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“False Impressions” Teaser

FALSE IMPRESSIONS – STANLEY WOODS-FRANKEL

 

A three-hundred and fifty pound Bengal tiger lay motionless on a stain-less steel table, mouth agape. His orange and black coat contrasted sharply with the stark, white-tiled operating room. A Bach sonata played softly on a portable stereo. Outside, gale-force winds drove horizontal sheets of rain against the stained-glass windows, periodically overpowering the music. A blend of antiseptic and musky animal scents wafted up to the rafters of the high arched ceiling.

Steven Landau, D.D.S., in a white operating gown, leaned over the head of the unconscious cat. His gloved hand moved deftly while he performed a root canal on the tiger‘s prodigious canine tooth. Nancy Gill, his nurse, also in white, stood on the opposite side of the table, retracting the lip of the huge predator.

―Ready for the number forty, Nance.‖ Landau handed her the instrument he had been manipulating.

Nancy‘s almond eyes widened as she passed him the largest circular file from a sterile bracket table. ―I still can‘t get used to the size of these monsters, compared to the ones we use in the office.‖

―Different strokes for different folks,‖ Steve‘s fingers were obscured as he moved the file up and down within the canal of the outsized tooth.

―Ready to fill?‖ Nancy asked.

―You bet. I wasn‘t sure I could complete this sucker. I was barely able to reach the apex, even with the forty. I‘d hate to be at the working end of this baby when he‘s awake and hungry.‖

Nancy crinkled her freckled nose and nodded vigorously. ―I still get goose-bumps when I think about last year, when Peter the wolf came out of anesthesia before we were through, and tried to huff and puff us down.‖

Steve chuckled.

Speaking of working, when the hell do I get my next raise?‖ Nancy suctioned, while Steve irrigated the canal.

―What‘re you talking about? I just gave you one.‖

―That was a year and a half ago.‖

―No kidding!‖

―I don‘t kid about salaries. I swear you‘re getting cheaper than Jack Benny.‖

―Jack who?‖

―You sure you‘re older than me? He was the comedian, who had a radio show, with a running gag about being a miser. The best one I heard on my mother‘s old recording was when a mugger told him, ‗your money or your life.‘ Benny said, ‗I‘m thinking, I‘m thinking.‘‖ Nancy handed Steve an opened pack of cotton points.

Steve looked at her over the point of the canine. ―What‘s a radio show?‖

―There are times you sound like a nerdy deprived teen.‖

Steve smiled behind his surgical mask. He remembered how naïve and rabbit-shy Nancy had been when he first hired her straight out of Catholic school. She couldn‘t finish a complete sentence without stammering, and her eyes would practically bug out of her sockets after one of his colorful conversations with his dental lab. After the first few months of her training, Steve had feared the crimson blush that periodically spread over her heart-shaped face might become a permanent condition. Now, after ten years, she was always two steps ahead of him and could out swear a teamster stuck in a traffic jam. He inserted a cotton point to dry the prepared canal. ―I thought my varied practice would be enough reward,‖ he said.

―Ha! That‘ll be the day.‖ Nancy handed Steve a college plier with a ce-ment coated number forty gutta-percha point locked at the tip. ―I‘m at the butt-end of a lot of jokes by all my wise-ass friends. They never know where to reach me. If I‘m not in the office, I‘m here in the zoo, or in court, or in jail—and then, of course, there‘s my favorite place, the damn morgue, where I freeze my tush off.‖ She crossed her hands over her chest and shivered to emphasize the point, then handed Steve a heated plugger.

―Quit complaining. I bought you a down jacket, didn‘t I?‖

―What a sport. Hey, I hope you‘re finishing up.‖

―What‘s the rush? Got a big date tonight?‖

―Yeah, and it‘ll be with Tony the Tiger, if you don‘t get cracking. He just winked at me.‖

Steve quickly completed the root canal with the same material he used on human teeth, and closed the access opening with a white composite filling. He opened the door and motioned to the two attendants waiting outside.

―Okay, guys, you can take our striped friend back to his cage to sleep it off.‖

―Hey, Doc,‖ Nick, the attendant in charge, said, ―How come you‘re al-ways playin‘ this kinda music whenever you do these root canals?‖ Nick‘s dialect seemed appropriate here in the Bronx Zoo, which now had a new, but seldom used name: The International Wildlife Conservation Park.

Steve peeled off his latex gloves. ―Bach‘s our man for root canals, Surgery gets Beethoven; for gums or periodontal work, we play jazz; and we rock n‘ roll during emergencies.‖

Nick shrugged. ―Anyone crazy `nough to work on the biggest tooth of our largest cat should listen to whaddever he wants.‖

Steve was toweling his hands in the O.R. scrub room when Nancy stuck her head in. ―The Medical Examiner‘s Office, line two.‖

Steve picked up the washroom extension. ―Dr. Landau here.‖

―It‘s Barbara from the M.E.‘s office. Doctor O‘Brien requests your presence at a crime scene.‖

―An on-site call? What‘s up?‖

―The Doctor told me not to discuss it with you. He wants your unbiased opinion.‖

―Where is he?‖

―336 East 61st Street, off York, apartment 30A.‖

―I‘m on my way.‖

―Problem?‖ Nancy placed the last of the root canal instruments into the sterilizer.

―Pack my forensic kit, Nance. I have a murder scene consult. What‘s it been, nine months since the last one?‖

Nancy nodded. ―Hope you don‘t expect me to go. I really do have a heavy date tonight.‖

―You‘re clear. Who‘s the lucky guy?‖

―His name‘s Tony and he better be a tiger.‖

―What happened to Joe?‖

―Went back to his wife.‖

―I‘m not going to say I told you so.‖

―Look who‘s giving Dear Abby advice.‖ She handed Steve his forensic bag. ―Last I heard, your batting average with the opposite sex is like zero for ten.‖

―Ouch,‖ Steve called from the doorway. ―See you in the a.m., by the way, add twenty-five to your paycheck tomorrow.‖ He smiled as he closed the door.

Nancy thrust her fist in the air. ―Yes!‖

The rain had not let up when Steve folded his six-four frame into his Porsche for the drive downtown. After plowing through a mini lake on the Bruckner Expressway he said a silent prayer for not using the Harley today. He turned onto East 61st Street, parked in between two blue and whites in front of a stony high rise, and turned the visor down to display his NYPD permit. He flashed his police ID at the doorman and took the elevator to the thirtieth floor. Tenants stood in groups, whispering in the corridor when he stepped into the hallway. Typical, he thought, takes a murder to get neighbors together in the Big Apple.

Steve recognized the detective questioning a nervous, middle-aged couple in front of the door next to 30A and waved before he ducked under the yellow crime-scene tape to enter the apartment. A squat man in overalls was spraying gray powder on a kitchen counter, and then bent over to stare at the smudged surface through his thick glasses.

―O‘Brien?‖ Steve asked.

Without lifting his head, the technician pointed to a doorway. Steve turned and a camera flash temporarily blinded him.

He blinked, and was aware his palms had become moist and his heart rate had shifted into high gear as he crossed the living room. He thought, Ive headed DMORT teams on two airline crashes, and identified hundreds of mutilated bodies. Why the hell, do I get so worked up over a murder scene? He continued to rub his eyes and stopped at the doorway. He took a deep breath to steel himself, but still came close to giving up his lunch at the scene that greeted him.

The naked body of a woman lay sprawled on a queen-sized bed. Puddles of un-coagulated blood haloed her head. Sprayed droplets randomly filled the padded headboard. Shiny red-stained blotches covered the walls, and dripped off the mattress to form scarlet pools on the carpet. Her throat looked as if it had been ripped out. The trachea and inner muscles of her throat hung out of the gaping hole. Dark clots matted her blonde hair to form a sickening blend of crimson and ash yellow. Her contorted face was frozen in a mask of pain, and tinted in the pale blue of death.

Steve swallowed a mouthful of bile.

Dr. John O‘Brien, the potbellied medical examiner, knelt between her spread legs, as if engaged in a ritual sex act. The overhead light reflected off his cue-ball-sized bald spot as he withdrew a swab from her vagina with his gloved hand and transferred it to a plastic container. When O‘Brien moved away from the corpse, Steve saw why he had been called. In the center of the abdomen, where her navel should have been, was a gaping, elliptical hole. The edges of the wound seemed consistent with a human bite. The oozing crater mesmerized Steve. He was barely aware of the technicians and detectives in the room.

―So, what‘s up, Doc?‖ one of the detectives asked the medical examiner. ―The perpetrator was either royally pissed off, wacko, or starving,‖ O‘Brien said.

The cops laughed.

Steve grimaced. He never understood gallows humor. He knew the homicide officers used it to mask the uneasiness they felt for the horrors they had to confront, but he couldn‘t get past the fact that the beautiful young woman they were gathered around had been a living, breathing human a few hours earlier. She was someone‘s daughter, a family member who possessed a history and once had a future, but it had been snuffed out, just like that. No tomorrow, only an obituary.

O‘Brien turned, and spotting Steve, changed his tack. ―What do you think, Steve?‖

―Looks like a bite, probably human. I‘ll take impressions and let you know as soon as I can.‖

―If it is, we got ourselves the Dizzy Dean of weirdo killers. I‘m out of here. I have to get the blood work and DNA samples started.‖

O‘Brien packed his gear while Steve opened his case and snapped on a pair of latex gloves. The police photographer kneeled next to the bed and snapped his last shot.

―I got good close-up shots of the wound Doc, different angles, in black and white, color, and ultraviolet. I‘ll have the prints ready tomorrow,‖ he said.

Steve preferred the contrasting illumination of ultraviolet light and the photographer knew it after they had worked on a tough bite-mark case the year before.

―Make sure you print the direct shots on a one-to-one ratio, or I‘m dead meat in court,‖ Steve reminded him.

―How come you always bust my balls over the ratio?‖ the photographer asked.

―Cause if we get lucky enough and catch this sicko, I have to convince the good people of New York, who have been plucked from the jury pool for a homicide case, that he‘s our man. I do, this by matching up the models of his teeth, with your prints of the wound. If it‘s not one-to-one, any defense attorney worth his salt would gobble me up and spit out my remains.‖

―I wouldn‘t let a lawyer jerk your chain, Doc. You might not use Novocain the next time I‘m in your chair. Adios, amigo.‖

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