The ringing phone woke me. “Wollie. I may have a match to the photo.”
I sat up in bed, disoriented. I had no idea who this was. “Okay. What time is it?” I said. And who was I saying it to?
“Eleven. Can you get downtown?” Cziemanski. It was Detective Cziemanski.
“Where downtown?” I went over and pulled back the drapes. Sunlight assaulted me.
A pause. Then, “The morgue.”
Downtown L.A. was a place I rarely went. Not that there was nothing happening there. There was the Convention Center, some major conventioneer hotels, quite a few law firms and banks and museums and hospitals, Staples Center for sports fans, the Mark Taper Forum for theatergoers, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and Disney Concert Hall for music lovers, the fashion district, jewelry district, flower market, Little Tokyo, and Chinatown. There were government buildings: City Hall, the Civic Center, courthouses, the LAPD at Parker Center. And east of all that, at Mission and Marengo, there was the Los Angeles County Department of Coroner. The morgue.
Two buildings shared the parking lot. Following instructions on a sign, I parked, got a parking permit from one building, then returned to place it on the dashboard of my Integra, which was when I noticed Joey’s car parked next to a Department of Coroner’s vehicle. Thank God. I’d had the shakes since Detective Cziemanski’s call awakened me. He’d suggested having a friend go through this with me, since he couldn’t get downtown himself, and I was grateful for it now, entering the other building, white stone with the look of an old penitentiary.
Joey met me in the lobby with a smile. I tried to smile back. “Fifty-four minutes,” I said. “That’s how long it took. I hate how downtown streets are one-way-you’re supposed to somehow know that Flower runs south and Temple dead-ends-”
“Flower? What were you doing on Flower Street?” Joey asked.
“I got sucked onto the 110 freeway from the 101, I couldn’t get over in time and nobody would let me out of the exit lane and-”
“Never mind. You’re here. She’s here,” she said louder, to a woman in a reception cubicle. “My friend. She’s come to ID the body.”
The woman spoke into a headset and told us to have a seat. Neither of us did.
The lobby did not exceed my expectations. Pea-soup linoleum, a plastic coffee table simulating wood, a vase of artificial flowers. Joey studied photos of the Board of Supervisors in a glass trophy case. I wandered across the room, to a poster of a baby in the arms of a doctor. “Pregnant?” it read. “Confused?”
I moved closer. The baby looked new, too little for its diaper, but with a full head of velvety black hair. The poster was not, as I expected, endorsing prenatal care but urging readers to leave newborns (seventy-two hours or younger) with an emergency room employee rather than abandon them, since “A trash can or Dumpster is never a choice.” I studied the infant. He looked startled. He’s a model, I told myself, he wasn’t found in a trash can. But I noticed myself clutching my backpack, digging my nails into it-
A young man with a clipboard introduced himself as Kent Something and asked us to follow him. He led us through a locked door to an elevator, another floor, and a long hallway, the linoleum changing color from pea soup to mustard to avocado.
We came to a room crowded with desks, files, and the detritus of an office that housed a staff of dozens in an area built to accommodate five or six, or perhaps a staff of five or six doing the work of dozens. Weekend stillness hovered like a fog layer. Kent took us to a room within the room, carpeted in the same dark teal the West Valley LAPD used. Was there a municipal contract with the Teal Blue Carpet Company? Kent asked me for identification. He had me sign my name, took my thumbprint with an ink pad, and then, satisfied that I was who I purported to be, told me that Mrs. Heike Gl"uck of Moosburg, Germany, had, via phone and translator, named me her proxy, authorizing me to identify the body of her daughter, Annika. Then he walked out.
The room was very hot.
“When do we see the body?” I asked Joey. My mouth was dry.
“We don’t. I asked. It’s all done by photo.”
“Oh. Okay.” I studied my ink-smudged thumb. “That doesn’t sound so bad.” Except that I wasn’t ready. Is this where the staff ate lunch, on this old, beat-up table? Strange to think of people taking coffee breaks here, eating tuna salad, having an office romance in a place where other people faced the worst moment of their lives. Thank God it was me doing this and not Annika’s mother. Thank God she was too far away.
The door opened. Kent walked in with a file. An image of a greeting card started to form, one of my good-luck cards, but I pushed it aside.
Joey took my hand, gave it a squeeze, then let go.
Kent took a seat, opened the file, and picked up a single sheet of paper, to which was stapled a Polaroid. He kept it facing away from us. His facial expression was professionally neutral, signaling that this was not the aspect of his job he most enjoyed. “You understand,” he said, “this is a crime-scene photo. We don’t clean things up for the family, much as we’d like to.”
“Okay,” I said.
He put the report in front of me, the Polaroid in the upper left-hand corner.
She lay on grass, her dark hair fanned out from her face. She wore a white T-shirt. Her eyes were open. Her mouth was slack. Her skin was white-yellow, or maybe that was the quality of the photo. She had been lovely once.
Maybe. Hard to say, really.
My nose burned, then my eyes, and my vision blurred.
“It’s-” I cleared my throat. “It’s not her.”
Her name was Jane Doe 132. They’d done tests, an autopsy, fingerprints. Now they’d leave her file open and periodically check the missing-persons database for women like her. They’d keep her until someone came looking, someone like us, worried about their friend, daughter, sister. If no one came, in a few years they’d burn her body and bury her remains in a common ground in a Boyle Heights cemetery.
Kent answered our questions, relaxed now, interested to hear that Joey had once worked in a morgue. Jane Doe, he said, wore a red watch, was in her teens or early twenties, and had dark hair, which was why the computer had alerted Cziemanski.
“She’s a head trauma,” Kent said. “Fell off a bike near UCLA. Bad year for coeds. Raves, suicides, drownings, cars wrapped around trees…”
“How do people die at raves?” I said.
“Ecstasy, usually. This year we’ve seen fentanyl. It’s an analgesic, highly toxic. Had a kid last summer try to get high drinking Goo Gone, a cleaning solvent. Mind gone.”
After a while we thanked him and walked out to the parking lot, into a Saturday afternoon full of traffic and sunshine and the noises of life.
I felt giddy with relief, but Joey was uncharacteristically morose. “What’s that expression about someone walking on your grave?” she asked. “Anyhow, I have to get home, I’m driving the BMW to Oxnard, but I want you to know-” She paused, looking toward the freeway. “I’ll help. With Annika. I want to find her.”
She’d been helping all week, I was about to point out, but she was already heading to her car.
I called Germany from my own car while still in the parking lot. It crossed my mind that my cellular bill was going to equal the gross national product of a small country, but when I told Mrs. Gl"uck that it was not her daughter lying dead in the morgue and heard the ecstatic weeping that ensued, I decided it was a Christmas present to myself, a month early.