Today I received word that my short story, “The Burial of John Doe,” received an Honorable Mention in the Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction contest. Now that may not sound like a big deal to you, but it was a nice shot in the arm for me. Publishers want to hear something about your writing credentials when you approach them about a book, so even an honorable mention is helpful. I’m going to post the story on this blog and share it with you all. Hope you enjoy it.
Teaching and the holidays have pulled me away from “Seven Secrets,” but I’ll be getting back to that in short order. I actually have missed writing and am anxious to finish this book. I’ll let you know when it’s done.
In the meantime, have a very Merry Christmas and a happy, prosperous New Year. God bless us, everyone. Including the John Does.
The Burial of John Doe
Half an hour into his shift, Steven Rogers turned his face towards the red brick building that housed the offices of the County Coroner. The wind was brutal, and shivering, he pulled the collar of his jacket up around his neck. Cold gusts made it hard to light his cigarette. The fourth attempt finally successful, he took a long, deep pull on his Marlboro and chased it with a gulp of coffee. He faced back out to survey the trees, releasing their leaves like gold and red raindrops; there would be few left on the oaks and maples by the end of the day.
Two shootings had occurred overnight, and the victims lay on slabs inside, waiting for Doc Evans to show up for work. Thirty-six murders in eleven months. Rogers kept the statistics for the Ohio Department of Health and assisted Doc with the autopsies. He was usually the first voice on the phone when a death got called in, whether it was a reportable death from a hospital or the police. He carried his phone with him at all times; the Coroner’s Investigator knew no time clock. He took another drag on his cigarette.
He heard the phone ringing inside the office. “Shit,” he muttered and stubbed the cigarette butt out with the toe of his boot. He pulled open the heavy door and rushed to pick up the landline. “Coroner’s Office,” he said, matter-of-fact.
“Steve, is that you? This is Lisa. I’ve got one for you.” The voice on the other end of the line was his friend, Detective Lisa Long. She had been with the Toledo Police Department for as long as he had been in the Coroner’s office. They had dated briefly, a decade ago. She was Lisa Smithers then; long, unruly, sandy hair, soft skin, and patience until a point. When she ran out of patience, they broke up, though they never stopped being friends.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! We’ve already got a couple of corpses in here that Doc hasn’t even started on yet. What’s this one?” Rogers blurted out.
“Yeah, I know about those two…drug-related, we’re pretty sure. Wild West shoot-out. This one’s a John Doe…no identification on the body and none of the usual suspects down here recognize him. Found him in an alley off Madison around 19th Street. We don’t see anything suspicious – honestly, it looks like he just fell asleep in the alley, leaning up against a brick wall. The body is pretty rigid, but maybe just a little movable? I don’t know. I’m guessing he’s been here eight hours or so. Can you come down?”
“I’ll be there in twenty.” He hung up and looked around the squat, dusty office, stacks of papers everywhere. Glancing out a window that probably hadn’t been cleaned in years, he saw no sign of Doc’s car in the parking lot. He texted Doc about what was happening and left for downtown Toledo in the Murder Mobile, a vehicle he had called the Body Buggy before murders outnumbered general reportable deaths.
Thinking about what he was getting ready to walk into, he prepared himself mentally for the scene and how to process it. It wasn’t his first John Doe. A cynic about the state of the world, he usually ended up concluding that the John Does were drifters from Detroit or from out in the sticks, thinking they could somehow do better for themselves in Toledo. A lot of them had drugs or excessive amounts of alcohol in their system. He had grown insensitive to the whole issue of John Does. But not Doc. Over the years, Rogers had marveled at how Doc worked his butt off to try to figure out the identity of each John or Jane Doe. He had many successes thanks to technology, but some of the time, Doc Evans was flummoxed in his attempts. Rogers understood why Doc made such an effort – it was part of his job – but there was a point where, really, you just had to give it up. Bury the poor stiff and call it a day.
Rogers arrived at Madison and 19th. Three TPD cars were on the scene, lights flashing. Tape was up to cordon off a relatively small area. No matter what, each scene had to be investigated as a murder till proven to be otherwise. He parked the Murder Mobile and grabbed his gear, heading for where 2017’s John Doe Number Two was half lying, half sitting.
“Hey, Steve. Thanks for getting here so quickly. I thought it would take you longer, and it’s cold as heck out here, so your timing is superb,” Lisa greeted him. She had cut her hair and had put on a couple of pounds over the years, but that smile…that never changed. Why hadn’t he been a better boyfriend? He tried to remember.
He smiled. “Hey there, Detective. Well, take me to your leader. Oh wait; that’s probably you.” Rogers decided it best to focus on his work and not lament his missed opportunity with Lisa. She walked by his side to John Doe. The guy did look like he had just settled down with his back against the crumbling brick. His eyes were closed, his jaw was slack, and his hands were folded in his lap. He could just as easily have been sitting in a recliner, taking a nap. Except for the bluish cast to his skin, Rogers almost expected John Doe to start snoring. Small pieces of red brick and brick dust were in his hair and on his tattered gray coat. Rogers carefully inspected for a possible head wound, but found none. In fact, after his full preliminary exam, Rogers stood up and declared, “I don’t see anything shady here at all. Of course, Doc gets to make the final determination, but there’s nothing obvious.”
Lisa spoke up. “Ok, well, we have found nothing around the scene that points to foul play at all. Absolutely nothing. No needles, no other suspicious items; nothing. You gonna take him back to the office?”
“Yeah. I’ll bag him up. Can you guys help me?” Rogers inquired.
“Hey, Dave,” Lisa called her partner. “Come over here and help us get this guy in the bus.”
John Doe couldn’t lie completely flat, making the job of bagging him up a little more complicated than usual. Maybe between eight and twelve hours now, Rogers thought to himself. Between the three investigators, they finally got a rigid John Doe into a black, zippered body bag and lifted him onto a stretcher, which had been lowered almost to the ground. They pulled the stretcher back up to transport height and put the body in the Murder Mobile.
“Thanks, Steve. Hey, you gotta come out on the boat with me and Jimmy next summer, ok?” Lisa flashed a blizzard-white smile at Steve – a smile that had always grabbed hard at his heart.
“Sure, sure. You just name the day,” he answered, though he knew she’d never call and he’d never go even if she did.
He pulled slowly into traffic, glancing back in his rearview mirror as Lisa and Dave started taking down the crime scene tape and finishing up their business on Madison and 19th. Lisa…what might have been? He shook his head back and forth to clear the cobwebs of memory and drove down Monroe.
Doc’s car was now in the parking lot, along with Shane Parker’s mini-van. Parker was young, happily married, and too enthusiastic about life for Steve’s tastes. This guy was going to be his replacement in a few years, though, so Rogers tolerated him and tried to teach him everything he could. Rogers often wondered how long Doc would work. Doc was approaching eighty years on this earth – forty-five of them in this job – and another election wouldn’t be for two years. Could he hold out that long? He was coming to work later and later all the time, looking bedraggled every single day. Doc didn’t have much spark since his Mattie died back in 2010. Rogers didn’t know why he continued to hang on to this line of work unless it was distraction from his mourning.
Rogers entered the building. “Hey, Shane. Come help me with this body. Where’s Doc? Is he already working?”
“No, but he’s about ready to. Golly, he just got here a couple of minutes ago. He looked like he could hardly walk – his back must be bothering him again today,” Shane replied.
“Well, one of us needs to be in there with him, anyway, so let’s get this guy on a slab,” Rogers answered, curt, business-like.
John Doe in his new location, Rogers went into the autopsy room where Doc was looking at the toe tag of one of the gunshot victims.
“How many more of these do you suppose I’ll see before I retire?” Doc asked Rogers.
“Depends on when you retire, Doc. If you retire today, none. If you retire tomorrow, very possibly more.” Rogers smiled at the old physician. “I just brought you the John Doe from downtown, too…the guy I texted you about…but that one’s likely to be pretty straightforward.”
“John Doe, huh? Those always wear me down.” Doc shook his head. “Wonder where this one’s family is. Someone’s surely missing him.”
Rogers didn’t answer. Doc was always hopeful he could find a family. Rogers wasn’t so hopeful these days. The drug problem was out of control, splitting families apart like atoms bouncing around in a particle accelerator.
“We’ll find someone somewhere. Let’s get to work,” Doc said.
A full day of autopsies…the shooting victims had taken six hours each. Deputy Coroner Julie Barnett had worked on the younger of the two victims, and Shane had assisted her. It had been a very long and arduous day of documentation and evidence-gathering in order to provide the County Prosecutor accurate information. Though it was nearly dark, the work wasn’t done.
Doc pulled himself up out of a beat-up wooden office chair that looked like it belonged to the 1920s. Rogers could envision an old accountant, visor on, green banker’s lamp shining dimly over reams of ledgers, sitting in that chair. “Let’s go ahead and do John Doe,” Doc said.
“Ok,” Shane bubbled.
“Oh, come on, Doc,” Rogers spoke up. “John Doe can wait till tomorrow. Aren’t you exhausted?”
“Yeah, Doc. Go on home,” Julie told him. “I’ll do him first thing in the morning.”
Doc seemed to consider this. His eyes drooped, partly from heavy lids, but mostly from fatigue. He pulled at his mustache for a second, then scratched his head directly over his right parietal bone.
“No, no. Someone’s trying to find this guy and we need to get him identified. I can probably do this one all by myself. Why don’t the rest of you go home? Shane, go give that wife of yours a kiss from me. Julie, go fix your kids supper for a change. Steve, go have a beer with someone,” Doc intoned.
The three looked awkwardly around the room, each waiting for one of the others to speak up.
“Doc, I’ll stay with you. I don’t want a beer, nor do I need a beer,” Rogers lied, patting his abdomen.
“Only if you insist,” Doc answered. Rogers realized that while Doc would never have said it out loud, he actually wanted him to stay.
Shane left without another minute’s hesitation, and Julie puttered around at her desk till Doc left the room.
“What are we going to do with him?” she said, sotto voce. “He’s going to have a heart attack or a stroke one of these days. He needs to retire. Why doesn’t he? You’ve known him longer than any of us. Why is he still hanging on to all this?”
“I wish I could tell you. I don’t have a clue. He’s never really talked about his intentions in that regard. I sometimes think the house is too lonely for him without Mattie,” Rogers replied.
“Let’s get him a dog for Christmas…maybe that would give him some companionship,” Julie said. “If the house is too lonely, he can have my kids, too.” She laughed softly. “Nah, let’s stick with the dog. I’d be lost without the rug rats.”
“Go home,” Rogers smiled. “Go feed the rug rats.”
She put on her coat, wrapped a tartan plaid scarf around her neck and said, “Don’t let him work too long, ok?”
“Only till we’re done,” Rogers replied, watching as she checked the lock on the door and walked out into the cold, late autumn evening.
Rogers watched Julie make it safely to her car. The sun was almost completely gone, but there was enough light to see that his earlier prediction had come true…there were barely any leaves left on the trees in the wooded area next to the office. He sighed heavily and turned to head into the morgue. John Doe wouldn’t get himself on the autopsy table.
The body remained rigid. This guy has to have died within the last twenty-four hours, anyway, Rogers thought to himself. He took the body to the autopsy room and with Doc’s help, placed John Doe on the stainless-steel table. Rogers took photographs of the body fully clothed, and then stripped off the rag-tag clothing and placed it in evidence bags. Photos of the nude body were completed. Doc was already gowned up, had rubbed some Vicks under his nose, and put on his face shield; these days you had to be more careful than ever about splashes from body fluids. He began his external examination, adjusting the microphone he had clipped to his surgical garb so that it would pick up his voice.
“This is November 8, 2017,” he began, glancing up at a clock high on the wall. “It is 6:15 p.m. Examination by John D. Evans, M.D., Lucas County Coroner. Coroner’s assistant Steven Rogers. This is case number 47-1033, John Doe Number Two for calendar year 2017. The deceased is a Caucasian male, approximately sixty-five to seventy years old. The body is somewhat emaciated. Length of the body is….” He paused while Rogers measure John Doe’s height.
“Seventy-one inches,” Rogers told him.
“Seventy-one inches long,” Doc continued. “Rigor mortis is present in the extremities and somewhat in the torso.” Doc looked at the body from the top of his head to the soles of his feet. “There are no scars, bruises, or other signs of trauma. Skin is fully intact anterior side.” He paused again. “Help me roll him, Steve.”
Rogers snapped on a pair of gloves and helped Doc roll John Doe up on his side. Like rolling a log, Rogers thought, keeping that thought to himself. Doc would never tolerate anything close to disrespect.
“No visible signs of trauma posterior, either – no bruising, scrapes, scars, etc. Skin is fully intact posterior.”
They placed the body back in the supine position on the table. Doc took a DNA swab from inside John Doe’s mouth. Blood was drawn for toxicology. Rogers took fingerprints to send to the state along with the pictures and DNA sample. The Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation would process them through federal databases, hoping to identify the decedent somewhere along the line.
Doc examined the chest for rib fractures. Finding none, he picked up a scalpel and made the standard “Y” incision to open John Doe’s chest and abdomen. He removed the trachea, heart, lungs, and esophagus, placing them in a silver basin lined with a transparent plastic bag. He separated the organs, weighing each one, dictating the whole time, a soliloquy of death. When he examined the heart, he paused.
“Reposition that light,” Doc said, nodding his head towards the overhead surgical lamp. Rogers did as he was told.
“Let’s slice through this. His heart feels like a stone.” Doc was intent on John Doe’s heart, turning it over in his hands carefully, looking attentively through the lower part of his bifocals. Rogers handed him a new scalpel, and Doc began slicing through the heart like he was slicing through warm butter.
“New scalpel, eh? Nice,” Doc said. “This all goes so much better when you don’t have to work too hard at the dissection.”
A few slices of myocardium and a few minutes of examination…the room was quiet except for the drone of the ventilation system and the ticking of the clock on the wall. Rogers glanced up. It was 7:30.
“This man has had a massive myocardial infarction. The left main coronary artery is full of plaque. Look; here’s a huge thrombus in the left ventricle. I think we have our answer.” Doc looked up. “I don’t really think we need to go any farther with this one. Mystery solved. Well, at least one of them.”
“You don’t want to continue the exam?” Rogers asked.
“I don’t see the use. This right here is what killed him, I have no doubt,” Doc said. “Let’s let this poor soul rest in peace until we can find out who he is.”
“Ok by me,” Rogers replied. They placed the organs back into John Doe’s chest cavity and closed the “Y” with heavy suture. Once their work on the body was done, they placed him back in the cooler and cleaned up. Doc dictated the rest of his report, and Rogers finished up the other extraneous paperwork for the state. By the time they were ready to go, the clock on the wall said 9:15.
“Jesus, I’m tired,” Rogers said.
“Yes, well, it goes with our territory, doesn’t it? You know, I hope they can find out who this guy is,” Doc said. “Otherwise, it’s another pauper’s funeral to attend.”
“You go to the funeral?” Rogers was shocked. “Why do you do that?”
“Somebody has to be there besides the pastor,” Doc said, like it was the most natural thing in the world.
“So it’s just you and the minister on these John Doe burials?” Rogers was incredulous.
“Who else is gonna go?” Doc asked with a shrug. “It may as well be me. I’d like to think someone would do it for me if I ever ended up as a John Doe.”
Rogers watched as Doc picked up his hat and coat. It was getting harder and harder for the older man to function normally in the activities of daily life, let alone keep up the kind of work he was called to do. Doc looked like he hadn’t slept in a month. He was pale and frail, and it suddenly hit Rogers that Doc was afraid to quit. Who would go to the John Doe funerals? And not working might mean his own demise. Who would come to his funeral? Rogers could see it playing out in Doc’s mind. He had worked with the man for a long, long time.
“G’night, Doc,” Rogers said. “Be careful going home, and get some sleep, will ya? I’ll see to things in the morning with the Bureau. I’ll get all the info to them first thing so they can get going on the DNA testing.”
“Ok, thanks, Steve. You get some rest, too. You’re here as much as I am. Don’t spend your whole life with the dead. You’ll have plenty of time for that later.” Doc chuckled at his own dark joke.
While four weeks went by without a word from the Bureau of Criminal Investigation, John Doe remained on a slab in the cooler. There was nothing else that could be done till some word was received from the state. With a whole month passing, Rogers knew that Doc was thinking it was inevitable; another pauper’s funeral. May as well get it booked with the preacher. Normal daily work went on; shootings, drug deaths, traumas. There was never a scarcity of bodies.
Finally, on December 7, the phone rang. The Bureau had some news – no news. There was nothing in any database that anyone could find on John Doe. DNA couldn’t be matched. Fingerprints couldn’t be matched. John Doe would remain John Doe for all intents and purposes, his life having only an end date.
Surprised at his own morose feelings about Case 47-1033, Rogers dreaded breaking the news to Doc. Doc loathed unfinished business. He knocked on Doc’s office door. “Come in,” said the voice from inside.
Rogers entered the room quietly. Doc was always pouring over some medical journal about forensics, and Rogers didn’t really want to disturb him. Doc looked up seeming to have trouble focusing for a second. Too much reading of small print in too little light, Rogers decided.
“Yes, Steve, what is it?” Doc asked.
“It’s John Doe. Sorry to tell you he’s going to remain a John Doe. Here, I have the notes I took during the call from BCI.”
Doc took the notes from Rogers and reviewed them briefly. “All right. I’ll get the arrangements made.”
Rogers left the room and went to his desk. He saw the phone console light up on Doc’s extension, and he knew the old coroner was probably calling the minister who covered these funerals for the county. He thought about Doc standing out in the cold with the minister – Doc in his old brown overcoat, the minister in his collar – saying a prayer over a human being neither one of them had ever known. Gray skies outside his window indicated snow…even more misery for Doc’s old bones.
Two days later, on a bitter, windy Saturday, Doc Evans and the Right Reverend Gerald McMaster stood at a graveside in what everyone called Potter’s Field. The minister held a Bible that looked well-used, and his frozen fingers fumbled at the thin pages. Doc shivered against the cold. Large snowflakes were beginning to fall. It was December in Ohio, after all.
Just as the minister began to say a few words of tribute to life in general, Doc heard steps behind him. Expecting to see another miserable family attending some other sad funeral, he turned to silently offer his condolences.
Steven Rogers was walking toward him. “Hi, Doc. Reverend McMaster, wait just a sec, ok?”
Almost before he could finish the request, Shane and Julie came into sight, Shane with his wife and Julie, carrying flowers, with her kids. Then Lisa Long appeared over a low hill with her partner, Dave, and her husband, Jimmy. They all walked over to the grave, put sprays of flowers on top of the coffin, and stood at the graveside while Reverend McMaster said the Lord’s Prayer. Doc looked around at the crowd of quiet, respectful people who had joined him. He smiled to himself and felt a lightness in his chest that he couldn’t explain. He recalled a quote he had heard many years ago: “The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.” There would be some memory of this John Doe. At least this John Doe would rest in peace. Maybe…just maybe…the future John Does would, too.