Murder at the Mortuary

CHAPTER 1 EXCERPT

DISCLAIMER: The following content has not gone through final editing process. 

It was unclear how long Angus Green had been dead.

Ginger Gold studied the postmortem photos laid out on the top of her desk. Before his untimely death, Mr. Green had been a young man with a privileged upbringing. Felicia, Ginger’s sister-in-law, had met the chap while acting in the same stage play. It was Felicia who’d begged her to take on the missing person’s case. Ginger had agreed and failed.

Ginger glanced around her father’s study. Her study now. Somehow, Ginger doubted she’d ever get used to calling her father’s things her own. Like the furniture. She felt like a little girl sitting in Daddy’s huge chair, its springs worn by the weight of her father as he leaned back, propped his leather shoes up on the desktop, and tented his fingers on his chest. Like this, he pondered the deep mysteries of life.

Ginger brought her thoughts back to the mystery in front of her. Not that Ginger professed to be a private investigator, not officially at any rate. It was just something she often found herself doing—perhaps a residue from the secret service work she had done during the Great War. Some things are hard to unlearn.

Thinking about Felicia seemed to summon the younger woman’s presence because she sauntered into Ginger’s study uninvited and possessed an empty chair in front of the desk. Boss, Ginger’s black and white Boston terrier, lifted his head from his spot near the hearth to acknowledge her.

Felicia’s dark hair, shingled with the fringe pinned back, was in need of washing. Her normally rosy, youthful skin appeared drawn, and shadows were thick under her eyes. “Still nothing?” Unsmiling, Felicia crossed her arms and her legs and stared at Ginger.

Ginger sighed. “Some cases take longer to solve than others.”

“And some never get solved at all,” Felicia huffed.

“Unfortunately, that is correct.”

A stiff silence stretched between them like barbed-wire.

“I’m sorry I didn’t take you seriously when you first came to me,” Ginger offered.

“You shouldn’t have stopped looking for him.”

Ginger swallowed a thick lump. Felicia blamed her—which Ginger thought fair. After all, Ginger blamed herself too. Perhaps, if she hadn’t gotten obsessed with another case, Angus Green would still be alive.

“I know you’re angry with me,” Ginger said. “Though Haley says it’s quite possible that Angus was killed before you’d even learned he was missing.”

Haley Higgins, a dear friend and long-term guest at Ginger’s home, Hartigan House, was a student of forensic pathology at the medical school. She’d provided Ginger with copies of the photographs of Mr. Green’s body, now scattered over the top of her desk.

“Of course, she’d say that,” Felicia replied tersely. “She’s your friend. She’s defending you.” Without giving Ginger a chance to respond, Felicia sprung to her feet and stormed out of the study. Boss whimpered.

Ginger ran long manicured fingers through her red bob and inhaled. She hadn’t saved Angus Green’s life, but she could bring his killer to justice. She must bring his killer to justice. She stared at the photos again.

Angus Green on the theatre poster: alive, young, and virile.

Angus Green in the mortuary, lying flat out on a ceramic slab, ghostly white with a deep-red gunshot wound in the centre of his unblemished forehead. Though the photo was black and white, Ginger knew about the colouring of the body—she’d seen it for herself shortly after it was discovered.

London in 1924 wasn’t the Wild West. Ordinary citizens didn’t bear arms. Ginger, an exception to that rule, found great comfort in carrying her small, silver Remington derringer—a gift from her late husband.

Without the bullet that killed Mr. Green or its shell, it was impossible to determine what type of pistol was used to carry out the execution. The copy of the postmortem report signed by Dr. Manu Gupta, interning doctor of forensic pathology, was well worn from frequent handling. Ginger reread it.

Dr. Gupta’s report was thorough in its measurements and weights of all the organs. Despite the bullet’s passage between the right and left lobes of the brain, and a corresponding exit wound on the back of Mr. Green’s skull, Angus Green had a healthy heart, lungs, kidneys, and spleen. Intestines and lower abdominal regions were average as well. Because the body had already been washed and embalmed before discovery, there was no residue of gunpowder, though the impression of the wound pointed to close range.

Abrasions on the wrist indicated that Angus Green’s hands had been tied. Haley, who had assisted Dr. Gupta, had found trace amounts of dark soil under the fingernails. Peculiar since Angus Green was the posh type of gentleman who kept his nails clean and neatly trimmed.

Lab reports had yet to come in for the soil sample, however, toxicology reports confirmed the presence of cocaine in Mr. Green’s blood. It appeared that Angus Green’s manner of amusement went beyond the stage. Ginger leaned back, and the old chair nearly gave way on her.

“Deuced chair!” Ginger grabbed her chest. “Nearly gave me a heart attack.”

Boss yipped and dashed across the room at the sound of his mistress’ distress.

“Oh, Bossy.” Ginger scooped him into her arms. “I’m all right, but I appreciate your valour all the same.”

The telephone—newly installed, black with a modern square design—rang in deep repetitive tones. Ginger placed Boss on the floor and pushed the offending chair aside.

Ginger answered, “Mallowan 1355.”

“Lady Gold?” The caller was female with a French accent.

“Hello, Madame Roux. Is everything all right?” Madame Roux managed Ginger’s Regent Street dress shop, Feathers & Flair.

Oui, oui. I am only ringing to inform you that the shipment of fabric from India has arrived. Should I have Emma sort it, or would you like to have a look at it first?”

Emma Miller was Ginger’s in-house designer, and Ginger had every confidence in her. “Tell Emma to go ahead.”

“She’ll be pleased, madam. She’s eager to start sewing.”

After saying goodbye, Ginger took another long look at the photos on the desk before heading to the passageway and calling for her longtime butler. “Pippins?”

The ability of Clive Pippins to materialise when beckoned never ceased to amaze Ginger. The kindly man, a septuagenarian with hunched shoulders and translucent skin, had a surprising amount of energy and enthusiasm for life. His eyes remained clear and as blue as cornflowers. They twinkled when his gaze landed on Ginger.

“Madam?”

“Pips, do me a terrific favour and shop for a new office chair for me. Father’s old chair practically bucked me off.”

“Certainly, madam. Is there anything else?”

“Yes. Have Clement prepare to drive me to the medical school. I shall be ready to leave in thirty minutes. And let Lizzie know she’s to look after Boss.” Lizzie was Ginger’s young maid and an enthusiastic companion of the little Boston terrier.

Ginger checked the time. She had to hurry if she didn’t want to be late for the class on trace evidence. She had long since envied Haley for being able to attend school—an option that had closed for Ginger when she got married—but the administration didn’t see a problem with her sitting in, especially once she’d become a financial benefactor of the institution. In fact, Ginger had organised a much-anticipated charity gala for the school that was to take place at the weekend.

***

The class on trace evidence was held in a mid-sized room with white walls and wooden floors. Situated in the middle was an oak table that sat twelve. A third of the seats were taken, since, according to Haley, only a handful of the senior students were interested in forensic pathology as a career choice. Most of the students were concerned about the living and how to keep them alive. Like Haley, Ginger found forensic science tremendously exciting. She spotted Haley and shifted into the empty seat beside her.

“You made it,” Haley said, her American accent coming through.

“Clement drove,” Ginger responded by way of explanation. She found the middle-aged man to be an excruciatingly slow and cautious driver, no doubt due to the fact he was inexperienced at driving in the city. He’d only just begun to get the hang of Ginger’s old 1923 Daimler before it was damaged in a motorcar smash up. She couldn’t expect too much from the timid man. A gardener by vocation, he’d come with Ginger’s grandmother-in-law when she moved in.

Ginger had expected Dr. Watts—the chief pathologist and college administrator—to teach the class, but instead of the stocky, white-haired man, a younger and slimmer gentleman strode confidently to the front of the room near the end of the table.

“Good afternoon,” the man said with a strong Irish lilt. “For those of you who don’t know, I’m Dr. Sean Brennan.  Since you now know my name, and I’ve not had the same privilege, please introduce yourselves.”

Polite introductions followed:

“Florence Jennings” A no-nonsense type wearing a bland day dress and round spectacles spoke her name softly.

“Matilda Hanson,” said a pretty girl with a heart-shaped face and a pouty Clara Bow mouth. In fact, she resembled the famous Hollywood actress with her short brunette curls and her dark, soulful eyes. An unlikely candidate for pathology at first glance, if someone were to judge by looks alone

Next, a middle-aged woman with a stern stare said, “Agatha McPherson.”

“Haley Higgins.”

“Lady Georgia Gold.”

As if startled by Ginger’s title, Dr. Brennan blinked with a jerk of his head.

Had he heard of her somehow? Ginger wondered.

“Jolly good,” he said, smiling. “Let’s crack on, then. I’m thrilled about the breakthroughs in modern forensic science, a valuable study for medical doctors and crime investigators alike. For example, the recent advances in blood typing not only assists doctors in making a proper diagnosis and giving proper treatment, but our friends at Scotland Yard can use blood analysis to solve crimes. As forensic pathologists, you will work closely with the police. Today, we’re going to talk about trace evidence, and how the smallest thing can be a big clue.”

Ginger leaned towards Haley and whispered, “Where’s Dr. Watts?”

Haley whispered back, “His wife is very ill. He’s recently taken leave to be with her.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” Ginger liked the elderly man, almost as much as Haley did. Dr. Watts was a highly esteemed forensic pathologist and an excellent mentor to Haley.

Ginger watched Dr. Watts’ replacement with interest. He wore a grey wool and cashmere suit with its cuff-bottom trousers. His blond and wavy hair, parted on the side, was oiled back behind small ears. The enthusiasm in his eyes showed his love for teaching, and the lines on his face proved that he smiled often.

“Forensic science is a burgeoning field, and the implications for crime detection and solution are exciting,” Dr. Brennan said. “Imagine, a simple fingerprint leading to a conviction. Under the same circumstances in former times, the culprit would’ve gotten away with murder.”

Dr. Brennan reached into the pocket of his waistcoat and removed a magnifying glass. “Our fictional friend, Sherlock Holmes, is never without one of these.” He presented it like a flag. “And neither should you be. Please access yours.”

Ginger reached into her handbag and removed a new magnifying glass from its protective velvet bag. She couldn’t believe she hadn’t procured one before now.

Dr. Brennan held a forefinger in the air. “Turn to the person next to you and compare each of your fingerprints. What pattern do you see? Arches? Whorls? Loops?”

“I already know what mine are,” Ginger said. “Do you?”

Haley scoffed. “Of course. My ridges form arches.”

Ginger laughed. “And mine, whorls.”

Ginger offered her palm and Haley gripped Ginger’s fingers, examining each one.

“You are correct,” Haley said, offering her fingertips for Ginger’s examination.

Ginger studied Haley’s ridges under her magnifying glass. “I find it amazing,” she said, “that, despite a mere three basic patterns, every single fingerprint is completely unique to its owner.”

Haley agreed. “So very unfortunate for the criminals around us.”

When the group had completed the task, Dr. Brennan said, “Now, take a look at the fabric of your frock. Examine each fibre and select one in particular. What colour is it? Is it bright and new or faded and worn? Is the texture smooth or rough? Perhaps there is a partial stain—what caused it? Tea? Wine? Blood?

Wanting to blend in with the student body, Ginger’s wardrobe choice was a soft pink Coco Chanel with a v-line dropped-waist wool dress trimmed in braids and buttons in the same fabric. She accessorized with a white cloche hat with black ribbons, nude silk stockings, and black Mary Jane leather shoes. Under the magnifying glass, the strands of wool looked like earthworms.

“I spilled a drop of coffee on my sleeve this morning,” Haley said, staring at the spot on her rayon blouse with her magnifying glass. “Even though I thought I’d cleaned it thoroughly with water, under the magnifying glass I can see traces of it remaining.”

“Let me see,” Ginger said, and Haley extended her arm towards her. Ginger hovered her own glass over the area. “Interesting. What once was hidden, has now been revealed.”


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Murder at the Mortuary