Disclaimer: The characters of Xena and Gabrielle are the property of Universal Studios and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement is intended. The characters and events in the Murder Mystery Series are the creation of the author.
To Lisa, Inga and Susan, my deepest thanks for their hard work as my beta readers.
Warning: This story is alternative fiction. Please do not read on if you are under age or if such material is illegal in your end of the swamp.
A Special Warning: This story has a graphic and realistic description of the forensic investigations involved in an airliner crash. It is a dark story involving a psychopathic killer. Some strong language is used. This story might upset more sensitive readers.
You can contact Anne Azel at <firstname.lastname@example.org> or visit the Anne Azel's World web site at <www.jes.com.au/~azel> Anne's books are also available through Dare 2 Dream Publishers
Aliki lay in bed reading a book while her partner, Dawn, chatted away to Robbie Williams about the wedding ceremony that would be happening in two weeks. Aliki was looking forward to publicly recognizing Dawn as her partner and legally adopting Dawn's daughter, Mac, as her own. At least, most of the time she was looking forward to the wedding ceremony. Sometimes, it scared the hell out of her. With commitment came a raft of responsibilities, she knew this from having helped raise her brothers. Was she ready to take on that responsibility again? Did her profession, that dealt so often with the criminal world, lend itself to a secure family life?
The famous actor-director Robbie Williams and her partner, Janet, were hosting the wedding ceremony in their northern Ontario home. A few years back, Aliki had discovered that she and Robbie were half sisters. The relationship between the two of them since had been close but stormy.
"Robbie wants to know what kind of flowers we want," Dawn asked, turning to look at her preoccupied partner.
"Alive would be nice," Aliki drawled from behind her book.
Dawn pulled a face and listened to what Robbie had to say about Aliki's response. "Robbie said I should dump you and run off with the Avon Lady."
Aliki looked up from her book with steely eyes. "I think we should have sprays of white roses for the purity of our love on a bed of colourful Autumn leaves to reflect the depth and richness of our family. I have talked to Mac and she would like navy ribbons on the bouquets with gold Maple Leaf medallions."
Dawn blinked. "You made that up just now."
Aliki went back to her book. "You will never know for sure and Mac did express a few views over her cereal bowl the other morning."
Dawn gave her lover an affectionate swat and finished her conversation about the wedding plans. Robbie and Janet were going all out to make it a very special day for them. Putting the receiver down in its cradle, Dawn snuggled close to Aliki. She didn't think she could be happier.
Aliki had only just put her book away and turned the light off when the phone beside her bed rang. Aliki's two phones, one in the kitchen and one in the bedroom, were on a separate line. They were used for business. As a forensic anthropologist working out of the Toronto laboratories, Aliki could be called at any time night or day to respond to an investigation involving human remains.
"Pateas," she identified herself abruptly and listened to the voice on the other end. "I'm on my way."
Aliki slipped from their bed and started getting dressed. Dawn turned on a light. "What is going on?"
"Sorry love, I'll be gone a few days at least. There is a plane down."
A plane is down. The words sent a chill through Aliki. She had worked several crashes when she had been with Interpol. Those four words evoked scenes of such carnage that even the most violent of horror stories would not come close to portraying it. Unconsciously, she rubbed her hands together. It was her particular psychological reaction. They all had one. In the next few weeks, she would compulsively wash her hands over and over again until they were red and raw.
A plane is down. In this case a 747. It would mean six million separate parts produced in thirty-three different countries, one hundred miles of electrical wire, and three hundred tons of twisted aluminium and fittings spread over an area as great as one thousand square miles.
A plane is down. It fell five miles, breaking up as it did so. When it hit the ground, it would be recorded first as earth quake action on near by seismograms. Approximately a 1.6 on the Richter Scale. Some of the large pieces, such as the engines or landing gear, would create craters fifteen to twenty feet deep.
That was simply the hardware of a crash. It was the collateral damage that left images that made sleep a thing to fear. A flight crew plus, twenty-one first class passengers, seventy-seven business class, and three hundred and twenty-two economy passengers. They too would be scattered over a wide area in bits and pieces. A loss alone of over 700 gallons of blood.
How do you explain that to anyone who has not been there? You can't, you simply say in hushed tones, "A plane is down."
Aliki sat in one of the aft jump seats of the helicopter next to Dr. Bates. They didn't talk. There was nothing to discuss yet, and the noise of the engine made talking nearly impossible. She stared straight ahead at a green canvas harness that swung back and forth from a velcro fastener on the grey fuselage. She was acutely aware of everything around her. Her senses seemed sharpened by the crisis. The air had an oily metallic smell with overlays of stale body sweat, canvas, and dust. The blades over head caused a tremble through-out and a throbbing roar. The fabric of her jump suit was coarse and stiff under her finger tips. She took it in and tried to focus on this ride. Let it be the lingering memory and not the images of the days ahead.
It was still dark when they arrived at the site. They ran hunched from the 'copter like scavenger beetles. One of the crewmen followed with their bags, leaving them in the grass just beyond the range of the major turbulence then running to climb back aboard. The craft was soon air borne again, leaving the two of them cowering in its turbulence.
When the dust settled, Bates moved off towards a cluster of police and emergency vehicles, their lights pulsating red into the night. The floodlights set up by the police and the fire department gave the area a surreal look. "Who is in charge?" Bates asked, as he walked over to a trailer with a makeshift cardboard sign that read 'Command centre - report in'. He held up his identification card in the light of the doorway for the officer to read. "I'm Dr. Bates and over there is Dr. Pateas. We'll be in charge of your forensic recovery unit." Aliki had been left to tote the two gym bags in which their gear was kept. Dr. Tomas Bates headed the forensic unit out of Toronto and rank had privilege.
"Captain Brian Oleskow, the Barrie attachment, Sir," came the response from a young officer who stood in the doorway. His attempt at confidence did not hide the nervous energy that he was trying his best to control.
"I know Oleskow, Dr. Bates," stated Aliki, coming up and dropping the bags to the ground by the trailer door. "He took the course I ran two years ago on handling a major disaster. He did well. Asked a lot of intelligent questions. He's seen his share of major accidents out on the highway near here with the traffic heading out of the city each weekend for the cottage country."
Bates nodded. "Good. Then we can hope all the correct procedures have been taken. "Where can we find Captain Oleskow," Bates squinted at the man's name tag, "Officer Richmond?" Bates liked to call people by their name. Aliki never bothered.
"He's out on the site, Sir. The people from the airline are here and he wouldn't let them stay on site unsupervised. He said the site has to be left alone until the right personnel arrived. You have to sign the order of entry form before you can go on site, Sir." The officer swayed back and forth in the doorway anxious to do things right and afraid that he would make a mistake. He had only been on the force a few months. He'd seen one bad car accident but this was different. This was going to be awful. He tried to look serious. A lot of people had probably died but what he felt was a mounting sense of excitement, of being there, when things happened. He didn't think he should be feeling like that but he couldn't help himself.
Bates cleared his voice. "Officer Richmond, if you were to step aside, Dr. Pateas and I could come in and sign the entry form."
Richmond jumped as if he'd been poked. "Yes, Sir."
Aliki smiled. Bates could be a bugger. He was having a bit of fun with the young officer. She was pleased that Captain Oleskow seemed to be doing things by the book. "Officer Richmond, do you know if Captain Oleskow has issued a press statement yet?"
Richmond unconsciously shifted his weight to the balls of his feet so he was almost as tall as the serious and good looking woman who stood in front of him. Her hair was dark and her face classically beautiful. She was in great shape too. Although he was trying his best not to look. "Yes, Dr. Pateas, he issued a statement that the area is closed to all but rescue personnel and that all efforts are being made to search for and assist survivors." Pateas nodded her approval. Richmond frowned. He wondered if he should tell her that Oleskow had not yet let ambulance and fire fighters out on the site. Better not, loyalty should remain with his commanding officer. Yet he wondered why the Captain was not doing more to help those people.
Bates had seen the look of concern and indecision on Richmond's face. He put his hand on the young officer's shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze. "Don't worry about it son. Everything is being done that can be done for those people."
"Yes Sir," Richmond responded, blushing bright red. He hadn't been aware that his feelings had shown so clearly.
"Now just step outside and toss in our bags. We need to change before heading out on the site." The officer was quick to obey. He, like the others who had been standing around since they arrived an hour ago, were unsure as to what was going on and why they had not been allowed on the site to help. Other than being ordered to make a list of all the people, police, ambulance personnel, and firefighters who were standing by, he'd done nothing but wait.
He tried to keep out of the way as the two forensic people slipped into overalls and work boots and put on hard hats with miner lights, masks, safety glasses and latex gloves that they covered with thick leather work gloves. Each carried a plastic clipboard as they carefully climbed up a wooded ridge to the main area of impact on the other side. Richmond watched from the doorway for sometime and then went back inside the trailer to wait some more.
"Dr. Pateas, good to see you again," called Oleskow as he saw the two carefully making their way into the hollow. Relief was evident on his face. "This is Brenda Hardy, our Fire Chief. We've kept the site secure except for the initial survey and putting up the police tape. The airline people are here though. They're over there painting. They say the tail section is about a half mile to the north-east in some farmer's field. They got people there too and I've got an officer on the scene. We have instructed the media to stay in a hanger by the local airport. I thought it would give them a good backdrop. We've got several helicopters flying over though with search lights filming."
"Sounds like you have things in good shape," stated Aliki and Oleskow let go of some of the tension that had been mounting in his neck and shoulders. There was going to be an enquiry that was for sure and he wanted his department looking good. "This is the head of the forensic unit, Dr. Thomas Bates."
Bates shook Oleskow's and Hardy's hands. "Good to be working with you. Give us a few hours and then you can let the recovery teams on site. Where is the temporary morgue set up?"
It was Hardy who answered. "We are using the old skating rink. It is about twelve miles from here. I have people there getting things set up according to the information provided in the emergency measures binder. My people are keeping the press out too."
Bates smiled, pleased by how well things were going. So often, the area of a disaster gets swamped by would be rescuers trampling the evidence into the dirt. Or worse still, efficiency is lost because of departments questioning each other's authority. "Good. You two have done a splendid job. Captain Hardy, you could allow the press in for a tour of our temporary morgue to show that we are on top of things before we start moving bodies out. Make sure, however, you do that after Captain Oleskow has sent the second press statement that there has been a loss of life."
Oleskow nodded. " I'll get on that right now if you want."
Bates nodded. "Yes, you'd better. The press will know by now that a morgue has been set up. It is better that we stay ahead of them by releasing the statement that lives have been lost. Then give them the tour of the preparations at the rink. Someone is sure to ask how many are dead. For now, the answer is simply that search and rescue teams are at the crash area and all possible preparations are being taken for any eventuality."
Hardy looked grim. "I'll let my people at the morgue know what to expect and what to answer. Doctor Bates, my crews and the ambulance attendants are getting pretty upset. They want to know why they are not out on the site helping."
"I'll go with you and have a little word with them before I go on site. Where are the families of the passengers being sent?"
Oleskow was looking tired but he sounded confident and clear headed when he spoke. "We have councellors and airline representatives standing by at the Community Centre conference room. I've also arranged with the major motels in the area to hold their rooms for arriving family members."
Aliki couldn't help a smile of pride. Oleskow had done a super job in less than an hour's time. Bates echoed her thoughts. "Excellent, you have done a wonderful job here. Well, Doctor Pateas, I suppose we should get on with ours. I'll go with Captain Hardy and do the first crew briefing. You go see what the airline chaps have come up with."
Aliki's face hardened again into grim lines. "Yes, Sir."
The airline emergency and recovery crew are often on the scene as quickly as the rescue personnel if not sooner. As a matter of courtesy, they are always notified first when a plane drops off the radar screen. Once they arrive on site, they take aerial photographs if possible, pin pointing the various wreckage. The next step is to paint out the logos of the company. Human memory is short. In a few years people will ask, do you remember that plane that went down? They will have forgotten the name of the airline the plane belonged to. A photo lasts a much longer time. So the logos are removed.
"Aliki! Good to see you. I don't think our paths have crossed since that conference in Paris. How are you doing?" asked a big, burly man with a large nose standing on the edge of an impact crater.
"Kyle Ragle, it has been a while," Aliki responded, and then acknowledged the slight man with greying hair at Ragle's side. "Hi Mo."
"How do you do, Aliki. Very good to be working with you again." Mo Rashid and Kyle Ragle were like Mutt and Jeff. Where one was so was the other. They had worked together for the airline for years. Kyle was a widower, Aliki knew, with a married daughter. Mo was married with three grown sons. Those that worked crash sites were a small, tightly knit group. Their experiences and realities were like no others; they were bonded by their memories.
Aliki looked down into the crater. "What have we got here?"
"Landing gear and about three metres of the port side of the fuselage directly behind the wing. We've got pieces scattered for bloody miles." Aliki nodded and started down the yellow ladder that leaned on the crater side.
Mo called down to her. "You let us know if you find any of the crew." Aliki nodded her understanding. The crew members were the most vulnerable because they were rarely strapped in. During decompression, they could be sucked out of the plane and often their remains were found miles from the impact site. Flight personnel were close. Every effort would be made to find their colleagues remains.
The smell of fresh paint, fuel and burnt flesh grew stronger as she continued down. She had already seen the charred bones sticking up from the wreckage. Her work had started.
Bates stood surrounded by a sullen looking crowd. "I know this is hard for you and it is going to get harder. You have not been allowed on site because there are no survivors. There are never any survivors from such a crash. It just doesn't happen. Once my partner and I have done a sweep of the area you will be allowed on the site. You will please stay within the pathways that have been marked with yellow police tape when entering and exiting the site. We do not want any evidence trampled. Do not remove any body parts until you have the okay from one of the forensic team. Please wear a pair of thick gloves and safety boots. There is a lot of sharp metal on site. Lastly, watch where you are stepping. There is no hurry for these people now but we would like to solve the riddle of their senseless death. That is the least we can do for them. Any questions?"
A sullen looking ambulance attendant crossed his arms over his chest and looked at Bates with contempt. "Seems to me there is always a chance of someone surviving. The radio said that we are looking for survivors. Why aren't we?"
"I repeat there are none. You will realize that when you see for yourselves the devastation. We do not tell the public that immediately. It would not be fair when family members are on the roads trying to get here or the airline has not yet been able to track down a next of kin. Gradually, over the next few days, we will remove their hope. Let's give them something to cling to until they can be helped through this terrible loss by trained emergency personnel. It is a white lie for a greater good. Please respect that and don't talk about it to the press, your families, or friends, not yet."
That said Bates left Hardy to organize her people while he returned to the site. He and Aliki methodically searched for body pieces amongst the wreckage, in trees and undergrowth, or partly buried in the dirt. Some bodies were relatively intact. Two men sat side by side in their seats still, their heads bent forward as if asleep. Only their legs were missing and most of their clothes. The sudden pressure drop and air travelling at five hundred miles an hour had ripped and shredded clothes leaving most of the victims nearly naked. Aliki made notes and then used a marker to write on a strip of plastic the location of the bodies when found and the number on the arm of their seats. These two would be easily identified. The tags were clipped onto their ears. Then a coloured plastic flag was stuck in the ground. They had three colours indicating the level of mutilation. Red indicated body parts only, yellow a body almost intact, green a body damaged but whole. The pattern these flags left would help investigators piece together the source of the fuselage's failure.
Mostly though it was just parts. An arm lying on a boulder, a foot with no toes buried in leaves, a torso still in a twisted seat missing its head and limbs. The horrors went on and on. Gradually, more and more of their forensic colleagues arrived, working quietly among the twisted bits and pieces, hunting through underbrush and leaves, and scanning tree branches. Each piece was carefully tagged and left for the ambulance attendants and fire fighters to dump into body bags and load on stretchers to carry out.
Dawn brightened to daylight and the extent of the damage could now be seen better. As Ragle had observed, the carnage stretched for miles. The army was going to have to be called in to mop up. They would walk shoulder to shoulder along the debris trail looking for even the smallest of pieces. There would be millions, some of them once human. Another group would walk across the lands down wind of the crash looking for light material carried by the wind. Clothes from luggage, papers, seat covers, all sorts of debris would be found, sometimes hundreds of miles away.
"Aliki," Bates called from some distance away, "we are meeting at the command trailer for lunch and a debriefing. Let's go." Aliki nodded and carefully picked her way to one of the now well worn paths that would lead her to the main path and off the site.
She pulled off her gloves and put them on a bush. Then she pulled off her plastic gloves and used a disinfectant to wash her hands several times, rinsing them at a tank set up by the fire department. There was a strong smell of feces and vomit in the air. The scent of horror.
They sat around on lawn chairs, provided by a local hardware store, in a circle under a few trees. They ate sandwiches that had been prepared for them by a local church auxiliary. Aliki's was peanut butter and jam. There was now quite a large group of forensic personnel assembled from various forensic teams and auxiliary personnel. There was little talking. Faces were grim and strained with emotional and physical fatigue. Behind them, others worked on bringing out the human remains in plastic body bags on stretchers.
Aliki sipped at her coffee from a paper cup. The coffee was black and very sweet. Its warmth helped revive her. It had been supplied in big plastic containers from the local coffee and donut store as a community service. Tragedy of this sort brought out the finer qualities of humanity.
"I'm going to phone Dawn,"she mumbled to her boss who sat at her side sucking on his pipe with some enjoyment. In the office, he was not allowed to light up. Here in the open no one objected.
Bates nodded. "The meeting will be at thirteen hundred."
Aliki wandered down the dirt road a bit to take her away from the noise of the rescue workers and give her some privacy. She pulled out her cell phone and punched in Dawn's number. It was answered immediately. Not before, however, Aliki's sharp eyes had caught sight of a decapitated head cracked in two staring back at her from the shallow ditch. She turned her back on it.
Dawn knew by the strain in that one word greeting that things were bad. Her voice softened. "How is it going, Lover? It's been on TV. They showed pictures of a temporary morgue they have set up. Are you there? They are now saying there has been a loss of life. Is it bad?"
Aliki skirted the issue. "It is never good. I am still at the site of the crash. I don't know when I'll be assigned to the morgue but I suspect soon. We have a good crew. Things are going okay. We have a debriefing in a few minutes."
Dawn curbed her curiosity recognizing in the clipped report that Aliki was not able to talk freely. "That's good. I miss you, Hon."
"I miss you too. Sorry I had to walk out on all the arrangements."
"No you are not," Dawn gently teased. "I know you have a tough job there and that you need to get back to work. Just feel my love, okay?"
"I do, sweetheart. My love to you and Mac. I'll phone...I don't know, tonight sometime," Aliki finished with a sigh of frustration.
"Okay. Take care of yourself. I love you. Bye, Aliki."
"Bye, Dawn." It was with a terrible loneliness that Aliki snapped her phone shut and clipped it back on her belt. Moodily, she headed back to the command trailer, making a mental note to go and retrieve the head as soon as she was back in her safety gear.
Oleskow's family holiday trailer with its frilly pink curtains was not going to be big enough to hold the team. Instead, Bates had taped chart paper to the back of the trailer and people had pulled their lawn chairs around.
With a marker, Bates drew a sketch of the debris field as best they knew it on the paper. "The tail section is about a mile away in that corn field over there." He pointed behind him, and then located it on his sketch map. "I've been over there and had a look. Looks like the craft broke in half with the greatest damage in flight occurring forward of the wing span. There is also early evidence that the port side of the craft has heavier damage than the starboard side. Doctor Pateas, perhaps you could address some of the forensic patterns that are showing up."
Aliki referred to her notes. "What I am finding is that the first class passengers and business class show injuries associated with violent decompression and impact injuries. Those midship are badly burnt. Those economy passengers in the tail section have a high rate of snapped necks. It is the sort of injury associated with a wind sheer factor. That certainly is in line with Dr. Bates assumption that the tail section broke off in flight. As I am sure you are aware, this evidence is based on very little data. We have so far only nineteen relatively intact bodies." Aliki looked up from her notes to make eye contact with her boss. She had said all she needed to say.
Bates reluctantly pulled his pipe from his mouth. "Mo, Kyle, what do you guys have to add?"
It was Mo who answered. "I would risk the suggestion that an explosive fire occurred midship breaking the plane into two sections. The aluminium we are finding certainly is ripped and torn in a manner that would indicate an explosion midship, port side. The debris field indicates that the craft, seconds after the explosion, banked sharply to port dropping a trail of debris. Then the craft appears to have broken in two. The bow continued in the initial bank, rolling a full three hundred and sixty degrees and nose driving into the brush in front of us. The tail section might have rolled tail down and dropped at a much sharper angle. That is why we have a narrow long debris field. The wind was blowing north by north-west at only six km/hour so that is good. We probably have an area of around one hundred square kilometres to search for heavy remains, and of course, a much wider band for light debris."
Bates nodded and then shifted his glance. "Captain Hardy?"
"I have eight teams on site. There were some areas smoldering but we soon had those out. Fortunately, the heavy rain the other day worked in our favour. We hope to have all located human remains delivered to the morgue by late this afternoon. It might be advisable, Dr. Bates, for us to have a meeting with my personnel later today about procedures for the search and recovery of any remaining human remains."
"An excellent suggestion. I'll arrange that with you right after this meeting. Captain Oleskow, anything to add?"
"No Sir, my men are managing and I have some extra personnel coming in from surrounding areas. So far the biggest problem has been keeping gawkers and reporters away."
"Good. We will need extra security tonight. That is when the low-lifes will move in to try and loot the site. They'll be after small thing mostly, jewellery, wallets, credit cards, passports etc. Your people need to be seen, patrolling the back roads down wind of the crash site particularly." Bates did not add that members of the rescue teams would also do their share of looting. There were some things that simply could not be controlled. It was easy, when checking a wallet for I.D., to justify to your conscience that the dead person no longer needed the money in the wallet or that the jewellery worn by someone would be covered by insurance so no one would be out of pocket.
"If there is nothing else?" Bates looked around, "Very well then, we have a job to do. Lets get on with it." The chairs rattled as the group headed out to their assignments once more. "Aliki?"
"I need you over at the morgue. You're in charge until I can get there. Take five others with you. The ones that have been on the site the longest." Aliki nodded and turned to leave. "Aliki? I am sorry about this coming so close to your wedding. I'll get you out of here as soon as I can spare you."
Aliki blushed and smiled awkwardly. "Thanks, Doctor Bates."
Sometime later, Aliki pulled into the parking lot of the old skating rink where the temporary morgue was located. The parking lot was nearly full: an emergency fire truck, several police cars, three media trailers, and an assortment of cars. The restless crowd outside the main doors fell quiet as Aliki slid from one of the rented cars that the department had arranged for the forensic team and walked to the trunk to get out her gym bag of equipment. The others, who had been crowded in the small car with her, followed suit.
Bugs Strasser snorted. "Look out, Aliki, here they come."
Sure enough, a bee line of reporters was heading straight for her. She tried to recall what their last statement to the media had been. She sensed, more than saw, her colleagues moving away from her. Heads down and faces grim, they moved as one towards the doors and disappeared inside. Aliki was stopped by a swarm of men and women barking questions at her as they held their mics out.
Aliki calmly but firmly pushed a microphone away from her face. "I have a statement to make, if I could have you quiet. Then I would be glad to answer three questions before I need to get on with my work."
The group settled down reluctantly while Aliki stood stone-faced waiting. "Thank you. I have been at the crash site since very early this morning. Needless to say, with a crash of this size, there has been a loss of life. The police, fire department, ambulance service, airline, and the forensic department are working closely to provide all the aid we can to those involved in this tragedy."
Aliki took a quick breath and plunged on before a reporter could fire a question at her. "As of yet no victims have been identified. We will be starting that process shortly. I will now answer three questions."
A tall blond pushed her way forward. "Witnesses said they heard an explosion and saw a ball of flame streak out of the sky. Was terrorism involved in this crash?"
Aliki weighed her words carefully. "That is out of my frame of expertise. I can only say that the airline have had their people on the site since shortly after the craft went down. It has been my experience that it will be months before any clear answers as to why this aircraft crashed emerge."
The man next to her pushed a mic in her face and Aliki's eyes flashed with annoyance before she controlled her feelings. "We've heard rumours that survivors are being booked into near-by hotels. Is that true?"
"Hotels have been asked to hold rooms for arriving family members. I am not aware of any other activities."
A tall man at the back let his deep baritone roll over the heads of the others. "You've been on the site. You must know if there are survivors and how many."
Aliki shook her head buying a little time. She had hoped to avoid this question. "Everyone has a job to do out there and we are doing our jobs as quickly and as efficiently as we can with great consideration to the passengers who were on that flight and their families and loved ones. As a member of the forensic team, my job is identification and I need to be getting on with that task right now. Excuse me please." Aliki moved forward, using her momentum and body against a resistant wall of reporters. "Are there survivors? Has any terrorist group taken responsibility? How many dead? Have they found the black boxes? Was weather or pilot error a factor? When was the last time this plane was serviced?" Aliki pushed on to the door.
An older couple waited there looking pale and confused. "Our granddaughter? Please, she is only twelve."
Aliki's gut twisted. What if anything had happened to MacKenzie? Impulsively, she wrapped an arm around the couple and shepherded them through the doors with her. Out of sight and hearing of the media she talked to them "You need to prepare yourself for the worst, just in case. You give me her name and a description and I'll do my best to let you know as soon as I can. Do you have a place to stay?" The man nodded dully as he patted his wife on the back. "Good. Write down the hotel name too and your room number. Okay?"
"She had been visiting us. Our daughter and son-in-law live in Europe. We hadn't seen her since she was a baby," the woman sobbed.
Aliki nodded her understanding and pulled her notebook from her pocket and her pen. "If you give me your name and where you are staying I will contact you as soon as I know anything. Also if you know of any distinguishing characteristics such as a birthmark or clothes that she might have been wearing it might help."
The man's voice shook with shock. "My name is Sam, Sam Dillon. This is my wife Millie. We are staying at a friend's house in town actually. Number Twenty-two Rose Street. I don't know about characteristics..." the man's voice faded in confusion.
It was Millie who spoke up. "She has a gold locket we gave her with pictures of us in it. She was wearing it when we put her on the plane." The woman fished around in her hand bag and came up with a school picture. A dark haired child caught between childhood and the teen years smiled happily from the photograph Aliki took from Millie's hand.
Aliki smiled her thanks. "Go on home then. Wait there. It could be days, you understand, but I promise to let you know as soon as I find out anything."
Tears ran down the old woman's face. "Thank you. Thank you."
The man smiled weakly. "God bless you. Come on, Millie. We'll do as the lady said."
An hour later, Aliki stood at an examining table. She wore a white plastic apron that was now splattered in blood. Bugs was working at the next table and Olly and Neil nearby. Over on the far side of the room Shez and Chen were working. Aliki felt around the back of the neck of a man who lay on the table. The spine was broken at the number two and three cervical vertebrae. The sudden blast of winds travelling at speeds of five hundred miles per hour had literally lifted their heads from their necks. This guy had been sitting near the stern of the plane. His body had been found in seat 30C. His name was Bill Casati and he was thirty-two years old. This one had been an easy I.D. Others were going to be much harder. Wiping her hands with a paper towel, she filled out a request for x-ray form to verify her findings. Such evidence would be needed at the inquiry and any court cases that might ensue.
"Shit, look at this," muttered Chen Lai. "I just found a lower jaw of some guy right inside the chest cavity of this old lady. Talk about bite me!"
Shez Ahmed looked up from his own table. "A mandible? I had a middle age male just a while ago that was missing one. Let me have a look." Chen hosed the blood off the jaw while Shez stood by. "Yeah, it could very well be part of him. I'll just take it if you don't mind. I'll go see if it fits after I finish with the one I am working on."
"Jesus Christ!" exclaimed Bugs, unzipping a body bag. " This one is a beauty!"
Olly walked over to have a look. "Oooh, how sweet it is. I sure hope she didn't die a virgin. It would be a hell of a crime. Look at those knockers."
Aliki frowned. Crude humour was present in labs. You tried to control it but you had to let a little slip by. It was a way of relieving the stress and horror around you and so had to be tolerated to some degree. Aliki opted for humour to get her message across. "Come on guys, stop drooling on the customers, there is a lot of work to be done today."
Bugs blushed deeply. He just sort of thought of Doctor Pateas as one of the guys - part of the team. Once you got over her knock-out good looks and realized she was damn knowledgeable at her job, you just saw her as a good person to have on your team. "Sorry," he mumbled.
Olly scooted back to his own table and returned to his harmless banter. Olly never shut up. It was his way of handling stress.
"Hey Shaz, this is your first big disaster, eh?"
"Yes, And I hope my last," responded the quiet, serious Jordanian.
Olly peeled back the flesh on a shoulder to see if the arm he held fit into the remaining bone of the glenohumeral joint. "Pateas and I have worked a number of plane crashes together. We were both in that line of work for a bit, weren't we, Aliki?"
Aliki was focused on examining a woman's teeth. "Yes."
Olly, satisfied the arm belonged to his body, stuffed it into the body bag. "Hey Pateas, you remember that one in South America? The plane went into a mountainside. All this shit got caught up in the canopy of the rain forest. It rained rotting body parts on us for days You remember, Aliki?"
"And then there was the time that airliner went down into the ocean just off the coast Aliki and I went down in a mini sub to check it out. The whole fucking sea bottom was covered in white crabs feasting on the dead. I damn near threw up. That was a hell of a thing. Grossed me right out, I haven't been able to eat sea food since and I used to love the stuff." And so it went on, each team member working to piece together the remains and secure a clear identification late into the evening.
Aliki came across the grandchild's body just before they called a halt to their work. After Aliki had hosed the blood from the corpse, she concluded that the kid wasn't in too bad shape considering. All the parts were pretty well still there, the only problem was her bones were all shattered and she was totally flattened like she'd been rolled over by a steam roller. Skin bags, these ones were known as. She verified the i.d. using the photo and description that her grandparents had given her. The gold heart carrying the picture of her grandparents was still around her neck. Gently, Aliki unfastened it and washed it off before dropping it into a plastic bag. Aliki recorded her findings on her clipboard and zipped up the body bag. It was time to call it a night. She had put in an eighteen hour day.
The rink was piled with remains now, the unexamined along one side while along the other two distinct rows were forming. One was for the identified and one for the examined but not identified. It was gruesome and crude work.
After washing in the team change rooms, the forensic team all piled into Aliki's car and headed over to a Tim Horton's, a fast food chain specializing in donuts and coffee. They ordered subs, donuts and coffee and commandeered the back corner tables. The talk was general. What was the Blue Jays baseball team's chances this year? Should the Raptors basketball team have made the trades they had? Would it rain tomorrow? They knew better than to talk of their work in public. There were already too many rumours circulating without their overheard conversations adding to the gossip brew.
Aliki sat back and sipped her coffee, letting the others talk. This was decompression time, a way to unwind before heading back to lonely motel rooms. Aliki wanted to phone Dawn but she knew it was important not to rush this time. Instead, she observed her colleagues with detached interest.
Olly Gertler, like her, had come out of a police force background and had taken a degree in medical forensics. They had met first while they were both assigned to Interpol. Some years later, Olly had left Germany and immigrated to Canada, ending up working in the same forensic lab as Aliki. He always reminded Aliki of a bergermeister - a German word for an inn keeper. Loud, friendly and social Olly was everyone's best friend. He was, Aliki knew, a widower and had two grown sons.
Her eyes drifted to Shez Ahmend. A graduate of Amman University in Jordan, he was a medical doctor. Unable to practice in Ontario, he had drifted into forensic work to make a living. He was a young man and hoped to improve his English enough that he could write his medical exams soon. He was a quiet, gentle spoken individual, not comfortable at times with the open, easy ways of North American society. A lonely man, Aliki suspected, and perhaps homesick.
Chen Lai was talking to him, probably noting too his emotional isolation. Chen was a fourth generation Canadian and hated being asked where she was from. She was new to the field having grown up in North York, a satellite city of Toronto and attended the University of Toronto. She was quick and ambitious and would probably go far.
Beside her was Neil Ross, nursing his coffee when he would have preferred to be steadily drinking his way into oblivion. He was close to retirement and well resigned now to a life that had been mediocre. Divorced years ago, he spent most of his evenings watching sports TV and drinking. His work was average at best. Doctor Bates tried hard to keep him out of the courtroom if he could. Ross's lack of grasp of details always lost the case for them. If he had been young, he would probably be put on probation or let go but since he was only a few years from retirement, he was being allowed to carry on with less and less responsibility coming his way. He knew it, resented it, but didn't care enough to make a greater effort.
Aliki's intelligent blue eyes shifted to Bugs Strasser, who was in an animated conversation with Olly about the Canadian Football League. The legend was that Bugs had got his nickname from eating a maggot on a bet while in graduate school. Whether true or not, Bugs was a larger than life character. People were always laughing when Bugs was around. He was also an incurable practical jokester and had to be watched like a hawk. In the lab, however, he got the job done and was as cool as a cucumber in court.
Aliki looked at her watch, as they dumped the paper contents of their trays into the receptacles, placed their trays on top and filed out. There was still time to see the child's grandparents before she phoned Dawn.
She dropped the others off at the motel and popped into the manager's office to get a sketch map of how to get to the address that the grandparents had given her and headed out once more. The modest bungalow was only a few miles away in a subdivision now made liveable with the growth of tall trees and the individual gardens that softened the look-a-like facades. Number twenty-two had a rose garden and a garage door painted pink. Aliki parked the rented car and found the door opening for her before she had walked up the sidewalk.
"Good evening, I'm Doctor Pateas from the forensic labs. You asked me to let you know if I found your granddaughter." The old man nodded and stepped aside to let Aliki in. She pulled the plastic lunch bag from her pocket. "Is this your granddaughter's?"
The old man took the bag and ran his thumb caressingly over the locket. Tears welled in his eyes and he nodded. "I'm sorry," Aliki murmured. "Her remains have been identified and we'll be able to release them to you in a few days."
Just then the man's wife came up the hall, wiping her hands on a tea towel behind her a worried looking woman followed. "I thought I heard someone. Oh, its you. You've found Nicole? Where is she?"
Aliki shifted her weight from one foot to the other nervously. She hated these moments. "Her remains will not be released for a few days yet. But I thought you would want to know that we have identified her."
The woman looked annoyed. "What are you saying? Nicole is not dead. Where is she?" the woman demanded snappishly.
"Now Millie," her husband cautioned gently.
"No! I want my granddaughter! What have you done with her? I want her back immediately!" The old woman was in her face now, looking frantic and aggressive.
Aliki stood her ground and responded quietly. "I am sorry, Mrs. Dillon, Nicole did not survive the crash. We have identified her remains and will release them to your family in the next few days."
It was then that the woman started hitting Aliki, drumming her clenched fist on Aliki's face and shoulders. Aliki allowed the woman to do so. "You are such a bad woman! You are lying! You kidnapped Nicole as your own! I want my granddaughter!"
Her husband and the other woman finally recovered from their shock and rushed forward to intervene. While the woman wedged herself between Aliki and the frantic grandmother, the old man took his wife by the shoulders, pulling her away. "Millie, she's dead. What are you doing? We have to accept Nicole's loss."
The woman seemed to shrink and age before Aliki's eyes as she was pulled back. She turned and buried her face in her husband's shoulder. He held her close. "There, there, Millie. Don't take it out on the messenger. Dr. Pateas is just trying to do her job." He looked up at the tall woman standing there stoically. Blood from a scratch had trickled down her face. "I'm sorry."
Aliki nodded. "Will you be alright? Is there anyone you need to call?"
The old man patted his wife's back as if she were a baby again. He looked at the woman standing beside him for guidance. "I'm Margaret Stevens. I belonged to the same church as Millie and Sam before retiring up here. I'll call their minister and he can notify Nicole's parents. Don't worry. I'll be here for them."
Sadly, Aliki took her leave. There was no nice way to tell someone that they had lost violently someone they had loved. A deep blanket of depression settled on her soul. How the hell had she ever got into this shitty business anyway?
She drove back to the hotel in a mood that was part angry and part depressed and slammed the car door as she got out. Thomas Bates was sitting in a metal rocker outside his door, fouling the air with his pipe smoke.
"Aliki, come and sit down," he called, indicating the seat beside him with the stem of his pipe.
Aliki gritted her teeth and went over. The last thing she felt like was making pleasant conversation outside some cheap motel on a verandah that looked over the parking lot. She flopped down scowling and hooked her long legs over the railing.
Bates sat puffing his pipe for a few minutes letting the heat of anger bleed off his assistant before he spoke. "I observe, Dr. Pateas, that you are sporting a nasty looking scratch and what appears to be the growing discolouration of a black eye. I conclude from this that once again you have been using you famous tact and diplomacy on individuals in the greater world."
Aliki laughed, she couldn't help herself. Bates was such a bugger. "I promised an older couple that I would notify them if I found their granddaughter. I went over to their house and the old lady went ape-shit on me. Insisted her daughter was alive and that I'd kidnapped her. The old guy was okay about it but it took him a few minutes to react and pull his wife off me."
Bates chuckled. "Well, I won't let it be known that the woman with a ninth dan in Karate got beat up by a little old lady."
Aliki gave him a look. "Thanks."
They sat again in silence listening to the crickets and the steady traffic not far away on highway 400. "This job stinks. I don't know why I continue to do it," Aliki muttered.
Bates took his pipe from his mouth and studied it for a few seconds. "We, Aliki, are the last thread that binds society. When violence rips a community apart, leaving only death and pain in its wake, we quietly go about our business. We give the dead back their names, we provide closure for those that mourn and most importantly, we endeavour to answer the question why. Gradually, stitch by stitch, we sew the rips of our society back together again. It is often horrific work and has very few rewards except that satisfaction of knowing that you cared for that lost soul long after others had walked away from the grave. And in the end, you saw justice done."
Tears rolled down Aliki's face and she brushed them away with annoyance. Bates pretended he didn't notice. "Remember, Aliki, that someone has to care." With a groan of weariness Bates got to his feet. "We must be up early so I think I had better turn in. I assume you will be talking to that wonderful woman who has agreed to marry you?" Aliki nodded her head. "Say hello to Dawn and assure her that both you and I will be at her wedding in good time. I wouldn't miss seeing you tied down for the world."
Aliki watched him walk away with tired, dragging steps. He really was an amazing man and Aliki was very fond of him. She got up and stretched and headed inside to phone the woman she loved.
Dawn had not had a good day. She was worried about Aliki and whether the emergency would keep her away all week. She had got into a silly argument with Mac about the amount of time she spent on the internet with her cousin Ryan, her publisher was pushing her about getting her next book completed, and Sally Slurp, Mac's cat, had clawed the back of Aliki's favourite chair.
By the end of the day, she was worn out running from one crisis to another and organizing the last details of the wedding whenever she had a moment. At eleven o'clock, she slumped down into one of the livingroom chairs and nursed her throbbing temples. She had a blistering headache. A few minutes later, the phone rang.
"Hi. It's Aliki."
Dawn smiled. "Oh I'm glad you clarified that, I thought it might be my spare lover seeing you are out of town."
Aliki snorted. "Funny. How is it going there?"
Dawn sighed and gave Aliki a list of troubles and annoyances that had plagued her all day. Her head aching and her body weary, it was hard not to sound whiney. "So how is it going up there?"
Aliki, who had put the receiver down on the pillow and who had been lying with her eyes closed in a state of only half awake, started at the question and quickly picked up the phone. "Ah, well, okay," she muttered. How could you say anything more? There had been a tragic loss of life. It was a nice catch phrase that covered the horror of the mutilated and shattered bone and flesh. And disregarded the anger and anguish of the families.
"Is it bad?" Dawn probed impatiently.
Self pity had descended suddenly on Aliki's shoulders. She was over tired and still upset about the incident with Millie Dillon. She hadn't phoned to hear all Dawn's woes. She snapped back, "Yeah, it's bad. It's never good when people fall like stones from five miles up."
Dawn too was in no mood to be understanding. "I was just trying to be supportive. You don't need to take my head off."
"Well, damn it Dawn, I didn't phone to hear this crap."
For a second there was no response on the other end. Then Dawn's voice came quietly and calmly. "I thought you'd want to know. Have you any idea how long you'll be up there?"
Dawn gritted her teeth. Aliki could be really exasperating when she got into one of these moods. It didn't happen very often, thank God, but the way she shut down and refused to share made it all very difficult. "Okay, well, phone me when you can. I love you."
"I love you too. I 'm sorry - I'm not very good company tonight. We've got over four hundred dead and I had to tell an old couple tonight that their grandchild is dead. The old lady didn't take it very well. She blackened my eye actually." Aliki got it all out in a rush, feeling awful now of the way she had been acting and wanting to make it up.
"I'm sorry, lover. You didn't need that. I wish I could give you a hug. Would it help if I drove up there?
Aliki shook her head. "No, I mean yes, it would help but I wouldn't get to see you. I'd be putting in eighteen hour days and then I'd need to crash. Thanks for offering though."
Dawn felt disappointed and yet knew Aliki was right. "Okay then, you try to get some sleep. I'll talk to you tomorrow. Good night, lover."
"Good night, Dawn." Aliki hung up feeling stupid and lonely. She sure hadn't handled that well. With a sigh she went to shower and then to curl up in her narrow, lonely bed.
By seven the next morning, she'd picked her team up once again. They breakfasted at a small diner where the pancakes and homemade sausage were particularly good. Well fortified against a long day, they slipped into their lab gear and headed over to their respective tables.
Neil unzipped the body bag. "Uck! This one is rich! I don't mind that they pee themselves in fright but do they have to take a crap in their pants too?"
Olly looked up with a smile. "Hell, I'd like to see you fall five miles out of the sky and not shit yourself in fear."
And so the gruesome work went on. First, quickly identifying those bodies that were relatively intact or still strapped into broken seats. Then later the slow grisly process of matching body parts and identifying the dead through dental records. Aliki got most of the severely burnt victims, bones being her area of expertise. She knew, however, that in the end there would be human remains never identified and once again a mass grave to the victims of violent death would be dug.
By the third day, all the forensic personnel were working full time at the temporary morgue. The army had been called out to do the large area sweeps looking for any remaining evidence. Bates was now in charge and Aliki, free from the responsibilities of collecting and maintaining documentation and ordering x-ray evidence, swab, skin, organ and fabric samples, could now give her full attention to the identification of the dead.
By the end of the week, they were able to close down their make-shift facilities and move back to their main labs in Toronto. The public now knew the worst. The aircraft was near full and there were 409 dead, no survivors. Bodies were slowly being released to families for burial. The process of grieving and of setting blame was well under way.
Aliki had mixed feelings about going home. On the one hand, she missed Dawn and Mac terribly. On the other, she didn't want to talk about it. She just needed to be left alone to come to terms with the enormity of the horror that she'd had to deal with. She read a lot in her den or worked on her reports at her desk when at home.
She went to bed hours after Dawn to avoid intimacy. She didn't feel clean. The smell of death still clung to her and her hands were chapped from compulsively washing them. After the first few rejections, Dawn had left her alone. She and Mac had busied themselves with wedding plans and other activities giving Aliki the space she needed. For this Aliki was both grateful and embarrassed. She knew she was not being fair to her family but emotionally she just needed to shut down.
On the following Tuesday, Dr. Thomas Bates was again into work early trying to catch up on a backlog of responsibilities that the airline crash had created. He looked up through bushy white eyebrows to see Aliki standing at his door, white and shaky. He was on his feet in a second and had gently led his valuable assistant and friend to a chair.
He asked no questions. Instead, he disappeared into his private washroom and came out with a paper cup of cold water and a cold damp cloth to put on the back of Aliki's neck. When he saw some of the colour returning he sat on the edge of his desk and asked gently, " What is it Aliki?"
With a shaky hand, Aliki took from her lab pocket two plastic baggies. One contained an open envelope and the other a page of a letter. Bates nodded his approval. However deeply shocked Aliki had been by this document, she had shown her training by making sure no evidence would be destroyed.
The message had been typed on a computer and printed on standard bond paper using a laser printer. The words were all in upper case and bold in twelve gauge. THE PLANE CRASH IS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY. THEY ARE ALL DEAD BECAUSE OF YOU, BITCH. THIS IS JUST THE FIRST OF THOSE THAT WILL SUFFER BECAUSE YOU PUT ME AWAY. YOU RUINED MY LIFE NOW I AM GOING TO RUIN YOURS. LIVE WITH THESE DEATHS AND SO MANY MORE ON YOUR CONSCIENCE. JIGSAW
Bates looked up and met blue eyes filled with pain and bewilderment. "It has to be a hoax, Aliki. Jigsaw died in the prison riots and fire several months ago. It is just someone trying to hurt you."
Aliki's voice was tight but controlled. "Who did the autopsy?"
Bates grimaced. "Neil Ross."
Aliki stared back, her face like stone. Bates knew what she was thinking. Ross had been assigned the case because it was a closed shop: prisoners who had butchered each other in rage and frustration. The legal system would not be concerned about shoddy forensic evidence. They would make recommendations to see the opportunity for such a situation did not happen again, the recommendations would be ignored because of lack of money and personnel and the dead would soon be replaced with new inmates equally dysfunctional and crowded together.
"I'll need an exhuming order,"Aliki stated, through tight lips. "I have to know for sure."
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