Pass It On by Cycy Smith

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SUMMARY: A small town coroner gets a nasty surprise

You get tired sometimes, doing this job. Tired of dead bodies, of cold flesh, of always being too late to make a difference. But usually I don't mind my work, even quite enjoy it. You develop a different way of seeing, so that the body in front of you becomes simply a complex mass of tissue and organs, a puzzle to be taken apart, catalogued and labelled, all its mysteries reduced to scientifically named parts. And fortunately in this town the majority of the bodies I get on my table are old, an acceptable loss. A handful of times there have been children. Those stay with me. Those I see in my dreams.

The body in front of me now is not old, but certainly doesn't belong to a child. Nicola Hardwick, the chart says, thirty-two years of age. Cause of death hardly difficult to ascertain in this case; half her skull is missing, cleaved away by an axe, marring an otherwise attractive face. The other half shows how she looked in life; long black hair with a slight curl hangs halfway to her waist, her features are regular, with high cheekbones. Green eyes stare sightlessly upwards, fixed on a future that will never be. She is only the second murder victim I have ever worked on; in a town this size violent crime is uncommon.

I knew her. Only slightly, but enough to nod to in the street. Not really a surprise. After all this is a small town. And she was dramatic looking, drew the eye, you could hardly miss her. With hair like that, and the way she dressed; long skirts and bright colours, an English gypsy, you would have thought her one of those fey women that always say they're artists or poets, something creative. The last thing that would have sprung to mind is a safety inspector, though that in fact is what she was, working for the local council to insure public places and services conformed to the increasingly stringent health and safety measures. A strange job for someone so vibrant, but one she was apparently good at. It's odd to see her lie so still, in life she was a constant blur of movement, vital and immediate. Death does not suit her.

Though the cause of death is obvious, an autopsy is standard practice in murder cases, so I get to work, drawing blood for the lab to analyse and cataloguing external injuries, talking aloud into a Dictaphone as I go. The police officer in charge of the case stands uncomfortably to one side, ill at ease in the clinical and sterile environment that must seem so at odds with the violence of Nicola's death. I wonder who their suspects are, but know better than to ask. She had a boyfriend I think, or at least there was a man living with her, a tall skinny guy who works at the local library and whose name I have never known. I expect he has been brought in for questioning. He never seemed the type to commit murder, but then who does? I try to picture him doing it; swinging the axe into her beautiful face, painting the walls with blood, but the image will not hold and dissolves instead into him crying, bent over her body. No, I doubt it was him. I swab under her fingernails and drop the cotton bud into a plastic evidence bag.

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