This morning both Vikorn and Zinna e-mailed to ask me to download a portrait of Clive of India; so there he was for a moment, gracing my monitor in his powder, wig, and ruff, the Shropshire lad himself, that whoring, bloody, racist, suicidal, alcoholic, upwardly mobile, treacherous, opium-addicted narcotics trafficker who started globalism. I think the two of them will put him in a frame high up on a wall and wai him daily like any Oriental guru.
Now someone is calling using the 977 prefix. I stare at the screen, not sure who in Kathmandu I’m most afraid of at this moment, Tietsin or Tara.
“So, how did the meeting go?” It’s Tietsin.
“Perfect. Everything is arranged. They’ve decided to entrust me with the irrevocable letter of credit, so you better be nice to me.”
“Not a chance. If you run off with the dough we’ll turn you into a louse in the anus of a rabid dog. And the date? We have a date?”
“The one you wanted.” For the first time with Tietsin I sense a normal human emotion on his part, like relief.
“Thank you, Detective. That’s good. That date is good.”
“You’re sure you can bring in that much at one time without getting caught?”
“Of course. I’m a magus, aren’t I?”
“Where is the drop-off point?”
He snorts. “You still think I’m some airhead from the mountains who doesn’t know scat about shifting smack, don’t you?”
“Okay, don’t tell me. But how are we going to know where to meet you?”
“I’ll tell you exactly ten minutes before delivery. Just make sure you have fast transport, because we’re not going to wait more than five minutes for you to show up. One thing about poison, you can always find a buyer.”
“Doctor Tietsin, I have just one question, a personal one. As a devout Buddhist, isn’t there anywhere in your mind just the slightest doubt-”
“What are you going to do with the money?”
“How many times do I have to explain? I and my movement are going to invade China.”
I sigh. “That’s just nuts, and I know you don’t believe it. You may be crazy, but you’re not stupid. How can anyone invade the most dynamic economy in the world, which happens to own a million-man army, with forty million dollars?”
“Ever hear of Gandhi? And there was a guy named Jesus who was supposed to have transformed the world, although the reportage is suspect. They didn’t have armies, they used words instead-and they weren’t even Buddhist. What kind of Theravada wimp are you, anyway?” he says, and hangs up. When I angrily call the number again, I get the engaged tone. When I try Mimi Moi’s number, I get exactly the same tone. Must be my cologne. I’m so depressed, I’m taking a cab to the morgue.
I hate autopsies and avoid them whenever I can. If not for the urgency I now feel about the Frank Charles case, I would not dream of being here, in the morgue, while Doctor Supatra is at work on a cadaver. Actually, most cops feel the same way; the only person who really enjoys autopsies is the pathologist. For them it’s a wonderful hunt, which 99 percent of the time ends with a successful conclusion: they find the cause of death. It’s an adventure that combines science, art, instinct, and extreme drama, and usually only lasts a day or so. Don’t let them fool you with their graveyard demeanors, those pathologists are very happy campers: lords of death to whom cops like me pay reluctant homage.
The good doctor in her medical greens is at this moment showing two students, also in masks and coveralls, how to turn a corpse over. Sounds easy? Just try it at home. In death even the most upright citizen turns into a slippery character. If you do need the information one day, here’s how: you wrap an arm around the inner thigh opposite to you, place the other hand under the neck and up and around, then use your weight to push the body over in a roll. The deceased in this case is a slim Thai girl, but I’ve seen the doctor heave over dead men three times her size.
“Now you try,” she tells one of her students, then turns to me for the first time. Her mask covers the whole of her face.
“I’ve come about the Frank Charles case,” I tell her.
“Him! He was gigantic. I couldn’t roll him over at all, I had to call for help.”
There’s a scream from her students, who together have managed to get their cadaver into quite a cliff-hanger: her head and upper body have slipped over the side of the autopsy table; it looks like she is trying to commit suicide. The doctor shakes her head and returns to the job at hand. “You’ll have to put on a mask and talk to me while I’m working, if you’re really in such a hurry. Better put on some coveralls as well, I don’t want to be responsible if you catch something from the corpse.”
So now I’m all in green with a mask and no more than six inches from the corpse, and I’m still having trouble believing the kid is dead. Her face is not bloated; she’s really quite beautiful, probably in her early twenties. When Supatra takes her boning knife and makes the great Y incision from above the breasts to the solar plexus, then down to the lower abdomen in a single stroke, cutting deeply through the flesh right down to the bone, I turn my face away. When I turn back, Supatra has lifted up the top flap and flopped it over the dead girl’s face at an irregular angle; it looks like a wind has blown the corner of a scarlet drape over her head. Now the doctor has peeled away the flesh from the chest area and is using a pair of garden secateurs to snap open the rib cage.
“It’s about the list of drugs the toxicologist found in the American’s body,” I say.
“Hm, quite a list. Traces of cocaine, cannabis, opium, and a few uppers of the prescribed kind.” Supatra is a little breathless from the exertion with the secateurs. “It wasn’t drugs that killed him though, nor was it the removal of the top half of his head. It was loss of blood from the way the perpetrator gutted him. Of course, to survive long term he would have needed a skull even if they’d left his guts intact.”
I watch in revolted fascination while she digs her hands into the corpse and brings out a heart. “Check it for abnormalities,” she tells her students as she passes it to them, “use your hands, change to thinner gloves if you have to at this stage, you need to develop your sense of touch, especially with hearts, livers, and kidneys: any hardening, lumps, gritty spots, undue fattiness-the eye can’t tell you half as much as a good grope.”
“What about the chunk the killer took out of the victim’s brains for lunch?”
She cocks her head. “How do you know it wasn’t breakfast or supper? I couldn’t give a precise time of death. And to answer your question, no, the chunk taken out of the left lobe may have impaired quite a few functions, but it wasn’t lethal.”
“Okay, if it wasn’t drugs that killed him, or the hole in his brain, surely something must have been used to knock him out while he was being scalped? You said in your report there was no sign of struggle.”
“That’s correct. I had the toxicologist check for all the usual anesthetics, sedatives, et cetera, and he didn’t find any. There is no general check for drugs-you use a specific test for each chemical, and you need to have a good idea what you’re looking for, because many drugs will be untraceable after a few days, either because they have decomposed or because they have combined with body chemicals to form some other substance.” To her students: “Here’s the liver. There’s nothing wrong with it. Just handle it for a few minutes, start to get a sense of what a healthy one feels like, squeeze, that’s right.” She watches the student for a moment, then says, “Certainly, I was aware that something must have kept him quiet while the brain surgery was in progress. My guess was that given his size and probable life habits, a little opium and cocaine were not enough to sedate him. So I asked for special tests for various unusual drugs that have come onstream recently, and guess what? The toxi found tubocurarine chloride in his blood.”
“That’s what I wanted to ask about.”
“It’s quite exotic, used mostly in the U.S. and Japan as a neuromuscular blocker.” She looks at me. “It’s made from curare, obtained from a South American plant which jungle tribes use for arrow poison.”
“What does it do?”
“Causes paralysis without loss of consciousness.”
“But how would someone obtain it?”
“A well-connected pharmacist would be a minimum requirement. Even then, the pharmacist would normally have to explain to someone why they wanted it.” We exchange glances.
She stops in her labors for a moment as if she has just remembered an interesting but minor detail. “One thing did strike me as unusual: the neatness of the work. As a pathologist I don’t have to be particularly careful with the rotary saw, but whoever removed the skull of Frank Charles was in a class of their own. Even brain surgeons don’t work to such fine tolerances.”
Now she turns back to what is left of the young woman. The whole of the chest cavity is open, and most of the organs have been removed. A tube is draining the fluids that have washed down the stainless-steel table into the trough below. “So, everything is healthy. Just as I suspected. Now, this is how to hold the buzz saw. Always use both hands or it will run away from you.”
It is similar in size and shape to any small circular DIY saw, though a little more gentrified. It makes a screaming noise that deadens just a tad when it bites into skull bone.
“Ha!” the doctor says when she has removed the scalp. “Just as I thought. A massive subarachnoid hemorrhage caused by a burst brain aneurysm, caused, in all probability, by a serious overdose of methamphetamine. There would have been a predisposing weakness in the cerebral artery, probably congenital. The yaa baa would have sent the heart racing like crazy, putting pressure on the aneurysm, causing it to rupture. What a waste! Still, she most probably would have died young anyway-any serious exertion, especially from sport, would likely have caused the aneurysm to burst.” She smiles. “Did you know autopsy means ‘see for yourself’?”
“Thanks, Doctor,” I say, and catch the look of happiness on her face: another successful hunt. It’s a beautiful profession if you don’t mind blood. When she has washed she takes me into her office, where we examine her report on Frank Charles on her computer. We’ve just about finished, when I say, “What’s that, on page twenty-one, at the bottom?”
“Diamond fragment,” she reads, and rubs her eyes. “That’s right, I forgot. Apparently a fragment of industrial diamond was found, but we couldn’t be sure where it came from, and anyway it had nothing at all to do with the cause of death.”
“And this, on page three of the toxicologist’s report. Beryllium. What’s that?”
“Don’t know, except that it’s a kind of oil we found under his fingernails. Once again, it had nothing to do with the cause of death, so we didn’t waste time on it.”
It wasn’t heroin, I’m telling myself in the cab on the way back to the station. I’ve quite forgotten about Frank Charles; I’m thinking about the anonymous dead girl on Supatra’s autopsy table, her internal organs ripped out, her personality defined, so to speak, by her death, whence she derives a certain power over me, even though I had nothing to do with her demise. No doubt she was just a dumb kid who got handed some yaa baa and had no reason for not using it. But she was going to die young anyway, so was it really anyone’s fault? Metaphysics aside, I feel awful. And I know exactly what kind of nightmare I’m going to suffer through tonight.