“There are two rules that you should know better than anyone, doctor. One is Locard’s Exchange Principle. You brought your hand to the crime scenes and left those indentations and you took that evidence away from every murder scene and your work record came in and out of each too. Both of those were ‘silent witnesses’ to your crimes.”

Bending down to check his pulse and finding none, Corla pulled out her cell phone and called for backup. She looked down at Gravois one more time then walked to the river’s edge.

“The second rule you should have known is that when you’re dead you’re done. And you doctor, are definitely done.”

Pamela Ebel has been published in Shotgun Honey, The BOULD AWARDS 2020 Anthology, as well other venues. Her poetry has appeared in the Delta Poetry Review. A native of California, she now concentrates on tales from her original home state and tales from the highways of the South. She also knows, like the Ancient Greeks and the Irish, that as a southern writer you can’t outrun your blood.

She has turned to writing full time as of 2020, obviously either perfect or bizarre timing, and this will be her fifth career. She lives in Metairie, Louisiana, with her husband and two cats.

Hillary Lyon is an illustrator for horror/sci-fi and pulp fiction websites and magazines, and the Art Director at Black Petals Horror/Science Fiction Magazine. She is also founder and senior editor for the independent poetry publisher, Subsynchronous Press. An SFPA Rhysling Award nominated poet, her poems have appeared in journals such as Eternal Haunted Summer, Jellyfish Whispers, Scfifaikuest, Illya’s Honey, and Red River Review, as well as numerous anthologies. Her short stories have appeared recently in Night to Dawn, Yellow Mama, Black Petals, Sirens Call, and Tales from the Moonlit Path, among others, as well as in numerous horror anthologies such as Night in New Orleans: Bizarre Beats from the Big EasyThuggish Itch: Viva Las Vegas, and White Noise & Ouija Boards. She appeared, briefly, as the uncredited "all-American Mom with baby" in Purple Cactus Media’s 2007 Arizona indie-film, "Vote for Zombie." Having lived in France, Brazil, Canada, and several states in the US, she now resides in southern Arizona.  

https://hillarylyon.wordpress.com/

In Association with Black Petals & Fossil Publications 2024