F . . . found . . . five hundred . . . muttered the man, suddenly breaking off in midsentence to look up and say, She could have drowned a long way upstream and come down the river, sir. But then, she might have gone in farther along and come up on the tide.
Pardon? Ruso blinked, taken aback by this sudden display of initiative.
Moments later it was apparent that although this soldier knew nothing about hospital administration and very little about writing, he had devoted his spare time to learning everything there was to know about the local fishing. The assistants assistants detailed description of all possible points of waterborne departure that could end in an arrival in the marshes on the north bank of the River Dee left Ruso baffled, but one thing was clear. In a land where coastlines shifted in and out and rivers flowed backward twice a day, anything that floated could end up a very long way from where it fell into the water.
Point of entry into water unknown, he dictated.
The man paused. I didnt get the bit before that, sir.
Ruso repeated the location of the body. The man wiped a scrape of wax off the end of the stylus with his forefinger, flicked it away, and began to write. There was a bird chirping in the hospital garden and a murmur of voices. Ruso glanced out the window. On the far side of the herb beds an amputee practiced with his crutches while orderlies hovered at each elbow, ready to catch him. A soft breeze wafted in, fluttering the lamps that had been placed on slender black stands around the table, burning for the soul of the unknown figure laid out beneath them.
The lamps lurched wildly as the door was flung open. The assistants assistant looked up and said, Its not her, Decimus, but the intruder still hurried to the table to look for himself.
Ruso frowned. Who are you?
The man clasped both hands together and continued staring at the body.
Have you lost someone?
The man swallowed. No. Not like this, no, sir.
Then youd better leave, hadnt you?
The man backed toward the door. Right away, sir. Sorry to interrupt, sir. My mistake.
Ruso followed him across the room and barred the door before turning to the assistant. Is there a missing person that HQ doesnt know about?
The man shook his head. Take no notice of Decimus, sir. Hes just one of the porters. Hes looking for his girlfriend.
In the mortuary?
She ran off with a sailor, sir. Months ago.
Why look in here, then?
The man shrugged. I dont know, sir. Perhaps hes hoping shes come back.
Ruso, not sure if this was an attempt at humor, tried to look the man in the eye, but the attention of the assistants assistant remained firmly on the writing tablet.
Ruso looked down at the body. Write, Cause of death.
The stylus began to scratch again. Cause of . . .
Well start from the head down.
We will start . . .
No, dont write that.
Just write Cause of death. Nothing else yet.
He frowned at the girls head. The fishermen who brought the body in had sworn that they had done nothing to it, but Ruso was at a loss to explain the girls hair. At first he had thought she was simply unfortunate.
Now, on closer examination, he realized the patchy baldness was not natural. He ran one finger across the bristly scalp.
Is this some sort of a punishment, do you think?
Perhaps she cut it off to sell it, sir, suggested the orderly.
This isnt cut, this is practically shaved.
© Ruth Downie. Reporduced with permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury Group.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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