“Hi, you’ve reached John and Kelly. We’re not here to take your call right now, so leave a message and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can.”
The voice is cheery like the one we all use for our phone tags. I listen to these reminders of the recently departed life with momentary panic. The hair stands up on the back of my neck, the palm of my hand holding the phone sweats profusely. It is not a ghost though, only the words of the dead recorded at an earlier time.
I inhale deeply as the answering machine beeps then say, “This is Dr. Mary Jumbelic from the Medical Examiner’s Office. Please call me back at your earliest convenience.” It is my job to communicate with the next of kin to let them know how their loved one died. Sometimes they call back quickly, and at other times, not at all.
There are many voices left behind on videos or audiotapes recorded as suicide notes or by security cameras. More recently, there is a plethora of recreational filming. These get turned over in the investigation that ensues when someone dies in suspicious circumstances. The images and sounds are a type of magical realism – the living moments intertwined with a person’s final ones.
One late afternoon, after a long day in the morgue, I sit in my office chair, leaning back with my feet propped on a file box. In my hand, is a recorder that the police brought in from today’s case. When ‘play’ is pressed, the tape begins.
Background static is heard before a young woman’s tremulous voice says, “Where are we going?”
“Shut up,” a man shouts. A southern lilt colors the words.
She follows this admonition for a full minute while the wind creates a hollow sound as through an open car window. Then there is uneven breathing. Is she crying? Fabric rustles against the microphone.
“Hold still,” the same man’s gruff voice commands.
I look at my watch – 2 minutes 40 seconds has passed since the recording began.
“You seem like a nice guy,” she tries again.
“Well, I’m not,” he barks.
“Just drop me off here at the park, I’ll wait, give you time to get away,” she hurries on,
“I won’t tell anyone, ever, I prom…”
“I said to shut up,” he interrupts. A hand slaps on skin.
“Please, please, think of my mother and father,” she says tearfully. “You must have a mother and father.” These last words are said with more confidence.
“Well, I don’t. Not anymore,” he says.
“A sister, brother.” There is a long pause. “A kid.”
“Naw, none of them neither.”
Now I’m sure I hear it, low sobs and maybe “help”?
“Ain’t nobody coming to help you,” he growls.
The car has stopped. There is movement, more static, a car door opening. Then in the background, a humming sound gets louder as the conversation ceases. It’s crickets, a summer evening serenade. Footfalls are audible, one set long and steady, the other shorter and hurried.
Clothing is being ripped while the woman whimpers and the man grunts, louder and faster. A loud thud sounds followed by a muffled scream. Metal scrapes against stone along with the heavy breathing of manual labor. Time is passing; minutes feel like hours. I check my watch again, 7 minutes 15 seconds.
The sound coming from my hand startles me. The tape has ended and I anxiously rewind it to listen again. And again. And again. Hoping there is more. Dreading there is more.
The diagrams of her body from the autopsy sit on the top of my desk. They show her injuries and her cause of death. Red bruises from the man’s fingers mark her arms and throat. A fingernail is torn and bloodied. Dirt covers her skin from the shallow grave from where she was recovered.
The scene photographs show a tape recorder smashed against rocks. Clothing is strewn about the surrounding forest — a torn bra, ripped lace panties, a buttonless short-sleeved blouse. In the third photo, rumpled jeans are seen with the legs pulled inside out. A close-up shows the right front pocket. There is a barely discernible bulge from the micro-cassette in the coin pocket.
I am not thinking about the forensic puzzle, the whodunit, the pattern of injury, or the evidence. Instead my thoughts are focused on this young woman’s will to live, her desire to turn the situation around even as she headed to her certain death. She managed to record the conversation with her killer and secreted the tape from him. Her powerful presence of mind and strength of spirit are overwhelming.
With her final heart beat, her last breath, she left me a message.