The hospital was a low, dingy brick building that teetered between going out of existence and running the kind of major campaign that would allow it to grow and to put the other small hospitals in the area out of business. Residents of Fredrickton still needed to go to a more major urban center for specialist care or anything too much more complicated than basic first aid, but the hospital was apparently still up to the task of housing those who needed no more care than a nice cold slab to lay on. In the old building, it was quite hard to find the morgue, since most of the signs pointed to locations where various health care activities took place and no one had thought to put up a sign to point to a glorified closet. In fact, Chip eventually found the unmarked door by its very lack of markings, the vacuum of information revealing the existence of something not worthy of informing about.
He opened the heavy, brown metal door and found himself nearly standing on top of a young, blond-haired woman. She was so young that he doubted that she knew him or that he knew her, but it was always possible that she was someone’s little sister and his presence here would enter the flow of the rumor mill within seconds of his leaving, but he looked close and doubted it. Hoping to keep this interaction brief and unremarkable he tried to start right in, “Hi, I’m here to see Mr. Mockson.”
She seemed surprised that he had even opened the door, much less that he was coming to visit someone in her department. In fact, she started to protest, trying to explain that to visit a patient he needed to close her door and go to the main, well-marked nurses station at the end of the hall. He tried again to make this brief, “I would like to see the body of Don Mockson.”
She was now convinced that he was in the right location, but she was sure that he had the wrong idea. “Sir, this isn’t a place for visiting. If you would like to attend the funeral, I’m sure that you could contact the family or the undertaker for more details about their arrangements.”
“I will go to the funeral whenever it is, but what I came here for is to examine Mr. Mockson’s body.”
“Are you some kind of doctor? Or with the police?”
“Not so much, I’m just someone who was involved with the … incident last night and I wanted to pay my last respects to the deceased.”
Finally he seemed to have hit on an excuse that softened her resolve a bit. She hesitated before denying him again. “That’s not something that people ask for very often. I’m not sure what I can let you do. If you’d like, I can call the hospital administrator. He’s the person who could make those kind of decisions.”
Chip didn’t relish having to explain his case of restless curiosity to a professional administrator so he went to work on the young woman’s sympathies, trying to expand the chink he had already made in her armor. “I don’t need to do anything to him or with him, I just need to say my goodbyes. I was right there when he, uh, fell over and I lost my cool and didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. Now that some time is past, there are just some things that I feel I need to say to him. Maybe I could just go in for a minute with you?”
She hesitated again, longer this time, and eventually she seemed to relent and she opened the top desk drawer and extracted a brass key attached to the very end of large wooden stick whose size suggested that it might be the only copy of the key and that it was very important that it not be misplaced. She stood and turned to face the large door that was set into the wall behind her. Fitting the key into a single small lock, she heaved back on a surprisingly thick door and a wash of cold air rolled over their feet; no wonder she was wearing thick woolen socks over her leggings. She motioned awkwardly for Chip to follow her into the walk-in refrigerator.
Chip had seen plenty of cop shows on television, so he had thought that he knew what he would find inside: clean scrubbed stainless steel doors that opened out to reveal sliding trays with sheet-covered bodies on them. Apparently those shows had all been filmed after the Fredrickton morgue had been designed because here there were just long wooden shelves running down both sides of the space finished with chipped white paint and not an inch of stainless steel in sight. At the end of the central aisle was an empty stretcher and it was apparent that bodies were rolled down the center and then transferred onto a shelf on either side.
Also at odds with his television sense of reality, none of the bodies were covered. Perhaps this made sense as a cost-saving measure since none of the occupants of this long cold room had any dignity left to preserve, but it was a bit shocking to Chip as he looked over the small tableau of bodies that had collected there over who knows what period of time. Don Mockson’s body was obivous since the other two bodies belonged to surprisingly similar and very large women. Chip wondered if he had read anything about the passing of a set of obese twins in the local paper, but he figured that he must have just missed their obituary or obituaries.
The young attendant sidled down the narrow aisle so that Chip could come down far enough to see Don Mockson. He had fibbed a little to get in here, so he didn’t really have anything to say on the spot, but he hoped that she would just think that he was delivering an internal monologue to the deceased. Mockson’s body was completely unclothed and clearly showed signs of age that were hopefully many decades in Chip’s future: liver spots, sagging skin on the upper arms and legs and changes to other bits that he didn’t want to spend too long contemplating. He didn’t know what he was looking for, so he just tried to take in as much of the details as he could. There was no blood on the body now and there hadn’t been any last night, but there were some bruises developing on the back of his head, presumably from where he had fallen on Chip’s shoes, although as he reflexively flexed his toes, the effect didn’t seem to be reciprocal.
Everything else about the body seemed to be in its normal place and alignment, at least as far as Chip could tell be comparing the sight to what he imagined he would look like if he got out of the shower and laid down on one of his bookshelves for a nap. The sking was a mottled white color that definitely was not healthy, but that was the only outward sign that Don Mockson wouldn’t get up from his refrigerator nap and look confusedly around for Laverne or wherever his clothes had gotten to while he was asleep.
The only distinctive feature on the body was a large red splotch on the chest of the body. It looked a little bit like a sunburn, but that seemed unlikely in mid-October. It didn’t cover a whole part of his body, instead, it took in a roughly circular region going from his solar plexus up to his shoulder on one side and his collarbone on the other side. The margin of the splotch wasn’t distinct, instead it just faded to pink around the edges. Chip raised his hand to reach out and touch what it felt like, but his chaperone gasped and jumped a bit when he began the motion and he stopped his arm in mid-reach.
“Do you know what that is?” he asked.
“I don’t come in here very much. I’m not sure what they are supposed to look like. Maybe it has something to do with CPR or something.”
Chip nodded unconvinced since there hadn’t been too much resuscitation going on last night when he was so obviously all the way dead. He pressed on for a little more information, “Do you know who would have been here on duty last night when he was brought in?”
“No, I only work during the day and not many of the doctors or nurses ever come down here to chat. The police would have been in here last night for their investigation, but I don’t know who we would have had on call. I could call the hospital administrator for you?” she asked hopefully, wishing above all to pass Chip and his morbid fascinations to someone above her pay grade.
Chip relented and turned to go. She let out a relieved sigh and followed him out, locking the door behind her.
“Thank you for that, I, uh, appreciate you letting me have that time.”
“Oh, it was okay, I guess. I won’t tell if you won’t.” She tittered nervously as it dawned on her how she had suborned various policies in favor of her emotional impulses.
“I’m counting on it,” Chip offered her as comfort for her guilty conscience as he went right through the unmarked door into the legible parts of the hospital.