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Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Halloween-2 - the sepulchral place

I got fed up waiting for a publisher to grab this book after it was out-of-print, despite the good reviews, so have self-published it as a paperback and e-book under the new title Chill of the Shadow. (amendment: 27/10/2017)
Closer to Halloween still. This excerpt from Death is Another Life introduces the heroine, Maria. The scene in the autopsy room is a good 1,000 words longer than shown here, comprising back-story blending in with more character-building; I’ve excised it (without scalpel) in an attempt to keep this blog relatively short. The next excerpt will introduce the villain – or hero perhaps…
Map of Maltese islands

Story so far: a woman's body fished out of the sea...

CHAPTER 1: The deprived womb

Maria Caruana had been covering a child’s hit-and-run death for her newspaper when the ambulance crew brought in the young woman’s body.
            Hit-and-run was rare on Malta. Yet, even with a speed-limit in built-up areas of 25 – and 40mph elsewhere – and the sorry state of most roads mitigate against high speeds, fatal accidents were quite frequent. The islands boast about one car for every three people and at times they all seem to converge at the same destination at the same time, and that’s usually when she’s approaching a junction or roundabout in a hurry. And she was usually in a hurry. Panel-beating and car-repairs were growth industries in Malta.
            The only witness to the hit-and-run thought the culprit had been driving a blue Morris 1000. This information had made her friend Detective Sergeant Attard, the police investigator, blanch – Morrises were very common on the island. The police had begun calling in all cars answering the description when Maria stumbled upon a suspect vehicle in the grounds of a foreign Consulate in Floriana. While the political implications caused dithering, Maria, enraged by the diplomatic considerations, visited the morgue to see the dead child. She had every intention of writing a sensational and damning account for her paper, Niggez.


            The morgue always affected her the same way, as though she had been immersed in a freezing cold bath and was only now drying out. Outside it may be a sunny mid-April day, but in here it was perpetual winter, uncompromisingly chilly ­– cold, appropriately like death. Air conditioning hummed from the ceiling. The white coverall over her peach embroidered cotton blouse and white skirt didn’t help, either. As she strolled down the sloping corridor, the rubber boots flapped noisily as they were two sizes too large. Fortunately, she didn’t have far to walk in them.
            She pushed open the swing door of the autopsy room.
            Dressed in green scrubs, the tall bony figure of her father Dr. Nicholas Caruana stood beside the woman’s waxy pale body on the metal table. He lifted up his weary gaze and the overhead strip-lights glared whitely on his spectacle lenses, concealing his eyes. He smiled a brief welcome to Maria as she entered.
            A smile seemed out of place here, she thought.
            He waved a bony hand distended with the blue tracery of tired old veins, beckoning.
            Seeing the naked woman’s corpse already slit open, Maria felt her skin crawl and her stomach tightened. Bile rose to the back of her throat but she swallowed her distaste and offered, “Sorry I’m late, Dad.”
            He snapped on a pair of sterile latex gloves and said in his cultured soft voice, “No problem. I haven’t started yet.”
            Maria did a double-take. The woman was cut from the upper chest down to the crotch. Now she realized that it was not her father’s usual ‘Y’ incision that extends across the chest from shoulder to shoulder and continues down the front of the abdomen to the pubis. The shape of the cut appeared to be reversed, in fact, and this alone made her blood run cold.
            Dr. Caruana directed his assistants to the next table where the little girl from the hit-and-run lay. He eyed them over his glasses and sighed, and then turned to her and whispered, “Take a good look here, Maria.” He shook his balding head, leathery lined features drawn, pallid. “Here, you’ll find all the evidence you need of our waning culture, the tide of violence besetting our Islands. Write it all, show the people the blood and gore!”
            His astringent tone surprised her but she shrugged it off, accepted his invitation and looked at the corpse.
            Stark lighting was not flattering and had little need to be. Under the harsh lights, the marred beauty of the woman touched Maria.
            The dead woman was in her mid-twenties, her long black hair lank and wet. Congealed blood glistened darkly all around the gaping wound. Her flesh was bloated, as if she had been immersed in water for some time, and there were many bruises, doubtless caused by the rocks and the buffeting of the waves.
            “Where’d they find her?” The croak in her voice sounded unnatural. This was her fourth visit to the mortuary yet the effect was no less traumatic for all the familiarity.
            He grunted, professional eyes scanning the corpse. “Fishermen off Delimara Point. About three hours ago. They hauled her in on their nets and radioed the police.” He peeled back the woman’s lips and shone a torch into the dead mouth; light glinted on the faultless white teeth.
Delimara Point

            The smell of formaldehyde and disinfectant clogged her nostrils, but could not completely relieve the stench of faeces, bodily gases and brine. She picked up a tube and squeezed out some cream and spread it on her upper lip to combat the bad odours.
            While his finger searched the mouth for any blockage or seaweed, he added, “The local policeman’s apparently having some difficulty getting any sense out of them. Very superstitious, those fishermen–”
            “Superstitious? What about?”
            “Suicides – a mortal sin, some of them think. And while I wouldn’t be so doctrinaire, I tend to agree with them. She’s been dead a good day and a half, I should say.”
            Maria nodded. She had a good memory, which was just as well for she doubted if she would be able to hold a pencil steady enough to make notes.
            He switched on the micro-recorder on his lapel and measured the size of the incisions in the woman’s stomach and chest and read out the details. He checked the scales by his side. “Lungs, 1.2 kilograms,” he read out, and placed the lungs in a plastic bag at the base of the table.
            Then he glanced up and said, “I see you’re wearing your mother’s necklace.”
            She fingered the crucifix. “Her dying wish, remember?” She added defiantly, “It doesn’t change how I feel about religion.”
            “Maria, Maria, you were always too hard on her beliefs.” He removed the victim’s heart and placed it on the scales. “Heart: 280 grams.” Automatically, he switched off the recorder. “I envied her deep faith, you know. As a scientist, I’ve lost that simplicity, that sureness.”
            “But, Dad, you were never close.”
            He shook his head, lifting the heart and bagging it and putting it alongside the lungs. “We were, my dear. You were too young to notice. When she left, taking you to America, a light went out in my world.” Now it was the liver’s turn for the scales and he switched on the recorder. “Liver: 1.4 kilograms.”
            “But you never came after us!”
            “I wanted to, but my work–”
            “You were always bringing the smell of death home.”
            “So – I’m grateful you brought her back, even if only to die here.”
            “It’s what she wanted.” She felt tears gathering at the corners of her eyes. “All I wanted was for you two to get on again. Make her last days happy...”
            He shrugged. “I tried, but–”
            “Those big cuts – they’re almost like knife–” She stopped in mid-sentence as he lifted up a long cord-like appendage from the gruesome gash. It resembled a bloodless worm, engorged with fat and speckled with dried blood.
            With sudden, sickening realization, she backed away. “Oh, the umbilical cord – good God, Dad, she was pregnant!”
            “Not here, Maria.” he said urgently. His face was red. He glanced at his assistants ministering to the child victim: they seemed to accept his eccentricity and kept busy and out of his way.
            “Where’s her baby?” Maria whispered, her brow fevered and hot, her stomach squirming.
            He turned back to the corpse and concealed the gaping womb with his angular body.
            “Oh, God, the baby was cut out of her, wasn’t it?”
            “Dad, I don’t deal in probabilities – only facts!”
            “I don’t want to discuss this here,” he said softly, faintly. “I’ll speak to you later.”
            Maria shivered. She looked around at the sepulchral place. On the shelves were bottles, retorts, burners, periodicals and notebooks, journals and logs. The assistants had logged this woman in – Maria had watched them follow a set routine more than once – complete with her toe-tag resembling a luggage label, just like a mail office, or her paper’s dispatch room.
            The bizarre image of the deprived womb held on her retina, wouldn’t go away.

This book is now out of print - until further notice!
NB - Niggez is Maltese for 'sting'

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