I look at my watch. It's time. Det. Porte catches my eye and we each make our way slowly into the room. Det. Porte speaks. "The medical examiner needs to examine the body now. Everybody please leave the room."
Six or seven people clear out and only the father and grandmother remain. The father looks up at me. His eyes are dull and and his face is expressionless. "Will I see her again after you do the examination?" He's holding the little body protectively as if he's ready to fight anybody that comes near.
"I will need to interview you after I do the examination." I say quietly. "You can come back in here with your mother at that time, but nobody else. After the interview, I need to take her with me back to the Medical Examiner's Office, do you understand?" I am sitting in a chair across the room. I don't want to get too close yet. I need him to trust me first. He nods his head and looks back down at his child. His chin is trembling as he brings a shaky hand up to stroke her cheek. I look down at a spot on the floor in front of me. Det. Porte is also averting his eyes. As always, I feel like a voyeur intruding on somebody's most private and vulnerable moments.
The grandmother goes to her son and nudges him up. "Put her down, son. Let the lady do her job. We'll be back soon." The white paper crinkles as he lays the child on the table. I hear a quiet sob from deep in his throat. The grandmother puts her arm around him. As they pass me I touch the father's arm and whisper to him. "I'll take care of her. I promise." He meets my eyes before allowing his mother to lead him out of the room.
The door shuts with a click. I sigh deeply and look over at Det. Porte. "This sucks," I say.
"Yeah. At this rate we're not going to get out of here for another hour, at least."
I turn to the tiny form on the table. I fold back the blanket. Her skin is as white as snow except for some flushing around the upper chest area. I look closely for crease marks from the couch cushions or blankets that might indicate how she was positioned at the time of death. There is nothing. I'm not surprised. She was found shortly after she died and then was moved. There was no time for impressions to settle.
She's wearing nothing but a diaper. I estimate her to be about 2'5" tall with plenty of baby fat. No bruises or traumas. My initial impression that she would be too big for a roll-over is strengthened. I check her eyes to be sure. I am looking for any sign of petechiae, small pin-pricks of hemmhoraging that are indicative of asphyxiation. Nothing. Her bright blue eyes are crystal clear. I open her mouth to look for bruising or damage to the frenulum. Again, nothing. "She appears well cared for. No indication of neglect or abuse. If she asphyxiated, it would have been at a very, very slow rate because there are no signs of petechiael hemmhorage in her eyes and no pressure marks on her body. The only scenario I can imagine is if dad was drugged to the point that he didn't feel her struggling or heard her making noise." Det. Porte takes out a pad of paper and starts writing.
I feel her torso and her extremities. I bend the joints in her feet, fingers, and knees looking for rigor. It's slight. Just beginning. "She's still very warm." I check my watch. "It's been four hours since she was found. Usually a baby will cool at a much faster rate than an adult. I would have expected her to be near room temperature and in full rigor right now, but she's been wrapped in a blanket and pressed against her father's body for hours."
I turn her on her side to check her back. The skin is flushed red from blood settling to the lowest point. I press a finger into the flesh and watch as it blanches white. "Lividity has not yet set." I take some photographs and then swaddle the little girl back up in the blankets. I glance at Porte as I work, remembering what the DA said about the child possibly ingesting her father's prescription psych meds. "There's nothing conclusive here. We'll have to wait for tox to come back before we know anything for sure."
"Maybe you'll have more luck getting the dad to talk. He doesn't like me for some reason." Porte smiles sheepishly.
"I can't imagine why not." I say sarcastically. "You're like a big teddy bear. All sensitive and in touch with your feminine side..."
Porte grunts. "Yeah. That's me. You want me to bring the dad back in? I'll just sit over there in the corner and hope he forgets I'm here."
Porte leaves the room and returns mementarily with the father and grandmother. I am sitting next to the baby on the edge of the examining table. I have my hand touching the blanket. I want dad to know that I am watching over his little girl.
He walks over and kisses her cheek, whispering something that I can't quite hear as he does so. I back away again, not wanting to make the father feel at all that I'm stealing his baby.
"Do you know what happened to her?" The father asks.
People ask me this a lot after I examine a body and only very rarely can I give them something solid in response. "No. I'm sorry. We won't know anything until after the autopsy and toxicology come back. That can take a while, so I need you to try and be patient. I know you're looking for answers and it's frustrating to wait, but it may be a couple of weeks or longer before we can give you any difinitive cause of death."
He nods his head and looks me straight in the eye. "I didn't hurt my baby. I was a good father."
I say nothing, only reach over and touch his arm. "I am going to need to ask you some questions to help us figure out what happened to your daughter. Some of them may seem insulting to you, but keep in mind that they are necessary questions that we ask every parent who suffers the loss of a baby, good parents and bad parents alike. Okay?"
He nods again. I start out asking him to give me the general story of what happened from the time he woke up in the morning. He explains that he and his little girl woke up late in the morning. He said he fed her a cereal bar and was just getting ready to take his meds when the phone rang. He left the bottle open on the counter. When he got back the little girl had pushed a stool up to the counter and was standing on top of it. He was afraid she'd eaten some of the pills and swept her mouth with a cloth. He found nothing and assumed everything was okay. "I should have taken her to the emergency room," he says. "I should have." Yes. You should have, I think to myself sadly.
"Can I hold her while you talk to me?" He asks.
"Yes. Go ahead." He picks the child up and sits back down in the rocking chair. He looks down at her and then up at me again. "Why is she so stiff?" He asks me. "She wasn't like this before."
Det. Porte speaks up from the corner of the room. "It's part of the process of decomposition. It's called rigor mortis." I glance over at Porte in irritation. I probably wouldn't have said it in quite that way.
"It's normal," I say. The father seems to accept this as he continues to rock in the chair.
I ask him about his daughter's prenatal care. Was she born full term? He tells me that the girl's mother was on heroine during the pregnancy and she was born a month premature and addicted to drugs. Did she have any resulting disabilities? No. Was she exposed to any illnesses recently? Who besides himself cared for her? How was his health? He tells me he's schizophrenic and suffers from severe depression and he has to be on powerful meds to keep it under control. I imagine how difficult it would be caring for a toddler while in a drug-enduced fog.
After I finish the interview I check my watch again and tell him that it's time for me to take her. He starts to sob and holds the baby close. His mother comes over and whispers in his ear and I move in front of him. I know from experience that unless I reach for the baby he won't let go. I bend down and place my arms under his. I whisper to him that I'm sorry. That I promise to take care of her. That it will be okay. He lets me lift the little girl out of his arms.
There will be no body bag or stretcher for this child. I turn her toward me and tuck her close with her head resting on my shoulder. I feel the familiar weight of her. It's so natural to hold a child like this. Like a mother with her own offspring. Det. Porte takes my bag and opens the door for me. I craddle the back of the little girl's head with my free arm and avoid making eye contact with anybody in the hall. I hear voices all around me rise up in anguished cries. Four police officers flank me on all sides as we move quickly away from the crowd of people and down the corridor.
When we get to the van, Det. Porte opens the back for me. "No. I'll take her up front."
"You sure?" he asks.
I step up into the driver's seat and lay the baby across my lap. I just can't bring myself to strap her to the cot or lie her on the floorboard of the van.
"I'll meet you guys back at the morgue," I say before slamming the door and driving away.
The doc is waiting for us. She's appropriately upset that we're an hour late getting back, but understands how it can get with families. Her physical exam is fairly consistent with my own and she echos my doubts about this case being a roll-over.
"Okay," she says. "Did the warrant go through okay?" she asks D.A. Tate.
"Yep. All set, ma'am. We were just waiting for you."
"Well, let's get going. Maybe we can wrap this up before midnight."
"Hey, doc?" I ask. "Do you want me to get a body bag for her?"
"Nah. She should be okay until tomorrow morning."
The doc and detectives leave the office. I am alone for just a moment with the little girl. I wrap the blanket around her tightly, making sure her toes are tucked in and her shoulders are covered. It will be cold in the cooler, I think irrationally.
I softly hum a lullaby as I push the tray into the cooler. I tuck her in between two other bodies, a tiny pink bundle. I am sad and I am drained, but I have hours of work ahead of me yet tonight and I need to go. I touch her forehead.
"Goodnight, little one," I say. I walk to the cooler door and shut it behind me. I pick up my bag and turn off the lights on my way out.