Monday, Oct. 10, 10:45 a.m., Denver, Colorado
The dead body was young and undamaged, except for the waterlogged skin. “Peaceful journey,” Taylor Lopez whispered, pulling the white plastic sheet over him. She’d taken a quick peek to make sure the corpse matched the name and age on the paperwork: Adrian Warsaw, age 21.
“Can I go now?” The transport driver shivered in the cold autumn air. The blue sky and bright sun mocked the dark nature of their behind-the-morgue exchange.
“Do you know what happened?” Taylor asked. As a medical-legal-death intern, or MLDI, it was her job to help investigate the cause of death for the corpses her supervisor was assigned.
“He drowned in the pool at his apartment complex, probably early this morning.” The driver’s tone was impatient.
The dead man had probably been up late, drinking. So sad. Why did young people act so recklessly? He’d also died alone, poor man. One of her deepest fears.
The driver cleared his throat. Taylor didn’t know what else to ask, so she said, “We’re good.” The man hurried back to his van.
She rolled the gurney into the lift shaft, pressed the button, and jogged upstairs to meet the corpse on the main floor of the Denver Medical Examiner’s Office. In the wide hall, she pushed the gurney onto the floor scale and logged the dead man’s weight, then rolled him into the x-ray room. Nothing unusual displayed, except a healed fracture in his right arm.
Preliminaries completed, Taylor took a seat at the shared computer desk and began the log-in process. After she keyed in his name, the digital form asked her to chose a gender by checking one of two boxes: male and female. The choice annoyed her every time. Only once had she encountered a form—from Microsoft—that gave a third option of not specified. The transport driver had said ‘he,’ so she clicked that box and moved through the rest of the brief form. More detail would be added to his file as they investigated his death.
Taylor stood and pushed the gurney farther down the hall, nodding at another intern who walked by. All six interns were female college students, but she was the youngest. Taylor had breezed through high school and started early at the University of Colorado early with the help of a Pell Grant. When a girl in her advanced biology class had mentioned interning at the morgue, Taylor had been intrigued enough to apply. What better way to begin a career as a forensic investigator? The job was creepy at times and fascinating at others, but dealing with dead people was easier than interacting with the living.
Before moving the corpse into the cooler to wait his turn for autopsy, Taylor stared at the young man’s face. Lean, with sharp bones and symmetrical features. Almost androgynous. Much like her own profile, except he was pale and blond compared to her dark hair and toffee-colored skin. A burning curiosity consumed her. She pushed him into an empty autopsy room, grabbed scissors from a stainless steel drawer, and cut both sides of the spandex swimsuit he still wore. When her skin made contact with his flesh, she flinched. Damn. She’d forgotten to put on latex gloves. Taylor rushed over to the counter and pulled a pair from one of the six large boxes. They went through gloves like they were paper towels.
Taylor bagged the swimsuit in a plastic container, then turned back to Adrian. His genitalia caught her attention. He had a tiny, two-inch penis. A tingle ran up her spine. Another one? Cutting quickly, she removed the still-damp tank top clinging to his chest. Small breasts, like those of a thirteen-year-old girl. Sucking in a worried breath, Taylor pushed his legs apart. Was that a vaginal opening?
Freaky! Not the mixed genitalia—that was familiar—but the fact that he was dead. This was the second gender-fluid person to come into the morgue recently. Taylor tried to do the math. One in fifteen hundred people were born that way, and Denver had a population of 650,000. What were the odds? She shook her head. It didn’t matter. Two dead intersex people in the same city within three weeks didn’t seem like a coincidence—especially since they were about the same age. It was even strange that she’d seen both dead bodies. As an investigative intern, she didn’t participate in the autopsies like the pathology interns did. Her job was to do everything else that was necessary to determine the cause of death. That usually meant asking the people who knew the deceased a lot of questions.
She couldn’t get the first intersex corpse out of her mind. Maybe he was still in the cooler. Some bodies were never claimed. Other times, the family took weeks to arrange for burial services. Taylor covered Adrian and rolled him down the hall. The thick cooler door required a hefty tug, then she pushed the gurney into the walk-in. The 45-degree air penetrated her long-sleeved sweater, but she was used to it by now. She parked the gurney next to another one—which also held a body in a metal tray—and glanced around. Metal racks against the walls held a dozen white body bags. She didn’t want to stay in the chilled room long enough to look at every tag, so she started with the first corpse that looked about the right size. The third ID she checked was Logan Hurtz. She’d never forget his name. His was the first body she’d ever seen that was like hers.
Logan had fallen from a balcony. Even bruised and broken, the genital confusion had been obvious to her. She remembered that he didn’t really have breasts and that his gender on the check-in sheet had been listed as male. Shivering, she changed her mind about looking at him again. Now that she knew he was still in the morgue, she felt more confident about reporting her concerns to her supervisor.
She turned back to Adrian. Had he presented himself to the world as male? She would never know what he’d felt in his heart. Sometimes a person’s private parts didn’t match up with their self-identity. Her own body was much like theirs, but her mother had raised her as a girl simply because she’d wanted a daughter. Taylor had never related to other females, but she didn’t feel like a guy either. She belonged to both worlds. Catching frogs and getting dirty had been natural to her as a child, but she hated team sports and wasn’t competitive at all. Dresses and makeup seemed superfluous, but she loved to read, and her tastes ranged from historical mysteries to sci-fi. The past and the future, male and female, shy but aggressive about important things. Her life was a cluster of contradictions. Especially her sex organs. Taylor touched herself, her own small penis tucked into soft cotton briefs. She’d been attracted to both men and women but had never acted on her impulses. Except that one time with a prostitute, who’d been amused by her body, but accommodating anyway.
Footsteps outside the cooler made her jerk her hand away. She hurried to the door and exited into the hall. The head of the investigative unit had passed by and was walking toward his office. Should she talk to him about this? He’d hired her, and she both liked and trusted him. But what exactly were her concerns?
That these deaths weren’t accidents? If not, that implied that someone was targeting and killing young intersex people. But why? It seemed a little crazy. These could be well-disguised hate crimes. Transgender people had the highest murder—and suicide—rates in the country. But hate crimes were usually passionate, and the violence inflicted on the victims was obvious—with bullet holes or ugly bruises. If these two young people had been murdered, the killer had been careful. So it didn’t really make sense. Just let it go.
She couldn’t. The similar age of the corpses bothered her. Counting herself, what were the odds of three intersex people all about the same age living in Denver? A statistical anomaly. A scary thought slammed into her gut. Was she also on someone’s list of freaks to kill?
Dr. Houton, the lead pathologist, came out of the shared office across the hall. “Hey, Taylor. Who did we get this morning?” Tall, with a long neck and tiny face, Houton looked like an ostrich.
“Adrian Warsaw, age twenty, drowned in a swimming pool.”
“That’s a shame.” The pathologist walked toward the cooler, shaking her head.
Taylor followed her inside.
Dr. Houton headed for the first gurney, a corpse that had come in the night before.
Taylor worked up her nerve. “Would you look at this new one?”
Houton turned in the dimly lit room. “Sure. Why?”
“He’s an intersex person, like the young man a few weeks ago.”
The doctor scowled as she walked over. “Are you sure? That seems odd.” The pathologist peered over her glasses at the waterlogged flesh on the white sheet. With gloved hands, she probed his genital area. “An opening, but no cervix. Still, he does seem to be mixed gender. I’ll know more when I open him up.” Houton stepped back. “I only processed one similar body the whole time I worked in Los Angles. And now, we have two here in Denver in a few weeks. That is peculiar.” She locked eyes with Taylor. “Who was the investigator on the first one?”
“Briggs and I handled that case too.” The details came back to Taylor. “Logan Hurtz had been raised in foster care, and his foster mother refused to claim the body, calling him an abomination.”
“It’ll be interesting to see if you find any similarities between the cases. Keep me posted.” Dr. Houton grabbed the other gurney. “Get the door please.”
Taylor pulled the latch and stepped back to let the pathologist pass through, then followed her out. She headed upstairs to her workspace, a cubicle in a crowded office partitioned by cabinets. Only one investigator was at his desk. Taylor glanced at the time on her monitor: 12:40. Everyone was probably at lunch. Good. She could make some calls without being distracted. The first thing she wanted to determine was their birth dates and locations. A quick review of Logan Hurtz’s file revealed that he’d been born July 5, 1996 and had worked in a Walmart warehouse. He’d also been a volunteer firefighter. They hadn’t located his biological parents, and his neighbors and co-workers had referred to him as a loner.
She called the Denver Police Department. “This is Taylor Lopez from the Medical Examiner’s office. We have a drowning victim from early this morning, Adrian Warsaw. I would like whatever information you have.” The calls got a little easier every time. Her first day on the job, she’d stammered through them, blushing and sweating.
“Give me a minute.” The department’s clerk put her on hold for awhile, then cut back in. “I’ll send you the report, but I can tell you that he’s twenty and lived in unit five at the Meadow View Apartments where he drowned. No foul play is suspected.”
“What’s his birthday?”
“June 17, 1996.”
The same year as Logan Hurtz. Her own birthday was five months before, February 13. They had all been born within seven months of each other. All in Denver? She had to know. “What’s his birth city?”
“It’s not in the report.” A little exasperation in the desk officer’s tone. “I’m emailing it now.” The line went silent.
Icy fingers of fear wrapped around Taylor’s heart. Something bad was coming, she could feel it.