Book One of The Disciples of Cassini Trilogy
By Penny de Byl
David Layton watched helplessly as the pavement suddenly came up to meet his nose, hard.
“Arsehole,” he shouted at the inconsiderate cyclist who had sideswiped him and quickly rode off into the distance. David picked himself up, screwing up his nose as he brushed off the remainder of his hotdog, now decorating the front of his shirt. He felt a warm sensation on his top lip. Wiping it away with his wrist, he discovered he had a minor nosebleed.
No consideration . . . some people, he thought to himself. He looked around the lunchtime bustle in Melbourne’s Treasury Park. No one was sympathetic or concerned about his predicament. Regarding his watch, he realized there were only ten minutes before he had to be back at school. There was no time to run home for a new shirt. Deflated, he started back for work, cautiously walking to one side of the footpath.
All of a sudden, he felt a shiver, although it was a perfectly sunny spring day. He dismissed it as a shock from his recent ordeal. But then he felt faint. Lightheaded and dizzy, he made a beeline for the closest park bench. Bent over with his head between his knees, he got the strangest feeling that he was being pulled upward. Soon he could see himself keeled over on the bench, from above, as though he was floating. The very idea that this could be an out-of-body experience barely had time to make its way into his mind when there was a bright flash and everything went black.
David Layton’s body slumped forward. Limp and lifeless, it toppled off the seat. Copious amounts of a viscous clear fluid began flowing from his open mouth onto the dirt.
Detective Inspector Zoe Moore flashed her ID card as she entered the morgue. She caught a glimpse of her dark Jamaican features in the glass doors as she entered. Damn . . . lipstick, she thought. Her morning schedule had been interrupted by a call from Superintendent Story, insisting she take on a new case.
Pathological cause of death was one of Zoe’s least favorite topics. It became worse, as part of her job, when the pathologist was Professor Durant. Durant was sixty-seven. Zoe was thirty- five. It wasn’t the age gap that Zoe blamed for her aversion toward him, but rather the way he tended to waffle on in great detail. All Zoe wanted was a short list of dot-pointed facts and to get on with her day. Having to consult Professor Durant, she knew this was not going to happen anytime soon.
“My dear, I’ve been expecting you.” The professor grinned. He was working behind a large viewing lens positioned above a naked female body. He came around the operating table and offered his hand to her. Zoe couldn't fathom how anyone could spend so much time in the company of soulless cadavers. The very smell of death made her want to throw up.
“Hello, Professor. I’m here for the results on David Layton,” she said, gingerly shaking his hand, knowing full well where it had been.
“Of course, of course,” he began. “A very puzzling case indeed.” He looked at her over the rim of his glasses, ushering her to another table. “I think this one will fascinate even you.”
“Oh? So he didn't just choke on his lunch?” she enquired.
“Oh no, my dear. Quite the opposite.” He hesitated. “Though really it’s not the opposite at all. The opposite of choking would be not choking, I assume. Well, that much is true. I can categorically declare that he did not choke. But a cause of death is the opposite of choking . . .”
He paused in contemplation searching for some clever words. Zoe took the opportunity to interrupt.
“He didn't choke? Suffocate? The paramedics at the scene were very certain . . .”
“Pithel. Paramedics. What would they know? They can’t see inside. They can’t analyze fluids. No, my dear, I’m afraid they wouldn't have been able to ascertain what had happened to this poor guy, not just by looking at him.”
The professor folded back the shroud on the table to reveal the grayish-blue pallor torso of twenty-eight-year-old David Layton’s corpse. He signaled for Zoe to come over for a closer look and put his fingers into Mr. Layton’s mouth. He opened it, slightly feeling around for nothing in particular.
“No . . . no choking. No severe interalveolar edema or desquamated respiratory epithelium as we would usually see with asphyxiation. Also, the contusions on the face and nasal bleeding appear to be superficial and unrelated,” he offered.
Zoe had been to enough autopsies to know that suffocation victims presented with extreme fluid and skinning in the lungs. She also knew from interviewing witnesses in the park that David Layton’s facial injuries were the result of a preceding collision with a cyclist. The cyclist had not yet been identified.
Professor Durant continued, “When sudden death occurs in young adults, it usually turns out to be a congenital or acquired cardiovascular disease. However, my investigations have not discovered anything unusual. Neither can I find any symptoms to suggest—”
Zoe interrupted, “So, Professor, you know what didn't kill him, but do you have any idea what did?”
“None,” replied the professor. “It’s like he was alive . . . and then he wasn’t.”
“What about the fluid found excreted from his mouth?” she queried, reading from her notes. “A bit of a puzzle, I’m afraid,” the professor frowned.
Zoe was becoming irritated. She didn't have time for the professor’s guessing games. All
she wanted to know was the cause of death so she could hopefully close the case, given there were no unusual circumstances.
“What was the fluid?” Zoe asked in hope of prying more information from the professor. He walked over to his computer and opened a file. He began reading from it.
“It’s 98.4 percent water, 0.6 percent salt, and 0.2 percent albumin.”
Zoe stood agape.
“Albumin? As in . . .”
“Yes,” replied the professor, “albumin as in the globular proteins found in amniotic fluid. And yes, my dear, it appears to be human.”