PRW Runner-up Tour: Heavy Hearted by Michelle Hoen
The blood and ichor traveled up his forearms, leaving dull crimson streaks across his hands. The swollen organ in which he sought did not wish to leave its home, but he continued to slice through the hardened arteries and veins. With one final cut, he severed the remaining artery, and withdrew his prize.
Several sections of the heart bore signs of heavy wear and tear, futile attempts at bypassing arteries long obstructed by sinful living. He shuffled the heart delicately between his hands to set it onto the stainless steel scale. As he suspected, the massive organ weighed down scale, its large number appearing onto the digital readout. He sighed, disappointed.
“Late night, Jack?” called a young woman’s voice from across the room.
Jack removed his safety glasses, careful not to get the cadaver’s various fluids on his person. He looked past the scale to the owner of the voice. His sometimes assistant smiled broadly at him from the doorway, her wide smile visible even in the darkened dissection lab. She wore her mousy brown hair tucked back, secured beneath her surgical cap. Her scrubs were clean, implying that her shift just started.
“And good morning to you, Ami,” he said, after a glance at the wall clock. “What brings you to the Underworld so early?”
Ami snorted. “You’re not still calling the lab that, are you?” She flicked on the overhead lights, making Jack wince at the sudden radiance now filling the room. The cadaver he had been working on under his solitary work light was now fully illuminated. Ami scrunched up her face.
“Wow, that’s a big ‘un,” she said, walking up to Jack’s table. “What’s the cause of death?”
Jack looked down at the cadaver’s obese sides nearly spilling over dissection table. He pulled the sterile cloth that lay folded back on its torso and draped it over the open chest cavity, drawing it lightly underneath the cadaver’s chin.
“Nothing suspicious,” he remarked. “Appears to be a heart attack, but I’ll have an official cause once I finish the autopsy. We’ll have to prep it for cremation afterwards, though.” He sighed, unable to mask the tinge of sadness in his voice. “No one’s coming to claim this one.”
Ami gave him a reassuring grin. “But that’s why we’re here. We figure out how they die, and then we lay them to rest afterwards. I know it’s not like at the funeral home, but we still accomplish the same thing, right?”
Jack nodded. He always gave extra care and consideration to the dead without next-of-kin. He would rummage through personal effects, looking for any piece of information that could lead him to someone, anyone who would be willing to claim the body. It was bad enough they had to die alone, he told himself, it would be further insult to their memory if no one knew what happened to them.
He tried to find comfort in Ami’s words, but he was frustrated he wasn’t able to find the deceased’s family or friends. He attributed his high standard of duty to the deceased as a hold over from growing up in a funeral director’s household, but deep down he knew that wasn’t the only reason. He remembered there was a time he could’ve died alone and forgotten, and he didn’t want anyone, living or dead, to ever feel that way.
“Yes, I suppose we do,” he said, clearing his throat. “Did you need something? I thought you’d be up in the lab today.”
“We received a call from the DCPD,” she started slowly, uncertain if Jack’s black mood had truly left him. “Human remains were found while they were investigating a mugging or something, so they called the office. The downside is that Andrews phoned in this morning. I know your shift ended a while ago, but do you think you’d like some overtime?”
Jack looked down at the cadaver on the slab as he tried to decide what to do.
“I can finish up for you here, if you like,” Ami added quickly. “I mean, it’s not like he’s going anywhere.”
He gave a light chuckle. “You make fun of me for calling my lab ‘The Underworld.’ Do you really think I’m going to let you get away with making that old joke?”
“A classic’s a classic,” Ami said playfully. “But really, Jack,” she added, her tone become more serious, “I’ll cover for you here.”
“Thanks.” He removed his latex gloves and strode over to the biohazard bin to dispose of them. “So where am I headed?”
“You can get the full details upstairs,” Ami said, “but I think it’s down in the lower Delta.”
The sun peeked over the skyline of Delta City, its orange glow sending ribbons of light over the riverfront. Jack adjusted his dark brown leather jacket over his collared shirt, trying to make his medical examiner’s badge more prominent for the on-duty officers.
The crime scene consisted of an ill-lit damp alley, though the gap between the buildings that formed it could barely contain its over-spilling garbage cans. Jack looked beyond the tight corridor and saw the outlet at the opposite end widen. It offered, he assumed, a quick exit for whoever was responsible for the crime, and a direct path to the harbor.
He lifted the yellow police tape that cordoned off the area, and approached the first officer he met.
“Jack Morgan, with the ME’s office. Can you point me to the officer in charge?”
The officer gestured to a olive-skinned woman, who was speaking to two other police officers. The badge hanging around her neck stood out brightly against her pale pink sweatshirt. Jack walked over to the woman as the police officers went off in the opposite direction.
“Good morning, Detective Chavez,” Jack said, adopting a cordial tone.
“Morgan, out during the day?” the detective said in mock surprise.
“Aren’t you going to, I don’t know, catch on fire?”
“Hardly,” he replied. “I understand you have something of interest to me this morning. What did you find?”
Chavez pulled a small notebook out from her sweatshirt pocket. It was already opened to a lined page, scrawled with neat handwriting.
“At about three thirty this morning, an officer was called to investigate a report of a mugging,” she said, reviewing her notes. “The caller said a man approached him and demanded his wallet. There was a scuffle, resulting in the caller being knocked to the ground, and he found himself face to face with…well, a hand.”
“A hand,” Jack repeated. Chavez shut and stowed away her notebook.
“Yep, appears to be a man’s hand. Lobbed off part way up the forearm. It’s not in the best shape though.”
Jack looked around, but couldn’t pinpoint where the limb was located with officers walking every which way. “Where is it?”
“Over here,” Chavez said, tilting her head in the direction of the alleyway. “The cop that arrived on the scene covered it to keep it from prying eyes.”
They walked over to the alley’s mouth, stopping around a space blanket secured into place by two crumbling bricks. Jack knelt down and shifted a brick, lifting up a corner of the blanket. The hand looked withered and dried out, almost to a leather-like consistency. In places, a greenish tinge marbled the skin. Jack wondered if the entire corpse had been kept in a dry place after death on purpose. He leaned in closer, detecting the faint smell of cedar, a completely foreign odor for a city street in the lower Delta. He wrinkled his nose in confusion.
“This limb was severed from the body weeks, maybe months, after the victim died,” he said, looking up at Chavez. “It’s practically mummified, but I could probably get some prints off it.” Before he covered the hand up again, he noticed a glint of metal on the hand’s ring finger. A large gold ring with a white opal inlay stood out against its shriveled finger, and he caught the glimpse of two gold feathers set into the opal.
Familiarity tugged at the back of Jack’s mind. He recognized the design on the ring from somewhere, but the exact details floated out of his reach with the arrival of a young officer at Chavez’s side.
“Detective,” he said, “we found another piece.”
Jack set the blanket down and stood up. “How far away is it?”
“Just two blocks down,” the cop replied. “I’ll take you there.”
Jack left instructions to contact the medical examiner’s office for an additional transport van, then followed the officer and Chavez to the next site. They headed toward the waterfront.
The area they approached was a popular walkway along the riverbank with quite a bit of foot traffic. At this hour, Jack wasn’t surprised if an early morning jogger made the discovery before the police.
A small knot of people had gathered and was held at bay by several harried-looking officers. Some of the onlookers held their camera phones up high, trying to snap a picture over the heads of the police. One officer stood guard, holding her jacket in a way that blocked an object on the ground, hiding it from view of the crowd. Chavez and Jack walked up to her, showing their badges. The officer stepped back, but continued to shield the unknown object as Jack crouched down to investigate.
The odor of cedar greeted him as he knelt, and he found himself looking at the shrunken features of a man’s head. Dark leathery skin drew tight around the skull and the just-graying black hair, though disheveled, must have been well-manicured before death. The remaining vertebrae and muscle visible through the open neck were sliced clear through, as though someone had nipped the head off with a band saw. Jack would have to run some tests, but he knew the hand and the head belonged to the same victim.
“My husband! That’s my husband!” came a frantic cry in the crowd. A woman pushed her way past the assembled group, tears streaming down her face. Jack looked up as the woman reached the wall of officers. They attempted to calm her and direct her away from the scene, but her desperate cries made her deaf to their words.
It had been many years, but Jack could never forget that woman’s face, even with it twisted up in grief.
“That’s Elisabeth Cyrus,” he said to Chavez. The memory of the gold ring flashed in his mind. “The ring,” he said, more to himself. He stared back into the victim’s face. If he lightened the skin tone, pictured more flesh in the cheeks, added some more years around the eyes…
Could it really be him? Jack wondered. He looked back up at Chavez. “Detective,” he said quietly. “I think this man was Franklin Cyrus.”
At nine years old, Jack was a lanky boy. His crew cut black hair seemed to make his ears stick out more than they actually did, but that was how his new barber cut hair, and the haircut paired well with his new suit. He walked up the steps of the Delta City Museum of Art, hand in hand with his new parents, the Morgans. Other newly-formed families also climbed up the stone steps, but when Jack saw Elisabeth Cyrus at the top of the stairs creating her guests, he let go of his parents’ hands and vaulted up the steps to meet her.
“Miss Isabeth!” he said at the top of his lungs. “Miss Isabeth, you look so pretty!”
She looked stunning in her glimmering silver evening gown and sapphire beads wove an intricate pattern across her neck. Her face broke into a genuine smile as Jack ran up to her. She crouched down and spread her arms wide, bringing him in for a hug.
“Oh, Jack!” she said, laughing. “Look at you! You’re such a handsome young man!”
“I missed you,” he said, returning her hug with all the strength he could muster.
“I’ve missed you too,” Elisabeth said. She held Jack out at arm’s length, giving him an appraising look. “Oh, no!” she cried.
“What’s wrong?” Jack asked, worry filling his face.
“You’ve gone and gotten taller on me!” Elisabeth said, booping him on the nose. Jack’s face crinkled with laughter, and he hugged her again. Jack’s parents finally finished climbing the steps after him, and shook hands with Elisabeth after she stood back up. Jack looked up at the adults as they exchanged words, and even though he was bored, he didn’t want to say anything that would upset his parents or worse, upset Elisabeth. He tried to wait patiently, but soon his squirming attracted Elisabeth’s attention, and she grinned.
“You know, Jack, it’s time to go inside. My husband’s already inside entertaining our guests, but a lady should really have an escort at an event like this. Will you walk with me?” She held out her hand.
Jack nodded excitedly. He took her hand and led her through the double doors of the museum, with his parents following closely behind.
Parents and small children in fancy dress filled the vestibule. Elisabeth pointed in the direction of a small stage erected in the main hall, and Jack escorted her to a small group of men wearing tuxedos. One man excused himself from the group and walked over to them. He bowed lightly to Elisabeth, then took her right hand and kissed it.
“You look beautiful, honey,” he said, before his attention shifted to Jack. “And who might you be?”
Jack sidled slightly behind Elisabeth. He wasn’t afraid of the man, but something about him struck him as intimidating. His raven-colored hair was cropped close to his head and slicked back sharply. He was tall and slender, his figure accentuated by the cut of his jacket. His face looked friendly enough – he did not look like one of those adults who feigned politeness – but Jack knew he was clearly a powerful man.
“This is Jack Morgan, Franklin,” Elisabeth said for him. “He’s one of the children we found a permanent home for.” She bent her head down to Jack. “This is my husband, Franklin Cyrus.”
Franklin held out his hand. He wore a large gold ring that glimmered in the stage lights. Jack hesitated, but he took Franklin’s hand and shook it firmly, just like Mr. Morgan taught him.
“Good man,” Franklin said, grinning. “Now that’s a proper handshake.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Cyrus,” Jack said automatically.
Elisabeth leaned in closer to whisper in her husband’s ear. Jack caught the words “Nellie’s son”, but he was confused – Nellie wasn’t Mrs. Morgan’s name. Franklin must have been thinking the same thing, because he started back from her before looking back at Jack, his face a mixture of emotions. Jack stared back blankly.
The Morgans stepped up behind Jack, Mr. Morgan putting his hand on Jack’s shoulder. “We should probably go find our seats. We’ll see you later tonight,” he said to the couple. Mr. Morgan steered his family away from them, but Jack kept craning his head back to see what the Cyrus’ were talking about. Franklin’s face was clouded with anxiety. Elisabeth stood next to him, her arm around his back. She did not look upset like her husband. She caught Jack’s eye and smiled sweetly at him, as if to tell him there was nothing to worry about, before she led her husband away from the foot of the stage.
Jack was never certain what Elisabeth meant, and he only ever saw her a handful of times after that night. It wasn’t until recently that he thought about her again, when news reports came out claiming Franklin had gone missing during a business trip. His brother and company co-founder was indicted for kidnapping, then manslaughter, but no body could ever be found. The brother eventually assumed full control over the company, and Franklin had vanished without a trace.
The medical examiner’s van drove up to the scene, distracting Jack from Elisabeth’s sorrowful cries. “We’ll collect the hand from the previous site and get started on assembling whatever evidence we can gather,” he said to Chavez. “However, I doubt whoever is responsible only left these two pieces for us to find.”
Chavez nodded in agreement. “We’ll take her in for questioning, too,” she added, gesturing to Elisabeth. A single officer managed to quiet her, leading her over to one of the patrol cars. “I’m curious to know why she’s so certain it’s her husband, considering he’s been missing all this time.”
After Jack collected the necessary evidence, he asked Chavez to notify him when Elisabeth was done being questioned, as she would be needed to formally identify the body. In the meantime, he took the two pieces of Franklin Cyrus to the morgue.
More reports came flooding in, and soon it seemed the entire lower Delta was strewn with the missing pieces of Franklin Cyrus. Jack and his team collected eleven additional body parts across the area of the riverfront over the following two days, and the person responsible for their disposal was still at large.
Elisabeth, according to the police, claimed she and a team of private investigators had found her husband’s body just a few days prior to its mutilation, locked in a large cedar chest. She had stowed the chest away in a safe location to prepare it for a quiet, private burial, when the box’s contents suddenly went missing. When she heard reports of the body parts appearing in the lower Delta, she went to reclaim her husband.
Jack felt beside himself. While he was able to piece together the body, one fragment was still missing. A heavy rain came down during the second day of the police search, which caused Jack to believe that the missing piece had been washed away into the river, where it would never be recovered. He’d have to explain to Elisabeth how she’d be unable to lay all of her husband to rest, and it pained him to have to admit to that. He had delayed her coming to the morgue to reclaim the remains because he couldn’t stand of thought of disappointing her.
He spent several days reviewing the crime scenes down by the waterfront, hoping he would be able to retrieve the missing body part. He climbed through the dumpsters of back alleys, in and around sewer grates – It shouldn’t have been difficult to find the mummified section of a middle-aged man’s lower torso, but he came up short. He couldn’t put off Elisabeth’s visit to the morgue any longer.
What he could do, however, was prepare the body for burial.
The body of Franklin Cyrus lay peacefully beneath a white shroud. The laboratory was clean and tidy, and the staff were instructed to not enter the lab for the rest of the afternoon. Elisabeth arrived on her own. She looked tired and worn, but also relieved at the same time. He led with solemnly to Franklin’s table, and on her cue, pulled back the shroud to reveal Franklin’s body.
Jack had used every trick his father taught him to make Franklin’s body presentable, and several others just to maintain the appearance the body was whole. He stitched all the pieces back together, and after rubbing down the skin with moisturizing creams, he wrapped the limbs and torso with gauze strips instead of packing cotton underneath the skin to give the body more form. The clothing Franklin wore at his time of death was unusable, so Jack brought a simple suit of his own to dress the body, surprised that he and Franklin were of a similar fit. He styled the hair and set it into place with hair gel, and lightly applied face powder to the skin, to remove the leather-like qualities it had acquired as it decayed.
He expected Elisabeth to start crying, but instead, a small sad smile crept across her face. “Oh, Franklin,” she said softly. “You’re finally home.”
Jack moved to leave the room, but she stopped him. “You don’t need to leave,” she told him. “Did you do this?” she asked, gesturing to her private viewing.
He nodded. “It was no trouble, Mrs. Cyrus.”
“Mrs. Cyrus,” Elisabeth said, shaking her head. “That’s a bit formal of you, isn’t it, Jack?”
“I…” Jack started, surprised. “You remember me?”
“I remember all of the children I help,” Elisabeth said, knowingly. “Especially you, Jack. I could never forget you.”
Jack was stunned. Given the circumstances, he didn’t expect Elisabeth to think of anything other than her husband, and yet here she was, talking to the grown version of a boy she first met twenty years ago. He covered Franklin’s body, and sat down with Elisabeth on the other side of the lab.
“You’ve grown,” she said with a light chuckle.
“I suppose I have, Miss Isabeth,” Jack said. She smiled at the mention of her nickname. He glanced at Franklin’s table, and asked the question that had been on his mind. “What happened?”
Elisabeth told him the sad story behind Franklin’s death months ago. How his brother had tricked him while away on a business trip, sealing the body away. With no concrete evidence to convict the brother, he assumed control of the family company. Elisabeth, with the help of some friends, tracked down Franklin’s body at one of his brother’s properties and stole it. “But he found us out,” Elisabeth concluded. “When I went back to where I kept the body, it was gone.”
Jack couldn’t imagine a brother murdering his own sibling, but he believed everything Elisabeth said. What would she have to gain by lying about it?
“Thank you for bringing him home to me,” Elisabeth said. “Your mother and father would be very proud of you.”
He blushed slightly. “The Morgans treated me like I was their own, just like you always did. I’m lucky to have them, thanks to you.”
He remembered the night of the adoption gala, and what she whispered into Franklin’s ear. He hesitated, briefly wondering if he should even ask at all. “Who’s Nellie?” he asked simply.
Elisabeth considered him for a moment. “Your mother,” she replied. “And my best friend. Her husband was not a very good man, and early in their relationship, she strayed. We kept her pregnancy a secret, and I promised I would do whatever was in my power to keep you safe.” She took his hand. “She loved you more than anything.”
Jack didn’t know how to react. He always knew he’d been given up for adoption, but as far as he was concerned, the Morgans were his parents. But now, he was curious. He never knew what became of his birth parents. He gave her hand a squeeze.
“Who was my father?” he asked.
“A man who also strayed,” she said with a sigh. “But he was a genuinely good man. He would also be very proud of you.”
They spoke for a few more minutes before Elisabeth said she should contact the funeral home to make arrangements for her husband. Before she left the lab, Jack remembered the envelope of personal effects he collected from Franklin’s body, and retrieved it from his desk.
“These were all the items we found with Franklin,” he said, handing the envelope to her. “There was a ring, and some other pocket items.”
She unfolded the flap, fishing out the large gold ring. She admired it for a moment before handing it Jack.
“I’d like you to have this.”
He tried to hand it back, saying that he couldn’t accept it, but she refused.
“Please, Jack, it would mean so much to me.”
After some light encouragement from Elisabeth, Jack finally accepted. He thanked her, and offered his assistance should she need any help with the funeral arrangements. As he saw her to the door, she gave him one final hug goodbye.
“Take care. And do look after that ring,” she said, stepping out into the hallway. “It belonged to your father.”
At first, Jack didn’t think he heard her correctly. For a brief moment, he thought she was talking about Mr. Morgan again, but that couldn’t be possible. He looked at the ring he still held in his hand, but by the time he looked back up, Elisabeth was gone.
He immediately went to Franklin’s table, pulling back the shroud. He looked at the withered face of the man Elisabeth had called his father. The cause of death was asphyxiation; the mummification due to the storage after death. Someone – his uncle? – had mutilated the body during its advanced stage of decomposition. Despite the violent circumstances surrounding his death, the body of Franklin Cyrus looked at peace in his eternal rest. He found himself uttering a small prayer and replaced the shroud.
“Rest in peace, father.”
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