By Ed Staskus
Clyde Ferguson stumbled into the Queen Elizabeth Hospital mortuary room like he was seeing it for the first time, even though he had been the provincial pathologist for 11 years. He waited for the sharp stab in his left hip to go away. He felt unsteady. He steadied himself with one hand on the doorjamb. He was all right after a moment, as far as it went. His left heel wouldn’t flatten down to the floor. That leg had gotten shorter the past five years. He put his arms at his sides and breathed evenly.
The hospital was practically new. It was still in its infancy. He was getting older by the minute, which bothered him. “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 old and getting crippled to boot.
His hip hurt like hell and worse. He knew exactly what the matter was. It had finally gotten to be bone on bone. The day had always been coming. Walking and yoga and strong drink had forestalled the inevitable. But he had walked too much the past several 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 support himself on. He had three months left before his retirement became official. When it was signed and sealed, he was getting an after-market hip the next day, going back to Tracadie, and staying there. He would break it in and in the evening cut up fillets rather than dead folks.
He blinked in the fluorescent 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 some other place. It was Charlottetown, 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, Clyde 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 a body-sized 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. The blood went down a drain.
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 it began to die. After five minutes, if she hadn’t called it a day, 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 the 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 the examination he returned the organs and brain to the body. He sewed her back 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 coin introduced two years earlier to replace paper dollar bills, which had become too expensive to print. Everybody called them loonies after the loon on the reverse side.
Clyde looked at the spanking new coin smeared with old blood and older dirt. He put it 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 it. It felt reasonably ready to go. He would go to Chubby’s Roadhouse for lunch. 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, Clyde.”
“I’m on my way out for a bite to eat. Meet me at Chubby’s. So 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 Clyde 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. That proved to not be the case. Men and women died right and left from infections and dislocations.
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 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. So long as he could wake up and walk upright first thing in the morning, instead of staggering and grabbing for support, he would be a happy man.
Chubby’s Roadhouse and Bud’s Diner were next to each other in a pink and blue building on St. Peters Road in Dunstaffnage. They did brisk business. It was a popular pit stop for bikers on poker runs. It was why Pete Lambert had lunch or dinner there once a week, getting to know the riders. He kept his enemies close.
“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.” Clarence was both the Chubby and the Bud.
Dances were held in the back of the building with local bands. Haywire was a summer favorite. 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 liked to smoke but loved cars more. They gave up cigarettes to save money. Instead of going up in smoke their savings went toward buying heaps nobody else wanted and restoring them. They offered to buy Bernie Doiron’s VW Beetle, but he said, “It ain’t no antique.” 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.”
Clyde and Pete ate inside at a back table. It wasn’t the warmest day, although it was sunny. They had Bud Burgers and cold pints. There were only a handful pf people having a late lunch.
“How’s the hip?” Pete asked.
“Hellzapoppin’,” Clyde 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 own 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 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. She wasn’t killed on that field, although her arm was probably cut off there. The last cut there 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, freezing and thawing day after day, and it led to a deep frost.
“Her arm was probably cut off by an axe, sharp as hell, clean as a whistle. Whoever did it, like the fist, is a strong man or woman. Why it was cut off, since she was already dead when it happened, 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?”
“Yes, what we could get, which wasn’t much of anything, but they will do.”
It was shop talk. Pete knew everything 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 can require urgent surgery. The alternative is blindness.
“If that happened, where would the eye have been 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 police officer said, paying the bill when the waitress stopped at their table. What thin 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 was driving an unmarked police car, although it was clearly an official car. Clyde was driving a Buick Electra station wagon. He could lay a corpse out in the back if he had to. They shook hands and went their separate ways.
Five hours later a biker riding a red motorcycle approached the roadhouse, swerving to avoid a 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 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 at Chubby’s knew whose motorcycle it was. At the bar he ordered a Bud Burger and a cold pint.
“How’s the eye?” the bartender asked. “It looks good. At least, 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 more blind than not 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.”
He ate fast and downed his beer. When he left, he paid cash with a new one-hundred-dollar bill.
“Where do you keep finding these?” the bartender asked.
“Pennies from heaven, my man, pennies from the main man” the biker said, leaving him a tip of a half dozen shiny loonies.
Getting on his glam motorcycle in the dusk he thought, I’ve got to be more careful about that.
Excerpted from “Blood Lines” at http://www.redroadpei.com.
Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com.