Death Takes A Holiday (XVI)

to wit, a middle-aged peripatetic shrink undertakes the Great American Cross-Country Road Trip with help from little leaguers, German bikers, the King of Rock ‘n Roll, porn stars and an abandoned brothel, a flock of domesticated ducks, the Department of Homeland Security and the West Memphis police, a decommissioned atomic warhead, some dodgy motels… and a strange rider in the back of a 2013 Ford Fusion.

The Grim Reaper and I headed for Interstate 40 to make the dash east. It had been a long exhausting trip, but we were on the final stretch at last. Though Raleigh was now directly in front of us across the breadth of both Tennessee and North Carolina, I once lived in in the Volunteer State, so Nashville, Knoxville, Asheville, Winston-Salem, and Greensboro are all very familiar to me. Cruise control set on 70mph, now it was just an 11 hour straight shot to home.

The Explorers’ Adventure and our travelogue had come to a close.

No, wait. There is one part still that I have left out.

On 26 January 2014, in my first installment, I mentioned being stopped by the Border Patrol. For those of you who don’t remember 13 months back, here is what I wrote:

“The day was clear and sunny as it began its fade into impending twilight. I was driving along a secondary road in the far southwestern corner of Arizona, less than a dozen miles north of the Mexican border. There was little traffic, just clear sailing, no obstacles, and a tank of gas as the sun started to dip behind the nearby hills. In short, a perfect and relaxing early evening for a drive. That is, until I saw it up ahead – ‘it’ being a U.S Border Patrol check-point. A sign by the side of the road commanded those traveling north to stop ahead to submit to inspection, and I could see that the armed federal agents had a dog which was sniffing each and every vehicle.

Normally, this wouldn’t present a problem. I wasn’t in a hurry to reach my next destination, the car wasn’t stolen, I don’t do drugs, I wasn’t intoxicated, and I’m a natural-born U.S. citizen.

I did, however, wonder if the revolver sitting on the passenger seat next to me might present a problem. That… and the human remains boxed up in my back seat.”

You know already about the human remains if you’ve been reading this series. As for the gun… I had purchased several months prior a M1851 Colt Navy, and as it happened, the dealer was going to be in Las Vegas for the big antique militaria show that occurs every January. I told him I’d pick it up in person rather than chance entrusting it to the USPS.

So it was a 150 year old black powder firearm. And I have a license. But it was a gun nevertheless, and I had a dead guy in the car with me.

But what happened next was really amazing.

I put the revolver in the armrest. Glancing back, I could see that my calcified friend was boxed up with his lid closed, and thus entirely hidden. What could go wrong?

The officer approached my window and asked for my drivers license, while the Belgian Malinois and its handler inspected the car from the rear, out of my vision. The officer kept glancing back at the dog handler. After exchanging a few words, he said to me, “our dog has alerted on this vehicle, and I’ll need for you to pull over to the side so that we can examine your car more thoroughly.”

Alerted?! On what?! And through a closed car door?!

I pulled over and the officer asked me to step out of the car. He was very professional, but never smiled and was all-business.

“Our dogs are trained to alert to drugs and also to humans who are inside the vehicle but not visible. Do you have either in your car?”

I explained that there were no drugs in the car. I then paused. Adding, “but I have a corpse in the back seat” somehow didn’t seem the correct thing to say to an armed federal agent.

I told him about the dried bones and that I am a physician.

He still wasn’t smiling.

“Sir, I’m going to have the dog come over here to further investigate. Please remain outside the vehicle.”

Over came the dog and handler. The handler and the officer conferred. The handler, who seemed more chatty, then approached me.

He told me that the dogs – even the veteran canines – are routinely put through exercises where they encounter unusual items or situations to see how they react. The handler was very interested in the story of the ancient relic and wanted to see how his dog would behave up close.

You see, research into the chemical odors released by decomposition has provided scientists with a powerful tool to detect a body and then determine how long that person has been dead, a term known as post-mortem interval (PMI). Using mass spectrometry, scientists have been able to characterize the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) associated with cadavers, including carboxylic acids, aromatics, sulfurs, alcohols, nitro compounds, as well as aldehydes and ketones. The combination and quantities of these VOCs change as a function of time as a cadaver goes through decomposition. And while detecting various combinations of VOCs don’t provide a foolproof way of locating bodies or estimating PMIs, the process can help search-and-rescue and law enforcement enormously.

But mine were dried bones, totally denuded of tissue and with a century’s worth of handling having rubbed them clean!

I had been eating a sandwich when stopped, and I had wrapped it back in its paper and put it on the dashboard when exiting my car, leaving the drivers door open. The dog was brought over to the car and allowed to walk once around it. Then he was taken off the leash, at which time he leapt into the drivers seat, not 18 inches from that delicious ham and cheese which he ignored. Instead, he made a beeline for the back seat. He then proceeded to whine and paw at the box.

I was truly amazed. An antique desiccated cadaver had emitted enough odor for a dog to initially sense it THROUGH a closed car door!

More feds had walked over. They all peered inside the box. They thanked me for the training opportunity and bid me farewell.

And they never asked about the gun.

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