Waiting outside the morgue, Max meticulously cleans his glasses even though they are spotless. He glances at the crying families that surround him, all of them having arrived to identify the deceased. The sight of a confused boy asking when his mother will come home nearly causes the detective to leave. Max feels sick when he imagines his own children standing here, both of them old enough to understand the situation. He takes some comfort from being ignored even though his badge is visible and he has been identified as one of the investigating officers.
The boy’s sudden crying snaps the blonde-haired man out of his thoughts and he watches the father struggle to calm the child. Pulling a dollar out of his pocket, Max goes to a nearby vending machine and gets a chocolate bar. He is not sure if this is the right thing to do, but the urge to bring even a faint smile to the child’s face is too strong to resist. Kneeling next to the other man, he hands out the candy to the boy and points at his badge to make sure they know he is one of the good guys. Cleaning his nose on his sleeve, the kid accepts the snack and walks into his father’s hug to quietly eat the soft chocolate.
“Take good care of him,” Max whispers, patting the boy on the head.
“That was sweet,” a young woman in scrubs says as she approaches the officer. Her dark skin is covered in sweat from working all morning and recovering by chugging coffee that is still a tad too hot. “If you could wait inside, Mr. Boros, I want to finish talking with the families. I shouldn’t be long. Stay near my desk and don’t touch anything. The place might look like a mess, but that’s only because it’s been a rough morning. Last thing I need is to get chewed out for a misplaced file.”
“I’ve been there before, Sammy,” the detective states before heading into the morgue. He stops the door from closing entirely and turns back to the mortician. “I know you said stay by the desk, but I might walk around with my hands in my pockets. No reason other than to get an idea of what I’m dealing with.”
Max takes the rolling eyes as an agreement and makes a show of hiding his hands, the teeth of a key scratching one of his knuckles. Leaving Sammy in the hallway, he walks among the empty tables that show signs of recently being cleaned. Only one of the bodies has been left out of the refrigerator, but it is placed in a corner and hidden with a sheet to avoid upsetting any of the visitors. Judging from the silhouette’s size and structure, Max can see that it is the male stripper. He gets closer and examines the corpse as best he can without touching anything, his eyes picking out strange dips in the covering. The chest seems oddly shaped and he moves to see if he can get a better angle in the dim light.
“I can’t even think of a good analogy for this weirdness,” Sammy claims, causing the detective to job. She waits for the panting man to calm down before turning the sheet back enough to reveal the body’s head. “Not a good idea to show you what’s below the neck. This guy definitely got the worst of it outside of the bride. Everyone else was killed with a single injury like a TV crushing the head or thrown off the balcony. Still, those are somewhat believable compared to what’s here. The penis was torn off and that appears to have been done with relative easy. At least judging by the trauma to the skin because there isn’t any sign of twisting. Just a straight yank off. Though he was killed by a stomp to his chest.”
“What’s so weird about that?” Max asks as the mortician pulls back the sheet. He nearly vomits at the sight of the collapsed and exploded torso, the grotesque sight making him wonder if this body is even real. “You’re telling me that the small, slight bridesmaid with a taste for human flesh stomped on this guy’s chest. Not only that, but with enough force to smash everything and balloon the remains out to the sides. It’s like his body is made out of clay and got stuck that way. Rigor mortis did this?”
“Cute how you could even think that.”
“I don’t think I have it in me to see the rest.”
“That’s why I’m on my fifth coffee this morning.”
“Any consistency or was this a violent rampage?”
“Follow me for more weirdness.”
Sammy leads the way to her desk and grabs a pile of folders, the notebooks underneath slumping onto the computer keyboard. She takes a moment to move some stuff around before bringing the case files to a clean table. Laying them out in alphabetical order, she opens each one to a picture of the deceased’s head. Most of them are nothing more than gory photos of splattered bones and brains. A few are scans of intact skulls, the black and white images catching Max’s attention more than the graphic pictures. Picking up one by the corner, he does his best to make sense of what he is looking at. The mortician carefully takes the evidence away and puts it back, making sure it is in perfect alignment with the other documents.
“The majority of deaths have resulted in the heads being pulverized. Even in some cases where the damage shouldn’t be that severe,” Sammy explains while using a laser pointer to highlight the pictures. Moving the beam to one of the scans, she has it make a tight circle in the center. “A few were left relatively intact. I brought someone in to check the insides after finding a lot of blood in their noses. Can’t be sure with the heavily damaged brains, but the others are all missing their thalamus. I would say there were removed and I’m talking surgically. No idea how since there are no incisors on the head or rest of the brain.”
“Maybe the person went through the nose like Egyptians did during mummification,” Max suggests as he returns to the dead man. Leaning over the body, he uses a small flashlight to look up the nostrils. “I can see some blood. If I remember some college anatomy lessons, the thalamus is right in the middle of the brain. How can you get at that without leaving marks or even pull it through a nostril?”
“Not possible without leaving signs of trauma behind,” the mortician answers after she puts the folders away. Opening a freezer drawer, she pulls the slab out to show a body that appears to end at the neck. “This young woman was tossed through a window and over the balcony. Much like Carl Anders, she landed head first. If this is a serial killer like Gemma thinks then I would say he or she is taking the thalamus as a trophy. With a destroyed skull, we would never have noticed.”
“The chef had nothing to do with Mr. Anders,” the detective points out before snapping his fingers. Searching his pockets for a notebook, he flips through the pages only to curse and toss it onto a table. “I was right since the chef who laced the bachelorette party’s food and drink wasn’t working the night Mr. Anders died. What if there are multiple killers in the hotel and they’re following orders? A place like Heaven’s Nest would be a perfect place to attract victims. Then again, that doesn’t explain the trophy taking.”
Sammy shrugs and puts the body back in the refrigerator, the short-haired woman yawning as her latest caffeine rush wears off. “Don’t know what to tell you, Mr. Boros. My job is to clean and examine the bodies. So far, I couldn’t even begin to explain most of what I’m seeing on these Heaven’s Nest cases. All I can tell you is that something is weird there. Probably only going to get worse since Gemma is intent on poking around. For her sake, I hope it’s a single killer and not a group because one enemy is easier to escape than an army. Need me to make any reports and copy them for her?”
“I’ll hold onto the reports since Cook doesn’t want any evidence to be in her room,” Max replies, only partially paying attention. He reclaims his notes and thumbs through them, ignoring the doodles done while he was on the phone. “Some cases are easy and others are a nightmare. I think this one is going to be in a whole new category. Good point on things getting worse, so we both should stock up on coffee.”
“Already put in a request form to the chief.”
With a chuckle, Max takes a final look at the corpse and leaves the morgue. He goes to the vending machine for a snack, but the power goes out as soon as his last dollar is eaten. The lights come back on a few seconds later and half of the candy falls into the slot. Backing away from the machine, Max heads down the hallway and spins around at the sound of movement. For a brief moment, he swears a raven is standing in front of the stairwell door. The creature is gone as soon as the detective blinks, but he still has the unnerving sense that he is being watched.