Dead Man's Float
“That’s some dead man’s float he’s doing in the pool!” A teenage boy who was leaning on the rail said to his parents. When I looked over the rail for myself, I thought, that’s no dead man’s float, that’s a dead man floating. I reached out and grabbed the nearest porter to call security.
Working on a cruise ship wasn’t exactly how I had imagined it, but there were so many things I liked about it. One: I love the sea, the smell of it, the rolling motion, whatever the weather, everything about it. Two: Food was easy, prepared by someone else, always available with plenty of choices. Three: I had wanted to get far away from the drudgery and often depressing details of my old job. Taking a position on the cruise line plucked me neatly from my old life. I had been a medical examiner in Montreal, specializing in forensic pathology. In case that isn’t quite clear, I dealt with dead bodies.
Being the cruise ship’s doctor was usually pretty low key. Yes, we had a lot of senior citizens on our voyages and they had their health issues, but they were rarely serious, and I liked giving short term care. It was like being a good ole general practitioner in a small international town. A town that traveled from Montreal, up the St. Lawrence River, out to the Atlantic Ocean, down the coast, and then back again. In the winter months, I was assigned the Caribbean route. The pay wasn’t high, but the travel and the free room and board made up for it.
On the ship I could just be passive and let the days take me with them. I cut my dark, curly hair short for easy maintenance. I had plenty of time to exercise, making it easy to keep my five-foot frame fit. In between working I enjoyed relaxing on the ship with the guests, mingling with the families and their kids, the retired couples enjoying their golden years, and the singles looking for romance.
If an occasional burst of energy grabbed me, I could go ashore with the crowd and explore whatever port we were visiting. Or best of all, I could just be by myself, even amongst the multitude. There were plenty of corners to hide on the ship. Yes, for the first eight months I’d been pretty satisfied with the way things had turned out.
Then, this man had to show up dead in the pool.
“Yes, ma’am,” the porter said to me, “Right away, ma’am.” The staff is always so formal and respectful, even when you’re telling them that you think there’s a dead body in the pool. That’s cruise life for you, formal, yet relaxed.
The body wasn’t in the Main Pool, which was on the Lido deck, Level Eleven, mid ship. That pool was much larger and more public. No, he was floating face down in the Sea View Pool, back aft on Deck Ten. The Sea View Pool was often empty, especially in the morning. My cabin was below it, to the port side. I‘d often leave my room first thing in the morning, walk down the aft end of the hallway and up the side stairs so I could stand by the rail near the Sea View Pool. It was a nice view, after all, quiet and calm in the morning. It only got crowded there after lunch when the bar opened.
You could look out at the back half of the Sea View Pool from Deck Eleven, from the windows by the tables at the all-you-could-eat-buffet and from its patio. That’s where I was when I heard the teenage boy make his comment, just finishing my lunch on the buffet patio. More than a few guests began to gather and look over the rail after they heard the boy’s comment.
After speaking to the porter, I escaped to my cabin. My original plan was to grab my book and sit in the sun. I had finished open hours in my little medical center before lunch and I didn’t open again until late afternoon. But that was before I saw the man in the pool. After that, I was agitated. Seeing a dead body in a swimming pool is unsettling, even for someone who’s done autopsies for a living. It’s like one of those ‘what’s wrong with this picture?’ games. It didn’t fit. It wasn’t supposed to be there. It made my stomach lurch and my mind start to race.
Who was that man and what happened to him? Why was he floating dead in that swimming pool? Did he die of natural causes, or something rather un-natural? I wanted to know and then again, I didn’t want to know. It wasn’t any of my business, I kept telling myself. But I knew, as the ship’s doctor, there was a responsibility from which I couldn’t hide. I paced in my tiny cabin, waiting for the inevitable. Then my phone rang. It was the ship’s captain.
“Hello, this is Teresa St. Claire.” I said, “Hello, Captain, yes, I heard about the body.” The Captain said he would be much obliged if I could meet him in the ship’s medical center. Much obliged? I thought. I sure wouldn’t mind if Captain James Russell-Dunford owed me one. Yes, he was my boss, technically, but he was also handsome, dashing and unattached. And besides, what choice did I have?
“I’ll be right down.” I told him.
When I entered the small room that was outfitted as a medical office, Captain James Russell-Dunford was already there, standing next to his head of security, John Dhar. On my examining table, there was the recently deceased body from the Sea View Pool. It felt rather crowded.
“We just want to know if you think it might be an accident, Dr. St. Claire.” The Captain said after a few quick pleasantries. “Or some sort of, well, foul play. We know you have experience in this sort of thing.” His upper class English accent couldn’t help but make me feel like I was in an Agatha Christie mystery. But looking at the dead man’s corpse lying on my examining table made me feel like I was back in the Montreal morgue I’d fled a year ago. I had been sure dealing with dead bodies was firmly in my past. That had been my plan, anyway. I could feel my pulse begin to race and it wasn’t the result of being close to the dashing Captain. I took a deep breath.
“Well, I can see from here he doesn’t have 12 stab wounds.” I quipped trying to cheer myself up. Blank stares. “Murder on the Orient Express?” I offered. No recognition. Apparently they weren’t Agatha Christie fans. I was surprised at the Captain especially, wasn’t Christie required reading in the United Kingdom?
John Dhar, stood silently, lost in thought. Maybe he just hadn’t been listening. Mr. Dhar was originally from India, but had been working for the cruise line for so long, I heard that he referred to the sea as his home country. We’d met before, but only briefly. He had at least twenty years on top of my thirty, but he was no less good looking than Captain James Russell-Dunford. It must be some kind of cruise line company policy, I thought, to hire only handsome men.
“Now, you know I can’t really do an autopsy.” I said to them both. “I’m outside of my jurisdiction as a medical examiner and besides I don’t have the proper instruments.”
“Yes, of course, I just want your opinion on whatever level of examination you are willing or able to do.” The Captain attempted an encouraging smile, but there was no charm in his deep blue eyes, only a command. He suddenly looked less attractive to me.
As much as I wanted to be helpful, I really wanted to tell him that I was unwilling to do any examination at all. I’d hoped I’d never have to deal with dead bodies again, that’s why I had quit the Coroner’s office, after all. Of course, as a doctor, I knew dealing with death was inevitable, but this was too soon. I looked at the Captain’s face. It was forceful and unbending.
“Captain, I’ll help in whatever way I can.” I finally said.
“Thank you, Dr. St. Claire, I’m so grateful.” He took my hand firmly.
“Please, call me Teresa.” I said.
“Thank you, Teresa.” His smile was lighter now, less overbearing. But what was I getting myself into? John Dhar looked as if he didn’t agree with the whole idea of examining the body. I saw it in his face and I wondered what kind of discussion he’d already had with the Captain. Well, his reservations were my reservations. If I were still with the Coroner’s Office in Montreal, I wouldn’t want some ship’s hack doctor messing with a body that was going to be my responsibility. Especially if it turned out to be an untimely death.
“One thing though, Captain,” I said.
“I think it would be best if you radioed the authorities to make sure they’re OK with me taking a look before we dock.” I could just see the Chief of Police blowing a gasket because I’d had a crack at the body before the official investigation had a chance.
“Yes, of course, I’ll put a call in.” The Captain said. John Dhar released a small smile, which caused his needle on the handsome scale to pass Captain Russell-Dunford’s by a good margin.
“Just let me know when you hear back from them, Captain.” I said. “I’ll make myself available to do the examination if they approve, and with whatever guidelines they suggest.”
“Thank you, Teresa,” Captain Russell-Dunford said. “I’ll contact you as soon as I know.” He left quickly, giving a quick touch to his cap as he turned. John Dhar looked at me and increased his smile quotient. He gave a little bow, to suggest that I exit ahead of him.
“I’ll secure the room,” he said, his deep voice formal.
“Just a moment, Mr. Dhar.” I said, trying to sound professional.
“Yes?” he said.
“I should take his temperature.” I said. “If the time of death is important, the longer I waited to examine him, the harder it will be to estimate when he took his last breath.”
“Of course.” John Dhar said, stepping aside as I reached into a drawer for a thermometer.
“And you should note the temperature of the pool, although I assume it’s the usual 75 degrees.” I continued.
“I’ll look into that.” He said somberly as he watched me work. I checked the temperature of the body and did a few calculations. Then I did some gentle probing of his larger and then smaller muscles, they were barely beginning to stiffen.
“I would say he’s been dead less than three hours.” I tried to sound perfunctory. “But that’s just a guess.”
“I see,” John began, “that may be helpful-”
“And one other thing.” I interrupted my voice sounding loud to me. “I was wondering,” I continued, then I faltered. “If you wouldn’t mind, – if you wouldn’t mind telling me his name.” I ended softly. I wanted to know, but once I asked the question, it sounded odd to me.
“His name is David McDonnell,” John Dhar said, his voice deep and melodic. “He’s lives in Montreal and according to his driver’s license, he’s twenty-eight years old. He had a cabin by himself, and he didn’t seem to be with any other party.”
“Thank you, Mr. Dhar.” I didn’t know what else to say. I felt caught between wanting to know more about David McDonnell, and suddenly wanting to know more about Mr. John Dhar.
“Please,” he said. “Call me John.”