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Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 6.2 (2004) 67-84

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See for Yourself

death will come, whether or not we are prepared for it

I look to my right and blink rapidly. The scene in the next room is surreal and completely unexpected. A woman with expertly colored blond hair lies naked on a metal table. The top of her head is missing, hair and skin peeled down across her face. Her empty skull vault faces me; her toes, painted a lush peony-red, point toward two deep aluminum sinks. Only after processing these details can I focus on the shades of red and brown and yellow and pink between her head and toes. She has been gutted, a deep Y-incision from pubic bone up to chest and out to shoulders, and her organs lie in a scattered heap on top of her.

I let out a startled yip.

"Whoa," Ike says. "Didn't know they had another one before ours." He looks at me. "You okay?"

"Umm-hmmm." The sound coming from my throat wavers. I feel quietly desperate to settle my eyes and mind somewhere other than on the woman, but like a hummingbird enticed by so much red, my eyes keep darting back to her body.

A pale, bone-thin man with wispy brown hair and bloody gloves looks up from the woman's body and smiles brightly. Ike introduces me to the forensic pathologist, tells him that I worked for the police department back in the 1980s, that I'm a writer and live in Texas now. "Is it okay if she observes our autopsy?" Ike asks.

"Absolutely. You're more than welcome." He walks toward me as he speaks, and for a second I'm unhinged again. Will he expect me to shake his body-fluid-stained glove? He stops short and grins. "Just don't use my name, okay?" [End Page 67]

An odd request, but I nod and say thank you, grateful for several moments of inconsequential chatter and for Ike's shoulders, which now block my view of the woman's body.

It is November 2001, and we are inside the mobile trailer that serves as the coroner's forensic unit for the city of Baton Rouge. Ike Vavasseur is a sergeant in the homicide division of the Baton Rouge City Police Department. I didn't know Ike well when I was a police officer, but I've grown to admire him over the past year after doing a number of ride-alongs with him. A tightly built man with slicked-back dark hair, he seems at ease in his body and extremely adept at his job.

Only an hour earlier I'd come around the corner of Ike's cubicle, curious what another evening on the homicide detail would bring. The previous night he'd walked me through a case several months old, still unsolved: the murder of a nurse in her early forties, raped and strangled in her home. We didn't know then that by the end of May 2002, a woman in her early twenties would be found stabbed to death in her apartment. DNA evidence would link those two crimes with a third murder less than a month later—a naked woman, her throat slit, discovered near the Whiskey Bay exit off Interstate 10. For the next year Ike would work round the clock on a special task force comprised of local, state, and federal officers to catch the serial killer who would strike at least three more times before he was caught in the spring of 2003.

But on this late afternoon in November 2001, as I'd settled down beside Ike's desk, he was focused on a woman who had just died.

"Want to see an autopsy?" Ike had asked.

I'd gulped internally. "Okay." My voice was higher and more breathy than usual.

Ike looked at me closely, a kind, steady gaze. "You sure?"

"Yes," I said more firmly, conscious of a steely grit I hadn't called up in years kicking...


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pp. 67-84
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