Matthias Kork Revisited
The right rear tire on my Toyota FJ Cruiser in the driveway had looked flattish in the morning. I drove to work at the hospital on it anyway because I was late, and I drove home again on it holding my breath. I would have to call the Canadian Automobile Association to put on the spare. My handicap was not being handy.
Because Friday is followed by Saturday, it could wait until tomorrow. I was going to a TGIF get-together across town. Living in Coventry, a city of 50,000 inhabitants, meant nothing was too far to be reached by bicycle.
Twenty minutes later, I was locking my bike to a yield sign with the giant U-shaped kryptonite lock I carried on the frame. It was probably safe enough at a cop retirement party. I wandered along-side the house into the back yard where talking and laughing were happening.
There were 30 or 40 people standing in groups, who I judged to be either cops or neighbours. I was considering which group to attach myself to when one of the cops called, “Hey Matt.” He came over holding a beer and extending one.
“Hey Jackson. Congratulations on your retirement!’ I said.
“Thanks man. I’m free for alternative employment now—I was thinking you could use a chauffeur.”
“Did you see me arrive on my bike?”
“No. I mean to drive you around on your coroner job. It would be the perfect retirement job for me.”
“There’s no budget for that. You know I only do one or two coroner calls per month, right? I’m still working as an anesthesiologist.”
Jackson looked disappointed. “Well, let me know if business picks up. Driving with lights and sirens is my only real marketable skill.”
Detective Branko Marcovic emerged from the side of the house and approached. He was tall and thin with a hook nose that looked like it had been broken and left to heal.
“Hey Branko. Thanks for coming,” Jackson said.
“I’m supposed to be working, but I couldn’t very well miss your special night, could I Jackson. I see you followed my advice.”
“What was that?” I asked.
Branko coughed. “In your last five days at work, don’t shoot anyone and don’t get shot.”
“They wouldn’t let me take any calls for the week before I retired,” Jackson confided.
“Hey Matt. We had a guy hanging from a tree yesterday. Couldn’t find a coroner,” Branko said.
“Yeah, they called me at work,” I said. “I couldn’t go. Is he still there?”
“No. He’d been there since midnight yesterday though. Pierce said it was a psychiatric patient who suicided.” Pierce was the other coroner in town. “We also had a good case last month of a corpse holding his severed penis in his left hand. What do you think of that?”
“I would say he was right-handed, unless his wife cut it off,” I answered.
“The wife said she didn’t do it,” Branko said. “She was too fond of it.”
“That’s reassuring,” I said.
“She also said she couldn’t have done it because it was hard as nails,” Jackson said, “but I noticed she had a chipped tooth.”
“Did he really bleed out from that?” I asked.
“No,” Branko said. He took a lot of pills also.”
“See, that’s two good cases you missed by being an anesthesiologist, Matt,” Jackson said. You should do coronering full time and then you will need a driver. Get yourselves beer and munchies from the picnic table. I have to circulate.” He wandered off.
“Nice sweater,” I said, looking for something to say. Branko normally wore a cheap baggy suit. Detectives need the extra fabric to conceal their guns.
“I’m wearing a nice shirt. You forgot to mention it.”
Branko smiled. “I read your book. How are relations with the surgeons going these days?”
“We have an understanding. You know that song. Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me?”
“Yeah, it’s a good song,” Branko said.
I stayed until it got dark and then went back to the curb to get my bike. Taking the scenic route home, I entered the park where there was a bike path that was lit up at night. As I was climbing a steep hill, my bike chain started slipping over the teeth of the front sprocket. The chain was rusty and needed to be replaced. Pushing the bike the rest of the way up the hill, I heard the sound of two men arguing.
Their voices quietened as I approached. One of the men seemed to be twice the age of the other. They were both scrawny and in need of a shower. The older one turned away from me as I passed, but one eye still saw me. His two eyes were looking in divergent directions. The strabismus and his anger made him look crazy. Not wanting to provoke comments, I went by quickly.
Off in the distance, I heard, “No!”
“Why not? Let’s report seeing someone coming down a ladder.”
“Shut your fucking mouth and just stick to the fucking plan!”
“Why do you always have to turn into…”
I didn’t hear the rest of it and didn’t want to. They were probably arguing over drugs or the proceeds of a drug deal.
My wife Katya peaked at me through half-closed eyelids as I moved around the bedroom. She had curled her five-foot-ten-inch length into a blanket-wrapped cocoon. She built up a sleep deficit during the week, marking papers and preparing lessons, that needed to be rectified. As a high school teacher, she was also stressed out from negotiating with teenagers. Her blonde-with-pink-fringes hairdo had bed head. She looked comfortable and happy.
“Sleeping late?” I asked.
“It’s the weekend.”
“You got over 9 hours sleep last night.”
“Nine is just a number. I like to get up when I’m ready.”
“Doing anything today?”
“Visiting my sister and returning empty wine bottles.”
Katya’s sister Magda lived in Pickering, an hour’s drive away. They talked or texted or visited nearly every day.
“Why? Were they defective?”
“Ha. Ha.” Katya stretched all four limbs like a snow angel.
“You should say they were empty when you got them.”
I stepped over Madame Fifi, who was twitching and growling on the floor, to get to the armoire.
“Do you think she is dreaming of electric sheep?” Katya asked.
“Most replicants do.”
“What are you up to today?”
“I have to get my back tire fixed. One of my enemies slashed it.”
Katya struggled out of bed and staggered toward the bathroom. She was wearing a T-shirt and terry-cloth shorts cinched with a draw-string, variations of which she generally always slept in.
“Okay hon, if you say so,” she said.
“Okay, I’m just going out to take care of it.”
“Kisses, my bunny.” Katya planted a kiss in passing that half missed my mouth.
Walking around my SUV in the driveway, I noticed that the back tire was now really flat. I pulled the plasticized CAA card from my wallet and dialled their service number on my phone. As I was waiting on hold, I got an alert that there was a call from the coroner’s answering service. They never called at a convenient time. I hesitated and then swiped right.
There was a death at a house in Coventry of a 58-year-old male, a Mr. Albert Yantzi, who was the lone occupant. They gave me his date of birth and the telephone number of a policeman at the scene. I called the number and heard, “Hi Doctor. We have a 58-year-old male, found dead by his landlord on the floor of his apartment. The fire department is waiting for you.”
“What do you mean ‘the fire department is waiting for me'?”
“You’ll see when you get here.”
“That’s it? Is there any evidence of trauma? Are there any pill bottles around?”
“It’s hard to know. It’s better if you see for yourself.” He gave me directions and hung up.
Searching Albert Yantzi on the Coventry Hospital computer database brought up one emergency department visit for a twisted ankle. There was no family doctor. He was either previously healthy, had received his medical care somewhere else or was a derelict who avoided doctors and hospitals. I copied down the phone number for a daughter who was next-of-kin.
Slinging my coroner bag over my shoulder, I cycled ten minutes to the scene. There were two fire engines and three police cars parked by the side of the road in front of a six-plex apartment house. Several firemen in brown jump suits and five or six policemen were milling about. Cops will often just hang around if something interesting or unusual has happened. One of the cops approached, and I handed him my business card.
“Thanks. I’ve already got one,” he said.
“Could I have one of yours?”
He extended a card from his wallet that bore the name Hunter Schultz, Constable, Coventry Police. “The firemen will get you suited up in a hazmat suit.”
“Why? What’s going on? Are you the investigating officer?”
“That would be Branko Marcovic. He’ll escort you in. I’m the one you spoke with on the phone. We’ve opened up all the windows, but it’s still pretty overwhelming. The firemen have to leave soon.”
“When was this guy last seen alive?”
“His girlfriend came to visit, noticed the smell and notified the superintendent. He called us and opened the door. The last person to see Albert alive was the girlfriend three weeks ago, on July 2.”
Hunter escorted me to a firetruck where there was a pile of equipment on the ground. The firemen fitted me into a plastic zip-up hazmat suit with a shroud covering my head. They threaded my arms through the harness of a scuba tank that was heavy on my shoulders and back. I pulled on my own disposable gloves.
“That too heavy for you, Doc?”
“No. Is this mouth piece clean?”
“Yeah, well, we wiped it off. Put it in your mouth to test it out. You’ve got about half a tank. Try to breathe at a slow even rate so you don’t use up the air supply too quickly. If your air is low, you’ll hear an alarm. Okay? Come this way then.”
They led me into the stairwell where Branko was speaking with another officer. He was wearing the same gear as me.
“Hi Matt. I’ve got his health card for you here—a Mr. Albert Yantzi. You can use the photo to make the identification.”
“How come so many cops are here, Branko?”
“Albert is lying beside a long gun. It doesn’t look like it’s been discharged though.”
“Yantzi is a Mennonite name. It’s weird for a Mennonite to be living in the city alone.”
“He may have been ex-communicated for some reason.”
“Are there drugs in the apartment that he could have overdosed on.”
“Maybe. It’s a pigsty in there. We did find a few prescription drug bottles for you to look at.”
Branko put his mouthpiece in and motioned for me to do the same. We ascended a flight of stairs to the second-floor apartment through sequential waves of thousands of flies arriving at the plate glass windows in the stairwell. The windows acted like a magnifying glass to concentrate the heat of the noon-day sun. As we entered the apartment, the stench of decay was nauseating despite our air tanks.
The living room was dishevelled, with scattered clothes and garbage and beer cans littering the floor and every level surface. There were two cops, one of them with a camera taking pictures. A balcony door was wide open. The decedent was lying on his back on the living-room floor beside an unmade pull-out bed, surrounded by a cloud of flies. I didn’t notice any drug paraphernalia.
His face was bloated and black. Maggots wriggled in his eyes. His body was a mottled blue-green and his fingers were shrivelled to bony remnants. There was a circular pool of congealed blood or bloody vomit on the floor around his head. Blood propelled by escaping gas from a decomposing stomach can cause this. A rusting, vintage Winchester-style rifle was lying by his side on the floor, exactly parallel to the body.
I took my mouthpiece out long enough to say, “You don’t think he shot himself?"
Branko took his mouthpiece out long enough to say, “I don’t think it’s been fired.”
Branko held the decedent’s provincial health insurance card photo beside his head for me to look at. I peered at it long and hard and then at the dead man’s face, and then back and forth. It was hard to be sure. I probed his lips with my index finger to see if he had teeth but I couldn’t tell and didn’t want to get cut. I attached a toe tag that I had completed with a Sharpie marker at home with the name that dispatch had given me.
The kitchen counter was crowded with take-out wrappers and dirty dishes encrusted with dried and decaying food. I opened the refrigerator door to find a case of beer, two bottles of cola, a bowl of what might have been hamburger meat and a box of baking soda. I went into the bathroom and it was filthy too. There was an actual layer of grime on the counter under the empty cardboard packages and vitamin bottles. That was it—three rooms total.
Branko had grouped prescription bottles together for me on the corner of a living-room end table. The ancient labels were faded and almost illegible. There was an antihypertensive, an antidepressant and a proton pump inhibitor to decrease stomach acidity, all prescribed by a family doctor who I knew to be retired. As I was reading the labels, my low air alarm went off. Branko heard it as well. Casting another look around the apartment, I exited past the hot swarms of flies in the stairwell as expeditiously as my dignity would allow. Branko followed in my wake.
When we got outside, Branko said, “I think you got a lung-full of fly poop. How long do think he’s been dead?”
“Maybe four weeks, maybe as little as two or three, depending on how hot it got in the apartment. I’ve never seen anyone that decomposed before.”
“We’re leaving the rifle in place until the ident team from Toronto finishes with photos and you had a chance to look at the layout. They’ll take the rifle now for finger printing. I measured the distance from the end of the barrel to the trigger as nine and a half inches.”
“Okay. I’ll tell the pathologist to measure his arm length to see if he could theoretically reach the trigger. Was that balcony door locked when they found him?”
“Closed, but not locked. The front door to the apartment was locked.”
“Could you ID him from that health card photo, Branko?”
“Are you sure?”
“Pretty sure. Who else would it be?”
“It’s strange that the rifle is lying exactly parallel to the body.”
“Like a soldier. That’s why I don’t think he used it. There was no ammunition around anywhere. There was a wall bracket where it might have been mounted as a decoration.”
“He might have been considering using it and took some pills instead,” I said. “Were you able to find a next-of-kin?”
“He has an estranged daughter who lives out of town. He hasn’t seen her in ten years."
“Have you spoken with her?”
“We talked to her on the phone. She was pretty cold about the whole thing.”
As this was more complex than the usual case, I called the Regional Supervising Coroner on-call for advice. It was Richard Tull that week-end. I told him my findings and, as I was wrapping up, he asked whether I was able to make a positive identification.
“Well, it’s presumptive. He is decomposed. His head is bloated and black.”
“Does he have teeth? Does he have any tattoos?”
“I don’t know about tattoos. His skin is blistered and peeling, so I couldn’t undress him without it coming off in sheets. He may some teeth left. His head is like a beach ball and his lips are sort of sealed together.” I had been afraid of cutting myself by pushing my finger too far into his mouth.
“Do the police have any fingerprints on file for him?”
“I’ll find out, but I don’t think he has any fingerprints left.”
“Did you get a toothbrush or hairbrush for DNA analysis?”
“Well, you’ll have to go back and get one of those.”
I had a look over at where the firemen had parked. They were packing away the last of their equipment. A moment later, they got into their trucks and drove away.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll have another look around his bathroom.” Good soldiers can do.
I was standing beside Hunter Schultz again. I told him I needed a toothbrush or hairbrush and then walked back toward the building without waiting for him to offer. Taking a last giant lung-full of fresh air, I mounted the stairs and re-entered the apartment. The smell wasn’t so bad once you got used to it.
I waded back through the trash to the bathroom. After some digging, I found a fuzzy hairbrush and worn tooth brush on the counter and shoved them together into a plastic bag. Without further ado, I left the apartment for the second time and found Branko.
“Okay, you can call the body removal service—Christobel or Schade’s Funeral Home—whichever you like. I think Schade’s might be quicker.”
“Already done,” he replied.
“And send these with the body,” I said handing him the plastic bag. “Does he have a criminal record? Are there any fingerprints on file?”
“No. Do you want us to hold the scene?”
“Not for my purposes.”
“Okay. We’ll preserve it long enough to look for spent rifle casings. Be nice to your wife so you don’t end up alone, decomposing for two to four weeks.”
“I have to call the pathologist now to tell him that I’m sending him a body,” I said. “They’re going to ask me whether you want to attend the autopsy.”
“Not really…” His face showed veiled disgust. “Okay. Tell them yes.”
The forensic pathologist on call in Toronto was Dr. Ron Rasmussen. Forensic pathologists consider themselves higher up the food chain than coroners. I’d spoken with him a few times in the past.
I got him on the phone. “Hi. This Dr. Matthew Kork. I’m a coroner in Coventry.”
“Yes, I know. Hi.”
“I’m sending you a badly decomposed body, a Mr. Albert Yantzi, who I have tentatively identified. The apartment superintendent called it in because of the odour. He was last seen alive by a girlfriend approximately three weeks ago. It may have been a natural death or a drug overdose. There is a vintage rifle by his side which doesn’t appear to have been fired.”
“How are we going to identify him?”
“I had a look at his health card photo, but I can’t be sure.”
“So, how are you going to identify him?” He wanted it to be my problem.
“I’m sending you a hair and toothbrush for DNA. His daughter is next-of-kin, but she’s estranged. I’ll speak to her to see if he had a dentist. The medical records don’t give a history of any joint implants.”
“Does he have teeth?”
“I didn’t want to cut my finger by probing in his mouth. I’m not sure.”
“Okay. Ask her about tattoos. Do the police want to attend?”
“Okay, tell them 8:00 a.m. tomorrow. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
He hung up.
To be continued
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