The Cop and the Coroner: Part Two

by | Mar 31, 2021 | Crime Writing | 0 comments

I expected the usual ten minute-drive from the Parker Center parking lot to Philippe’s in lunchtime traffic to take just a few minutes. Normally, he’d zip through traffic like Mario Andretti at the Indy 500. Instead, we were stuck behind what seemed a never-ending line of cars moving slow like the snails in our driveway. While John inched the Crown Vic forward, my mind reprocessed when Jim and I toured the LA Morgue on that cold, chilly January day in 1983.

The building is a dreary concrete box with all the charm of an aging county hospital.  I was terrified I’d faint, and St. John would think I was a pussy. The one thing that terrifies me more than falling out of the sky is death. I’d never seen a corpse and never wanted to be one. The dead body scale shocked me. It could have handled a baby elephant! I nearly fell over the beautiful, naked corpse in the hallway because no one covered her. I asked St. John to put a sheet over her and he did. The mortician scooped blood from an open body with what looked like my soup ladle. I’ll never forget those two corpses on a gurney waiting to be washed. They were my age and died in a hit and run accident. I can still see her bright-red nail polish. St. John said Danny Dambacher “runs the show.” He hates drunk drivers. It was bad enough being in the cold storage room with over one-hundred-and-fifty bodies wrapped in plastic, but when John took us to the room with kids I’d had enough. The morgue kindergarten. Ugh.

I opened my notebook, turned to my narrative and said: “It’s a rough draft. Kinda bumpy.”

“Fire away,” he said. “Let’s hear what you’ve written.”

I began. “These two men met over twenty-five years ago when St. John was a rookie homicide detective and Dambacher was a rookie coroner’s deputy. St. John started when the homicide department was little more than a few wooden desks on the LA City Hall. Dambacker began working as a coroner’s mortuary aid when the coroner’s office and morgue occupied several dark and drafty rooms in the basement of the Hall of Justice. Now, the LA Coroner’s office is a four-story cement fixture on North Mission street that processes over 17,000 bodies a year and is equipped with the latest forensic gadgetry.”

I waited through two stop lights for his answer. What is he thinking? What is he feeling? Why is he so damn quiet?

Finally, he spoke. “It’s alright. You’ve got your facts right, but something’s missing. It’s dry.

“Dry?” I said, feeling a need for that first sip of wine “Tell me what you think is missing.”

“I’d like a little zip in the beginning,” he said. “Something catchy. Something with life!”

“Ok,” I said, thinking he doesn’t understand how important it is to set-up the scene. “Tell me what you want.” Why can’t he be even slightly satisfied with a first draft?  

“Here’s two examples,” he said. “One of my good friends was a coroner named Jack Wayne. He was known as the King of Autopsies. That SOB could filet a body faster than a cat could wink an eye. Another is the way Dambacker orders his drink. Always a gin martini with an olive. When he re-orders, he has the waiter take his old glass so he wouldn’t lose the left-behind booze. Maybe it’s his German heritage, but it always makes me laugh.”