Creative Non-Fiction by Claire O’ Brien
October 2017, Prince George’s County, Maryland
Her house was tidy, if a bit dated. The living room carpet was the kind that changes color when you run your hand over it—in this case, from sea to forest green. Two wooden side tables positioned astride the well-worn, maroon leather recliner combined in creating something resembling a nest. Their chunky oak frames were piled high with TV remotes, a telephone, reading glasses, several books, MacBook (still charging), plus a couple of drink options. On the floor stood a helium tank–the type you rarely see outside of a party supply store, where it’s used to inflate balloons.
This was a place made to feel safe. And also, a bunker. I recognized it. For me, it wasn’t books and TV remotes, but midnight bottles of wine and the faux productivity of compulsive online job searching. These are the defensive strategies of those unwilling to take the chance the quiet of the night will come for us.
She sat in the recliner. An overweight white woman in her mid 50s. She’d dressed up for the occasion: black slacks, black and white patterned blouse, black stockings on her feet, but no shoes. A clear plastic bag rested on her lap. Her head was tipped back, eyes and mouth opened in a silent scream.
My heart pounded in my chest—the result of too much coffee and an adrenaline-fueled 30-mile dash around the Capital Beltway.
Once I received the call, the countdown began. I had just one hour to arrive at the death scene. It’s a noble but not always achievable goal given DC’s traffic conditions and that I don’t respond ‘lights and sirens.’ But I’d made it to the ranch-style home in Beltsville, a suburban Maryland middle-class neighborhood outside DC’s eastern border in 55 minutes. Given DC’s notorious morning rush hour, this would be the day’s triumph.
I willed my heart rate to slow and meet the energy level—at least halfway—of the bleary-eyed officer who met me at the door. He’d been on-duty all night, catching this call at the end of a 10-hour shift.
I introduced myself as “Death Investigator.” The officer responded, “In there.” He casually pointed inside like I was there to fix a broken washing machine.
“What time was she pronounced?” I asked, setting up my notes for the scene.
He checked his notebook.
“I responded at 7:09. Paramedics arrived at 7:12, and pronounced her dead at 7:14,” he recited.
It was a little after eight in the morning now.
“Her priest found the body,” he continued.
I paused. “What was her priest doing at her house before 7 am?” Suspicious, I thought.
“She sent him a scheduled email to arrive at 6:30 this morning. Explaining what she had done. He came right over. But it was too late.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “It was.”
We stood looking at the body for a moment. She was certainly dead.
The contents of the side table to the left of the armchair created a vignette of the last several decisions of this woman’s life—a last meal of sorts: a crystal goblet with a few fingers of amber liquid remaining; a half-empty bottle of Delamain Cognac Champagne; and a book titled, Execution: The Discipline to Get Things Done.
Hardcore, I thought while photographing the book. Flipping through through the pages, I learned this title was actually a book on productivity, not a suicide manual. Still, an odd choice for end-of-life reading material.
“I removed the plastic bag when I got here,” I heard over my shoulder.
It’s protocol for the first responders to administer life-saving first aid, even if the individual is already very dead. Officers perform chest compressions until a qualified medical professional arrives on-scene to confirm the individual is deceased. It’s a legal thing. The police don’t want to get sued for failing to perform CPR because an officer “thought” the victim was dead, but she was actually just “mostly dead.” I’d heard locker room talk of a supervisor who forced rookie officers to initiate mouth-to-mouth on death scenes–even if the victim was already beginning to decompose.
While self-inflicted harm isn’t that unusual as a cause of death, this method of suicide I don’t encounter very often. Using a suicide bag (or suicide hood, as it’s also called) is the preferred technique of auto-euthanasia, or self-deliverance, by the Right to Die movement. A plastic bag is placed over the head and secured around the neck. Running out of oxygen but in the presence of inert gas, such as helium, will not cause the panicked desperate struggle typically associated with suffocation. Instead, the person will experience a rapid loss of consciousness followed by death. Basically, it’s a way of ending one’s suffering that’s neither painful nor messy for those of us that are in the business of literally having to pick up the pieces.
It was clear that she’d been dead only a short time—rigor mortis hadn’t yet set in. After photographing her and the home as I found them, I hooked my hands under her ankles while the officer supported her armpits. We lifted her from the armchair. We laid her extended along the floor inside a freshly unwrapped and unzipped body bag. I examined her limbs, rolling her over to take a look at her back. By pressing my gloved fingers into the fleshy parts and then releasing them, I observed the color change in her skin. I needed to evaluate the extent that livor mortis had developed.
Livor mortis is one of three “mortises,” or observable postmortem changes to the body. Most are familiar with rigor mortis, the stiffening of the body’s muscles due to biochemical changes after death. Livor mortis describes the postmortem settling of blood in the lowest points of the body.
When the heart stops beating, blood is no longer moved around the body and becomes susceptible to gravity. Ever hang clothes out to dry? It’s the legs of your jeans, or the ends of the sheets and towels closest to the ground, that remain wet the longest. That’s because gravity is pulling the moisture that hasn’t yet evaporated towards the earth.
Same sort of concept in a deceased person, but it’s the blood that’s no longer moving around the body, which then settles in the lowest, accessible parts. The result is skin that appears a deeper red or purple color. After some time, this lividity becomes fixed. This is due to blood coagulating and the cooling body’s effect on the capillaries. This means that if we then move the person, changing her physical position, the pattern of color on the body won’t change. This can be a valuable observation. Imagine I find the pattern of a toilet seat on the backside of an individual discovered deceased in his car. I can determine that not only did he not die in the car, but he’d been dead on that toilet long enough for the lividity to become fixed. Now I also know that somebody moved him, and I’m looking for a secondary scene with a toilet in it.
A third decompositional change—algor mortis—refers to the cooling of the body after death. Fans of old detective novels might recall descriptions of the pathologist gallantly announcing his arrival to a scene by sticking a thermometer in the deceased’s liver for a body temperature reading. “He died at 3:47 on Tuesday!” he’d declare.
.Why not stab thermometers into the deceased’s liver? One, it’s unreliable. (3)And two, medical examiners frown on excitable investigators sticking holes in the uninjured livers of the bodies they’ve not yet examined. That liver might need to tell them something important, like the trajectory of a bullet.
That said, due to the fragile nature of toxicology evidence, my checklist for this scene warranted a cardiac blood sample, which required a different type of hole. I palpated her chest with my gloved fingertips, syringe in hand. I traced down the number of ribs until I found the spot to the left of her sternum between the 4th and 5th rib. I paused here for a second, self-conscious.
Six months previously, I’d attended a two-day training at headquarters. There we practiced technical procedures we might need to perform at a scene. I hadn’t needed to deploy this exact procedure since, so I felt a little rusty. But calling headquarters for guidance would only serve to open the gates of hell as Evil herself had a side hustle as the lead administrator at Maryland’s Office of Chief Medical Examiner. Her rage was legendary around Maryland crime labs. Calling up headquarters for assistance might result in the guidance I was looking for, but it would only arrive as an unholy assault of demonic shrieks.
I glanced over at my de facto partner for support. He wasn’t even watching.
To penetrate her heart, I had to navigate the needle through multiple layers of skin, fat, muscles, and fascia—the weblike connective tissue that sheaths all of our internal structures. I plunged the syringe in her chest, hoping I didn’t nick any ribs along the way. Then, with surgical focus, I extended the plunger. When the deep ruby liquid pooled in the tube, I exhaled. I collected two vials of blood to be transferred with the body.
The lab work on these blood samples would be conducted simultaneously with her autopsy, which was to take place the next day. The toxicology test would confirm the presence or absence of drugs, alcohol, or any other abnormalities in her system.
I disposed of the syringe and my gloves into an evidence bag I’d designated for biohazard material. And, even though my only audience were the uninterested officer and a dead woman, I made a show of snapping on a pair of fresh latex gloves with the flair of an obvious professional. Internally, I congratulated myself for making it through the procedure without breaking a needle on the poor woman’s sternum nor spilling blood all over the retro carpet.
With those samples labeled and tucked away, I returned my focus to the dining room table. I documented several envelopes, their intended recipient scrawled across them in blue ink. Inside each, specific directions outlined aspects regarding the handling of her death, including what to do about Tina.
“Who’s Tina?” I wondered, spinning around to face the officer who was now slumped on the sofa.
“The cat. She’s in the back bedroom, I guess.”
“Is she ok?” I asked.
Through my camera’s viewfinder, I concentrated on capturing these instructions from beyond the grave while giving the officer the chance to elaborate.
“Shit, I dunno. I guess someone’s coming to get her.”
Dropping my camera to my chest, I turned to study him. Or the top of his shiny, bald head anyway. He’d lowered his chin, crossed his arms, and was sinking back into his meditation.
Shift work is a fact of all police officer’s lives, no matter where they rank in their agency chain of command. But there’s a special breed of patrol officers that so thrive on working overnights, they elect to do it permanently—thereby joining The Permanent Midnight Squad.
There’s a modest shift differential in pay, but my hunch was they prefer the type of calls—less: “Yes, Mr. Thompson, I understand your neighbor is blasting Bollywood movies again,” and more: “There’s a lady, possibly high on bath salts, threatening her neighbors with a samurai sword.”
Yet, my new friend didn’t strike me as a Permanent Midnight-kinda-guy. He was 94% horizontal on the deceased’s living room sofa. Maybe he had a mental countdown of exactly how many days, months, years he had left to serve in Patrol, before he tested into a civilized unit, like Training. There, instead of working midnight’s in a patrol uniform, he’d work the day shift, wear an Under Armor polo shirt, and get reacquainted with the civilian luxury of an hour to eat lunch. Maybe even with the girls in Human Resources.
“Who’s coming to get her?” I pushed.
“Who?” He didn’t even look up.
“Tina,” I repeated, careful to keep the irritation out of my voice.
Thanks to a snafu in Bosnia when I found myself in a remote mass grave with no boots or evidence bags, my first rule of death investigation is: Triple check all essential gear makes it into the van. But it’s closely followed by: Don’t make enemies with the patrol officer securing the scene.
When someone shows up with a samurai sword, I’d want to be on good terms with the closest guy with the gun-plus-radio since I’d been issued neither. My employer, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, didn’t even provide on-call death investigators, like myself, with standard protective equipment. Not fond of contracting HIV or hepatitis, I supplied my own gloves, masks, and for when things got really messy, a disposable Tyvek suit.
Salaried police agency employees regularly supplement their agency-issued gear with supplies purchased on their own dime. A decent flashlight here. A better camera strap there. A year prior, while working for the Sheriff’s Office, I resorted to Craigslist to source a lunch table for the crime lab office. I’d been on the hunt for a new office chair too, but hadn’t found one before I’d quit. The one’s we’d been issued were so dilapidated they’d pitch you to the floor if you settled your weight a particular way. Occasionally, a detective would innocently grab a seat while waiting for a report to be finished, and he’d nearly land in my lap on his way to the floor. “Yeah, those chairs are fucked,” I’d explain, helping the detective collect his paperwork now strewn all over the carpet. I had a theory that the County would do nothing until we started rolling in tree stumps to sit on while we processed our evidence and wrote reports.
Since I left the full-time police agency job to take the position of on-call death investigation (earning $80 per body!) I’d also been shelling out for gloves, evidence bags, work boots, all while driving my personal Toyota to each scene—often clocking over 100 miles a day. The economics meant I was barely breaking even, a fact made impossible to ignore when my tax accountant called, incredulous that this was an adult human’s monthly take home pay. Some of my death investigator colleagues worked full-time ‘normal’ jobs as lawyers or nurses, and then worked overnight responding to death scenes–something I refused to do for $80 a body. Instead, I moonlighted as a dog walker for a local pet-sitting company. It paid $10 a dog.
During a recent visit home to California, my father ambled over to where I sat outside working on my laptop. Despite having work to do on my vacation, I’d thought I’d treat myself to an afternoon in the sun.
“You’ve had really shitty jobs,” he announced. He seemed pleased with this observation, and if I’d grown up to be less ungrateful, I might have thanked him for it. My father appeared oblivious that his words had pierced my heart, leaking whatever self-respect I’d been clinging to into a puddle of despair beneath my patio chair. So, I responded with a cynical quip—some variation on: No big deal, just wasting my life over here! After 15 years in the field I’d hoped to have more to show for my efforts than a deep intimacy with human decomposition, a corresponding drinking problem and just under $5,000 in a police retirement account.
No one decides to scoop up dead bodies for the money. But requiring first responders to protect both crucial evidence and their own HIV-negative statuses with a self-funded supply of latex barriers seemed a bit cheeky, even for the State of Maryland.
“Tina. The cat,” I clarified.
The officer seemed struggling to keep his eyes open.
“A friend, I guess. She left instructions.”
I turned back to the letters, photographing them one by one.
First up, her suicide note:
“Over the last ten years, each member of my family has passed, and now I am alone. Every day is excruciating in its loneliness.”
Next: directions as to what we survivors were to do with Tina. Thank god. She had designated an acquaintance—a coworker—as Tina’s new caretaker. Her priest was to handle the rest of her requests. As I documented the letters, I felt a little judgment brewing. Why not make arrangements for Tina before this plan kicks off? What if your email languished in a spam folder, unread? What if Jane from Accounting is allergic to cats?
The fate of decedents’ pets always nagged at me. I routinely outlined scenarios in which my three dogs should survive if I should step off a curb in front of a truck. My mother had reluctantly been contracted to adopt our two reliable dogs, but I was at a loss with what we’d do with Sophie, our rescued pit bull. Rehoming wasn’t an option since she was mostly psychotic. But over the years, she’d proven to be a diabolical manipulator with tested street skills. I suspected Sophie might outlive us all.
But our suicide victim’s plan had unfolded exactly as she’d hoped. Jane was on her way.
After I was done with both the body and scene examination, I had time to kill as I waited for the body transport team to arrive. Another patrol unit arrived to relieve the first officer, and now the two of them were giggling in the kitchen. Their combined energies reminded me of my sister and my cross-country road trips—a delicious combination of caffeine, camaraderie, and lack-of-sleep-induced delirium. It made me miss my squad at the crime scene unit. Even though they were MAGA-loving conservatives perplexed by my vegetarianism, I loved them and they loved me. That is the true magic of being part of a paramilitary organization. It isn’t like ‘family.’ It is family. A dysfunctional one with guns and a propensity for racist jokes, but still. I have zero doubts that if I called a few of them up today, 10 years later, and asked them to help me bury a body, they’d cheerfully excuse themselves from their daughter’s softball game, swing by the station to ‘borrow’ some shovels plus extra latex gloves, and roll up ready to sweat.
Leaving the officers to their bonding session, I tip-toed down the hall until I reached a door that looked like it led to a bedroom. On it was a taped note which read in hand-printed uppercase letters:
DON’T FORGET TINA!
The most unsatisfying part of my role in a death investigation is that I’m rarely around to see all my questions answered. Once I submitted my report and photographs later that evening, I’d never hear an update on this case. I’d never find out what that toxicology report stated. I’d never speak to this officer again despite the intimacy that occurs while moving a dead body together four minutes after meeting each other. And I’d never find out what happened to Tina. “Every day is excruciating in its loneliness,” our victim had written in her suicide note. Mostly relatable.
I fished a clean pair of latex gloves out of my pocket, sliding them on before placing my hand on the door handle. It turned easily. I cracked it open, so I could peek inside, but not far enough that a distressed Tina could bolt to freedom.
Stepping inside, I saw nothing beyond the dim blue light of a slightly cluttered suburban bedroom. However, the investigator in me couldn’t help notice that the space underneath the bed looked like prime cat-hiding territory. I shut the door behind me and dropped to the floor, positioning my head at eye-level with any potentially orphaned pets.
Then a little louder, “Tina? Are you in here?”
I felt the rumble of the body transport van pulling in the driveway from my low push-up position on the carpet.
Using the flashlight on my phone, I swept the space under the bed, hoping to catch the reflection of those eerie cat eyes, but there was nothing.
As a last resort, I stayed perfectly still in a pseudo-attempt to psychically send a message to Tina. (4)In doing so, it occurred to me that maybe Tina was there, watching, sending me her own message. Maybe she didn’t want to make herself seen yet.
It pained me to leave the room without confirming her well-being. I heard my therapist’s voice echo her frequent reminder: “Consider if you can possibly know what’s best for others.” Message received, but it seems unnatural to passively allow life to unfold in painful ways when so much of life’s pain is inevitable.
Tina and her owner’s decisions had nothing to do with me. Maybe they don’t need my rescue. Couldn’t I allow them to simply exist in the last moments in their home as they preferred to spend them? Reluctantly, I decided I could, a conclusion further supported by the fact that my only remaining course of action was to tear that room apart in search of Tina.
On the way out to meet the body removal company, I saw two new heads bobbing up the driveway between the police cars—a man with thinning graying hair, underscored with a clergy collar, and a 30-something brunette with a face, that while pale and strained, looked like it meant business. Reliable Jane!
“Where were you?” the officer wanted to know as I gathered my gear.
“Getting more photos.” I lied. “Are they here for the cat?”
“Be safe driving home,” I nagged before stepping off the porch.
A few years prior, a police officer in my agency had died. He’d crashed his cruiser on his drive home, likely exhausted after working an overnight shift. I had been the one to photograph his blood-stained uniform. Not usually put off by evidence of trauma, it was disconcerting. This was the blood of someone I know—spilled onto a brown patrol uniform exactly like the one I’d been wearing while I completed the job.
“Always am,” he winked, and we parted ways.
I’d never see him at a crime scene again, which saddened me. Another story I wouldn’t know the ending of. Or was I just that lonely?
Two days later, I was in New Orleans. With the husband and parents, Dave and Carol, in the audience, I walked across the stage of the Convention Center to collect my second graduate degree in the field—a Master of Science in Criminal Justice Administration, specializing in Forensic Science Laboratory Management. Pictures from that morning show a forced smile across my face, tired and puffy. I wore a skirt, because the heat in Louisiana required it, but it showed off my cadaver-like skin, pasty white from years of being dressed head to toe in a polyester uniform.
A few hours later, after a night of dinner and a normal drinker’s amounts of drinks and conversations, I slipped into the bar of the Hotel Monteleone in the French Quarter. Like a ghost, I floated unseen between shrieking men and women spilling from the bar into the lobby. I balanced two plastic cups filled to the brim with shitty red wine. While the husband slept, I drank alone. The quiet was coming. I had to be ready. I sat cross-legged on the bed, intent on ignoring it. I recreated my nest as best I could. Wine. Laptop. Stay busy.
 Suicide consistently ranks among the top ten most common causes of death in America, claiming the lives of 48,000 people in 2018. Source: nimh.nih.gov
 The Right to Die movement promotes self-euthanasia as a humane option for terminally ill patients to end their suffering. However, critics and the medical literature point out that it’s actually people with curable afflictions (depression, substance abuse, for example) who are most likely to use this method rather than those with a terminal disease.
(3). It’s impossible for different investigators, working for different agencies, in different states or countries, to account for all the factors, such as air conditioning, clothing, indoor and outdoor temperature, the victim’s body mass, etc. in a standard way. And without this information the reading is irrelevant.
 (4)Sadly, not a widely recognized forensic technique.
Bio: Claire’s creative nonfiction writing has received numerous awards, including a nomination for a Pushcart Prize, first prize in the ASJA’s Annual Writing Awards in the Personal Essay category, and the grand prize of the Hippocampus Creative Nonfiction 2020 contest.
She is currently working on her first book, based on her award-winning essay, Dead Weight.
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