By Ed Staskus
Malcolm Ferguson walked into the Queen Elizabeth Hospital mortuary room like he was seeing it for the first time, even though he had been PEI’s pathologist for 11 years. He waited for the sharp stab in his left hip to relent. He felt woozy. He steadied himself with one arm on the doorjamb. He was steady after a moment, even though his left heel wouldn’t flatten down to the floor. He put his arms at his sides and breathed evenly.
The hospital was practically new. It was in its infancy. He was getting older by the minute, which bothered him, even though the older he got the older he wanted to be. “Getting old is no problem,” is what Groucho Marx said. “You just have to live long enough.” But sometimes he didn’t feel like he was just getting old, he felt like he was getting dead.
His hip hurt like hell. He knew exactly what the matter was. It had finally gotten to be bone on bone. The day had always been coming. Stretching and lengthening and walking and drinking had forestalled the inevitable. But he walked too much the past few days. When the weather had gotten better, he drove to Brackley Beach, and walked two miles back and forth three days in a row. That was a mistake. It wasn’t the same as his treadmill, which had arm rails he could steady and even support himself on. He had three months left before his resignation became official. When he was done, he was getting a hip replacement the next day, going back to Tracadie, and staying there. He would heal up and fish and carve up fillets rather than folks stiff as boards.
He blinked in the bright light, wondering why there were two tables set up for him. When he remembered the arm, he remembered he was going to have to do two post-mortems, one on the arm and one on the young woman who the arm belonged to.
Her death was being treated as the result of criminal activity. If it was some place bigger than Charlottetown the post-mortem would have been performed by a forensic pathologist. They investigate deaths where there are legal implications, like a suspected murder. But it wasn’t any other place. It was Charlottetown. It was the smallest capital city of the smallest province in Canada. It would have to do, and he would have to do it.
When he was suited up, Malcom stood over the dead woman and blinked his fly-belly blue eyes. She was on her back on a stainless-steel cadaver table. It was essentially a slanted tray with raised edges to keep fluids from flowing onto the floor. There was running water to wash away the blood that is released during the procedure.
She hadn’t been shot or stabbed. Her face was a mess, though. It took him a minute to see what it was that had killed her. Her skull was fractured. Parts of the broken skull had pressed into the brain. It swelled and cut off access to blood by squeezing shut the arteries and blood vessels that supply it. As the brain swelled it grew larger than the skull that held it and begin to press outside of it into the nasal cavity, out of the ears, and through the fracture.
After a minute her brain began to die. After five minutes, if she hadn’t died, she would have suffered irreversible brain damage. One way or the other it was the end of her.
He got down to the rest of his work, making a long incision down the front of her body to remove the internal organs and examine them. A single incision across the back of the head allowed the top of her skull to be removed so the brain could be examined. He saw what he expected to see. He examined everything carefully with the naked eye. If dissection had been necessary to look for any abnormalities, such as blood clots or tumors, he would have done it, but what was the point?
After his examination he returned the organs and brain to the body. He sewed her up. When he turned his attention to the arm, he saw clearly enough it had been chopped off with one clean blow. The axe, or whatever it was, must have been new or even newer. In any case, it was as sharp as could be. Her hand was clenched in a fist. He had to break her fingers to loosen it. When he did, he found a loonie in her palm. It was Canada’s one-dollar gold-colored coin introduced two years earlier to replace paper dollar bills, which had become too expensive to print. Everybody called them loonies after the solitary loon gracing the reverse side.
Malcolm looked at the brand-new looking coin smeared with dried blood and dirt.
“What the hell?” he muttered to himself.
He put the coin in a plastic bag and labelled it. He recorded everything on a body diagram and verbally on a cassette tape. He put the loonie, diagram, and tape in a pouch and labelled it. When he was done, he washed up and decided to go eat. After that he would call it a day. The work had warmed him up and he wasn’t limping as much as he had earlier. He tested his hip, lifting his leg at the knee and rotating. He would drive to Chubby’s Roadhouse for lunch, he decided. They had the best burgers on the island.
The phone rang. It was Pete Lambert, the Commanding Officer of the RCMP Queens detachment.
“What have you found out, Malcolm.”
“I’m on my way to lunch right now. Meet me at Chubby’s. As long as the force pays, I’ll tell you everything I know.”
“I’ll meet you there in twenty minutes.”
Chubby’s was 15 minutes from the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and 20 minutes from the RCMP station.
While he was driving Malcolm thanked God it was 1989 and metallic hip replacements were as good as they had ever been. The first hip replacements dated back a hundred years to when ivory implants were used to replace the femoral head. Elephant tusks were cheap at the time and were thought to possess good biomechanical properties.
Fifty years later an American surgeon performed the first metallic hip replacement. He designed a prosthesis with a large head made of something he called Vitallium. The implant was around 12 inches in length and attached with bolts to the end of the femoral shaft. It worked like a charm. That same prosthesis is what he would be getting, except it was better and the implant would be inserted within the canal of the femur, where bone growth would lead to more permanent attachment. As long as he could wake up and walk first thing in the morning, instead of staggering and grabbing for support, he would be a happy fisherman.
Chubby’s Roadhouse and Bud’s Diner were next to each other in a pink and baby blue building on St. Peters Road in Dunstaffnage. They did a brisk business. It was a popular pit stop for bikers on poker runs. It was why Pete Lambert had lunch or dinner there two and three times a week, getting to know the riders.
“We serve burgers and fries and shakes, and fish and chips and clams and all that stuff,” Clarence Foster said. “But I think as far as the burger goes, the best, the one that everybody seems to like is called the Bud Burger.”
Dances were held in the back of the building with local bands like Haywire. Teenagers with ice cream cones gathered around the pinball machines at the front. Drinkers stayed at the bar, drinking. The bikers ate their Bud Burgers outside during the day and drank inside during the night.
“We have wedding receptions and things like that,” Clarence said. He told the bikers about them in advance, so that nobody ended up stepping on anybody else’s toes.
The Spoke Wheel Car Museum was next door. Clarence and his father, Ray, shared an appreciation for old cars. They both stopped smoking when cigarettes were less than four bits a pack. Instead of up in smoke their savings went toward buying heaps and restoring them. By 1969, they had 13 cars, including a 1930 Ford Model A Coach that Clarence drove. It was how the roadhouse and diner came into being.
“People were coming to the museum and looking for a place to eat,” he said. “Since my dad was a cook in the army, we decided to build a little canteen and it just kept on growing.”
It wasn’t the warmest day, although it was sunny. Malcolm and Pete ate inside at a back table. They had Bud Burgers and pints.
“How’s the hip?” Pete asked.
“Hellzapoppin’,” Malcom said.
“Is that the official word?”
“It’s how I feel. I’ve got two months and 29 days from now circled on my calendar.”
They ate and small talked.
“Find anything out?” Pete asked, finishing his burger and hand-cut fries. The food was good because the beef and potatoes came from the island. It would be a trifecta once islanders started up their breweries.
“It will be in my report tomorrow, but since you’re interested, I’ll summarize it. She died of a fractured skull. There was tissue not hers on her face and in her hair. I want to say she was hit by a hard human fist that got scuffed up doing it. She had alfalfa on and in her clothes. More than a brush of silage, enough to make me think she was on a dairy farm long enough to roll around in it. The last cut was in late August, so she was put in the ground sometime between then and no later than the end of October.”
Thousands of acres of potatoes on the island the last fall were left in the ground. Heavy rain and cold temperatures put a damper on the harvest. There was too much rain and cold weather, freezing and thawing, that led to a deep frost.
“Her arm was probably cut off by an axe, sharp, clean as a whistle. Whoever did it, like the fist, is a strong man or woman. Why it was cut off, since I think she was already dead, is for you to find out. She had a loonie clenched in her missing hand. It was a 1988 issue. No prints other than hers on it.”
“Are her prints in the report?”
It was shop talk. Pete knew her prints and a batch of photographs would be part of the report.
“She wasn’t molested or abused. I don’t think she had eaten for several days. There wasn’t anything remarkable about her teeth, none missing, one filling. She was in her early twenties, five foot five, 118 pounds, green eyes, light brown hair, no moles, birthmarks, or tattoos. She was healthy as a horse.”
“One more thing. I think she might have poked somebody in the eye. There was retinal fluid and blood under the fingernails of the first two fingers on the cut-off arm. Her nails were 7 mm long and almond shaped, perfect for poking. It wasn’t her blood, either.”
Blunt trauma to the eye can cause the retina to tear. It can lead to retinal detachment. It usually requires urgent surgery. The alternative is blindness.
“If that happened, where would the eye be treated?” Pete asked.
“At a hospital or a large eye clinic.”
“What happens if it’s not treated?”
“Kiss goodbye to that eye.”
“I see,” the RCMP officer said, paying the bill when the waitress stopped at their table. What crowd there had been had cleared out. It was the middle of the afternoon. When the two men went out to their cars, they were the only two cars in the front lot. Pete Lambert was driving an unmarked police car, although it was clearly an official car. Malcom Ferguson was driving a 1985 Buick Electra station wagon. They shook hands and went their separate ways.
Five hours later a lone biker approached the roadhouse, swerving to avoid a battered fox. There was always more roadkill in the spring and fall. Skunks and raccoons were the most common, although foxes weren’t always as quick and slippery as their reputation. He pulled up, parked, and went inside. He left the key in the ignition. His red Kawasaki Ninja had an inline four cylinder, 16 valve, liquid cooled engine with a top speed above 240 KPH. He had already made that speed and more. He knew nobody was going to mess with his bike because everybody knew whose it was. At the bar he ordered a Bud Burger and a pint.
“How’s the eye?” the bartender asked. “It looks good. No more pirate’s patch.”
“Yeah, but I waited too long to get it fixed,” the biker said. “The doc says I’ll probably be mostly blind in that eye from here on. It doesn’t matter, I can still see enough out of the other one to take care of my business.”
When he left, he paid cash with a new one-hundred-dollar bill.
“Where do you keep finding these?” the bartender asked.
“They fall down from heaven, my man,” the biker said, leaving him a tip of a half dozen loonies.
Getting on his glam motorcycle in the darkness he thought, I’ve got to be more careful about that.
Excerpted from the crime thriller “Red Road.”
Photograph by Clarence Foster.
Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”