Death Votes Last
"Death Votes Last" won the 2019 First Place Award for general fiction in TopShelf Magazine.
Release date: November 10, 2017
Publisher: Gatekeeper Press
Print pages: 372
Content advisory: Adult language and situations, violence
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Death Votes Last
I’ve always hated autopsies. Not for the obvious reasons. There’s nothing pleasant about looking at a corpse, and some are much worse than others. That’s not the reason. Watching as a medical examiner slices and dices the body—drains it, peels the skull back if necessary—that’s not pleasant, but that’s not the reason I hate autopsies. I’ve attended enough of the things to be accustomed to all of that. It’s part of the job, and I’m just looking at evidence, taking notes.
The cleanliness of the place is something I’ve always found ironic. The pathologists keep the morgue sterile, but not for the protection of any patients. The stainless-steel tables are just giant cutting boards, not operating tables. The bodies placed upon them are already immune to any further infection. The sterility is there to protect the forensics, to protect the evidence, to protect cases. All too often, they’re my cases. I’m a federal prosecutor.
There’s always time later for reflection, to humanize the victim being dissected in front of me. I say “victim,” because that’s what brings me to the morgue: unnatural deaths, murders. The autopsy is a time for observation, for watching as the doc locates clues as to a possible cause of death, and points them out while they’re being photographed and collected. It can be an entry wound here, an exit wound there, the shape of a stab wound, the retrieval of a bullet, the pattern of blood flow inside the body or on it. Toxicology can reveal the ingestion or injection of drugs or poisons. The body and the marks on it are all just evidence at this point.
There are certainly times when it’s different, times when it’s a lot tougher. When the victim is a kid, it’s always hard. It just never seems right or natural to see a very young corpse, but I get by it, realizing again that it’s just a shell of what used to be, a container of a soul who’s not home anymore. It’s a realization I have to have in order to do the job, to get a conviction in court. The anger and the sadness, the sense of futility and the pity will all come to me at some location away from this place.
I stopped thinking about the morgue as a place of death years ago. It’s not. No, what I see in the morgue is not death; it’s the aftermath. Death is an event, a process that happened somewhere else. I’ve seen death happen a few times. I’ve watched good people and bad falling to flying bullets. I held my mother’s hand as the death rattle racked her, after the chemo beat her lymphoma but surrendered her immune system to pneumonia. I even felt it miles away as a little brother lost his own battle to cancer. He patted me on the shoulder as I was driving on a highway, a peaceful message that he was saying goodbye for now. No, death occurs at a fixed point in time before the corpse arrives at the morgue.
Aside from kids, autopsies are different when I’ve known the victim in life. Even though I know the person is gone, it’s impossible not to think of the face on the table smiling at me, talking to me as it once did. Those exams are tough, especially when it was someone I worked with, liked, respected, or cared for. Fortunately, there have only been a couple of those. One would have been too many.
That leads me to the real reason I hate autopsies. They reinforce the reality that death will come for us all, and that one day it will come for the ones closest to me, and finally for me. Regardless of the faith that I try to follow, I’m human, and the smallest doubt will come creeping in to suggest that all that might be left for me—of me—is the evidence being collected on a table while somebody else watches, takes pictures, takes samples, and takes notes. The autopsy today will be one of the tough ones. It’s not a kid, but someone I knew when he was alive: Senator Sherwin Graves, “Digger” to his friends. We were friends once, before the pressures of politics changed things, and changed him.
I pull the Jeep into one of the spaces outside the office of the Medical Examiner for the District of Columbia. There’s an aging green Buick in the slot next to me. I know the car. Detective Dixon Carter is already here, waiting for me inside. The Buick used to be his undercover ride, one he once shared with a partner. That partner—Juan Ramirez—has had his own autopsy. Carter could get a better ride, but he keeps the old car to remember. Juan’s ghost rides shotgun. Carter has a new partner, but being detectives, they have the option of driving separately, and his new partner has chosen to drive himself. A good call.
I see Carter as I enter the hallway inside the entrance, speaking with a petite blonde. Carter is neither petite nor blonde. He’s a bald, black monster of a man with a deep baritone voice that can freeze an angry mob or convince a hesitant suspect that he really should be talking to the police. I’ve seen him do both. He’s the best homicide detective I know, and the one I’ve worked with the most.
“Jeff.” Carter greets me when he looks up. “Kathy already did her magic, and says that all we might need on this one is the tox screen.”
Carter’s telling me that Kathy Davis, the principal Assistant Medical Examiner for the District, has saved me from watching this autopsy, and that the only thing that could make this death more than it appeared to be might be in the victim’s blood, to be revealed by the toxicology report.
She looks up and reads the question on my face before I can ask it.
“Like Dix said, we’ll have to wait on the tox for confirmation, but this was in his jacket pocket.”
She holds up a plastic evidence envelope. Inside it I can see some small white pills.
“Rohypnol—or if you prefer the generic—flunitrazepam,” she explains.
I do a double take.
“The date-rape drug?” I ask.
“Yeah. Ten times more powerful than valium. Guaranteed to make your drive home very interesting and—according to the police report—”
“From the responding unit,” Carter fills in the blanks, “he flew off the road in Rock Creek Park and went head-on into a sizable oak doing about fifty. No skid marks on the pavement. The pills were in a prescription bottle, with the label removed. We’re checking the bottle for prints.”
I factor this into my analysis. If prints are found on the bottle, and they’re the dead senator’s prints, the pills were probably his, and this might be a weird suicide, designed to make it look like an accident. People have done worse in order to have an insurance policy paid to their loved ones. I can’t think of any other reason to intentionally take the stuff and then get behind a wheel. On the other hand, I can’t remember anyone that Digger Graves loved, other than himself. He had no family that I know of.
The alternative scenario is more sinister. If the pills weren’t Digger’s, it’s a murder. If someone else slipped him a mickey and then slipped the bottle into his jacket, the bottle will probably have been wiped clean first. The likelihood of someone else’s prints being on the bottle is slim unless the bad guy was careless as hell.
“The wreck killed him, and that’s my cause of death,” Kathy says. “I’ll give you wizards some time to determine if he dosed himself, or if someone did that to him and planted the stuff on him. Either way, it’s no simple accident—could even be a homicide. No hurry, other than the political pressure, if it comes. I’ll hold the final report as long as I can. I’ve got to wait on the tox, like I said, and I won’t ask for a rush on it. The lab’s pretty backed up.”
“How backed up?” I hear myself asking. The guy was a sitting United States Senator. There will be political pressure, and plenty of it. I need to know my time window.
“I can probably stretch it to three weeks, as long as nobody pushes the lab,” Kathy answers. “Only the three of us here know that there’s even a question, at least for now. As far as the public knows, he just fell asleep at the wheel. I’ll give you a call as soon as I hear from the lab. If the tox is clean, it’s an accidental death, pure and simple: a car wreck and a fatality.”
“Thanks, Kathy.” I give her a grateful glance. She’s not breaking any rules, but she is bending a couple.
I nod to Carter and he follows me outside. He gives me a look I know well from past cases: raised eyebrows and wide eyes.
“Done any date-rape cases?” I ask him. He’s a homicide detective, not a sex-crimes guy.
We’re honest with each other. No fudging, pretending, or egos.
“I did a couple back in my blue-suit days.”
I was a circuit prosecutor for the Air Force before being hired by the Department of Justice. I tried everything: murders, rapes, theft, corruption, driving from one base to another, trying case after case. Three-hundred days on the road every year buys you a lot of courtroom experience.
“The pills are usually crushed up and dumped into the victim’s drink. The white pills—like those Kathy has—are tasteless and colorless. You’d never notice them in a drink. They’re not legal in the U.S. Some other countries where they’re still prescribed now put color in the pills. Those release a dye into a doctored drink to try and prevent abuse, but you can still get the white ones in Mexico or spots in Europe. Anyway, twenty or thirty minutes after you finish your drink, it’s lights-out and amnesia time; it’s sure not good for driving.” I collect my thoughts for a second. “What do we have on his schedule last night before the wreck?”
“We’re still working on that,” Dix says. “All I know for sure is that he left a bar in Georgetown about half an hour before the wreck was reported, so that fits your timeline, whether he took the pills himself or somebody else slipped him some.”
Georgetown. The upscale wining and dining district on the Potomac along the western boundary of Washington, next to the university bearing the same name, the Kennedy Center, and the Watergate. Plenty of meat markets for the single crowd, and the senator was single.
“We need to hit that hard. Yesterday.” I regret saying that for a second. Dix already knows all that.
“Yep.” He nods. “Tim’s out there already.”
Timothy Wisniewski is Dix’s partner, and Carter has already assigned him the lead. Dix knows I’m just thinking out loud, and he takes no offense. The canvassing of an active bar is always a crapshoot, and it always gets worse with time. The patrons are almost always dead ends. They go to drink and meet, or to forget; they usually don’t go to a bar to remember.
“We’ll work the bartenders and servers first,” Carter says. “See if there was a surveillance camera.”
We’re on the same page as usual.
“Thanks. I’ve got to go report in. The new boss should be there today.”
“You met him yet?” Dix asks.
“No. But I need to do that now. I should be getting a feel for him after briefing this little problem.”
“You keeping your job?”
“To be determined.”
My current title is Senior Litigation Counsel—“SLC”—for the office of the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia. There’s a new United States Attorney today after the election. It’s his choice whether I stay in the position or go back to being just a trial dog in one of the regular units.
“I hope it’s good news,” Carter says. “We like having you available for the big cases.”
“Thanks. Me, too.”
Not being in a unit and having carte blanche to pick up the major cases is something I’d rather not have to give up. Dix also knows that when I do grab a file, I can sometimes pick and choose the investigation team. When I have the option, it always includes Dixon Carter.
“Check with me after lunch,” I tell him. “I should have an idea by then.”
The Stones are on the radio singing “Paint it Black” when I back the Jeep away from the morgue. It was the lead single on their Aftermath album from 1966. Jagger quoting James Joyce; there’s a combination I wouldn’t have bet on before hearing the lyrics. I turn the radio off, think for a second, and then switch it back on.
It fits the moment. I’m dealing with a couple of dark aftermaths. I could still see the effects of one murder in Kathy Davis’ eyes after she worked on the senator’s body, trying to see if we had another one. Her longtime significant other—Willie Sivella—was shot in the head last year behind his bar. Willie had been a commander in the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department before he retired and opened the place. The Beverly, named for his mother, was only a few minutes southeast of my house in Waldorf, Maryland, about five o’clock off the D.C. beltway.
Before Willie was killed, Kathy had been full of life, with happy, dancing eyes. She had been looking forward to her own retirement, and to becoming a full-time bartender and amateur accountant at the Beverly. The place is closed now, and Kathy Davis’ eyes have turned dull. She’s pulled her retirement papers and gone back to being a pathologist. It’s not like she had to worry about the ME taking her back. The District has hundreds of murders every year, and only a few pathologists. None of them are as good as Kathy Davis.
She doesn’t feel as alone at the morgue, and probably feels like she’s helping to keep creeps like the one who killed Willie off the street. She at least has the dead at work to keep her from thinking about her own dead at home.
The other aftermath is a storm that’s just starting to brew. When I was growing up near the Mississippi Gulf Coast, we’d watch the evening weather reports and track the tropical storms as they started to form near the Azores, long before they turned into the major hurricanes like Camille or Katrina and smashed into our coastline, leaving unimaginable wakes of destruction. The autopsy Kathy saved me from watching today followed a death that has the makings of a category five cyclone. The current United States Senate is split down the middle: fifty Republicans at war with fifty Democrats. A couple of them claim to be “independent,” but we know who they really are, and they’re as dependent on their parties as those claiming membership.
The late Senator Sherwin Graves was, once upon a time, my second chair on a series of courts-martial when I was an Air Force major and Digger was a new JAG captain. He left active duty to run for Congress, and then left his House seat for a successful run at an open seat in the Senate. The Digger I’d known before changed at that point. He became consumed with polls, perceptions, party, and his own re-elections, almost to the exclusion of anything else.
Our paths had crossed a couple of times in recent months: once when he’d dragged me into the investigation of the heroin overdose death of another senator’s daughter, and more recently when I was called to testify before a Senate committee hearing. Digger’s committee had been investigating terrorists who had attacked local police officers. Neither of those contacts had gone smoothly for us. The overdose victim’s father found out that another senator had given her the poison that killed her, resulting in a murder-suicide on the Senate floor. The hearing testimony that I presented was not favorable to either political party, and was not what Digger had hoped to hear. Worst of all, one of the cops the terrorists had murdered was Willie Sivella—Kathy Davis’ Willie Sivella. Now Digger himself was gone.
I pull the Jeep into my reserved parking slot in the basement under 555 Fourth Street, N.W. The “Triple Nickel” is the building that houses the offices of the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia and the hundreds of assistants who work for him. The lower floors contain the offices of the prosecutors who work the cases in the local court, the so-called Superior Court of the District of Columbia, the equivalent of a county court in this federal enclave. I take the elevator to the fifth floor, where those of us who work in the federal courts hang our suit jackets. I don’t walk to my own office this time; I turn instead toward the big corner office at the end of the hall.
Julia Forrest, the secretary to the United States Attorney, smiles broadly when she sees me. There’s relief in her eyes. The new boss has had the common sense to keep her in her job instead of replacing her with someone else. She knows the office, the people, and the connections at the courthouse. Smart move. Maybe I’ll be as lucky.
“Go on in, Jeff; he’s expecting you,” she says.
I nod and go through the open double doors. The desk and decor are the same, with the exception of the diplomas and certificates behind the huge cherry desk. I still half expect to see Ross Eastman, the former U.S. Attorney, behind the desk. After all, he was here for almost eight years. He’s been replaced now by the new regime. I remind myself that he’s moved on to one of the K Street mega-firms. No need to feel sorry for Ross Eastman. He’ll be pulling down three times more than he made here, comfortably compensated for no longer doing what we prosecutors call “God’s work.” We’re sworn to do the right thing, to seek justice. Other members of the bar owe their loyalty to their clients, not to the truth.
The figure behind the desk rises, and keeps rising. The guy has to be six-five. I knew that already, but it’s the first time I’ve seen him in person. Bradley Mantee was a small forward at Princeton before moving on to Harvard Law and collecting all the political connections that one collects at Harvard Law. He knows the new president from business connections in New York. Now he’s the lead prosecutor for the District of Columbia, even though his next courtroom appearance—if he ever makes one—will be his first.
He offers a very large hand, which almost crushes my own. I try to grip it firmly with a total lack of success. He backs off the compression a little.
“Mr. Trask. It’s Jeff, isn’t it?” he asks.
“Please call me Brad. I’m not one for much formality unless it’s necessary.”
“‘Brad’ it is, then.”
“Good.” He smiles. “Have a seat.”
I drop into one of the leather chairs facing his desk. He stays in his own chair, behind the desk.
“I stopped by your office this morning and you weren’t in,” Mantee says. “Your secretary didn’t know where you were, either.”
“My fault for not letting her know,” I reply. “I’ve been at the ME’s office since seven-thirty or so. I know the chief assistant over there pretty well, and she told me she was going to be working the autopsy on Senator Graves.”
Mantee nods and waves off the suggestion that he thought I was AWOL.
“I’m not running a time clock on you, Jeff. Just keep us in the loop so I can reach you. You’re the SLC, and I know you need to move fast on the major cases.”
“Anything unusual about the autopsy? I heard it was just a car wreck.”
“It might be. The senator had some unusual pills in his pocket that could have been a contributing factor. The toxicology report will fill in some blanks for us when it comes back. It could stay ‘just a car wreck.’”
I’m not going to give away everything I know until I really know Bradley Mantee.
“He was pretty senior, and with the numbers as close as they are in the Senate, it’s a major loss for the party.”
“I know. I’ll keep you posted.” By “the party,” he means his party.
“Please do. The politics could get pretty ugly on this if it turns out to be more than an accident.”
I nod. I’m waiting to see where the new boss wants to take this. He doesn’t keep me waiting.
“I hear that you had some issues with the prior administration, Jeff. Ross Eastman and I had some dinner conversations about the office once I heard that I’d be taking his place. He was very high on you, but I sensed that he was worried that he couldn’t control you in some circumstances. Your Senate testimony came up in our discussions.”
I pause for a moment. I remember my testimony, blistering the Obama Department of Justice for releasing hardened criminals and refusing to enforce laws that they were sworn to uphold. I also remember refusing to be led by some of the senators—including Digger Graves—into praise of the Bush DOJ by comparison. I remember that Alberto Gonzalez canned half the United States Attorneys across the country for purely political reasons. Now there’s a new Republican attorney general at Main Justice. I’m reserving judgment on that reign until I see how it functions.
I nod again. “I’m not surprised. He wasn’t thrilled about that. I just answered the questions as honestly as I could. Those answers didn’t help any politicians in the room, or either party. I actually called for the removal of DOJ from the president’s cabinet. I think it would make it less susceptible to manipulation by either side. I know there are some Constitutional implications to that, but—”
“You haven’t liked any of the attorneys general?” Mantee asks me.
“I didn’t say that. I have a lot of respect for Judge Mukasey, and think he was a good pick to restore some dignity to the department after the Gonzalez fiasco. Most of the other AG’s I’ve seen have unfortunately been just political hacks. They had no real experience in doing the job we do, and it showed in some of their decisions.”
“Kind of like me?” Mantee asks pointedly, smiling.
I smile back. I’d known where I was going, and I knew how he’d take it. I’m ready for what he thinks was a ‘gotcha’ question.
“I honestly don’t know, Brad, and that depends on you,” I say. “I’m not challenging you or your appointment. I’m a former military guy, and I understand orders and superiors. I’m also a history major. Eisenhower had never seen combat before he was named Supreme Commander in Europe, but he knew how to delegate and pick his commanders, and the good guys won. All I’m saying is that several of the recent heads of this department did not have Ike’s common sense or judgment.”
I pause for a couple of breaths before resuming. I’ve fired for effect. Mantee is disarmed for the present, and he’s now waiting on me.
“The oath we both took, Brad, is to the Constitution and to enforce the laws passed by Congress. You have my word that everything I do in this office will be directed toward those goals. I don’t care how that affects either political party. They’re not my concern, not my problem. I work criminal cases and follow them wherever the evidence takes us. To the extent possible, I try to keep politics out of the investigations and prosecutions. If that suits you, I’m happy to continue as your SLC. If not, it’s your prerogative to re-assign me.”
Mantee shakes his head with approval. “That works for me. I’d like you to keep the SLC job. Just keep me up to speed on what you’re doing. I have bosses, too, you know.”
He stands and offers me his hand. There’s no alpha male game this time. This handshake is firm but not crushing.
“Thanks for coming in,” he says, smiling.
“Thank you,” I respond.
On my way through the outer office, Julia gives me a thumbs-up with a questioning glance. I nod and she grins. There is a new normal. For now.
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