Roadkill

By Ed Staskus

   Malcolm Ferguson walked into the Queen Elizabeth Hospital mortuary room like he was seeing it for the first time, even though he had been PEI’s pathologist for 11 years. He waited for the sharp stab in his left hip to relent. He felt woozy. He steadied himself with one arm on the doorjamb. He was steady after a moment, even though his left heel wouldn’t flatten down to the floor. He put his arms at his sides and breathed evenly.

   The hospital was practically new. It was in its infancy. He was getting older by the minute, which bothered him, even though the older he got the older he wanted to be. “Getting old is no problem,” is what Groucho Marx said. “You just have to live long enough.” But sometimes he didn’t feel like he was just getting old, he felt like he was getting dead.

   His hip hurt like hell. He knew exactly what the matter was. It had finally gotten to be bone on bone. The day had always been coming. Stretching and lengthening and walking and drinking had forestalled the inevitable. But he walked too much the past few days. When the weather had gotten better, he drove to Brackley Beach, and walked two miles back and forth three days in a row. That was a mistake. It wasn’t the same as his treadmill, which had arm rails he could steady and even support himself on. He had three months left before his resignation became official. When he was done, he was getting a hip replacement the next day, going back to Tracadie, and staying there. He would heal up and fish and carve up fillets rather than folks stiff as boards.

   He blinked in the bright light, wondering why there were two tables set up for him. When he remembered the arm, he remembered he was going to have to do two post-mortems, one on the arm and one on the young woman who the arm belonged to.

   Her death was being treated as the result of criminal activity. If it was some place bigger than Charlottetown the post-mortem would have been performed by a forensic pathologist. They investigate deaths where there are legal implications, like a suspected murder. But it wasn’t any other place. It was Charlottetown. It was the smallest capital city of the smallest province in Canada. It would have to do, and he would have to do it.

   When he was suited up, Malcom stood over the dead woman and blinked his fly-belly blue eyes. She was on her back on a stainless-steel cadaver table. It was essentially a slanted tray with raised edges to keep fluids from flowing onto the floor. There was running water to wash away the blood that is released during the procedure. 

   She hadn’t been shot or stabbed. Her face was a mess, though. It took him a minute to see what it was that had killed her. Her skull was fractured. Parts of the broken skull had pressed into the brain. It swelled and cut off access to blood by squeezing shut the arteries and blood vessels that supply it. As the brain swelled it grew larger than the skull that held it and begin to press outside of it into the nasal cavity, out of the ears, and through the fracture.

   After a minute her brain began to die. After five minutes, if she hadn’t died, she would have suffered irreversible brain damage. One way or the other it was the end of her.

   He got down to the rest of his work, making a long incision down the front of her body to remove the internal organs and examine them. A single incision across the back of the head allowed the top of her skull to be removed so the brain could be examined. He saw what he expected to see. He examined everything carefully with the naked eye. If dissection had been necessary to look for any abnormalities, such as blood clots or tumors, he would have done it, but what was the point?

   After his examination he returned the organs and brain to the body. He sewed her up. When he turned his attention to the arm, he saw clearly enough it had been chopped off with one clean blow. The axe, or whatever it was, must have been new or even newer. In any case, it was as sharp as could be. Her hand was clenched in a fist. He had to break her fingers to loosen it. When he did, he found a loonie in her palm. It was Canada’s one-dollar gold-colored coin introduced two years earlier to replace paper dollar bills, which had become too expensive to print. Everybody called them loonies after the solitary loon gracing the reverse side.

   Malcolm looked at the brand-new looking coin smeared with dried blood and dirt.

   “What the hell?” he muttered to himself.

   He put the coin in a plastic bag and labelled it. He recorded everything on a body diagram and verbally on a cassette tape. He put the loonie, diagram, and tape in a pouch and labelled it. When he was done, he washed up and decided to go eat. After that he would call it a day. The work had warmed him up and he wasn’t limping as much as he had earlier. He tested his hip, lifting his leg at the knee and rotating. He would drive to Chubby’s Roadhouse for lunch, he decided. They had the best burgers on the island.

   The phone rang. It was Pete Lambert, the Commanding Officer of the RCMP Queens detachment.

   “What have you found out, Malcolm.”

   “I’m on my way to lunch right now. Meet me at Chubby’s. As long as the force pays, I’ll tell you everything I know.”

   “I’ll meet you there in twenty minutes.”

   Chubby’s was 15 minutes from the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and 20 minutes from the RCMP station. 

   While he was driving Malcolm thanked God it was 1989 and metallic hip replacements were as good as they had ever been. The first hip replacements dated back a hundred years to when ivory implants were used to replace the femoral head. Elephant tusks were cheap at the time and were thought to possess good biomechanical properties.  

   Fifty years later an American surgeon performed the first metallic hip replacement. He designed a prosthesis with a large head made of something he called Vitallium. The implant was around 12 inches in length and attached with bolts to the end of the femoral shaft. It worked like a charm. That same prosthesis is what he would be getting, except it was better and the implant would be inserted within the canal of the femur, where bone growth would lead to more permanent attachment. As long as he could wake up and walk first thing in the morning, instead of staggering and grabbing for support, he would be a happy fisherman.

   Chubby’s Roadhouse and Bud’s Diner were next to each other in a pink and baby blue building on St. Peters Road in Dunstaffnage. They did a brisk business. It was a popular pit stop for bikers on poker runs. It was why Pete Lambert had lunch or dinner there two and three times a week, getting to know the riders.

   “We serve burgers and fries and shakes, and fish and chips and clams and all that stuff,” Clarence Foster said. “But I think as far as the burger goes, the best, the one that everybody seems to like is called the Bud Burger.”

   Dances were held in the back of the building with local bands like Haywire. Teenagers with ice cream cones gathered around the pinball machines at the front. Drinkers stayed at the bar, drinking. The bikers ate their Bud Burgers outside during the day and drank inside during the night.

   “We have wedding receptions and things like that,” Clarence said. He told the bikers about them in advance, so that nobody ended up stepping on anybody else’s toes.

   The Spoke Wheel Car Museum was next door. Clarence and his father, Ray, shared an appreciation for old cars. They both stopped smoking when cigarettes were less than four bits a pack. Instead of up in smoke their savings went toward buying heaps and restoring them. By 1969, they had 13 cars, including a 1930 Ford Model A Coach that Clarence drove. It was how the roadhouse and diner came into being. 

   “People were coming to the museum and looking for a place to eat,” he said. “Since my dad was a cook in the army, we decided to build a little canteen and it just kept on growing.” 

   It wasn’t the warmest day, although it was sunny.  Malcolm and Pete ate inside at a back table. They had Bud Burgers and pints.

   “How’s the hip?” Pete asked.

   “Hellzapoppin’,” Malcom said.

   “Is that the official word?”

   “It’s how I feel. I’ve got two months and 29 days from now circled on my calendar.”

   They ate and small talked.

   “Find anything out?” Pete asked, finishing his burger and hand-cut fries. The food was good because the beef and potatoes came from the island. It would be a trifecta once islanders started up their breweries.

   “It will be in my report tomorrow, but since you’re interested, I’ll summarize it. She died of a fractured skull. There was tissue not hers on her face and in her hair. I want to say she was hit by a hard human fist that got scuffed up doing it. She had alfalfa on and in her clothes. More than a brush of silage, enough to make me think she was on a dairy farm long enough to roll around in it. The last cut was in late August, so she was put in the ground sometime between then and no later than the end of October.”

   Thousands of acres of potatoes on the island the last fall were left in the ground. Heavy rain and cold temperatures put a damper on the harvest. There was too much rain and cold weather, freezing and thawing, that led to a deep frost.

   “Her arm was probably cut off by an axe, sharp, clean as a whistle. Whoever did it, like the fist, is a strong man or woman. Why it was cut off, since I think she was already dead, is for you to find out. She had a loonie clenched in her missing hand. It was a 1988 issue. No prints other than hers on it.”

   “Are her prints in the report?”

   “Yes.”

   It was shop talk. Pete knew her prints and a batch of photographs would be part of the report.     

   “She wasn’t molested or abused. I don’t think she had eaten for several days. There wasn’t anything remarkable about her teeth, none missing, one filling. She was in her early twenties, five foot five, 118 pounds, green eyes, light brown hair, no moles, birthmarks, or tattoos. She was healthy as a horse.”

   “Anything else?”

   “One more thing. I think she might have poked somebody in the eye. There was retinal fluid and blood under the fingernails of the first two fingers on the cut-off arm. Her nails were 7 mm long and almond shaped, perfect for poking. It wasn’t her blood, either.”

   Blunt trauma to the eye can cause the retina to tear. It can lead to retinal detachment. It usually requires urgent surgery. The alternative is blindness.

   “If that happened, where would the eye be treated?” Pete asked.

   “At a hospital or a large eye clinic.”

   “What happens if it’s not treated?”

   “Kiss goodbye to that eye.”

   “I see,” the RCMP officer said, paying the bill when the waitress stopped at their table. What crowd there had been had cleared out. It was the middle of the afternoon. When the two men went out to their cars, they were the only two cars in the front lot. Pete Lambert was driving an unmarked police car, although it was clearly an official car. Malcom Ferguson was driving a 1985 Buick Electra station wagon. They shook hands and went their separate ways.

Five hours later a lone biker approached the roadhouse, swerving to avoid a battered fox. There was always more roadkill in the spring and fall. Skunks and raccoons were the most common, although foxes weren’t always as quick and slippery as their reputation. He pulled up, parked, and went inside. He left the key in the ignition. His red Kawasaki Ninja had an inline four cylinder, 16 valve, liquid cooled engine with a top speed above 240 KPH. He had already made that speed and more. He knew nobody was going to mess with his bike because everybody knew whose it was. At the bar he ordered a Bud Burger and a pint.

   “How’s the eye?” the bartender asked. “It looks good. No more pirate’s patch.”

   “Yeah, but I waited too long to get it fixed,” the biker said. “The doc says I’ll probably be mostly blind in that eye from here on. It doesn’t matter, I can still see enough out of the other one to take care of my business.”

   When he left, he paid cash with a new one-hundred-dollar bill.

   “Where do you keep finding these?” the bartender asked.

   “They fall down from heaven, my man,” the biker said, leaving him a tip of a half dozen loonies.

   Getting on his glam motorcycle in the darkness he thought, I’ve got to be more careful about that.

Excerpted from the crime thriller “Red Road.”

Photograph by Clarence Foster.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Nowhere to Hide

By Ed Staskus

   Corporal JT Markunas was stationed in Charlottetown with the Queens RCMP detachment. He was a grade above constable, but still pulled service in a police pursuit vehicle. He rented a small two-bedroom farmhouse in Milton, where he had planted a root garden. His parents were pleased when they saw the photograph of beets, turnips, and carrots that he mailed them. He was in his police car in Cavendish, across the street from the Rainbow Valley amusement park. JT was from Sudbury, Ontario and Prince Edward Island was his third assignment since joining the force. His first assignment had been at Fort Resolution in the Northwest Territories. He missed Sudbury, but he didn’t miss Fort Resolution.

   When he was a child, the Canadian Pacific hauled ore on tracks behind their house. When the train wailed, he wailed right back. When he was a boy American astronauts practiced out in the city’s hinterland, where the landscape resembled the moon. When he grew up, he trained for the RCMP at a boot camp in Regina. He was surprised to see gals at the camp, the first women allowed into the force. They kissed the Bible and signed their names, like all the recruits, and wore the traditional red serge when on parade, but they also wore skirts and high heels and carried a hand clutch. 

   JT was sitting in his white Ford Interceptor, watching for speeders, of whom he hadn’t seen any that morning. He was thinking about his second cup of coffee but was waiting until he started yawning. He thought it was going to happen soon. When it did, he would 10-99 the control room and take a break from doing nothing.

   Cavendish was Anne’s Land. It was where “Anne of Green Gables” was set. He hadn’t read the book, but doubted it had anything to do with what he could see in all directions. The amusement park was named after Lucy Maud Montgomery’s 1919 book “Rainbow Valley.” It was waterslides, swan boats, a sea monster, monorail, roller coasters, animatronics, castles and suspension bridges, and a flying saucer gift shop. 

   The paratrooper might have been everyone’s favorite ride.

   Earl Davison was looking for a roller coaster when he found it.  He was in Pennsylvania hunting for a bargain at a park turning its lights off.  The coaster seemed to fit the bill at first sight.

   “It’s a terrific ride, but you’ll need to have a good maintenance team to keep ’er running,” the Pennsylvania man said.

   When Earl hemmed and hawed, the man suggested his paratrooper ride instead. “It’s the best piece of equipment I have. I will sell you that paratrooper ride for $25,000 and we’ll load it for you.” By the end of the next day Earl had written a check and the ride was loaded ready to go for the long drive back to PEI.

   Earl Davison thought up Rainbow Valley in 1965, buying and clearing an abandoned apple orchard and filling in a swamp, turning it into ponds. “We borrowed $7,500.00,” he said. “It seemed like an awful lot of money at the time.” When they opened in 1969 admission was 50 cents. Children under 5 got in free. Ten years later, he bought his partners out and expanded the park. Most of the attractions were designed and fabricated by him and his crew.

   “We add something new every year,” said Earl. “That’s a rule.” The other rule-of-thumb was moms and dads with smiles plastered all over the faces of their children. “Some of the memories you hear twenty years later are from people whose parents aren’t with them anymore. But they remember their visits to Rainbow Valley and those experiences last a lifetime.”

   When his two-way radio came to life, instructing him to go to Murphy’s Cove to check on a report of a suspicious death, JT hesitated, thinking he should get a coffee first, but quickly decided against it. Suspicious deaths were far and few between. Homicides happened on Prince Edward Island about once every ten years. This might be his only chance to work on one. When he drove off it was fast with flashing lights but no siren. He reported that the cove was less than ten minutes away. 

   Conor Murphy saw the patrol car pull off the road onto the shoulder and tramped down the slope to it. Some people called the RCMP Scarlet Guardians. Most people in Conor’s neck of the woods called them Gravel Road Cops, after the GRC on their car doors, the French acronym for Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Conor didn’t call them anything. He had been on the force once and didn’t mess with what they might or might not be.

  JT put his cap on and joining Conor walked up to where Bernie Doiron was waiting beside the tractor. When he saw the arm handcuffed to the briefcase, he told Conor and Bernie to not touch anything and walked back to his patrol car. He wasn’t sure what code to call in so called in a 10-64, requesting an ambulance, and asked for the commander on duty. He described what he had found and was told to sit tight.

   “Yes sir,” he said.

   It wouldn’t be long before an ambulance and many more cars showed up. They couldn’t miss his car, but he turned the lights on top of it back on just in case and backtracked to the tractor.

   “Who found this?” he asked, pointing at the arm. 

   “I did,” said Bernie.

   “Is it the same as you found it?” JT asked. “Did you or move or disturb anything?”

   “No, we left it alone,” Bernie said. 

   “And you are?” JT asked Conor.

   “I’m across the street in the green house,” Conor said. “These are my fields. Bernie came down and got me when he found this. A fox has been at the arm.”

   “I see that,” JT said, even though he didn’t know what had happened to the arm. He didn’t jump to conclusions. It was flayed and gruesome, whatever it was. He wasn’t repulsed by it. He was being objective. The final quality that made him a good policeman was that he was patient. He waited patiently with Conor and Bernie for the rest of the team to show up. None of the three men said a word.

   JT looked at the land all around him getting ready for the growing season. There was no growing season where he grew up. His father worked the nickel mines in Sudbury his working life, never missing a day. He had been an explosives man and made it through his last year last week last shift unscathed. He had always known there was no one to tap him on the shoulder if he made a mistake.

   His mother raised four children. She dealt with powder burns every day. They were among the few post-war Lithuanians still left in Sudbury. The rest of them had worked like dogs and scrimped and saved, leaving the first chance they got. His parents put their scrimping and saving into a house on the shores of Lake Ramsey and stayed to see Sudbury transition from open pits and wood fire roasting to business as usual less ruinous to the land they lived on.

   An ambulance from a funeral home in Kensington was the first to arrive, followed within minutes by two more RCMP cars. A pumper from the North Rustico Fire Department rolled to a stop, but there wasn’t anything for the volunteer firemen to do. They thought about helping direct traffic, but there was hardly any traffic to speak of. The summer season was still a month-and-a-half away. They waited, suspecting they were going to be the ones asked to unearth the remains. They brought shovels up from their truck.

   The coroner showed up, but bided his time, waiting for a commissioned officer to show up. When he did there were two of them, one an inspector and the other one a superintendent. They talked to JT briefly, and then the fire department. The firemen measured out a ten-foot by ten-foot perimeter with the arm in the center, pounded stakes into the ground, demarcated the space with yellow police tape, and slowly began to dig. 

   They had not gotten far when the arm fell over. It had been chopped off above the elbow. One of the firemen carried the arm and briefcase to a gray tarp and covered it with a sheet of thick translucent plastic.

   “Has anybody got a dog nearby?” the inspector asked.

   Most of the firemen farmed in one way or another. Most of them had dogs. One of them who lived less than two miles away on Route 6 had a Bassett Hound. When he came back with his dog, he led him to the grave. The Bassett sniffed the perimeter of the grave and jumped into it, digging at the dirt with his short legs, barking, and looking up at his master. The fireman clapped his hands and the dog jumped out of the grave.

   “There’s something there” he said. “Probably the rest of him.”

   They started digging again carefully and methodically. When they found the rest of him three feet deep and twenty minutes later it was a woman. She was wearing acid wash jeans and an oversized tangerine sweatshirt. She was covered in dirt and blood. One of her shoes had come off. What they could see of her face was ruined by burrowing insects. She was still decomposing inside her clothes.

   The coroner stepped up to the edge of the grave with the two men who had come in the ambulance.

   “Be careful, she’s going to want to fall apart as soon as you start shifting her weight,” he said. 

   The two men were joined by two of the firemen. When all four were in the shallow grave they slowly moved the corpse into a mortuary bag, zipped it up, and using the handles on the bag lifted it up to two RCMP constables and two more of the firemen. They carried the bag slowly down the hill, the dog following them, placing it on a gurney and inside the ambulance.

   The constables went back up the hill to join the rest of the RCMP team, who were getting ready to sift through the grave looking for evidence. They would scour the ground in all directions, to the tree line and the road. JT Markunas had gotten his Minolta 7000 out of the trunk and was taking photographs. When he was done, he joined them. They spread out and with heads bowed started looking for anything and everything.

   The ambulance was ready to go when Conor came down to the side of the park road, stopped beside it and tapped on the driver’s side window. When it rolled down, he pointed up the slope.

   “Don’t forget the arm,” he said.

Excerpted from the crime thriller “Red Road.”

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”