Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 3, Scene 2

TOC page here.

Now let’s shift locations to the morgue. Normally, shifting locations means changing chapters, but this is a work in progress, so I’m going to set up the formal chaptering once it’s done. Here, we go back to the original pattern: character, setting, theme:

The morgue was deserted, even by its usual standards. Mustapha paused by the snack machine, pretending he was interested in year-old tortilla chips rather than just waiting for her to catch up. Diana’s surgically repaired knee was better than the original, but going down stairs would always be a little slow and awkward. As she reached the bottom of the last flight of steps, the main doors of the morgue opened a crack and a shadow beckoned them inside.

The figure padded ahead of them through the cold, dark facility four stories underneath the old police headquarters building on Central Avenue. They walked between rows of metal tables, each with its long, wrapped bundle. Add the far end of the room, the figure reached out and flipped a switch, illuminating a single panel of the overhead fluorescents. Diana flinched against the sudden light; her vision resolved itself into the figure of Dr. Palwasha Dhandha, to teach and well-kept in dark green scrubs. Next her, on the examining table lay the corpse of Alex Dawson, still in every layer of clothing he had worn on the street, except for shoes and socks.

“I’m sure you think this cloak and dagger stuff is a bit trite, Inspector,” said the doctor. Her appearance was pure South Asian, but her accent was snooty West End London. “But if you think your fellow police officers are terrible gossips, you clearly haven’t spent enough time with morgue attendants.”

“Hey, Doc,” said Mustapha, “anything that helps keeps the press away from my case is just fine with me.”

“I’m glad I could help. Hello, Diana.”

“Hi, Posh. How are the boys?”

“Mad for football. But the stupid American kind, with all the plastic armor.” She shrugged. “It makes one almost wish they had chosen video games.”

“Those things will kill you,” said Mustapha. “Have you done the prelim on our pal Alex here? You said you had something for us, but he looks just like he did before.”

“I wanted you to get the full effect of it, just like I had. Let’s begin at the head and work down.”

“My kinda gal.”

“Inspector, you’re making me blush. Superficially, the cause of death is ligature strangulation.” She pointed at the deep bruising in a ring around the front and sides of Alex’s throat. “Once I open him up, I may find something different, but this has all the markers. He was probably killed with a lamp flex or some other kind of rubberized wire. I satisfied myself by confirming the petechiae in the eyes, then moved downward and began removing his clothing.”

Dr. Dhandha folded back the front flaps of Alex’s coat. Diana could see that the oversized red T-shirt Alex was wearing as his outermost layer beneath the coat has beed cut down the middle with scissors, as had the six or seven layers below.

Posh took hold of the topmost section of each side of the cut clothing. “And this is where I decided I should probably ring you up.” She folded back the clothing to reveal Alex’s chest, which was lean, dark, well-muscled, scrubbed clean and painted with an enormous hieroglyph made up of dozens of zigzag lines with branching curves and dots, done in very thick wide black ink. To Diana, it looked like the fancy calligraphy she would see framed in gilt in market stalls in Istanbul, and Damascus, and Baghdad, and Kabul and Karachi when she had traveled through those cities long before.

“Aw, shit,” said Mustapha.

Posh nodded. “Yes. I thought you would want to see this.”

“The Reaper converted to Islam, didn’t he?” said Diana.

Mustapha sighed. “Yeah. Let’s go get some peanuts out of that snack machine, because the circus is about to come to town.”

“So what does it say? Or is it just some religious symbol?” Diana was pretty sure that even though the hieroglyph looked like a beautiful, symmetrical design, it was really Arabic letters.

“I couldn’t tell you,” said Posh. “My family is Hindu, but we don’t even practice. I’ve seen these in my Muslim friends’ homes, and they’re usually verses from the Qur’an, but I can barely read the alphabet. What does it say, Inspector?”

Mustapha spent a long moment staring at the hieroglyph. Then he laughed, sourly. “You think I know? I’m has lost as you are, Doc.”

“It’s your religion,” said Diana. “It’s your language.”

Mustapha gave her his second-best stop being perky glare. “We go to Benihana for the big holidays. There’s a Koran in our house, but I don’t think I’ve opened it since Lucie was born.”

“But you can read it, right?”

“My family thought they were upper class. We only spoke French at home. I can understand a little bit of Arabic, but the kind we speak in Morocco is nothing like the kind that’s in the Qur’an. I can read it—no, I can sound out words if it’s printed the normal way—but I only know what a few of the words mean.”

“I never knew that. So this would be, like, asking me to read the Bible in old English, with fancy writing.”

“Oh, dear,” said Posh. “And here I was hoping that I would be here when you solved the mystery.”

“Sorry to disappoint,” said Mustapha, insincerely. “I can tap dance.”

“No, you can’t,” said Diana.

“Have you ever seen me try?”

“I would remember that. Let’s go to a mosque and ask the…”

“Imam? Nobody will be up until the dawn prayer, which will be about half past way too early in the morning. Let’s sit on this, and not even tell the brass, until we figure out just what it means.”

“I will continue examining him,” said Posh. “By myself.”

“That’s perfect, Doc.” Mustapha jerked his head back toward the entrance. “Let’s go pretend we really are interested in the guy’s family.”

Diana started to walk out toward the entrance. “Maybe we can make a little Freudian slip in front of one of the reporters, throw them way off.”

“See? That’s why I keep you around. You’re meaner than I am.”

“Not unless you haven’t had your tea. I can’t believe you can’t read Arabic. Here I was, thinking you went to one of those schools where all they do is memorize the Koran all day.”

“I went to elementary school in Paris, with a bunch of white kids.”

“I always figured you had a prayer mat at home and study the sacred texts when you think nobody’s looking. You know, the secret seeker beneath the gruff exterior.”

“Nah. I just watch SportsCenter.”

New character is Posh the English-Indian medical examiner: she, like Keller, is an ongoing character who appears in the novels and many of the short stories. You don’t want to make your tertiary characters TOO wacky, but they need to be more than just a collection of tics, which is why here we get some family background.

Setting is the morgue: it’s pretty generic, but we use it to explore Diana’s bad knee, something that will come up repeatedly. She tore it long ago when Grace was a child, screwed it up worse in A Rush to Judgment, and is now basically hiding from Internal Affairs, because if they were to find out her knee was that bad, they’d put her on medical retirement.

The big reveal shows us that Alex’s chest has Arabic calligraphy—and that Mustapha, the technically Muslim immigrant from Morocco, can’t read Arabic. Clearly, Rosa didn’t do this. It raises still more questions: what does Alex have to do with Islam, and what’s the Reaper connection? The Reaper, as has been repeatedly established, was Catholic, like all good mystery-thriller occult villains.

The theme is that neither Diana nor Mustapha really belong in the deep sense: they’re both alienated from their pasts.


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  1. Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 3, Scene 1b | Julian Cage

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