Murder in the Morgue
It's was one o'clock in the afternoon. The timing was perfect. The guard was on his ten minute break and the nurse was in the infirmary. It would only take five minutes. The stainless steel door of the prison morgue silently swung inward. It was wide and had a frosted glass window that allowed light to penetrate, but only showed a vague shadowy image of those on the other side. Silently, as though treading with bare feet on damp leaves in a forest, a visitor glided to the morgue table on which Jack Buckman was resting, his left hand cuffed to the gurney. Jack's breathing was irregular and forced.
"Jack, Jack Buckman, can you hear me? You don't sound so good old buddy. Are you having trouble breathing? Are you in pain? Jack, can you hear me?"
Jack stopped breathing and silence reigned for several seconds, then with a gasping intake of air, like the suction of a suddenly unclogged toilet, his erratic breathing resumed.
"Jack, can you hear me? Jack, open your eyes if you can hear me."
Jack's eyes flashed open but remained frozen in a vacant stare. It was so sudden that the visitor momentarily recoiled, a chill stabbing at his spine. The uninvited visitor drew near again.
"Jack, can you hear me?"
"That you, Bennie? I so glad you come. I been thinking of you."
"No, Jack, it's not Bennie. Your son will be here soon. Do you know me, Jack?"
"Yeah, I know you. What the hell you want?"
"Here is a piece of paper. I just want you to sign it. That's all."
"Yeah, whazzitt say. Too dark in here, can't see."
"Jack, it's not important. It's just something prisoners sign before they die. It makes them feel better about themselves. All you need is to sign it Jack."
"Yeah, you nuts. I ain't putting my name on nothing I don't read. Whazzit say?"
The visitor thought Jack would be trusting, and not ask. The palms became moist. The visitor looked at the frosted glass, glanced at the clock, took a deep breath, and stared at the paper.
With a slight quiver of hand and voice the uninvited visitor slowly read "To Judge R. Knoche: I, Jack Buckman, confess that I kilt Shirley Forester in January 1946. I cut an X on her pretty ass with my knife. Like a trade mark. I can now die in peace with a clear conscience."
"Naw, I done no such thing."
"I know that, Jack, but you're dying, and this confession will give freedom to a fellow prison mate. It won't hurt you a bit. The last thing you do in your life will be a good deed, and like the thief on the cross, God will forgive you all the bad things you've done."
"Naw, I don't think so. I don't even know who Shirley Forester is."
"Jack, that doesn't matter. Just think of how proud your son will be when he reads about this on the front page of the newspaper. You'll be famous. Just think about it. You do a good deed, you become famous, your son is proud of you, and I make all your pain go away."
"Vell, Yeah, Bennie would be proud, and it do hurt like hell. You sure the newspapers would tell about me? I just don't know. Maybe it's all right. Just seems kind of funny confessing to something I didn't do."
"It's a wonderful thing to do, Jack. Just sign here and you can die in peace. Everyone will love you for what you've done."
"Vell, I guess it okay." With a very shaky hand Jack signed his name to the typed confession note.
The visitor looked at the signature, the frosted window, and smiled. Still no shadow in the window. It's been eleven minutes. I have to hurry. The visitor slipped the small pillow from under Jack's head and firmly pressed it over Jack's face. After a few moments of weak struggle the irregular breathing was regular, it stopped.
"How is that, Jack? As promised, no more pain; and yes, Jack, you'll be in the papers. You'll make history for both of us. The world will hear about my dual gifts of mercy. You're free of life; and your prison buddy will be free from death row, free to kill again.
"Oh my, look at that. You've gotten blood from you chapped lips on the pillow. Why did you do that? Now I'll have to get rid of the pillow case."
The killer removed the pillow case, carefully placed the pillow beneath Jack's head, and stuffed the pillow case at the bottom of the plastic liner in the waste basket making certain it was hidden beneath discarded kleenex tissues. This is taking way to long. I'll just put the confession on the floor beneath Jack's free right hand, and get out of here, fast.
The infirmary door, directly left of the morgue, opened. "Mary Lou, I'm back. Let me know if there is anything you need."
"Thanks, Rusty. Jack's resting now. Let me know if he calls out. He might have to relieve himself soon."
"Sure thing! I'll let you know." The infirmary door closed.
Rusty was back. The killer pressed tightly against the wall behind the morgue door. It was not a good place to hide, but it was all there was. Rusty will check to see if Jack is okay. How am I going to get out? I might have to kill again. Rusty is in the right place at the wrong time. Damn, I'll have to do this fast and quietly. Mary Lou is liable to hear any commotion then I'll have to kill her too. This is not what I planned. I need to calm down, one thing at a time. Take care of Rusty first and worry about Mary Lou if it becomes necessary..
Rusty Randolph, known by the prisoners as the gentle guard, was assigned to guard ill prisoner Jack Buckman. Rusty didn't fit the prison guard blueprint. He regularly gave birthday cards to the prisoners, and listened to their concerns with genuine interest and empathy.
Rusty pushed the morgue door open. He looked in, and seeing nothing unusual, let the door swing closed. His shadow was then framed in the center of the frosted window as he leaned against the door and resumed guarding the prisoner.
There's no escape. I'm trapped. There is only one exit and no place to hide. I need a tool to stun or kill the guard if he enters. With eyes fastened on the frosted glass, inch by inch the killer edged his way along the wall to the supply drawers. They rolled open smoothly. In the third drawer, lined up meticulously, were dissecting tools of various shapes and sizes. The largest was small, less than five inches, including the handle. It will have to do.
With a shaken, but determined confidence the killer inched his way back to the door, and took a position at its opening edge. It was a dangerous, but calculated risk. It would be necessary to strike quickly and deadly when Rusty opened the door. They would momentarily be face to face. Surprise was the visitor's advantage. By leaning tightly against the wall, a few seconds would be gained before Rusty would discover the presence of the attacker.
The door suddenly swung open.
"Rusty!" called Mary Lou from the infirmary, directly left of the morgue.
Rusty's right arm was extended, holding the door open a foot. The right side of his face was clearly reflected in the shinny surface of the frosted glass.
"Yes, ma'am! I was just going to check on Jack."
"After you check on him, would you please get a mop for me? I broke a jar of alcohol, and made a real mess."
"I'll do it now." The door slowly eased back and Rusty moved down the corridor on his way to the janitorial closet which was four feet around the corner, at the end of the hallway.
Before the sound of Rusty's footsteps faded, the morgue killer peered down the corridor, and sprinted across the hallway into the small chapel. The clock on the back wall ticked so loudly that it sounded like a drum in the high school band. The killer lightly tapped the clock rhythm with the stub of the pencil Jack used to sign the confession. Darn, I need to return to the morgue, fast.
The chapel door opened an inch and the killer scanned the hallway. No one was in sight. Disregarding caution, the killer dashed back into the morgue. The small pencil was artfully laid on the table just inches from the open fingers of Jack's right hand.
The morgue smelled like death, cold, clammy, silent.
Rusty returned with a mop. The killer was trapped in the morgue again. Still holding the four inch death weapon, he resumed the attack position at the opening edge of the door. There was no avoiding a confrontation this time.
Rusty said, "Here, let me clean that up for you, Mary Lou. It'll only take a second."
"Well, thank you Rusty. That's very kind of you." The infirmary door closed.
For a moment, the killer stood stone still behind the morgue door, with hands in a vice grip on the small dissecting instrument. The tight chest muscles relaxed as air rushed into the lungs. The killer had not been discovered. "Mary Lou, you just saved Rusty's life."
* * * * * *
Within moments of Jack's murder, Father Jonathan Longstead hurried down the hallway, absorbed in thoughts of death and salvation. A quick side step by Doc Jerry Pringle at the intersection of the main corridor prevented a nasty collision.
"Whoa," stammered the doctor. "What's the hurry? Got a train to catch?"
"Good afternoon, Doctor," responded Father Jonathan cheerfully. He didn't feel cheerful, but he certainly knew how to give that impression. After all, he must have God's joy on his face regardless of how dark he felt inside.
"Sorry, Doc. I was just trying to get to the rectory before Sister Bakke gets upset with me for being late for lunch. She's very time conscious, you know."
"Yes, I am," said Sister Bakke as she joined the Father and Doc Pringle.
"Good afternoon, Sister. It's good to see you. Father was just telling me that he's late for lunch. Are you going to feed the recalcitrant anyhow?"
Father Jonathan smiled. He was certain Sister Bakke was feeling awkward as the doctor unintentionally coerced her to explain her visit. "I'm fine, doctor. I was a little concerned when Father hadn't returned so I walked up the hill to make sure everything was okay; and yes, Father can still have his lunch, but it's probably cold by now."
Now it was Jonathan's turn, a tinge of heat flushed through his cheeks as he made a feeble attempt to explain. "I'm sorry, Sister. Time slips away so quickly. I didn't realize it was so late."
"It's all right, Father. After twelve years I've gotten a little used to it. Just a little, mind you."
"Sister, I consider myself reprimanded. It won't happen again, that is, until next time."
The three of them enjoyed the brief moment of pleasant camaraderie.
"By the way, Father," said Doc Pringle, "Do you remember Jack Buckman? He's a short German guy, slightly overweight, with a limp in his left leg. He's in the morgue this morning, dying. You might want to pay him a visit and give him last rites before you leave, or you could come back after your cold lunch."
"What's he doing in the morgue if he's still alive? Why isn't he in the infirmary being taken care of?" asked Father Jonathan.
"Oh, I don't know. Some new policy of…," Doc Pringle cautiously looked around, then using prisoner lingo, added, "…Warden, Doug the Crud. When he thinks a prisoner is expected to die very soon, he sends them to the morgue for their last remaining hours. It's just another way to demean the prisoners and make them feel helpless."
Sarcastically the Doctor whispered, "It's a great place to die, don't you think?"
"That's revolting," impulsively blurted Sister Bakke. "Oh, I'm sorry," she said, "I didn't mean to speak out so harshly."
Father Jonathan understood Sister Bakke's sensitivity to her sisterhood servitude role. He watched a slight touch of warmth change her complexion to pink.
In contrast to the overtly informal relationship between prisoners, Doc Pringle was amused by the highly formalized structure separating the sister from her priest. He couldn't hold back a slight chuckle. Father Jonathan's serious demeanor was replaced with a sly grin, watching Sister Bakke look down at her feet with dejection written on her face. Her avocation dictated full submissiveness to him and, other than when in the confession booth, the keeping of her personal feelings strictly to herself. He felt pride in her behavior.
"Actually, the morgue is a more comfortable room than the clinic, and has less traffic during the day, when other prisoners are brought to the clinic for care. My biggest concern is having a guard keep an eye on the prisoner," stated Doc Pringle.
Neither Sister Bakke's spontaneous expression of disgust nor Doc Pringle's response interrupted Father Jonathan's thoughts. "How does the warden get away with treating the prisoners like that? Surly the State or the Feds have some guidelines that require better treatment and monitoring of sick inmates? Why don't they get rid of him for that kind of behavior?"
"Slow down Father, one question at a time." Doc Pringle pleaded. "Yes, there are guidelines, but the warden has a lot of latitude to run the prison as he sees fit. He's been warned about things like this in the past, but simply ignores them and does whatever he wants. One of these days this will come back to haunt him, and he'll be sent packing."
"How is the prisoner guarded when in the morgue?"
"During the day a guard is posted outside the door, the same as when a prisoner is in the clinic. Once an hour, the guard is allowed to take a very short break if someone is available to check on the patient, the nurse, myself, or even you, Father. They're supposed to let us know before they leave and again when they come back. Rusty's usually given the assignment, and he's diligent about keeping the rules."
"Are they guarded at night too?" Sister Bakke asked. "Father Jonathan often visits the prison in the evening, and doesn't return to the rectory until quite late. Is he safe?"
"Oh, yes. At night it's not much of a problem. No prisoners are walking the halls, and the guards handcuff at least one of the prisoner's wrist's to the gurney. Buckman's too sick to move about at all. He can't even go to the john by himself. Being only a petty thief, the guard assigned is allowed a longer break, up to ten minutes, even during the daytime. I personally think it's a dangerous thing to do, but so far it's worked out okay."
"How do you take care of him, doctor?" asked Father Jonathan, "Aren't all your supplies and equipment in the clinic?"
"Well, Father, that's a problem. Fortunately the morgue and clinic are side by side. If we need something in a hurry we can get to it without much trouble. Regularly checking in on the patient at night also creates a sleep problem for Mary Lou. She has to set an alarm and go back and forth between the clinic and morgue. I admit, it does make things more difficult for everyone."
"Doctor, is it essential that I see Buckman right away, or will it be all right for me to come back after my cold lunch?" the priest asked, "I certainly don't want to neglect him if his condition is critical."
"No, he'll be just fine. Jack's pretty sick. He is dying, but he'll live another day or two. Mary Lou and I are keeping a close eye on him. Come and see him after lunch. That will be perfectly all right. He's an old German, you know, very stubborn and probably Lutheran. Most old Germans are."
Father Jonathan puffed out his chest a bit. "God doesn't make distinctions. He loves Lutherans, too. They simply don't understand the Bible very well." He thought, I only know a few Lutherans. I love them as God demands and even feel badly for those who are locked up. "I've been talking with prisoners all morning. It's hard work. It'll be good to take a break even if lunch is cold. I'll bring my Communion set when I come back. I can provide Communion and forgiveness for Lutherans, too."
Father Jonathan heard that the doctor had very strong opinions about religious beliefs. He assumed that expressing them would open the door for an interesting, though perhaps heated debate.
Changing the subject was a quick way for Doc Pringle to avoid getting into a theological discussion. "That'll be fine, Father. I need to get back to the clinic. Have a good day, Sister. Good luck in keeping Father on his lunch schedule."
Doc Pringle returned to the infirmary. Father Jonathan and Sister Bakke went to lunch with the intention of returning to visit Jack Buckman.