Authors: Felicity Young
Dody turned on the tap. Gradually, the water flowing over her hands diluted the blood from deep claret to the colour of rosÃ©. She scrubbed the gore from her fingernails and inspected her skin for minute cuts that would require immediate attention. The department would be in serious trouble if she succumbed to the same suppurating sores as her superior, Doctor Bernard Spilsbury. Satisfied she was safe to move on to the next autopsy, she dried her hands on a scratchy towel passed to her by the young attendant, Mr Hutchinson. The tiles beneath her feet wobbled. She looked down to discover a large area of missing grout. Gaslights sputtered from iron brackets. Patches of rust ran bleeding down the damp plaster walls.
Usually she worked from the modernised Paddington Mortuary, but because of Doctor Spilsbury's festering hands, Dody had taken his place, travelling far and wide to those London mortuaries which did not engage their own permanent autopsy surgeons.
Today she found herself in the Commercial Road Mortuary in East End Police District D, under the umbrella of Inspector Fisher, former assistant to Chief Inspector Pike. God, how she wished Pike was standing in Fisher's place now.
Inspector Fisher was having trouble getting into his gown.
âLet me help you, Inspector,' she said as she left the sink to relieve his fumbling fingers from the ties of his white gown. The cover-all barely reached around his massive girth, further padded by his heavy overcoat. Melted snow from his boots formed pools beneath his feet.
âIs it still snowing outside, Inspector?' Dody asked, securing the ties into loose bows.
âIt looks like a feather bed has burst out there, Doctor. It won't be letting up for a while, I don't think.'
As she wrapped her gown around her own slight frame, Dody shivered. She wondered how she would get home that evening â she couldn't expect Fletcher to bring the Benz out in this. Perhaps Pike would meet her here. They could take the underground railway together and find somewhere pleasant and warm to dine. As this
mortuary had no telephone, she would have to write Pike a note and find a boy to take it through the snow to him at Scotland Yard.
Some weeks ago, moments before he had fainted into her arms from blood loss, she had asked Pike to marry her. Her lighter side had speculated that his collapse was caused by the shock of her unconventional proposal, something they would one day laugh about. On the other hand, perhaps he hadn't heard her at all. Her darker side suspected that he had chosen to ignore the proposition altogether.
Dody had not raised the topic again.
Why, she had anguished during the sleepless nights since then, had she turned him down all those years ago? They would be married by now, living off his salary in a middle-class area of London, a baby in the cradle with another on the way. And she would be happy, surely happier than she was at the moment. It was almost her birthday. Soon she would be in her mid thirties and fast approaching the prospect of a barren middle age. She had put her career above everything, including her love for Pike, and was now paying the price for it.
âDoctor?' Fisher broke into her thoughts. âAre you ready?'
âYes, yes, of course.' Dody tightened the scarf around her thick mahogany hair and glanced at the covered body on the slab. âWhose acquaintance do I have the pleasure of making today?'
Fisher's massive shoulders shrugged. He hunched further into his gown-covered coat, his coarse features pulled down by gravity and discomfort. Not everyone was as used to dealing with the dead as Dody was, and it was obvious the man did not wish to be here. She wondered why he had not sent a constable in his stead.
âNo idea who she is, Doctor, and that's my problem. She was found frozen to death down a back alley near the Anchor and Whistle on Hackney Road.'
A vagrant then, Dody thought, but that did not mark the death as unusual, especially at this time of year.
Dody's lack of expression spurred the policeman on. âHave a look at the lady's effects before you start, please, Doctor.' Fisher opened a large brown paper parcel.
âFirst, there's this.' He spread a vermillion silk gown across the trolley as if it were a tablecloth, wafting the smell of gin around the icy air of the mortuary room. Tiny pearls beaded the plunging neckline of the gown.
Hutchinson drew a sharp breath.
On top of the gown Fisher placed a fur coat. Dody ran her hand across the soggy grey fur, once lush and white.
âArctic fox?' she queried.
âLooks like it. And there's more,' Fisher said, clumsily picking items of jewellery from the crown of a flamboyant, lace-confectioned hat: a cross at least two inches long studded with blood red jewels â garnets or rubies, Dody couldn't tell â and a pair of similar-stoned earrings so long they must have once dangled to the woman's jaw.
âGood Lord, Inspector.'
âAnd fine silk underthings from Paris. The hat's from Clarke's in Regent Street and the kidskin boots and gloves are labelled Church's, Northampton. Would you care to inspect them, Doctor?'
âNo, not yet.' Dody spoke quickly as her mind tripped through a series of questions. âI want to know more about this woman. How long had she been in the alleyway next to the public house? Why was someone so well dressed found in such an underprivileged area? Why has the body not been stripped? She would have been easy pickings for the bone grubbers.'
âWhich is why I called you in, Doctor. Normally when we find a person dead from such obvious causes we would not bother the Home Office. But this one throws up more questions than it answers.'
âIt certainly does.' Dody pushed a recalcitrant clump of hair back under her scarf. âI'll get on with it then.'
She pushed the trolley with the clothes out of her way and replaced it with the one holding her equipment. Unsure of the instruments the mortuary could provide, she'd brought several leather instrument boxes with her from home. It had turned out to be a wise move, most of her tools having already proved useful for the previous case. Many of her instruments had been crafted to fit her own small hands, some she had purchased, and some were gifts from a wealthy cousin, famous for having once worked with the Russian jeweller, Faberge. Dody's knife set was the pride of her collection â wooden handled to prevent slippage, Russian steel blades honed and razor sharp. She was pleased to see the care with which Hutchinson had cleaned and polished the blades, laying them out on the trolley in order of length, from cartilage knives down to the small brain knife. She'd also brought with her a bespoke scissor
collection given to her by her parents upon her graduation, and a chisel and several forceps.
âGloves, ma'am?' Hutchinson offered.
Dody hesitated. She regarded the bulky cow-udder-like things the attendant held out to her, her mind flashing to the purulent papules on Spilsbury's hands. Hutchinson seemed competent, but she still had no idea how well the gloves had been washed after their last use.
She would not take the risk. âNo, thank you, Mr Hutchinson,' she said. Besides, she hated to lose the dexterity of her fingers and the sense of touch so vital in her profession.
Bowls of water sat on another trolley, plus needles and thin twine. A Bunsen burner, scales, and some basic laboratory equipment stood on a bench near the sink. Hutchinson ensured that the drainage pipe at the base of the slab was connected, and turned the hose on.
Water gushed forth; they were ready to go.
Hutchinson pulled back the sheet and revealed the body of a deep-breasted woman with a head of well-coiffed auburn curls, a perfect colour match to the luxurious thatch between her legs. The colour of her hair was a startling contrast to her alabaster skin, touched about the arms and chest with freckles so pale the snow might have blown them there as it caressed her to death during the night.
âTake my notes, please, Mr Hutchinson,' Dody said.
Hutchinson picked up a clipboard, pulled a pencil from behind his ear and licked the tip.
âA well-nourished woman of approximately thirty to thirty-five years of age,' Dody dictated, âwith no sign of bruising or blemish on the anterior of the body. No entry or exit wounds.' She prised the legs apart and glanced at the genitals. âAnd no obvious sign of indecent dealings. Help me turn her over, please, Mr Fisher.'
When Fisher failed to move, Dody held back a sigh. Without being asked, Hutchinson handed the clipboard and pencil to the policeman and rolled the woman from a supine to a prone position.
Dody examined the woman's posterior and again found it without blemish or injury. The rectal temperature read 91 degrees. Better take a more accurate liver reading when she opened the abdomen. At Dody's nod, Hutchinson rolled the body back again.
âNo sign of lividity or rigor mortis, Inspector,' she said. âWhen was she found?'
âAt about six o'clock this morning.'
Dody looked at the clock on the wall. It was just past ten.
âShe has not been dead long then, rigor has not yet commenced. I suggest she died not long before she was picked up, or at the police station even.' As Fisher scribbled notes, she added, âWho pronounced her dead?'
âThe police surgeon, Doctor Mason,' Fisher replied.
Dody nodded. She knew the man by reputation as a competent physician.
âVery well then. It is most likely, given the circumstances, that this woman died of hypothermia. The autopsy will proceed in order to rule out any other cause of death.'
Dody scanned the contents of the instrument trolley and selected her medium-sized cartilage knife. She ran the inside of her thumb ninety degrees across the blade, satisfied with the feel of its scrape across the ridges of her skin.
Hutchinson pulled the body into position so that the head hung over the end of the slab to stretch the skin of the neck. The woman's hair cascaded to the floor like a torrent of flames.
Dody moved to the right-hand side of the neck. Holding the knife between her thumb and middle finger and with her index finger on the back of the blade, she pressed into the skin at the angle of the jaw.
At once, the incision beaded with blood.
Two green eyes opened like snapped blinds.
Dody stepped back with a gasp.
The female corpse sat bolt upright and began to scream.
Fisher keeled over like a felled tree.