This story is based on facts. The women may resemble a certain Warrior Princess and her Battling Bard. They are fantasy. Hurricane Katrina is very real. The fact that there are more bodies to be identified then the Coroner's office can handle nearly two years post -Katrina is true. The hospital horrors did happen. Many of the facts in this story come straight from my own experiences and those of my friends, loved ones, and acquaintances. The nightmare is not over yet for hundreds of people.
This story will have a relationship between two consenting adult women. If this offends you, or is illegal in your neck of the woods, scat!
My deepest love and gratitude to my partner, Bookie, for proof-reading my work.
"Dr. Preston, I appreciate you coming so soon."
"You rarely summon me to your office, Dean. I expected it was for something important."
"Yes, it is. I have changed your schedule for the summer terms. You will not be teaching."
Dr. Preston's eyes widened and she felt her hackles rise. "But, why?"
"There is an emergency request from the Coroner's office of New Orleans, Louisiana. They have need of a forensic anthropologist with your gift for facial reconstruction and identification."
"I appreciate the belief you have in my skills, but I must respectfully decline."
Dr. Maya Preston stood and reached out to shake the hand of the Dean of Anthropology.
Dean Connors sat back in her large leather chair and folded her arms.
"That was not a request Dr. Preston. The call came from Dr. Frank Minyard, the Coroner of New Orleans, and the Mayor's office. You have been assigned a Forensic Anthropology Doctoral student who has been working closely with Dr. Minyard. Of course, you may request assistance from any of your graduate students who want credit for this experience."
"Dean Connors," The taller woman took a similarly defiant stance, "I was hired to teach anthropological theory and practical skills in etiological identification in the Doctoral program here. That is what I have done. I have received no complaints from either students or staff. So, why am I being penalized?"
"Maya, I must admit that I am shocked by your reaction. When Dr. Minyard inferred that you'd be less than cooperative I told him I was certain he was mistaken. Apparently, he was right. However, there are more victims' remains to yet be identified than his office can possibly handle. The University has agreed to help out in this effort. You are one of perhaps fifty specialists with the expertise to expedite the identifications and relieve the minds of the families and friends of the victims. I can't imagine you wouldn't jump at the chance to be of help."
"Dean Connors, I would rather resign my position than return to the ‘Big Easy'."
The small stout woman stood to her full height, which was not nearly as imposing, and held out her hand to stop the tirade she knew was coming.
"Dr. Preston, no one is asking you to go anywhere. The mountain is coming to Mohammed. In fact there are several climate controlled 18 wheelers filled with the necessary equipment and the human remains that will be assigned to you. The entire top floor storage area of Memorial Hospital is being prepared as we speak, completely state of the art. I suggest you assign five of your most gifted students to help in your lab."
Maya glared at her opponent, realizing she had lost the battle and the war. She shook her head and turned her back on the Dean. After a deep breath to release the head of steam she had built up, she turned slowly about.
"You win. When do I meat my New Orleans counterpart?"
"Her name is Dr. Camille Geaux. She'll be arriving in the morning. Now, you are on loan for exactly 70 days. Do what you can to help in that time. You will be expected to be back in the classroom August 19th." Dean Connors reached her chubby hand out to shake Maya's much longer one. "Good luck, Doctor. If I can be of any help, please don't hesitate to ask."
Dr. Preston shook her hand with a nearly feral smile. "Oh, you've done quite enough, already. By the way, a lab like we will require has no small price tag, even when temporarily borrowed. I am quite sure New Orleans can't afford that."
"Let's just say that the White House is interested in keeping as low a profile on this matter as possible. Money is no object apparently. However, what we will be doing is classified information. Please instruct your assistants accordingly. You and Dr. Geaux will meet in my office on Monday at 8 a.m."
"I'll be here." With that Dr. Preston turned on her heels and exited the Dean's office.
. . .
"Coroner's office, may I help you?"
"Dr. Minyard please." Dr. Preston put her feet up on her desk and spun her heavy letter opener between her index fingers.
"I'm sorry; Dr. Minyard is unable to take your call, would you like to leave your name and number?"
That same feral grin appeared slowly on Maya's face. "Oh, he'll speak to me. Tell him Dr. Maya Preston wishes to speak to him . . . , now."
"Oh, Dr. Preston I didn't recognize your voice. How are you?"
"Hi, Sherry. I'm a bit put out with your boss. Put that no good weasel on the phone, please?"
A minute or two passed before Maya heard an old familiar voice. "Maya, how are you? It's been much too long."
"Cut the crap, Frank. You went behind my back and I am not happy."
"Now, Maya, you know you would have hung up on me before I got the chance to finish explaining the situation. I have to have you run this show. You are the only one I trust to give me accurate identification."
"I don't like you sneaking around."
"I understand. I really do. But, you have to look at my side. We have dozens of remains here with hundreds of family members waiting to hear where their loved ones are, if they are dead or alive." Frank sighed and rubbed his tired eyes.
"I do. Shit, I do understand. I'll do the best I can with what I have. But, I'll need medical and dental records, DNA from family members with the lab and computer technology to match it."
"You'll have everything you need. Camille, that's the help I've sent you, has put all that information on computer. It will be at your finger tips. For those who can't be identified, I am depending on your reconstruction skills to produce a recognizable face to broadcast to the public. Maybe we'll get lucky."
"You don't ask for much."
"I'm sorry I have to drag you back into the whole Katrina nightmare. Believe me I wouldn't if I could handle this on my own."
Maya put down the letter opener and realized she was crying quietly. "I know, Frank. I'll do everything I can."
"I know you will, my friend. I am grateful. Don't work too hard."
"Take care, Maya."
"You too, Frank." The line disconnected. "Shit. Will this ever end?" She asked whatever being was out there to hear.
. . .
The next three days were a whirlwind of activity. Maya supervised the creation of the highest state-of-the-art laboratory she had ever worked in. There were students and technicians everywhere she turned. Spirits were high and the equipment was set in place. Maya could barely conceive of the fact that in three months this would be converted back into a storage room.
. . .
"Good morning Dr. Preston. You ready to get started?"
"Good Morning Dean Connors. Yes, we're as ready as we'll ever be. Is Dr. Geaux here?"
"Present." A musical voice answered from the door to the Dean's office.
"Dr. Geaux, I presume." Maya replied.
"Camille. You must be Dr. Preston." The petite blonde proffered her hand.
"Guilty." The tall brunette smiled a smile that startled Dean Connors, not quite certain that she'd ever seen that particular activity upon the tall beauties features. The two women shook hands.
"I look forward to working with and learning from the famous Maya Preston. You're famous in the Coroner's office."
Maya frowned. "Don't believe everything you hear."
Camille felt she'd hit a nerve, so she changed the subject. "Well, let's get this briefing over so we can get to work."
. . .
The women perused the lab equipment and briefed their student assistants and lab techs on how they would approach the identifications methodically, with every member of the team performing very specific procedures and recording the results on both the computer and on notebooks as backup. All of the team would report of Dr. Preston, with all findings to be kept confidential.
"Let me introduce our team... Dr. Camille Geaux will be second only to me."
"Call me Camille, guys. Anything I can help you with, please ask. Let's not goof off and waste time. But, let's have fun too."
"Ok. This is how we'll work. Jack, Joe and Danny, I want y'all to test tissue samples for fat content, presence of disease and contamination and give me the bone marrow. Samuel, you'll do what you do best, clean the bones and measure, measure, measure. Hand the results to me and I'll record it in the computer in the areas provided. The skulls go to me. I'll compile the information I'm given and hope for a match. Dr. Geaux here has created a program that will help us combine all the information and identify which medical and dental records, as well as familial DNA, where available, are direct hits. She'll also be working with me on developing a three dimensional facial structure on those skulls that we cannot identify through the records provided. One of my jobs is to assist you in understanding how to do your jobs. So, when in doubt . . . , ask. Ok? Let's get started."
. . .
The day was long and exhausting. The team was very excited that the first day they had conclusive identification of two persons thanks to Dr. Geaux's thorough record keeping. Dental records and medical history of distinctive breaks in the long bones of the legs were the identifying markers on these two victims, along with rare blood types. The results were faxed to the Coroner's office at the end of the day. It was 8 p.m. and the exhausted team finally agreed to start again at 8 a.m. the following day.
. . .
Camille caught up to Dr. Preston as she reached her BMW convertible. "Hey, I'm starving. Is there somewhere near here we can get a pizza?"
Maya jumped when she heard the voice behind her. "Shit! You scared me." The tall beauty exclaimed, hand over her heart.
"Oh gosh, I'm sorry. I just thought you might like to grab something to eat before collapsing."
Maya looked at the smaller woman with exasperation. "Dr. Geaux, we've just worked a 12 hour day. I want to go home and relax. I suggest you do the same. Good night." With that Dr. Preston unlocked the door to her old BMW and left without a second look.
"Geez, what did I say to piss her off?" The blonde shook her shaggy head and pulled out the keys to her rental car.
. . .
Dr. Preston entered the lab at 0745 in her neatly pressed lab coat, jeans, white t-shirt and sneakers. "Good morning. I hope you all had a good night's rest. Are there any questions before we get started on our next subject?"
The entire team had arrived early, anxious to get started.
"No questions? Good. Stop me at nearly any time if you do. Joe, wheel in number 3040."
Dr. Preston picked up the paperwork lying atop the bag containing the aforementioned remains. "We'll continue processing as we did yesterday. That seemed to work well for everyone. . . Thank you, Joe."
The young man blushed. "You're welcome Doctor. Anything I can do to help. Just ask."
Maya was aware of the young man's school boy crush on her and found it charming and harmless.
. . .
Three hours into their day, they'd made no headway in identifying #3040. Dr. Preston made the decision to have Dr. Geaux assist her on recreating the face of what they had learned was a female in her late 70's or 80's, with advanced arthritis and joint degeneration. She'd born several children, was approximately 5'3" tall and, from the amount of fat in the remaining tissue, was obese. She was African/American and did not have the medical care she should have. Her blood type was O negative and she'd suffered several fractures of the phalanges and had numerous torn ligaments. All of these had occurred shortly before she died.
"Gentlemen, I want you to start working on #3041 while Dr. Geaux and I see if we can't reconstruct a recognizable face here."
The two women set to measuring and recording their findings on the computer program used to give a three dimensional expression from their information. It was a fascinating and frustrating process that each had done many times in the past: one to identify Katrina's victims, and one to identify the victims of horrific crimes. Both approached their task with equal passion.
At the end of the day the team had identified the remains of one 3 year old black male and had recreated the chubby face of one elderly black woman. At 2000 hours Dr. Maya Preston abruptly stopped working and wished everyone a good night's rest and plenty of energy in the morning.
Before she could walk out of the lab doors Dr. Geaux piped up, "Dr. Preston, it would be nice if we could all grab a bite to eat together and get to know one another a bit since we'll be working so closely for the next several weeks. How about it? You fellas hungry?" She'd hoped the Doctor wouldn't turn her down in front of the entire team.
"Why don't you all go? These young people get enough of me in the classroom."
"Come on, Doc. Let your hair down a little." Joe jumped in.
Maya raised a dark, curved eyebrow. Looking from face to hopeful face she couldn't say no. "Ok. Quit looking at me like a bunch of sad puppies. Let's go get this over with."
. . .
The pizza parlor was noisy, but the beer was cold and the muffalletta sandwiches were delicious.
The petite blonde moaned in ecstasy. "This muff is almost as good as the one's at home."
The tall brunette looked at her sandwich with longing as she munched on her salad. "Looks good. I haven't eaten a muff since before Katrina."
"So, get one." Joe blurted.
"Can't. Gotta watch my diet." Dr. Preston sighed.
"That sucks." Joe ascertained.
Dr. Preston chuckled. "My sentiments exactly."
The rest of the meal was fun and relaxing as the students made jokes about their teachers, and even Dr. Preston showed she too could laugh and project a general good humor.
After eating their fill the group sat at the table discussing the next day's work and how horrible it all was that these people perished with no one to grieve for them.
"People have been grieving. The entire city has been grieving, but the rest of the country doesn't know. It is just wrong how New Orleans and the Gulf Coast have been forgotten by the news media and the White House." Camille looked down at Maya's hands. She was rubbing the fingers of her left hand, appearing deep in thought.
"Where were you when the hurricane hit?" Cammie inquired, but with no response. "Dr. Preston?"
Maya raised her head at the sound of her name. "That's enough shop talk for one evening. I suggest we all go home and get some sleep. See y'all in the morning." Maya left without looking back.
. . .
The next two weeks continued with 12 and 14 hour days. The group would go out for a late dinner and camaraderie, but Dr. Preston always begged off and went home to her empty condo and her memories.
Every day it became harder and more painful for the tall, dark beauty. She found sleeping difficult. A glass of wine would help, but it just seemed to make the nightmares worse. "Why did I ever take this damned job? I told Frank I couldn't do it. Shit!"
At 2300 hours, Dr. Frank Minyard received a call on his cell phone, which lay next to his bed. "Frank, wake the hell up!" A drunken female voice demanded.
"Who is this?" The Coroner was about to hang up.
"It's Maya, you horse's ass. I told you I couldn't do it. I begged you to leave me alone. Why can't you all just leave me alone?" The tortured woman broke down into sobs.
"Maya? What's happened? Are you all right?"
"No, I'm not all right. This is killing me, Frank. I can't keep reliving this over and over. I'm not strong enough." Maya wiped at her tear stained cheeks, and then took another sip of wine.
"Maya, I've lived this every single day since September 1st, 2005."
"I don't care, Frank. You have your wife and family. That bitch took mine. I can't bury them again. I won't."
"If you don't do this job, the families of those victims will never be able to bury their loved ones."
"I don't care, dammit!!!" Maya threw the empty wine glass into the fire place, shattering the glass, which sparkled in the flames.
"Yes, you do. You do care, Maya. Have you considered getting some help? Some counseling?"
"Moving here and taking this job. This was my salvation. Then, YOU send Katrina to my door. That's a real piece of work, Frank. Sorry, buddy, but I'm leaving as soon as I can pack to parts unknown, somewhere neither you nor Katrina can find my sorry ass. Find yourself a new patsy." Maya slammed down her phone and stumbled into her bedroom to pack.
. . .
The phone rang at 0805 shattering the stillness of Maya's condo. She quickly pulled it out of the wall, rolled over and fell back into a semi- comatose state. She'd finished off the bottle of wine the night before and passed out on top of the clothes she had been attempting to pack.
At 0845 the door bell rang, prompting Maya to pull her pillow over her head and moan in agony. Shortly thereafter an insistent rapping began at her window, like some obsessive wood-pecker. She finally lifted her head. ‘Oops, that was a mistake.' The disheveled woman held on to the bed as it spun and swooped around the room. She dove for the bathroom, making it to the sink just in time to relieve her stomach of every piece of matter it had devoured over the last several days. She then proceeded to sway dangerously as the floor seemed to levitate of its own accord.
"Gotcha." A familiar voice said in her ear as strong arms wrapped around her too thin waist. "Just hold on to the sink, so I can clean you up." Camille grabbed a face towel and dampened it, then wiped her co-worker's face and neck. "Are you finished puking?" She inquired.
Maya could only meekly nod.
"Ok, lean on me and I'll put you back to bed and call the lab. You're out sick today."
Maya looked up at her savior with a snide grin. ‘No shit.'
. . .
Camille worked in the kitchen, cooking a pot of low sodium vegetable soup for her patient. In the past two hours she managed to clean the bathroom, the glass off the living room rug and fold the multitude of clothing strewn about the bedroom, while her coworker slept fitfully.
‘It seems that everything in this kitchen is either salt free, fat free, or sugar free. What is she, a rabbit? Look at all this salad. No wonder she's so thin. Ok, note to self, she's gorgeous, but too skinny.'
"Please, just shoot me and get it over with." Maya leaned against the entryway to the kitchen.
"Morning, sunshine." Camille turned to face her patient.
"You'd make an excellent cat burglar."
Camille grinned, proudly. "I use to climb into my girlfriend's window when her parents were asleep."
"Horniness is the mother of invention, or something like that." Maya waved her hand in the air and stumbled to the kitchen table.
Camille looked more closely at the suffering woman. "You look a bit grey. Are you all right?"
"Goes with the green around my gills." Maya groaned and rubbed her left hand, unconsciously.
"Yeah, I hate to do this to you, but I warmed some soup. You should eat and take some vitamins. Don't you ever eat hamburgers and stuff? No wonder you're so skinny."
Maya gave her an evil look. "Soup will be fine. I can take it from here. You don't have to stay."
"Oh, but I do. We have to clarify some things, like what the hell did you think you were doing?" Camille stood across from Maya and bent forward with her hands of the table.
"I don't have to explain myself to you. I appreciate your concern. However, I'm sure Dr. Minyard will send my replacement before you notice I'm gone."
"Your replacement? What are you talking about?" Camille slowly sat across from the forensic anthropologist. "We can't replace you. You are one of the only women in the country that can do what you do. You can't quit on me."
"I'm not quitting on you. I'm quitting on this whole Katrina thing. I don't ever want to hear the name again. I'm leaving as soon as I can walk on my own steam. Look, your efforts and skills are exceptional. You will be every bit as good as me with practice. I'll send a letter. . . . ."
"Now, you listen to me, Maya. You are not quitting. I can't do this without you." Tears filled Camille's green eyes and her face turned red with rage.
"Why is this so important to you? It's a job, for Christ's sake." Maya put her head down into her hands and groaned. "I need some Advil."
"Where?" Camille asked, wiping her eyes.
Maya looked confused. "Where what?"
"Where do you keep the Advil?" The little blonde asked in exasperation.
Maya just pointed to the cabinet next to the kitchen window.
The ailing woman took her pain medication and waited a few minutes in quiet then stood on wobbly legs and retrieved three more pill bottles from the cabinet.
"What are those?" Camille inquired.
"Shshsh." Maya held her hand out to quiet the young woman. She poured her pills and took them without answering her inquiry.
"I am going to shower and dress, then I intend to finish packing. I'm sure you can find the door, or you may use the window." She paused at the door to her bathroom. "Dr. Geaux, thank you for your help and concern."
. . .
While Maya was in the bathroom Camille took the opportunity to explore the condo, including the medicine cabinet. She read the labels on the pills the ailing woman had taken then carefully returned them to the shelf.
When Maya emerged from her bedroom she looked much better. She had on tight black jeans, a white t-shirt, with no bra, walking shoes and a brown leather bomber jacket.
"You still here?" Maya was surprised at the pretty blonde's tenacity.
"I thought you might need help with your luggage. You shouldn't be lifting heavy objects, or drinking, or getting wildly pissed off." Camille didn't get up from the chair she'd been waiting in.
"Damn, woman! There must be some law against nosy little blondes searching one's home. But, if you insist, you may carry my bags to the car." Maya motioned with a dramatic flourish.
"I bet you can be downright charming if you tried. But, I'm not here for your entertainment, Dr. Preston. I'm here to beg you to stay and help me identify these HUMAN BEINGS. This is not about you. This is about the families that are suffering. Don't you even care?"
Maya sighed and decided to confide in this persistent woman in hopes she'd finally let her go.
"Ok. Please let me explain my actions so you'll be satisfied with why I want to leave this whole situation."
The tall beauty paced back and forth, running her elegant hand through her short cropped dark curls.
"Katrina. How I hate that name. We all have our Katrina stories. All of us who lived there and/or had loved ones who died there."
Camille looked away and nodded her head.
Maya walked up to the living room window and stared not seeing the landscape in front of her, but deeply into the past.
"My partner, Terry, and I were happy and driven in our chosen careers. I worked very hard to be the best forensic anthropologist I could be. My father was a heart surgeon. My partner followed in his foot steps. We'd been together since high school. God, she was beautiful. Her parents both died when she was in college. So, Terry was very attached to my folks. They loved her too." Maya cleared her throat. "We heard that the hurricane was coming. It was to be the worst storm to ever hit the coast of the United States. The hospitals begged for help. Most of the staff evacuated. Terry decided to stay. She was a devoted physician. She insisted I take my parents to Texas and make certain they were safe. I didn't want to leave her. My folks wouldn't leave without me. So, I packed them up and left her at the hospital. I thought we'd be back in a day or two. . . I didn't see her again for two weeks. She was stuck in that hell hole among the dead bodies in the broiling heat. There was water everywhere, but none to drink, no food, no more medication to ease the pain of the dying. She was never the same after that. Our home and my parents' home were under 8 feet of water. There was nothing left to salvage. Our entire lives together, my childhood home . . . all gone. We had no family or friends who weren't in as bad a shape as we were, so we had no choice but to leave. We, and my parents, moved to an apartment about 50 miles north of the city in Picayune, Mississippi. The Coroner's office was insane, bodies being found every day for months. I did what I could, working 16 hours a day with hardly any equipment. The monies just never came. I tried to take care of my folks, but my Mom lost her mind. One day we found her sitting in the apartment's fountain yelling profanities at the top of her lungs. She never came back. I think her soul ran away from the horror of it all. I remember that morning we drove across the Causeway bridge. I can't remember why. But we saw a body floating right there in the Pontchartrain. All I could do was dial 911 and tell them which mile marker to look for. The operator told me they were still finding bodies every day. But, I knew that all too well. This was over three months after the storm." Maya stopped speaking for a moment and her eyes came back into focus.
"I spoke with one of my friends a few months ago. She said they had finally gotten electricity in my old neighborhood."
"Where did you live?"
"Lakeview. It never flooded in the 43 years we lived there. Because it took 18 months for the electricity to be brought back, most of the homes that were still standing were ruined by the mold. A few people had enough generator power to work on the repairs without electricity, but not many houses were salvageable."
"What happened to your partner and your Dad?" Camille looked into Maya's sad blue eyes with compassion.
"She's dead. So is he."
Camille got up and poured herself and her new friend a glass of wine. "Go on."
Maya nodded and took the proffered drink. "My Dad and Terry went to work at a hospital in Slidell, just across the lake from New Orleans. It was hard. We had to start over. There were some savings, thank God, but not enough to buy a house or a new car. I remember Terry and I were so excited when we bought that old Beemer out there. We were like a couple of kids driving with the top down and our Saints caps on." The blue eyes sparkled with the memory of happier times. "Then Dad had a heart attack. It was quick. I don't think he suffered. God that was hard on us. Mom was in the nursing home talking to chairs then Dad just ups and dies on us. That was the last she could handle. Terry started drinking a lot. We both had awful nightmares. I gave up my job at the Coroner's office and took this teaching job to get her away from everything that reminded us of all we'd lost. It didn't help. I lost her too. She crawled up inside a bottle. I found her after class. She'd taken about every pill in the house and washed it down with a bottle of Jack Daniel's. I guess she passed out and aspirated on her vomit. I was so angry at her for giving up and leaving me to deal alone. I'm still mad at her." Maya took a long swallow of her wine.
"Pretty story, huh? Everybody has one. So, what's yours?" Maya asked in a sarcastic tone, getting up to look out of the window again.
"Do you care?" Camille asked while staring at the nap in the Oriental rug.
Maya thought about that for a moment and realized that she did. "Yes, I do." Maya went back to her chair and got comfortable. "So, it's your turn Doctor."
"I was at grad school in Archaeological Anthropology in Arizona when the hurricane hit. I tried to reach my parents, but they'd gone to the Gulf Coast for a long weekend to celebrate their 30th anniversary. They always stayed at this darling bed and breakfast in Bay St. Louis. Mom was forever bringing home "unique" souvenirs. Once she brought home this huge shark's tooth she'd found on the beach and had a necklace made. She wore it all summer. They had the best marriage. They were always sneaking away for a romantic weekend. . . I never found them. Bay St. Louis beach and the town are gone, reclaimed by the Gulf. There was no sign of the Bed and Breakfast where they were staying. I keep hoping that I'll hear from them, or at least find their remains among the victims. I just need to know. I entered the Doctoral program in Forensic Anthropology and here I am." Tears streaked her lovely face and Maya's heart ached for her. The older woman stood up and pulled her distraught friend into her arms and cried with her.
"I'm sorry about your parents, Camille. And I'm sorry for being such a jerk." Maya gently patted the smaller woman's hair.
Camille sniffled. "Then you'll stay and help me? Please. . ."
A huge sigh escaped Maya's lips. "Shit. I'll stay. But, I don't promise not to bitch about it."
Camille hugged her new friend tightly to her. "Thank you, Maya. This means everything to me."
"I'll call Frank. I guess we're going to work today after all."
Continued in Part 2 of "Identity"
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