The Case of the Heart-Broken Parrot
by E. J. Wagner

(This story first appeared in the January 1985 issue of Syllogism , a publication of the New York Public Interest Research Group.)

“One must learn to doubt.” - Lacassagne

The body of Bessie Washington, an elderly black woman, was slumped in a frayed wing chair near an open window.  Her grand-daughter, a slim, young woman, sat on a stool beside her, weeping.

The cop stared out of the window, grateful that the doctor from the Medical Examiner’s Office had shown up promptly.  The cop was young and tears embarrassed him.  Snow had begun to fall, muffling the early morning New York noises.

The doctor bent over the still figure.  The eyes were half open, covered by a thin, dull film.  The jaw was rigid, the upper half of the body stiff.  Calloused knees showed beneath the checked housecoat.

The doctor looked carefully around the room.  It was part of a railroad flat in an old walk-up building, the age evident in the tilt of the creaking floor, the lines that crazed the ceiling, the linoleum that curled at the edges.  The musty smell of age was overlaid by a scent of furniture polish and cinnamon.

“How old was this lady?” he asked the young woman.

“’Bout eighty.  But still she did for herself.  Still did for other folks, too.  Just last night she was cleanin’ and fixin’ up and bakin’ cookies.  My sister, she’s bringin’ her kids to visit all the way from Atlanta.  They are all gonna sleep over tonight.  And my gramma was lookin’ forward so - she just loves those kids.  Just last night she was bakin’ cookies.”

“You saw her last night?”

“I live next door.  Came by to see if she needed somethin’.  She said she was real tired.  Said her head hurt, but that she made cookies.  I said to get some rest .. lay down ... don’t stay up late.  Then this mornin’ she didn’t answer when I knocked.  So I used my key ... and she was just like that.  Just quiet like that.  An’ I knew.  That dress she’s wearin’ is the same one she was wearin’ last night.  Must’ve been all night in that chair.”

“Did you move or touch anything? Was the window open when you got here?”

“I’m not sure ... No, that’s right - I cracked open the window.”

“Had she been sick lately? Been to a doctor?”

“She didn’t go to doctors.  She never said she didn’t feel good except last night.  But she was gettin’ on a bit, you know.  And she got outa’ breath climbin’ stairs.”

The cop stirred unhappily.  It was pretty obvious the old lady had just passed on of a heart attack or a stroke or something and he wished the doc would just sign the case out and get it over with.

“Did she live alone?”

“Oh yeah ... alone ... She liked doin’ things her way.  She was livin’ alone ... except for Charlie ...”

“Who’s Charlie?”

“Oh, that’s a bird - a parrot, you know.  My brother - he’s a sailor.  Well, he brought her Charlie a long time ago.  She loved that bird.  She was always talking’ to it ... and singin’ to it.”

“I don’t see the cage,” the doctor said.  “ Where is Charlie now?”

The cop sighed deeply.

“That’s the real funny thing,” said the young woman.  “This mornin’ when I found her .. well, that bird was dead, too.  Just layin’ there at the bottom of the cage.  It was real scary at first.  But then I figured - that the bird’s heart must’ve just broke when he saw granny was dead.”

The doctor’s twenty year’s experience as a pathologist encompassed horrendous accidents, brutal homicides and suicides of amazing intricacy, but not deeply depressed birds.

“Exactly where is Charlie now?” he asked.  “And his cage?”

“Oh, that’s right - I did move that.  Couldn’t stand to see it.  I put the cage in the next room.  And Charlie ... well, while I was waitin’ on the police, I put him in a paper bag and put him down the chute ...”

At the bottom of the incinerator drop, among the week’s as yet unburned debris, the pathologist discovered a brown paper bag from which protruded a small brightly colored head ... .

He returned upstairs and gently explained why the bodies of the lady and her pet needed further study.  Later that day, in the autopsy room of the Medical Examiner’s Office, the body of Mrs. Washington yielded its secrets: the congested cherry red viscera was proof, even before the toxicological tests could be done, of poisoning by carbon monoxide.  It had almost been missed.  The opened window had temporarily masked its presence and the victim’s dark skin had kept the distinctive red blotches from showing.

Several hours later, inspectors alerted by the Medical Examiner’s Office searched the house of the deceased and found, beneath the floor of the room in which she died, a pipe leading from the old coal furnace ... a pipe rotted with age ... a pipe through which invisible, odorless, lethal gas had leaked.

The pipe was repaired and Mrs. Washington’s great grandchildren, who had come to spend the night, slept in safety.
Parrot cartoon
© 1985 - E. J. Wagner

The late Dr. Theodore Ehrenreich, former Associate Medical Examiner and Consultant in Clinical Pathology at the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office, allowed the author to use one of his cases as the basis for this article.

Names have been changed to protect the people involved.

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