Born in August 1974, in Brooklyn, NY., Lisa Provost grew up in the Catskill and Adirondack mountains of upstate N.Y. where, from the time she was 12 – 16-years-old, she raised dairy goats.
Lisa studied Biology at RIT in Rochester, N.Y. from 1992-1994. Later, in 1998, Lisa married and moved to the Midwest when her husband enlisted in the US Air Force. The couple moved to N.C. in 2003 when his enlistment term was done. In August 2007, Lisa began studying Forensic Biology at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC. Lisa is an avid knitter and lover of four legged mammals.
Have you ever handled a cadaver? I have had the opportunity many times. They are cold. Clean. Prepared. There is a slight smell of chemicals, their hair is gone and their skin is no longer soft to the touch. Yes it’s flexible but not the same way that living flesh is. In this way, it is easy to distance yourself from the fact that they were once alive. Now they are a specimen. A tool with which to learn. This does not mean they should not have your full respect though! They were alive at some point. They had names, families, dreams, desires and fears just as you and I do now. But when you look at a cadaver, you do not see those things. You do not think of those things. You are never allowed to know their names in life nor anything about their families. Many people have asked me if I wanted to know about them. The answer is no I do not. What makes them the person they were is long gone. This is just a shell now. A learning tool with which I will expand my knowledge. It sounds cold but honestly, it is better to think of it that way.
The first time I had the opportunity to handle a cadaver was as a student at RIT. I assisted with a spinal cord dissection of a human female specimen. And that is how I will always remember it. It was not a spinal dissection of Sarah, or Tiffany, or Bertha, etc. It was of a human female.
The next time I had an opportunity was when I worked at a medical school here in North Carolina. I helped the staff by arranging the cadavers in the gross anatomy labs. Over the years I was there, I helped do this twice. I observed as the cadavers were placed in the body bags used in the gross anatomy lab and then I helped move them to their designated rooms. All those cadavers had been people at some point but I had no desire to know any of that information. I know their families were gracious people for giving these bodies to us. I would never meet them but I hoped they knew how grateful I was for their kindness and generosity. But to know the name and life of the man that was on the gurney I was wheeling down the hall? No I had no desire to know at all.
So I have handled many cadavers over the years and it does not bother me in the slightest.
But have you ever handled a body? Even though you might think a body and a cadaver is the same thing, you are completely wrong. I had the chance to handle a body while on one of my internships.
When I arrived at the PD that afternoon, I knew the day would be interesting. There was no one in the lab when I arrived so I rode with a patrol unit until 8pm when the next lab tech would be coming on duty. We chased speeders, broke up two fights, convinced a woman it was in her best interest to let EMT’s treat her so she wouldn’t go into insulin shock, responded to two assaults and did a welfare check on a mother and her children who had not been heard from for three days. When we arrived at the home for the welfare check the officer I was with said “Man, I hope she’s okay! I don’t want to find a body tonight”. We walked to the door and knocked. And waited. And waited. He looked at me and sighed “oh man… I just know it…” He knocked again and the door opened. There stood the mother looking incredibly confused at us with her children in the background, jumping on the couch and watching SpongeBob Squarepants. After repeatedly assuring her that she was in no trouble and that I was in fact not a CPS (Child Protective Services) worker, we found out the reason that she hadn’t been in contact with her anyone was that her phone had been disconnected. As we walked away I said “You know… I was kinda hoping for a body. All the other interns have had a chance to respond to a body scene but me. I really want to see how it’s done.” He smiled and said “Well the night is young!”
It was about 8pm when I got back to the PD. The PD is rather close to the train tracks and I remember thinking as I walked inside “Man… that train engineer really likes his horn!” It had been blowing a good long while with almost no pauses. I poked my head in the lab and saw that no one was in there so I wandered over to get some peanut M&M’s and a Coke from the vending machine. I could hear radios chattering on the hips of officers as they walked past but I really wasn’t paying attention. I was thinking more of the ride I had and the notes I had made. A few minutes later I walked into the lab just as one of the techs was putting her satchel down on her desk. She looked at me and said, “Hey do you wanna see a mess?” “Of course!” I replied. She looked at me and said “You haven’t had a body yet have you?” I shook my head no. “Well you’ve got a good one now. A pedestrian was just hit by a train.” I remember that my heart skipped. A train? Really? Wow. Okay wow. I was instantly paralyzed. My mind began to race. Was this going to be too much for me? What if I couldn’t do it? Then I thought well if I ever wanted a test of being able to “handle” this job… a pedestrian being hit by a train would be a good way to find out! Yet still I was paralyzed. The lab techs were busy gathering their equipment and discussing if they should take two trucks or just the one. My mind raced. What if I can’t do this? What if I faint? Good god what if I throw up?! It was only one of the techs yelling “Let’s go!” over her shoulder as she headed out of the lab that brought me back to my senses and sent me trotting after her.
As we drove to the scene I popped M&M’s into my mouth one right after the other and repeated an internal mantra; “You can do this. You can do this. You can do this.” Then the thought hit me as I looked at the package of M&M’s “oh crap, I just ate. I’m gonna get sick!” And then my mantra became “Don’t get sick. Don’t get sick. Don’t get sick… You can do this! Don’t get sick. Don’t get sick…” The grip on my notebook became so strong, my knuckles began to ache. The ride over was silent which was a pleasant distraction from my mind screaming at me. I decided to start taking notes to get my thoughts back on track.
From my notebook:
Arrived on scene 8:16pm
Most likely intoxicated, PD had call of an intoxicated man in area matching description
When we arrived on the scene I once again had to stay behind the tape at first. They needed to be sure that this was not a homicide so I took the time to make more notes, draw my sketch and observe. It was difficult to focus on my notebook because of the lights. There were at least 6 police cars with more arriving every few minutes, 2 fire trucks, an ambulance and our truck at the scene. Blue, red, and white lights flashed with such chaos that the shadows danced in the trees like playful ghosts. I was broken from my observations by a shoulder bumping into me. I looked up to see three teen-aged boys walking along the foot path I was standing on, toward the crime scene. The one who bumped me apologized and asked “what’s going on?”
“There’s been an accident” I replied.
“Did someone die?” I nodded in reply. “Damn man. I hope it’s not someone we know.” I waited because I really didn’t know to say. He broke the silence and asked “Hey can we go see?”
“Are you a cop?” I shook my head no. “Well then f*** it man, I want to see this s***” and with that he began to lead his friends toward the tape. I made a b-line toward the nearest officer and let him know these kids were about to cross the tape. Just as their hands hit the crime scene tape, the officer jumped in front of them on the footpath on the other side of the tape.
“You can’t cross that tape” the officer said.
“Well why not?”
“Someone is dead. And I said so. That’s why.”
“But man, we just want to get across. We got some s*** to do over there man.”
The officer crossed his arms and stood his ground. “I don’t care. You can’t cross here.” He pointed up the hill to his right “take the bridge across”. I turned to look in the direction he pointed but could see no bridge.
“Man f*** that. It’s a mile up the road!”
The officer nodded. “Yes it is.”
“Well then can y’all niggas give us a ride?”
I nearly gave myself whiplash with how quickly I snapped my head toward them. I thought “did this kid seriously just ask for a ride…” And with a poise and calmness I envy to this day, the officer replied “No. You’ll have to walk.”
He pointed behind him into the darkness and dancing shadows.
“A man is dead because he tried to cross the tracks. This is why you can’t cross here. Now go take the bridge across the tracks, go do something else, or go home but you can’t cross here.” Exasperated, they walked off, cussing as they went. The officer and I shared a chuckle.
It was at that point I got the wave that it was okay for me to cross the tape. It looked like an apparent accident and thus I was allowed to enter the scene. I stuffed my notebook under my arm and with a deep breath ducked under the tape and headed toward the techs waiting for me. “Keep an eye open for blood and tissue” she said as I approached. I pulled out my flashlight and began searching the gravel on the rail bed and stumbled around a few rocks covered in shining wet blood. When I got next to her I realized it was now or never. “Where is he?” I asked. She pointed along the rails in the direction of the idling train. “He’s under the bush over there. Careful, one of his shoes is here and his hat is over there and there’s lots of blood in between.” I nodded but was not really paying attention to what she said. I was sweeping my flashlight back and forth to find the victim. And then there he was. And there I was moving toward him before I even realized it. No sickness, not worry, just curiosity. “Keep an eye out for his other shoe. We haven’t found it yet. And careful of the footing. This gravel is hard to move over.” I nodded. “You got it” I said over my shoulder still moving toward the victim. I stopped over his body. He was wedged under the bush, his back to me yet both feet and one arm were pointed toward me at an angle I knew was not natural. Wet blood shined as I passed my flashlight over his body. Smells began to waft up as the wind died down for a just moment. Beer, blood, feces, urine, and pepperoni all made themselves present. I moved toward his feet to get a better look at the injuries he had sustained and observed a three inch piece of his left tibia shining in the light. It’s jagged broken edge sticking straight out pointing toward me. “I hope it was quick” I whispered aloud. “It was” came from behind me. I turned to see the Lieutenant assigned to the case standing there. “I talked to the train engineer. It was quick. His head took the full impact. The rest is probably when he was thrown from the force of the impact.” I looked back at the victim and realized he was right. The man’s head was not in a normal shape. I hadn’t noticed when I was standing to his side but as I stood below and looked up, I could see the damage done by the train.
“Hey Lisa, let’s go. We have to look at the engine.” I looked up to see one of the techs waiting for me. “You find his other shoe yet?” I asked as I scaled back up the gravel onto the rails. “No not yet. Keep an eye open for it. I think he’s homeless. Hell he might not even have a second shoe,” she replied. I nodded and we started making our way to the train.
As we approached the train I realized that it was a passenger train. Some of the passengers were looking out the window at us, a few children waved, while others were either reading or sleeping. The train had what I would only assume is a modern day “cow catcher”. It was short being maybe only three or four feet tall, but definitely designed to push obstacles out of the path of the train. The lights from the emergency vehicles didn’t reach all the way to the front of the train and with no street lights the only light to search by was our hand-held flashlights. A first I couldn’t find any sign of the impact but as we moved to the left side of the train I spotted the blood spatter. There was very little of it, maybe 6 or seven small drops of blood about six inches from the edge of the “cow catcher”. As we moved along the side of the engine, I noticed a few more drops of blood on the ladder which leads up to the engine. But that was it. It was then that I realized if his head had been seven more inches to the left, the train would have missed him. I made notes in my notebook while the tech took pictures of the blood and the officer spoke to the engineer. Apparently, as the train came down the hill, the engineer spotted the victim laying on the tracks. He blew his horn and the victim started to get up and crawl feet first toward the edge of the rail, in a kind of ‘crab-walk’ fashion. He hit is brakes and continued to blow his horn but of course trains cannot stop on a dime. It was so close that at first he thought he had missed the victim until he saw the man’s body sailing through the air in his mirror. Officers questioned the passengers while we worked. No one on board saw or heard anything of the impact. All they knew was the horn blowing and then the train stopping. Once we were finished taking pictures, swabs and writing down the train numbers, the officer cleared the train to leave. As the engine started back up and the train began to move, the children began waving anew. I truly hoped they hadn’t seen anything. I waved back, as did another officer and we watched the train chug off into the darkness.
We still hadn’t found his other shoe and came to the conclusion that he might not have had one. The tech made a note to have an officer return in the daylight hours to look for the other shoe, and we began documenting the scene. Using a telephone pole as our main reference point, we started taking our measurements. At one point while kneeling on the gravel holding a tape measure I realized that there was a man in a suit pacing along the rails, within the crime scene tape. I knew all of the detectives and could not figure out who this man was. When I asked I an officer standing near me I was answered with a growl “Oh that’s the train guy. You’ll love him”. Her voice dripped heavily with sarcasm. She was right. As we took measurements, photographs and were attempting to move the victim’s body to send it to the morgue this guy was quoting us on how much money his company was losing by having the rail closed for our investigation. As time went on, the amount climbed higher and higher from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. “I have two trains waiting ladies. Can you step this up?” It then became “Four trains now ladies. I gotta move these trains!” And with a completely un-motivating clapping of his hands like a coach trying to rally his team; “Let’s go ladies. Let’s go!” I was halfway to standing fully upright and about to unleash a flood of expletives on this man when the gentle voice of one of the techs I was with whispered to me “He’s just doing his job. You keep doing yours. He can wait.” It brought me back to the task at hand and I got back on my knees and kept calling out measurements.
When the mortuary service arrived, the officer in charge made sure we were all done with our work and then released the body to be taken to the morgue. We were trying to determine just how to lift the victim’s body when I heard that his family had arrived. It was not that anyone told me they were there. I heard them. It was an instinctive and primal sound. I knew instantly it was sorrow, pain and loss so deep as to cause physical pain. I’d never heard that sound before and I hope to never hear it again, yet I know I will. It’s part of the job. I turned to see a detective easing a woman to her knees so that she wouldn’t fall onto the gravel. Another officer put a coat around her shoulders. The detective held her with such strength and gentleness all at once that it froze me in place. Every other sight and sound was gone except for them. That moment is burned in my memory now. Her sorrow and pain. His strength and gentleness. The reflective lines on the coat glowing in the lights of the patrol cars. All the while shadows danced around them. I realized I could not do what that detective just did. I could not tell someone that their loved one was gone. I closed my eyes for a moment to push back the tears that were forming. When I opened my eyes I saw the other techs looking toward the officer and the woman. The dancing lights shone brightly on the tears forming in their eyes as well.
We lifted his body into a body bag and then onto the gurney. As the men from the mortuary service brought the victim’s body to their van, the detective turned the woman to face him and away from the body. He raised her to her feet and walked her away from us, all the while keeping her back to us and the van containing the victim’s body. As she was gently guided to a group of people that had just arrived, I found out that she was the victim’s estranged wife. The officer that had put his coat around her shoulders made the presumptive identification of the victim (we confirmed it later with fingerprints) and now I had a name to go with the bloody face that had just been zipped up in the bag.
When we arrived at the morgue our victim was already there. A single gurney with a body bag on it stood in the middle of the room. As one of the techs began flipping on every light in the room, the other tech began setting up her equipment to take more photographs, and postmortem fingerprints. She unzipped the body bag and everything I had smelled while standing on the rails came tumbling out. Blood, urine, feces, and beer. And pepperoni. And at that very moment my stomach let out an embarrassing growl. It seemed to stretch on for an eternity sounding like an angry beast demanding to be fed. It echoed in the bright tile room. I was mortified. Oh my god, how could I have just done that?! I wanted to climb into the freezer to hide. The tech popped her head up to look at me “Man I’m hungry too. When we’re done here you want pizza?” I snickered. “Hell yeah!” My embarrassment passed and I stuffed a piece of gum in my mouth hoping my stomach would be silent for a little while longer.
Once everything was set up, we got to work. As the techs took pictures I made notes and got a much closer examination of his body. In the light of the morgue every inch of damage to his body could be seen. A small piece of what I thought might be his cranium was sitting just on the edge of his left nostril floating in a small pool of congealed blood. Hovering only three inches over his face, I could still feel the slight warmth weakly radiating from his body. I almost expected him to open his eyes at any moment and look at me and smile. I could see that he had smiled a lot in life by the creases at the edge of his eyes and the corners of his mouth. His face seemed one of hardship yet filled with happiness and no pain. For a moment I stood transfixed. Stepping back a bit and looking at his head, I could see the damage to his skull. The cracks were visible as protrusions and folds under the skin that I knew should not be there. I stepped back further and swung my eyes over the rest of his body. I didn’t need an autopsy report to know that he had an extensive amount of trauma to his body. His left shoulder and hip were obviously dislocated. His left arm was broken in three places and his left leg was nearly severed completely. His right arm was broken in at least two places and his right lower leg was broken.
As I started taking my notes, the techs began taking their pictures. The only sounds were the buzzing of the lights overhead, the click of the camera, the squeak of our shoes on the cold tile and the scratch of my pen. When the pictures were complete, we rolled his prints. I’d rolled prints on live people a few times. I would have thought that rolling prints on a dead person would be a lot easier. I was wrong. Thankfully the techs had their postmortem print spoon and were able to get his prints rather easily. I made my final notes as they zipped him back up in the body bag and wheeled the gurney into the freezer. As we drove back to the PD I heard a distant train horn.
I think of him now every time I hear a train horn. I know his name. I know of his life, his family, his dreams, his fears and of course his death. For me, he’s a person I will never forget and his name is one I will carry with me forever. And no we never found a second shoe.
* * *
Only 9 days left until the Writers’ Police Academy and we still have room for you!
The deadline to enter the 200 word short story contest was September 10. The Golden Donut Award sure would look nice sitting on your desk! I hope we have your entry! And we now have the names of the five finalists.
The mystery judge will be making a decision soon. We’ll announce the names of the finalists tomorrow. We’ll also reveal the identity of the mystery judge.
All FATS information and schedules have been sent to the recruits via email. Partners have been assigned, so please check your inboxes and confirm upon receipt of the message. If you have not received your scheduled shoot time please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org. A few of the emails bounced back to us as undeliverable. Therefore, we need a working email address for you.
The names of the eight finalists for the Don Knotts Silver Bullet Novel Contest are in! Good luck to each of you!
Lara Louise Crawford
Jodi S. Kilpack
Bonnie K. Stevens