Meet Max Millhopper!
Join 14-year-old Max Millhopper, high-school geek and undercover medical genius, on an amazing adventure through autopsies, mystery deaths, crime scenes, life-saving medical procedures, DNA analysis, and forensic science. Can detective Max solve the puzzling death of a bank employee, find the missing $200,000, and discover the identity of the killer before becoming a victim himself? Read Dr. Davis's Death, Sugar, and Flies to find out! Click here to link to Amazon Kindle version of Death, Sugar and Flies.
Also available in paperback!
The lifeless body lay on a metal table in the center of the white-tiled room. Florescent lights hummed a muffled buzz from several rows of ceiling lamps above the man’s ashen chest. The aroma of lemons, no doubt from the meticulous use of cleaning solutions, evoked a curious sense of hominess that felt awkwardly out of place.
The room was nothing like the morgues I had seen on television crime shows; it wasn’t dark and creepy—in fact, the space could have passed for a school cafeteria kitchen.
He’s dead, I thought to myself, restating the obvious over and over again in my mind. This was the first time I had actually been near a dead person. I didn’t know what to expect. Surprisingly, I didn’t feel sad; I didn’t feel anything, except maybe the first few bubbles of a boiling curiosity.
The body appeared artificial, like a wax museum replica, too pale to be human, and motionless. The man was naked, except for a folded white sheet covering his mid-section. His face was devoid of expression, with closed eyes facing the ceiling, every muscle relaxed. The expression was that of a weary traveler settled into bed after a long day. His thin, pale lips revealed neither sadness nor joy.
Next to the man was a sinister collection of metallic tools, some of which were knife-like devices that could have been used for dicing vegetables, others might have been bizarre alien weapons stolen from a crashed UFO. All were neatly arranged side-by-side on a green towel in apparent order of wretchedness.
My colorful imagination spun a deluge of questions: How did he die? Is he really dead? He looks so old; was it a natural death? Was it an accident? Was he murdered? The answers were soon to be uncovered.
I moved closer to the corpse. It—or he, I should say—was an elderly man with a gray beard that matched the color of his cold, leathery skin. Standing next to the dead man, thoughtfully squeezing his chin between thumb and forefinger, was Dr. Jeffrey Stone, the newly-appointed Medical Examiner for Santa Rosa County. He was a tall man, with smooth brown skin, peppery black hair, and a sharp, slightly down-turned nose. The doctor reminded me of a hawk, first staring at the body, and then looking in my direction with a quizzical squint from his two piercing eyes.
“Thanks for coming, Max,” he said, tying his surgical cap behind his head and grabbing a disposable green paper gown from a neatly-arranged stack in a glass cabinet against the wall. He snatched another gown and tossed it to me.
We both slipped on our protective gear. My gloves were pulled up to nearly my elbows and my gown drug the floor like a wedding dress.
Dr. Stone towered over me in his “autopsy suit.” He easily could have passed for an astronaut or a Roman senator, his eyebrows looking like fuzzy brown caterpillars crawling over the rims of his eyeglasses.
“This is a very curious case,” the doctor said to me just as a suave young Hispanic man in scrubs entered the room. Dr. Stone peered over his glasses.
“Max, this is Marco. He’s from Costa Rica. Believe it or not, Marco gave up a career as a windsurfing instructor to join us at Sisters of Charity Hospital. He’s my medical assistant,” Dr. Stone explained, returning his gaze to the body.
“Mucho gusto,” Marco said with a flat, expressionless accent. He was short and stocky, a physique that seemed better fit for a professional football place-kicker than a windsurfer or medical assistant.
“These marks are like none that I've ever seen,” Dr. Stone said.
I walked over to the gurney and leaned closer to inspect the odd markings on the body. They were reddish bruises in a peculiar tree-like design, running at a slight angle between the ribs and down the side of the chest.
“The marks are fan-shaped… almost like a tree or a fern…” Dr. Stone said with a distant tone, making it hard to determine if he was talking to me or himself.
Max, Marco, and Dr. Stone inspect the body.
“So what's the story?” I asked, trying to add sophistication to my voice as I pushed my plastic safety glasses up the bridge of my rounded nose.
“Old Corn,” Dr. Stone replied without a smile.
“Old corn?” I repeated in a quizzical tone.
The doctor realized the strangeness of his reply and began again. “Cornelius Marshall, III. Everyone calls him ‘Old Corn.’ He is, or was, a seventy-year-old homeless man found lying in the middle of Cleveland Street this morning by a newspaper delivery boy. Scared the wits out of the poor kid!”
“I bet,” I agreed.
“I would estimate the time of death to be about eight o’clock last night based on the body temperature and the degree of rigor and livor mortis,” Dr. Stone said as Marco demonstrated the stiffness of the man's right arm by holding it up by a bony thumb.
The elbow, wrist and fingers were rigid, like that of a mannequin. This was rigor mortis, caused by a final tightening of the muscles after death. Livor mortis, on the other hand, is the pooling of blood in the body areas closest to the ground. After the heart stops pumping, gravity pulls blood downward just as a wet sponge set on a table becomes wettest at the bottom. For this man, livor mortis had left a bluish hue on the sides of his body just above the surface of the gurney.
“Other signs of trauma?” I asked, certain that if the man was hit by a car there would be external injuries.
“He has some crusted blood in his left ear canal, probably from a ruptured eardrum. And, there is some damage to his shoes,” the medical examiner replied, literally examining the body from head to toe.
I peeked at Old Corn's feet. The sole of the right foot was covered by a peculiar black, powdery dust, as if someone had rubbed charcoal over the thick, callused skin.
Marco pulled Old Corn’s rubber boots out of a cardboard box resting against the wall. One of the boots had a hole in the bottom—a big hole—clearly not due to normal wear-and-tear. The damaged area had heaped-up edges of glistening black rubber.
“I have no idea what could have caused this,” the doctor pondered aloud as he took the boot from Marco and poked his gloved finger through the opening. “Maybe it was there before he died.”
With an impressive basketball-like off-the-wall shot from fifteen feet away, Dr. Stone tossed the boot back in the box. Marco pulled the table of glistening dissection tools towards the body. The medical assistant knowingly handed Dr. Stone a scalpel and turned to shoot me a sharp grin. I felt my heart skip a beat in anticipation. Here goes, I thought, holding my breath.
After checking the blade of the scalpel against the light for any visible hint of imperfection, the doctor began, “An autopsy is a privilege that should be performed with great respect. It is also a puzzle—a window to the mysteries of the human body and of life itself.”
The doctor sounded like he was hosting a television documentary as he made an incision across the upper part of Old Corn's chest. I expected a fountain of blood—but there was none.
“Do you know where the word autopsy comes from, Max?”
“No, Sir,” I replied, breathing again.
“The term autopsy comes from ancient Greek—literally it means to see for oneself. Grab that stool over there, if you like,” Dr. Stone said as he pointed to a low metal stepstool on the floor under the gurney.
“Interesting,” I said as I pulled the stool over to the gurney and hopped on to get a better view.
My attention focused on the metal blade of the scalpel as it was forced deep through the skin in a Y-shaped incision over the chest and abdomen. The top of the “Y,” I had learned, would allow for the ribs to be spread side-to-side while keeping the incision hidden below the shirt collar later. The body would have to be put neatly back together, after all, if it were to be viewed at the funeral.
The incision revealed underlying pink tissue which gave way to a globular, yellow, gel-like material—fat, or adipose tissue, I thought to myself. Even this skinny, old man had a thin layer of insulating fat on his frail body.
Dr. Stone continued his monologue as the knife danced elegantly over the body. “Many of the first anatomists were artists, you know. Leonardo da Vinci dissected the bodies of executed criminals to produce brilliant true-to-life drawings, sketches that have been studied in modern times and found to be incredibly accurate. He used cadavers to study what he called the ‘divine proportions’ of the human body—for example, the length of a man's outspread arms is equal to his height, the distance from the elbow to the tip of the hand is a quarter of a man's height, the distance from the chin to the top of the head is one-eighth of a man's height… I could go on and on.”
“Weren’t autopsies illegal during the Middle Ages?” I asked.
“In most places, yes, but da Vinci lived in the Renaissance, after the Middle Ages. The Renaissance marked a time in which the Sciences were gaining popularity. Brilliant new ideas and discoveries were radically changing the way people understood the world around them and also the world within—within the human body, that is.” Dr. Stone’s eyebrows wriggled over his glasses as he carefully cut through a white membrane over the breast bone, the periosteum, something I recalled from my anatomy book.
Dr. Stone continued, “Still, the study of dead bodies was a sketchy business back then. Autopsies were frowned upon by both political and religious leaders. Leonardo da Vinci risked imprisonment and even the death penalty for what was considered by many to be desecration of the dead.”
“Desecration?” I asked.
“It means to use for an unholy purpose. It was feared that cutting into a dead body would impair passage to the afterlife,” Dr. Stone replied as Marco handed him a tool that looked like an electric toothbrush on steroids. The tool made a whirring sound, similar to a dentist’s drill, as a small circular saw blade began to spin in a blur.
Without hesitation, Dr. Stone pressed the saw into Old Corn's sternum and little bits of bone flew in all directions. The breast plate divided in two and Marco dropped in a metal spreader device, ratcheting open the sides of the rib cage with a cranking motion. The entire contents of Old Corn's chest and abdomen were exposed. The scene before me was more colorful than I had expected—the heart a reddish-pink, lungs more of a purple color, ribs white as chalk, fat tissue a bright yellow, and muscles a dark red.
Surprisingly, I wasn't fazed in the slightest. For several months, I had watched videos of heart and abdominal surgeries on YouTube. I had learned that a major goal of most surgeries was to keep the incision as small as possible—to help with healing and reduce the risk of infection. Autopsies, on the other hand, were designed to expose as much as possible.
Dr. Stone’s professorial voice continued, “…autopsies help doctors learn from their mistakes and can help solve horrendous crimes.”
The medical examiner wiped bits of bone off of his glasses with a small piece of gauze. “This is Old Corn’s final opportunity to tell his story—not through words, but with forensic evidence… medical clues to his final moments of life.”
I marveled at the lack of visible blood. I guessed there was little reason for bleeding without a pumping heart or any blood pressure.
Dr. Stone moved his hands over the slimy organs looking for any abnormalities. A curious metallic odor combined with the room’s lemony scent. The smell was disturbingly similar to raw T-bone steaks ready for the grill.
“There’s some bruising of the left lung and a ruptured liver. The lung bruising may have occurred from a fall but I can't explain the liver damage. There’s no sign of cirrhosis,” the doctor explained.
Cirrhosis is permanent scarring of the liver, usually caused by years of excessive alcohol consumption. Dr. Stone didn't need to avoid the big medical words, he knew that I was a walking medical encyclopedia—that's why he had asked me if I could stop by to help him with his case.
My brain was spinning in high gear but the clues just weren't coming together. The liver was damaged… but no bruises were visible on the outside. Curious.
“Anything else?” I asked as I watched the doctor dig through Old Corn’s guts.
“That's just it. I don't get it. His heart looks strong as an ox. No external signs of blunt force trauma, no blood clots, and no penetrating injuries.”
“There were no witnesses?” I questioned.
“Nope, at least nobody has come forward. He had four dollars in his pocket so I doubt he was mugged. Who would want to steal from this poor old man anyway? I don’t think a thief would have expected him to have any money based on the way he was dressed.”
His clothes! A thought crossed my mind, not just an 'Oh, I forgot my lunch money' thought, but a brilliant medical detective thought—the kind that had made me famous.
“Were his clothes wet?” I asked.
Dr. Stone turned his head over to me slowly with a confused look. His caterpillar eyebrows ducked downward in thought and then shot upwards in excitement. He knew I was on to something.
“Well, actually, yes! Yes, they were, Max. How could you know that?”
“It was raining last night, wasn't it, Dr. Stone?”
It had started raining before dinner. It was a pretty bad storm actually. The electricity went out just as I was about to watch a new episode of Mystery Diagnosis on TV.
“Yes. It was quite a soaker! The crime scene investigators had little chance of finding any useful clues after a downpour like that one. Any DNA or fiber evidence would have washed away—,” he stopped talking as he noticed me nodding my head. I was smiling from ear to ear—but it’s hard to tell if someone is smiling when they’re wearing a surgical mask.
“Can I see his clothes?” I asked.
“Sure! Hey Marco, pull that stuff out of the box over there.”
It was the same cardboard box that held Old Corn's boots. His shirt and pants were wet and dirty. The brown trousers were ragged at the edges. The right pants leg had multiple tears, almost like it had been run through a paper shredder.
I knew the answer, and Dr. Stone knew that I knew. I had solved the mystery of Old Corn's death.
Dr. Stone looked over me with a childish grin—like a kid at the ice cream truck waiting for the rainbow rocket-bomb popsicle to be handed over.
“So... What do you think, Max?” Dr. Stone asked expectantly.
I pushed my glasses up my nose and waited several seconds for dramatic effect.
“Lightning! Old Corn was struck by lightning. The electricity entered his chest causing the fern-like red mark, bruised his lung, ruptured his liver, and exited his right foot. That explains the hole in his rubber-soled shoe. Lightning is a direct current and, unlike alternating current, it often doesn’t cause visible burns of the skin. The electrical current passed directly over his heart. A jolt like that could kill an elephant.”
Dr. Stone took off his mask and glasses and shot me a humongous grin.
“Max, I think you’ve got it. That would explain the liver injury, alright. Yes... the shockwave created by a lightning bolt can damage internal tissues without leaving any marks on the outside.”
Dr. Stone gave me a congratulatory slap on the back that nearly sent me off the stool and into Old Corn's open chest.
The doctor snapped off his gloves, tossed them into a waste basket, and hurried over to a desk against the wall. There, he jiggled a computer mouse and a bluish light illuminated his face as the monitor sprung to life. He pecked on the keyboard, and after a few seconds, he jabbed his finger at the computer screen with a loud “Ah, ha!”
“Max, come check this out!” he said as he motioned with his free hand.
I hopped off the stool and slid over to the table. On the computer screen was a webpage entitled Pathology Online—Norton’s Modern Pathological Technique. Dr. Stone was pointing towards several digital photographs of lightning injuries. The middle picture looked exactly like the mark on Old Corn’s chest.
“Mystery solved!” Dr. Stone said with a smile as he leaned back in his chair, arms behind his head. “What do you say we go out for one of Miss Marty's famous chocolate malts?”
Last Updated (Wednesday, 28 March 2012 13:12)